SFWC 2018: Some Insight

The great thing—well, one of the great things—about this conference was the number of opportunities to talk to industry professionals and gain some insight. In particular, I was trying to figure out what to do with my YA novel Hamlette. I’ve sent it out to some agents, and there have been nibbles, but so far (barring one incident I’d rather not rehash) no real feedback that I could use. Here’s the little bit I have received:

  • One agent was “afraid to fall in love with it” because it was too close to something else on his wish list, and so if he took mine on he wouldn’t be able to take on that dream manuscript if it were to ever cross his desk.
  • One agent said she didn’t have time to read this manuscript but was intrigued by my description of planned follow-up manuscripts and said she’d like to read those if I didn’t find representation.
  • One said she thought it was “a crazy fun concept” but the way the narrator directly addresses the reader didn’t work for her.

That last one gave me pause, of course. She didn’t say, “If you change it, I’d love to see it again,” so I guess it wasn’t a revise and resubmit.

Okay, so I while at the conference I met with Rusty Shelton and asked him whether I should just scrap this blog and my existing author identity and start over. He said no. (I was honestly surprised by this!) He said, “You have a half-built house. Why start over and have to lay a whole new foundation?” When you put it that way . . . He and I brainstormed some ideas that I look forward to putting into practice soon.

Then I met with independent editor Amelia Beamer and poured out my story of woe. She was so kind to listen, and so sympathetic. I told her I just didn’t know whether to keep trying to find an agent for my manuscript, or if I should self-publish it, or maybe just trunk it entirely. I told her about the agent that didn’t like the one aspect of the manuscript. “I’ve received a number of rejections,” I told her, “but none have specified why. Maybe they all hate the direct address and just didn’t bother to tell me?” Amelia pointed out that that could be true. Or not. I could try to change the manuscript for this one agent, but as she didn’t ask for revisions, I should be sure I’d be changing it because I honestly thought it was good advice. (I’m still not sure about that.) Then she told me, “The publishing industry will take your little piglet that you’ve nurtured and turn it into sausage. So be sure you’re okay with that. Else, write something you’d be okay with seeing turned into sausage.” Which I thought was a very good and vivid metaphor.

Next I had a chance to speak with an agent who shall remain nameless. Sufficient to say she’s an agent who only handles children’s and YA. I laid out my dilemma, told her the feedback I’d had from other agents. I wasn’t trying to pitch her so much as understand what wasn’t being said, or what the market might be for my book. She pulled up her email and showed me that she had 11 queries in her inbox referencing Hamlet. In short, Hamlet is overdone. I mentioned that one of the agents (the one with the wish list) had suggested Merry Wives of Windsor, which I have in fact outlined as a potential project. This agent told me that might be a good way to go because it’s a much fresher, lesser-known play. “Sit on the one you have, and maybe it can be published later.” I asked if it would hurt my chances if I self-published this one. She said no, since the books I’m considering writing—these Shakespeare updates—aren’t really a series with the same characters throughout.

So now I’m really trying to decide what to do here. But I least I have a clearer view of my options.

This morning I went to a session about children’s book marketing and was flattered when Penny Warner remembered me. (She’s delightful btw.) She asked me what I was working on and I told her, then also told her what the agent had said about there being too many Hamlets. Naheed Senzai was sitting next to Penny and said, “Find another agent.” Penny pointed out that everyone in the room could write a version of Hamlet and they’d all be different. “Figure out what sets yours apart.” But I don’t know what sets mine apart since I don’t know what those other 11 manuscripts look like! Still, the encouragement was much appreciated.

Other takeaways included the idea that my paperback books should be made by IngramSpark while my ebooks should probably be Kindle exclusive. Many thanks to Penny Sansevieri for that.

I realize much of this relates specifically to me and my project, but it goes to show how key these conferences can be, how important. Here is information I would otherwise not have had. Here is fresh support. Here is new perspective. I still have many decisions to make, but it’s so nice to learn and connect and get a bigger picture. If you are an author and have an opportunity to attend a conference, I highly recommend you do so.

SFWC 2018: Making Your Work Rejection Proof

Well, the short answer is: you can’t.

This panel consisted of a number of independent editors: Amelia Beamer, Mary E. Knippel, C.S. Lakin, David Landau, Heather Lazare, Mary Rakow, Suzanne Sherman, Meghan Stevenson, Annie Tucker, Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, Monica Wesolowska, and Hannah Wood.

When asked what advice they’d give authors, Wendy said, “To go to conferences like this one and learn. And to embrace rewriting.”

Monica added, “Be able to deal with rejection. Sometimes it opens you to new perspectives and ways to improve.”

Annie said, “Rejection is less about talent and more about marketing yourself as an author. You need to know your goal going in. What do you want from this? You also need to go all in on a good editor, copy editor, and designer.”

According to Mary Rakow, “You should work with a great critique group and have high standards for your work. If the revisions aren’t making you feel better about the work, you’re making the wrong revisions.”

David Landau: “Writing is now a performing art. Authors are also public speakers. In order to be effective, you must (1) develop a passion for your subject matter, and (2) extend an unspoken invitation to the audience to share that passion.”

C.S. Lakin: “This is about maximizing your chances. What separates a good author from a great one is an attitude of professionalism. Invest time and money in your work. Commit to it.”

Otherwise, your writing is really just a hobby. You’ve got to look at it like a career.

Amelia: “You can’t just put up a site and be a writer. A real writer has self-doubt and continues learning, even after being successful.”

Suzanne: “Be resilient. A rejection of your manuscript is not a rejection of you.”

(Though sometimes it can feel that way. Most times, actually.)

Meghan: “Get a mug that says ‘author’ on it to make you feel validated. And always remember that your readers are your customers.”

Heather: “Invest in Publisher’s Marketplace. Stalk agents on Twitter.”

Question from the audience: “How do I determine my genre?”

Meghan: “Look at the bookstore or on Amazon for books like yours.”

Q: How long does editing take?

Annie: “It’s subjective, depending on the condition of the manuscript, whether it’s a deep edit. Many editors book in advance, so plan for that.”

Q: What are some good questions to ask potential editors?

Heather: “Ask for sample pages. Most editors will offer a free sample.”

Meghan: “It’s like a relationship, like dating—you need to find a good fit.”

#amediting

Editing, for me, is so much harder than writing—and writing doesn’t come easily to me either, which tells you how difficult I find editing.

Yesterday I received the first round of edits on Changers, and my stomach is in knots over it. I’m only on page 10. It’s like I have to come up for air frequently because this stage practically gives me panic attacks.

I keep reminding myself of the good things. Edits = progress = closer to publication. And of course I want my book in the hands of readers!

Still, there’s something about the editing process that I find chastising. A lot of it is subjective, and still more of it has to do with individual publishers’ styles. Compromise is required. I try to see it as a learning experience, but sometimes I can’t help but think, This is why I self-publish so much of my work.

Which is not a dig at my publishers, I promise! Every writer should learn to compromise and negotiate their words. I think most of us want to dig in our heels and be stubborn about it, but it really is important to learn to take criticism and critique.

Just having an editor and a publisher is a blessing. It means the work has value. As a writer, I need to remind myself that a little tweaking isn’t a condemnation. But I still have to tackle it in bite-size pieces. They’ve given me two weeks.

Deep breath.

I’m going back under.

IWSG: Edits!

I received an email from my editor at Tirgearr this morning saying she’ll be sending me edits for Peter either late next week or early the week after that. Eep!

After working on Peter for so long, I of course want to think it’s very clean. Nearly perfect, right? But I’m also a reasonable, logical person (at least some of the time), so I know there will be stuff to fix. Maybe even a lot.

I’m really kind of scared.

It’s like handing your baby over to a surgeon and not being sure what will come back. Lots of stitches? Only a few scars?

And having been an editor so long myself, you’d think I’d have more insight or whatever, but it’s very different being on this side of things.

So that’s what I’m insecure about at the moment. That and the revisions I’ll need to do on Changers. My critique group will be tearing that manuscript apart in the coming weeks as well.

My Hallowe’en horror story: having my work ripped to shreds!

DFW Writers Convention

Here in the Big D (that’s Dallas) for the writing convention and having a lovely time. It’s much smaller than the San Francisco conference, which has its pros and cons. On the pro side, I was able to actually talk to Kevin J. Anderson and Charlaine Harris.

With Kevin J. Anderson . . . And, no, I don't look at all like an insane stalker, right?
With Kevin J. Anderson . . . And, no, I don’t look at all like an insane stalker, right?

On the con side, much more limited class options and only one pitch session is included in the price of admission; there is the option to purchase more pitches, but I’ve done that with screenwriting to very limited results, so I’m not inclined to try it here.

Still, my pitch went well, and the editor requested three chapters. I’m going to polish them ’til they shine and then send them off to her.

Me Ra Koh did an informative talk on using social media. In particular, she showed us what to do on Facebook to reach more readers and gave suggestions for what should be on our Amazon author pages.

Kevin J. Anderson (see above) gave a great keynote on the “popcorn theory of success” in which he demonstrated how you never know which kernel might pop next or where it might land. In that way, keep as many kernels in the oil as possible. Don’t just put one kernel in and watch it and wait for it to pop.

There was a panel on asking agents questions, but I didn’t learn much that was new. I think agents get a lot of the same questions over many conferences. I did find it interesting, however, that most of the agents on this panel think “New Adult” is a passing fad that will probably be subsumed by the overall romance genre because most NA books are heavy on the romance angle.

The workshop on understanding rejection letters was really helpful, though. It was a workshop for people who’d queried and even had several requests by agents for their manuscripts only to be ultimately rejected. So where is the disconnect there? I learned that, based on the feedback I’ve received of how well written Peter is, and how much the agents like the story, character, setting, etc., it’s quite possible that they just don’t believe there’s a market for the book. It’s a moot point now, since Peter went to Tirgearr, but it’s nice to know that it [possibly] wasn’t me or my writing. The agents also said that, as a rule, the offer to submit something else to them is a genuine one, not just a courtesy. If an agent says, “Feel free to query me with your next project,” they usually see something in your writing and voice that they like. That makes me feel good, since I’ve had several such responses from agents.

Tonight is Charlaine Harris’ keynote and a reception. Should be fun. And tomorrow another day of workshops, though not as long. I fly home tomorrow evening, too, which means I’ll be wiped out. But so far it’s been a good conference.

Insidious

Yesterday afternoon I received an email from an editor who had read the first few pages of Changers. She said my dialogue tags (that is, the places where I write “she said” or “he sighed”) were too middle grade. She then gave me examples of how she would write some of my sentences. To be honest, I thought her version was pretty awful. Just not my style at all, and her summary in the email was that my “style needs work.” Um . . . Just because I write in a way you don’t like does not make my writing wrong. I follow all the rules of grammar, I can spell—my work is not “incorrect” because it isn’t to your taste.

Still, I sent a short “thanks for taking the time” email. But now I’m sort of worried my book is crap. That’s the insidious part of feedback like that. It worms its way in. And now I have zero interest in working on my book because I’m worried it’s just a waste of time.

SFWC: Mark Coker & The Future of Authorship

After the fuss that arose from Barry Eisler’s keynote the day before, Coker’s felt weak as it made many similar points. There was just as much grumbling from editors and agents, though. I was sitting at a breakfast table with two agents who tried to make light of it—one mimed slashing her wrists with her butter knife as if to say she might as well give it all up. Both agents left the room before Coker was finished speaking.

Coker is the founder of Smashwords, that bastion of self-publishing. He began his keynote with an explanation of how Smashwords came to be: He and his wife had written a novel, and they even had a respectable NYC agent shopping it for them, but they were getting rejected everywhere they submitted. So, Coker said, they had two options:

1. assume the fetal position and accept their failure
2. keep believing in themselves and their work—and try to find another way to get it out there

And that’s how Smashwords was born. Coker said it was his breakup letter with the industry:

Dear Publishers,

I’m breaking up with you. It’s not me, it’s you.

Coker went on to say that publishing in the traditional mode is broken, that it does not serve its authors or its readers. “Books—ideas—are more valuable than money. Everyone deserves to be published.”

That, I’ll admit, gave me pause. I think everyone has the right to be heard, but I’m not sure everyone deserves to be published. At least not without serious editing first. But then again, I come from an editing background and have really high standards for that kind of thing.

Still, I think Coker is saying that the traditional agents, editors, and publishers shouldn’t necessarily have the right and means to determine which ideas and stories are worthy of publication. Which is why he says he created Smashwords: to democratize publishing.

Coker gave a list of ten trends that are driving the future of publishing and authorship.
1. The rise of e-books, which now are 25–35% of the market
2. Web sales—as brick and mortar stores wither and die, Web sales of books continue to soar
3. Democratization of publishing—authors now have access to printing and distribution options
4. The self-publishing competitive advantage—it’s faster, you can price it lower and keep more of the profits
5. Traditionally published authors suffer from having higher prices put on their books
6. Print is dead (or at least dying) as brink and mortar stores disappear, and there is no money in self-published print books
7. E-books are global
8. NY publishers are stumbling into the self-publishing biz (Coker cited Penguin Random’s acquisition of AuthorHouse)
9. Indie authors are taking market share from the traditional publishers; more self-published books are appearing on bestselling [the NY Times] lists
10. The stigma of self-publishing is fading, and anyway authors should own their vanity—they should believe that what they write should be read by others; that’s what being an author is about

Coker called indie publishing a movement, saying that the indie authors were the cool kids. (A note about terms: Coker was using “indie” to mean “self-published” which is not a universally understood equivalent; many use “indie” to mean “small press.”) Again, I don’t know if I’m 100% on board with this statement since, if the indie/self-published authors were the cool kids, why would so many people still be struggling to get published through traditional channels? Are they just behind the times? Unwilling to let go?

For me, I think some content is right for self-publishing channels and some is right for more traditional routes. That is the difference between (in my works) my short stories and The K-Pro, which I’ve self-published, versus The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller, for which I hope to find a traditional path. But it won’t break my heart if I do have to self-publish it. So that must mean something. It’s so nice, as an author, to have multiple options.

Coker said that power is shifting. Authors can now ask traditional publishers, “What can you do for me?” And if they don’t like the answer, authors can choose their own team: an editor, a designer. Anyone can write a book and know, no matter what, it will be published. One way or another. It’s no longer a game of laboring away on a manuscript for months or even years and not being sure it will ever see daylight.

BUT. Coker also cautioned—and we heard a lot of this over the course of the conference—that as an author you have the obligation to produce good work. Not even just good, but great.

Someone asked Coker how self-published authors can hope to find and reach readers. Coker said, much as Barry Eisler had, that discoverability is better now than ever thanks to online searching versus relying on being shelved in a bookstore. Coker cautioned writers not to go exclusive with any one retailer. Smashwords, in fact, refuses to distribute to Amazon, which is the largest retailer, because Amazon tries to get authors to go exclusive with them. But that limits your outreach. Sure, Amazon’s audience is massive, but Coker urged writers not to contribute to its attempt to monopolize the system. Because eventually all this freedom authors now have will be swept away again if Amazon were to control the distribution.

“Good writing will always find readers,” Coker said. And, “The great thing about digital publishing is that you can always revise. Your book is a living thing. You can change the cover, you can revise the text and make it better.” He said if you’re not averaging 4.5 stars or more, you should consider a revision. I find that a bit much. I never trust people’s books if they have high star averages because it makes me believe only their friends have reviewed the work. Better, in my opinion, to have a variety of reviews and star ratings. Certainly, though, if the ratings are mostly low, I would consider revising.

Coker took Penguin Random to task for AuthorHouse as well. For those who don’t know it, AuthorHouse is a “publisher” that really just takes money from authors. Writers pay for things like editing and promotional packages, etc. AuthorHouse has had a bad rep for a while, and I have to wonder at Penguin Random acquiring it. Coker said it was the equivalent of a big publisher saying, “You’re not good enough for us to publish through our big brand, but we’re happy to take your money.”

Of course, if you do self-publish, there’s a chance you will spend money on outside editors and designers. But it shouldn’t cost you $20k to publish your book. Which is, in some cases, what places like AuthorHouse have eked out of people.

The final question of the morning was one that had been similarly asked of Eisler the day before: “Doesn’t indie publishing need some kind of gatekeepers? Isn’t there value in rejection?” Coker answered that Smashwords is not in the business of judging books. Instead, feedback comes directly from the consumer—the readers—in the form of reviews and sales. Again, it boils down to putting your best work out there. Write it, have it edited, have it beta read and critiqued, rewrite it . . . Make sure it is the best you can make it. And then launch it and see how high it flies.

SFWC: Meeting the Editors

So at the San Francisco Writers Conference they have this thing called “Ask the Pros.” They bill it as “a pitch-and-ask session with editors and publishing professionals,” but since most of the editors don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, I’m not sure why you would pitch to them. Maybe they make exceptions? Or maybe just to find out if you’re in their ballpark?

I had dinner plans but decided to duck in for a couple minutes to talk to two specific editors: Caitlin O’Shaughnessy and David Ebershoff. Caitlin I wanted to see simply because she’s Tana French’s editor. I read In the Woods ages ago when the publicity agency sent it to me to review, and I loved it. I’m only just now getting around to The Likeness because I was holding a teeny grudge against French for dumping Rob and going with Cassie. (Read the books and you’ll see what I mean.) But what I wanted to better understand was the term “upmarket.” It’s another one of those words that gets tossed about a bit, and seems to be used in a number of different ways. “It means it’s written for women,” one person told me. But Caitlin didn’t use gender as a rule of thumb. She told me it had more to do with style—the writing in upmarket fiction is a bit more careful . . . Like, maybe it’s genre fiction but told in a literary way. When I told her about The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller, she seemed to think it fell under the upmarket umbrella. She said that the fact Peter is gay is “a good hook” and will likely make the book more marketable rather than less.

Much as I liked Caitlin, I did want a second opinion, just to see if there was any kind of agreement on the issue. These kinds of things are pretty subjective, which is why it can be so difficult to find the right agent, editor, etc. The wait to chat with David was pretty long, but I stuck it out. He was very encouraging. He told me Peter sounds like “upmarket espionage.” Not only that, but it “sounds like exactly the kind of thing [he’s] looking for.” (!) Apparently it’s hot to have things in this genre either featuring female protagonists or written by a woman or both. (I can’t write women. Dunno why not. Gay guys will have to do.) David asked if it has series potential and whether I have an agent yet, and I told him I’d had several say they were interested in seeing the manuscript. My understanding was that he might be interested to see it, too, once I do get an agent.

Anyway, by this time my dinner fellows were wondering if I’d got lost or died in a writers’ duel or something. But I’d spoken to the two editors I’d meant to and was armed with a fresh sense of optimism. K-Pro had defied categorization, but the consensus seems to be that Peter is marketable. (And “upmarket” at that.) Just need to make sure the book is the best I can possibly make it. Then I’ll be sending it out with crossed fingers and held breath.

SFWC: The Fiction Editors

Eight editors from various publishers took the stage on Saturday morning to introduce themselves and answer questions from their side of the trenches. The editors were:

Laura Tisdel, David Ebershoff, Lauren Spiegel, Caitlin O'Shaughnessy
Laura Tisdel, David Ebershoff, Lauren Spiegel, Caitlin O’Shaughnessy
Laura Tisdel (Little, Brown)
David Ebershoff (Random House)
Lauren Spiegel (Touchstone)
Caitlin O’Shaughnessy (Viking)
Martin R. Biro (Kensington)
Lisa O’Hara (Omnific)
Alex Logan (Grand Central)
Brenda Knight (Cleis)

What is the biggest mistake you find in manuscripts that are sent to you?

Again, there was no one answer, but many of the editors agreed that manuscripts often come in too soon. They aren’t polished enough yet. People will send in a first draft when really the manuscript should go through several drafts. (Though of course this doesn’t happen as much with manuscripts submitted via agents, and most of these editors didn’t accept unagented material.) Other problems mentioned were that stories were sometimes too slow at the beginning; the author takes too long in setting up the core conflict. And then there were technical submission problems such as not following submission procedures, or in queries trying to oversell—not everything can be “the next Harry Potter,” nor should the author promise their book will be a bestseller since most books aren’t. Finally, in person the mistakes tend to be writers having too much ego, not being willing to listen to others’ opinions or ideas, lack of compromise.

What is the editing process like?

Of course it was different for everyone. Laura Tisdel said she’d once timed herself and discovered that, when doing a really deep and intense edit on a manuscript, she may only get through 10–12 pages per hour. This is why writers need to be patient with the process! It takes a lot of time to do right! Other editors mentioned that sometimes your manuscript may come in first but then others that are on deadlines for certain lists may get prioritized over yours even if they come in later. Lisa O’Hara said that her smaller publisher (Omnific) publishes books in 6–9 months from acceptance while David Ebershoff said, even after the editing process which itself can take a year or more depending, it takes about another year for the book to appear on shelves.

How many books do you work on at a time?

Again, it varied. Martin Biro said he edits one at a time but may have several in various stages of production depending on the month. Caitlin O’Shaughnessy said she had three currently. And Laura Tisdel mentioned there seems to be gluts of manuscripts that arrive around the holidays (November) and the end of the school year. So maybe try an off-peak time if you want more attention.

What is the difference between “literary” and “commercial” fiction?

This is one of those things that’s difficult to put your finger on but you know it when you see (read) it, I think. David Ebershoff said literary works show greater care in the crafting of the prose and the sentences. Alex Logan said that commercial fiction is often genre fiction and plot driven rather than character driven.

What is the process for acquiring a manuscript?

In pretty much every case the editors put forth, there is some kind of meeting involved, either an editorial meeting or acquisitions board meeting in which editors nominate and make a case for a book they’d like to acquire for the publisher. At the end of the day, many people must say yes before a book is acquired.

Do you ever get tired of seeing the same kinds of stories (forms, genres) over and over?

Lauren Spiegel said that the one good thing about that is it means when you do see something fresh, you notice right away. It stands out against the backdrop of all the others. Alex Logan said that seeing a lot of the same kinds of stuff means the agents at least know what you’re looking for—and again, it means that the really good stuff rises above the rest by comparison.

Why attend a conference filled with writers if you don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts?

Laura Tisdel says that they find giving the new writers the tools now—the information about editors and publishers—saves time and frustration later. Plus, they go to conferences to get away from the isolation of their work, to see each other and agents they normally wouldn’t see . . . And to escape the cold and snow in New York.

What mistakes or traits make a manuscript “unsellable”?

Too long. Because writers don’t consider what it means all the way through the publishing process to have a book that is 900 pages. The cost to print and bind and ship books that size . . . If only eight fit in a box instead of twelve, that ups the cost. If you need special paper so the spine won’t come unglued or unstitched, that costs more. [As an aside, I used to work in textbook publishing and remember long conversations with manufacturing about how to make “special needs” books work within budget.] Martin Biro did point out the word counts are often dependent on genre; romances are shorter than epic fantasy novels.

And of course bad writing won’t sell, either.