Thursday, July 24, 2008

Putting Your Agent To Work

Question of the day: What is your relationship with your agent? What role do agents play in a writers career? Do they help with book promotion or with connections as to such? If I don't feel like my agent is a good match for me or lacks enthusiasm about my work at this point how do you divorce an agent?

I'll answer your last question - how to leave your agent - on the next blog post, but for now, there's a lot of stuff here to cover.

Let me first say that every agent, and thus, every relationship with an agent, is different. I happen to have a very reciprocal, fluid relationship with my agent - we are in constant touch, she helps me shape ideas for plots and characters, I keep her up to date on my press stuff, she keeps me up to date on administrative stuff, etc. When I was searching for an agent, however, I was acutely aware of my personal operating style: I NEED to be kept in the loop because I am anal about taking care of every last detail. So I needed to be matched with an agent who didn't mind having a free flow of information between us. Not all agents are willing to do this (Miss Snark made it clear that she wasn't, for example) and not all authors need this. Many authors are content to hear news on a need-to-know basis, but I'm not one of them, and if I were saddled with an agent who kept things close to her vest, I'd be miserably unhappy. BUT, this isn't to say that agents who aren't as communicative are just as good agents - they very well might be, they just wouldn't be well-suited to my style.

As far as what role an agent plays in your career, well, ideally, your agent is the one who navigates your career for you. Your agent wears a lot of hats: cheerleader, editor, go-between, but in my mind, none is more important than how they pilot your career. Ideally, you and your agent should be in this for the long run, so (in a perfect world), you'll have a longer-term strategy for the trajectory of your career. Is this a lot to ask from an agent? Maybe. But we're speaking in idealized terms here, and so I think this is an important point. For example, as I've mentioned here in the past, I wrote a book between The Department and Time of My Life that got some so-so offers but weren't what I really hoped for. My agent and I conferred, and thanks to her insights, we decided to pass on those offers and have me take a crack at another book, which turned out to be Time of My Life. My agent fully believed that I had a BIG BOOK in me, and that it was this BIG BOOK that would ultimately help me break out as an author. (Time will tell, of course!) Had I accepted one of these other offers, my career would be on an entirely different trajectory, and not in a good way. But she had the foresight to help steer me where I needed to go, and I think a good agent can and should be able to do this for you.

Finally, as far as agents helping you with promotion, absolutely...though only to a point. My agent set up meetings with my publicity team and has stayed in touch with them (as have I), as we gear up for the launch. She's also helped brainstorm ideas with me as to where we can generate press, looked through contacts of hers whom she's sent the book to, and helped me land a blurb from one of my all-time favorite authors. All of this really speaks to how proactive she is, in every aspect of my career.

Will every agent do this for you? Absolutely not. And that's okay. As I said before, everyone has different expectations of what an agent will bring to the table, but these were the expectations that I had of mine, and she's easily met them. In turn, I know that she has certain expectations of me as an author, and I feel confident that I've met them too. I trust her, and she trust me, and that's the underlying critical element here. If you don't trust your agent to do right by you or to truly go to bat for you, then....well...we'll get to leaving your agent (something I've also done!) in the next post. :)

Readers out there who have agent representation, what do you expect of your agent? Does he/she help steer your career and/or help with your book promotion?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Agent Question/Agent Answers

Question of the day: A couple weeks ago you had a post on asking the hard/scary questions of agents or prospective agents. I’m going to be shopping for an agent in a few months, what are these hard questions that I want to be sure to ask?

What questions you ask are going to be strictly individual and most likely determined by how well you click with your agent and how much research you've done. For example, when I chatted with the various agents who offered to rep me, I immediately clicked with one (my current agent) and didn't ask to speak with other clients or references. I trusted my gut. But I know plenty of authors who DO request references, and if you feel most comfortable doing so, then by all means, do it.

But, since you asked, here are some questions off the top of my head that I think are perfectly valid (and good) issues to be raised once you've received an offer of representation:

1) Do you envision this as hardcover or paperback?
2) Do you have other clients who have similar works? If so, did you successfully sell them?
3) How do you envision this book being marketed? (I.e, this will give you an idea if you and your agent are on the same page about the span and scope of the publicity/audience/etc.)
4) How many editors do you typically submit to? What happens if we don't sell the first round?
5) How do you deal with foreign rights?
6) Do you have a film co-agent?
7) I assume you take a standard fee, correct?
8) Do you have any specific imprints or editors in mind? (Some agents won't tell you or won't appreciate being asked, but if you're the type of author who wants a transparent flow of information, then this is a valid question. My agent, for example, asked for my input before she submitted.)
9) How hands-on are you, in terms of editing? Can I expect you to help me polish this or do you like to be handed a finished, ready-to-go version.
10) How communicative are you with your authors? Do you mind being nudged or sharing information or would you rather keep me in the loop on a need-to-know basis?
11) Do you have a contract?

Hmmm, I'm sure that there are plenty of others. Readers with agents, want to chime in? I should stress that I don't think you have to have this list in front of you when you speak with your potential agent: a lot of these things might come up in the conversation, but I do think these are all valid and necessary things to understand about the person who is repping not just your novel but your career.

Monday, July 21, 2008

GCC Presents: Jess Riley and Driving Sideways

I've mentioned Jess Riley and her new book (a perfect beach read), Driving Sideways, on the blog before, but I'm really excited to tour her today as part of GCC because her road to publication is awfully similar to a lot of readers' roads, which is to say that it was easy, but she persvered, and now, voila, here she is. Before we get to my questions and her answers, here's some scoop on the book:

Leigh Fielding wants a life. Seriously. Having spent the past five years on dialysis, she has one simple wish: to make it to her thirtieth birthday. Now, thanks to the generosity of the late Larry Resnick and his transplanted kidney, it looks like her wish may come true.

With her newfound vitality (and Larry’s kidney) in tow, Leigh hits the road for an excursion that will carry her from Wisconsin to California, with a few stops in between: Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, the Rockies, Las Vegas–and a memorable visit to thank Larry’s family for the second chance. Yet Leigh’s itinerary takes a sudden detour when she picks up a seventeen-year-old hitchhiker, Denise, a runaway with a bunch of stories and a couple of secrets. Add a long-lost mother, a loaded gun, an RV full of swingers, and Hall and Oates’s Greatest Hits to the mix, and Driving Sideways becomes a hilarious and original journey of friendship, hope, and discovery.

1) What’s the backstory behind your book?

I started Driving Sideways in the summer of 2004, after a near three-year hiatus from fiction writing. Based on the lessons learned from my previous ‘practice novel,’ (which shall forever remain unpublished, and deservedly so), I wanted to tell a story that was both fun to write and a little different. So after my What-If moment (“What if a young woman has a kidney transplant and convinces herself she’s channeling the traits of her donor—tastes in music, food, hobbies, etc.—only to learn she’s completely wrong about him or her?”), I created the character of Leigh Fielding, who sees her new kidney as a catalyst to tie up the loose ends of her life by taking a cross-country roadtrip.

I wanted to make it somewhat outlandish, somewhat raunchy, somewhat heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful. The research for the book was fascinating, and I stumbled across the reason for Leigh’s failed kidney almost by accident—Polycystic Kidney Disease. It’s the most common life-threatening genetic disease in the world, and there is no cure, yet most people haven’t heard of it. I’ve been humbled by the book’s reception from PKD patients and their families, and it has since become a cause I support.

2) It seems that a lot of readers confuse fiction with real life, assuming that a novel must be an autobiography of the author as well. How many elements of your real life are reflected in your book?

Many of the amusing anecdotes are true, including some of the more off-the-wall bits (yes, there really WAS an ad campaign like that conducted by Geoffrey with a G, and the way the ‘real life’ Larry died was even more unbelievable than that in the story). I also took the same road trip my characters did, with my own best friend, at least twice (possibly more—it all blurs together now). Speaking of which, my best friend was the inspiration for Jillian, and she was a fantastic sport about it.

But I did not have a kidney transplant necessitated by renal failure, and both of my parents are living and still together. I don’t have an overprotective older brother, either. That said, people who know me well tell me that “Leigh is totally YOU!” (concerning her outlook on life, neuroses, use of humor as a coping mechanism).

3) A lot of my blog readers are aspiring or new authors. How did you land your first book deal?

First, I learned some hard lessons about craft and market trends by having my initial attempt at a novel roundly rejected. But four years later, I parlayed those lessons into Driving Sideways, the first three chapters of which I entered in two very different writing contests to ‘test the waters’ before querying agents again: the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and the Get Your Stiletto In The Door competition. I was floored to learn Driving Sideways was one of eight finalists (from 600 entrants) in the James Jones contest, and the only one of 200 entrants in the Stiletto competition to receive requests for the full manuscript by the two final judges (an agent and an editor). My goal was for the editor to like it enough to request the full manuscript, and as soon as I had that name, I subscribed to Publisher’s Marketplace and looked up every agent that had ever sold to her. I sent out 10 query letters, was able to choose between 4 agents (I was floored!), and we sold Driving Sideways at auction just before Christmas in 2005. It was very nearly orphaned when my editor left our acquiring house (HarperCollins) for Random House, but amazingly enough, I was able to shift my contract to Random. The book’s release was delayed by one year, but I got to stay with the editor who gets me and my book.

And now, the book’s been out for five weeks, and I just learned it’s going back for a second printing…I’m so, so glad I didn’t quit writing back in 2002, when I was so discouraged by rejection that I very nearly did!

4) I have a serious procrastination problem when it comes to tackling my fiction. What’s your routine? How do you dive it? Do you have any rituals or necessary to-dos before or while you write?

Oh, I hear you on this one!! Lately, my routine has been “Procrastinate all day with email, walking the dog, watching the cute wren family in the backyard, read a magazine, walk the dog again, write some blog entries, and talk on the phone.” But I do squeeze in some late-night fiction writing. In a perfect world, I will find a way to balance the promotion of book number one with the writing of book number two—I think I need to divvy up the day somehow. I have until October to figure it out, when I return to my day job.

5) Clearly, your book will be optioned for a multi-million dollar film deal! Who would you cast as the leads, if you were given creative control?
I wish there was a female equivalent of the Judd Apatow crowd—we need more quirky, salty, snarky Ellen Page-type actresses. A whole brat pack of ‘em. There are plenty of roles for young women in Hollywood, but comedy (think the girl version of Superbad or Swingers) remains elusive. I think Ellen Page would make a great Leigh, and Amanda Seyfried would make a great Jillian (or an unexpectedly fun Denise). Maybe Rainn Wilson as Chris? I like Paul Rudd and Vince Vaughn, but they’re a little too old for Leigh.