Writing Advice #23: The Path to Publication (Part 5)

OK, I’ve been talking about the Path to Publication for about a month now, and a couple of questions have come in. So, I’m going to take this opportunity to answer those questions. Next week, it’ll be just me blathering again.

First up is the question of consultation appointments. I sang the praises of these meetings with agents a couple of weeks back, and someone wisely asked…

If I make a consultation appointment: What are stupid things to do and say so I can avoid them? (besides treating it like I’m there to pitch for a book deal). Even better, what are smart things to do and ask? And, what should I be trying to get out of the appointment? Also, it says I can bring a one page synopsis (which already has me sweating…I’ve never been very good at those) so where can I find good advice on how to write that? Oh, and should I tell the ending of my book in the synopsis or will that spoil it?

First of all: Chill. Seriously.

A consultation appointment should absolutely NOT freak you out. It’s just two people sitting across from each other, chatting. Yes, you want to put your best foot forward, but you shouldn’t act like this is a Papal audience or a proctologist appointment or some other event that would make you sweat. The person on the other side of the table is just a fellow human being. Aspiring authors tend to invest agents with supernatural powers and commensurate importance. Which I’m sure agents appreciate, but the fact of the matter is, as long as you keep thinking of them this way, you’re going to go into the session with such stress bubbling up inside you that you just won’t be able to function at all.

Here’s a little secret: Agents NEED you. I know — you’ve been thinking it’s the other way around, but the fact of the matter is, agents are at these conferences to find new clients. And for all they know, you’re their next big meal ticket. They’re rooting for you. They’re hoping that what you pitch to them is brilliant.

So go into the session with confidence. Don’t be COCKY. Just be relaxed. Be yourself.

Have a one or two sentence summary of your book ready. This should be really sexy and cool. It should have a great hook and it should lead the listener to ask questions.

That’s important. I see some people who go into these sessions thinking, “I’ve only got ten minutes — I’ve timed my pitch and it’s exactly ten minutes!” and they go in and deliver this utter abortion of a pitch, rattling off their points without taking a breath.

This isn’t a monologue — it’s a dialogue. Go into the session with some prepared lines, sure, but be open to conversation. You know how to have a conversation, right? You’ve done it plenty of times. The only differencethis time is that the conversation will be about your book. I don’t imagine you’ll have trouble holding up your end of that conversation!

Let the agent talk. Let the agent ask questions. The more questions he or she asks, the more invested he or she is in your pitch. Don’t let an interruption or question throw you off. Interruptions and questions are chances to show the agent that you know your project so well that you can talk about it off-the-cuff.

What should you be trying to get out of the appointment? Ideally, you want the agent to ask to see your manuscript — all of it. At a minimum, you want him or her to ask for sample chapters. That’s pretty much all you can expect. If the agent doesn’t ask for anything at all, then hey — you’ve at least had some practice for the next session. Don’t fret about it too much. And don’t forget: As much as the agent is “interviewing” you, you, too, are conducting an interview! If something rubs you the wrong way or you get a bad vibe, then you’ve learned that you don’t want to work with that particular agent. Move on.

Remember: To the best of my knowledge, there is no agent clearinghouse wherein agents submit names of authors and titles of projects, with warnings or cautions to other agents: “Met Wanda Wannabe today at a conference. She pitched the worst project I’ve ever heard. Also, had zit on end of nose. Avoid at all costs!” Doesn’t exist, people. If you tank a session, chalk it up to a learning experience and move on to the next one. These sessions are important and chock full of possibility, but they are in no way the be-all, end-all of your potential writing career.

Of course there are agents who are real tools, people who are puffed up with their own sense of self-importance and enjoy treating newbie writers like serfs because it makes them feel like a million bucks. If you happen to run into one of these sad, sad examples of humanity, grit your teeth, repeat whatever mantra gets you through the day, politely thank him/her for his/her time, and then forget he/she ever existed. There are plenty of agents out there. You don’t need one who doesn’t treat people with common decency.

I never brought a synopsis into any of my sessions. A couple of times I had notes I would refer to, but soon enough I didn’t need that any more — it was all up in my noggin. If you bring a synopsis, then, yeah, it should have the ending. A synopsis is your whole story, beginning to end. But ideally, the scenario you’re looking for goes more like this: You tell the agent about your book. He or she gets excited and asks questions. You answer those questions with your usual suave confidence. The agent is so excited he or she asks to see the whole book. In the best of all possible worlds, you won’t need that synopsis.

If I make an advance reading appointment: Again, what are the stupid mistakes to avoid and the smart things to do and say? Also, it says advance reading appointments are for advanced writers. So I’m trying to figure out that includes or excludes me.

“Advanced” is in the eye of the beholder. Each writer has to make an honest assessment of his or her skills and decide where he or she stands. Nothing can STOP you from signing up for the advanced reading appointment, but if you’re not ready for it, you’re not going to get anything out of it…and you might end up feeling bad about your work. I would say that if you’ve written and revised a book-length manuscript (with honest input from other people, not on your own), you probably qualify as “advanced.”

OK, next up:

I couldn’t agree more about letting your writing sit and revisiting it later–it makes a HUGE difference. And I also totally agree that if there’s something bothering us about our draft, odds are it will bother a professional.

But I’m curious. In the story you shared about Fanboy and Goth Girl…were those three places the only places your editor flagged as weak? Or were there more?

I ask because what worries me is this: what about the things that don’t bother me–the things I might even like in my draft?  How do I know when to dig in my heels and think, “No, this is good…I just need to find the right person to believe in it” and when to go back to the drawing board. Obviously, taste is an issue, and therefore rejection is inevitable. But how do you know when to trust your own taste?  Cause all I get is conflicting advice when I read writing tips. Some say, “Never start with a preface or a prologue, it’s bad writing.” But half the books I read (or more) start with a preface/prologue.  Some say “never start with dialogue,” and again, I see that all the time. So how do you know when it’s time to say this is how I write and KNOW your draft is ready and that it’s up to luck now?

Maybe that’s something you can’t answer–maybe there is no answer–but I thought I’d throw it out there into the void and see if you have any suggestions, cause I’m stumped.

This is, indeed, a sticky wicket. And, yeah, the answer is that in many cases there IS no answer. At some point, you have to fly on your own and make your own decisions and decide where to compromise and where to stick to your guns. In the case of Fanboy and Goth Girl, there were other issues pointed out by my editor, but nothing major. Just little niggling things. The three I referred to were a little stickier and more complicated. So, yeah, in that case, my gut was dead-on.

How do you know when to start trusting yourself? I have two pieces of information for you, and I’m afraid that neither one is very comforting.

First: Remember how we started this whole series of blogs: A million bad words. Have you written? Have you written a LOT? Have you finished multiple books, put them through the ringer? Have you had people tear them apart? Have you gotten to the point where you can not only HEAR criticism of your work, but also ACCEPT that criticism as real and valid? If so, maybe you’re ready.

Second: Bad books get published. It happens. So maybe people are right that you should never start with a prologue. And, yes, there are books out there with prologues. Hey, maybe those books suck! Or maybe those books are quite good, but would be BETTER without prologues. Or maybe those books needed prologues and yours doesn’t. Look, in publishing there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all.

I’m really sorry. I know you’re looking for some sort of definitive answer. But sometimes there are no definitive answers. Sometimes you go with your gut, and you’ll never know if you were right or not.

When that happens, the only solace you have is knowing that there’s always another book to write, another agent to pitch. It’s trial and error. I’ve published five books and I’m still learning from my mistakes — it never ends.

On that rather somber note, we’ll retire for the week. Next week: Still on the Path to Publication! And hey, don’t forget — you can have YOUR questions answered, too. Just post them in the comments below!

Leave a Comment