In Which I Attempt At Wisdom (and largely fail)

I believe I mentioned before that I have, for the last six weeks, returned to the teaching of adults, through a literary arts organization called The Loft Literary Center. It’s a great organization – one that has been incredibly supportive of my work over the years – and I love being a part of it.

It’s been a while since I last taught grownups. Normally I teach children. I get kids; I get how they think; I get their humor. Hell, in my soul, I think I secretly am a ten-year-old boy. Named Harold. I don’t have to think a lot about reaching my audience, because I am my audience. So, I approached my teaching of grownups with some amount of trepidation. Also, I spent the summer in a rather dark place when it came to my work and general self-efficacy, so I was rather skeptical as to what I actually had to offer these grownups who may or may not show up for my class.

(Or who may, in a fit of annoyance, leave my class in a huff. Or attack me with spit balls and paper airplanes.)

And I was surprised – no shocked – to see that my students actually enjoyed my class. Called it useful. (I have never been called useful before.) Called it illuminating. (How can I illuminate when I am standing in the dark?) Anyway, it was good for my ragged spirit. And my paper-thin soul.

So today is my last day for my class entitled Navigating The Treacherous Terrain of the First Fifty Pages Of the Middle Grade Novel (A Survivor’s Guide). Because, whatever. I like long titles. And I feel like six weeks isn’t long enough to give them what they need. And I feel like six weeks isn’t long enough to spend in the company of such a capital group. And I want to leave them with stuff they can use – bits of materials and instructions and know-how. Maps. Translations. Magic runes.

So I wrote them this – a Q&A of sorts. And now I turn it to you, dear readers. What more should I include? What will be useful for my collection of students who are either done with their novels, or well on their way? What pieces of wisdom do you have.

This is what I have so far. Please add your thoughts in the comments:

Questions and Answers for the In-Progress Novelist

1.    What now?

Oh, my dears and darlings! I wish I could tell you for sure. These are the things that must happen, though, before you can even consider sending your work into the world – finish the draft; let it sit with you for a bit; read it over with fresh eyes; revise; let someone else read it; listen to their comments; really listen; revise; read it again; revise; drink tea; love your families and give them gifts of appreciation and apologize profusely for your distinctly odd behavior while in the process of novel-making; read great books that challenge you and make you want to write better books; revise again.

2.  Do I need a writer’s group?

Not necessarily, but you should have readers. Usually we call these beta readers, and they are the trusted folks who will generously give their time to read your stuff and tell you – without reservation – what they think. You do not need to follow their advice. What you do need to do is notice the spots in your manuscript that give your readers trouble. And you need to recognize that the weak spots in your story are, in fact, opportunities to dig in, crack the thing open, examine the innards and mechanisms and structures, and to make your work stronger – complete and whole and separate from you.

3.   So where do I find these readers? (And by the way, my Social Anxiety Disorder prevents me from making direct eye contact or meeting new people.)

Fear not! The world is filled with writers! Obviously, the Loft is a great resource, and you can connect with classmates or fellow scribblers in the coffee shop or folks who show up at readings or whatever. If face-to-face contact scares you, fear not! The internets exist! Places like absolutewrite.com and critique.org are wonderful places to find critique partners. The Verla Kay boards are incredibly helpful as well. Also, for those of you who are not scared of by Twitter, there are several weekly chats that happen in the twitterverse that create spaces for people across the industry – the pre-published, the just-published, the oft-published, as well as agents, editors, publicists and hangers-on – to connect and exchange ideas surrounding pre-set topics. There are three that I participate in from time to time (when bedtime doesn’t get in the way): #kidlitchat happens on Tuesdays, #yalitchat is on Wednesdays, and #mglitchat is every Thursday – all at 8pm Central time. I have made very strong connections – and even friendships – with other writers that way. I’ve exchanged manuscripts with people and have gotten beautiful feedback. But mostly, this job is hard. And it’s lonely. And tribes exist for a reason. We need to find people who honor what we do, who see its value, and who give us shoulders to lean on when things are tough. We need to find people that we can be kind to – with whom we can share our own knowledge and experience and expertise. In the end, community matters, and it’s good to be part of one.

4.    Do I need an agent?

Yes. Well, not necessarily. But holy smokes, do they ever make things easier.

5.    Can you elaborate?

Sure. And let me clarify – if your intention is to go at this via the independent, self-publishing route, then you do not need an agent. If you only want to finish the novel, make some nice copies of it and share them with your friends and loved ones, then there are approximately nine million avenues to make that happen – Lulu.com is the first one to come to mind – and enjoy! There is nothing better than sharing stories with people you care about. If you are planning on writing a series of fast-paced novels (maybe three or four a year) and selling them as e-books, keeping the lion’s share of the revenues for yourself, that is a fine option as well. Lots of people do this; a goodly sum of them do it for the love and couldn’t care less about the money; a small-but-growing number break even, or make a modest profit; and a very small number are able to pay their bills with what they sell independently. Like traditional publishing, it’s a bit of a crap-shoot. But none of us are in this business to get rich. Heck, even the folks on the NYT Best Seller List aren’t getting rich. It’s just the fact of the matter.

HOWEVER, if your intent is to eventually get your books on the desks of editors who work for the large publishers, then YES you need an agent. Even many of the small publishers require agents these days. Your agent is part critique-partner, part business-analyst, part guru/spirit guide, part money-manager, part pit-bull, part suave-savvy-deal-maker, part career-mapper, and part publishing-speak-translator. I would be lost without my agent. Lost!

6.    Can we talk about money?

Of course we can, but alas, it’s not very useful. (Unless ranges like “from 0 to infinity” can be described as useful. In which case, awesome.) We could talk about averages and outliers, but in the end, publishers make decisions about the advance based on what they think they can recoup from that individual book, or what they think they can make back from that particular writer over the long term. Sometimes, a higher advance is a publisher’s way of signaling what their intended marketing and packaging budget will be for the book, but not always. There are writers who come out of the gate with six-figure advance deals. These are not typical. A typical first-time author will, if they are very lucky, land a book deal that stands at around $5-30k. But the thing is? This is not money you can reliably depend on. Because even if you’re getting 100k – that’s a lot, right? But then 15% goes to your agent (because without them you wouldn’t have had that money to begin with), and then there are self-employment taxes (did you know that self-employed people get taxed at a higher rate than other people? Well now you know.) and health insurance costs, and office incidentals, and then there is the fact that money comes in huge chunks that do not respond to your other bills, and can be delayed for reasons totally outside of your control (your editor goes on maternity leave, your book gets moved to another list, your publisher merges with another publisher, thereby putting your book’s very existence in question, etc.) . This is money you cannot depend upon. This is an unreliable way to make a living. It is much, much better to consider this a side-job, OR to have a spouse whose income is reliable, and accept your role as a kept man or woman. In my case, both my husband and I are self-employed and are accustomed to this life that we have built on a complicated DIY structure made of duct tape, cast-off lumber, a bit of twine, wire, papier-mâché, and gum. It is sometimes possible, but just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. And it isn’t for everyone. It’s better, and recommended,  to maintain a consistent income, and to use the revenues from writing to buy some freedom from time to time (sabbaticals, and what have you).

7.    Do I have to be on social media?

You do not have to be, but it does help. When you are in the process of querying, the first thing an agent will do (assuming your work is compelling enough to justify the time) is to see what bits of you exist online – on twitter, on a blog, on facebook, on Pinterest, whatever. Part of this is just to see if you’re setting off their Jerk-O-Meters (because no one wants to work with a jerk). Part of this is to see what kind of potential readership you already have (again, you don’t need this, it’s just a thing that’s good to know). Part of this is to see what your potential vectors are for book promotion. Now, that being said, the purpose of social media – regardless of type – is for communication, collaboration, and creative community-building. If you have a blog that is entirely dedicated to the pictures you snap on your daily walks, or the prayers that you offer to the universe, or pictures of your kids, or your own artwork, or surrealistic and post-apocalyptic newspaper articles from a 25th century human colony on Mars, or whatever, that is fine. If your whole social media profile is limited to transcribing the fart jokes your neighbor kid tells you onto Twitter. That’s fine too. No matter what, it should be natural to you, it should be fun for you, and if you try to force it, it won’t work. Try it. If you like it, great. If you don’t, don’t sweat it.

8.     How do I find an agent?

Great question! Have you heard of Google? That’s not really a question, but it is part of the answer here.

No matter what, you want to find an agent whose interests and literary proclivities mirror your own. You want an agent who loves your work. This is important. So make a stack of books you love and find out who represents those writers. To do this, you can either take a look at the acknowledgement page, as many writers will thank their agents there, OR you can find the author’s web page (as most have one these days) and you should be able to find it some place on there (usually on the Contact page), OR you can simply google the phrase “Who represents _______?” or “Who is ____________’s literary agent?” and something should come up. I get about ten of these search terms coming to my blog every day.

Another great resource is Agentquery.com, which allows you to search agents to represent specific genres. They also show a sampling of a particular agent’s other clients to give you a range of their representation, and links to their websites and submissions pages.

But here’s the thing – and I cannot stress this enough: the query process, I feel, is a blunt and unwieldy tool, and it is not representative of the relationship that you are attempting to enter into. Agents work on behalf of writers and in cooperation with writers, but they do not work for writers. They are independent, savvy, and highly communicative individuals with broad and nuanced relationships with lots and lots of important folks in the industry. They can read people very well, and are incredibly perceptive when it comes to tastes. You want to partner with someone who has a profound and passionate understanding of your work, who is someone you trust as a reader, who will protect your interests, who has a clear vision of what your career can be, and – most importantly – is someone that you like. So how do you figure that out? Again, Twitter can be helpful. Lots of agents tweet. Not all do, of course, but for those that do, it can be an insight into their interests and curiosities, their humor and their passions, their politics and their reading lists. Another thing: blogs. Lots of agents blog. If you are considering querying them, make sure you have read it. And third, agents usually appear all over google. They will be mentioned in their clients’ blog posts, their bios will appear on writer convention presenter lists, they will have done interviews or Q&A’s, they will be pictured at a SCBWI event, or whatever. Do your research. Know before you query. Talk to them if they are interested in your work. And ask yourself, “Do I want to be in a productive, creative relationship with this person? And how would that work?”

9. Ummmm. How do I write a query letter?

Don’t stress the query letter. Keep it short, keep it snappy, give enough of a hook to draw your potential reader to the page, and then be devastating and original in your actual fiction. Most agents ask that you include five pages with your query (typically pasted right into the email, because agents are skittish of attachments as a general rule). These pages don’t just have to be great – they have to be amazing. Be amazing. This is your new rule.

Now, if you are still stressing the query, there is help online. Miss Snark has long since stopped blogging, but her archives are still up. Google her, read everything. And you’re welcome.

If you are interested in getting your query critiqued, hop over to Queryshark.blogspot.com. Note: read the blog first. It is not for the faint of heart.

And again, it’s good to read agent’s blogs. Many have written excellent posts on what they are looking for in a query, and what they are not. Also, be sure to read the guidelines obsessively with each agent you query. Follow the dang directions. I cannot stress this enough.

10. Any more thoughts?

Write. Every day. Finish this book. Revise this book. Write the next book. And then another. And then another. Accept the fact that I know lots of writers with first and second and third novels living quite happily in a drawer somewhere, never to see the light of day. This is normal. If you could write one novel, you can write two. Your second novel will invariably be better than your first. If you can write two novels, you can write ten. Challenge yourself. Insist on getting better. Write vigorously, prodigiously, brutally, and with great love. Be expansive. Be sly. Be amazing.

And, as with any great thing, keep a long view. Your speed in initial publication has no bearing on the number of books you produce over the course of your lifetime. Just write the damn books. The rest will come in its own time.

All right, folks. What am I missing?

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6 thoughts on “In Which I Attempt At Wisdom (and largely fail)

  1. I do feel as though I have had a virtual crash course in the Kelly Barnhill essentials! How fortunate the class had your wisdom to guide them. Yes wisdom! You’ve got some real-time experience that many of us wanna-be’s still dream of possessing! Surely you have nurtured hope in their writerly hearts and set them on a path to success, meandering though it may be!

  2. Indeed she has! I was a most fortunate recipient of Kelly’s magic literary stardust in the recent Loft class! She wrapped us in her nurturing cloak and whisked us off to see the moon, and the stars and the endless possibilities.
    Thank you, Kelly!

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