Friday, March 28, 2008

It Beats Doing the Taxes

I've been procrastinating a bit. All of the tax paperwork is on the kitchen table and we're due at the accountant's tomorrow. So why did I just kill half an hour finishing Richard Dansky's Firefly Rain. Well, because it counts as work.

Firefly Rain is one of Wizards of the Coasts' Discoveries titles. These titles are original fiction not set in one of Wizards' proprietary worlds.

It's always interesting to see a publisher try to break form. Will the publisher try to publish books that will appeal to their current audience, or seek an entirely new audience all together? If you take my client, Ed Greenwood, and look at his Forgotten Realms books and then at his original fiction, like Dark Lord or The Kingless Land, you'll find that he was clearly trying to appeal to his current fans with similarly themed material. But there's nothing remotely Dungeons & Dragons about Firefly Rain, leading me to believe that Wizards is trying to expand beyond the gaming fiction market and into the general horror, science fiction & fantasy markets. And reading this book did, as an agent, enlighten me quite a bit about the kinds of books they are buying. I might just have to look up an old client of mine and see what he's been working on and if he's between agents, because I think he might be someone they'd be interested in reading. Then again, he's never written for them and in these situations they often like to use writers they know and give them a chance to break out of the gaming-fiction pigeonhole and find a wider market. Still...where is that phone number?

Before I make the call, though, I confess I was surprised to see that this book got a starred review in Publishers Weekly. The writing wasn't as strong as I've seen in recent books that I've read and the plot was about as simplistic as you can imagine, with only one twist at the very end that I didn't see coming. Still, it was an engaging read and I was certainly curious to see where it would go. I'd recommend it if you are holed up during a gloomy day and looking for a light read.

Z

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

If Not You, Who?

I was looking up a client's book on Amazon.com today and noticed how screwed up the various links are and how many editions are missing covers and have incorrect information. Granted, you'd expect the publishers to check this stuff out and fix the listings, but the truth is a lot of the information comes from different publishers and sources and sellers, etc., and, in the end, only one person is likely to know the full story of what's happening with your books: You.

Amazon has a link to let you fix catalogue information and upload images and do other things to fix your listings. I presume BN does also, though I spend little time on that site. My opinion is that every author with a book on Amazon or BN.com should be reviewing their titles monthly. Click every link and see what happens. Be responsible for what's being published about you and your books.

As a published author, you no doubt recall that the publisher sent you page proofs to review. This is partially to make you responsible for any typos in your books. Sure, there's a proofreader going over it, but you have the final responsibility for reading your proofs as carefully as possible. The same goes for Amazon and BN and any other site on which you or your books are listed. Is this a pain? Yes. Is it something your publisher should be doing? Yes. But if you want it done right, this is definitely one situation in which you should do it yourself.

Z

Friday, March 14, 2008

Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan

It was a late night Wednesday night. Some time ago—I can't imagine when—I got a copy of Master of None, by N. Lee Wood (Aspect). It could be the editor, Jaime Levine, gave it to me, or perhaps I picked it up at BEA. I have no recollection. In any event, it has followed me around from house to house for a while now and I recently picked it up and started reading it. And I'm glad I did. This is a book from which many an author could learn a thing or two.

First, I should mention that it's science fiction, but it's socio-science fiction, so the spaceships are at a minimum, and even the science isn't too prominent.

What I liked about this book was how well the author controlled the viewpoint and how engaged I remained throughout the novel, despite very little action. The characterizations and setting descriptions held my attention. And, of course, I wanted to know what would happen to the protagonist.

Interestingly enough, the reviews on Amazon.com were mixed and the book is out-of-print only four years after it was published. The comparisons in the reviews to Margaret Atwood didn't really work for me, though. I was thinking of Octavia Butler's style when I read it, though it's been years and years since I read Octavia Butler, so perhaps I'm misremembering.

I was about half-way through this book on Wednesday, having been reading it in bits and pieces, when I picked it up about ten-thirty. I finished around two-forty in the morning. Yikes! So much for my beauty sleep. But it did hold my attention and I found the ending satisfactory, if not overwhelmingly satisfying.

One of the reviews on Amazon, I noticed, commented on some of the racial elements of the plot, which to me were very minor, but I found it interesting that he seemed to think the world was based on Arab society. Apparently he has never visited India or even been to an Indian wedding, because the world clearly seemed to me to be stealing from Indian culture and not Arab culture.

Regardless, I think it's well written and it thoroughly held my attention long into the night, which is generally impressive to me.

Generally speaking, I find it very hard to carve out the time to read published books. I have so many manuscripts and sample chapters around that I feel guilty reading published books. But it's important for any agent or editor to keep reading published books, for a couple of reasons:

1. If all you read is unpublished material, the slightly-less-than-drek starts to look really, really good next to the utter drek. You lose your perspective. There's a reason people eat sherbet to clear their palette between courses or crackers between glasses of wine. Reading a good, published book helps do that for editors and agents.

2. It gives you insight to the editor and/or the house. Whenever you go to lunch with an editor, she generally brings along a book or two she's worked on or that the house recently published. I remember going to lunch with Jason Kaufman, who handed me a galley of an unpublished book he was pretty pumped about: The Da Vinci Code. I wonder what happened to that one?

Authors sometimes ask what agents bring to the table. One thing is that, over the years, agents get to know editors' tastes. Ideally a good agent should be able to read a book and know that it might appeal more to editor A at Bantam than it will to editor B. They learn this partially by simply submitting over and over and seeing what sells, but they also know it by reading books that editor has published.

Before Master of None, the last book I'd finished was The Etched City, by K.J. Bishop. I believe I picked this up at Comic-Con in San Diego, from the Bantam booth. I can't say I enjoyed that one as much. The author has a great grasp of language, but the book, again, has little plot, and the society simply wasn't as interesting as that of Master of None. The characters were interesting and I particularly liked the part where a "wizard" turns the remains of a murdered woman into a battle axe for her husband to use in killing her killers. But the novel felt disjointed to me, and there was a major shift that I either was very, very tired when I read it and missed the shift, or there was a scene cut that shouldn't have been that took the reader from point A to point B. And that does happen. The author is under pressure to cut, or the editor thinks the book needs to be cut and an entire subplot or several scenes get removed, but there's something in the cut portion that needed to be retained. And if you move that element to another scene, it's no problem. But if you forget to move that element, you're screwed.

I remember a case of this in Nelson DeMille's The General's Daughter. I hope I'm not spoiling it for anyone, but when the murderer is revealed to be the general's aide, it's never quite clear how the main character reached that conclusion. It's an intellectual leap and the evidence is never quite clear on the page. I found it fairly annoying.

Such intellectual leaps are not uncommon. I remember questioning an author about something in his book once and he replied, "Well, that worked for me because I know that in the next book we're going to find out...." Um, yeah, I'm sure it did, but since the reader doesn't know what you plan to do in the next book, you need to put something on the page that makes the scene work for the reader. Or there's the case where the author starts talking about something that was supposed to happen earlier in the book, but had cut that scene and now the reference makes no sense.

Hence, we come to the importance of outlining, scene-by-scene what should be happening in your book. The index card method has the advantage of also being visual. Outline each scene on an index card and put it on a wall. If you cut a scene, put a big red X through the card. If scene 212 is dependent on action in scene 128, you can make a note cross-referencing them. That way, if you cut 128, you know you need to fix 212.

All of this is, obviously, a lot harder than sitting down at your desk and just hammering out a novel. But I'd bet money that the vast, vast number of authors who are getting published aren't just hammering it out. Sure, the outline may be in their head—and if you have a brain that can handle that, great—but it's there. When an author tells me that she "likes to see where the characters take me" or "see how the plot develops," I immediately know that this author's manuscript is more likely than not going to need quite a bit of work.

My grandfather had a plaque on his desk that said, "Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan." I have always loved that saying, even if I don't always follow it. But I should probably start selling one that says "Plan Your Novel, Then Write Your Novel." If you want to write for fun, knock yourself out. If you want to get published, you need to put in the work.

Z

Monday, March 10, 2008

The February Round-up

Again I'm a few days late getting to this, so I apologize.

In February, we...

...received 77 queries and rejected 59;
...received 23 sample chapters and rejected 2;
...requested 15 sample chapters or proposals;
...requested 2 manuscripts and received 3;

We offered representation to one nonfiction client in February.

We currently have on hand...

22 requested sample chapters;
3 requested manuscripts;

In addition to all that, we currently need to read and respond to two proposals we already represent and four client manuscripts.

The oldest "sample chapter" we have (actually, it's a self-published book, but we're treating it as a sample chapter) is dated January 19th. If your submission of a sample chapter was dated before that, then we should have already responded. If it is dated after that, then your patience is appreciated.

We have requested, but have not yet received...

11 sample chapters;
5 proposals;
2 manuscripts;

As always, our policy is to request material and, if not received within 30 days, to send a follow-up email. If not received within 30 days of the follow-up, we discard the query or sample chapter on-hand.

If you have submitted something to us but you have since accepted representation elsewhere, please let us know immediately so that we do not waste time reading material that is no longer available.

Thanks!

Z

Thank You for Not Smoking

Recently I received a manuscript from a client and I noticed, as I opened the box, that it stank of cigarette smoke. I was reminded immediately of a copy-editor I knew back in New York who chain-smoked while working. The manuscripts always came back stinking of cigarette smoke. When I met the guy, his fingertips were stained brown and he smelled like an ashtray. Great copy-editor, though. But the price of working with him was that you had to deal with the stink and sometimes some ash on the pages.

Now, beyond the fact that smoking is not healthy, no editor or agent wants to be stuck reading a manuscript that stinks of cigarette smoke. So if you are a smoker, figure out a way to get that manuscript printed, say by Staples's or Kinko's online services, and mailed without surrounding it with a cloud of cigarette smoke so that it won't end up with your agent or editor feeling like you just mailed him or her a full ashtray of butts.

Your agent, editor, and I thank you.

Z

Monday, March 03, 2008

How Long?

About how long should we expect to wait to hear from you regarding materials we have submitted at your request? I submitted my first chapter back on January 11 and have received neither a rejection or a request for the ms. Is it still too early? If so, sorry to trouble you.

I'm going to say, yes, it's too early. Generally speaking, what we try go do at the beginning of each month is look at the reading pile and figure out where we are and post online what the last thing we read was. For example, I'm fairly certainly I've covered all sample chapters up to those whose cover letters were dated January 18th. But not all have been dealt with yet. My intern, who processes responses, is only in two days a week (one day this week) and will be getting out responses on Wednesday. Sounds like yours should be getting a response one way or another later this week or early next week, though I can't say off the top of my head how I responded to your project.

Z