Monday, February 26, 2007

Lauren Abramo talks about our book club (yes, we really have one).

We’ve mentioned a few times that one important aspect of the business of writing is understanding your category. Of course, writers aren’t the only ones who need to keep abreast of the trends and fluxes in the marketplace. As agents, it’s important that we have a good sense of what’s out there—what’s working, what’s not, what might be coming down the pipeline, and who’s publishing what books and why. We’d love to be familiar with every book that an author or editor might mention to us, but with the phone calls to make, e-mails to answer, submissions to send out, contracts to vet, and towering piles to read, it sometimes feels like trying to keep up with the market is a Sisyphean task.

Still, we here at DGLM take a good stab at it through regular book club meetings. Sometimes, like a traditional book club, we all read the same book and come back to talk about it. On other occasions, we all read different books that have something in common: recent bestsellers, forthcoming books with a lot of buzz, paranormal romance, etc. After we’ve all read our selections, we convene to pitch the books to the group, talk about where we thought they succeeded and failed, report on how well they’re doing, and ultimately, try to assess whether we would have recognized them for the saleable projects they turned out to be if they’d shown up in the slush piles. Hopefully the answer is yes, but sometimes we have to admit that we’d have missed out on a great opportunity.

For our most recent book club, we all read Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. It inspired a lively discussion of what we liked and didn’t about this particular book, but it also lead us into a conversation about the trend toward the co-opting of classics for new material. Setterfield isn’t the only one mining our literary heritage to great success, and we only need to look at the scores of Jane Austen updates to see that.

Sometimes, if we’re really lucky, book club turns out to be great exposure to a market that we didn’t know we’d love. Thanks to Jim’s suggestion of paranormal romance for one of our book clubs, I’m now a big fan of a category I hadn’t read before.

On the best occasions, book club books are passed around after the meeting, with everyone jumping to read something that got a glowing report from one of our colleagues. They can be a great source of recommendations for reading for pleasure, which we try to do as often as we can—though, as most people in publishing can probably attest—not nearly as often as we’d like.

Sadly, the books we read are sometimes universally disappointing, and, snarky bunch that we are, book club becomes a time for sharing the honest truth about the dreadful material we’ve slogged through. For one book club before my time, I’m told that everyone so hated their books that many couldn’t even bring themselves to finish them

One of the most entertaining book clubs we’ve had in my time here was when we were charged with coming up with a book published in the last ten years that had left a lasting impact. We then drew out of a hat to read someone else’s choice and were reminded just how subjective the reading process can be. Not ones to sugarcoat our literary opinions, the book club reports were as funny as they were harsh, and no one’s favorite was left completely unscathed. It was a valuable experience both because we expanded our literary horizons and because we got a better sense of each other as readers—which is helpful in knowing just who to pass along a manuscript to if we think it’s got potential but just don’t love it.

Book club expands our understanding of the market and helps us to keep abreast of what’s out there. It forces us to really think about our selection process and challenges us to evaluate whether or not we’re likely to miss out on something that can really work.

Also, it’s just plain entertaining, and after a long day of phone calls, emails, submissions, contracts and reading piles, it’s nice to sit down to some good honest literary critique, with a healthy side of snark.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Adina Kahn addresses film rights and adaptation

Every so often I receive a query letter from a writer that begins with something like: “I see that you have a background in film production, and I think my manuscript would make a terrific movie.” Understandably, many writers start seeing dollar signs at the mere mention of their books being optioned for film. But while it is smart to keep an open mind about film rights, it is a mistake to write your book for both the publishing world and Hollywood.

For one thing, producers and literary agents focus on different things when evaluating whether or not to take on a project. Producers are often drawn to screenplays that can be summarized in a concise logline, one sentence that describes the entire story in a straightforward and uncomplicated manner. If a story cannot be summed up in one sentence, a filmmaker might assume that it is too complex for the mere two hour span they have to communicate the story. There are certain things that an author can spend time on that a screenwriter cannot. Time constraints may limit a screenwriter from delving into a character’s back story. In order to leave room for development, there are usually a limited number of central characters in the story (this also makes casting easier). And budget constraints can limit the number of locations in which scenes can occur.

As an agent, I value concise and well-written query letters, but I’m not able determine my interest in a book after reading a one-sentence description. Authors have fewer limitations when writing, and that is something to take advantage of. There are less constraints preventing a writer from having their story take place anywhere or anyhow they want.

For me, the film version of THE DA VINCI CODE exemplifies the possible limitations when adapting a book into a movie. The most fascinating aspects of THE DA VINCI CODE were the complex back story, various conspiracies and numerous people involved in the murder mystery. If Dan Brown had been writing his book for the sole purpose of getting it made into a movie, he might have left out all of the wonderful detail that made his book so popular. You should always write the book for the reader, not to impress a producer. If your book is as successful as Dan Brown’s, it is highly probable that it will be optioned for film anyway (even if it is not entirely suited for that kind of treatment, and in my opinion THE DA VINCI CODE was not).

One of my favorite things about a good book is the ability to enter the mind of the narrator and hear his or her thoughts. Movies use voice-overs to achieve this purpose and I find that they are an overused and often trite device. While it is true that some books do not interest producers because too much of the narrative takes place inside the protagonist’s head, it would be a shame if authors consistently chose action packed scenes over character development in order to make the material more viable for film.

Of course, we’ll always work with authors to make sure the appropriate producers see the material we represent. But I do advise writers to focus on getting their masterpiece into a bookstore and put their grand plans for feature film on hold until they are published.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Miriam Goderich on "Taking Criticism"

I hate it when I’m wrong. My type-A tendencies and absolute certainty that I know everything are not a good combination when it comes to taking criticism. Soon after I started working with Jane Dystel (sometime in the Paleozoic Era) she pointed out to me that my editorial memos were mean. I was affronted. I was trying to help authors by giving them the benefit of my brilliant insights and I really didn’t have time to soft-soap my comments! I’m sure Jane was laughing internally when she suggested that maybe I should start my missives with a positive comment or two about the work and then offer my honest opinion in a thoughtful, sensitive way without showing off or trying to make the recipient feel like a no-talent slob. She was right, of course, and I learned that if the goal is to have an author improve his/her work, I needed to be nicer when I offered my feedback. Jane made me realize that we are more likely to digest and respond well to criticism if it’s offered with kindness and sensitivity rather than relish and disdain. It was, for me, an invaluable lesson.

The fact is that a big and important part of our job as agents is to offer constructive criticism that will take a proposal or manuscript to the level it needs to be at in order to maximize our chances of selling it. All of us here at DGLM spend a great deal of time on our clients’ projects helping authors to clearly communicate their message, smooth over rough prose, beef up a weak marketing section, etc. Sometimes, it’s our unpleasant task to tell someone that their work is simply not good enough and that no amount of fixing is going to change that.

In my experience, the best, most talented authors are the ones who take their criticism neat. They knock it back with a big gulp, thank you for your time and effort in reviewing and critiquing their materials, take a little while to process what you’ve told them, and do their best to incorporate your comments and suggestions into that piece of fiction or nonfiction they thought was perfect when they sent it in to you with the expectation that you’d be able to immediately sell it for six figures. These authors put their egos and bruised pride aside (no matter how successful they are) and get to work. They ask follow-up questions and evenly discuss why they think they might or might not agree with one or more of your edits. The result, more often than not, is a much improved proposal or manuscript that has a much better shot at the big time and an author who is genuinely grateful for the help.

Then there are those authors who never get past their anger and disappointment and whose reactions range from the merely childish, “I’m taking my marbles and going elsewhere,” to the unprofessional, “You suck and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Recently, an author suggested that both his editor (someone who’d been successfully plying her craft for over a decade) and I were mistaken in our critique of his work, strongly implying that neither one of us had understood his category well enough to be able to comment intelligently on his novel. His words were offensive in a way that our criticism had not been. We were both trying to help him.

I sincerely believe that authors (or any artist for that matter) must be able to defend their vision of and approach to their work. But, they should also have the ability (and humility) to look at the manuscript they’ve slaved away on for months or years and see it as a living, evolving thing that is never going to be absolutely perfect and that will probably benefit from an informed and caring review. They should also understand that in this agent/client partnership it’s in no one’s interest to purposely give bad advice and that only a sadist takes pleasure in inflicting pain. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that knowing how to take criticism with grace is an indicator of success in our business. It’s often what separates those who have thriving writing careers and those who just sit around darkly muttering over their rejection letters.

Almost twenty years after that enlightening conversation with Jane, I’ve figured out that I don’t, in fact, know everything, and so I rely on instinct, experience, my skills as a lifelong, passionate reader, and hard-earned knowledge of our business when I offer authors criticism of their work. The whole point is to sell their novel or nonfiction and to set them on the path to successful writing careers. Ultimately, we, as agents, don’t succeed unless our clients do.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Jim McCarthy talks about writers' conferences

I’ve been to a dozen or so writers’ conferences over the past few years. A lot of attendees ask why I go. It’s a fair question. We’re not hurting for submissions. That week when I get back and find one or two dozen partial and full manuscripts? That week is rough. But the fact of the matter is that we have a good track record finding new talent at the conferences. Besides that, given how much misinformation floats around, I like being able to answer people’s questions honestly and put a face to the concept of an agent. And an excuse for random travel!

All conferences are not created equal, though. Many are geared exclusively to beginners. Some are kept purposefully small to keep advice and information targeted. Others are sprawling events with an impressive breadth of information available. And then, of course, there are those specifically geared to a particular genre. Given the amount of cash you’re often asked to lay out for these events, it’s worth doing some research to find out which are worth attending for your specific needs. Whether you’re trying to figure out how this crazy industry works, you want to workshop your erotica, or you need a class on how to handle taxes as an author, there is something out there for you. Check out the websites for a bunch of writers’ groups and see if they run their own events or if the members often go to the same conferences. You can usually find someone to drop a line and see if they can answer some questions about a particular event’s quality and specialties.

If you’re attending a conference to pitch your project, let me share a few pointers from the other side of the table:

Many of us are nice. So try not to worry too much. I know, you can’t help but be nervous, but the worst we can do is say we’re not interested in something. We probably won’t insult the work or put you down. You want your project to be front and center in our minds—not the fact that you can’t stop sweating.

Plan what you want to say, but don’t over-rehearse! The scripted pitch is awkward. Chances are you’re still nervous, so you’re going to sound stiff or drop a line. Approach it like a conversation, which is what it should be.

Don’t pitch in the bathroom! No one (seriously, no one) wants to be pitched when they have no means of egress. There is NOTHING more horrifying than a manuscript under a stall door except for maybe a pitch at a urinal. It has happened. It was not pretty.

Be polite. Sounds easy, no? Try explaining that to the woman who opened her pitch to me with, “So how long have you been in publishing. I mean, obviously you’re no spring chicken, but…” I have no idea what she said after that. None. But I do know that my next pitch started with, “You seriously looked like you were going to hit that lady.” Of the two, you can guess whose manuscript I asked for.

But don’t be too polite. A lot of us are from New York. If you’re overly friendly, we might get scared. For example: someone once asked if I wanted a mint. I declined. She offered me a bottle of water. There was a pitcher on the table. She offered me hot chocolate. No joke. At this point, she opened her bag which had enough snacks and beverages (including thermoses of tea and coffee) to feed the entire conference. I know she meant well. I do. But…kinda creepy, no?

Long story short: you can get a lot out of conferences if you choose wisely. Maybe you’ll get an agent. Maybe you’ll get some good writing tips. I’ve heard lots of success stories (and horror stories) from industry types. Anyone out there have a fantastic or terrible conference story?