There are no magic formulas that agents are hiding from writers. Or secrets that published authors are hiding from unpublished authors. But there are a few things that can act like a key to unlock potential. I believe these three things are all it takes to make it in this business.
Time: Books don’t write themselves. Last week I asked people if they have a writing schedule. It was unanimous that while some people have strict schedules (up at 5am to write!) everyone believed you have to find a way to get the words on the page at a regular basis. While most people thought that a writer doesn’t have to write everyday to be a writer, they DO need to buckle down to get it done.
Fear: No matter how important it is to be fearless in your writing, you’re always chasing your fears away. For most writers, they never disappear. I encourage writers to write from a place of questions, not answers. What scares you about human nature? How can you persevere through those fears to write something meaningful? What makes you feel uncomfortable? Writers are also really good at wanting to improve with each book. Writing a thoughtful novel isn’t easy! If it was easy everyone would be doing it. Learning how to dig deep and think honestly about humanity and morality is the grit it takes to bring your writing to the next level.
Talent: It’s inherent, but it can also be taught to a certain extent. It’s also something unique that all published writers find their own way to discovering: their voice and their talent. Watch this video from Ira Glass on how you have to get through those early first ideas or first drafts to get to the raw talent on the other side…
Q: What do you think of these three tenets? What would you add?
One of the most popular questions I get asked during an #askagent Twitter session or at a conference is: What are agents looking for in a writer?
All agent interests and guidelines aside here are the qualities I look for–these are my personal opinions–in a writer:
Professional demeanour online and via emails/phone conversations
You are a reflection of your agent. When we matchmake you with an editor we step back, let you build your author/editor relationship and talk directly with them. We have to know that you are going to conduct yourself professionally during that time. If we bring an editor an author that doesn’t conduct themselves professionally it looks poorly on us. Not to mention when an author starts promoting their book and interacting with fans there is a certain level of professionalism expected.
Incredible passion and persistence
I need writers to love their work, voice, and style and be ready for the long haul. There will be times when writers get down and their agent has to pick them back up, but overall they have to believe in themselves and believe in their work. Start building some thick skin and pick who you trust (i.e. carefully choose critique partner and agent). There will always be conflicting advice, but you have to know in your heart that you can make it and your agent will work with you to achieve that.
Granted, understanding the agent/author role comes when you have that relationship in place. You’ll get to know each other. But, right away you’ll know whether that level of respect is there. I know it’s hard to hand over some control to an agent to take care of your baby, but that’s our job; it’s what we’re trained to do. Choose who you’re querying carefully and ask the right questions when an offer of representation comes. I can tell when I start to interact directly with a writer if that level of mutual respect is there. Continue reading What are agents looking for in a writer?
When you submit your manuscript to agents you get a lot of form rejections amidst your feedback–that’s the way it goes. But, when you finally get personalized criticism that might suggest a revision do you jump at the chance to edit your work to make that agent or editor happy?
My rules of revision guidelines:
Wait a few days before grabbing the red pen.
You need time to digest the feedback, gather your thoughts about it, and decide how to proceed. Never pick up the red pen in haste. Once you’ve decided how you feel about it you can start to put a plan together.
Wait until you have a batch of comments so you can see if there are consistencies.
A list of feedback from different sources can be overwhelming. If you have conflicting advice, how do you decide which road to go down? It takes moments of clarity to be able to sift through feedback and come out with a solution. If the feedback isn’t pointing you in the right direction, then don’t start them half-heartedly. Revisions only work when you get on board with them and get passionate about seeing them executed.
Wait until you receive revision notes that connect with you and will take your book to the next level. Continue reading The Red Pen: When to revise your manuscript and when to keep submitting
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Room by Emma Donoghue
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
What do these books have in common? They’re an author’s breakout book in the international mainstream media, but guess what–it wasn’t their debut.
Every breakout book has a story behind it and a labour of love from all people involved. It takes years to build a writing career. Years of developing the craft, years of working with critique partners, agents, and editors. It’s easy to put a lot of pressure on yourself as a new writer thinking that every word on the page has to be perfect. But you know what–it’s all a step in the right direction. It’s all a step towards a long career in writing. Each word, chapter, and novel is a step in the path of your writing dreams. And when you start to stress that things aren’t going your way and the literary gods haven’t smiled upon you yet, just know that most authors work for years and years before publication, recognition and success come along.
Agents and editors support great writers, knowing their time will come. Agents sign authors for the long haul. We’re looking years ahead and investing in authors knowing that we might not sell their first book, or even their second. We know that we sign up an author for their visible talent and the talent we think we can grow and nurture. We aren’t going to drop you the second you feel insecurity, or if your first book doesn’t get picked up. Publishing is a relationship business and there would be no agents without authors. Agents and authors are a team that has to be on the same page at all times. So if you’re feeling down, talk to your agent about it.
You aren’t a failure if your first novel doesn’t sell. Failure is when you let critics get to you and you let their opinion of your work make you stop writing.
Editors keep buying books by authors they love. They’ll support you in house and fight for your marketing until one day your stock starts to rise and then they’ll say “they knew it all along”, they knew this author was going to breakout.
Continue reading Rome wasn’t built in a day (A.K.A. It takes years to build a writing career)