Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Holi, the Festival of Colors, and My First Shakespearean Moment


Happy Holi! Today, Indians welcome spring by celebrating the Festival of Colors. People gather on the streets, with their friends and neighbors, and engage in the largest paint fight game you can imagine. If you plan to step outside, you'd better wear old clothes you don't care about, because you'll soon get pelted with colored paint or powder.

In fact, one of my earliest memories involves the Holi festival. I was about three or four years old, and my family was staying at my grandparents' apartment in Calcutta. My grandmother and I leaned out their living room window and peered down at the streets below.

“There,” she said, “See those people? They're playing Holi.”

I did indeed see people below, even a few neighbors I recognized, swathed in a riot of dark colors. Their hair, their faces, their clothes, their hands and even their sandaled feet had all been coated in paint. They had been transformed into creatures I didn't recognize, demon-like creatures from the netherworlds.

When my grandparents and my sister cheerfully asked me to come out with them, I refused and hid behind my mother's sari. Why did my family want to venture out into that strange world of monster-like beings? My mother laughed and told me I didn't have to go, and so I stayed in the sunny haven of the apartment.

Not long later, my grandparents and sister returned, their faces too mutated by the colors. They had been taken by the disease! With wide smiles they asked me to join them, stretching out their purple, blue, and red demon fingers toward me.

Never! I shrieked and ran into the master bedroom, slamming the door behind me. My mother knocked and found me skulking behind the large four-poster bed.

“There's nothing to be scared of,” she told me, “It's just paint. It comes off. Don't you want to go out and play with your sister?”

I shook my head and refused to budge from the bedroom.

“Suit yourself.”

I sat there as the afternoon sun climbed higher and higher into the sky, gleaming through the single window. I hid in the safety of the shadows, wondering when this frightful day might end. A long time later, there came another knock on the door. My mother called at me through it. She was the only one I trusted—certainly not my grandparents or sister—so I ventured to open the door.

This was my first truly Shakespearean moment. My mother's lovely, fair skin had disappeared. In its place, a blue smear ran across her forehead. A patch of red grew around her right eye. And her cheeks, mouth, and chin were as green as the face of an evil witch.

Et tu, Brute?

My American elementary school teachers never could understand my strong aversion to finger painting.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Word on the Street is Wrong: Agent Myths Double Time


I'm a huge fan of Billy Blanks' Tae Bo workout videos. He starts each exercise slow so you can figure out what you're supposed to be doing. Then he calls out “Double Time!” and you repeat the motion at an inhuman, calorie devouring pace.

Anyway, I thought I'd end my March Myths on Getting an Agent series in double time. Ready?

Street says: Agents take a long time to respond to queries so you may as well send a few out and then revise.
Me: Some agents take a long time, others respond in literally minutes to a query and in a couple of weeks to a partial. You never know which day an agent may choose to clear out her inbox. Be prepared and don't start querying until your manuscript is so shiny, Gollum calls it Precious.

Street says: Query as many agents as possible, as fast as possible.
Me: Start by querying in batches of 5-10 highly targeted agents. Funny thing, I tended to get requests from agents who represented authors I liked. In other words, we had similar tastes.  Guess the process really is subjective, huh? It's also best to take it slowly in case you have to adjust your query, partial, or even full manuscript. The waiting can be excruciating but you'll be glad if you don't burn through 50 agents in a month and then realize you need to revise. That said, don't be discouraged if your first few batches don't work out. Keep querying as long as you still feel passionate about the project, and you just might find the right somebody.

Street says: Stalk agents on Twitter while you query.
Me: Following agents on Twitter while you're working on your manuscript is useful and elightening. They can give you both great writing tips and great querying tips. But when you've got your polished query and you start sending it out, you might want to stay away because it's a bit of a blow each time they tweet about a new fabulous client that isn't you. Or when they whine that they're not seeing X types of projects when you just sent them that exact thing.

Street says: Keep up with the latest trends.
Me: By the time you finish your WIP, the trend might be over. It can actually hurt to follow trends because the market might get saturated with that type of book. You're best writing something unique and fresh, within the confines of the genre (or not—genre mashups are great, too!). However, you're going to be at a disadvantage if you haven't read widely in your genre within the last 5 years. YA books today are not like the ones from my youth, and it's best to understand what is popular in terms of length, content, voice, etc.


Street says: Attend expensive conferences so you can pitch to agents in person.
Me: Attend conferences that you can afford because you're interested in the workshops and want to learn more about the industry. They're also a fun way to get inspired and meet fellow writers. The pitch portion itself isn't worth hundreds of dollars—ultimately agents care about the book, not about how many jokes you can tell or how fabulous your conference outfit is. Their response will likely be the same as if you'd simply emailed a query letter.

There are so many other things I could touch upon in the querying process, but my list would be endless! So I'm wrapping up agent myths for now and I plan to do a different series in April. Also, watch out for a query critique giveaway!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Word on the Street is Wrong: Myths on Getting An Agent, Volume 3


Here's the latest in my series on agent myths. As usual, it's just one opinion.

Myth #3: You need a web presence before you begin querying.

Already have a blog, twitter account, all that good stuff? Dude, that is awesome, and more power to you! There are tons of reasons to get active on the web early, including but not limited to:
  • creating an outlet for sharing your hopes, fears, and triumphs
  • networking and being part of the online writing community
  • getting feedback and encouragement
  • building a base web presence that will be useful for marketing and promotional purposes later

Yet, there is definitely an opportunity cost associated with spending time blogging. When I was working a day job, I hardly had enough energy to work on my novel, much less come up with blog topics. Even after I started writing full-time, I still wanted to put all my creative energy into my WIP. After all, my book was my first priority.

The truth is, you will need a web presence eventually, but if you're still writing your novel or at the querying stage, you can relax a bit. Especially if you have limited time, really consider whether your WIP should trump all else. However, you might find that blogging and community help motivate you to write more. Everyone is different! Do it because you want to, not because you feel obligated to.

By the way, agent Kristin Nelson agrees.  She wrote on her blog, “I personally don’t know any agent who would say no to an author for a project they love just because the publicity platform isn’t there yet.Read the full post here.

If you do want to dip your toes in social media, you could start with twitter. You only need to write 140 characters at a time! Just beware: twitter can easily become more of a time sink than blogging, if you let it.

I hope that helps!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Word on the Street is Wrong: Myths on Getting an Agent, Volume 2


Last week, I shared a common myth involving conference pitches.  This week I want to simplify the query process for you.  This post is definitely an opinion.

Myth #2: Because agents have different opinions on the best way to write a query, you should write several queries tailored to their preferences.

Some agents love log lines, some hate them. Some agents love comparison titles, some loathe them. Some agents want only one concise paragraph, while others recommend 2-3 paragraphs. Have you ever thought: How many queries do you have to write? I'm so confused.

Take a deep breath. Calm down. And write one query.  It's what most people do, but every once in a while I meet someone who is convinced that she has to write to an agent's preferences.  I think this does more harm than good.

Why?

Because while agents claim to have different preferences, they really want to see the pitch that best showcases your novel.

Note that:
  1. I do think you should include a personalized section stating why you think a particular agent is so fabulous and a great fit for you.
  2. If your query isn't working, you should revise it or try a new angle. Send your query in batches of 5-10 so you can gauge its success.

So now for the part where you write the best query for your novel! Let's take a look at some of the parts of a query that agents disagree on. 

1. Log Lines


Log lines are best suited for a high-concept novel. Otherwise, I'd advise you not to bother with one.  When an agent says she likes log lines, it's probably because she's most interested in high-concept works. But you can't pretend your book is high-concept if it isn't.

So what is high-concept? Another myth is that high-concept means you can describe the book in a single sentence. That's sort of true, but sort of misleading. You can describe any book in a single sentence.

Take The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht as an example. A one-line description: When a woman's grandfather dies, she ponders the meaning of death through Baltic folklore.

There, I gave you a one-sentence description, but it really doesn't showcase it. It doesn't really give you an idea of how the themes of death and grieving are poignantly explored in the book. That's because this is not high-concept.

A high-concept book hinges on a single premise or gimmick, and everything else that happens follows directly from this. For example, Cinder by Marissa Meyer is so high-concept I can pitch it with two words: cyborg Cinderella. That's all you have to say.

(PS: I don't mean gimmick in a negative connotation.  I was very excited to read about cyborg Cinderella!)

2. Length / Number of Paragraphs

This really depends on your book. I know that some agents say they only want one paragraph, but you may need 3-4 paragraphs to work in the details that really make your novel unique. For example, with a science fiction story, you might want a short paragraph introducing the world, another introducing the main character, and a final one explaining how the two are in conflict with one another.

There is no formula. Take up to 250 words, try different angles, and choose the most compelling one.

3.  Focus of Pitch


Pitching all the cool stuff in your novel in a mere 250 words can be overwhelming. If you feel this way, it might be best to focus on only the first few chapters and your inciting incident. However, if you feel as if some of the most compelling elements of your book happen later, than you might instead focus the query on the main conflict and include details about the obstacles your character faces as she/he races toward the climax of your story. 

4.  Comparison Titles

I personally think these are really tough to do, and for most people they simply aren't necessary. It's difficult to call out titles that the agent will have heard of but aren't mega-bestsellers that are overused as comp titles. Also, although you might think the book is similar for one reason, it might not be readily apparent to the agent.

The pitch portion and genre should give the agent a really good idea about where in the marketplace this book would fit in. For example, there is no reason to compare your book to Twilight if the only thing that they really have in common is that they are both YA paranormal romances. You've already stated the genre, and the comparison title isn't actually adding anything. I would only recommend using comparison titles if it gives a more nuanced impression than the genre, or if your book is really unusual but you want to show it has some marketability.

Hope that helps and watch out for more agent myths on this blog!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Word on the Street is Wrong: Myths on Getting an Agent



I love my fellow writers, and they usually offer all sorts of great advice. But there are a few ill-advised pieces I hear over and over again, and it's all I can do not to not to scream, “No! That's not true!” to my friends' faces. So instead, I will scream it to you, dear reader. No! It's not true!

I will be sharing these myths about landing an agent in a series of posts (in no particular order). Obviously, these are my personal opinion, based on my own experiences and observations.

Myth #1: If you pitch to an agent at a conference, send her your material soon or she'll forget about you!

The above has been said to me, often delivered with an annoyingly perky smile, at every conference I've ever been to. The smile is only annoying because I usually don't have a manuscript in perfect, polished condition at that exact moment, and my instinct is to run away and hide because I am a terrible, not-ready-to-submit writer. It's enough to give a nervous writer hives.

The truth is, you usually plan on attending a conference months ahead of time, and you have no idea if you will have completed your WIP by the date of the conference. Most likely, you'll be in the middle of something, and that's okay.

So here is the low-down. It might sting. You may have to sit down for this. But guess what? She's already forgotten about you, most likely. Agents at big conferences might have 50+ pitches thrown at them. The silver lining: she can use these nifty tools called pen and paper to keep track of her requests. Maybe even a laptop if she's extra savvy.

Most writers I know query far too early, and they feel especially compelled to make this mistake after a conference. An agent wants to see your best material and no, she's not going to think you're an imposter because you send it a few months later.

It's really very simple. As the subject line of your email, write “Requested <Partial or Full> for <TITLE> (from <XYZ Conference>)”. In the body of the email, you can even mention how lovely it was to meet said agent at said conference. No need to apologize for the wait! I promise you, she may not remember you, but she remembers attending the conference. She can simply look back at her notes, and say, “Oh yes. I was excited to see that YA novel about <insert your brilliant idea here>.”

She will appreciate the confidence and professionalism you display by sending the manuscript when it is ready to be seen, even if it is months after the fact. Newsflash: it doesn't matter if she can't recall your fabulous conference shoes, no matter how much you spent on them. It's all about the book.

Dear writer, take your time and get it right. Don't miss out on a great agent because Miss Perky Smile goaded you into freaking out and sending too early.

Check back for more agent myths soon!