An Open Letter to All the Literary Agents I’ve Not Yet Contacted

I know that among the readers here are some who are actively seeking an agent, or who are anticipating doing so soon. You may find yourself having to create a separate file for agent rejections one day, and for that, I offer my sympathies in advance. Plus this tongue-in-cheek open letter, which I coincidentally penned immediately before signing with WordServe Literary. Please feel free to use it in the advancement of your own writing career.


Dear Literary Agent,

If you think I haven’t read your blog, you’re wrong. I thought I’d clear that up right away.

I am so diligent, I’ve even delved into your ambitious archives, perusing entries from as long ago as two weeks. At this point, I know what you’re looking for in a client even better than you do. In fact, because I am such a devoted student of your career, writings, and personal life (including that foxy photo of you on your Harley, va-voom!), I feel I can say without a doubt that I am your next dream author.

How can I be so sure? I am glad you asked!

For one thing, you’ve very clearly expressed your preference for having “good writing” sent your way. At first when I read this, I said “Doh!” but then I gave it some serious thought. I’m betting your definition of good writing is the same as my BFF’s, which means I’m in luck.

Attached is the only scene I’ve slapped together so far. After you read it (get a move on!) and I’ve agreed to be represented by you, I will gladly crank out the rest of the novel. It could take a while, though, so I’d advise you to keep your high hopes in check. I am currently in communication with many notable agents. I even know several of them by name and have called their assistants to verify whether or not “Ricky” is a Mr. or a Mrs. or a Miss. You’ll certainly realize that developing these relationships represents a considerable time commitment on my part.

In addition, submitting a proposal for a book I haven’t gotten around to writing would be a giant waste of my time and talents, as I am sure you will agree.

Second, you have indicated you don’t want to sign any high-maintenance, best-seller wannabes. I can assure you that I’ve never personally obtained a mani-pedi (photos availble upon request). Also, I can produce a matched set of yellowed postcards from my dentist verifying that I am nine years behind in my supposedly every-six-months (ha!) check-ups. No way am I high-maintenance! If you’ll either call me on my cell or email me within fourteen minutes of receiving this—as you should if you are truly the professional you profess yourself to be—we can discuss this point until I’m satisfied that you understand.

Third, you state that any client you take on must have a platform already in place. Bingo! We have a winner! I have been an active blogger for twelve plus years, during which time I have chronicled with sterling clarity my aging mother’s propensity for swearing like a drunken Marine (no worn-out cliches here, baby!) as well as her advancing incontinence.

Google my stats and you’ll see I now have six regular readers, half of whom have agreed to be sent free copies of my first book in exchange for 1-starred reviews on Amazon. You cannot buy (though I’m not against the idea, per se) that kind of fan loyalty.

Finally, you say you are seeking authors who seem unlikely to end up one-hit wonders. While I’d prefer not to promise you the moon until my staggering work of heartbreaking genius reaches the top of the NYT list, I think it’s pretty safe to say there’s PLENTY more wherever that first scene came from. Or I guess I should say, “from where that first scene came.”

In conclusion, I am absolutely brimming with potential, just the way you like ‘em.

I look forward to hearing from you soon. Very soon.

Best regards,
Katy McKenna

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Is a Backlash Coming?

This may be more honest than a long-time agent should admit, but I have a lot more questions and not as many answers these days about where the book industry is going. As I talk with other agents, most of us are having banner years. More deals. More money. More ongoing royalties being paid out. After our three-year downturn, we’re all enjoying the upturn.

What gives?

Haven’t we all been told that e-readers, self-publishing and social networking were going to spell the end to traditional publishing? That quality literary partners (good agents) would soon be a thing of the past? That anyone could make a mint by self-pub’ing their 20,000 word “books” or their 5,000 word articles, or 200,000 word personal family sagas. All they really needed was a thousand or more Facebook friends and 5,000 to 50,000 Twitter followers. If they had a daily blog with 4,000 subscribers, then self-publishing that book they wanted out NOW instead of a year from now would be like printing money.

I love to read all of the prognostications about the end of publishing as we know it . . . almost as much as hearing about what day the world will end (which means, not very much). We have end-time prophets and we have “end of publishing” prophets.  Both, if they play their words and products right, are making a lot of money and scaring a lot of people.

Yes, the publishing industry is going through some major transitions. But where will this ultimately lead us—not 2 years from now, but 10 or 20 years from now? Is anyone’s crystal ball really so good that they KNOW physical books will go the way or the 8-track tape or be a luxury few can afford?

Are we dealing with fads that may come and go or true culture change that alters not only what platform we read our books on, but how and when and why we buy them?

How many e-readers are being purchased by new buyers versus those repeat buyers who are already hooked on them and have now bought 2, 3 or 4? Will e-readers be affordable enough to catch on overseas?

Do people with e-readers actually buy more books because they’re cheaper?  If so, how is this bad for publishing as long as the royalty structure is fair and the author is rewarded?

Why is it that (depending on which report or blog you read) overall only mass market books and a few genres of hard cover are going down in sales and not print books as a whole? In many categories, e-book sales going up doesn’t always translate across the board to print book sales going down.  People are still buying print books and printers are finding cheaper ways of printing them—faster.

Will the medical profession be treating more carpel tunnel and more eye strain because of e-readers? Will our necks and brains and fingers and forearms be able to handle the constant movements needed to be plugged into phones and e-readers and notebooks 8 to 12 hours a day? If not, then what?

Do people really want to read whole books on their phone? Music, yes. Books….?

Are readers of books so dumb that they won’t be able to tell how qualitatively different books published by traditional publishers are than self-published books that have slap-dash covers, design and editing?

Was the movie the end of books? Was TV the end of movies in theaters? Was I-Tunes the end of people wanting new music? Are e-readers the end of people wanting to read and buy whole (and physical) books?

How many social networking platforms can one person with a family and a job actually keep up on? And will there be a social networking backlash in the coming years?

How many books are bought through someone reviewing or mentioning a book from a Facebook or Pinterest account, versus actual word of mouth, face to face?

Will people start rebelling against social media and want to engage in actual relationships again? If so, how will people find out about good books again?

Will Amazon’s takeover of the world survive their politics? Or will people of all walks and faiths make sure one distributor doesn’t corner the market?

In the meantime, as I’m finding some of these answers, I’m still excited about finding new voices with great stories and great messages. I still love seeing great authors with strong sales continue to grow in their reach. I’m still privileged to work with professional editors who add value to a book’s content and improve the author’s overall work. I’m still convinced that “distribution is your destiny,” and that publishers add huge value to the overall sales of books because of their distribution networks.

And as you can read, I have lots of unanswered questions. What about you? What are the questions you’re wondering about as it relates to the long-term future of publishing and/or your career?

Top 5 Self-Editing Tips: Intention

In my first post last month on the topic of the Top 5 Self-Editing Tips, I covered in detail how a novel is structured and how you can be more aware of how to build the structure of your novel.

This month, let’s concentrate on an aspect of self-editing that writers rarely hear much about:  intention.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines intention as “(1) a determination to act in a certain way: resolve; (2) import, significance; (3) what one intends to do or bring about.”

The definition of intention includes other topics, but for our purposes, we can examine the synonyms for intention and determine how we might find intention in a piece of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. Synonyms: intent, purpose, design, aim, end, object, objective goal.

Once you finish your first or second draft, ask yourself, “Did I fulfill my overall intention for writing this piece, and did I achieve my intention in each scene or section?”

Whoa! That sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? You might be thinking, how long am I supposed to spend on an edit? The answer: as long as it takes. Because if you have not fulfilled your intention in writing your book, then how can your reader know what you were trying to say?

Let me make this a little simpler by starting with a chapter or even a part of a chapter. Did you intend to make your character unsympathetic in this scene? If not, then you have not communicated the soul of your character to the reader. You have not fulfilled your intention. The reader might even think, “Marsha would never say that. Why is she being so rude?”

On a greater scale, your story or your non-fiction book should have an over-arching aim or goal. It is the road that connects you to the reader and pulls the story along. Yes, even a non-fiction book is more successful if it tells a story that persuades your reader to believe in what you’re writing about.

Your road will twist and turn in a novel, but you, as the author, should always keep the goal in mind. You don’t want to tell your reader up-front what your intention is, but you should know where you’re headed. If you take readers down a rabbit trail and nothing of significance happens, they will soon stop following you through the brush.

Only you know what you want to achieve in your book. If you’re leading your reader down a “road less traveled,” the trip may be leisurely or it may zip along. You may travel on a super highway, on a country lane filled with potholes, or you may walk with your reader down a garden path.

But if you veer off that highway/road/path just because you have a sudden inspiration, your book may be filled with pointless arguments (non-fiction) or characters who pop out of nowhere to deliver a useless piece of dialogue (fiction).

My intention in this post is not to say that plotters are better writers than pantsters. You can write your book as you please, but if you know your beginning and where you aim to end—intention—then the journey will be that much sweeter.

To be continued…

How will you self-edit your novel or non-fiction book to make sure your intention is clear and that you have achieved your goal in every chapter? 

Top 5 Self-Editing Tips: Structure

Writing is rewriting, and rewriting is self-editing. “But isn’t that the job of the editor after I’ve made the sale?” No. Some writers think running spell-checker is self-editing. Not so much.

“But won’t rewriting my work edit the life out of it?” No, but it will catch the eye of an agent or editor as a well-written manuscript and may lead to a sale.

Obsessive editing during the writing process will destroy your work. However, after you’ve written the first draft, gain some distance and perspective on your manuscript by setting it aside for a few weeks or a couple of months. Now it’s time to rewrite.

Here are my top 5 self-editing tips in their order of importance for polishing your work to a high sheen.

  1. Structure: Think of the structure of your work as an arched bridge spanning a great river. If the contractor takes short cuts (such as using less cement, steel, or fewer bolts) because she’s bored with the process and rushes to the end, the bridge is weakened and will collapse.  The same holds true for both ends of the bridge. If too much cement is used at either end of the bridge, it will collapse from the added weight.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll concentrate on the structure of novels. If the structure of your story is solid, the reader will continue to turn the pages until the ending scene.

The material of the structure is comprised of the elements of the story arc (the basic story thread) held in place by a beginning, middle, and end. Pretty simplistic, huh? Yet the three-act structure has worked since Aristotle’s days whether you write plays, scripts, short stories, or novels.

Sydney Harbor Bridge

Some authors maintain they have a four-, five-, six-, or even eight-act structure. I maintain if you break down the parts of their story arcs, you will discover classic Aristotelian structure.

Using the bridge analogy, a car drives onto the bridge. This is the point in the novel when you can lose a reader in the first page or two. I’ve thrown many a book (or manuscript) on the pile beside my bed if nothing happens right away. The author might as well have written “blah, blah, blah-blah, blah.”

A novel that piques the reader’s interest starts as far into the story as possible. I don’t want to know that the protagonist’s parents left him stranded in a snowstorm when he was a toddler and that’s why he’s terrified of snow (or abandonment). That’s back story. The story should begin with stasis (a state of equilibrium) and then the main character, pressed with conflict, reveals her goal.

One of my favorite movies is Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. The story throws you into the action, and the back story―Indy’s character, profession, the setting, and the antagonist―are revealed as Act 1 plays out.

As the story progresses into the middle (Act 2) and the bulk of the novel, you should have rising and falling tension as your protagonist encounters numerous obstacles or crises.

The main turning point, or big surprise, comes in the middle of the novel. By this time the reader believes he has the story figured out. You need to turn his assumptions on their head. The major turning point should be such a shock that no one sees it coming. It should keep your reader up at night turning pages.

The crises continue. Will he? Won’t she? Oh, no! What will happen to this character your reader has invested her time in? Will everything turn out all right? How will the story ever end on a happy, satisfying note now?

Tension mounts and we reach another major turning point before we head into the final third act. Every turning point should be a surprise to the reader.

The crises are unrelenting until we reach the climax halfway through the third act. The protagonist faces off against the antagonist. The clash of the titans ensues. A woman faces her attacker or her paralyzing fear. The antagonist is not always a person. A man pushes his wife out of the path of a stampeding herd of cattle. Will he live? You get the picture.

Tie up all the loose ends of your storyline in the denouement―the final resolution of the plot or story arc. Is your ending satisfying? Does the main character live happily ever after? If you live and write in America, trust me, she better if you want to succeed as a professional author. Americans are eternal optimists.

To be continued…

How will you self-edit your novel to make sure your structure is strong enough to carry your storyline through to the end?

Photo credit: Sydney Harbour Bridge with the Opera House in the background by Ian.

Honoring the Writer’s Call

Remember the Call

As ambassadors of the written word, we’re called to awaken people to truth. Rubbing words together, we set the world on fire!

Above publishers and agents, God’s our number one boss. With pure, submitted hearts, we make it our mission to please him first.

Am I on the right track, Father? What do you want me to share today? These are the questions we ask.

We try not to judge and compare ourselves with other writers because we know God equips each of his instruments for different specific tasks.

When fearful, overwhelmed, and wondering why we chose this career/ministry path in the first place, we remember… God never calls us where his grace won’t sustain us.

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Gal. 6:9

Persevere in the Call

When tempted to distraction by potentially good things like social media, movies, and chats, we’re privileged to consult our boss: “Please show me what to do and give me the strength to carry it through.”

When tempted to discouragement by trials, we understand they’re God’s method of making us stronger, more Christ-like, and more effective in our writing.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. Rom. 8:28

Because we clearly know we have been called to write, we persevere when people judge us, and we remind ourselves it only matters what God thinks, and the Lord sees every heart. 1 Chron. 28:9

We persevere when our paychecks are sparse because we know God will supply all our needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus. Phil. 4:19

We persevere when the road is rough and slow and we can’t see ahead because we know who leads us each step of the way. (Ps. 37:23)

Balance the Call

Balance starts with rest, and rest starts with prayer. Jesus walked a tight deadline, but rose before dawn to commune with his Father. He snuck away from the crowds to reconnect. Do we sneak away from our characters to bless the Word of words?

Jesus waited on His Father for wisdom and wants us to do the same; but it takes trust.  (James 1:5-6)  When it comes to trusting in the Lord with all our hearts, we often get it backwards, and lean on our own understanding first. Then, when things go awry, we cry “Help me!” and ask him to direct our path. He will, but we must first acknowledge him.  Prov. 3:5-7

Jesus only spent three years in ministry; however, his thirty preparation years were just as important because they defined and nurtured the Father/Son relationship, enabling him, in the right time, to turn the world upside down by submitting to His Father’s peculiar but brilliant plan of reaching the Jews first, then the Gentiles.

God writes a different plan for each one of us. He calls some of us to blog first, others to write books first, and still others to do both at the same time – in balance.

Whether we’re writing, speaking, networking or spending time with the family, God isn’t just interested in what he’s doing through us; He’s interested in what he’s doing in us.  He wants us to joyfully trust him so we can honor him with our calling.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”  Jer. 29:11

Please talk to us about remembering, persevering, and balancing God’s call to write. We’d love to hear your stories, lessons, insights, and experiences.

And what is God reminding you about today?

Social Media… Eeeek!!!

Social media, social networking, marketing, PR, all those terms seem to make authors shudder a little bit. There’s so much to learn and a lot to leverage from gaining an online presence. Where do I even start? That’s the question that I hear so often.  I am going to start at the beginning. And for some of you, this may be very basic information.

Start slowly. It will snowball. My mom used to tell me when I was cleaning, “By the inch it’s a cinch; by the yard it’s hard.”  Social networking happens gradually over time. Gathering a ‘tribe’ takes effort.  It is something that comes with hard work and, most importantly, consistency.

Don’t get frustrated!

I want to start with one specific aspect of social media today: Facebook fan pages. Facebook has changed things up a bit where you can now allow ‘subscribers’ to your personal page. A good example of this is Tim Tebow. Check his personal page out, and you can see that he has 1.6 million subscribers. What is a subscriber you ask?   When you post a status, you can post it so that the Public, Friends, Friend of Friends, or a Custom Group of people can see your updates. Subscribers would be the Custom Group. People are under the impression that this is “good enough.”  Although subscribers are good, there are still more advantages to having a fan page, and most people are not even aware you can subscribe.

Here are a few of the simple basics that a fan page can do, that a regular page can’t:

SEO.  Have you heard people say that? What does it mean?  “’Search Engine Optimization’” is the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in search engines via the “natural” or un-paid (“organic” or “algorithmic”) search results.  You have more visibility with a “fan page” than with a personal one.”  In easy terms, these pages show up quickly in Google and other search engines because they rank as a higher priority than just a regular Facebook page.

You can have more that 5,000 people on your fan page. Unfortunately, a regular Facebook page tops out at a max of 5,000 people. You say, “I will never get to 5,000 fans.” I say, “Dream BIG!”

People have immediate access to you. No waiting to approve a friendship. Once a fan likes your page, he or she can see all that you have said and done.  Also with a fan page, you can personalize it; it is customizable.  With a little money, you can have a welcome page, a contact form, or unique apps that embed into the page that will make a fan’s experience more of a custom one. Think of a fan page as a second web site to draw attention to your book.

From a fan page you can learn who your followers are and who your target audience is. You can find out their sex, age range, and what country the live in. You automatically have an answer for when an agent or a publisher asks you, “Who is your audience?”

Dedicate 30 minutes a day to social media, and start with your Facebook fan page. It will be worth it, the fans of your book will thank you!

Tell me about your experience with Facebook fan pages. How can you encourage other writers to jump on the Facebook fan page bandwagon?

Stewarding Your Career and Your Agent

Good agents take the privilege of shepherding authors and projects very seriously. We’re hugely selective and typically only make a “yes” decision on a client if we love (not just like) their project, and then see them as a good potential relational fit.  Life is too short to work with people if they’re demanding or mean…no matter what the potential payoff.

But make no mistake, agents work FOR their authors, not the other way around. Yet with the lightning-fast changes in publishing still happening, nearly every agent I know is telling me, “It feels like I’m working harder than I ever have before, and still closing fewer—and smaller—deals.”

Welcome to the new normal in publishing.

What this means for the client/author is potentially less time interacting with their agent because the agent is trying to stay in business. What’s an author to do in this new normal to make sure their own projects still receive a high level of attention?

  1. Take more control of your career.  The path to finding readers has never been clearer—or more time-consuming. “Get involved with Facebook Fan Pages, blogging, tweeting, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, and networking with other authors (such as this Water Cooler),” is the familiar mantra from publishers and agents alike.  In this new world where social media IS the most influential advertising resource,  if you’re not selling books and finding new readers, it’s no longer your publisher’s (or agent’s) fault.  If you don’t feel you can come to play in marketing your own creative blood, sweat and tears, don’t even ponder a career as a writer. Look in the mirror: You are your publisher’s best PR agent.
  2. Craft, craft, craft. I tell new novelists that I don’t want to see their manuscript until 5 to 10 “non friends and family” have read and critically appraised their work.  I’d rather authors take a full year to rewrite their manuscripts than almost anything else.  If you write nonfiction and you have a strong message and a good regional platform, then be relentless on making every paragraph zing. Don’ tell me “it picks up in chapter three.” It better engage me from paragraph one or you’ll be getting the dreaded “not for me” letter. If you’re a seasoned writer, be diligent in making your prose as professional and engaging as possible.   Constantly read books on writing craft; find a mentor or critique group. Be a lifelong learner on writing well and you’ll have a good chance at being a lifelong author.

Along with taking control of your own career and staying committed to the craft, here’s how to help your agent help you.

  1. Respect his or her time.  Since you want them to stay in business, bunch questions for a once-a-week email.  If possible, use clear bullet points with clear simple questions to make it easy for us to see and answer, rather than lots of loaded, dense text.  Mondays are good. If your questions are more complex, better to talk by phone than email.  But do set a phone appointment (by email) instead of calling with hope that we will answer.  The agent is there to serve you, very true, but time is the coin of the realm. Be judicious in how you spend their precious minutes and hours because ultimately you want us out there pitching your projects!
  2. Press the panic button. I spend a good portion of my week fighting fires for authors. Bad covers, wrong titles, heavy-handed editors, proposals that MUST be out the door this week, family or personal crisis…all of these and more are what I’m here for.  When you really need me to jump on something or lend an ear, this is absolutely what I want to do. Don’t hesitate to pick up the phone or send me a “call me ASAP” email.  You’re not “bothering me” (ever); I work for you and love (almost) every minute.
  3. Pray. It’s not trite, it’s essential. Really. If I’m distracted, off task, ill or in a personal crisis myself, what am I not doing? I’m not tending to the details of what I should be doing for you. The very thing I want to do most is often what the enemy doesn’t want me to accomplish. I need to stay spiritually sharp and steady for you to feel fully supported.  And I’m not bashful to say I need your help in doing it. I covet and appreciate your prayers for me, my work and family.  I also love to pray for you, so never hesitate to zip me a prayer request during a rough patch.
  4. Share the goodies!  I love hearing how your work has impacted others in the world, or a great opportunity that has come up for you to share your book.  Forward me one or two of your best notes from readers every month and any news that is exciting to you concerning the marketing of your project.  We love to hear how the end result, your book, is impacting the world.  It is why we do what we do.

What more can you do to serve your own career? How would you feel even more supported by your agent?