The Slow Death of a Literary Agent

Average American
You are an average American. You sleep 8 hours, eat 2.5 hours a day, work 40 hours a week, and commute a quarter of an hour each way.* The rest of your time is split pretty evenly between things you Have To Do (cooking, cleaning, fixing things, buying things...) and things you Want To Do (watching TV, reading, playing guitar, having a social life, etc).

* Those last two are actually below average, but I'm being generous with the numbers in this post to make a point.

No Response Means No
You decide you want to be a literary agent. That means, in addition to your regular work hours which make money, you have to read query letters. Thinking a query letter is something like a resume -- you send it out widely and only hear back if you get an interview -- you adopt a "no response means no" policy.

Still, it takes you an average of 3 minutes to read and make a decision on each query. Getting through 200 queries a week, plus partials and fulls, means 12 extra hours of work. Fortunately you weren't very good at guitar anyway. And you probably don't have to see a new movie every week.

Form Rejections
Writers, you discover, are needier than the average job seeker. Without a response, they pester you endlessly wondering if you've gotten to their query yet. After talking to your agent buddies you adopt a form rejection policy. Copying/pasting everything, including the author's name and their book title, takes an extra minute per query -- over 3 hours more each week. No big deal, but it does mean you have to stop watching those reality shows.

Improved Form Rejections
After a few years of interacting with writers on your blog (which you do now instead of going out Saturday night), you decide form rejections aren't enough. You're eager to give writers what they want, so you personalize your rejections -- not all the way, of course, but since a query usually gets rejected for one of a few reasons, you create five "personalized" form rejection letters.

What you didn't realize was how difficult it is to stop and analyze every query for why it doesn't appeal to you. And some queries don't even fit into your categories. It ends up taking another 2 minutes per query, leaving you with only 4 hours of "Want To Do" time a week. You survive though, trading sleep so you can play Halo or read a book occasionally.

Personalized Rejection
It's still not enough. Instead of being thankful for your help, the writers are arguing with you over why you didn't like their story! Years later you'll learn it's just human nature, that it's hard NOT to defend your work even when faced with hard evidence. For now, you decide you'll write truly personalized rejections. It takes a while -- about 10 minutes per query, actually -- but it's worth it if it helps writers improve their craft.

Of course everything you eat is ordered online now, weekends are something that happen to other people, and cleaning is right out (and you can't afford a maid, of course, because you're not getting paid for any of this). But finally the writers will be satisfied.

Won't they?

Books I Read: The Graveyard Book

Title: The Graveyard Book
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: YA Horror/Fantasy
Published: 2008
Content Rating: PG for scary situations

An orphan grows up in a graveyard, raised by ghosts, but is the man who killed his family still after him? (This, by the way, is what we call a high concept novel).

I love Neil Gaiman. Love, love, love, love. He's got this gift of turning the mundane into something magical, while simultaneously making the fantastic seem perfectly reasonable. So even when the climax felt slightly predictable -- essentially each element of the boy's life came into play to help him win -- it was so much fun I didn't care. (Besides which, the resolution mattered more to me than the climax. It's not like I ever thought Bod would lose.)

I'd recommend this to pretty much everyone. I'm even going to read it to my kids, but... probably not until they can handle scary better. I'm still having trouble telling the Passover story in a "this is scary but it's okay" kind of way.

The 3 Laws of Critiques

Often I'll have doubts about some section of a story, but I'll send it out for critique anyway. I hope it's good enough and nobody will say anything. The First Law of Critiques tells us why this doesn't work.

#1: If you think a story has a problem, others will too.

Other times I send out work too soon because I secretly want my critiquers to do my work for me. Just tell me all the problems -- those I know and those I don't -- and I'll fix them. But no critiquer can identify ALL the problems of a manuscript. In a story plagued with bad characterization, a critiquer won't notice subtle plot holes, and they'll completely ignore line-edits (that will likely be rewritten anyway). Thus we have the Second Law of Critiques.

#2: A single critique can only tell you about the most glaring problems.

So a critique comes back with problems you knew about. You just fix them and send it back asking for more, right? Well, no. You already know that when you've worked on a story for too long, you become blind to what's wrong with it. The same thing happens to critiquers who are asked to read the same story over and over.

#3: A critiquer's usefulness decreases with each revision they look at.

This is why it's a good idea to have multiple critique rounds, with different critiquers each round. But there are only so many people in the world willing and able to critique your stuff, which leads us to the point of this post.

Corollary: If you fix all the problems you can BEFORE sending out your work, the critique will improve your story and your craft beyond what you are able to do alone.

If you don't, you're wasting both your time and your critiquer's.

* NOTE: Professional editors and agents are capable of reducing the effects of the Second and Third Laws. Though, I would argue they are still subject to them, in the same way space shuttles are subject to gravity.

Nothing Like a Fat Man Dancing for His Dinner

For some reason, our culture has it in our heads that when we give somebody money, they are then in our debt. If I deign to grace a restaurant with my service, they sure as heck better do everything I ask. My taxes pay the salary of my kid's teacher, so they need to give my kid a break when I tell them to.

And I've invested time and money into [Famous Author's series], so they'd better deliver the story I want.

Guys, it's not like that. All the restaurant owes you for money is food. If you don't like the way they serve it, you leave. If you don't like the way your kids are being taught, you take them out of public school (or suck it up, because seriously, the teacher also pays taxes; that's just like the worst excuse for entitlement ever).

And if a book disappoints you, or a sequel isn't out and you've been waiting for years and oh my gosh doesn't the author realize how much you personally have invested in this series and WHY THE HECK ARE THEY BLOGGING ABOUT A BASEBALL GAME WHEN THEY SHOULD BE WRITING?!


You get it, right? The author does not owe you anything. They are not your personal entertainer singing for their dinner. Unless you paid them a four-to-six figure advance, they're going to write what they want to write, and you are welcome to buy it or not when it's done.

And if you don't like it, return it. I mean, as long as that stupid system is in place, might as well use it, right?


It's been a couple of months since I posted any drawings up here. I haven't been drawing a lot in that time, but I started practicing again recently.

I've been watching these amazing how-to videos by Mark Crilley. They've really made me want to draw again (although every time I see what I come up with, I get that same stupid, "I'll NEVER be as good as he is!" feeling; I hate that). Among other things, I'm learning that there's no One Way to draw -- not even to draw manga. There are thousands of ways to draw a face, and they're all right!

It's very freeing, and (as I've said before) a lot like writing. Anyway, here's what's been going on in my sketchbook lately.

Air Pirates: Plan B

Heyya, mates. Sam Draper here again on account of Sunday's another Talk Like a Pirate Day. Like last year, Adam asked me to give you folks a lesson on speaking skyler. He...

Okay, you know what? I can't do this. I haven't written anything remotely Air Pirate-y in over 6 months. I've totally forgotten how to speak skyler.

But it's a good opportunity to tell you what's been going on with the novel, aye? (And for those of you whose hopes were dashed just now, I promise I'll let Sam write a post when I've got my head in the world again. Breezy?). First things first though. I've gotten a lot of new readers since the last time I talked about this novel, so here's the idea:

Hagai, a cowardly bookworm and the shame of his ship-building father, receives a package from his mother -- the mother who's been dead for 18 years. The package is a stone that gives him visions of the future. It leads him to an air pirate named Sam, and to more adventure than he ever really wanted. (More in my original query, here).

I've gotten no offers yet obviously, though I have gotten some partial and full requests (which is way better than last time). And while I still have material out there awaiting a response, it's time to execute Plan B.

Multiple people -- including an agent or two -- have said this story feels like YA. It's not (Hagai is 21, Sam a few years older), but it could be with a little work. Just a couple rewritten chapters and a few overhauls (though when I first thought of this plan, I thought I'd only have to change Hagai's age, which required no rewriting at all).

Point is, I'm excited. Really the only way to get over rejection is to work on something new!

Books I Read: Mockingjay

Title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: YA Science Fiction
Published: 2010
Content Rating: R for violence

Thanks to Susan Kaye Quinn, I got to read this book in the same year it was published -- the same month, even, which never happens. (Even better, I got to read it with my wife, who got hooked and caught up in less than a week).

I figure it's kinda pointless to tell you what this book is about, yes? Either you've read the first two, and you know. Or you haven't, and the last thing you want is a summary that could potentially spoil the earlier novels. I also don't want to spoil it, so I'll just tell you how I felt.

Overall, I liked it as much as I did Catching Fire. Everything fit, and there was plenty of tension to go around (especially towards the end). There were only a few times where I could see the author's hand nudging the plot in a specific direction. In the end, there were things I wished had happened, but it felt right.

I'll talk more in the comments, but with spoilers. So don't go there if that's not what you want.

On Telling the Truth and Staying Friends

Ever gotten a critique like this?
This story is terrible. The plot is trite, and your prose made me throw up in my mouth. No one could believe that a doctor would fall in love with a terrorist. The space monkeys were an obvious deus ex machina. And the last thing editors want to see these days is more vampires. Drop them.

Obviously English is your first language, but I'll help you anyway. You've got too many adverbs: swimmingly, roughly, curly, crouchingly(?!)... There's too many to list! You should have AT MOST two adverbs in your entire story. And for God's sake, USE A SPELLCHECKER.

Ouch, right? But what if everything the critiquer (we'll call him Roger) said was 100% accurate? Does that justify his comments?

Well, yes and no. If Roger's point was to vent his frustration, then by all means, rant away! Most of us live in free countries, and speech is one of the things we get to be free with.

BUT if Roger wants the author to actually listen to him -- if Roger wants to help -- his critique is almost worthless even though it's completely accurate!

A lot of people believe that softening words means backing away from the truth, so they present their harsh comments without apology. But critiques like Roger's only make the author angry and defensive. And an angry, defensive person does not -- perhaps cannot -- listen to rational arguments. The author gains nothing from this critique, and Roger has wasted his time.

Fortunately it's possible to soften your words without sacrificing the truth, and it will help the author actually listen to what you have to say. Let's look at some ways Roger could have done better.
  1. Phrase everything as your opinion (because it is). The story is not terrible; it didn't work for you. The plot is not trite; it only seems so to you. 
  2. Don't command. Either soften it: "I think the vampires make it a weaker story." Or word it as a question: "Would it better without the vampires?"
  3. Don't quote rules and authorities. (A) There are no rules in publishing and good is subjective. (B) Unless you are the authority (i.e. you're the editor to whom the author has applied, or you are part of the secret cabal that defines the rules of the English language), you shouldn't speak as if you are.
  4. Assume the author is as intelligent as you are. Remember when you were starting out and thought kind-hearted dark elves were just the best plot device ever? Or how about yesterday when you sent out 20 queries addressed to Martha Bransford? We all make mistakes and we all need to learn. But we don't all have to get beat down because of it.
  5. Critique the story, not the author. Whether you think this is their first story, they're ten years old, or they learned English over the internet, that has nothing to do with helping their writing. In most cases, it's just insulting.
  6. Don't use caps or exclamation marks. As Strongbad says, "Do you know how many Internet etiquette laws you're breaking by typing in all caps like that? Well... you're breaking one: Don't type in all caps."

Now, let's see if we can help Roger say exactly the same thing, but in such a way that the author will be predisposed to listen:
I'm sorry, but there was a lot in this story that didn't work for me. The plot felt a little cliche (to me anyway). I had trouble believing that a doctor would fall in love with a terrorist. I didn't see the space monkeys coming, so that part ended up feeling like a deus ex machina. Lastly, I'm not sure about the vampires. Not that you can't do them, but I feel like I've seen a lot of them lately (also I recently read a post by Anonymous Blogging Editor that made it sound like they were a dying trend; you can read it here: [link]).

As far as your prose goes, I felt like there were a lot of adverbs: swimmingly, roughly, curly, crouchingly, etc. A good guideline that's worked for me is to include at most two adverbs in a story. Also, I saw a few misspellings. You probably just missed them on your own proofreads (it's easy to do, I know!). If you haven't already, try running a spellcheck just in case.

This probably sounds harsh, but keep in mind all of this is just my opinion. If you don't agree, then don't worry about it :-) Good luck with your writing!

As you can see, it takes more words to be nice, but it's worth it if you want the author to actually listen. The first critique goes unheard at best, and at worst makes enemies. It's a waste of time to even write it (unless you want enemies, of course). The second critique however has a chance of being heard, and also of making you a friend, and we all know how important that is.

If You Don't Know Your Audience, Create One!

Writers often hear that we're supposed to know our audience so we can write for them. It's good advice, but what if you don't know what your audience wants? What if you're not even sure whether you have one?

I say great! Write whatever the heck you want!

Take this blog, for example. When I threw up a couple of Venn diagrams on Wednesday, I knew you guys would eat it up. How did I know that? Did I do intense market research as to what kind of pictures my average blog reader enjoys? Did I run a survey of what you guys want to see in my posts? No! (Well, yes, but it didn't work).

You may not be aware of this, but I CREATED YOU! Not in the metaphysical or biological sense, but as a collective. See, I put those diagrams up because I like Venn diagrams. It's the same reason I post charts, graphs, formulas, flowcharts, and more Venn diagrams. I'm a geek.

But here's what happens. I post, say, a comparison table of the Emperor and the Lord Marshal. Someone new comes along, reads it, loves it, and sticks around hoping for more. And because I'm a geek, eventually I do post more, and waddyaknowmyaudiencelovesit.

You see? And I didn't do anything except be me. Granted, there is some filtering going on. (I don't bore you with the meteorology of the Air Pirates world, for example). But my point is that you don't have to make people like you or what you write. Just do what you do -- in the most interesting way you know how to do it -- and eventually the people who like that kind of stuff will find you.

And bam. There's your audience.

Followers, Readers, and Venn Diagrams

I don't actually like the Followers widget on the sidebar there. I mean, yes, it feels nice every time the number goes up, but it's misleading. Followers do not mean readers. Readers don't mean fans. Fans don't mean friends. And really, I think we all want our blog/Twitter/whatever followers to be one of those last two.

Getting followers is easy. Well, not easy -- it's a lot of work. But it's mostly within your control: comment on and follow 1,000 blogs, and you will instantly get 100 or more followers. Just like that. Elana Johnson has some great advice on getting lots of followers, and I agree with every one of her points. But followers do not mean readers.

Turning followers into readers is a bit harder, but still within your control. Just write something people want to read. It takes practice and (again) hard work to figure out topics both you and other people are interested in (hint: it's not you, not at first), but it can be done.

Now I'm not large enough in the public sphere to understand how readers become fans, though I do know how to make friends (be one). But here's a secret: it's not a progression. The diagram above is far too simple. In reality, it's more like this:

You can have readers who aren't followers. Friends who never read your blog. Followers who genuinely like you and would help you out, but don't have time to read all your posts. Readers who like your blog and like you, but aren't really a fan of your fiction.

It's a complicated world, but the encouraging bit is this: you don't have to get a lot of followers to be successful. You don't have to follow everyone who follows you. You don't have to chain yourself to that stupid widget.

I admit, things can change when blogging becomes part of your profession. In the comments of Elana's post, she points out that her editor sees a 1400-follower blog. In fact it's the only measuring tool an editor, or anyone else, has to see how popular a blog is. But Elana uses her blog to make money. If only 100 of those followers buy her books, that's 100 books she wouldn't have sold otherwise.

But most of us aren't there yet. If I got 500 more followers right now, what good would it do me, even if I could turn them into fans? Not much. Blogging for me is more of a long term investment, so I invest slowly. I use it for practice, for networking, and yes I'm looking for fans and friends, but only so I have some folks to celebrate with when I sell something. I don't need "followers" to do that.

Twittering from the Other Side of the World

I've been using Twitter for a while now, and I like it, really. It's how I met some of my favorite people. But often I get the feeling I use it differently from other people. A lot of that is just living on the other side of the world.

I don't know how Twitter is for you, but when I get on the computer in the morning, I'm greeted with 50-100 tweets from the folks I follow. I'm too obsessive-compulsive to NOT read them all, even though most of them are conversations long dead. Occasionally I find a piece of information or a link that makes me glad I searched through them, but that, of course, only reinforces my OCD.

This is why I have to limit who I follow. I WANT to follow everyone who follows me, but I can't. And I can't take part in most conversations that occur during the American day. I realized how big this was while we were in the States. I got to chat with EVERYBODY. I finally saw what Twitter was good for. Unfortunately, it's not very good for me.

So I just have to use it my way. I'll toss out a tweet when I wake up, maybe another before I go to bed. I respond to any mentions, even if it's hours later. Really, there's little else I can do. And every once in a while I'll get someone who stays up extra late, or someone from the UK, and have a really great conversation. That, really, is why I'm still on it.

How do you use Twitter? Do you read everything, or only whatever shows up when you're on? Do you follow everyone who follows you? Do you expect others to do the same?

(I want to ask something of the folks who don't use Twitter, but all I can think of is "Why don't you use it?" (A) That sounds rude, and (B) I already know most of the possible answers. But feel free to chime in even if you don't use Twitter. I never want to be exclusive.)

The Ocean

I'm sick, so today's post is short. This picture is from our recent trip to the US, in which my son sees the ocean for the first time (that he remembers).

"That's the ocean, Isaac. When you grow up, the Earth will be covered in it, and you'll be the most famous pirate in the world."

Marketing Books for Boys

Okay, sorry for that detour on Monday. That was a lot of videos to dump on you at once, but oh my gosh they're fun to watch. Next time you're bored, that's 25 minutes of free entertainment right there.

So, last Friday we talked about how boys actually do read OMIGOSHWHOKNEW?! Well you guys knew, for starters. The general (and thumbs-up scientific!) consensus seems to be that boys read, they just don't read a lot of YA. Probably, says the consensus, because there's not a lot of YA for them to read.

The thing is, guys like me -- most boys, too, I think -- will read a lot more than we're given credit for. I'm not going to go all the way and speak for all guys everywhere, but these are some of the things said about boy readers, along with how true (or untrue) I think they are.

Boys won't read books with romance. Not strictly true. I think a lot of boys will tolerate romance (that's kinda how we see it, sorry) so long as it's not the point. Look at the Harry Potter and Ender's Shadow series, the Mistborn trilogy, Graceling, or Hunger Games. All of these have romance -- Hunger Games even makes it an essential part of the conflict -- but because it's not the primary tension of the books, boys can read past it and still enjoy the ride.

Boys won't read books written by girls. Not true! Honestly when I was a boy I didn't even look at the author's name (unless I had to for a book report). You think the droves of boys who read Harry Potter didn't know "J. K." was a girl? So long as it was well-written and had characters I could identify with, I didn't really care where it came from.

Boys won't read books with girls on the cover. Okay yeah, pretty much. I mean, I'll read these now, but I wasn't so secure as a teen. Even as an adult, sticking a girl prominently on the cover -- without any guns or dragons or spaceships or anything -- tells me the folks who made the book don't really want me reading it anyway.

Boys won't read books with girly titles. True, but kind of subjective as to what constitutes a girly title. Red flag words include: girl, kiss, love, lips, pretty, diary, sweet, and affair. The thing is other guys are going to ask us what we're reading, and we'd much rather say Vampire Slayer than Pretty Lips Love Affair.

Boys won't read books with girl protagonists. Not true. Sure we want boy characters we can identify with, but we'll read pretty much anything if there's a chance someone gets stabbed, shot, or explodes.

Okay, so I did slip into talking about 'we' there, but in truth this is just my opinion. What's yours?