Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the tag “author”

Picking an Agent, Step Two: “Hey, baby, how you doin?”

The PG-13 Adventures of Debbie Agent

Debbie Agent never goes to the club planning to hook up, or even wanting to. She is already juggling more men and women in her life than she should. People think she’s a little slutty, but that’s not it. Even if she won’t admit it to herself, she is a romantic. Debbie glances at the door every time someone walks in – feigning annoyance but secretly hoping for love.

The guy at the door catches her eye for a second, but then he shouts over the noise in the room, “Ladies, the Ricker is here and he’s open for business.” Her annoyance is no longer feigned. Eleven of his fraternity brothers pile in and start pounding Jäger Bombs.

“I’ve had it with this shit,” she says to herself, reaching for her wallet.

“I was that young once.” The voice startles Debbie; somehow, it calms her, too.

Debbie sizes up her new companion. “I have a feeling you didn’t refer to yourself in the third-person, as an adjective.” She slides the wallet back onto her lap.

“True.” A smile flashes in her companion’s eyes. “I did things far worse than that.”

That voice – what is it about that voice? Less than fifteen words and that voice is teasing her, making her crave more. “I don’t mean to sound forward,” Debbie lies, meaning to sound forward as hell, “but give me fifty pages.”

As far as I can tell, querying agents is no different from hooking up in a bar, with a willing, if somewhat jaded and leery, partner. To look at the first part of the dance, we need to leave the perspective I just gave you (third-person limited, Debbie) and start looking through the eyes of the mysterious stranger. That’s us, and we have been secretly stalking Debbie for months. Not in the creepy, restraining order way, but almost as obsessively.

How to Pick Whom You will Stalk This, like everything else, was much harder in the days before teh interwebs. Now, at least initially, it is easy to come up with a list of agents you want to hit on. Start by looking at your favorite, currently-publishing authors. Not only favorites, but also those most similar to you in terms of genre, tone, and style. This will take some work, possibly even requiring you to read several novels you did not plan on reading. Well, good. You should be doing that anyway.

Stalkers Can’t be Slackers  If you are serious about wanting to be a commercially viable, published author, you need to have a clue what is happening in the world of commercial publishing. I am not encouraging you to spend time learning about the intricacies of the industry itself, but you should have a decent idea what other people are writing about and how they are writing it. The only way to accomplish that is to read – a lot. The fact that you are writing a book is no excuse for not reading more than one. To make this work, you have to. At least some of those books should be the very best books in your area/ topic/ genre. The people who buy those books are likely to be your target audience as well.

How does this relate to Debbie? One of Debbie’s old clients happens to be an author who appeals to the same sensibilities as our mysterious stranger. Our mysterious stranger knows that for any number of reasons:

  • Simply Googling the author’s name and the phrase “literary agent” will usually get you there (agents love to brag about their successful clients)
  • AgentQuery and QueryTracker both allow you to look up agent names by author. You wrote the next Godfather? Mario Puzo’s agent is listed.
  • If Mario Puzo’s agency turns you down, you can still search by genre at either of those sites (not my favorite, because the results are not as specific).
  • Last but not least, PublishersMarketplace provides current details on deals as they go down. Knowing Penguin laid out six figures in a three-book deal for a choose-your-own-adventure erotica series is key if you happen to write choose-your-own-adventure erotica. Even though that particular agent may consider it a conflict, you can use that as a starting point to find agents with similar tastes.

[Note here, PublishersMarketplace has both free and paid access, and the free is extremely limited compared to the other sites and, being cheep, I have no idea how functional or useful the paid portion is]

The point here is: the stranger sitting next to Debbie was no accident. There may be a dozen other attractive agents in the club, but our stranger did not shout to all of them at once. Debbie finding our stranger attractive was no accident, either. The stranger knows who Debbie has gone home with before – and the stranger is her type.

What if I think half the agents in the club are my type? For starters, don’t pull a Ricker and yell to them all at once. Pay attention to Debbie’s needs. Go to her website and make sure you are giving her those 50 pages just the way she wants them. Make her feel like she is the only agent in the world – until she’s gone. Then find another agent whose needs need you can attend to, and do the same. The Ricker may have been yelling at thirty agents when he walked in, but he was not communicating with any of them. Ten may represent nonfiction, five only deal with children’s and YA and five specialize in Christian publishing, not exactly a hotbed of choose-your-own-adventure erotica. The other five could have been maybes, but going after more than one at a time killed his chances with those as well.

Query in batches. I would recommend small batches, at that. In the first place, don’t be desperate – at least not until you have thirty rejections on your wall. It takes some serious time and effort to locate agents who are good fits who have solid track records of sales and represent a number of quality clients. The websites I cited above are a good starting point, but you need to go to the agent websites as well, look at their client lists, check the notes on the bulletin boards (including absolutewrite.com, which has a very active bulletin board). Tailoring each query so the agent knows it is not a generic e-mail to a thousand agents helps immensely – nothing too ass-kissy, just “You mentioned in an interview last month that you wished you saw more choose-your-own-adventure erotica…” That is time consuming. And worth it.

So, if you’re in a hurry, think of querying in small batches as the fastest way to do it. You do not need to wait until you have a dozen agents scoped out if you are sure you know who your top one or two choices are. Send out one or two queries.

Another reason to query in batches is that you may receive some input from your first few. Five queries all received form rejections? Maybe that query needs a little work. That straggler beta finally read your manuscript three months late but found a typo everyone else missed on the third page? (Believe me, that happens) It’s nice to know that you are sending out a few with pages that do not include the typo.

The biggest reason to query in batches is something I have said before. You get one shot at each agent. If you get a fistful of personalized rejections telling you the fatal flaw in your novel, you do not get to requery those agents after you fix it (“Oh my fucking god, this isn’t even the post about revising anymore, and I am revising again.”) If you query every agent who has ever represented anything like your book on the first day, there is nobody left to send it to after you fix the problem. You may get lucky and have one of those agents tell you to redraft and resubmit, but you may not. The entire point behind this blog is to reduce the importance of luck in this process.

Double-Bonus Tuesday: Extra reasons batch querying is good. Apart from the strategic reasons for doing it, there are some psychological benefits as well.

1)    You are going to get rejections, and rejection sucks. Having a few agents queued up with the query drafted and the submission materials just the way she wants them provides a nice morale boost when they come in. I’ve got two on deck right now (and, to be honest, one of them may be a better fit for me than most of the agents I am waiting to hear from). The next rejection I get is permission for me to send that out. Within ten minutes of receiving my next rejection, I will be back to a dozen queries or manuscripts out.

2)    You are going to get MS requests, hopefully, and I would not want to try to respond to three of those on the same day, either. In the first place, it is hard to type a brief and professional cover letter to an agent you thought was an urban myth while your hands are trembling on the heels of having just shit yourself. Sometimes, they will ask for something you don’t have. For example one agent asked me for a “10 page or less outline.” I had an outline that was functional when I was writing (incomplete sentences transient thoughts, arrows, two-word memory triggers that I knew how to turn into a chapter, etc.). I did not have something another human could understand, let alone something that would look professional. Creating that outline was a full day’s work.

Because our mysterious stranger did everything right, Debbie was intrigued. Picking the right agent (and walking past the girls walking the curb outside the club, offering the same thing but asking for money), knowing why she was the right agent, and offering her just enough to make her want more (which will be the subject of its own post), lead to the inevitable outcome, “give me fifty pages.”

If our stranger does things right, the next thing Debbie will say is “I need you to give it all to me. Give me your full.”

Word-Choice Rant No. 1: “When I’m Published, I’ll be an Author”

People keep drawing a false distinction between the terms “Author” and “Writer,” and it is driving me nuts. I am tired of witnessing arguments about whether you can call yourself an “Author” if you self-publish (the answer is: Who gives a fuck?) I’m ranting right now because of some spam I just got for a webinar that promised to help me “Go from being a writer to being an author.”

Gee, should I drop $99 on a webinar so you can coach me? Maybe not, since you don’t even know what those fucking words mean.

A huge chunk of people have gotten it into their heads that, until you’re published, you are merely a writer. Once published, you magically become an “Author,” and can therefore brag about your awesome Authorliness at cocktail parties – most of which are probably going to be thrown in your honor, since you are an Author. That’s what people do – they throw cocktail parties for Authors, because Authors are awesome.

Except that’s all bullshit. Most authors are unpublished. I am currently an author (as the “about” description on this blog truthfully states). I have never had a word of fiction published anywhere, but that has nothing to do with whether I am an author.

Here’s what the word “author” means:

author (n.) 

c.1300, autor ”father,” from Old French auctoracteor ”author, originator, creator, instigator (12c., Modern French auteur), from Latinauctorem (nominative auctor) “enlarger, founder, master, leader,” literally “one who causes to grow,” agent noun from auctus, past participle ofaugere ”to increase” (see augment). Meaning “one who sets forth written statements” is from late 14c. The -t- changed to -th- 16c. on mistaken assumption of Greek origin.

That’s right, author means “father” or “creator.” An author is a person who creates characters and stories. In other words, the phrase “fiction author” is as redundant as “fiction novel” since authors, by definition, are people who write fiction (and novels are, by definition, works of fiction).

What is a writer? Simple, it’s someone who writes things. Like me, right now, as I type this.

writer (n.) 

Old English writere ”one who can write, clerk; one who produces books or literary compositions,” agent noun from writan (see write (v.)). 

In other words, all authors are writers but not all writers are authors.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. There is no secret ceremony in the basement of a church, where hooded Authors paddle you  by candlelight upon publication of your first novel, turning you from a writer into an Author. You became an author the minute you put down your first character’s first thought, movement, or word.

And plenty of well-known, established, rich and successful people have to make do with being writers (without seeming to care). Every great, best-selling historian, self-help guru, memoirist, or theologian you’ve ever heard of is a writer, not an authorBand of Brothers made Steven Ambrose millions and was turned into an HBO miniseries (that made him a boatload more money), but it’s history, not fiction. Steven, you are not the father. Steven Hawking made millions from A Brief History of Time and his other works, including children’s books, but they are about science, not made up people from his imagination, so he has to settle for being a rich, successful writer. I seriously doubt he gives a shit. People who write memoirs are writers. Julia Child is a writer. There is nothing wrong with being a writer. Similarly, whether or not you are an “Author” doesn’t mean jack shit. It means you have typed out a mind-movie on your computer keyboard (or written it on a note pad or something). That’s it.

Is there a gray area? Maybe. Bill O’Reilly leaps to mind. He made $24 Million last year selling books that are mostly filled with unrealistic shit he made up. But he called most of them nonfiction. Being a lying sack of shit does not make you an “Author.” It makes you a douchebag. Therefore, with respect to those works, Bill O’Reilly is a writer. He is also a lying sack of shit and a douchebag, but he is not an author (or an “Author”). On the other hand, he has also written piles of drivel that he admits are fiction. With respect to those particular piles of crap, he is an author. But it had nothing to do with any of it being published.

So, if you are waiting for the magical day that your book is published and you can start calling yourself an “Author” that day is here. Not because your book is being published. There’s a 99% chance it won’t be (nothing personal, that’s statistically true of me, too). That day is here because you created a character or a circumstance and put it down in some tangible form.

Which, if you think about it, is a pretty awesome thing for you to have done. 

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