Research: Finding a Literary Agent

February 18, 2008 at 7:44 am | Posted in agents/ editors, Jessica, research, writing | 7 Comments

For the past three years I have been involved with my home chapter’s annual conference. It is one of those volunteer activities that gives back in lots of ways. I have a separate article that I’ve written on what I’ve learned from my conference planning experiences, but the one thing that I’m most grateful for and what I want to share with you this week is what I’ve learned about researching the industry – namely, how to find the agents who represent what you write.

Before I got involved in conference planning I had heard a lot of the tips that I’ll pass on today, but I didn’t ‘get it’ until put in the position of trying to identify the industry professionals who would offer the widest array of possibilities to the hopeful writers attending our conference. The trial-by-fire and the pressure to build a satisfying conference forced me to pick up these trade secrets in a hurry.

Some of my advice might sound pretty intuitive, and if that’s the case then, Congratulations! You have a pretty steady handle on how to conduct your market research and make educated decisions about the best agents to query or pitch to for your material. But for those of you who haven’t yet entered a comfort zone with this stuff, I hope the following tips will help get you on your way.

Other than read, read, read, read, read and write, write, write, write, write . . .

The primary task I want you to do is to really think about the project you want to shop around. Where does it fit in the market? If you write paranormal romance, do you write hot and sexy vampire suspense like J.R. Ward or chick lit time travel like Marianne Mancusi? Perhaps it’s more like YA witches as found in Kelly McClymer’s books or a YA ghost hunter found in Marley Gibson’s new series? Whatever the case, I suggest starting by identifying at least THREE books that most closely resemble the project you want to sell. (The more books you can identify, the greater your market research will be.)

To my way of thinking, if an agent represents a certain kind of book they would likely represent similar material. So your end goal is to find out who represented (and who bought) those three books (or more) that most closely resemble yours.

1. Many, but certainly not all, published authors thank their agents and editors in the acknowledgement pages of their books. So the easiest (and free!) place to start is to go to your local bookstore and thumb through the acknowledgment pages of each of those target books.

Once you obtain the information, go to the Writer’s Reference section of the bookstore and look at the most recent edition of Jeff Hermann’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. He updates this resource every year, to include the names and addresses of agents and their agencies and what they are looking to acquire along with instructions as to how to query them.

2. What to do when the information is not contained in the author’s acknowledgement page? The next resource I’d recommend using is not a free service, but at $20 per month I think it’s one of the best investments you can make on the business side of your writing career. That resource is an online subscription to Publishers Marketplace.

With a subscription to PM, you can search the archives for every deal reported back to the year 2000 – searching by author name, agent name, editor name, agency, or publishing house. This tool is invaluable not only to search what projects have most recently sold by and to whom, but to also determine if an agent shows a historical pattern for representation. A great example is the historical romance market. For the past few years I’ve heard many people in the romance industry say that historicals were dead. Well, some people were still buying and selling historicals during that period, and a quick search of those authors’ names will yield the agents and editors involved in the deals.

Publishers Marketplace is also a great resource for publishing news – especially when an agent or editor leaves her current agency or house for another one. Or if an editorial assistant gets bumped up to start acquiring her own list or an agent branches out on her own.

I understand when budgets are tight, so if a subscription to Publishers Marketplace is not feasible at the moment, the web site offers a free watered-down version of industry news called Publishers Lunch, which comes out every Monday. Anyone can subscribe – free – to Pub Lunch by signing up on the PM home page. Monthly paid-subscription holders receive the full Lunch version every week.

PM has other cool features – such as the opportunity to register yourself on the site. Not all authors are registered, however, which is the one downside when searching for deals concerning them.

3. To get a sense of an agent’s preference or style, conduct a web search on the agent’s name and their agency. The web sites often have bios for each of their agents as well as a list of the authors they represent and titles sold. Agent blogs are also a great learning tool when it comes to style and preferences. A list of many agent blogs can be found on the Absolute Write web site.

4. Historical Author, Cynthia Sterling, also has a great newsletter whereby she shares Market News on what’s happening in the romance genre. Her information is timely and accurate and often gives me great scoop when I cannot find the information elsewhere. And after every RWA National Conference, she posts a wrap up of all of the publisher spotlights – a great way to find out what kinds of projects the editors are looking to acquire. I highly recommend subscribing to this free newsletter by clicking on last left-hand link on her web site.

And certainly those aren’t the only ways to arrive at your list of choices, but I hope those tips give you a place to start. Some people will advise you to start with a much larger list and narrow down from there . . . which I think will work, too.

As an aside . . .

Jessica Faust of BookEnds LLC posted this recent blog entry on finding the interpersonal connection in your agent search.

And Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency, also has a blog post where she lists some potential questions to ask that agent when you get THE CALL.

One other note – a reputable agency will never ask you for money up front. If an agent tells you that you need to pay them a chunk of change before they will represent you, my advice is to run far and run fast.

I believe that selling your book is all a matter of luck and timing – getting the right project into the right hands at the right time. The bigger the net you cast, the greater your chances.

And it’s never too early to start your research!

I hope this information helps and that it will lead to finding a good home for your book! And the best thing you can do when sending out queries and awaiting responses? KEEP WRITING!

Check out Bria’s take on organizing your search HERE

-Jessica

Chemistry research- it’s not just a high school class

February 15, 2008 at 3:32 pm | Posted in hero, heroines, Meg, research, young adult | 1 Comment

Last week I talked about hotties and this week, since yesterday was Valentine’s Day (and since I’m horrible at research), I thought I’d continue along this vein and focus on chemistry. You know, that elusive quality between two people that catches your breath, causes a lump in your throat, makes you smile or touches your heart. It’s invisible, but you see when it’s there, and know when it’s not.You see it in the movies. The two main characters’ eyes meet and the screen comes alive; the temperature in the theatre turns up a notch. You forget you’re surrounded by strangers and find yourself holding your breath. Some random examples are: Kimberly Williams-Paisley and Patrick Dempsey in Lucky Seven, Jude Law and Cameron Diaz in The Holiday, Ashton Kutcher and his love interest in The Guardian.

On television, I live for The Office. The first few seasons, when Jim would gaze longingly at Pam across the room or when they would joke around. Ahhh. A shit-eating grin always spread across my face. And I feared all summer that their chemistry would not continue if they started dating (yes, sometimes I exert too much emotional energy into my entertainment world) as often happens (cite the Dave and Maddie fiasco of Moonlighting), but never fear, Jim and Pam are hotter than ever. I also noticed it last night as I watched the Masterpiece theater’s version of Northanger Abbey (and yes, I know for true Jane Austen fans, these versions don’t measure up). When Mr. Tilney smirks at Catherine Morland, a silly flutter goes through me. The two actors have that special something that brings a sunny day to normally dismal London (or Bath in this case). Or what about Sydney Bristow and Vaughn. Or Pacey Witter and Joey? The list goes on and on.

And in books, I’ve had my heart skip a beat as I read many novels. Nora Roberts is the queen of chemistry. Rarely does she write a book not swimming in it. Others noteworthy to mention are: Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (yeah, I know, I continue to rave), Mildred Lee’s The People Therein (my all time favorite book as an early teen) and…

Chemistry between the hero and heroine is hard to come by. Usually I’ll watch or read something and I’m left feeling empty, that something’s missing. I don’t feel the characters or the story. I’m probably the only one in the world who’s glad McDreamy has moved onto Rose in Grey’s Anatomy. I think they have that special something. That extra fizzle that I never felt between him and Dr. Grey—wow, I can’t even remember her first name right now. That’s how forgettable their interactions are for me. LOL

And that’s the ultimate goal with your characters. You want the reader to remember them long after they close the book. You want them to be so lifelike and full of energy together, that the reader begs for a sequel and dreams of the characters.

How do you create this chemistry in your writing? Well, research. You watch those movies and television shows with your thesaurus nearby to determine the words to capture what you see. Or you write down the responses of the hero or heroine in the books and see how you can regenerate them (without plagurizing). Or you people watch- one of the best ways to garner information on human interactions.

<>As for my own research, I might elaborate Jessica’s grand idea of bridal research (Jess- I love this idea and will go with you anytime!). Since I’m stuck on the YA, maybe I will pull a 21 Jump Street and go undercover in a high school (when I walked the halls of one a few years ago, I was asked for my hall pass, so maybe I could pull it off). Or hang out at the mall or local dining establishment. Maybe that’s what I need- immersion in the world I want to build. And the world of YA is much easier to visit than a sci-fi fantasy. Or is it?

-Meg

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RESEARCH: When to say When

February 13, 2008 at 12:59 pm | Posted in Bria, creativity, research, writing | 4 Comments

I’ll be honest from the beginning: I love research. I’m was that seven year old who would look something up in the encyclopedia and end up on the floor, surrounded by books, cross referencing everything with a handy-dandy dictionary in my lap.

My parents had no idea what to do with this.

I’m sure many writers have similar memories.

And so, let’s focus on, well, focus.

Research can grow wings and bring you places you’ve never been before. But how often are those tangents helpful for what you’re working on right now? While extra information can often turn your story in a newfound direction or give you story ideas for the future, it can also bring your current work to a screeching halt.

Before you begin your research, ask yourself:

• What do I need to know?
• Why do I need to know it?
• How does it fit into my story?

Post these next to your computer screen to keep you on target.

WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW?
If you’re clear on what you need to know, it will cut down on the bunny trails.

If you need to know about regency carriages, you don’t want to end up reading the entire history of the British Transportation System – sure, some of it might be interesting (that’s pushing it even for me) but, remind yourself of your time period and purpose.

WHY DO I NEED TO KNOW IT?
Let’s continue with the carriage example.

So, purpose. Someone looking up regency carriages is most likely to be doing that in order to give their character transportation. You wouldn’t want your governess riding about in a 1800’s version of a Ferrari or your Duke to brag about his Yugo.

If that’s your purpose, stop at the definition stage.

BUT, let’s say that Duke we were just talking about is horse mad and owns and races several carriages. The questions grow to where’s and how’s.

HOW DOES IT FIT INTO MY STORY?
Is this such a significant part of your story that it drives the plot, or a passing note?

Obviously if it’s only a small bit of information thrown in for setting and realism, it isn’t worth three days of research.

But, if the Duke’s whole reason for existing is tied into those carriages, if they pop up again and again, if they almost become a character themselves – then a lot of research is going to be needed to do them justice.

The point is that, just like any good thing, you CAN have too much research.

Be clear of what you need and why and know when to say “when.”

Love the word, do the work and Go Write
-bria

The Banes and Boons of Research

February 11, 2008 at 8:59 am | Posted in character, Jessica, research, writing | Leave a comment

When Bria posed this week’s topic I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to address it. How do you research story ideas? They just live in your head, don’t they?

As I started to think about what I wanted to write, two opposing ideas began to emerge, each reflective of the two parts that dominate my professional life.

In my academic life, the academic side of my brain loves to do research. Absolutely loves it. When I was in college, the only computers on campus were refrigerator-sized mainframes. The card catalog actually still had cards in it, the Reader’s Guide helped you find the journals you needed (if you could handle the indexes that got you to that point), and microfiche was the latest and greatest technology. In hindsight, I can’t fathom how I ever found any scholarly resources to complete my college research projects. And it hasn’t been that long ago.

Fast-forward to today’s academic library and the world has been transformed. Online library catalogs, electronic databases, and Internet searching make academic research the kind of adventure it should be – endless possibilities found in link after cyber link. My problem on the academic side is that I find SO much research, the actual volume of reading, evaluating and synthesizing of sources makes the writing of it nearly impossible. When does the fact-finding part of the mission actually stop?

As opposed to my fiction writing, where the ideas live so vividly in my imagination and the characters actively beg for their stories to be told . . . so I just write what’s already living in my head. I tend to feel my way through writing my books and have not had to conduct much factual research thus far.

However, all that’s about to change. I get tons of story ideas in reading trade papers, magazines, news articles, or talking to colleagues. And through my colleagues I have started to hatch two new book ideas that I want to develop further. Both of them delve into things I know nothing about. I can address one of those issues by taking a few books out of my library . . . for starters. Who knows what will happen and where it will lead when a concept in one of those books links to another then another and another . . .

The second idea is going to really stretch my comfort zone and push me into launching an undercover operation as something I’ve never been – a bride. Scary stuff, if you ask me. The research for this one has already taken me to one bridal expo and what I’ve learned is that I (a) need to better channel my inner-award-winning-actress (who has, thus far, only existed in my head), (b) need a better cover story and (c) need to set up fake contact information. Wedding planning is intense and the vultures are thirsty, as I am starting to learn. It was a good thing to attend for one other important reason – my day at the bridal expo had a real machine gun affect on my plot. Having the experience let me see that my plot has more holes than Swiss cheese.

As a posted a few weeks ago, Bria, Meg, and I are part of the planning committee for a conference. It has been a great adventure and I have learned a great deal both professionally and personally. One outcome that has surprised me a bit – I’ve learned that my former boundaries have become a bit blurred. In the past, where I may have hesitated asking someone I don’t know if they’d be willing to pitch in and help out, I now have few qualms wading in with the ask. In order to get the job done, I’ve learned to beg, borrow, and steal – well, not literally, but in a metaphoric sense. Those boundaries begin to fade when the fine line between success and failure starts losing its obvious demarcation.

And as I look to the writing projects I am tacking this year, I kinda’ feel the same way. In order to get the authentic information needed to write these stories, I need to challenge my comfort zone and kick the research up a notch to cross those previously well-established lines. Even if that means having to attend the annual bridezilla gown event at Filene’s Basement . . . a day of wild and shameless mania I once swore I would never attempt. I’m too fragile.

What are some of the things you’ve done in the name of story research? Please share – and keep writing!

-Jessica

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