Tag Archives: literary agents

In Conversation with… Emmie Mears!

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It’s my privilege today to welcome back for a chat the fan-dab-tabulous author Emmie Mears, whom you may recall (that is, if you don’t follow her and her works already, double-finger-wag shame on you) from our conversation last year about her then-impending debut superhero novel The Masked Songbird.  Her journey since then has been one fraught with as many sharp curves and unexpected drops as a theme park roller coaster.  Now that things are trending up, big time – think rollicking new novel, new agent and new epic fantasy on the horizon – she’s graciously agreed to return to talk about it, in inimitable Emmie style, and share a few hard-earned words of wisdom.  Hope y’all dig.

The last time we caught up with you, The Masked Songbird was about to make its debut.  Since then I guess it’s fair to say a heck of a lot has happened.  Can you fill us in?

Do you have three days and a significant number of Big Macs handy?

2014 was one of those years that made me wish I had an ejector seat. Or could be cryogenically frozen. Or could become a glittery vampire and frolic away into the tundra. Basically, within about three weeks, all four of the books I had under contract became orphans. Publishing has been undergoing many seismic shifts in the past decade, and with the acquisition of Harlequin by Harper Collins, my imprint got smushed in the plate tectonics. It’s not a hugely uncommon thing to happen, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend the day my book disappeared from Amazon under a pile of pizza and Buffy episodes. Also, my former agent (who was and remains wonderful) left the business, so I had to do the query trench thing again. Which was…interesting. I girded myself with my beast of an epic fantasy and waded back in, to a surprisingly cacophonous response. I’m still sort of bewildered by February.

Ultimately, I decided the best way forward with three urban fantasy novels in a market where most editors have severe urban fantasy fatigue (actual diagnosis) was to put them out myself. My wonderful former agent and friend is making the covers, and they rock. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience so far.

Through a combination of circumstances, Gwen was orphaned.  Now she’s making a comeback.  What’s changed from the first kick at the can with this book – what have you learned, and what, in retrospect, if anything, might you have done differently?

Hoo, doggies.

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned about this business is that there is no “the one.” There’s no One Book. There’s no One Deal. There’s no One Agent. Essentially, there is no sovereign specific. I could go with a metaphor about eggs in baskets, etc, but I’d rather just say this: publishing is a rapidly-changing landscape. You have to be adaptable. You have to roll with rejections, and you have to get back up when the business doesn’t pull its punches. I have a pet (very mathematical) theory that…

Success in publishing = hard work + time(x factors)

Time can be two months or two years or two decades. (Hell, it can be two centuries — there are enough posthumous success stories out there. GO TEAM ZOMBIE AUTHORS!) The x factor is going to be that weird concoction of the market, industry biases, reader readiness, word of mouth, cultural coincidence, and whatever the fuck (can I say fuck?) else makes a book sell. The x factors can speed up or slow down a single book’s chances of success. But that little time variable is what mitigates their influence. If you work hard for long enough, you might not be grossing Janet Evanovich royalties, but you’ll probably find some sort of success whether you’re shooting for trade publishing (brick and mortar distribution, advances, etc.) or going it on your own.

Time and hard work also heavily influence a writer’s craft, which also plays a part. My seventh book was infinitely stronger than my first book.

Book math. It’s gonna be a thing. My equation right now looks like: >6 years working 60-130 hour weeks between full time day job and full time writing shtuff (crowded UF market + uncontrollable publisher movement + 7 years of an established online presence + readers still liking UF) = my first thousand sales. To me that feels like success.

Please don’t do the math on my hourly wage for the last half decade. (Anyone who ever accuses me of getting into this business for teh moniez is welcome to replicate my equation in their own controlled experiment.)

How has the progression of real-world events (i.e. the results of the Scottish referendum last year) impacted Gwen’s story, and do you think it has affected the timeliness of the book?

I was very deliberate when I first wrote Shrike: The Masked Songbird to make the referendum present and important without hinging the book on its outcome. I didn’t want that. A: I am heretofore unsuccessful at predicting the independently concluded thought processes of groups of 4 million people. (Or four people, for that matter.) B: The question behind the book was more “what makes a hero?” than “what will Scotland do?” And on that latter bit, I wanted to explore what Gwen would do. In the USA, there’s Captain America and plenty of homegrown heroes who love their country. Ultimately Gwen is a hero who loves her country.

There is a sequel coming in September, and it’s followed with the sort of uncertainty that came in the wake of the referendum. Scotland is a very different place today than it was a year ago, and I wanted to show that, as well as the helplessness that comes when someone is swept away on something they can’t control. Shrike: Songbird Risen is very much a book about learning how to wield your power, and I think that remains topical in post-referendum Scotland. It’s a darker book (and I wrote it on deadline pre-referendum, so I was careful to consider how uncertainty shapes people regardless of what happened with the vote), but I think there is a lot of hope in it. Ultimately it’s not superpowers that save anyone — it’s humanity.

I’m very interested to see what will happen in the coming general election. The referendum galvanized a massively engaged, powerful populace.

There seems to be a perception, fairly widespread among amateurs, that all one has to do is land representation or get that first book published and it’s money-printing and red carpet time.  The media doesn’t help by hyping overnight success stories.  What’s the reality of a working writer’s life from your perspective?  What does everyone who calls him or herself “an aspiring author” absolutely need to know about making this business of wordsmithery a realistic calling?

There’s this common joke in publishing circles of the ten year overnight success. Like I said above, there isn’t a The One. No one thing will make you a success. I’d also challenge that those “overnight” success stories are probably not really overnight at all. Nobody waves a hand at a keyboard and poofs a book into existence, and there is no, “Like a good neighbor, IMPRINT is there!” to make an editor magically appear next to you with a contract in hand.

My reality is something I touched on above. I get up at 5:30 and shower and drag my sleepy butt to the metro. I either write or read on my hour train ride. I work 8-10 hours in the office. I slog back on the train (again writing or reading). I play with my cats, give them their beloved fudz, and write some more. On weekends, I get up and do write-y stuff. Plot, outline, draft, edit, revise, rinse, repeat. I wasn’t joking about the high end of my hours — sometimes I really do work 100+ hours in a week. That’s not everyone, but for me, that’s what it’s taken to get where I am.

Okay. I hate the word aspire. It sounds like a cloud’s fart.  I’m gonna go all Yoda on you. Do or do not. There is no try. To quote Chuck Wendig and probably a lot of others, writers write. If you write, you’re a writer. If you’ve written a story, you’re the author of that story and therefore an author. You didn’t fart it into existence (unless you have some extraordinary talent, and if so, you are squandering your potential and should have your own reality show), you wrote it. You’re not in competition with anyone.

If you want to do words as a career, it takes time. It takes that and a lot of effort. There aren’t shortcuts for reading widely in your genre (or in general). You don’t have to reinvent the wheel — I love craft books for learning foundational things like structure — but even learning things on an intellectual level necessitates practice to make them work for you. That said, I’m ten years in and only this year has it begun to look like I could do this full time and pay my bills this way. It’s a long con, and there are setbacks and obstacles at every stage. Getting an agent doesn’t make everything into the dance-y, pre-gasoline fight incident scene in Zoolander. (There might still be freak gasoline fight incidents.) Getting published doesn’t even guarantee your books will be on shelves a year later. *waves little flag meekly*

The great thing is that today in authordom, there are many paths to readers, and you can pick any or many of them.

It’s been said about just about every art form, but if you can be fulfilled and happy doing anything else, for Hades’ sake, do that instead.

What’s your writing routine?  What’s your writing playlist?  Is there one particular song or album that breaks you out of block?

I carve out writing time wherever I can. My dream schedule would be to wake up, go for a swim or a run, shower, write for a few hours, read, eat, write a bit more, and then play video games till 3 AM and do it again. (I’m allowed to dream, right? That sounds nicer than scribbling on a metro train whilst smelling someone’s BO after getting three and a half hours of sleep…)

I usually don’t write to music, which may be a surprise. When I do, it’s usually music without lyrics, though it depends on what I’m writing. Writing Storm, I listen to classic rock. For that I blame Supernatural, because even though I wrote the first Storm book before ever seeing an episode of the show, demon hunting and classic rock now just…live together. When writing Shrike, I listened to a lot of Frightened Rabbit. When writing Stonebreaker (my most recent novel), I listened to music only rarely, and it was usually the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, even though the book’s not so LoTR-y except for sharing a genre.

I want to ask a little about the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign.  Where did this start and what is it all about?  What voices would you like to see get more exposure on the bookshelves?

This amazing campaign started because of a sort of perfect storm (har har) of things. BEA released their author lineup for 2014 and stats came out for representation in literature, AND there was comparison to census data…it all added up to a rather stark depiction of the lack of diversity in publishing compared to the diversity of the American (and global) people. (They say it better than I.)

Basically, representation matters. Seeing yourself in media matters. Seeing yourself excluded from media has an impact. Seeing yourself relegated to a set of stereotypes has an impact. In any given adventure movie, you’ll have (usually white, able-bodied, and straight) men playing a number of roles. The brains, the brawn, everything in between. One gets to be a geek, one can be the muscle, one can be something else entirely. They are allowed a diversity of experience. Look at the Avengers for a sort of case-in-point example. Tony Stark is the wealthy genius playboy. Bruce Banner is a gentle — if explosive — also genius. Steve Rodgers is the underdog-turned-hero. Clint Barton is the pensive (at least in the movies), deliberate, competent dude. And Natasha Romanova is a femme fatale. She’s not without nuance, but where guys have four people to find themselves in, women have one. You learn at an early age to relate to people who aren’t you when you are part of a marginalized people group, regardless of whether that means gender identity, race, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, etc.

A desire for diversity is a desire to see many facets of experience. Being a straight, white, able-bodied man is not a homogeneous experience, and in all corners of media, they are allowed that diversity. Being a queer woman, or a woman of color with a disability, or a queer man of color? If you see yourself at all, you are conditioned to scramble to pick up the scraps. Diana Pho (editor at Tor) wrote a phenomenal piece on Jim Hine’s blog recently. Go read it. I’ll wait.

Ultimately books and media without diversity are erasure — if you’re writing a futuristic sci-fi where humans are exploring other worlds and your flight crew is all white dudes? On a lot of levels, that says that the rest of us aren’t welcome in that new world, or that we weren’t even thought of to include. This discussion is about having empathy for experiences outside our own and being willing to learn to see ourselves in people who go through the world in different skin.

I grew up with two moms, and I’m a bisexual woman. Growing up in the 90s where the only representation of my family that I saw in media was a banned book (Heather Has Two Mommies), I was used to receiving signals that my family was bad or wrong or somehow dirty. A book about a family like mine was banned. People argued about it. That communicates things to children. I remember when Ellen DeGeneres came out. There was this sense of “FINALLY” for me, to see someone I loved like Ellen suddenly having something in common with my family. Representation is powerful. It tells you that you’re not alone. It tells you that you deserve to be here. It tells you that your story matters, and that you can be a hero too.

Without dropping spoilers, there was a powerful moment in Storm in a Teacup involving consent.  The scene was realized beautifully.  Why don’t others get it – why do you think that there is still so much depiction of non-consensual sex in popular fiction, and what does it take to change that trend?

Possible trigger warning for my answer here, as I intend to be frank about issues of consent and rape.

I think that can be boiled down to that concept of rape culture. That phrase alone tends to flip the off switch in some people’s heads, so bear with me. Culturally, we’re taught that men make the first move, that men are the ones who are assertive sexually (or aggressive), and that women are the passive recipients. Phrases like “she was asking for it” (when the she in question was, in a literal way, doing nothing of the sort) and “he couldn’t help himself” reinforce this idea. I think a lot of the issues of consent in fiction are unintentional. I have done it too, without even meaning to. I’d meant something to BE consensual, but after multiple editing passes by multiple people, this scene had slipped by until my editor said, “Huh, just realized this could be interpreted as non-consensual.” And she was right. I was mortified, because that wasn’t what I meant. That’s why getting new eyes on things is important; your experience might filter out some of those interpretations. Someone else might be hyper sensitive to it and save you the heartache of having your words hurt someone else (and obviously, that other someone as well).

(Also, there’s a difference — sometimes a fine line, sometimes a big boldy thick one — between hurting someone and offending someone. Someone telling me they think my hair is ugly might offend me or dent my delicate fee-fees a little, but someone breaking my trust or plunging me into a triggery situation without warning can do damage. I want to err as much as possible on the side of not hurting people.)

Non-consensual sex is rape. It’s not sex. Rape is violence, even if terrible politicians try to say that only certain kinds of rape are “forcible.” (They might as well say my rape didn’t count because I didn’t have contusions afterward.) I think the conflation of rape and sex is part of what makes this mess. Participating partners in sex should both want to do it. To me that seems very simple, but somehow that’s an alien thought to too many people.

What does it take to change it? So many levels of change will be necessary. Demystifying sexuality for children and adolescents, teaching them to engage with the subject thoughtfully and with empathy, giving them the tools (including facts and real information) they need to make informed decisions, teaching them about bodily autonomy and consent (these things are relevant at all ages — I was taught bodily autonomy and consent as a toddler by my wonderful mothers, and their instruction helped me escape a situation where someone tried to molest me). Putting examples of this in art and media — people internalize the stories they see. Many, many levels of change.

I appreciate your words about Storm. I was intentional about it. I’m glad it came through.

What are you reading right now?  What does it take to hook Emmie’s interest, and by contrast, what kinds of books would you avoid?

I’m currently reading The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I just finished Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise and a bit ago, Delilah Dawson’s Servants of the Storm. Great writing hooks me regardless of genre, but I deeply appreciate finding stories that escape the trappings of cliches and tropes. I’ve read some fantastic stories lately. Some authors to watch: Jacqueline Koyanagi, Alis Franklin, Stephen Blackmoore, and obviously the others I’ve already mentioned. They weave gorgeous, rich worlds and tell stories that make me want to live in them. Also, most of the books I mentioned star people of color, and that’s refreshing to me, like that feeling of “FINALLY” I felt when Ellen came out. Yes, more of this please. More stories. More heroes. More people to love.

Fridged women are the fastest way to get me to tune out. I’m just so tired of seeing that trope over and over. It’s exhausting when your first introduction to a character like you in a world is to someone who’s gone already. Or to always have the damsel distressing as the bait for the beleaguered protagonist. Give me something I haven’t seen ten thousand times.

You’re doing your own series on the query trenches so I don’t want to step on that, but can you talk a little about how you secured representation with Sara Megibow, and any advice you’d offer to those champing at the bit to be able to publish their much-dreamed about “I FINALLY HAVE AN AGENT!” blog post – even if it’s a hard reality check?

I found Sara IN THE SLUSHPILE!!! I will crow that loudly to anyone who listens, because I am a firm believer in slush. I wrote a query. I sent it. She requested. She offered. It was the process in its most process-y form.

My biggest advice is to look over that equation I mentioned above. Hard work + time(x factor). Some things will be harder to sell. Pay attention to the market and what’s happening in publishing. Educate yourself about the business, because even though we venture into it with a dream, it is a business with a bottom line. It (as a business-y bottom line behemoth) does not care about dreams so much. BUT. This business is run by people who are humans and want to find things they love and share those things with readers. Write a fantastic book. Be a professional. Follow directions. If trade publishing is what you want, buckle yourself in for the long haul and start putting in the work. It’s not a fair business. It has systematic and structural issues with diversity, so if you are a diverse author and/or have a diverse story, it could very well be harder even with so many agents and editors asking for just that right now. Just keep swimming. And remember that there are many paths to readers these days.

Lastly, can you drop any tantalizing hints about Stonebreaker, and when we might feast our eyes on it?

Ah, this question! Stonebreaker news will happen when it happens (yay, vagaries!), but I can tell you that it is a book, and it is a large book. And there are giant sentient camouflage-able bats in it.

Curse your sudden but inevitable vagueness!  Oh well folks, I tried.  In the meantime, you can check out Storm in a Teacup, presently ranked #15 in Amazon’s top Dark Fantasy novels.  Thanks so much to Emmie for taking the time to indulge my inner Larry King.  To the rest of you, thanks for reading.  Now get back to work.

 

“How I Got A Literary Agent by Being A Passive-Aggressive, Bridge-Burning Ass”

Author’s note:  This is a (satirical) response to a gauntlet thrown down by literary agent Jessica Faust in response to a tweet I sent her.  So I guess really it’s a convoluted response to myself.  Anyhoo.  Any resemblance between this person and myself is purely coincidental – well, there is in fact NO resemblance between this person and myself – and not at all reflective of my own opinions of literary agents, who are really quite delightful people, except for the scammers who soak up thousands of dollars in “reading fees” before changing their names and moving out of state.  Those ones suck and should suffer significant chronic foot pain.

My name is Hedley Norris, and I’ve always wanted to be a writer.  Well, I guess I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I realized there was serious money in it.  I mean, look at that 50 Shades of Gray lady!  All those millions for changing the names in some Twilight fan fiction she wrote?  It seems to me that if she can do it, anyone can.  I mean, I’m not really much of a reader; the last thing I pored over in detail was an Ain’t it Cool News article about the crappy special features on the director’s cut DVD of Chopper Chicks in Zombietown.  But that doesn’t matter.  I’m in this for the money.  I figure I just need to write one successful book and I can retire to that island where the topless waitresses serve you drinks in coconut shells with little parasols sticking out of them.  Sounds simple, right?  Hells yeah!

First thing I needed was an idea.  Vampires are hot right now, so I figured I could just glom onto that trend and bash something out in a couple of days.  But it needs to be different, to stand out, so I thought, what if there were backwards vampires who actually go around injecting blood into people instead of sucking it out?  Then you could do this whole allegory thing about sexually-transmitted diseases and stuff.  Cool!  (note to self:  my friend Phil keeps telling me about a Simpsons episode I need to check out.  Maybe next Thursday.)  So for about two years I worked away on my story.  I had a pretty solid writing regimen:  open the document, stare at it for five minutes, surf YouTube cat videos for an hour, harass celebrities on Twitter for the second hour, then finally do about ten minutes of writing before bed.  And one snowy December evening, as soon as I typed the final word of the first draft I started looking for publishers.  I was shocked to find that NONE of those fascist, soulless corporate jackholes would even look at my manuscript.  I don’t know what entitles them to think they have any business deciding what gets onto bookshelves.  I mean, if they’d just take one look at my novel they’d know right away it’s a guaranteed mega-smash!

I was mentioning all this to a friend and he pointed out that most writers sign with literary agents before approaching publishers.  I didn’t really like the idea – somebody getting 10% of all the money that rightfully belongs to me for what, making photocopies of my book to send out?  But if the big companies weren’t going to look at me without one, I guess I didn’t really have a choice.  I did some research and found that you’re supposed to write these “query letters” when you’re looking for an agent; again, I don’t see why, the book should just stand on its own.  Anyway, here’s the one I wrote for mine:

To Whom It May Concern:

This is my query letter for my 223,000-word YA fantasy fiction novel, THE DARKENING DARKNESS™.

What if there were backwards vampirs who instead of sucking blood actually had to inject it into people instead?  The government is really concerned about this so they put together a team of cracck secret agents to take them down.  The team is led by LT. MANNY ABRAMSON, a hard-boiled former detective with nerves of steel and attitude to match.  His partner is the beautiful and sexy ELIZA GOODBODY, who he used to date in high school before he was sent to the military by his parents.  After three tours in Iraq and Affgaanistan he’s back to finish the job, only fighting monsters instead of enemy soldiers.  Eliza still loves him but cant bring herself to tell him.  There’s also three other men on the team and their equipped with the most high-tech weaponry money can buy to face this new threat.

They’re enemy is VERUSHKA KOROZOV, the beautiful and sexy head of the backwards vampires whose master plan is to inject all the world’s leaders with her blood, turning them all into zombies under her permanent control.  She is assisted by her second-in-command, the beautiful and sexy ANGELA, who used to be Elizas best friend before she was turned into a backwards vampire.  Now Manny has his hands full as he fights to stop the spreading plague and save the world.

In the meantime, down in Lubbock, Texas, the government sceintists who first developed the backwards vampire gene are struggling to find a cure.  Through hexachromate mapping and genetic alkylating techniques, they manage to resequence the backwards vampire RNA but by accident turn it into something much worse.  All of a sudden there are REGULAR vampires to deal with and when they suck the blood of the zombies created by the backwards vampires that turns them into uber-backward-regular-zompires.  And the battle has just begun.

THE DARKENING DARKNESS™ is the first of a proposed 11-part series and has the potential for blockbuster movie adaptation.  My writing has been called a cross between J.K. Rowling and Stephen King with touches of Dan Brown and James Patterson.  I have been published in The New Yorker, The Wall Stret Journal and The New England Journal of Medicine and I come recommended by agent Lisa Jordan of Literary Treasures Agency who you know.  I feel this book will appeal to fans of vampires, zombies, romantic comedies and Tom Clancy technothrillers.  The entire manuscript and the outlines for the remaining 10 installments are attached to this email.  I really hope you have the time to consider this book for your representation as I really admire your profile and think we would work well together.  I also think this book would be of interest to Oprah Winfrey for her book club (she still does that, right?)  Please respond within 24 hours so I know you’re interested.

Hopefully,

Hedley Norris

You gotta cast a wide net, so I sent it out cc’d to every agent I could find.  I may have even sent it to a few real estate agents by mistake (which explains that one reply saying they didn’t want the book, but had an upscale brownstone outside of Teaneck, N.J. I might be interested in purchasing).  But after two days, nothing had come back.  Not a single reply.  I started getting nervous.  What if they had stolen my book and were going to publish it under somebody else’s name?  I decided to send a follow-up just to be sure.

To Whom It May Concern (if it concerns you at all):

I sent you a query last week for my book THE DARKENING DARKENSS™ and requested a reply within 24 hours.  Now you may get off on letting us aspirng authors dangle in the wind on puppet strings as we wait to hear back from you, but there’s such a thing as common courtesy and profesionalism, ever heard of it?  Please respond to this email immediately or I will take necessary next steps.

Angrily,

Hedley Norris

A week went by, and then two, and two more.  I was really steamed now.  I just KNEW that those conniving charlatans had stolen my book.  I could just see them sitting around smoking cigars on piles of money and laughing at stupid, naïve little Hedley Norris.  And then this arrived in my inbox one fateful morning:

Dear Mr. Norris:

Thank you for submitting your manuscript, The Darkening Darkness.  Unfortunately it is not a good fit for our agency at this time.

Good luck in your future writing endeavors.

Sincerely,

Rhianne Phillips

Thornhill McCabe Literary Agency, Inc.

I hit the roof.  All this time, all that effort, all that blood and pain and sweat poured into my life’s work and all I could get in return was one stinking form rejection letter???  Well, you can darn well bet I wasn’t going to take that lying down.

Dear Miss (I’m assuming not Mrs. because God knows who would want to marry you) Phillips:

You people have got some real nerve.  I suppose you think it’s funny that you can get someone’s hopes up and then crush their soul into so many fragments of peanut shells.  Here I send you a GUARANTEED best-seller and you toss it aside like the wrapper from yesterday’s hamburger (which I presume you ate with extra large fries and a super-sized drink since the fact that you don’t have a picture of yourself on your website must mean your too hideous for the world.)  You are a horrible, horrible person and I hope you never sleep soundly ever again knowing the many innocent people whose dreams you’ve ruined forever.

Go @#$@ yourself,

Hedley Norris

Not only that, I posted my response on my blog and spent the next couple of days bad-mouthing this Rhianne Phillips on Twitter.  Every tweet, it didn’t matter; even comments on basketball found a way to include a slam against this harridan who dared call herself a literary agent:  “Wow, the Knicks sucked last night.  Rhianne Phillips must have been coaching.”  I even started a Twitter account called @RhiannePhillipsIsEvil and used a Facebook photo of her that I found and photoshopped devil horns onto as its avatar.  It got 22 followers within the first week and only 14 of them were spambots.  Sure, perhaps some might consider this a bit of an overreaction, but damn, they hadn’t put two years of their lives into crafting this masterpiece only to have it dismissed in a mere 32 words that some frickin’ INTERN probably cobbled together.  Man, was I bitter.

And one afternoon, this email shows up:

Dear Mr. Norris:

Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful response.  Upon further consideration, I admit that I may have been hasty in my initial judgment of your manuscript.  I had failed to note that it was a guaranteed bestseller, as you so adroitly pointed out, and admit that it was perhaps indeed my insecurity about my appearance that led me to the unfortunate conclusion I drew about your work’s suitability for representation by our agency.

I believe The Darkening Darkness may indeed have potential and would be happy to discuss it with you further.  If you have not already secured representation elsewhere, please advise me of your interest by meeting me on your porch in five minutes.

Best regards,

Rhianne Phillips

Thornhill McCabe Literary Agency, Inc.

My reaction was akin to the opening credits of CSI: Miami:  Yeeeeeeeaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!!  It worked!  My merciless bullying had forced the imperious forces of literary agentdom to knuckle under!  I was on my way to fame and fortune at last!  I bounded to the front hall, my smile cramping my cheeks, and flung the door open to behold the glorious sight of the uniformed officer with the warrant for my arrest on charges of harassment and making threats.  I’m currently doing two to three years in minimum security with no Internet access.  I had to bribe a screw to get him to send this out wrapped in a towel.

Well, on the plus side, now I have the time to work on the next 10 volumes of my series, beginning with The Darkening Darkness 2:  Dark Getting Darker.  And guess what?  I got a letter the other day from a literary agent who’s interested in shopping my autobiography once I’m released.  All I need to do is send her a $1000 advance representation fee and I’m good to go!  See, what they say is true – all you have to do is believe in yourself, persevere and threaten when necessary, and your dreams will someday come true.  Now I gotta go as it’s my turn in the laundry and Spike tells me I owe him a pack of smokes for protection duty today.  Catch you later, haters!

Hope you enjoyed that!  Now it’s your turn.  Can you find all the mistakes our intrepid Mr. Norris makes in his misguided quest for a literary career?  (Apart from forgetting to take his meds, of course.)  Let me know in the comments!

What’s the story, Graham?

Who is that guy?
And while we’re at it, who is that guy?

I’ve never been good at self-promotion.  Perhaps you can chalk it up to formative years surrounded by people telling me keep quiet, don’t boast and give someone else a turn.  Like most people, I enjoy attention, but excessive notice tends to turn my stomach inside out.  It’s why I had to stop reading the comments on the stuff I submit to Huffington (that and the occasional threat from a pissed off Tea Partier).  The problem is that these aren’t qualities that serve one well if one is attempting to establish a writing career.  Publishing firms are tightening their belts and seem to expect their authors to do most of the legwork in marketing themselves.  You see the results often on Twitter – writers following other writers in hopes of a follow-back, and relentlessly pushing their tomes through tweet after tweet.  Seems to work for some; I follow a few who haven’t published a thing yet have managed to build up their own expectant and admiring fanbases.  My attitude has always been that quality will find its own audience, but, after blogging for almost two years to a relatively stable but small (yet tremendously awesome) group of supportive readers, it’s clear that my modest approach isn’t working.  I need to give you more.

If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while you’ll know I’ve made some periodic and cryptic references to a finished novel that has been sitting on my hard drive for far too long.  A few years back I sent out some queries for it, received polite rejections all around, and then set it aside for a while.  (I had a nice one from a literary agent who represents a very famous series of books, who said that her decision to pass was not a statement on the quality of the writing, which, though it may have been a form letter, was still encouraging to a fragile ego.)  About two years ago I went back and rewrote large portions of it while painfully hacking out almost 60,000 words to get it to a publishable length.  Perhaps a dozen family & friends have read it from cover to cover; dozens more have seen excerpts and offered suggestions, some of which have been incorporated, while others have been welcomed but disregarded (you have to use your judgement after all).  Long and the short of it is that at this point it’s in the best shape I can possibly get it into, at least from my perspective.  And I have started sending queries out again.  So why have I not shared more about it here?

Well, in a strange way, I have.  There is a lot here about the book.  And no, you haven’t missed it.  Let me explain a little.

We live in a spoiler-addicted culture.  Everybody wants their appetite sated immediately; we all want to flip to the last page to see who did it.  I went through that phase myself – because I am fascinated by the process of film production (an interest that probably stems from wishing in idle moments that it’s what I did for a living) I devour news about scriptwriting, casting, principal photography, and yes, spoilers.  I had to give myself an intervention of sorts this past summer when I ruined The Dark Knight Rises for myself by reading the Wikipedia plot summary before seeing the movie.  I realized I’d become what I despised – I’d often railed about being able to figure out the ending of rom-coms simply by looking at the two stars featured on the poster.  For Skyfall, I purposely kept myself spoiler-free, and as a result I enjoyed that movie a lot more than I would have had I known how it was going to end.  Trekkers have been driven up the wall over the last several by J.J. Abrams’ refusal to offer specifics on the identity of the villain “John Harrison” played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness.  Is it Khan?  Gary Mitchell?  Robert April?  Harry Mudd?  Ernst Stavro Blofeld?  In promoting his projects, Abrams has always embraced the idea of the “mystery box,” never showing his hand until the night of the premiere.  And controlling the conversation by keeping it where he wants it, in the realm of speculation, is, if managed properly, a great way to keep interest high.  It’s a dance though – give away too much and you spoil it, but say nothing, or remain stubbornly evasive, and people grow bored and move on to the next thing.  My more introspective nature simply lends itself better to Abrams’ way of thinking.

I’ll crack open the mystery box a little:  My novel is a fantasy.  It’s the first part of what will hopefully be a trilogy.  The main character is a woman with magical abilities.  She encounters a mortal man.  An adventure ensues.

Whoa, you’re saying.  Back up a sec.  This is basically Beautiful Creatures, right?

Argh.  As writers we need to support each other and rejoice in each other’s successes, so I’m very happy for Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  We all dream of seeing our epics translated to the big screen and I’m sure they’re bursting with joy at their enviable accomplishment, as would I.  But privately I’m suffering a few gutfuls of agita.  You can’t help feeling like the guy who was late to the patent office when Alexander Graham Bell released the first telephone, even though our stories are completely different.  Theirs takes place in the modern day; mine is set in the past in a fictional world.  Their lead characters are teenagers discovering themselves; mine are world-weary adults.  And of course the supporting characters and indeed the plot bear no resemblance to one another.  But to the casual observer, they’re treading similar boards, and even though I could have written a story about a lawyer or a doctor or cop without garnering so much as a whisper of comparison, I have no doubt that someone will now accuse me of trying to cash in on a trend, particularly if Beautiful Creatures does become “the next Twilight” and thousands of lesser imitators flood literary agents’ inboxes (I’m fortunate I didn’t choose to write about vampires.  Luckily, I find them tiresome.)  Indeed, witches are all the rage in pop culture at the moment – we had Hawkeye and Strawberry Fields hacking their heads off a few weeks ago and we’ve got Mrs. James Bond, Meg Griffin and Marilyn Monroe bandying their magical wiles with James Franco coming up in March.

Well, it is what it is and no sense sulking about it now.

I’m going to sidestep into politics for a moment.  My beloved federal Liberals are conducting a leadership race right now, and candidate and former astronaut Marc Garneau has recently fired a shot across presumptive favorite Justin Trudeau’s bow by accusing him of failing to offer up concrete plans.  But Garneau (and those who are praising this as a brilliant strategic move) should understand that people don’t respond to plans, they respond to ideas – the why, not the what.  Our current PM came to power not because he had a thoroughly researched and scored eighteen-point economic agenda, but because his campaign message was that the previous government was corrupt and he wasn’t.  It worked.  His two subsequent election wins have been based on similar themes – I’m reliable, the other guys are scary unknowns.  I go back to Simon Sinek’s brilliant observation that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.  It was the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.  The trick, when it comes to trying to pitch a book through a query letter, is that you’re required to try and hook the agent through what is more or less a 250-word encapsulation of the basic plot.  But the plot isn’t why I wrote the book and it’s not why I want people to read it.

For argument’s sake, and I’m certainly not trying to make a comparison here, but let’s quickly summarize the life of Jesus Christ:  A baby is born to a virgin mother and grows up to become a carpenter, lead a vast group of followers and spread a message of love to his fellow men.  This offends the ruling powers who condemn him to torture and death, after which he is miraculously resurrected.  If you had no knowledge of Christianity or the substance of Jesus’ message, you would never believe based on what you just read that these events would inspire a worldwide religious movement that would endure over two thousand years and counting.  The plot doesn’t make you want to read the book.  You get no sense of the why.

After an enormous detour, we now come back to my novel and its why.  The why is here, all around you, in the archives of this site.  It’s in my values, the things that matter to me and that I ponder as I type, post and share.  My opinions on politics, conservatism, the Tea Party, faith, spirituality, organized religion, charity, economics, ecology, literature, women, love, the loss of our parents, the shifting nature of good and evil, even James Bond, the Beatles and the writing of Aaron Sorkin as a part of the entire human experience – they are all represented in some form or another in my novel.  Gene Roddenberry taught me that a great story can’t just be a journey from A to B to C, it has to be about something more.  So mine is an adventure story that is as much an exploration of my personal philosophy and observations on the human condition as it is sorcery, chases, narrow escapes, explosions and witty repartee.

It is written in first person, from the point of view of the sorceress.  Why did I choose to write as a woman?  Part of it was for the challenge, I suppose, to see if I could do it without falling into chick-lit clichés about designer shoes, the appeal of sculpted abs and struggles with mothers-in-law and PMS.  But more to the point, if the story is to connect with an audience, its themes must be universal, as must its emotions.  Men and women both know what it is like to feel alone, to be consumed by a longing for something or someone you cannot have, and to make any kind of connection, no matter how meagre.  We can both crave intimacy so deeply that we don’t care who we receive it from – even if we know we are asking for it from a person who is absolutely wrong for us.  My fictional leading lady has tremendous powers, yet she remains vulnerable to the stirrings of a long-closed-off heart and the desire to be accepted, even by a man who despises everything she represents – a married man, to complicate matters further.  The evolution of their relationship is the absolute center of the plot, their interactions the driver of all the events that follow.  I avoid a lot of the external mechanisms common to fantasy like endless prophecies, quests, magical objects, creatures, specific rules about the casting of spells and complicated mythologies.  Sorry, no Diagon Alley or Avada Kedavra or Quidditch or even white walkers, folks.  The progression of my story hinges on emotions, personal choices and consequences, not getting the Whatsit of Whatever to the Mountain of Something Else before the next full moon.  The people are what matter and everything else to me is background noise.

Does it sound like something you’d like to read?  I hope so.  I hope if you’ve come with me this far you’ll want to come a little further, and maybe invite a few friends along.  Over the next few months I’ll post periodic updates on how we’re doing submission-wise, and maybe a few more details like character names, excerpts of scenes, even (gasp!) the title.  We’ll see if we can get a couple more folks interested to the point where we reach critical mass and something truly amazing happens.  It’s a story I’ve put a lot of heart into and really want to share in its completed form.  But as I said, if you’ve been following this site and listening to what I have to say, you already know much of what you’re in for.  Think of it as a buffet table of themed appetizers leading to a sumptuous main course – one that I promise won’t leave you with indigestion.

As they used to say on the late night talk shows, More to Come…

Ten Things Amateurs Do To Annoy Literary Agents (That Seem Like Easily Avoided Mistakes)

Writers can’t live in a vacuum.  You have to know your industry:  keep abreast of trends, understand how things operate and who the players are.  Twitter can be a great resource for passive solicitation of the wisdom of literary agents.  I follow more than a few myself.  To an unpublished writer, an agent is a mythical figure; unicorn-like in elusiveness, keepers of the keys to the magical kingdom of the printed word (and the accompanying royalty cheques), their reputation for granting lifelong dreams rocketed to the heights of Midas or the Fairy Godmother by tales of the agent who plucked the hausfrau from obscurity and made her a million-dollar book deal.  Yet the vast majority of agents are ordinary working folks like you and I, who need copious ventis to make it through the 9-to-5 slog.  Still, they love reading and can be enchanted by a wonderful story as much as any person out there.  One erroneous assumption I think a lot of beginners proceed under is that agents are embittered, failed authors predisposed to hate 99% of what they’re submitted.  Gene Roddenberry once said that a TV producer would stand in the driving rain for days in exchange for one decent script to shoot, and the same mentality applies to agents.  They want the next big thing as much as you want to be the next big thing.  The difference is, they know the business.  It’s their job.

Securing a literary agent really is like landing a job.  It has to be a good fit for both of you.  The agent isn’t just a one-off middleman who is sending your book to publishers for a cut of the profits, it’s someone with whom you’ll be forming a partnership, working with them for a long time to develop your career and hopefully carry you to that second, third, fourth book and far beyond.  So I must admit I’m surprised to see agents complaining with resigned regularity about the same mistakes made by people who submit manuscripts and proposals to them.  You have to think of your submission as a resume, and the agent as HR.  They are getting thousands of applications a year, and there has to be a way to winnow that behemoth of an in-box as rapidly as possible, lest a plunge over the Cliffs of Insanity result.  As the applicant, you have to do your damnedest to ensure there are as few reasons to toss yours from the pile as possible.  And there are a few “don’ts” that no one who’s serious about writing professionally should ever succumb to, which I don’t believe you need to be a professional to figure out – they’re just common sense.  I’m not an agent, I don’t have an agent, I don’t know any agents.  But based on my observations, here are my Ten Things You Should Never Do When Pitching An Agent, and the reasons why they should be self-evident:

1.  Lie

The first and most obvious, but again, you’d be surprised how many agents complain about this.  Lying about yourself may work on the hot girl in the skinny jeans after she’s had a few tequila shots, but again, think of what you’re aiming for here – long-term relationship, not one-night stand.  In the age of Google it’s even harder to get away with Catch Me If You Can-esque deceptions.  If you’ve never been published, don’t claim otherwise.  The agent will appreciate your honesty more than they will a couple of made up credits which they’ll be able to find out are B.S. in less time than it’s taking you to read this sentence.  You won’t get away with it.

2.  Exaggerate Your Awesomeness

“My mashup of The Da Vinci Code meets Spongebob Squarepants, which calls to mind the masterworks of Vladimir Nabokov and Anthony Burgess, is guaranteed to be an Oprah’s Book Club best-seller and a blockbuster motion picture.”  Oh, where to start.  Firstly, as far as I know Oprah isn’t doing her book club anymore, and it’s long been a rule among agents that dropping Her Highness’ name in a query is a trigger for an instant form rejection.  Secondly, while it’s better to be proud of your work than to shuffle it forward reluctantly like Fluttershy begging for approval, humility over hyperbole is a safer bet.  When you compare your book to literary big guns, you’re lining yourself up for a spectacular crash and burn.  Don’t put yourself in their class until you’ve earned it.  And don’t ever, ever, talk about sales potential or mention the dreaded Holly-word.  That tells an agent you’re not really serious about writing, that you’re more interested in walking the red carpet with Angelina Jolie on your arm.  (I think she’s taken, by the way.)

3.  Submit Work That Isn’t Finished

What happens if you send in a query letter and a sample chapter and the agent bites?  Do you really want to answer their request for a manuscript with “um, uh… it’s not quite… done yet.”  If they want more, you should be able to send it immediately.  Think of your book as a roast chicken – you would never dare serve it until it’s the right temperature, lest your guests die of salmonella poisoning.  You don’t want your agent’s interest to suffer a similar fate.

4.  Fail To Follow Submission Guidelines

Reputable agents will post what they are looking for in a submission in an easily findable format, usually on their website.  Read it carefully and only send them what they’re asking for – no more, no less.  This goes back to the principle of trying not to get automatically thrown out of the queue.  Sending only what you feel like sending, or putting idiotic stuff in your query letter like “if you want to see more, you’ll have to agree to represent me,” creates the impression that you’re arrogant.  Making a stupid mistake, like forgetting to attach a synopsis if it’s requested, shows that you’re careless.  Publishing is a world with a lot of rules, and agents aren’t interested in working with people who can’t be bothered to follow them – no matter how good their book might be.  On the other hand, providing exactly what’s asked for demonstrates a deep respect for the agent’s time.  A lack of that respect leads to the next fatal mistake:

5.  Submit To Agents Who Don’t Represent Your Genre

If you’re looking for a job as a plumber, you don’t send in your application for an IT position.  Nor should you send your brilliant and insightful 300,000 word treatise on 14th Century Hungarian cabinet makers to a children’s lit agent.  Again, reputable agents will let you know what they’re looking for, and most will also have a list of what they don’t want.  Just do your homework and save yourself an automatic rejection.  It’s all about showing you’re taking it seriously and not just spamming every agent who happens to be listed.  Also, if an agent says they are currently closed to any and all queries, respect that request and leave them alone.

6.  Call Or Otherwise Harass Them

Every agent’s website I’ve seen requests – no, beseeches – that you not call them.  It literally is a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” trade.  Take a lesson from high school dating and recognize that constant calling and emailing to request the status of your submission will not win the fair lady’s heart, but rather get you labeled a stalker.  Remember that you’re not being ignored just because you haven’t heard anything in a few weeks.  The agent wants to love your story and they’ll give you every chance to win them over.  Give them the chance to come to it in their own time, when they’re in the right mood to be wowed.  Forcing the issue doesn’t make you look persistent, it makes you irritating.

7.  Pitch To Them On Twitter

As I mentioned earlier, lots of agents are on Twitter, and they are a great resource even if you don’t interact with them – just following will give you lots of links to blogs about writing, updates on upcoming conferences and the very pet peeves that have led to the creation of this list.  Many of them do this because they like writers and they genuinely want to share their expertise as widely as possible.  They recognize, though, that you can’t pitch a book in 140 characters, and therefore they politely ask that you don’t try.  Actor Simon Pegg complains on his Twitter feed constantly about his stream being spammed with whiny pleas for follow-backs and retweets – imagine you’re an agent, all you want to do is tweet about the dinner you’ve just enjoyed and maybe find out who went home on Idol and you get inundated with book proposals.  This is not to suggest you should refrain from tweeting to an agent at all – provided you’re discussing something interesting to them and it’s not a pitch, you’re likely to get a positive reply.

8.  Use Bad Grammar/Spelling/Punctuation

We hold this truth to be the most self-evident.  Agents aren’t going to represent someone who comes off as barely literate.  Spell check exists for a reason.  Run it over and over again, then read your submission backwards one word at a time so your brain doesn’t skip over errors because it’s putting the words into context.  This rule also applies to knowing the format of a query letter.  If you don’t, learn it and practice.  Agent Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog, while snarky, is a great resource for this.  She’ll critique queries she finds interesting, and even if yours isn’t chosen to become her chum of the week you can learn a lot by the mistakes of others and the suggestions she offers to give your query more punch.

9.  Badmouth Them On Social Media

This is the cyberspace equivalent of taking your ball and going home.  There are a dozen reasons why an agent might not request to see anything further from you, and, assuming you’ve avoided items one through eight, I guarantee that not one of those reasons is because they have something against you personally.  Rejection is frustrating, but it’s also part of the business, and you have to learn how to endure it without a hissy fit.  Just accept your “no” and move on to the next agent.  Don’t write a three-thousand word diatribe about how awful the agent is on your blog.  The Internet is public, and forever, and agents network.  They know each other.  If the one that rejected you discovers your online screed of vindictive retribution, how long do you think it will take for the stench of your douchery to spread throughout the literary community?  No one will want to look at anything a spiteful jackass has written even if you are the second coming of William Faulkner.  Be nice, and if you have nothing nice to say, keep your own counsel – or, in other words, shut the hell up about it on Facebook.

10.  Assume Landing An Agent Is A Ticket To Rowlingville

It can happen, but those phenomena are the exception, not the rule.  Landing an agent doesn’t mean you’re set for life.  As I said earlier, it’s just the next step in your career.  You’re still a nobody and there is a lot to come – getting published, for one, and promoting the hell out of yourself to the point where you hope you will reach that critical mass and generate some positive word-of-mouth and strong sales.  I recall reading that nobody attended J.K. Rowling’s first American bookstore appearance.  If we’re honest with ourselves some part of us does really crave wide readership and praise, but overnight successes take years and years.  If you truly love writing enough, then you shouldn’t need that stratospheric level of vindication to make it worth your while.

I can’t promise that this is a definitive list, nor can I assure anyone that obeying all 10 rules will guarantee you an acceptance.  I prefer to approach it from the position of karma, or the golden rule – treat the agent as you would expect to be treated in return, and put out lots of positive energy, and you’re far more likely to get a nibble.  Horror writer Edo van Belkom once told a class I was attending that in order to succeed in publishing, you need a combination of any two of the following three things:  talent, luck and perserverance.  Add to that a healthy dose of respect, humility and attention to detail, and logically, it’s just a matter of time.