Monday, December 20, 2010

Q&A with The Lit Coach

Q: I have experienced the most unbelievable couple of years. Honestly! It includes an appearance on a Dutch reality show and has been capped off by my having been detained in, and subsequently denied entry into, a foreign country just yesterday for having made a sarcastic comment to the border agent. To go along with this I have, what I've been told, a talent to write. If there is a god, he or she wants me to write a book. Either that, or he really, really doesn't want me spending time in Europe.

I need an agent. Someone to help me craft the most saleable book possible. Is it possible to attain an agent without a completed manuscript? How?


A: You share a similar predicament with many new writers, well, not the border mishap (on second thought…) but possessing the talent to write and not knowing where to start or how to direct it. And like you, many writers would love to start with an agent in the hopes the agent can somehow direct them into writing a super saleable book, one of which that agent will turn around and sell to a publisher. While some agents can’t help but step in and offer direct creative development advice to new writers upon meeting them, (as this former agent is VERY prone to do…and which I DO do in depth with my clients who are just starting out), agents simply don’t have time to help shape your yet to be forged creative path.

An agent’s job is to acquire your completely finished and polished novel or nonfiction proposal, most likely guide you through some edits to get it to their standard and then submit it to the most appropriate editors for your work. After they sell your work (fingers crossed!), they’ll stick with you through the entire publishing process making sure your book is presented to the public in the best possible way. That’s how they earn their 10-15% commission.

Now. I’m reading and hearing quite a bit about agents who do counsel new writers on how to shape their writing careers, as well as offer evaluative and editorial services on the side for fees. This worries me. Those who are in favor of this seemingly shifting paradigm call it “evolution” but something stinks about it. When I was an agent, I followed AAR’s Canon of Ethics, a list of standards put in place by those in the publishing industry to help writers protect themselves and their work and to help agents keep good business practices. Most of the best agents in the country do follow these ethics and are either members or openly state they follow the Canon. The Canon states, members may not charge fees for reading, evaluative or editorial work unless in a writers’ conference setting. Anything else seems muddy to me and the risk of a writer to be taken advantage of by an agent who needs to make money to keep being an agent seems probable. And what about their actual clients who need their books sold? I’ll probably write more about this topic in the future, but for now I can tell you that the best agents who earn their living from selling their clients’ work are still doing just that. Call me a traditionalist.

Kelly, what you can do over time is decide where your writer’s heart truly lies through reading, writing and reflection. I’ve read your blog - you’re quite funny and a pretty good writer. With blog development, it’s all about content and consistency. You identified yourself to me as a funny writer who seems to have unusual experiences, sometimes in unusual places…great hook! So, your blog needs to be about that! The best blogs are story driven – so tell us a great, funny story and keep ‘em coming on a regular basis. I’d subscribe to that!
Hope that helps! Good luck.

Q: How do I query memoir?

A: Just as you would a regular nonfiction project. What’s important here, though, is your hook because memoir these days are very story driven…not just “hey folks, this is my life.” The old tell all memoir has given birth to some very exciting subgenres of memoir: travel memoir – Almost French; cooking memoir – The Hunger: A Story of Food, Desire and Ambition and memoir’s first cousin, humorous essay – Me Talk Pretty One Day. Even though it’s nonfiction, you’re still telling a story, so make it a good one. You also want to consider the organization of your memoir; will it be linear or will it read as a collection of short stories tied together with a common thread? Some of my favorite memoirs read like a novel because the author’s retelling of their lives is that moving, compelling, engaging or funny.

Check out the covers of some of your favorite memoirs and notice how the brief overview teasers draw you in. You’ll capture an agent’s attention with an equally compelling overview of your memoir.

To read more about how to query nonfiction, check out these books:

Author 101 Bestselling Nonfiction: The Insider’s Guide to Making Reality Sell by Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman

A Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction by Elizabeth Lyons

Writing The Perfect Book Proposals: 10 That Sold and Why by Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman

Good luck, KA!

Have a fruitful, exciting holiday week, writers!


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