Yes, this is filled with whisky

Yes, this is filled with whisky

Thursday, July 03, 2008

I need a topic!

Some really at-a-loss for contributors editor has braved my inbox to ask me for an article for an upcoming book that might be called something like Guide to Literary Agents.

I immediately said "sure, but only if I can write one that says Break All The Rules You Read About Here." After reviving the poor lad, we agreed I'd write something else.

The question is WHAT.

I don't want to write the usual "agent peeves" or "how to write a snappy zesty compelling query letter and get thinner thighs in thirty days" cause those have been done to death.

So, you're the market. You read these books. (I just skim to see if my name is spelled right!) What kind of article would you like to see most?

Responses in the comment column or via email are much appreciated.


Mags said...

What we really want to see from an unpublished writer.
What we'll let slide and under what circumstances.
Where an unpublished writer can find said "circumstances."
Who you (the unpublished writer) should actually be sleeping with!

You know, your blog. Distill, refine, edit. You've already got the best resource for writers going (if you'd like to pinch from Miss Snark, I bet she'd share a pub cred if you brought gin). Do that.

Claire said...

Getting an agent stuff has, as you said, been done to death. I'd suggest focusing on situations when you actually have an agent e.g. an agent's expected responsibilities towards clients, or when it's time to walk away from an agent, or how to ditch an agent on amicable terms. That kinda tihng.

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie Weathers said...

Hmmm, what would I like to see?

Examples of "voice" that reach out and grab agents.

The cold hard facts of publishing. What can a new author expect?

Proper etiquette when dealing with agents and editors. (I think I understand this, but it might be interesting.)

How to determine if an agency is right for you.

Developing multi-faceted characters who appeal to agents, editors and readers.

The writer's survival kit. What to have prepared if an agent is interested after you send the perfect query.

Questions to ask a prospective agent and questions you should be prepared to answer as a potential client.

Top ten gifts to send your agent when he/she sells your book.

I actually dreamed about this last night. I sent my lovely agent a very nice hat, complete with a good hat box. This indicates two things.

1. I am thinking entirely too much about agents.

2. I was probably already coming down with whatever curse/disease/virus I have and I was beginning to hallucinate.

Whatever you choose to write about will be fascinating, I'm sure.

Ellee Twombly said...

What are the three or four key things that get your attention every time? and conversely what are the three or four things that turn you off right away.


What makes you excited about a piece? The kind of excitement where you just want to tell your best friend what a wonderful day you have had.

Mystery Robin said...

Maybe something specific to crime fiction? Like which genre rules to break and when.

You wrote a great post a while back about why you read crime fiction in conjunction with the Eliot Spitzer debacle and how crime fiction gives meaning to otherwise heinous acts. That sort of thing about what really makes crime fiction work would be wonderful to read.

Cameron said...

For me, worst practice is a better teacher than best practice.

You could try a mock up of a typically poor letter/synopsis annotated with your off the cuff handwritten comments e.g. what immediately comes to mind when you see a particular statement/error.

Creative Clusterer said...

I woud like your first suggestion. sSince that wpn't happen, i would like you to write a query letter ...

Maria said...

I'd suggest focusing on situations when you actually have an agent e.g. an agent's expected responsibilities towards clients, or when it's time to walk away from an agent, or how to ditch an agent on amicable terms. That kinda tihng.
End Quote

While I'd love to see this particular topic handled in a blog post, I think most people reading the Guide are probably still LOOKING for the agent. :>) Of course they might be looking at the book because they are looking for a new agent...

There's been a lot of very useful info covered on this and other blogs (thanks, it has made our task easier). One of the most valuable topics for me was: What does an agent do after signing a client? Kind of the what to expect and what is an agent's job?? What should the author do at that point (write the next book, chew fingernails, etc.)

From the outside looking in, it was so hard to understand all the job aspects (like selling foreign rights, selling audio and when does that and other rights become a priority) and the day to day tasks, and the fact that an agent is part cheerleader, part lawyer, part pit-bull...

John said...

Whatever you do, it's got to have some kind of smart*ss hook to it. (Of course, this suggests you should have it ghost-written *coughcough*.) I'd be bitterly disappointed, and greatly surprised, were you to contribute a mere how-to-(anything) piece.

When I'm working on something like this and can't come up with a topic, it often means there are too MANY potential topics at hand, none of them expandable to full-length. Then it's time to fall back on what I think of as the "expanded bullet list" approach. In this case, pick (say) three smaller topics and lump them under one catchy umbrella of a title. Or even think of the title first and work backwards from that.

Suppose -- just throwing out things here -- suppose the title were something like "The Agent's Milliner." You could describe a scene in which you enter the shop to browse; when the salesperson asks you what kind of client (or query, or whatever) you're interested in today, you start vaguely: "Oh, a polite one." He brings out an example and you say, "No no no, not that one. THAT one really doesn't look very durable" (or whatever). So you eventually narrow it down to the client (or query, etc.) who's a perfect fit.

Again, just throwing things out there now. The idea is not to worry about the topic per se -- because, as you and others have said, it's pretty much already been said. What you want is a metaphor which will make the topic really stick in a reader's head. (With your characteristic style, you're already over halfway there.)

[Sorry for the long comment. Our power just came on after an outage, and I'm feeling in a ghost-stories-around-the-campfire mood.]

Margaret Yang said...

What John said. Make it a story, not a list.

You could write "A horrible morning in the life of an agent" where you list all the things that can and do go wrong followed by "A wonderful afternoon in the life of an agent" in which you tell all the things that can/do go right. Make some funny minor characters like the hot assistant and the fed-ex man that you hate, and I'd totally read that.

kitty said...

I learn the most from examples. Like query letters you've received: the ones that impressed the knickers off you, and the ones that didn't and how you'd improve those.


Kathleen said...

Write an article that explains (to all of those who buy this book but AREN'T on the Internet) that they REALLY NEED to be finding and following agent blogs! Tell how agent blogs will help them get to know some of the best agents out there! Explain that agent blogs give you the chance to stay on top of what's happening in the literary world NOW. Show how they can help them pick up on all kinds of tiny bits and pieces of information that don't make it into books, because they come from the daily lives of agents.

That way, maybe the number of "man-this-is-awful-so-I'll-complain-about-it-on-my-blog-but-that
won't-reach-the-people-who-do-it" incidences will go down!

Julie Weathers said...

I like John's idea, a lot.

Southern Writer said...

How about something on how all the writers in the blogging community can band together to oust agents who call themselves agents but aren't really agents from agenting? That could be funny.

Just_Me said...

What Worked

It would be wonderful if you could get permission from your clients to use their first query letters to you and write a compilation of things that worked.

I also like the lists of things that make for auto-rejects. Those amuse me.

Or maybe a fictionalized account of the publishing of a book, from finding a gem in the slush pile to getting the title on the NYT bestseller list. I'd read that too.

Sarah said...

How to not take criticism personally (hint- sense of humor)

How to stay true to your vision while still being willing to listen to advice (hint- a book is not your most precious inner self - it's a book)

The difference between useless advice and helpful advice

How to learn that while writing is an art, publishing is a business

Janet- you have the right "voice" for these topics, IMO :)

Kelley said...

tell us why we don't need to be afraid. because that's really where all the angst and that over query letters, submissions come from. that fear. it would be wonderful to hear an agent say relax. I'm human. And deep breaths. let's break it down. this isn't your life hanging on the line. take back your power--even if it's just your perspective on this whole agent publishing thing.

yeah. I'd love to see an agent discuss that.

Josephine Damian said...

How about what the author should do in the time between the contract amd book release?

Drink scotch? Start a blog? Buy fun clothes for book signings? Do a book trailer? Suck up to book reviewers? Buy gimmicky promotional props? (Me? I'm buying a crime scene dummy to bring to book signings - "Fans! Get your picture taken with the dummy! No,I don't mean me!" lol)

Redhead said...

How finding an agent is akin to finding love on eHarmony.'s not.

mjawbrey said...

How about . . .

What the ^&#^$ is a Query and why the &*#^$ do I need one?


You want an Agent? Sure, on the same day you win the lottery, get struck by lightening and find that needle in the haystack!

Jaye Wells said...

I find humor is always a good teacher. How about something along the lines of keeping your sense of humor in the face of rejection?

Ryan Field said...

I once read a paragraph by an agent in one of those books and I never forgot it. Basically it said it's all about patience, tenacity and determination.

Susan Adrian said...

I like Margaret's idea a lot.

"How not to be an idiot" is probably my favorite topic, though, especially from you. There are so many idiotic things writers can do when they're looking for an agent, and they're so easy to avoid with a little foreknowledge.

Oh_bother said...

No pet peeves or how to write query letters so good your life turns around...

And I'm guessing your blog will be mentioned so if a reader's really interested, they can research any number of how-to's there.

I vote for a write well, be a good person, and don't be scared article. That seems to be what a lot of this boils down to. (Says the unpublished author.)

You don't need unicorns or sparkles because your writing is that good. You follow submission guidelines (and aren't rude at lunch meetings) because you respect others. And your don't be afraid of making mistakes entry was spot on.

It's easy for us to get distracted by how to present ourselves. If other contributors are tackling those issues, and since there are some great agent blogs, I say go back to the basics.

k said...

you sure you don't want to write about "how to get thinner thighs?"

because, frankly, my thighs could use the help.

Stephen Parrish said...

Do what you do best. Something inspirational like this or this or maybe even this.

Kelley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deanna said...

See, I would love to see something on Opening Page Cliches. I remember being so shocked when I heard that too many unpubbed books open with "waking up" (I had done it!) That the secondary character tends to have red hair (an easy way to distinguish them. And I had done it!) That too many books open with the weather, or the sky, or some over-blown description that does not match the style of the rest of the book.

It was like doing one of those math riddles and finding everyone already knew the answer at the end--I just wasn't in on the arithmetic until I had embarrassed myself.

Every time I uncover one of these overused elements, I pass them on to my critique group, and almost always, someone cries, "Ouch!"

I'd love to hear your take on them.

Speak Coffee said...

A "chin up" article. A "what happens if we both have the best days in the world" and how to progress from there. Because to be honest, I know dozen tricks and rules, two dozen more "deadly pet peeves" but I have no idea what I would do if I got a call (would it even be a call, or in this day and age an email?) that said "I'd like to represent you" ... or would it be "I'd like to represent your project" -- see! I don't even know the likelihood at that because every agent-written how-to is so doomsday!

Haste yee back ;-) said...

LOL, Ryan Field... reminds me of the time I went to the Emergency Room and the Doc ask me what I did.

I said. "I'm a writer."

He said. "Oh, you're dying from patience, tenacity and determination!"

Haste yee back ;-)

tyswan said...

I'd like the unique POV of someone who reads 20 manuscripts a week. What I think is fresh in my small corner of the literary world is hardly representative. I suggest an article along the lines of what Deanna suggested, but not limited to openings. What are the most common plots, heroines, twists, genres, openings, endings that authors think are inspired and original, but are so... not.

Recently I read that protags or antags with child-abuse histories are so overdone (*cries and pats protagonist*). Vampires are out (*hides WIP behind back*). As are signature killers (*stabs character at conception*).

What advice/perspective can someone who sees a huge representative of manuscripts give to authors busy with their heads down creating scenarios and stories that have already been done to death.

Obviously there are no rules in publishing, but if we have one of these over-done plots/approaches, then we'd better take a very close look at our manuscripts and judge whether our work was sufficiently original to capture an agent/editor's attention.

This topic done with your usual wit and humour would be helpful and entertaining to me. And perhaps it would be of use to others.


monica said...

Humor is key-- especially when new writers are so fearful of the rejection letter (or email, as the case may be).

Some suggestions:
1) How writers can recover from rejection.

2) What the agent "really" means in her/his rejection letter.

3) How to break the "rules" to get an agent's attention.(Everything short of driving into an intersection as the light changes, with an agent in the car. That has been done.)

4)How many new (unpublished) clients the average agent take per year.


Southern Writer said...

2) What the agent "really" means in her/his rejection letter.

I'm still laughing at this one. Ever heard of Miss Snark? Anything other than "yes" means "no." Period.

Sorry. I'm not laughing at you, just remembering how funny Miss Snark could be.

Lisa said...


What is a platform, why is it important for nonfiction, and how does a writer effectively build one? What is considered a good enough platform with which to springboard a book proposal and what is not? What are some pitfalls to avoid in creating a platform?

Agents talk a lot about nonfiction books doing better with a platform, but it would be very useful to know exactly how many hits on a blog in a month is respectable, etc.

Oh, and thanks for asking - it's very cool to get to provide some suggestions.

Kim Kasch said...

I'm voting for the thinner thighs in 30 days, or, if it has to be about writing, then how to get an agent in 30 days. Include a 30 bullet point outline, with one specific task for each day (you could even combine this specific writing task with ideas for thinning those thighs.) For example, on the first day said wannabe writer must mail one query letter and personally walk it to the mailbox - kills two birds with one . . .letter.