Writers Conferences – Finding Your Tribe

Courtesy of Flickr

Years ago, my husband and I had a good friend named Jimmy Bogle (not to be confused with the American Ninja Warrior). Jimmy was a little person who stood about four feet six inches in cowboy boots.

Jimmy told stories about growing up in the 1920s and ’30s, during an era when little people were considered “freaks” and “abnormal.” Children born with dwarfism were often hidden away in the basement so they wouldn’t bring shame on their families. Many grew up in isolation, never knowing there were other little people like themselves. A few found homes in circus sideshows or vaudeville but career options were pretty limited.

Then came the casting call for Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.

During the poverty of the Great Depression, parents of little people seized the chance to earn money from their children’s size.

Jimmy was a teenager at the time. He was chosen to take over the role of the Mayor of the Munchkins when the original adult actor (who receives credit on Wikipedia) couldn’t finish the film. Heavy makeup transformed Jimmy into a wrinkled old man.

More than a hundred little people came together and were cast in the movie. Many had never encountered another little person before. For the first time in their lives, they connected with others from similar sheltered backgrounds, with similar problems and feelings. They were no longer isolated but suddenly among friends with whom they had an immediate connection. In 21st century parlance, they’d found their tribe.

Let the celebration begin!

The Munchkin cast was short in stature but long on partying. They drank and danced and pulled pranks. They fell in and out of love several times a night. Full of mischievous exuberance, they trashed the hotel where they were staying.

Knowing Jimmy, we suspect he played ringleader to this merry band of cut-ups.

In 1981, Billy Barty, Chevy Chase, and Carrie Fisher starred in the film Under the Rainbow, a fictionalized account of the making of The Wizard of Oz. Jimmy scoffed at the movie, saying it didn’t do justice to his gang’s shenanigans.

What does this have to do with writing conferences? I’m glad you asked.

Although writers’ families don’t hide us away in basements (at least not usually!), we are often perceived as different from regular people.

Writers work in isolation, living inside our imaginations. Many are shy introverts and are sometimes perceived as antisocial.

That is, until we get around other writers. Then we emerge from our shells.

At my first writing conference, I was a tongue-tied beginner, ill at ease, self-conscious, surrounded by professional authors who, I was sure, wouldn’t lower themselves to talk to an unpublished nobody.

Big surprise. They were welcoming, encouraging, and, amazingly, as plagued with self-doubt as I was. Shyness melted. Friendships blossomed spontaneously from our common passion.

Like the little people who came together as Munchkins, I’d found my tribe.

I became a conference junkie and my dear husband supported my addiction. Instead of birthday gifts, he treated me to various gatherings.

Along the way, I became a volunteer at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (TKZ‘s own Jim Bell is their keynote speaker this year) and Pikes Peak Writers Conference. I judged contests, handled the registration table, moderated panels, etc. Working behind the scenes made me appreciate the experience even more, seeing how much time and effort went into pulling together a successful event.

Because I saw many different presenters, I became a speaker wrangler for the Flathead River Writers Conference sponsored by my local group, the Authors of the Flathead. Inviting editors and agents for a fun weekend in Montana is a far easier job than querying (begging) them to consider a manuscript.

I learned they were not cruel gods who cavalierly damned struggling writers to slush pile purgatory. They are human beings who genuinely feel bad about rejecting manuscripts. They struggle with budgets, timing, and marketing constraints. They serve as midwives who are often as ecstatic as the author when a book is born.

And they like to talk to writers. They’re glad to demystify the publication process.

Conferences provide a rare opportunity to interact face to face with editors and agents. If traditional publication is your goal, meeting the pros in person can be a big step out of the slush pile. When you’ve paid tuition, they can see you’re serious about your career.

Whether you go the traditional route or self publish, contacts at gatherings can enhance your knowledge in ways you never imagined. I once spent an afternoon in a hotel lobby listening to an FBI agent and a forensic anthropologist trade stories. My collection of business cards is a great source for experts in all kinds of fields.

While the cost of conferences can be off-putting, many organizations offer scholarships or internships. Volunteer help is always needed and may earn discounted tuition.

You can also cut expenses by splitting the gas bill and sharing lodging. I’ve roomed with three pals whom I only see at conferences. Our reunions are always a blast. Like happy Munchkins, we drink, laugh, and stay up all night, although we don’t trash the hotel…at least, not that I remember!

Conferences provide more than education and professional contacts. They take us out of our solitary world and give us a chance to connect with our tribe. I always come home energized, inspired, and eager to write.

Now for a shameless plug: if you’re looking for a friendly, intimate gathering that offers lots of useful information for a reasonable price, please check out the Flathead River Writers Conference, September 22-23, 2018 in Kalispell, Montana.

Look me up—I’d love to meet TKZers in person. We’ll celebrate like Munchkins.  




When Debbie Burke is not writing suspense and thrillers, she’s on the planning committee of the  Flathead River Writers Conference, now in its 28th year.

I Just Finished My First Novel And …

by James Scott Bell

…I was hoping you could recommend an agent.

…I was hoping you’d have a look and tell me if I’m on the right track.

…I was hoping you’d tell me the best way to self-publish so it will have a chance to sell.

These are all variations on a theme in emails I’ve received over the years. I’ve answered each one, but calculate that in the cumulative expenditure of time I could probably have written a novel or two. I thought I’d write this blog post so the next time I get such an email I can simply send a link!

So … Hello, hopeful first-timer! And thanks for your email.

A few thoughts:

You are not ready for an agent. Most likely, that is, for an agent is not looking for a book to sell. An agent is looking for a writer to represent, one who will be able to produce quality books (plural). And by quality, I mean something that stands out, is bold and beautiful, but also has a reasonable chance to capture a significant market share. Can you say that about this first novel? And by the way, are you developing a second novel? Have you got a great idea for a third?

I can’t read your manuscript. I am a working writer, and there are only so many hours in a day. If you attend a conference where I am reading manuscripts as part of the deal, I will have a look at your first 3000 words or so. I can tell a lot about a writer in 3k…so, by the way, can an agent or editor. But outside of that limited venue, I just don’t have the time, and I don’t read for a fee. There are good teachers who do. One of them is blog brother Larry Brooks via Storyfix.

You are probably not ready to self-publish. You could be the exception, but generally speaking your first novel is going to need a lot of work. By the way, have you heard that writing is work? Making money self-publishing is work. Tossing up books that aren’t ready for prime time is not the way to make money. Becoming a professional about things is (and I use professional in the sense of doing productive things in a systematic way). You need a plan, and business sense. Here I can recommend a book.

But you’ve finished your first novel. Congratulations! That is a big step. There are more:

  • Let your manuscript sit for three weeks or so. Print out a hard copy and read it as if you had just purchased the book and it’s from a brand new author. Take minimal notes, but be looking for places where things slow down or don’t work for some reason. Mark those places.
  • Do any fixing you can. If something’s not working, try to figure out for yourself what to do about it. Books on revision, for example, can help you here. You will learn invaluable lessons that will serve you in the future.
  • Write a second draft.
  • Show your second draft to beta readers, people you know and trust to give you specific feedback. It helps to give them a checklist of questions, like this one.
  • Re-write again.
  • As this is your first novel, a pass from a good professional editor is a good investment.

You’re here? You’ve done all that? Good going! I trust, then, that you are at least halfway through the first draft of your next novel.



This is the work ethic of the career writer.

Repeat over and over the rest of your life.

Thank you for your email.

Keep writing.


Any other advice for such a one as this?

Dumb Mistakes That
Will Doom Your Book


Don’t get whistled out of the game on fouls before you have a chance to show off your best moves. – Miss Snark

By PJ Parrish

So I’m watching Hassan Whiteside play in the Heat game the other night and it got me thinking about writing books. Or maybe it was Marco Rubio in his last debate. I dunno. Not sure who inspired me more. But what I want to talk about today is dumb moves.

Shooting yourself in the foot. Stepping in it. Dropping the ball. Screwing the pooch. Whatever you want to call it, this is not something you want to do in your career. Ask Whiteside. He threw an elbow into the face of his Spurs opponent and got ejected (his third this season). Or ask Rubio. He became Chris Christie’s chew toy after he robo-repeated a talking point three times in thirty seconds. (and paid for it by dropping to fifth in the New Hampshire primary.)

Hey, we’re all human. We all make mistakes. Believe me, I have. Some that adversely affected my writing career. So let’s take a look today at some of the wrong moves that can, as the great agent Miss Snark said, get you knocked out of the game before you’ve even had a chance. Your contributions to our guide to dumbness are welcome!

When writing the book…


Don’t chase the trend: We can go way back to Jaws for examples here. In the wake of Benchley’s novel, we quickly got such memorable chum as Megalodon (oil rig explosion unleashes giant shark), Carcharodan (prehistoric shark freed when iceberg melts), Extinct (killer shark preys on boys in Mississippi River) and Meg (really big pregnant shark bubbles up from Marianas Trench and eats dumb tourists.) After Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris and Stephanie Meyers dug up Bram Stoker, we got a full decade of un-deads. And après Dan Brown came le deluge of conspiracies (Templars! Cathars! Christian Inquisitors! Oh my!) Here’s my point: By the time you decide you want to follow a trend in publishing, it has begun to wane (and surely will be over in the 18 months it will take you to write it and get it to market). T.S. Eliot might have said, “Mediocre writers borrow, great writers steal.” But if you’re trying to break into the bestseller bank, chances are the money’s already gone. So think twice before you use that unreliable narrator or try to wedge “girl” in your title.  You are a snowflake. You are unique. Let your book reflect that.

Don’t be content with dull titles: Your title is your book’s billboard, meant to be glimpsed and grasped as a reader speeds by in the bookstore or on Amazon. It is ADVERTISING and it must convey in just a few words the essence, heart, and all the wonderful promise of your story. Work hard on this. Yes, slap anything on the file name as you work, but always, as you work through the writing, search for that pithy phrase that capsulizes what you are trying to say. Try Shakespeare (The Fault Is in Our Stars, Infinite Jest) or poetry (No Country For All Men — Yeats).  Go for weird juxtapositions (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) or intrigue (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil  or Then There Were None) or humor (Hello, Vodka, It’s Me, Chelsea!). Twist an old phrase (Dr. Suess’s You’re Only Old Once.). So many times, I read manuscripts (or published books) where the title feels like an after-thought, almost as if the writer used up all his juice just getting 300 pages down, breathed out whew! and then went back to page 1 and typed The Templar Conspiracy Book I. Click here for some good tips on titles.  Click here if you want to read the worst titles of maybe all time — and see some butt-ugly covers. Which leads me to…

Don’t use ugly covers: Now, if you’re traditionally published you have little control over this. (although some enlightened publishers are getting better about seeking author input.) But if you are self-pubbing, don’t let your nephew who flunked out of Pittsburgh AI design your cover. Don’t go find free lousy images and try to do this yourself. Nothing screams amateur louder than an ugly cover.  It tells potential readers that you think so poorly of your story that you’re willing to send it out in the world in dirty sweatpants and a Led Zeppelin World Tour 1971 T-shirt. Pay someone to do this. It’s worth every schekel. If you cheap out, don’t be surprised to see your ugly cover end up HERE.

After the Book is Done…

Don’t forget to copy edit it:  This is tedious. This is awful. This is grunt work that comes after even the hell of rewrites. Well, tough. After you finish your filet mignon, you have to floss. You might be really tired of looking at the thing and all you want to do is get it out there in the world, wait for someone to love it, and throw shekels your way.  Resist the urge to do this. Instead, PRINT IT OUT and read it for typos, misspellings, stupid mistakes, grammar lapses, brain farts. After you’re done, go back and do it again — maybe with a ruler held under each line so you go reeeeeal slow. I know authors who copy edit their stuff backwards so the mistakes jump out better.  You won’t get all the bad stuff. But the goal is to make it as clean and professional as you humanly can.  If you don’t know the difference between lay and lie, find someone who does. Agents and editors all say if they see dumb errors in manuscripts, they won’t read on. No one will take your words seriously until you do.

Write a great query letter:  This isn’t easy but it’s really important.  Agents want to fall in love with new talent and every affair begins with a magic moment.  A great query is simple, direct but has a terrific hook. Which is not the same as a plot summary. In Hollywood-speak, it is a “log line” that capsulizes the essence of your plot with a strong emotional pull. (ie from Aliens: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”)  This is hard writing. Even if you self-publish, learning how to write a great tease for your book will serve you well when you go to write that Amazon copy. Click here to see a simple and very serviceable query template.

Have some cajones: There is nothing worse than a falsely humble author. If you are doing a book signing, would you tell someone who walks up to your table, “Oh, I know you’re busy…you don’t really want to know about my book.” So, in your query letter, don’t spend precious words apologizing for “wasting” an agent’s time by sending them your letter. If you don’t have faith in your book, how do you expect anyone else to?  Even if you aren’t a pro yet, act like one.  Be like that wide receiver who doesn’t spike the football in the end zone — act like you belong there. (I got this one from a great blog by agent Jenny Bent.  Click here to read the rest of her advice on submitting.)


Follow the rules when submitting your novel:  Reputable agents are good people; they truly want to find the next best thing because they love good books. So be a pro and follow their rules. Research what types of novels they are looking for. Find out their names and how to spell them. (DEAR AGENT is sorta off-putting, you know?) Format your manuscript in the way they want it — ie, double-spaced, courier or roman, etc.) And finally: Don’t forget to number your pages. Don’t use colored paper or add weird stuff like glitter. And for God’s sake, don’t call your book “a fiction novel.”  You laugh? I saw the actual query letter that had that gem.

I don’t think that guy ever made it off the bench.


Agents Behaving Badly


Agents are human. At least that’s the rumor. I know several and count some of them (including my own) as friends. The ones I know are professional, care about their clients and truly want what’s best for them.
I believe the majority of agents are like this.
But in every barrel there is an apple or two that has, shall we say, spots.
I have no way of knowing how widespread the following behaviors are. And certainly there is no gauge that measures motivations. But if agents are human (that dang rumor just won’t go away) then I suspect they are subject human frailties as well.
Which is not an excuse for bad behavior. Our great task in life is to do battle with our frailties and overcome them. That is especially true for those who hold themselves out as professionals and in whom clients entrust their hopes and dreams.
I have heard over the past few months from some writing friends with agent problems. They never anticipated these contingencies and wonder what to do. Everything was so positive when they signed! What happened? They feel like they’ve taken a two-by-four to the head.
I advise as I can, but now there comes a time for advice to agents. Here it is: If you are doing any of the following things, stop it. 

1. The Throw-It-Against-The-Wall Agent
Some years ago I was at a writers conference where a new agent was taking appointments. This was a guy who had been in the business for a long time as an acquisitions editor. He had worked for a reputable publisher and, by all accounts, was someone with abundant contacts inside the walls of the Forbidden City.  
During the conference I kept hearing from newbie writers that this agent was interested in seeing their full manuscript! And, in a several cases, signing with him right then and there!
Only later did I find out what this guy’s MO was. He was signing up just about everybody. In only a few months he had a roster of 70 writers.
Seventy! How could he give these writers the attention they thought they were going to get?
He couldn’t. What he did was throw all these proposals against a publishing wall, hoping some would stick and get him a percentage of the advance money and downstream sales.
Rather than nurture the truly deserving, helping them shape a manuscript or proposal into something that had a real chance in the marketplace, he was operating an impersonal volume grinder.
Guess what happened? Two years later he was out of the agenting business. Gone.
And his clients? Cast adrift. Good luck. Thanks for playing. Two years of their writing lives down the dumper.
One thing I’ve always said to writers is: a bad agent is worse than no agent. The writers who signed with this fellow found that out the hard way.
LESSON: Only sign with an agent who has a track record or comes highly recommended by a trusted source.
2. The Suddenly-Clams-Up-Agent
I’ve gotten two emails from writer friends recently who have said the same thing: All of a sudden their agent has stopped communicating with them.
Their profile is similar. They signed on as new authors, with all the attendant happiness of the writer who finally has representation. A first deal was made! Smiles and good wishes all around!
Then the marketplace brought down its unsentimental fist. The debut novel didn’t take off. The second novel was given scant attention by the publishing house. The third novel (if there was one) was kicked to the curb.
With a dismal track record hung around their necks, the authors’ prospects for a new contract with a publisher were severely dimmed.
But the writers kept their hopes alive. New ideas, new proposals sent to the agents.
Only the agents stopped returning emails. Or phone calls.
They clammed up.
This behavior is mostly economic. Agents are in this business to make a living and will naturally put their energies behind the cash-cow clients. An author whose prospects have dwindled won’t get the same attention.
There’s also a personal aspect. It’s easier to avoid a hard conversation with the unpleasant prospect of a breakup.
Finally the agent, by saying nothing, may be hoping the client will “pull the plug” and leave of her own volition. Problem solved.
Such behavior is unprofessional and uncivil. You, agent, have a lot of clients. But the writer has only one agent, and to be treated like a discarded McDonald’s wrapper makes them feel like a world is ending, a career is dying, and long-nurtured dreams are turning into nightmares.
So do the right thing even if it’s uncomfortable. Have that talk with the client. She has placed her very heart in your hands. She deserves your communication.
3. The Rights-Grab Agent
The brave new world of digital publishing has put agents in a bit of an uncomfortable position. Early on there was talk that helping a client go indie (for a percentage) was a conflict of interest. That chatter has died down as more and more agents get into the hybridization game.
A situation has arisen, however, with a couple of writers I know. Way back when some of their books went out-of-print, they got the rights back. At that time such rights were considered nearly worthless.
Oh, how times have changed. Digital self-publishing has made it possible to give those old books new and lasting life. And a welcome revenue stream for the writer struggling to get a new contract.
But not so fast, some of their agents say. We still get a piece of your pie. Even if you self-publish. So go ahead! Only you will have to be exclusive on Amazon so we can have our share of the royalties come directly to us.
Writer Clare Cook shared such an experience:
And then one day on the phone my agent informed me that in order to continue to be represented by this mighty agency, I would have to turn over 15% of the proceeds of my about-to-be self-published book to said agency. Not only that, but I would have to publish it exclusively through Amazon, because the agency had a system in place with Amazon where I could check a box and their 15% would go straight to them, no muss, no fuss.
There actually may be plenty of muss and quite a bit of fuss over this. Putting on my dusty lawyer hat for a moment (it’s been sitting in the corner over there by my vinyl records), I say that unless a client signed a contract that specifically gives the agent a share of their independently held rights in OOP books, this won’t fly. And even if there weresuch a contract provision there is a chance it would not stand up in court if muss came to fuss.
The agent made the deal with the trad publisher and deserved the 15%. But when that deal is over it’s a whole new ballgame. If a client is self-publishing backlist and does not ask for an agent’s services in this regard, there is no new deal and no percentage due. Agents should not act as if they are rights holders.  
As I said up top, I’m privileged to know several agents personally. I do believe that the majority of agents have good intentions and professional practices.
But for any out there who see themselves in these profiles, let me offer you some sound and inexpensive advice from a trained psychologist:

Toward a Fair Non-Compete Clause


Recently, a friend sent me the text of a non-compete clause to have a look at. It was from the contract of a New York publishing company. My gob, as they say, was smacked. If there was a contest for the most one-sided non-compete clause ever, this would take the crown.

I say this in love. Truly. I love traditional publishing and want it to survive. But contracts that contain clauses like this one are not going to aid the old cause.

Due to confidentiality I am not at liberty to reproduce the text verbatim, but I can give you the gist:

The clause prohibits the author from publishing “material” that is “similar” to the Work. So what if your crime novel is coming out from Publisher, and you want to self-publish a mystery short story? Or sell it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine?

Too bad. Because a short story is “material.” And a mystery usually has a crime in it, so it’s “similar.”

Or suppose you’ve had the foresight to reserve audio rights. You have a mellifluous voice, and spend twenty hours recording the audio version of your book for ACX, Amazon’s platform for indie audio works.

No go, because the clause in question prohibits the author from “exploiting” any reserved rights that may “conflict” with sale of the book. And who gets to decide if there is such a conflict? Not you.

And there isn’t even language in the clause suggesting the author might seek the “prior written consent” of Publisher! Message: Don’t even ask, dude.

Further, how long do all these restrictions last? There is no time limit (though the overall agreement is for “life of copyright.”) Which leads me to believe that the wet-behind-the-ears law grad who drafted this needs to be flogged with a hardcover copy of Calamari and Perillo on Contracts. This clause is clearly unenforceable without a time limit. Courts will not allow a company to tie up someone’s economic future ad infinitum.

But the burden of challenging the clause is, of course, on the author. Or, should the author go ahead and publish a work the publisher deems to be “competing,” the publisher may task some associate at their retained law firm to put down his coffee and make life difficult for the author.

Who is going to be the big dog in that fight? Let’s compare the status of our respective parties:

Publisher = deep pockets.

Author = pockets with holes.

Now, before I move on, let me emphasize that the traditional publisher absolutely deserves to have a fair non-compete clause in the contract. Here’s why.

The publisher takes a risk with an author, puts up capital (in the form of advance and production costs) with the hope of return. A significant part of the return is from bookstores (remember those?) Bookstores do not want to stock competing titles from the same author during the same season.

Thus, the standard non-compete was to keep John Grisham from publishing The Firm with one publisher and The Pelican Briefwith another, and having them both come out at the same time. The books would “cannibalize” each other, so the saying goes. One, or more likely both, publishers would be harmed by this.

Here’s another reason publishers need the clause. Suppose Publisher is coming out with your debut thriller, and pricing it as a $14.99 trade paperback, and a $9.99 ebook. But, at the same time, you bring out a self-published thriller and price it at $3.99 in digital and the same $14.99 in POD. And then you unleash your social media marketing efforts to emphasize the book that’s brining you more money per unit (i.e., your self-pubbed effort).

That’s not cricket. You are hurting Publisher’s investment in you. That’s why the non-compete clause exists.

But by now that clause should have morphed into something more equitable than the specimen I reviewed. Publishers have to realize that the times are not a-changin’––they’re a-changed. Permanently. They should not play hardball with contracts as if it’s still 1995.

Authors (and agents) should not accede to a “standard” non-compete clause. One like this should be a deal breaker.

Here’s an idea: negotiate!

So what isa fair non-compete clause? Very simple: a time-limited clause that specifically defines the type of material covered. For example:

For one year from the date of publication of the Work, Author will not publish or authorize to be published, in either print or digital media, any work greater than thirty-thousand words in the thriller, mystery or crime genres.

This leaves open the publishing of short-form work which, I might add, the publisher should encourage. This is how the writer attracts more readers, many of whom will then seek out the author’s trad-published books. It’s a classic win-win.

In this era of suspicion, vituperation and even paranoia, here is a way for publishers and authors to actually do what is in their mutual interest.

Imagine that.

Agents – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Recently Nathan Bransford posted a piece entitled “8 ways to know if you have a good agent” (if you want to read it, here’s the link). Given Jodie’s post last week on unethical freelance editors, I thought it might be timely to re-examine what makes a good (and bad) agent.

Nathan provides a list of things to consider when choosing an agent (or, if you have concerns about your current agent, a list to consider when evaluating whether these are justified). Basically he says that your agent should:

  • Have a proven track record of sales and/or works for a reputable agency
  • Be a good communicator (meaning he/she should reply in a reasonable time to emails and doesn’t dodge or hide)
  • Either live in New York or visit on a regular basis
  • Be able to explain every question you have about your contract or your royalty statements
  • Be completely ethical in how they approach their job (and they should advise you to behave ethically)
  • Pay you on time and send you contracts in a timely fashion
  • Charge you a commission of 15% on domestic contracts, 20% on foreign contracts and deduct very transparently for reasonable expenses like postage and copying
  • Be someone you feel comfortable with (i.e. you should be able to trust and feel good about your agent – going with your gut is key).

Most of the items on the list are pretty self-explanatory (though I’ve included clarifications where needed) but they also underscore the need for writers to research an agent before agreeing to receive representation. Given the number of issues regarding unethical freelance editors highlighted by Jodie in her post last Monday, I wonder how many writers are now falling prey to more unethical agent behaviour. 

To the last item on Nathan’s list (feeling comfortable with your agent), I would add that this doesn’t necessarily mean feeling warm and fuzzy all the time. I feel like trusting and being comfortable with your agent means that you not only know that they will champion you and your work but that they will also be your  best (and sometimes harshest) critic. I don’t want an agent who is happy to send out just any old material – I want someone who keeps me on the top of my game and who provides editorial input on how to make a manuscript the very best it can be, before it goes out to publishers.

Just as Jodie pointed out when looking for a freelance editor, there are similar pitfalls when searching for an agent. I can’t stress enough that you have to do your homework. As with anything, there are many predators out there more than willing to take your money for very little in return (and who can easily hang out their shingle on the internet based on fraudulent claims/testimonials).

So what do you think of Nathan’s list? Is there anything you would take issue with, or add? How have you approached the issue of researching agents? Have you discovered any further pitfalls that we may not have discussed?

The Most Important Thing Literary Agents Owe Their Clients

James Scott Bell

You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood and put it into a gnat’s navel, and still have room for two caraway seeds and an agent’s heart. 
                                 – Fred Allen
Mr. Fred Allen was a famous curmudgeon who labored in the entertainment (mainly radio) business. I would note that the Hollywood agent and traditional literary agent are largely different species. But that doesn’t stop me from using the quote to tease my agent friends.
And I do have friends who are literary agents. Is that so odd? When I was a lawyer, people still befriended me. It can be done!
Seriously, those agents I know are good ones: caring deeply about the success of their clients, hurting when they can’t place a project, or when a client is dropped by a publisher. But they know this is the duty they signed up for. They are professional about it.
That’s a key word, professional. In any business relationship, no matter how warm, there are duties. So it’s proper to ask what each party owes the other. 
What do writers owe their agents? I think they owe them productivity, optimism, partnership and patience. There will be times, of course, when concerns must be expressed and details hashed out. Time for phone calls and complaints. But these should be rare in comparison to the positives.
A writer needs to listen. Part of a good agent’s job (we’ll get to bad agents in a moment) is to guide a career, and the writer (who ultimately makes the decision about direction) ought to consider and attend to an agent’s wisdom.
And just plain not be a “pill” (slang, 1920s, “a tiresomely disagreeable person.”)
I said we’d get to bad agents, and here’s all I have to say: it is better by a degree of a thousand for a writer to have no agent than to have a bad agent. A bad agent is one who will make you pay fees up front before reading or submitting something; who will slough you off to an editorial service which kicks back a finder’s fee to the agent; who provides no feedback on projects or proposals; and who throws up anything against several walls to see if it sticks. How does one find the good and avoid the bad? The SFWA has a postthat’s very helpful in this regard.
Now, what does an agent owe a client? Honesty, encouragement, feedback. But I think there is one thing above all, and that is what prompted this post today. Over the years I’ve heard from writer friends who are frustrated and sometimes “dying on the inside” because of lack of this one thing:
When I was an eager young lawyer I took a course on good business practices from the California Bar. One item that stood out was a survey of clients on what they most wanted from their attorneys. At the very top of the list, by a wide margin, was communication.Whether it was good news or bad, they wanted to know their lawyer was thinking about their case or legal matter. 
Writers are the same way. Even more so, because the insecurity of the business is an ever-present shadow across their keyboards. So if a writer sends in a proposal or list of ideas to his agent, and the agent doesn’t respond within a few weeks . . . and writer sends follow-up email or phone call, and stilldoesn’t hear from agent . . .this is not a good thing. In fact, for a writer, it is close to being the worst thing.
So I would say to agents what the California Bar says to young lawyers: just let the client know what’s going on from time to time. Especially if the client has sent something to you.
Now, I know from my agent friends that there are times when they can’t drop everything to communicate immediately. They have other clients, and things may be popping for one or more of them. It may be that the writer has submitted something that is going to take a lot of time to go over and assess. The agent may be off at a conference or maybe, gasp, needs some personal family time. All understandable.
But communication can be brief, even if it is just a short email acknowledging receipt.
If I may be so bold: if a client submits a proposal, it shouldn’t take more than two months to get back to said client with substantial feedback. If the client submits some ideas, or communicates about another concern or quandary, I would think a couple of weeks is the outside limit, even if it’s brief.
I think there is one area where an agent, being human, is reticent about communicating: the area of bad news. It may be that a proposal or manuscript has failed to land. It may be a publishing house dropping a series. Perhaps the writer has sent the agent a proposal that, for the agent, falls flat, even after notes and suggestions from the agent have been incorporated. It may even be that the agent has lost confidence in the writer’s long term prospects.
At times like these it is tempting to put off communicating with the client. My plea: don’t do it. As hard as it is, as painful as it may be, this is the time the client needs you most.
And authors, remember, it’s a tough time out there in the publishing world, for agents and everybody else. So give them something good to talk about—namely, killer fiction from a productive writer.

I get knocked down but I get up again

By PJ Parrish
Last week was a good one.
I finished a chapter of the novella, nudging it up past 17,000 words. I got a nice little royalty check that will keep my dogs in kibbles for three months. I turned in my edits for the next Louis Kincaid novel on time –- and the copy editor wrote this note on the last page: Great story! I’m so glad I was able to read it early. I truly enjoyed all the twist and turns. I haven’t read Louis Kincaid stories yet—but now I’m going to go back and do so!
This week…not so good.
Got some bad news about an upcoming project. Lost a foreign publisher. Can’t get any traction on the concept for the next book. The formatting on our Kindle eBook keeps screwing up the paragraphing. And some anonymous weasel-boy trashed us on Amazon.
You’d think after more than a decade at this writing biz, I’d be immune to the ups and downs. But I’m not. I still get discouraged and swing from ecstasy to agony. And like the cliché goes, I still go to bed some nights convinced I’ve used up all my good ideas and that the fraud police will cart me away in the morning.
I know I’m not alone. I know all writers are like crabs without shells, that the slightest kick, the smallest snub, sends us into spasms of self-doubt. I know this so well that it is part of every writing workshop I teach. Get out now, I tell those who wish to be published, if you can’t take criticism and rejection at every turn. Your queries will be ignored by agents. Your manuscripts will be turned down by editors. Your book will be snubbed by reviewers. Barnes and Noble won’t carry you. You won’t get a paperback reprint. You’ll be remaindered.
Jim Hall put it in perspective for me once. His newest book had just come out to glowing reviews. One day, riding high, he was in B&N and saw a woman reading the first pages of his book. He couldn’t resist and went over to her and said, “I wrote that.”
She said, “So?”
Rejection and dejection. How do you cope?
How do you keep your head above the waves as you tread water? How do you keep putting one word in front of the other every day until you’ve finished that lonely journey of eighty-thousand words? I don’t have the answer but I have learned this much:

You find support

I’m lucky; I have my sister and co-author. When one of us is on the ledge the other talks her off. If you’re alone, then you need to find others who understand what you’re going through. You need someone who knows that when you’re staring off into space yes, you really are writing. You need someone who will slap you upside the head when you’re whining, tell you the truth when you’ve lost control of your plot, and buy you two really strong martinis when you get dumped by your publisher. This someone is usually not your mom or spouse. They love you too much, poor dears.

You focus in not out

It is easy to get eaten up with envy in our business over who got the big contract, who got the award, who got the prime Saturday panel at Bourcheron when you got the 9 a.m. Sunday slot. You have to tune out all this noise. When I was just starting out, one of the best pieces of advice I got was from Jan Burke. “Keep your head down and just write your books,” she said.


You have faith

You have faith that you love the process and that you would probably do it even if no one paid you another dime and had to stand out on the Kindle corner and give it away. You have faith that some agent out there will read your proposal and take you on. That some editor will feel the same way about life that you do and buy your manuscript. You have faith that, despite all the bad things going on in publishing right now, that readers still need good stories. You have faith that you can still write them.
And if that doesn’t work? I will personally buy you that martini. And remember: There’s always the wise words of that great eastern philosopher Chumba Wamba: