Never Look Back

by Michelle Gagnon

Yesterday, Joe discussed knowing where you’re headed before getting started. I received an email from a college friend this week who’s writing his firstnever look novel, and he asked me a few questions about my process. I thought I’d share some of what I said in reply. Of course, there is no one “right way” to write a book; everyone has to find his or her own path. But after hammering out four books, I’ve learned what works for me.

1) At what point do you seek formal feedback, rather than just cranking it out?

I don’t show my work to anyone until I’ve completed two drafts. And then I send it to my “Beta readers,” 5-7 people whose opinion I trust. What I’ve discovered, however, is that they’ll all like different aspects of the story, and they’ll all criticize different aspects. I always take that feedback with a grain of salt. If more than one person is saying the same thing, I know it’s time to go back and figure out where I went wrong.

In Boneyard, one of my readers was so taken with a character in the initial chapter, she felt strongly he should be incorporated into the rest of the storyline. I had fleshed out that character fairly well, so that when something happened to him, you’d fear for his well-being. But ultimately, he was a device to kickstart the plot. Think of it as the garbage men who find a body in a dumpster in the first five minutes of Law and Order. You don’t expect to see the garbage men help track down the killers, or try the accused–they’re there to find the body, then they’re gone. Same with this character. No one else had that comment, so I chose to limit him to that opening chapter.

2) Do you counsel quantity (ie, getting more on paper) over quality (tweaking sentences) early on?

In my opinion what separates published authors from people who have been working on a book for years without completing it is this: never look back. I don’t start editing–at all–until the entire book is written. A lot of people get fifty pages in, then go back and start editing chapter one. The danger in this is that while you might end up with a perfect first fifty pages, by the time you finish those there’s a good chance you’ve lost the thread of the story.

It’s also discouraging to suddenly realize you’ve spent three months on fifty pages, and another three hundred and fifty remain to be written (of course, that’s discouraging whether you’ve stopped or not–I call it the “interminable middle”). I never even re-read what I’ve written until I’ve finished the first draft. (I also spend most of that draft thinking that what I’m writing is the worst junk ever committed to page. But I forge ahead, because I know the next draft will be better.) And then when I do go back, the bones of the story are in place.

3) When does it help to have a literary guide (agent? editor? coach?)? How do you get a good one to take you seriously?
Start the agent search only when your manuscript is as absolutely perfect as it’s ever going to be. That means a minimum of three drafts. And after completing each draft, put it away for a month before looking at it again. That gives you a fresh perspective.

Resign yourself to the fact that the agent search might take months- not always the case, but frequently enough that it’s good to be prepared for it. And not hearing back right away doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be rejected. My first agent asked for an exclusive on the full manuscript right away–then three months passed. If I had to do it over, I’d probably call after a month and ask if it was all right for me to submit to other agents. In the end it worked out for me, but I was gnawing my nails to the quick that entire time. A month is more than enough time for an agent to have an exclusive.

Begin by querying your 3-5 top choice agents, always making sure that a) they’re currently acquiring manuscripts, and b) they represent the kind of work you write (these seem like givens, but you’d be surprised). There are a lot of good books on querying an agent (my favorite is Noah Lukeman’s “The First Five Pages”). Your query letter needs to be perfect, as do your first five pages, since that’s what an agent reads to make a snap judgement on your work. I loved what people were saying yesterday about switching the second chapter with the first. About a year ago, I read a tremendous manuscript written by a friend. And the entire first chapter I was yawning-not good for a thriller. It was all back story: how the protagonist got his job, where he went to school, his mother’s medical condition…then, scene two kicked in. The main character picked up a woman home at a bar, was accosted in his apartment by Russian mobsters, was threatened with blackmail and suddenly boom- we were off and running. Telling too much at the outset is a common mistake. Bear in mind you have 100,000 words to develop your characters, so there’s no need to overdo it at the outset. (By the way, this excellent book- FREEFALL, by Reece Hirsch- found representation and will be published next year).

Your agent shops the manuscript to editors. Very few publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts these days.
Getting an agent is hard. My best advice would be to go to a writing conference that good agents are attending- a face to face meeting goes a long way toward getting you out of the slush pile. Incidentally, Thrillerfest is hands down one of the best for finding an agent for a thriller- I can’t think of another conference that gathers forty top agents in one place to hear pitches. Well worth the investment if your manuscript is ready.

4) Not a question but an observation — I can’t seem to help harvesting the real lives and personalities of friends and acquaintances. Ringing in my ears is Elizabeth Gilbert: “Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Tell the truth.”

I suppose my personal life infiltrates the storylines in some places–but it depends on what I’m writing. For the screenplay I’m working on right now, my co-writer and I are drawing heavily on our life experiences. But for my series, much of it is pure creation-I’ve never defused a dirty bomb, chased down a suspect, or done many of the other things my characters do. I just imagine what it would be like, basing it on research and discussions with people who do those sorts of things for a living. So the old, “write what you know” has never been something I strongly adhered to. Otherwise I’d write about sitting alone in a room typing day after day. And trust me, that is rarely exciting.

Agents and Other Spooky Stories

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

With Halloween just gone and having faced my own agent transition I started thinking about the perennial nightmare for the unpublished (and often published) writer – getting, keeping and enjoying having an agent…Cue spooky music…

I have been incredibly lucky so far. I sat next to my first agent over lunch at the first San Francisco Writers Conference and it was sheer serendipity that she and I began working together. I had actually attended the ‘speed dating for agents’ horror-fest earlier that day where writers lined up at agent tables and had 2 minutes to pitch their work. Although I still get chills thinking about it, there truly is nothing like terror for concentrating the mind and by the time I finished I had my pitch down pat (even if my sanity was a little frayed). Funnily enough I didn’t select my agent to pitch to – she had said she represented literary fiction and I felt as though my work wasn’t literary enough (now that’s a whole other blog post!) but after we chatted over lunch we agreed that I would send her my work. When I realized she had been the original agent for Jacqueline Winspear while at the Amy Rennert agency and after I read Maisie Dobbs I couldn’t believe that I had sat next to her. When she read my manuscript she told me she couldn’t believe it either –Jacqueline Winspear is now the author I get compared to the most.

So after that fate-filled experience (and three years later) what was I to do when my agent told me she was hanging up her hat?! I immediately had visions of the nightmare agent stories: The endless queries, the unreturned phone calls, agents that disappear into the night… Cue spooky music again…

Luckily for me my agent had joined a boutique NYC agency about a year ago and the head of that agency had indicated an interest in continuing to represent me. I felt relief and trepidation in equal measure because I had forged a relationship with my agent and I wasn’t sure I’d find that same relationship again. This got me thinking again – what makes a good agent? Obviously selling your work and having great contacts in the industry but what else???

For me the answer was clear I wanted someone who loved my work, had experience in the industry but also someone who provided me with three things:

1. My severest critic – I had an agent whose advice I trusted – whose criticism I took on board each and every time and so I wanted to know that my new agent would provide me with the same level of feedback – the same sensibility if you will that would ring true to my ears. I was horrified by the prospect of getting an agent whose feedback made me scratch my head or worse, put my head in the oven!

2. A willing ear even if only via email. Unlike many writers I have spoken to, I communicated with my agent frequently. I cc’d her on most of my emails to my editor and publicist and I kept her in the loop on my publicity events/review etc. I felt as though we were partners in this whole publishing quest (or jest as the case may be!) and I needed to know that my new agent would be okay with this. I don’t demand any reply but I do want to know that my agent is watching, listening and looking out for me.

3. My strongest supporter – okay that’s not strictly true as my mother and my mother-in-law already fill those shoes! But I did need to be reassured that there was someone there who, even if things looked bleak, would be the one to tell me that my writing was terrific and that we would overcome whatever the hurdle might be. I’m as insecure as the next writer and prone to neurotic jitters and deep pessimistic depressions – any agent of mine would have to be able to cope with that (poor thing!) I recall my agent last year telling me (via email) “don’t you have anything better to worry about?! Go do the Christmas shopping!!” and I had to admit that she was right.

God, you must all be thinking what a nightmare client I must be but I think for many unpublished authors the ‘agent quest’ is one which they feel is all one-sided – that they must grab hold of whoever sends out the lifeline. That isn’t the case and I realize as I say ‘au revoir’ to one agent and ‘bonjour’ to another that the relationship aspect is critical. It is a partnership in a way that the editor-writer relationship really no longer can be (hey I’m on my third official editor!)

Luckily, so far so good with my new agent (so I don’t need to cue any spooky music this time…I hope!)

So what about you all – what do you expect from an agent? What horror stories have you experienced? What advice would you give to those in search of an agent? Oh no…hear comes that spooky music again…