Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Finding a Publisher or Literary Agent Part III by Scott M. Baker

“Great. I have my query drafted and ready to send out. Where do I find publishers and literary agents to submit it to?”

Here is where I date myself. When I first became interested in writing years ago, the Bible of the publishing industry was The Writer’s Market. Without the latest edition on your desk, your chances of getting published were slim. However, relying on The Writer’s Market today is about as antiquated as drafting your manuscript on an electric typewriter. The publishing industry now has an increasing number of small presses and a rapidly expanding market for presses who deal solely or primarily in electronic media, and these publishers open (and sometimes close) at a mind-boggling rate. The good news is that keeping track of who’s who in the market has never been easier.

I use five methods to keep track of the market. More are available, but these are the ones I primarily rely on. Use whichever ones work for you or your genre.

-- Internet-based publishers digests. There are several out there that encompass all markets and genres, but my favorite is Duotrope (http://www.duotrope.com/). Duotrope allows you to narrowly define your search parameters to provide listings based on genre, type of publication (book or magazine, print or electronic), length of work, submission guidelines, and other criteria. Each listing also contains a link to that publisher’s homepage. One feature about this service I particularly like is that you can sign up for Duotrope’s weekly e-mail update which lists markets that are open to submission, updates those markets that are dead or recently closed to submissions, and provides a list of upcoming anthologies by theme. In my opinion, this is one of the best tools for writers currently out there. Several of my works were eventually placed with publishers I discovered on Duotrope.

-- Trade journals and genre magazines. These are invaluable, especially the former. I don’t know what’s available for other genres, but for horror I rely on Realms of Fantasy as my trade journal and Fangoria and Rue Morgue as my primary genre magazines. Their value is in that they provide information on what is being published in your genre and who is publishing it. I use Realms of Fantasy to keep track of trends in the industry and use the book review sections of the genre magazines to obtain leads on publishers who work in my genre.

-- Conventions. Though less readily available then the first two, writers and genre conventions are among your most valuable resource. Publishers use these conventions to seek out new talent, so they are most receptive to hear what you have to offer. Practice your verbal pitch. You want to have a pitch that hooks a publisher in the first few sentences, but doesn’t sound over rehearsed. And be prepared in case the publisher starts asking detailed questions about your work or you. I have seen a lot of authors nail that opening pitch and get all tongue-tied during the follow-up talks. Remember, nobody knows you and your book better than you do. And if you find a publisher who wants to see more of your work, contact him/her the moment you get home, reminding him/her in your cover letter that you just met at the convention and you are sending along the material he/she asked you to.

-- Your local bookstore. You can find a wealth of information here by perusing your genre section. Check out new arrivals to see which houses have published books similar to yours, and use that as a starting point for your research. Also remember to check out the acknowledgement page, for you often get the names of editors to contact as well as literary agents.

-- Forums and Yahoo groups. These can be extremely helpful if you join the correct ones. You want to find ones populated by aspiring and/or new authors who are serious about their craft. Publishers and editors often cruise these sites searching for new talent, and if they are impressed with you they may contact you offline and ask you to submit. I have also seen some forums/groups where publishers are actively seeking out authors. You should be able to find these forums/groups by researching in your genre. (These forums/groups are also invaluable in helping you market your book, which I will discuss in the next blog posting.)

All right, ladies and gentlemen. For those of you who have been reading this blog series from the beginning, you have enough tools available to write your novel. You’ve abandoned family and friends to make the time to write and have spent the last year drafting and editing and revising and re-editing and re-revising your book. You’ve sent out an endless stream of query letters, suffered through the flood of rejections letters (or worse, the annoying lack of responses from publishers you’ve queried) but have prevailed and finally found someone to publish your work. Congratulations! Now the hard part begins.

NEXT BLOG: Marketing your book and yourself.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Finding a Publisher or Literary Agent Part II by Scott M. Baker

Let me add a few observations to last week's blog about query letters. These are my opinions, and should not be taken as gospel for getting published (or as legal advice).

-- Publishers/agents are specific in what they want you submit along with your query, usually asking for sample chapters and a synopsis, and occasionally for a bio or a marketing strategy. Sometimes they ask for sample chapters to be submitted in a certain font or style. If you submit a query, be sure to provide what they ask for in the style they ask for. Although the main reason a publisher/agent asks for sample chapters and a synopsis is to get a feel for your writing style, your query submission also gives them a feel for how well you follow guidelines. If a publisher/agent asks for a three-page synopsis, one sample chapter in Courier 10 font, and a marketing strategy, and instead you send a one-page synopsis, three sample chapters in Times New Roman 12 font, and a bio, you immediately send the impression that you cannot/will not follow simple guidelines. Publishers/agents will be cautious about contracting with you, fearing that you may also be unwilling/unable to follow their editorial guidance and meet deadlines. [NOTE: While I’m willing to make certain changes to the text of sample chapters per the request of a publisher/agent – such as fonts, line spacing, or margins, all of which can easily be done on a computer – I refuse to entirely reformat my manuscript for a query. I did that once. A publisher's webpage said they were accepting manuscripts for consideration, so I spent two days preparing the submission to their meet their formatting guidelines, e-mailed the query, and got a response less than an hour later saying the publisher was no longer accepting submissions. Needless to say, I never made that mistake again.]

-- Every publisher and agent I have talked to has decried simultaneous submissions (sending query submissions to more than one publisher/agnet at a time), each of them relating how they spent several hours reading a submission, got excited about the work, and called back the author only to find that he/she had contracted with someone else. While I understand their rationale for refusing simultaneous submissions, I find it unreasonable. It can take months for a publisher/agent to respond to you, if they respond at all, and more often than not they are not interested in seeing the entire manuscript. That restriction against simultaneous places an unfair burden on aspiring authors. I see no problem with sending queries to more than one publisher at a time. However, and this is vital, show professional courtesy. If you have a manuscript with one publisher/agent and a second asks to see it, let the second publisher/agent know that someone else is currently looking at it. Publishers/agents will understand if they contact you based on a query, but someone else has contracted the manuscript before them. However, if they read the entire manuscript and then find out you were shopping that same manuscript to their competitors, you’ll earn a reputation you do not want to have in the industry.

-- Finally, do not feel compelled to accept any contract offered to you. I’ve been very fortunate that my publisher treats its authors fairly and with respect. Not all of them are like that. Last year I was contacted by a publisher who said how much he loved my manuscript and wanted to send me a contract. When I received it I laughed. The publisher wanted all rights (print, electronic, audio, radio, TV, movie, and character) to my first four books in perpetuity (i.e. forever) for a measly 10 percent royalty on any profits. The contract should have been emblazoned with a skull and crossbones in the corner. If the contract doesn’t settle right with you, trust your instincts and question it. Do not sign on the dotted line out of fear that no one will ever offer you another contract again. You worked too hard on that book to give away all the rights to someone else. Think of how badly George Lucas would have been screwed if he had given away to 20th Century Fox all the rights to Star Wars.

When it comes to discussing query submissions, this blog just touches the tip of the iceberg. But at least it gives you a framework to start from.

Below I included a sample query letter to use as a guideline.

Dear Publisher/Agent:

While researching potential publishers for my manuscript, I discovered your homepage and decided to contact you to gauge your interest in my book.

The Vampire Hunters are Drake Matthews and Alison Monroe, two former cops who turned in their badges for stakes, and Jim Delmarco, an engineering student with a knack for developing lethal weapons against the undead. Their target is a nest of more than a dozen vampires located in Washington D.C. and led by two masters, one of whom prefers to indulge his decadence rather than ensure the nest's survival, and his mistress who will go to any lengths to gain control over the nest. Driven by a determination to rid the city of this ultimate evil, and armed with nothing more sophisticated than low-tech conventional weapons, the hunters wage a relentless and violent war against the undead in the streets and back alleys of the nation's capital.

In The Vampire Hunters I flesh out the vampires so they are an integral part of the story but, unlike many contemporary novels, I depict my vampires as vicious and inhuman. With the recent success of such books as David Wellington's Bullet series and del Toro's/Hogan's Strain trilogy, The Vampire Hunters is perfectly poised to take advantage of the growing interest in vampires as evil, non-romantic characters.

The manuscript is 78,000 words in length and is ready for immediate submission.

As I noted above, the manuscript is the first in a trilogy. I have completed The Vampire Hunters: Vampyrnomicon (the introduction of the Master vampire, Chiang Shih, and her plan to establish a vampire kingdom), which is 100,000 words in length. The final book in the trilogy, The Vampire Hunters: Dominion (the final battle between good and evil), will be completed in the spring of 2010 and should be 100,000 words in length.

As for previous writing credits, I have authored several short stories, including “Rednecks Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things,” which appeared in the autumn 2008 edition of the e-zine Necrotic Tissue; “Cruise of the Living Dead,” which appeared in Living Dead Press’ Dead Worlds: Volume 3 anthology (August 2009); “Deck the Malls with Bowels of Holly,” which appeared in Living Dead Press‘ Christmas Is Dead anthology (October 2009); and “Denizens,” which appeared in Living Dead Press’ The Book of Horror anthology (March 2010).

Per your guidelines, I have included the first thirty pages and a synopsis so you can get a feel for my writing. I can forward the entire manuscript upon request.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely yours,
Scott M. Baker

phone number
website URL
blog URL
Facebook URL
Twitter URL

NEXT WEEK: Finding a Publisher or Literary Agent, Part III (where to find them).

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Finding a Publisher or Literary Agent Part I by Scott M. Baker

“How difficult is it to draft a query letter? And how do I find a publisher or agent to send it to?”

First hings first. It’s not that difficult to write a query letter. Which is fortunate, because drafting a good query letter is the most important aspect (next to actually writing the book) of getting published. You may have written the next bestseller, but if you can’t garner enough interest from publishers or literary agents to look at it, your novel/story is just taking up space on your hard drive.

Let me preface this section by stating that there are numerous ways to write a query. Use the format that best works for your work, or that you feel most comfortable with. What I’m offering are tips on how I draft a query, and so far they seem to have been successful for me. Also, this format should be used only for works of fiction. Non-fiction query guidelines are much different.

Start out with a brief introduction on how you discovered the publisher/agent. If a published author has referred you to them, or if you met this person at a convention and he/she asked you to forward a submission, state that up front. It gives you a foot up to climb out of the slush pile. Otherwise, just say that you discovered them while researching potential publishers/agents for your work, and you wanted to give them the opportunity to review your manuscript.

Next comes a brief description of your novel/story. Keep it to one small paragraph, two at most. Make it just long enough to provide a general idea what the work is about and entice the publisher/agent to want to read more. How do you do this? Read a few examples from jacket covers or the back of a paperback to get an idea. Remember, this is the make or break paragraph of the entire query. If you do not immediately snag the interest of a publisher/ agent, they’ll throw the query aside and move on to the next one. You need to get a hook into them so they’ll continue reading.

Your next paragraph has to sell the concept. The publisher/agent will receive hundreds of submission for romances, murder mysteries, vampire thrillers, animal books, or whatever genre you write in. Your novel/story must stand out. Saying your mother or spouse thought it was terrific will not get you published. Nor will telling them that you’re the next Stephen King or Dan Brown get you out of the slush pile. Publishing is a business, and your work will never make it into print unless you can convince the publisher/agent that it’s perfectly poised to take advantage of a new trend in the market, or brings specific insight to the genre that has not been seen before.

Follow with a brief paragraph noting what is attached to your e-mail, the word count, and whether the novel/story is available for immediate submission. [NOTE: Don’t waste your time querying publishers/agents with unfinished work. Rarely do they show interest in them.] If your novel is part of a series, now is the time to state that and, if known, offer an idea when the next book(s) in the series will be available.

Your penultimate paragraph should be about you. What makes you qualified to write this novel/story? Are you a police detective writing about a homicide unit in New York? Were you the victim of an abusive relationship, or a recovering addict, who has fictionalized your life? If you have no specific experiences you can relate to (I’ve never hunted vampires for a living, though I would like to), find a way to make yourself interesting. You’re selling yourself as well as your book.

This is also the paragraph to list your previous writing credits. Don’t list more than three otherwise you’ll look like you’re being pompous. List the most recent works, or those that are most relevant to your query. [NOTE: If you’re writing in a genre in which you don’t have relevant experience, I recommend trying to get several short stories published before you attempt to query on a book. Being able to say that you’ve been previously published bolsters your credentials. I noticed that publishers/agents showed more interest in looking at my novel after I had a few short stories in my bibliography.]

Finally, end with a closing sentence thanking them for their consideration and noting that you look forward to hearing from them.

NEXT: Finding a Publisher or Literary Agent, Part II (some useful tips on writing queries and a sample query letter)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Mechanics of Writing by Scott M. Baker

“I have a story idea in mind and am psyched to begin writing. What’s the best way to get started? Should I outline the plot first, or just jump in and write?”

There’s no right or wrong method to use in plotting out your novel. The mechanics of writing is one of personal choice, so go with whatever method works best for you.

For example, Jeffery Deaver creates meticulous outlines for his novels, detailing each scene and key segments of dialogue on sheets of paper and sticky notes that fill the walls of his study. He admits that it takes him months to come up with such a detailed framework. However, when he sits down to actually write the novel, since most of the work is already completed, it doesn’t take him long to finish the manuscript.

I prefer a less structured method. When I’m plotting out my novels, I keep a stack of lined 3x5 cards handy and write scenes down as I think of them. On each card I include anything that I want to put into the scene, such as descriptions, plot points, or snippets of dialogue I don’t want to forget. Before I start writing, I arrange the cards in the order I want the book to flow. This allows me to outline the major themes in the plot, but allows enough flexibility that I can add or re-order scenes easily.

These methods represent two different concepts of organization, and most of you will use a method of plot outlining that falls somewhere in between. What is important is, no matter which method you use, be sure you have a firm grasp of the opening, conflict, and resolution of your story before you begin outlining/writing your story. You can always change those elements later. But if you don’t have a basic idea where your story starts and ends, no amount of outlining will turn it into a viable manuscript. Trust me on this one. I have several short stories taking up space on my hard drive because I wrote them based on a single scene, but have yet to find an effective way to start or end them.

“Thanks. This has been a big help. While you’re here, can you give me any tips on writing?”

Yes, I can. But this is not the blog series for that. There are thousands of books out there dedicated to instructing someone on how to write a book. They cover all the aspects of writing – plot, setting, character development, voice, etc. There are even books that tell you how to write in specific genres. Feel free to use them if you want. No one has ever become a bad writer by reading these works.

In my opinion, the best way for someone to become a good writer is to read in order to see how other authors write, and then start writing yourself. When I say read a lot, I mean it. Go through at least one book a week. Start with the classics. We’re still reading Twain, Hemingway, Austen, and the like not just because our English professors are sadists, but because those authors knew how to write compelling stories that have stood the test of time. Then read a wide variety of books and authors in whatever genre you’re writing in, as well as at least a few books outside your genre.

And don’t forget to read trashy books, whether they’re pulp novels meant solely to entertain and entice, or novels that are just horribly written. Figure out what those authors did to make their works so laughable or painful to read, and learn from their mistakes. Remember, it takes a long time and many published works to build up a fan base, but only one poorly-written story or novel to turn off readers forever.

So while I won’t offer writing tips in this blog series, I do want to point out that there are certain aspects of writing you need to pay close attention to if you ever hope to get out of the slush pile and get published. These points have been reiterated to me time and again by publishers and literary agents, all of whom said that when they see these types of mistakes in query submissions, they immediately take the work out of contention for publication.

The first is grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Over time you’ll find your own writing style and voice. But if you don’t have the basics down, you’ll find it that much more difficult to break away from the thousands of other authors bombarding publishers and agents with their works. As part of this advice, make sure you proof read your final work carefully. You may have written the next bestseller, but if your sample chapters are chocked full of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and incorrect punctuation, good luck getting a publisher or agent to read beyond the first few pages. Even if they see the potential in your book, they’ll view you a sloppy author and will think carefully before taking you on. And if comes down between you and an author whose writing is solid, who do you think will get the contract?

Realistic dialogue is also very important to sealing that book deal. So of course, it’s one of the hardest parts to get right. If you write dialogue so that it’s grammatically correct, it sounds stilted and turns off the reader. If you write it to sound like every day conversations, you run the risk of making your characters sound like idiots. I trained myself to write decent dialogue by listening to others talk. This has the added benefit of letting people think you’re the silent, mysterious type (or they’ll just think you’re an introvert, which most writers are).

Finally, make sure you maintain the continuity of your story and characters. If your main character’s name is Ken Smith, always refer to him as either Ken or Smith throughout the story, and do not interchange the names. Keep your secondary characters straight as well; if you call someone Bob when he first appears in chapter three, make sure you don’t call him Bill when he reappears in chapter ten. If you describe your main character as being bald in chapter one, don’t have him run his fingers through his hair in chapter five. If your character is a devout Mormon, don’t show him/her drinking a cup of coffee without explaining why. If your story is set in Maine in the middle of December, don’t have the characters sunbathing three scenes later. If your story is set in Victorian-era New York, don’t have electric street lamps lining the streets. These are the minutiae that are easy to overlook. When publishers or agents catch them, they immediately get the impression that you’re a sloppy writer (see above). And if your readers catch them, you lose them quickly. I have had several authors who write historical dramas tell me that the worst criticism they receive from readers is when they get some historical fact wrong.

So consider yourself forewarned. Now get out there and start writing. Your public is waiting.

NEXT BLOG: Finding a publisher or literary agent.