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Sunday, March 12, 2006


Ask the Right Question

I’ve repeatedly heard this question from writers, “I’m unpublished so is it better for me to keep submitting my material on my own or do I get an agent?”

This question is a good one with no right or wrong answer. Some times it’s more difficult to get a literary agent than to find a publisher. Some publishers don’t look at material from authors unless it comes from a literary agents.

Here’s some facts for you to consider:
 
--Every literary agent that I know is looking for the “right” project. What is “right” will vary from agent to agent but each of them is open to new clients--whether you are published or unpublished. The question isn’t about your publishing status. It’s about whether you are producing excellence. As an acquisitions editor, I work with many different agents and have personal relationships with them. Here’s a better question: Can you pitch your idea in the right way?
 
--At best, you will only have a few seconds to pitch your idea to the literary agent--or to pitch it to the editor. Will the first few sentences of your novel or your query leap off the page and grab my throw and compel me to continue reading? If not, then you will be rejected repeatedly with a form rejection letter. There isn’t time for me to critique or tell you why it didn't work or why it’s not right for my publishing house. It’s simply not there. And make sure you work with a “real” agent--not a scam artist.

OK, if every agent is approachable and looking for new clients, then how to you get their attention? One key way is to learn your craft and not send out half-baked projects. What captures the agent’s (and editor’s) attention is pitch, your idea AND your publishing credits.
 
You may want to write books but I’d recommend you hone your craft in the shorter form of magazine articles and short stories--in print publications. I do not recommend online publications as your credits with the editor or the agent. These types of credits are not considered as carefully--unless you are writing for MSNBC.com or Slate.com or a high profile website (read websites that reach millions of daily readers).
 
Let’s look at your book pitch from the perspective of the agent or editor. If you can’t get a simple idea for a 1500 word magazine article published, then how as an editor can I trust you will be able to produce an excellent, compelling 60,000 word book? You can’t. Learn how to write a one page query letter and pitch magazine idea. Write personal experience stories that appear in many different magazines. Then when you pitch your book idea, you will not be unpublished. Instead you can say to the agent or the editor that you have written for _____ publications. I guarantee the agent or editor will give you more credibility and attention. You have earned the right to a careful hearing.
 
I continue to write for printed magazines and as a writer, I know it’s a bit of a pain. The editor will ask for a rewrite or clarification. While I was certain I wrote it perfect the first time and I may grumble internally, what do I do when the editor asks for a rewrite? I provide the extra details. It’s part of the publishing process and I understand it. That magazine editor is looking out for their reader and they know it better than anyone else and you learn to meet the editor’s expectations--even on a short magazine article. In the last two weeks I went through this process with Writer's Digest magazine and I will do it again with other publications. It’s part of being a professional.
 
Every writer has to begin some place. We always need new writers. These new writers are welcomed and embraced into publishing. So often, I find writers who spend reams of time trying to write a novel or a book--and get constantly rejected. They are asking the wrong questions and working on the wrong material.
 
These new writers should be learning their craft on their shorter form of printed magazine articles and building a body of work--which will eventually meet that goal of getting a book into print. Just make sure the questions you are considering are the right questions for where you are in the learning curve.

3 Comment:

At 1:56 PM, Blogger kc Left a note...

Terry,
I read your post on FCW and again here. Very sage advice. My problem is that I'm not attracted to non-fiction. I can't imagine what I would write, or for whom. Does non-paying published works count, such as a Christian newspaper? Should I submit things like poetry and devotionals, or do they need to be full-length articles?

I'm serious about publishing a novel, but in the interim years, I want to use my time wisely. Thanks for the help.

God bless,
Karri Compton

 
At 2:41 PM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...

Karri,

The advice in this post is not specifically for nonfiction writers. It is also for fiction writers. If you are working on a novel, I'm convinced you need to be publishing in the shorter format--short stories for magazines. There are hundreds of publications which are actively looking for quality storytellers who can write excellent fiction. A good example would be the Sunday school take home papers which publish 52 issues a year and include many fiction stories.

Magazines are a great proving ground for you to practice your craft in a short format--without creating a huge manuscript that you can't place.

The magazine world holds valuable experience for any writer--fiction or nonfiction.

Terry
The Writing Life

 
At 5:48 PM, Blogger Janice Left a note...

At a conference, Steve Laube compared a relationship between client and agent to a marriage. It made sense, particularly after I met with an agent and instantly I knew that our philosophies and ideas of professionalism were just too different. How do I determine if a particular agent/agency is right for me when my only correspondence is through mail/e-mail?

 

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