|Posted on Friday, May 20, 2005 - 08:56 am: |
Hello to everyone and anyone who stumbles across this message. Occassionally I meet beginning writers at cons or online who want to share their work with me and get my feedback. Being a fairly nice guy and somewhat of a pushover, I've typically said, "Sure!" and then never gotten around to it. Good intentions aside, this isn't a nice way for me to treat people, so as of today I've decided to be more realistic about my time constraints and be upfront with folks about that. Here's a message I sent to a young lady who had me chat with her online fan group and who recently asked me to read a few chapters of her novel-in-progress and for advice regarding finding an agent. I'm posting it on the chance some of what I suggest might prove helpful to other beginning novelists looking to get published in the SF field.
Sadly, I feel I need to decline your offer to share a chapter or two with me at this time. I've tried over the past year to take a look at pieces that folks I've met at conventions have mailed me or emailed me, and, invariably, I've ended up disappointing them through my lack of response. Between a full-time job, two babies, local volunteer responsibilities, and trying to do my own writing, I'm at the point where I need to avoid taking on new commitments of time, even small ones. I apologize, but I'm sure you understand.
However, I do have a few suggestions regarding honing and marketing your manuscript. These are all things that have worked well for me over the years. None of what I suggest below is a "quick fix;" please be aware that getting a book into print is oftentimes the work of years, not months. I started working on my first novel back in 1989, and I didn't get one (my third book) published until 2003, fourteen years later. Don't dispair, but be patient and persistent.
1) Regarding honing your manuscript, you may want to see if a workshop/critiquing group is active in your area. Check online, and also check with your local librarians and a few writing professors at your local universities. I took a noncredit course in world building with George Alec Effinger, an acclaimed local SF writer, at the University of New Orleans back in 1994, and at the close of the course, George asked his graduates if they would like to join his monthly critiquing workshop. I joined at the beginning of 1995, and that association has meant the world to me and to my writing. I've workshopped four novels and about a dozen short stories over the years, and having an intelligent, well-read audience to tell me where my storytelling has fallen short has made a huge difference for me and greatly accelerated my development as a writer. Of course, not all of the critiques have been valuable to me, and oftentimes I've received conflicting reports and have had to decide for myself what was best. Workshops can sometimes be destructive to a writer, if the participants get too vicious or try to get the writer to rework a piece as something the participants want to write, rather than what the writer intended. A good rule of thumb is that a positive workshop will help you write the best possible version of the story/book that YOU want to write, even if that story/book isn't to the taste of each workshop participant. Another workshop danger is when a group becomes a mutual praise society and no one dares make any substantive criticisms at all. But if you're lucky, you'll find a good group. I did, and it made a world of difference for me. See if you can find one with at least one professional/published writer involved, preferably as the moderator. Some workshop groups operate online, too. If you lived in New Orleans, I'd invite you to try out our group, which still meets the middle Wednesday of every month.
2) Regarding finding an agent, here is what I'd suggest:
a) Subscribe to LOCUS and to SCIENCE FICTION CHRONICLE, the monthly news magazines of the science fiction/fantasy field. Both magazines feature news columns that list recent sales of manuscripts to major and small press publishing houses. Oftentimes, the listing includes the name of the author's agent and which editor at which house the agent sold the manuscript to. If you keep up with these columns over several months, you'll get to recognize the names of agents who are particularly active and who make a lot of sales. Also, look for agents who are selling books that you think may be similar to your manuscript or who represent writers whose past work you feel is similar in theme, tone, or subject matter to yours. The circle of agents that handle SF, fantasy, and horror manuscripts as a major part of their workload isn't very big. This is a good way to get familiar with who they are. You can easily find their contact information either online or through one of the commercially available literary agents compilations (which you can find at your library).
b) Visit the Preditors and Editors site online ( http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/ ), which is now sponsored by Another Realm Speculative Fiction Magazine. This is a great source of information about who are the good and bad apples in the agenting field. Beware of agents and agencies that want to sell you a lot of services or charge you a bunch of fees up front. The best rule of thumb is, "Money flows TO the writer, not FROM the writer." Your agent should get paid for the first time when he/she sells your manuscript and receives the advance check from your publisher and withholds his/her fifteen percent commission. If your agency is making a substantial part of their income from doing things other than selling books, then this isn't an agency you want to be involved with. Getting hooked up with a bad agent is worse than having no agent at all, so don't jump into the arms of the first agent who says he/she will be happy to represent you -- not without having done your homework first!
c) Go online and search for writing and literary confererences that allow participants to sign up for pitch sessions with professional editors and agents. Many major cities host these type of conferences, which might be one-day affairs or spread over a full weekend. Conference fees usually aren't cheap, typically between $150 and $400 for the weekend, but it can be worth it if you properly prepare yourself, your pitch presentation, and your manuscript. The necessity to boil your book down to a one-page, five-minute pitch, as difficult as this task is, is a very valuable goad to you in preparing to market your book, because all throughout the book's journey from your word processor to the bookstore shelves, agents, editors, publicists, reviewers, and bookstore owners and clerks are going to be asking you for a quick summation of your work, and you'd better have one ready. When you attend one of these conferences, dress and act professionally. Practice your pitch in front of a mirror and/or friends, as if you were getting ready to perform in a play or give a speech to a crowd. This is a business world you are trying to enter. Don't expect to get an agent or editor jumping up and down with joy following your pitch. The best you can hope for is to make a good impression so that when, a few weeks or months later, when you mail them your proposal package, they will have some memory of having met you and briefly discussing your book.
d) A less expensive, and somewhat more fun, way of accomplishing many of the same goals as (c) above is to attend a few of the smaller, more literary-focused SF conventions around the country. One of the unique and wonderful features of the science fiction world is the fact that many SF professionals started out as fans themselves and so are happy to make themselves accessible to fans at conventions. Lots of professionals hang out at the convention bar between panels and activities, and oftentimes all you have to do to start a conversation with them is to sit down next to them and not act too weird or obnoxious. Many agents and editors who participate in panels will hang around for a while outside the panel room to talk with attendees who have additional questions. I haven't run across SF conventions that offer opportunities for formal pitch sessions like are offered at the "getting published" workshops discussed above, but if you play your cards right, you may find yourself with informal opportunities to make pitches at the smaller, more laid-back literary SF cons. Some that I've attended that fit this description, and which I've enjoyed, are ArmadilloCon in Austin, Texas and Capclave in the Greater Washington, DC area. I've also heard terrific things from friends about ReaderCon outside of Boston. All of these cons are fairly small, attracting 400-800 attendees, but are known to attract large concentrations of writers, editors, and agents.
As I mention above, these are all strategies which have worked well for me over the past ten years. I wish you the very best of luck, and I hope you'll keep in touch.
I hope the above is helpful to someone out there. Those of us at the beginning of the looooooooooong road to professional publication and a writing career need all the support and help we can get!