Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Agents who tweet

I wrote a novel.

It was glorious, it was exciting, it was an adventure. When it was all over, I set out to find an agent so I could be rich and famous and have my book brought to life on the big screen.

Know what I was peddling? 170,000 words of purplish fiction with no genre and a plot so complicated it took more than a page to describe. Because I'm an idiot, I immediately threw together a hyped-up, cliche-filled query and sent it to every agent on the planet. I seriously went from 'the end' to 'hope to hear from you soon' in about four hours. Although I did get a request for a partial, the other responses were rejections. Surprise, surprise.

Working backwards, I started researching the publishing process after sending my queries. I bought a stack of books, scoured the Internet for helpful websites and read every blog I could find on the subject. I learned a lot, answered a few more requests for partials, but was still missing something.

The responses I was getting were personal no-thank-you notes. Sometimes, those hurt more than form rejections. It was like spraining an ankle right in front of the finish line. My writing was great, my dialogue was great, my premise was wonderful (lots of praise on that one), but none of the agents were in love with it enough to represent it.

An amazing resource for writers, from Chuck Sambuchino, directed me to Katelynn Lacopo of BookEnds LLC, whose bio directed me to Twitter. There I found a gazillion tweeting agents sharing hilarious bits of wisdom about the industry. It was a goldmine.

Tweets about what not to say in a query, how to turn off an agent, what agenting life is like and all sorts of aspects I never thought to investigate were chirping across my screen. These women, these smart, sarcastic, sharp as tacks women made everything so simple. I'm still astounded at how much more I learned from a few weeks on Twitter than from thousands of published pages.

My book has been rewritten, now wrapping up at below 100,000 words. I've chopped countless adverbs and adjectives that were taking up space and weighing the story down. Descriptions that went on forever, characters with no purpose, extraneous plot lines and unnecessary scenes were dumped in my recycle bin. What it really came down to was a strong, simple plot and a small cast of characters I love dearly.

While I may never master the art of the query (I get twitchy just thinking about it), I think I understand it better now. What's your story about? Forget descriptions, forget adjectives. Tell the agent the basics of your story. Pique their interest, share your excitement with them in clear, concise terms and polish it up 'til it shines. At least, that's what I'm trying to do.

The agents I follow are amazing people. They're mothers, wives, roommates, Brooklynites, vegetarians, cat people and closet comedians. I feel like the smelly kid on the playground, admiring the popular girls and wishing I could wrap hair with them. Wow. That dates me, doesn't it? Life was easier when we were kids and could say "Can I play with you?" without being slapped with a restraining order.

Enough rambling. Follow agents on Twitter. Follow their advice. You'll be a better writer for it.

My favorites (some are actually editors or other publishing people): WolfsonLiterary, ColleenLindsay, Sjaejones, Elanaroth, DaphneUn, Bradfordlit, Literaticat, Janet_Reid, Moonrat, Hroot, Sztownsend81, and (of course) KatelynnLacopo.

Oh, and SueCollini. You'll see what I mean.

An afterthought: If anyone mentioned in this post would like me to remove their name, please let me know. I'm a nice person, I swear.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Marketing My Nuts

I finally watched 'Julie & Julia' last night. I perched my laptop on the breakfast bar in my kitchen and played the DVD while I made cookies and watched the snow fall. Meryl Streep presents a thoroughly believable Julia Child, and Amy Adams is intensely likable as Julie Powell. That said, the move left me incensed.

While Julie Powell's struggle for publication was longer than Stephenie Meyer's highly publicised six month from-dream-to-contract Cinderella story, her actual moment of glory was like the flick of a light switch. A phone call and a dinner date resulted in an answering machine message marathon of offers from agents and publishers.

It may have been glossed over for Hollywood, but all the sheep out there watched her fool around with her husband to the music on her answering machine and thought "Hey, I can do that!" I guaran-damn-tee you there are hundreds (if not thousands) of queries floating in cyberspace that only exist because of 'Julie & Julia'.

I won't lie and say I wouldn't love for my book to be the next Twilight, but I'm trying to be realistic. I'm pretty sure I have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting a seven-figure deal for my debut novel. Trust me, it's more depressing than it sounds.

Let me get all metaphorical on you for a minute. In 1895, John Harvey Kellog grinds up peanuts to make a high quality, vegetarian protein source for nutjobs in a sanatorium. Peanut butter is born.

In rural Arkansas, Mama Legume makes peanut butter because she loves the process. Her folks taught her to pull up plants and find peanuts, to roast them with sea salt and grind them into a fabulously fragrant concoction. She bottles it up, slaps on a label featuring her charming little logo and gives it to lucky loved ones at Christmas time. Enraptured with her own product, and given glowing reviews from everyone who tries it, she decides to try and market Mama Legume's All-Natural Peanut Paste.

At the same time she perfects her recipe, along comes Peter Pan, pasting his face all over jars of peanut butter and mass marketing it to the American housefrau. Joe Rosefield adds vegetable oil and makes his PB less likely to seperate, giving birth to Skippy. It's rationed to soldiers, striped with grape jelly in jars of Goober, and some dude in Kentucky sells his recipe to Proctor & Gamble and they rename it Jif. Everyone loves peanut butter.

Every Tom, Dick and Harry is grinding up his own version, hoping to capitalize on the wildly popular fad.

Mama Legume's dreams are pureed. Her product is no longer unique. With so many jars of bread spread to choose from, Madame Housefrau has her work cut out for her at the grocery store. Instead of comparing a jar of Mama Legume in one hand to a bottle of J. H. Kellog's Looney Food in the other, she's now scanning over a wall of nut butter labels for one that pops out at her. The most visually appealing packaging is the one that will garner a taste test. Maybe she'll pick more than one just to be safe. Thanks to the influx of contestants, Mama Legume's All-Natural Peanut Paste will get no more than a passing glance unless she can come up with a stunning label and completely convincing tagline.

Oh, and let's ignore the anonymity factor. Housefrau zips through the copy on the labels and sees recognizable company names like Smucker's and Heinz, and Mama Legume's backyard nut farm starts to look questionable.

There you have it. With all these highly successful authors making millions off their first publications, the volume of queries in agents' inboxes has exploded. My nuts are on a shelf filled with other writers' nuts, and getting a fraction of the attention they would have received a few years ago. Even when an agent is interested enough to taste a spoonful of chapters, I'm still just one of dozens of jars on her taste-test list. Poor Madame Agent is tasting so much literary butter these days, she has less and less time for palate cleansing between bites.

My product is in the queues of several agents in varying serving sizes. I'm anxiously- I mean, patiently waiting to hear back from them. At this point, I've taken it back to the drawing board, and am working on improving my offering and building a reputable brand name before I exhaust the tastebuds of too many agents.

Basically, I want to make sure my nuts are spectacular, so I won't have to rely on a fancy wrapper to get noticed much longer.