August 2010

Welcome to Friday! Sorry I’m a little behind on my posts this week. First, I’d like to encourage you to stop by author Irene Roth’s blog site today for a short interview with yours truly.

Today I’d like to discuss agents–more specifically, how do you know if you’re ready for one, what do agents do, and how do you find one? I’ve known some writers who start looking for an agent as soon as they get their first magazine article published! Their thinking is that if they start the process early, by the time they’re ready to write their book, an agent will be there waiting for them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work this way.

The first question you should ask yourself if you’re considering hiring an agent is: Why do I really want one? There are plenty of right and wrong reasons for wanting an agent. Wrong reasons include: So you can say, “I’ll have my agent call you,” or “I don’t know if I’m free that day. Let me call my agent.”  Another wrong reason is to prove that you have arrived in publishing (which it really doesn’t).  A third wrong reason is assuming that they will help you write your book.

Right reasons for having an agent would be: You’ve gone as far as you think you can go on your own without one; there are certain publishing houses you want to break into, but they’re closed to non-agented proposals; and you’re a successful book author who needs someone to manage  negotiations, long-range planning, and marketing strategies.

In order to determine whether or not you need or are ready for an agent, you must know what an agent does. What are the roles of an agent? One of the most important things an agent can do for you is to help you make industry connections, whether that’s with publishing houses, PR people, book doctors, etc. They are in the know as to who would be right for you and your writing.

Another agent role is, of course, to market and sell your book to publishers. As mentioned before, agents can get in many places independent authors cannot. Many publishers have now taken the path of not looking at manuscripts unless they are presented through an agent. Agents also are instrumental in negotiating contracts, including revenues, advances, various book rights, multiple contract deals, and ancillary products or licensing. Unless you’re a legal whiz or expert negotiator, it’s best to leave this part to your agent.

Agents can also act as strategic planners, helping to guide your career, so to speak. Knowing industry trends and the inside-outs of various publishing houses, they can help you mold your writing so it fits in better with what the market is demanding. This doesn’t mean they will change your style or voice, but rather that they can help you stay in the flow of what’s hot and not miss the mark when it’s time for your next book to come out.

When you feel you’re at a place where you could really use an agent to either help you open otherwise closed doors or get your career on track, it’s time to start researching.You can start by finding a listing of agents in book market guides. You’ll also want to gather referrals from other authors. Often agents will take on a new author through referrals of existing clients. I highly suggest checking out Predators and Editors as well, a website that lists agents to stay away from.

After you’ve compiled a list of possible agents, research them like you would a publisher. Agents, like publishers, tend to work within certain genres. Learn which agencies will be right for what you write. Also find out if they’re currently taking on new authors. Then learn what authors they represent and what publishers they have sold to. It may also be helpful to learn how big their agency is. Some authors prefer large over small, or vice-versa, so you may want to find that out if it’s important to you.

Consider your agent to be a business partner. Spend the time necessary to find out what the particular agent you’d be working with is like. If you’re the kind of person who needs constant communication, a detailed account of every conversation between your agent and the publisher, and so forth, you’ll need to be sure to find an agent who’s willing to do that. Otherwise, you’ll end up extremely frustrated. Get to know the agent’s personality and how he works with authors before choosing one. A good agent can be your partner for a long time. You want to make sure you have a good working relationship and each of you knows your expectations going in.

If any of you have a story of how you successfully landed a good agent, I’d love to hear about it!

If you’re a writer looking for an additional source of revenue, you may want to consider proofreading or editing. This is not to say that just because you can write you can edit (or vice-versa), but if you find you have a knack for it–and enjoy it–it can be a great way to bring in some extra money while your writing business is gaining momentum, and it can provide an excellent source of industry connections.

There are essentially three categories of editing, all of which are quite different from one another. Typically if you get hired for a project by a publisher, you would be expected to do only one of these three. If you are working for an independent author or a small business, then you may do all three. The three categories are as follows:

1. Content editing–In content editing you are looking at the big picture: For nonfiction this would include overall flow and organization of materials, paragraph structure and construction (do all paragraphs stick to one thought or theme or are they scattered?), passive vs. active voice, style, clarity, etc. For fiction you’d also be checking for use and consistency of dialogue, story arc, conflict, resolution, story pacing, and character development.

Your job as a content editor is to make sure that the writing reads well overall, makes sense, and has a logical flow. Content editors will re-arrange paragraphs, cut scenes that don’t work, and add text to give the writing clarity.

2. Copy editing or line editing–While the copy editor will make note of any of the above content editing issues, the focus here is more on sentence structure, proper grammar, precise wording, and fact checking. By the time the copy editor gets the manuscript from the publisher, the “big picture” stuff should be ironed out. It’s the copy editor’s job to go through the manuscript line by line (hence the job title) and work on individual sentences and wording. Also, if there are quotes used or other references in the text, the copy editor will check those for accuracy.

3. Proofreading–This is the final stage of the editing process, and most publishers have 2-3 proofers that will read a manuscript before it heads to print. At this point, you will be looking for spelling mistakes, words used incorrectly, punctuation errors, typos, consistency with heading/subheading styles, and, at the final proof, formatting issues. If you are a detail-oriented person, proofreading can be fun. If you’re not, it’s a nightmare!

If you think you may be good at one or all of the above and want to try your hand at it, one good way to break in is to contact publishing houses and ask if they use contract or freelance proofreaders and/or editors.  In all cases, they will give you a test, which involves editing a sample manuscript according to their house style guides and other resources they use (AP style manual or Chicago Manual of Style, for instance). It’s more common for publishers to hire freelancers for proofing and copy editing than for content editing, which they will typically do in-house.

Once you get in with one publisher and prove yourself, it’s easier to walk through other doors. Often you can “work your way up” as well, starting out as a proofreader then moving to a copy editor and then a content editor. Even though the skills are unique for each, and one isn’t “better” than another, there seems to be an unwritten rule that proofreaders are the bottom rung of the ladder!

Although classes do exist for editing–usually at community colleges or through writing workshops–the best way to learn is simply by practicing. You can also learn a lot by paying close attention to what edits have been made to manuscripts that you’ve sent to publishers. I always like to compare my original work with the post-edited finished product to see what the editors changed. Not only does that help be become a better writer, but I learn about the editing process as well.

There are also many online forums and networking groups strictly for editors. These can be an excellent place to ask questions about the industry, get editing tips, and find out where the jobs are.

Don’t discount editing if you think you might be good at it. I’ve landed many writing jobs as a result of the in-house editors getting to know me first through my editing/proofing skills.

Please join me today on the National Writing for Children Center website, where Part 2 to my article, “Writing Query Letters That Sell” will be posted. You’ll learn what you must always avoid when writing queries and the Top 5 elements of a query that will help keep it out of the slush pile.

While this website is geared to children’s writers, writing queries is for anyone who wants to be published, whether in magazines or books. If you do write for children, I guarantee you will love the National Writing for Children Center site and all the awesome resources it has!

Hope to see you there!

If you’re a new writer, or perhaps even a published writer, learning about all the ins and outs of the various rights available in the publishing world can be daunting.  To make this process easier, I’ve put together a “quick and dirty” guide to what’s offered in publishing in the areas of magazine rights and book rights.

Let’s take a minute first, though, to talk about copyrighting your work. Many new writers want to know how they should go about getting their work copyrighted to protect their ideas and words. Because of U.S. copyright laws, once your article or manuscript is written, it is considered yours and does not need an official copyright. Your original manuscript copy, or a dated submission when you send it off to a publisher is all the proof you need that it’s your work.

If you do decide that you still want to register your work, you would need to obtain copyright forms and then register your work for a small fee.

Book Rights

There are basically two different ways you can get paid from a publisher if you write a book. [For purposes of this discussion I will be focusing on traditionally published books only, not self-published or e-books.] The method in which you get paid determines the type of rights you own to this book. One way is called work for hire. If a publisher contracts you to do a work-for-hire book, they’ll pay you a flat fee and you’ll typically work on assignment, meaning they often have the idea and structure for the book, and they just want you to write it. Once you get paid your one-time, flat fee, you’re finished making money on the book. Under this form of contract, the publisher will retain all rights to the book. You’ll see your name on the book as the author, but after the copyright symbol, the publisher’s name will be there, not yours.

The other way to make money on a book is when the publisher pays you royalties for each book that you sell, which is called royalty publishing. Under this form, you’ll retain the rights to the book, and you can continue to get paid for it as long as the book is still in print and selling. Usually, with this form of contract, the author holds ALL rights, which may also include subsidiary rights for things such as paperback rights, TV or movie rights, any toys, games, etc. that may be created as a result of your characters (if you’re writing children’s books, of course!), and book club rights.

For an in-depth discussion on the pros and cons of work-for-hire vs. royalty writing, check out my interview with children’s author Nancy Sanders.

Magazine Rights

The publishing rights for magazines is not nearly as simple as for books. Following are the basic rights that you may be offered for your magazine article. If you don’t agree with these rights, you, of course, have the right to shop your article around to other publishers who will negotiate rights that you are more in favor of. Magazine publishers will normally advertise the rights they offer in their writers’ guidelines or in a market guide, so you’ll know up-front what you’re getting into.

• All World Rights–Here the publisher has rights to publish your work anywhere in the world and for any number of times they want. They also have the right to use your work in the future in any form of media. So, basically, once you sell these rights, you can never use this particular work again in any closely related form.

• One-Time Rights–This is when a publisher buys the right to use your work only one time. If you want to send the same manuscript to another publisher even after one buys it for one-time rights, you can do so. It’s important, however, that you let all publishers involved know that you are submitting your work simultaneously to other magazines. One-time rights may be further defined by a particular geographic region or a particular media (website-use only, for instance). Be sure to get a clear definition from the publisher of exactly what rights they are buying so you know where else you’re free to sell that same work again.

First Rights--First rights are similar to one-time rights, except here the publisher says that they want to be the first one to use your article in their magazine. Once they’ve published the article, however, you are now free to sell it again as a reprint anywhere you want.

• Second or Reprint Rights--These rights allow a publisher rights to publish your work a second time. Sometimes they may want to reprint your work in a different form (maybe an as inclusion in a collection of works or on their e-zine as well as in their print magazine). These rights do not mean that you can’t also have another publisher publish that work, but it entitles the first publisher the automatic right to do so.

Electronic Rights–Electronic rights may include any form of electronic publication: websites and blogs, e-zines, CD-ROM, etc. If a publisher wants electronic rights to your work, they need to list them as a separate right; they are not automatically included in first or one-time rights, unless specifically stated.

That’s a (very) brief overview of the basic rights offered in the world of publishing. Specific magazine and book contracts may spell out other nuances in regards to these rights that were not specifically addressed here. It’s important to carefully read publisher’s contacts so you know exactly what rights they are purchasing from you and what those rights mean. And, if you’re not sure, either research them or just ask the publisher for clarity. It’s better to go into a contract knowing for exactly what you’re getting into instead of just assuming you know.

I wanted to alert everyone to an article I wrote that was just posted on the National Writing for Children Center site. It is Part 1 of a 2-part article (second part to be posted Monday, August 16) entitled “How to Write Query Letters That Sell.” Although this article is geared to writers for children, its principles can be applied to any magazine or book you happen to be writing.

Query letters are an integral part of the publishing business, and they can be intimidating if you’re not sure how to write one or what all goes in one. But once you do, you can master the art of writing them, which will bring you one step closer to seeing your work in print.

Please take a moment to stop by and check out, not only my article, but the NWFCC site. Suzanne Lieurance, a veteran children’s writer, instructor, and manuscript reviewer, has done an awesome job at putting together an excellent resource for children’s writers.

Tomorrow on my weekly blog, I will be discussing the various rights that are offered for your work and dissecting what they all mean. See ya then!

What to you makes good writing great?

To me, it’s the use of various techniques that take your writing up a notch; some say that make your writing “sing.” Sometimes, to make your writing sing, you may need to break a few rules along the way.

For instance, pacing is a huge part of writing effectively and well. You’ll notice pace used frequently in fiction and will also see it’s evidence in good nonfiction. To control pacing, you may need to use sentence fragments to speed things up. Fragments are grammatically incorrect, of course, but they can create just the pace you’re looking for.

You can also control pacing through sentence length and syllable length in words. Short words and sentences will nearly always quicken the pace of your writing.

How about lyrical qualities? Writing should have a rhythm to it–a flow that takes you from one scene or one paragraph to another. One way to achieve rhythm is to write ideas or present nouns in pairs or trios: “The sunset transformed the sky into red and purple. The mountains and clouds reflected its beauty.”

Sometimes you can create rhythm and even mood through specific word choices. Using hard consonant sounds you can create moods of anger, tension, or sadness. Using long vowel sounds leads to feelings of calmness, peacefulness, or soberness. Think of vowel sounds you would use when speaking to a baby: the “oo” sound as in “moon,” or a long E sound. These have a calming effect.

And, then there are techniques such as metaphors, similes, aphorisms, onomatopoeia, and alliteration. These can definitely help make your writing sing. The balance with such techniques, however, is to use them sparingly and don’t make them the center of attention. You want your reader to notice the overall quality and tone of your writing and not stop mid-paragraph to admire your metaphor. These techniques should be supporting actors in your performance and not the main stars.

I’d love to hear from you on techniques you use to make your writing sing. Or, what have you found in others’ writing that you find especially lyrcial?

Please stop by author Margaret Fieland’s website, today for a discussion with me on the in’s and out’s of tech writing!