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literary agent

Question of the Month: Big Picture Edits

by Susan Henderson on August 5, 2013

How are you with feedback? Do edits on your writing leave you feeling crushed or excited? Defensive or freed up to look at something from new angles and with new life?

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My agent is now the one and only person who has read my new manuscript, and while I was braced for criticism, I found, as I usually do, the whole process of feedback and big picture edits to be hugely fun and creative. Part of what I love best about getting his feedback is that he’s not a soft editor. He’s not afraid to kick the legs out from under the table and give me ideas that might require re-thinking the entire shape of the work.

But, bless him, he always begins with the strengths, or what creates the bedrock of the story for him—in this case, the world of the story (“It’s a spectacularly drawn landscape—physically and emotionally.”), the main character (“I love her and the way she interacts with dead bodies.”),  and two key characters (“Their relationship, their history, their rootedness to the town, each other, and the main character are perfect.”). This all helps build my confidence and my sense of what’s working.

But the important part for me is what comes next—What’s not working for him? Where and how can I make this book better? And so we spent a lot of time talking about the story’s villain (“His personality is too outsized for the story. He overwhelms the landscape. He’s not sympathetic.”) My villain, as he helped me to understand, is kind of like a Marvel Comic Book supervillain trying to fit into a Carson McCullers story. And so we talked about this character and why he doesn’t seem to fit, and how this problem creates other problems with my plot and my main character.

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I have pages of notes from our talk—notes of what I can explore more deeply, where I should slow down, and all kinds of tangents and questions and challenges. This is all thrilling to me! My mind feels on fire, re-imagining my story with these new questions in mind and this new blast of energy.

And here’s the thing… I wouldn’t have thought of any of these things. If I took two more years to edit this book, I would peck away at the sentences and trail off into interesting quirks and backstories, but I wouldn’t have taken this turn. While I sensed there was something I couldn’t put my finger on that the book was lacking, I didn’t realize how much of it radiated from a villain who isn’t organic to this setting.

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Getting feedback that inspires (rather than crushes or stunts or angers) takes having the right reader. And it takes trust. Trust that you and your early-reader can both take risks, be open to wild brainstorming, try out ideas that may fail spectacularly. I am grateful to have this kind of supportive but challenging feedback and psyched to get back to work. I can’t even slow down the new ideas, they’re coming in such a rush!

So talk to me. Tell me your experience with edits and editors, the good and the bad!

Let me close with some thank you’s: to June Sundet (The June Blog) and camillaho for kind words about UP FROM THE BLUE, to the chaperones on my sons’ AllStar tour for offering such love and care to the kids, and to the parents of MIT students who reached out to me to offer help and friendship for the journey that lies ahead.

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P.S. I had posted this a month or two ago on FaceBook but I thought I’d post it here, as well. It’s that important to me. I know I’m a little unusual in the way I use FaceBook and email, but for me, private messages are solely for my family and people directly involved with publishing my work (i.e., my agent, editor, and publicist). Everything else, including congratulations, questions about the business, requests for help, condolences, small talk and deep talk, belong in the public domain (in comment threads on my FaceBook wall or here at LitPark). Otherwise, I can’t keep up with all these many ways for people to reach me, and it causes me more stress than you could possibly know.

Here is how I said it on FaceBook:

A note about how I use FaceBook: I don’t read or respond to private messages. I do, however, enjoy interacting with everyone in the comments sections on my page. If you need to contact me for any professional reasons (interviews, blurbs, etc.), please go through my literary agent at Writer’s House. Thanks!

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Question of the Month: Childhood Obsessions

by Susan Henderson on July 1, 2013

What were you obsessed with as a child?

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Part of what I loved about writing my new book was delving into old obsessions. When I was in elementary school, I loved looking through my mom’s nursing books with the often gruesome drawings of deformities and diseases. Sometimes, she took me to her nursing classrooms, where I remembered looking at human fetuses in jars and stacks of stiff cats in clear plastic bags.

When I was in middle school, I became obsessed with one of the authors on my mother’s bookshelf, Richard Selzer, who made surgery seem like poetry. I loved to read about the instruments, the cuts, the problems that couldn’t be fixed, the torment and wisdom of both doctor and patient.

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All the while, my father would talk to me about the work he and his colleagues did at DARPA, the Pentagon, and the various colleges and institutions where he consulted. He told me about ARPANET, missiles, microchips, robots that tried to balance on one leg, digital speech, computers that might one day think, unmanned vehicles, robots that could go into dangerous places and try to fix the damage.

When I applied to college, I fully expected that I would one day be a biomedical engineer, something that combined so much of what had been swirling around me and piquing my interest for years. But after discovering the shock of my own limited brain and hopping through a handful of majors, I realized it was the stories of these things that fascinated me, not the idea of doing them myself.

As I stared at the blank page and wondered what my second book would be about, I found myself wandering back to these early obsessions with surgery and with the minds of inventors moving beyond what was known or what was even likely to be successful. I went back and read Richard Selzer’s books and found him even more fantastic than my memories (that doesn’t happen very often!) and suddenly, in fiction, I was able to go where I had failed in real life.

I will leave my story there for now. I’m still waiting to hear from my agent on the manuscript and looking forward to (and also fearing) his response. I know many of you know the feeling!

Okay, your turn. Let’s hear your stories of childhood obsessions, and which ones are still alive in you today?

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Some thank you’s: The Writer magazine, for including my thoughts in the July and August issues, and De Woordenregen.

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Announcement: Someone interviewed me for a change.

by Susan Henderson on November 23, 2008

No blogging for me until the new year (except for in the comments section, where you can always reach and distract me). But I do want to point you to an interview I did with the lovely and talented Jordan Rosenfeld. She asked about the courage and stamina required of writers, and I’d love to hear how you‘d respond to her questions.

The interview is here.

Jordan very generously made this interview available via the link because I asked her to, but truthfully, her interviews are part of a newsletter, and it would be a nice gesture to Jordan if you subscribed to that FREE newsletter by clicking right here. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

For kicks, I’m posting this photo that those of you who have access to my MySpace pictures may have already seen. The cute one is my good friend and soccer teammate, Kenny. Part of what cracks me up about this photo is my rained-on hair and the cerebral palsy pose – one more reminder not to take myself too seriously. The cool thing about the photo, though, is the other reminder – that my best friends accept me, flaws and all.

Oh! Almost forgot. The same Jordan who interviewed me is also a fabulous freelance editor, and she’s seeking new clients who need developmental editing for fiction and non-fiction projects. Her strengths are in helping clients with narrative structure, pacing, plot-development, and the big picture issues of character development and overall dramatic tension. I highly recommend her!

Some news about past guests at LitPark: AN ILLUSTRATED LIFE just went on sale. Gorgeous and fascinating, and it features Danny Gregory and Tommy Kane. Hope I get it for Christmas. And Greg Logsted (Lauren‘s husband) has launched his debut YA novel, SOMETHING HAPPENED. If you buy either of these books and like them, tell people! Word of mouth is everything in the life of a book.

Okay, that’s it for today.

Thanks to everyone who stopped by. And thanks to everyone who linked to LitPark this month: Innovo Publishing, Blogging For Apples, Huffington Post, Enrico Casarosa, Italian Woman at the Table, largeheartedboy, Elevate the Ordinary, Brad Listi . Com, Bliggidy Blog, The Debutante Ball, The Nervous Breakdown, Inside-Out China, Notes From the Handbasket, Emerging Writers Network, Perpetual Folly, Upstate Girl, Jordan’s Muse, Kelley Bell’s FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, Endless Knots, Making it up, In Her Own Write, Satin Black, Biscuit Cream, Twilight Spy, Daryl Ebneezra Kadabra, Read by Myfanwy, Side Dish, and Annette Hyder’s Ad Libitum (new blog alert for poets and feminists). I appreciate those links!

I’m heading to Virginia on Wednesday to spend Thanksgiving with my folks. Enjoy the holidays!

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Dan Conaway, Literary Agent (part 1)

by Susan Henderson on October 29, 2008

Dan Conaway has been Executive Editor at Putnam, Executive Editor at HarperCollins, Director of Literary Acquisitions at PolyGram Films, Story Editor at Citadel/HBO, Creative Executive at Tribeca Films, and Associate Editor at W.W. Norton. While at HarperCollins, he gained a big following as the anonymous blogger, known as Mad Max Perkins, of BookAngst 101. Now he’s an agent at Writers House, an agency that represents such authors as Stephenie Meyer, Neil Gaiman, Ken Follett, Nora Roberts, Stephen Hawking, Barry Eisler, Ridley Pearson, Christopher PaoliniM.J. Rose, Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants!), and Jim Sheeler (2008 National Book Award nominee).

Dan is not seeking new clients at this time. So chat with him here, send him oatmeal raisin cookies if you like, but please don’t send manuscripts. Got it?

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Does a writer really need an agent?

Yes.

Absolutely.

Categorically.

On second thought—no. If the writer doesn’t care particularly about publishing her book? Or only cares that it gets published, as opposed to caring how it’s published? And isn’t especially concerned about publishing more than one book? That writer doesn’t need an agent.

Want a potentially sustainable career as a writer, though? Absolutely, categorically yes.

What about those who’ve sold their manuscripts on their own? Do they need an agent?

Let’s imagine you’re a terrifically fortunate individual licensed to operate a motor vehicle in the State of New Jersey. And one day, as result of your good fortune, nasty Aunt Trudi—who you were nice to, for reasons unbeknownst to me—chokes, and croaks, on account of a chicken bone. And, lo and behold, that turquoise 1957 Cadillac convertible she’s had up on blocks all these years is yours!

OK, I have no idea whether the ’57 Caddy came in turquoise, nor whether it sported the elegant tailfins I see so clearly on nasty Aunt Trudi’s. But let’s agree that it’s a lovely car, and valuable too, and something you’re probably not going to leave unlocked overnight on a side-street of Newark or Jersey City. Above all, let’s assume that, now that you own it, you’re going to want to drive it.

So let me ask you this, O Fortunate One: Is it your hope that this car will be your car, still, in a year? Two years? That, five years from now, you’ll still be able to turn the key and have that massive V-8 engine come roaring to life? Or is it your view that, since you got the car for free, you are free, also, of the obligation of having it serviced? Is it your intention simply to drive it hard, until it dies—and your expectation that, when it does, you’ll happily collect your thermos and snow-scraper from under the passenger seat, say one last goodbye to nasty Aunt Trudi, and shed nary a tear for the future sunset drives along the Hudson that might have been?

Okay, nut. And that means…?

What I’m saying is that negotiating an advance is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the value an agent can bring to a writer’s career; and the writer who manages to sell her book without an agent almost certainly loses more in the long run than the 15% she saves in commissions on that initial contract. (But even in terms of finances: most unagented authors sign away all sorts of rights—translation rights, film rights, and so forth—that an agent would reserve and sell separately, rights that can, and often do, generate as much or more income for a writer as whatever that initial offer would have been worth.)

People do, sometimes, have sustained careers without agents, but it’s more and more rare, and if (as happens sometimes) the editor who championed an unagented novel gets a new job at Little, Brown before that novel is published, the unagented author is most often shit-out-of-luck. An agent has leverage (simplistically, because he has multiple clients, clients the publisher may covet) within a house that an unagented author can’t match. Thus, for instance, the orphaned author with an agent is almost always going to be better cared for than she who is without.

So what should you do if, as in the fantasy, an editor finds your story in a small quarterly somewhere, gets in touch with you, reads your novel, loves your novel, and offers (say) $2,500 or $25,000 for that novel? You should say, Thanks—but before I accept, I need an agent—who do you recommend?

In as few words as you can, what’s the difference between an agent, an editor, a publisher, and a publicist? Can you, for example, skip the agent and replace him or her with a publicist?

Let me start with the easiest first: choosing a publicist instead of an agent is like hiring your kid’s ballet teacher to drive a back-hoe. What publicists know (and do) is focused entirely on the last quadrant of the book’s life, whereas what an agent does is spread out across the entire process, weighing in on many decisions along the way that can, sometimes, help ensure that a book doesn’t wind up shipping, say, 2500 copies. There’s no guarantee that staying on top of those small details will result in a great publication, but—well, no amount of publicity in the world is going to rescue a book that’s shipped 2500 copies.

I’m sure there are a thousand how-to books that can give this sort of information more concisely, but basically ALL of these people function, at different times and in different ways, as the traveling salesmen and –women who bring your book to market.

Agent sells to editor. Editor sells to editor’s boss, known typically as the publisher or the editor-in-chief. Publisher and editor jointly sell to various in-house departments—sales, marketing, subsidiary rights, publicity. Those departments then turn the selling back out-of-house, to their respective areas of responsibility (bookstores, reviewers, book clubs, foreign publishers), all toward the end (in principle) of generating increasing levels of enthusiasm for your book. The publicist is the last link in this chain, the person whose job it is (in principle) to convey to the outside world an image of a raging mass of in-house enthusiasm so great that any clueless member of the reviewing / reporting / interviewing / taste-making caste who isn’t on board NOW, in advance of the riot about to erupt in Cell-block E (E for Excitement!) is going to be a laughingstock in two weeks’ time.

See how simple?

And what about the “author sells to agent” phase—can you talk about that?

The writer’s gotta write the best and most perfect and most convincingly true iteration of the story s/he wants to tell, tell it so well that, sooner or later, after five tries or fifty, and despite enormous odds, it sneaks past the various subjective and institutional armors and defenses—circumstance & exhaustion & taste & (etc)—and plants a big fat arrow in the center of the bulls-eye with at least one single reader—and that’s how an agent becomes your agent: through alchemy.

Very rarely do first-time writers working in (let’s call it) literary fiction and nonfiction have any real marketable assets beyond what’s on the page. So usually it doesn’t comes down to whether somebody is or isn’t prepared to purchase 50,000 copies of your story collection to distribute via infomercial, does or doesn’t spend summers with Katie Couric’s nanny’s boyfriend. Usually it comes down to the chemical reaction that takes place when a particular set of eyes becomes eradiated by a particular manuscript that sets the synapses firing in a different way.

With a straight face, I’m going to ask: Do you edit your clients’ manuscripts? And do most agents mark them up with so much (truly illegible) ink?

Every agent’s different in this regard, and I probably spill more ink than most, but, yeah: generally authors should expect to get substantial editorial feedback from their agents. The more work a writer’s willing to do pre-submission, the better the chances are of the book selling, so I tend to push pretty hard if the author’s amenable. Once a book’s been sold, though, the agent needs to take a backseat to the acquiring editor.

One big difference between the editing I do now compared to when I was an editor is the work I do helping authors develop their nonfiction proposals, which is some of the most demanding and satisfying work I’ve ever done. It’s fascinating, actually, to be so intimately involved with figuring out what a book is really going to be about, how the story’s going to be told, addressing all sorts of questions that hadn’t ever really occurred to me before. You’d think that there’s a cookie-cutter formula for a good nonfiction proposal, but there’s not, and each arrives at its shape in completely different ways. I love it.

How does a writer begin the search for an agent?

The obvious stuff: have a reasonable sense of what your work might reasonably be compared to, then familiarize yourself with those works, then extract from the acknowledgments pages of those books (or from Michael Cader’s Publishers Marketplace) the identity of the agents for those books. And then figure out how to get to them. A blind query letter addressed to “Dear Michael Chabon’s Agent” is perhaps not the best way to go—but it’s a small world, even more so thanks to the literary blogosphere, so with a little dogged ingenuity there’s almost always some friend-of-a-friend access to be had that might improve you chances.

And what are some signs along the way that the search is going well?

I have no way to gauge that, honestly. If you send out a hundred query letters and 10 people say, Sure, send it along, I’d guess that’s a pretty good start. If the rejections when they come contain some specificity, that’s better than none, suggests that you’re connecting at some level. But there’s no way around it, this is a hard process. If there were a technique for distancing yourself from the responses you get, a Zen pill that allows you not to take it personally—but there’s not, of course.

The thing to remember is how profoundly subjective the experience of reading is; and for the most part it’s no less subjective for agents and editors than for anybody else. My personal experience, both as an editor and now as an agent, is that every single time I’ve tried to ignore my gut instincts about the writing itself (that is, every time I’ve decided pursue something I didn’t really love), or to convince myself that a topic was interesting to me even if I didn’t have a visceral (positive) reaction to the words as they lay on the page, it was a mistake. Consequently I pass on lots and lots of competent, professional, publishable stuff. And that’s how it should be. If that’s how I see your work, you don’t want me to offer to represent you. You want the guy who’s blown away by it. “I think this is publishable” is too low a bar.

If agents are so hard to come by, should a writer dare to be picky?

Absolutely. The only thing worse than no agent is an agent you don’t trust or who you suspect doesn’t love your work. The relationship between agent and writer is like marriage except without the sex. It’s often intense, and personal on all kinds of levels, and it requires enormous amounts of trust.

One thing I’d recommend: before you sign with an agent, ask around, find out who else he represents, what they think of him. Don’t be afraid to ask the agent for names and numbers of clients whose work is in the same writerly universe as yours. If he’s offended by the request then you don’t want him as your agent. It’s that simple.

Anything particularly concern you about the relationships writers have with their agents?

Here’s a thing I see too much of: writers who are afraid of their agents. Hey, folks, the agent works for you! Without you, without your “product” to sell, there’s no business, no commissions, nothing. It breaks my fucking heart, the number of times I hear actual adults in this business worrying about imposing on their agents. If you’re afraid of your agent, you need a new agent. You need to get back in therapy, too—but that’s another conversation.

If you think about the collection of query letters and manuscripts you’ve rejected, what would you say they had in common?

Here’s the thing: there are no reliable tricks. I did a presentation on query letters at a writers conference in Austin 15 months ago, and one old fucker stormed out when I told my classroom of retirees that the only part of a query letter that ever makes a difference is damn good writing. He got further incensed when I told him that a long letter’s a waste of both our time, since I know most of what I need to know about a writer’s chops in about a line and half. In the end it’s all about the writing.

If you look at the work you’ve accepted, what would you say it had in common?

I loved it. Loved something about it absolutely. I don’t mean it was perfect, it doesn’t have to be perfect, nothing’s ever perfect—if you think people are turning down your work because it’s not quite perfect, you’re deluding yourself, because an editor or an agent likes nothing better than finding something that’s wonderful but not quite “there” yet, something that they can make a bit of a contribution to.

I’m relatively new to agenting (I joined Writers House about 18 months ago) so perhaps this’ll change—but at present I’m still green enough to imagine that if I love something, somebody else is going to love it too. Which is another way of saying that if I love it then it doesn’t occur to me that I can’t sell it, regardless of the limitations, say, of the genre to which it belongs. And that’s why, sooner or later, I will sell it.

If you look at the work you accepted but couldn’t sell, what would you say it had in common? What happens to the wonderful people with promising manuscripts you find unsellable?

So far, the stuff I’ve been unable to sell—with one exception—has been stuff that was outside my wheelhouse, projects aimed at markets I have no personal experience in, or stuff I chose with my brain rather than with my heart. Failing to sell a book is an exhausting and demoralizing process for any agent, and infinitely more so, of course, for the author. And it’s for those worst-case scenarios, especially, that it’s so important that you trust your agent, that you’re confident that your agent really believes in your work; conversely, it’s because of these circumstances that I know more and more clearly that it’s a mistake for me to agree to take on somebody’s work unless I’m completely crazy about it.

If I am completely crazy for it? Then we’ll succeed, sooner or later—if later, then perhaps we’ll have put to good use some of the feedback from editors who’ve rejected it, nuggets that help us determine a course of revision that might help address a flaw we’d missed the first time around. Back in January ’08 I began submitting a novel that straddles genres and is hard to categorize—a book I’d have loved to publish as an editor, and something I expected I’d sell for a lot of money. Six, seven months later, after 61 rejections and one substantial revision, I finally put it in the right editor’s hands, and she fell in love with the book in the same way I had.

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Okay, guys, jump in with your comments. And then check out Part 2 of this interview….

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