How to Know ForSureForSureForSure You’re Ready for an Agent

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Do you have that first novel completed? Have you been staying up late and getting up early to study and write about a topic you’re passionate about telling the world?

Then it might be time to query a few agents to see if you have what it takes to get their attention. But keep your expectations realistic. New authors are harder to break out than they’ve ever been. And please, don’t blame the agent. We’re just the messenger of what publishers keep telling us.

You’ll need some criteria to go by to determine if you’re ready. Here are a few dozen hints.

First: Know who you truly are…

  1. Someone who has always wanted to write
  2. Someone with a message you feel God is asking you to put to paper
  3. Someone with a message that others have said needs to be put to paper
  4. Someone who can’t wait to get to your computer to create the stories in your head
  5. Someone who reads a lot, both within the genre they write as well as others.

Second: Understand what the book publishing industry is looking for…

  1. The 80/20 principle is alive and well in publishing. Publishers must have the big sellers to stay in business. So 80% of their advance and marketing money will always go to 20% of the authors and books. And if you’re a new author, unless you’re a pastor of a mega-church or you can write like Hemmingway (or better), you’re likely not going to be amongst the 20%.
  2. Because of the loss of browsing retail, publishers can’t find readers, so they expect authors to find them. They want authors with built-in audiences ready to buy. That’s why they are less willing to take risks on unknown/debut authors, preferring known quantities instead of new voices. If I had 200 new authors to speak to, there would be perhaps 5% who will ever get published traditionally. Not because they can’t write. Not because they don’t have a compelling message. It’s because they still have an information gap about what it takes to get published and be successful at it.
  3. Great writing. They want authors who are sold out to getting honest critique. They want a book with a clear vision/message, and an obvious audience (felt need). They hope authors are willing to study the craft of writing, attend conferences, willing to join and participate in critique groups or have a critique partner. Most of all, they want authors who have “come to play.” They’re working on building audiences; they’re invested in their own marketing and they have a plan to grow. Publishers and agents want more than one book. They want to grow with you and your career.

Third, what motivates you…

  1. Money. Okay, that’s not terrible. Would C.S. Lewis have written The Chronicles of Narnia for free? Provision—whether it’s today’s manna or retirement’s manna–motivates us, and it’s not evil. However, if this is your ONLY motivation, you have to ponder whether God will bless it. You also have to recognize that it’s harder than ever to make a living as a writer today, and that the days of six and seven-figure advances (with a few exceptions) are largely gone.
  2. Legacy. Publishers don’t care about this unless you’re already famous. Legacy projects get self-published, and that is perfectly fine.
  3. This does not include “ax to grind” books. Please, self-publish those. We can’t sell them.
  4. “I can’t help myself.” Obsession is a good place to be, but not if you’re sacrificing your health, family, bank account and soul to do it. Your obsession should pass the “sniff test” by those who know you best. Just because you feel “God has told me” to do this, doesn’t make that statement true. Obsessions MUST be confirmed by several people in your life before you give them wings in a big way.

So, with all of this in mind, here’s how to know “forsure-forsure-forsure” you’re ready for an agent.

For sure…

  • You have something inside of you that must get out. A novel, a message, a memoir, a brand. When I started FaithHappenings.com two years ago, I was like a dog with a bone. My excitement did border on obsession.
  • You’ve put at least half of the book on paper–the whole book if you’re a novelist. (With novels, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.)
  • You understand that traditional publishing is a business and you won’t question their motives if they reject your work. People DO know more than you.
  • You feel God’s pleasure in your efforts to communicate what you want to share.
  • You can’t wait to get to your computer.

For sure, for sure…

  • You know your motivation. It doesn’t have to be pristine, you just have to know what it is.
  • You know your book will get published no matter what. You are going to do this! Start traditionally if that is a goal, but not let that stop you from doing what’s needed to publish independently, if you have to.
  • Someone has said that your message, life story or writing is above the curve. But even so, remember this: Perhaps one person per state ever makes it to the major leagues in each year. The pyramid is very small at the top in any professional endeavor.
  • You are patient with the process and want to trust an industry professional to help guide your book/career. Once you think you know more than they do, turn off the tap on traditional publishing. And this is fine. Some are wired to be control freaks. Go with it. Don’t drive yourself and an agent/publisher crazy if you want to control every step in the process.

For sure, for sure, for sure…

  • You have 5,000 to 10,000 “followers” (blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) Further, you are convinced—and you hereby solemnly swear to not complain—that you must help any publisher you go with—traditional or your own efforts—FIND READERS.
  • Twenty people who don’t know you well have seen your book/writing and they’re not adding much more to it. You hear the term “great writer” from several different people.
  • You know your genre, your audience, your message—you have FOCUS!!!
  • You have a great proposal that answers the publisher/agent questions. If you don’t, get the agent’s proposal template. We all have one. Work hard on it. Don’t have typos, and follow directions! There are too many other people vying for an agent or editor’s attention for them to waste time on a proposal that doesn’t meet the basic requirements listed.
  • Read three book marketing books. And then in your proposal, give the agent five pages of marketing ideas you KNOW you can do.
  • You have counted the cost:
    • Family/Time
    • Money
    • Inevitable rejection and bad reviews, perhaps even the “ten mean church ladies” who write scathing letters and reviews on nearly every book they see.
  • You know you have “come to play.”
  • You know what five agents/agencies you want to be with. Get to know what they have represented. (You aren’t sending your proposal out en masse to every agent whose email address you can find.) Of these five, take the first one who says yes. Realize that you may not get the top guy, but the reputation of the agency is what you’re after.

If you can check off nearly all of these criteria, you’re forsure, forsure, forsure ready.

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When the Honeymoon is Over

When I firJuly 17, 1982 001st started writing…

I was living the dream. I spent an hour every morning adding words to my Work in Progress before our homeschooling day started. There were no deadlines; no one demanded anything of me. I dwelled happily in my writer’s cave, isolated from the world, reveling in the company of my characters.

Yes, it was a honeymoon, and everything was perfect.

But as we all know, the honeymoon has to end sometime, right? For me it came to a screeching halt when I signed that first contract.

 

Just like a honeymoon gives way to the reality of married life, my writing honeymoon quickly turned into the reality of being a published author. But that was all right. I didn’t want to live in a perpetual newbie-honeymoon state in my writing career. I wanted substance. I wanted long-term. I wanted a lifelong commitment.

Thanks to my hard-working agent (hi, Sarah!), I’m on the threshold of that long-term writing life. And that means multiple projects. I’m marketing one book, editing another, writing a third, and proposing a fourth. This is the challenge I thought I wanted back in the writer’s cave days.

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So how does a writer handle a challenge like that?

Here’s some advice I’ve received from writing friends:

  • Keep writing. Write 1000 words a day. Do the math: 1K per day (without Sundays) becomes 320,000 words per year. Piece of cake!
  • Keep on target. There is no magic potion. Get in a groove. Make that 1K per day a habit. Every day, same time, same place.
  • Keep learning. My 1K per day takes about an hour of “bottom in the chair, hands on the keyboard.” I spend part of the rest of my time reading writing craft books or taking on-line classes. Even after publishing four books, with two more in the pipeline, I still have a lot to learn!
  • Keep planning. I also spend part of my writing day planning the next project. After I turn in the last book for my current trilogy from Revell, I’d really like for them to publish another one. So I’m starting to lay the ground work for that series. I’m also in the middle of planning a new series for Love Inspired Historical. These new projects keep my creative juices flowing!
  • Keep dreaming. Kariss Lynch wrote a great post about the difference dreaming makes in our creative life. You can read that post here: The Importance of Dreaming
  • Keep living. The honeymoon really IS over if your writing becomes an all-consuming passion. Spend time with your family and friends. Give yourself time off.

Every once in a while, I ask myself if my current life is meeting 046my expectations.

Is the challenge I thought I wanted during my writing honeymoon satisfying enough? Is it worth the work? Does it have substance enough for a long-term, lifetime commitment?

Yes. Oh, yes.

What about your writing life? Are you still in the honeymoon stage, or on your way, navigating through deadlines and contracts? Is it worth it?

The Best Advice I (finally!) ‘Got’

I always hated it when writing instructors told me to 1) write what you know, and 2) follow a formula.  How, I wondered, could I write what I knew when I didn’t know anything interesting, and when the only formulas I remembered were from high school math class? I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to be much help in writing anything other than a final math exam.

Now, having finally decoded those two pieces of cryptic advice in the course of my own writing career development, I have only two words to share with would-be novelists: read and outline.

Read books (all kinds!), but also read everything you can get your hands on: newspapers, magazines, the backs of cereal boxes, newsletters, church bulletins. I even read vanity license plates, which inspired me to give one of my series characters distinctive car plates that have played into more than one mystery plot!

The purpose of all that reading is twofold: 1) you accumulate a storehouse of information about the world; and 2) you never know what word, image, or idea will catch fire in your writing process.  Reading feeds you with new material – like ongoing brainstorming.

As for reading books in all genres, I find it’s a great way to broaden my experience. I may not be an expert on scuba-diving or anti-matter research, or know one end of a knitting needle from the other, but if I’ve read about it, I at least have some familiarity with it. And if it might fit into something I’m writing, I can go back for more reading or research.

It wasn’t until I figured this out – that I didn’t have to be an expert about something to write it into a story – that I finally really understood why my teachers insisted you had to ‘write what you know.’ Write what you know – not necessarily what you yourself have experienced. What a relief to know I didn’t have to commit a murder to write about one!

The most important thing I ever did when I was writing my first novel, however, was to outline. And I’m not referring to the outline of my book, either (though I do work from a rough outline when I write). The outline that I found most helpful was the outline I made of my favorite author’s best-seller.

Yes, you read that right – I outlined a book by my favorite author.

It was a tedious task, to be sure, but by the time I finished that chapter-by-chapter outline, I knew more about pacing and plot development than I had ever learned from any teacher or class. My secret was to use a different color marker for each subplot, so that by the end, I had a notebook in which I could visually trace how story threads flowed together and how the notorious ‘red herrings’ of successful plots operated. Deconstructing a best-selling novel taught me how to write my own ‘formula.’

What are you reading/outlining today?

Love the Reader

The publishing business can be an overwhelming one. We hear so much advice from so many different sources. And to make things even more overwhelming, that advice often conflicts.

So what’s an author to do?

When we have a million voices shouting at us from a million different directions, who do we listen to? What do we listen to?

I won’t pretend to have it figured out. But this past weekend, I attended a workshop at the ACFW conference that helped quiet the noise and simplify the chaos. Ami McConnell, an editor for Thomas Nelson, shared a piece of advice that left me feeling lighter.

The piece of advice was this:

Love your reader.

So very simple. Yet so very profound.

In an industry where the could-do’s on an author’s list multiplies with ridiculous speed, this is the one thing I think we can all agree upon. The one thing that would benefit us all. Developing a genuine love for our readers and letting that love be the foundation upon which we build our careers.

So the question is this: How do we love our readers? There are all kinds of ways, but for today’s post, I just want to share three.

We love our readers when we take the time to know them.

You can’t love who you don’t know. As writers, it’s important to figure out who our readers are or will be. It’s important to be available to them. To listen to them. To respond to them. And when we take the time to know them, to see them as real people with real problems, hopes, and fears, something about the way we write and the way we interact on social media shifts. This journey and our stories become less about us and more about them.

We love our readers when we respect them.

This includes respecting their time. And reading a book takes time. We want to craft stories that make the time our readers spend on our words worthwhile. So are we constantly learning and improving and striving to create stories that will leave our readers entertained? Changed? Edified?

We love our readers when we share a piece of ourselves.

The best writing comes from a place of vulnerability. And being vulnerable means exploring and revealing parts of ourselves that aren’t pretty, parts of ourselves that might be painful. But when we do that, when we risk vulnerability, we’re reaching for a greater purpose. Our words are no longer about book sales and the market, they’re about touching something deep inside our readers. They’re about speaking truth, offering hope, and leaving people inspired.

Do you feel overwhelmed as you travel this journey? What overwhelms you the most? What are other ways we can love our reader?