Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ways to Find an Agent, and How I Found Mine

I've been meaning to post about this topic of finding an agent for a while, so here we go. I can't tell you a magic way to find one, but I'll tell you how I planned to find one, how I'd look for one if I was still looking, and how I actually found mine.

My original plan was to go through the Children's Writers and Illustrators Market book - the kids' writers equivalent of the Writer's Market. And, I figured I would just google online for agents who handle children's books and see what came up. But then I got the October 2010 issue of Writer's Digest, which was a great two-fer issue - it had an article about 20 agents looking for manuscripts, and an article about writing query letters. You should get this back issue if you don't have it! I went through the list of agents and highlighted the ones that were interested in middle grade fiction. Then I went to their websites and got their submission guidelines. This is really important, because they get cranky when you don't follow their guidelines! And, they all have different guidelines! Most want you to query by email, but one (Arthur Levine, who handled the Harry Potter books) wanted it by snail mail. Their guidelines will specify what to send - a certain number of pages, or the first chapter - or whatever. I identified 12 likely agents from the Writer's Digest article. I created what I hoped was a good query letter and then did the tedious process of creating a personalized email to each agent, beginning with the query and followed by their specified number of pages. And off they went into the world with my high hopes attached.

By the end of the second day, I already had four rejections! So, I immediately started working on Plan B, which was to go back through the Writer's Market book. Again, a tedious process of going to the indices in the back and cross-referencing "middle-grade fiction" with "fantasy-adventure" to identify appropriate agents or publishers. I figured they would be my Round Two for querying if everyone in the first round of queried agents rejected me.

But as it turned out, I didn't have to go that route, because after a few weeks, two agents asked to read the full manuscript and later offered to represent.

So, that is how it happened for me. But there are many other ways to find an agent. Magazines like Writer's Digest and The Writer often have information about agents looking for manuscripts. Since I've been blogging and following blogs, I've discovered that you can find a lot of agents just by going to other writers' blogs and looking at their blog lists. Suddenly you are finding agents who blog, and on their blog lists, you'll find more. And they often provide a lot of great tips for writers, in the "do's and don'ts" vein. Following writers and agents on Twitter is another way - agents often follow other agents, other writers follow agents, and the next thing you know, you've found a whole bunch of agents. You don't have to tweet, you can just follow and see who else is following. If I hadn't found an agent yet, I'd definitely be searching blogs and Twitter, because from what I can see, agents spend some time in both places.

There are all kinds of agent databases out there too - you'll see things that advertise "over 6,000 agents listed!" At first that sounds great, but to me that is overwhelming! Instead, I would suggest starting small - do the research to find a dozen or so agents that seem like good candidates. Go to their websites (do not skip this step!) because this is where they will get a little clearer about what they are looking for (though not always crystal clear :-) Follow their guidelines to a T, and submit. Then while you wait to hear from them, start lining up the next dozen. I'd wait about a month after querying the first group before starting on the second, although it's likely that it will be 8 to 12 weeks before you start to hear from the first group. But that's okay, you'll be staggering your submissions and that way you won't lose too much time.

So, that's how I found my agent. I just took some small steps down a path, one foot in front of the other. I think that targeting your querying, as best you can, is really key, and then keep developing your list of likely targets.

Does anyone have other thoughts for those trying to find an agent? Would love to hear them!

p.s. I still haven't heard back from Arthur Levine!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

When they said all writers need platforms, I thought they were talking about shoes!

Well, I really didn't think that, but I wasn't 100 percent sure what a platform is, either. Then I read articles in The Writer and Writer's Digest , and learned that the platform refers to all the things that writers can call upon to help promote our books. Not quite the same as a political platform, which reflects what you believe and stand for, but more like the sum-total of our experiences, accomplishments, expertise and connections.

Writers today are expected to be active participants in marketing and promoting our own books- something that many of us don't take to naturally. The idea of having a platform seems easier to understand when you deal in non-fiction. You hold workshops, speak to groups whenever possible and hold interviews, and BOOM! you're seen as an expert and you've got a platform. But if, like me, you write fiction, it's a little harder to envision what your platform looks like.

Last November, I attended the Hillerman Writer's Workshop here in Santa Fe, NM. One of the speakers was Bill O'Hanlon, who is an expert at this stuff. He gave examples of the kinds of things that can become part of your platform - possibly things you never thought of. Like, your high school and college alumni associations. Your former employers. Your friends and relatives who work at large companies. Your teacher and librarian friends. Your brother who works in PR. Your Facebook community. Your hometown newspaper editor. Anyone you ever wrote for. Your blog followers, and the bloggers you follow.

Here's an example of the power of word of mouth connections: Today I have about 125 Facebook friends. But collectively, my 125 Facebook friends have 30,000 Facebook friends! Some of the people I know work for organizations that might love to sponsor a book reading or talk when the book comes out - allowing me access to hundreds of people I have never met. And every time I discover and follow a new blog, I find other bloggers who share my interest in writing. When we support each other, we become a formidable communication force, exponentially increasing the power of Word of Mouth.

Here is the link to Bill O'Hanlon's website. He is a terrific speaker and lots of fun. And he is a master of self-promotion, which is - for better or worse - a real part of what it takes to be a successful author now. Me, I'd rather just put on a pair of platform shoes and smile a lot, but I know it won't be enough!

In a future post, I'll share information from an "Author's Questionnaire" that my agent gave me to fill out. It was adapted from one a publisher had given her for another client, and it essentially is asking, "What's Your Platform?"

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Don't Let Revisions Freak You Out

Yesterday I read two articles about manuscript revisions,so I decided to post about that today as it is something that I am learning a great deal about at the moment.

I'll start with revisions that my agent suggested BEFORE she became my agent. Kate had requested my full manuscript and read it, and also read it aloud to her six-year-old daughter. The daughter loved it. Kate liked it too, and took the trouble to identify all the positives: well-paced, descriptive, strong characters, good plot, etc. But then she identified an aspect of the ending that she said sounded "pat." She put a lot of thought into her responses and even suggested ideas for solving the problem. She ended with, "I'm not ready to offer representation yet, but if you want to work on some revisions and send it back to me, I'd love to see it." She fully engaged with me in a few back and forth emails in which I asked her specific questions about her feedback and ideas for fixing the pat ending.

This is what we call a "good rejection." If the agent isn't interested, they aren't going to spend this much time on a response. They don't spend time emailing with you about ways to fix the problem. And they don't invite you back unless they mean it.

I was both pleased and panicked. Pleased because I could see that the book was very close to where it needed to be. Panicked, because deep down I knew she was right about the ending, and even more so because I did not know how to fix it. We had batted around some ideas, but none of them resonated that well for me. I felt annoyed that the ending wasn't good enough, and even more so that she had caught me out on it. I wanted to pout and pretend she was wrong, but I knew she wasn't.

What happened next surprised me. A few days later, a much better ending came to me. It wasn't what Kate had suggested and it wasn't what I had suggested - it was something else entirely. I worked on it for a week, let it sit, and then came back to it. It was much, much better.

Kate thought so too, but she still wasn't ready to offer representation. She had some thoughts about a few details that I thought were really picky. But I knew we were awfully close, and I also knew that her prior feedback had made for a much better ending and therefore a much better book. So I growled and snarled and thought about her points. I went in and made some minor changes that accomodated them, without doing anything to the story that I didn't like. I'm still not sure these were necessary, but they were quite small and didn't harm the story in any way.

After this round of revisions, she offered representation. Since then, we have been going back and forth with what they call "line edits" - she works line by line and offers suggestions. (Don't worry - not every line gets changed!) Often, these seem like really small, picky things and more than once my eyes have rolled. But! I have learned a very sobering and humbling thing, and I beg you not to tell her that I said this: she is often right. Not always, but often. It's her job to call attention to those picky little things that we want to gloss over. And she's good at it.

What I made sure to do during this process was always ask myself first: "Is she right?" With the ending, I knew she was. If I had decided that she wasn't right, I wouldn't have changed it just to please her. The tricky part here is getting your ego out of the way - you have to ask yourself if you think she's wrong just because you don't want to think she's right! Or because you don't know what you'll do about it... My initial reaction is almost always, "I'm not sure she's right." But after letting it sit for a while, sometimes I've realized that she is. Sometimes.

With smaller changes, I'd still ask myself if she was right, and if I wasn't sure that she was, I'd asked myself this second question: "Does making this change do anything to the story that you really dislike and can't live with?" If the answer to that was "no," I'd work on making the change. Often, I'd be surprised that it worked nicely indeed. But there were also times when I didn't agree and I didn't make the change! In those cases, I told her why and she accepted my choice. As she told me when we met: "It's YOUR book." She also said that she likes it when an author has a point of view. So always stay true to yourself!

Does anyone else have thoughts or comments about handling this process?