a little help here…

I’m stuck. So I thought I’d throw out a line with some bait and see if I caught anything. Next spring I’ll be attending a writers retreat in which I will do something called a “fireside chat.” As I understand it, this is a somewhat informal gathering. “Great opportunity for people to ask in-depth questions, explore issues…. Fireside chats are based on a group with one or two presenters; the group is capped at 20 people and some fireside chat houses have only a dozen attendees.” So, here’s the thing. I’m stuck on coming up with a theme. 2004 sessions in the category I’ve been assigned to included the following:

Breaking In
Facing Rejection
Finding an Agent
How to Hook Editors

What I’m looking to catch here is some ideas on what the writers out there would find most beneficial in this kind of format in terms of topic and presentation from an agent. And I’m trying to think of something that isn’t the same-old, same-old that shows up at every conference. Any takers?

And now I’m really going to pause and have some lunch. Or I’ll be soon running into dinner….

Edit at 2:10pm – Oh, and apparently I need to do a panel presentation as well. So, if you were a writer going to a retreat, what would you find the most useful topic? And, now – really! – some lunch.

12 responses to “a little help here…

  1. What if you told them the way to break in is to write well, and then spent the rest of the time focusing on how to write well (that is, on craft), all informed by the sort of things that do and don’t work that you see coming across your desk?

  2. Things I’ve heard too much about at conferences and on the web (although you, as an agent, might feel that it bears repeating since too many people still don’t know it):

    Manuscript preparation.
    Don’t self-publish.
    Keep your day job, even if you sell a novel.

    Things I’d like to learn more about, if I were lucky enough to be at this chat:

    The right tone to take with editors/agents: nice personality vs too chatty, as well as polite follow-ups vs bugging the crap out them. I know the manuscript is the most important thing, but I’m pretty sure showing you’re bad to work with will turn off agents/editors as well. (Until you make everyone rich and then you call the shots a la Tom Clancy and Ann Rice.)
    What’s in a really good first chapter/page (novel/short story)? (Guess that falls under How to Hook Editors)
    When it’s time to trunk a story/novel.
    The importance of titles.

    Just a couple of thoughts. Good luck with the prep!

  3. The most useful and eye-opening seminar I ever went to was about what you as a writer did and didn’t need (emphasis on didn’t) to accept in your contract. It was given by a writer (Joan Johnston) and it was unbelieveably useful. That might be something to think about doing!

  4. But we always want the same thing: “Why I am desperate to buy your book and why you should pitch it to me immediately after this chat”.
    Failing that… many of my RWA friends were very, very pleased with the seminar at National that was a list of five pitches and an explanation of why the agent would or wouldn’t request a partial. So something along the lines of “What’s Wrong With Your Pitch” would make eyes light up.

  5. one of the problems that it would be easy to fall into would be things that either are easily available elsewhere, or are things that another author should give as advice (as I see it). For that reason, even if manuscript presentation, etc. should be brought up again and again, I for one would be disappointed it if were brought up more than for 5 seconds in a chat with an agent — I can get that elsewhere, even if lots of people need it.
    You mentioned “how to hook an editor” — how about “how to hook an agent?” and/or the following:
    — how to approach an agent
    — what to expect (and not expect) when dealing with an agent
    — what you as an agent do (giving the writers a better understanding of your job might help them work with agents more effectively.
    — where and when an agent would be important for their writing careers (and when it wouldn’t)

  6. A few topics I haven’t found enough material on:
    * finding the right agent, and why: not just “don’t call every agent listed in Writer’s Guide, but find one who does your genre”, but things about reader’s fees, scam agents, and how to find out more about an agent’s track record (or an agency’s)
    * what to look for in an agency/agent if you want to publish in multiple genres, and other cross-genre info. Most such advice is either general, or tailored to the specific genre of an audience – romance or SF/F or horror. What if we plan to write all three?
    * the business relationship between agents and authors: who handles what, what an author needs to know and watch out for; what exactly do agents do anyway? Should a beginning author get an agent and why and at what stage? How do we do that if we’re not living where the agents are? (My health doesn’t permit me pounding the NYC pavements.)
    * contracts! what authors need to know about negotiating and signing contracts. Most of us starry-eyed idiots would probably sign almost anything if someone said they’d publish Our Opus. And if we don’t have an agent but have an offer, should we get an agent? Or not?
    * Pitches, cover letters, and the dreaded evil synopsis. What goes in a synopsis and what doesn’t? If I’m writing a romance I obviously can’t leave out the romantic elements in the synopsis, but how do I get 75K of plot AND romance to fit on two pages? Is it okay to write in incomplete sentences? If it’s in the pitch, must it go in the synopsis as well? Actual samples/examples would be lovely.
    * I agree with other comments: if I hear one more word about manuscript preparation, especially outdated ideas like “clean your typewriter” and “don’t use dot-matrix”, I’ll bite someone. Having read slushpiles, I certainly understand why it’s needed and focused on by slushpile readers, but I suspect the sorts of people who send in perfumed, handwritten mss. on pink spiral-notebook paper don’t go to panels anyway, or just don’t listen.
    * There’s more writing and editorial advice out there than agent-ish advice, so perhaps that’s an area to concentrate on.
    … and, golly, I sure wouldn’t mind if you felt like posting your results here, later.

  7. Hmm – things I would be interested in hearing about –
    1. How to find the right agent for you, not just any agent. Especially the kinds of questions you need to ask to have the best shot of finding someone who is going to mesh with you.
    2. Why you are almost certainly not going to be the top of the foodchain when you sign with an agent and what is reasonable to expect from him/her. (Both in terms of deals and in terms of interaction with your agent.)
    3. This may not be your area of expertise, but there was a thread in one of the SFWA newsgroups recently about the business aspects of writing that I found really helpful. (My favorite bit of advice was to get a separate credit card to pay all the writing related expenses – so simple and logical and it probably would have taken me years to think of it.)
    4. I love your posts about the day in the life of an agent. Something on those lines I think would be very interesting. Especially the part where just just because you have an agent it doesn’t mean your book is going to sell now now now.
    (oh, and I second about the please posting about whichever topics you choose.)

    • oh in #1, I am assuming we are dealing with reputable agents, but things more like – how much input the agent has into your writing, how do they communicate with you (I had one friend who was having troubles with her agent because she though he didn’t chitchat enough basically – she didn’t put it like that of course – she said he was “too abrupt”. But it was a real problem.) Would you be willing to accept an agent who is maybe not so good on tiny details but is good at making a good deal for you? (I know a couple of people with an agent like that who feel going over the contracts with a fine tooth comb was worth the other benefits – definitely not for everyone.)

  8. You know, I think the thing I get the most, even from people who have been pursuing publication for years, is how mysterious the process once the book is sold seems to be. Like there’s this giant, double-secret probation club where everyone knows what happens behind the curtain (sorry for mixing my film metaphors) except you.
    It would probably fit best within the theme of breaking in, sort of a phase-by-phase breakdown of the process of selling a book. I know each circumstance is different, but I think some sort of framework would be helpful for people and perhaps keep them from pestering agents and/or editors on a daily basis because they haven’t heard after two weeks.
    And so help me, the next time I hear the question, “What’s a typical advance?” at a conference, I may just go medieval.
    I’ll see if I can think of anything else. 🙂

  9. Throwing in my two.
    To kinda go along with everyone else here, I think the majority is leaning towards Breaking In/Finding an Agent (are they two sides of the same coin?).
    Of course, what I hate at conferences is people that go in and just talk. I am truly a visual learner, so what I would *love* to see would be examples. Show me a letter that caught your eye and tell me WHY. Show me a stinker, and tell me WHY it made you laugh uncontrollably and you tossed it into the trash bin.
    Also, I found when I submitted my first query package recently, that it was near impossible to find an example of a GOOD synopsis somewhere. I would find something that would be posted on the net saying “This one sold” but no explaination as to what part caught the editor’s eye, or what made it feasible rather than Joe Blow’s synopsis. I’d love to see a breakdown on what someone on the inside likes in a synopsis.
    Just my thoughts.

  10. I’ve been to a variety of writer’s conferences, and have found the above suggestions are well covered both at conventions and in nonfiction books about the business of writing.
    One thing that’s never covered, that would be informative to me, is what an agent’s professional life is like. The picture that is painted is expense account lunches, book auctions, mounds of slush that an intern reads, flying to writer’s conferences to hold high-paying writing retreats, etc. And all that in one week. I think it’s a skewed picture. I’d like to have a better one.
    Another thing I’d like to hear about is why queries hat follow all the guidelines get rejected. There are plenty of well written query letters that don’t generate requests for partials. Why? I’d like to know if it’s because you just sold two similar books and you think the market is saturated, or because you just aren’t into a particular plot formula that I’m using, or some other reason. Even if this doesn’t become a fireside chat topic, I encourage you to take a look at the next twenty or so well-written queries that you decide to reject, and categorize the primary reasons why they didn’t work for you. A lot of us–both published and unpublished–would find the information very enlightening.
    And thanks for asking for suggestions.

  11. Personally, I think the most important question to be answered at any writer’s retreat is: Will you have your Cosmo shaken or stirred, Ms. Jackson?
    Proper beverage service is essential at these things, don’t you agree?
    PS A little Strega really sparks things up.

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