Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On a question I get a lot.

Is the book dead?

On getting back to routines.

I'm back in my office on this rather warm NYC day, after a nice long weekend. Hope yours was good, too.

Not gonna lie, though; I'm having trouble this morning with the re-entry. Does any of this sound familiar?

"Oh, of COURSE checking Twitter counts as work." (I'm @millercallihan, if you're interested.)

"I should really say hi to everyone in the office before I sit down at my desk."

"I'm just going to read my email before I do the three things I promised myself I'd get done before lunch."

And so on.

Really, though, part of the reason I'm stalling is that a lot of what I need to do this morning is to make phonecalls-- especially chasing payments for my clients-- and it seems cruel to call anyone the minute they get back from their long weekend. (After all, there's a Twitter feed to catch up on!) And presumably some of them, when I do finally call, will still be traveling, extending that nice long weekend just a little bit longer.

So I fear today won't be as productive as I'd hoped.

Fortunately, I have a backup plan: a long list I made before the long weekend (hooray!) of all the things I want to tackle this week. Chief among them, after the phonecalls, is to catch up on my reading, especially my clients' manuscripts. And that I can do no matter who's available.

Which leads me to another topic: professionalism and communication. One of my authors was good enough to email me to let me know she's going to be out of town, and out of email contact, the rest of this week. Hers is one of the manuscripts I need to give feedback on this week, but now that I know she's away for a few days, I know I can have until Friday to get back to her with my notes, leaving me to concentrate on other things in the meantime.

My work life is packed with these kinds of decisions, and I am always, always grateful for updates like J's.

Your turn: tell me about someone who's impressed you with their professionalism, or something you strive for in your own professional life. These needn't be writing- or publishing-related; I'd like to think behaving like a pro translates across all industries, no?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


I've been here for much of this week. Book Expo America is, I guess, the biggest event of the U.S. book industry calendar, a three-day event that in its NYC years takes over more or less the entire Javits Center, the city's enormous convention center.

Javits is a soul-sucking place. It's in the middle of nowhere, a PITA to get to; your options are basically the crosstown bus or a taxi, and as a result once you finally get there, you feel kind of trapped. A colleague today noted that after you've been at Javits for a few hours you feel like you've been on an airplane. It's that same kind of hollow, disoriented sensation. Nobody's favorite part of travel (or work conventions).

But BEA itself is an amazing experience. A huge array of publishers, from the large to the small, show up and staff a booth. There are giveaways and signings, panel discussions and Q&As, and many, many chances for Courtney to pick up more ARCs and publisher catalogs than she can reasonably carry.

It's always a great education, to boot, on what the publishers see as their major priorities for the fall. BEA, and especially an author signing or a giveaway at BEA, represents a major investment of publisher resources. By expending their resources, they are telegraphing to the booksellers and librarians (and book bloggers and journalists) in attendance at the fair what they think the Big Books are going to be. In essence, Publisher A is trying to tell Bookseller B what Book Buyer C (that's me!) is going to want to buy her friends and family for Christmas.

Preaching to the choir here: If you're reading this blog, I'm assuming you're a book person, in some sense of the phrase. If you care about books, don't forget that books make great gifts. You can even give Kindle editions now, if that's how your recipient rolls. Right, Mom?

Friday, May 20, 2011

On NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo, for the uninitiated, stands for National Novel Writing Month. It's an event (now international, despite the name!) in which writers commit to composing 50,000 words of a novel (or maybe it's a 50,000 word novel; I'm not entirely sure) during the month of November. It's been going since 1999 and the number of participants is astonishing.

I think NaNoWriMo is terrific.

To my knowledge, I only have one NaNoWriMo novel on my list so far, though it's entirely possible there are two or three more that were originally composed in the month of November, and the author's just never told me the novel's full origin story.

Here are some things that are great about NaNoWriMo:

1) For lots of people, it's the excuse they've been waiting for to finally get off their duff and write a novel. Many, many first drafts of first novels have been composed as NaNoWriMo projects, I'm absolutely certain.

2) For lots of people, even published authors, it's a chance to make a huge and productive start on a new book project. It anchors the writing calendar. NaNoWriMo is a chance to produce what Anne Lamott calls a "sh*tty first draft," to lay the story out on the page so that you have something to work with.

3) For lots of people, it provides a sense of discipline. I look sometimes at the Twitter feed for the hashtag "#amwriting" and think to myself, "you're not writing, you're tweeting." I think the 50,000 word count is an ambitious and useful goal, a reason to disconnect yourself from the internet and really buckle down and write.

However. I see an increase in my queries every year come the first week in December.

I love NaNoWriMo. One of these years, I'm going to get off my own duff and do a NaNoWriMo project, just for the experience.

I don't love unrevised NaNoWriMo projects. Those proud NaNoWriMo finishers who send me their novel the first week in December haven't even had enough time to reread their manuscripts before pushing send. This is a big mistake.

Take the month of November to write the novel. Take the month of December to let it marinate. Give yourself a little psychic distance.

Then, in January, after you've put the holiday decorations away (or not. I put mine away in February this year; who am I to judge?), get out the manuscript and read it with fresh eyes. Read it alongside a book on how to write and revise. There are tons of great ones out there.

Make yourself a list of the main issues that need addressing in the revision. Some major things you should be looking for:

-plot: is it working? in a romance, do the hero and heroine end up together? in a mystery, is it too obvious or too subtle who the bad guy is?

-characters: what are their motivations? are they consistent? are they realistic?

-dialogue: do your characters talk like real people? Are their phrasings age-appropriate and in keeping with their characters? (and how are your dialogue tags?)

-pacing: does the story hold your interest throughout? I'm especially obsessed with the "flabby middle," which I'll talk about more another time, but in short: many novels have a slow spot right around the midpoint. Fix this.

-genre: this reread is a good opportunity to start thinking about how to market your novel. Who do you think is the target audience for your book? (Please don't say "everybody.")

Once you've got your list, give yourself at LEAST another month to do the revisions, and lather, rinse, and repeat.

Then, if you're very happy with the manuscript in its double-revised form, start the query process.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On coffee

I'm doing a caffeine-fueled happy dance over this.

On queries, part 2: surefire bestsellers and novel introductions.

Confession: I've been letting the queries pile up a bit this week. It's tricky sometimes, since I'd like to be reading and responding as quickly as possible, but I have to balance my query reading with my other responsibilities... and I also have to be in the proper frame of mind to give each query a fair shot. It's been raining in New York all week, after about a ten-day stretch of gorgeous spring days, so everyone (me included) is a little grumpy, I'm afraid.

At least this week, I know it's the weather and not the queries themselves that are making me grumpy.

Here are some things I never like to see in a query letter.

1) "My novel is a surefire bestseller!" Really? What makes you so sure? The publishing industry is surprised all the time by what works and what doesn't. Sometimes, something a publisher thought would be a more modest success turns into a perennial word-of-mouth bestseller; other times, a book everyone worked hard to make "the next big thing" just doesn't sell. I want you to be proud of your work and to believe in its potential. But try to dial back the bravado. Something like "My novel will appeal to women in their 40s and 50s/fans of Tom Clancy/chess-playing supercomputers" is a better fit for a query.

2) "I would like to introduce you to my novel." This one's just an awkward phrasing; out of politeness, I feel like I should shake your novel's hand. Just say "I am querying regarding my novel TITLE" or "I write in regard to my novel TITLE" or "My novel, TITLE, is a work of GENRE that deals with TOPIC."

3) "Is there anything you hate more than a rhetorical question?" Answer: probably. But I can't remember the last time I liked a query that opened with one.

4) "fiction novel." I think this one may owe thanks to the legendary Truman Capote, who famously described his masterpiece In Cold Blood as a "nonfiction novel." But this phrase still drives me nuts.

5) "My novel defies genre classification." Please, no. My primary job, as a literary agent, is to sell books to publishers. If I can't even tell them where to put it in the bookstore, they're not going to buy it. If your work has elements of science fiction and of Regency romance, tell me that. If it's experimental literary fiction, tell me that. But if I can't figure out how to sell it, I'm not going to take it on.

6) "I have attached chapters 12, 27, and 58." Our agency's submission guidelines request that you send the first three chapters, and we really mean the first three. If the story doesn't really get rolling until page 125, you probably need to revise.

7) "I have included synopses of each of my twelve completed novels." I'm a pretty good multi-tasker, but I can't wrangle twelve different books from the same author at the same time. Unless they're all part of a series, query on one book at a time. You can tell me about the others once I've already told you how much I love the first one. I'll write more another time about other reasons why I think querying on multiple books simultaneously is a mistake.

8) "I am the protagonist of the novel, a fictional character, and I am querying you on behalf of the writer who created me!" High-concept is good, but gimmicky is not. This technique gets points for risk-taking, but both the query and the sample chapters would really have to wow me in order for me to take the next steps.

9) "You can read my entire query and still not know what my book is about, or who the target audience is." I'm paraphrasing here, obviously, but sometimes it would be nice if the ultra-vague queries would cut to the chase this way. At a bare minimum, your query should include:
-the work's title
-the genre
-the word count
-the target audience (if it's not immediately clear from the genre)
-a brief description of the work. Plot summary. Back-of-book stuff. Get me interested.
-a brief bio of the author

The marvelous Nathan Bransford has a great post on what he calls "query mad libs," which is here. If you're getting ready to query and struggling with where to begin, the "mad libs" formula is a good start.

Friday, May 13, 2011

On self-discipline.

I'm not a writer. I have no concrete plans to change this, either-- my mmph years in the publishing industry have given me a front-row seat to just how hard it is for an author to "make it" in this business.

(And how very modest that success usually is, even for authors who achieve their dream of quitting their day jobs. I think there may be easier roads to fame and fortune, to put it mildly.)

To make it as a writer, you have to want it. And you have to work hard for it, usually on a near-daily basis, over a period of many years.

Anyway, it occurred to me this week that I have more in common with the writers with whom I work than I sometimes think. Namely, that self-discipline is not only a requirement, but it might as well be a prerequisite.

As a literary agent, I essentially work for myself. I set my own hours, I choose my own projects, I make my own priorities. This creates both a sense of freedom and a sense of responsibility. There's no one breathing down my neck-- except me! But because it's my job to, well, do my job, I have to be very self-disciplined. Here are some of my strategies.

1. I create deadlines, for myself and my clients, which are generally pretty artificial. Book publishing is a notoriously slow-paced industry, but I find that it really helps me to get something done (like feedback on a manuscript) in a timely manner when I promise someone I'll get back to them by X date. I have someone else who's then holding me accountable, and I'm motivated to keep my word. You could do the same with your critique group, or your friend who's agreed to read your manuscript.

2. I make lists. Oh, goodness, do I make lists. When I can manage it, I make lists of lists. Sometimes I have an electronic list of some sort: an email to myself, a "note" on my phone, or a newfangled web-based program like Remember the Milk. But I always seem to revert to a pen-and-paper list. Ticking the tiny box on my iphone is nowhere near as satisfying as crossing an item off the paper list with a great flourish. (One of these days, we will have to talk about pens. Remind me.) The important thing is that the system seems to work for me.

3. I have a lot of projects going at any one time, and I try to make sure they're all at various stages in the process. I can probably read 400 pages in a day if I don't even try to do anything else, but it's exhausting and it won't be my best work. It's better to have some reading time, some email time, some phonecall time, and so on. If you're a writer, I expect you'd similarly benefit from having various projects at different stages of completion: one very rough draft, one in revision-- and once you've got a book deal, maybe you've also got one for which you're reviewing page proofs before publication.

4. I try really hard to be kind to myself. Everyone has days which are not their best, and if I'm in a growly mood and hate everything that's put in front of me, that's not a good day to try to give someone feedback on their manuscript. It's really important to me that I stay on top of my work, that I give every client (or prospective client) my best effort, AND that I remember that things have a way of balancing themselves out. Some days are more productive than others.

My client Erin Doland, who is the editor-in-chief of unclutterer.com (and whose new book proposal I've been hard at work on today!), had an excellent post last week which speaks to a lot of these issues, particularly my #2 above. Here's the link.

Another client, Elizabeth O. Dulemba, swears by what she calls the "butt in chair" method-- meaning the work doesn't get done unless you sit down and work on it.

How about you? Have you tried NaNoWriMo? Do you have a daily word count? What other strategies for self-discipline have you tried?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

On promoting yourself.

Jessica (hi, Jessica!) asked in the comments about how writers can best use social media (Twitter, blogs, etc.). The unstated part of the question, I think, was how to use those tools to further your writing career-- and by extension your book sales.

Agents and editors talk a lot about "platform," but what we really mean is: when your book is finally available for sale, who can you tell about it? And will they buy it? Or ask their library to do so?

The social media stuff is all newer than we often think about, so ingrained has it become in our worldview. The oldest blogs out there, like Kottke, are still less than fifteen years old. These resources just weren't available two decades ago, and it feels like it's changing all the time. The good news is, anyone can build a platform on the Internet. The bad news is that it takes a lot of time and effort to do it well.

I am fairly new to Twitter myself (@millercallihan, should you care to follow) and by no means an expert. Holly Tucker (also an SJGA client! her book is fantastic and now available) gave me some great Twitter advice, though, which I haven't followed as closely as I should: that is, you should pick a sort of Twitter identity. Do you mostly RT other people's posts? Do you post interesting links that you find? Do you post personal updates, a sort of mini-blog? I have taken a hybrid approach, myself, but it works for me. I am obsessed with Community, so that probably makes more than its fair share of appearances in my Twitter feed.

The standard advice for both Twitter and for blogs is that as a non-celebrity (or future celebrity, if you prefer), it's critical to engage with other people. Seek out kindred spirits. Take the time to read other people's posts or tweets, and write back! No one likes to feel that they're speaking into a vaccuum. The idea behind all social media is that you're creating a community. That takes time, so if you're reading this before your book is published, or even before you have a book deal or an agent, start now.

But when it comes down to what you should actually WRITE on your Twitter feed or your blog or whatever, the thing I keep coming back to is something Neil Gaiman said last year. This is great advice and deserves its own paragraph.

“Use your blog to connect. Use it as you. Don’t ‘network’ or ‘promote.’ Just talk.” (source)

So along those lines, let's talk. Anybody reading this who started a blog before, say, this past Tuesday, has more experience with blogging than I do. What works for you? What else should I have said? What advice do you have for newbie blogger me?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On queries, part 1: what's in a name?

Let's talk queries!

Vicky asked in the comments on my previous post how many queries I get in a day. (Hi, Vicky!) The short answer is that it varies widely: some days I'll get upwards of 100 queries in a 24-hour period, and other days it'll be more like ten. I haven't counted, but from the looks of my inbox I've gotten about 20 or 30 in the past day or so.

It won't surprise anyone to learn that the queries themselves vary tremendously in terms of quality. After almost six years (!!!) of reading submissions, I can usually tell in less than a minute whether something is worth a closer look. What IS interesting is that the higher-quality stuff seems to come in waves: I go several weeks sometimes without requesting a full manuscript, and then a day arrives when I'll get three or four or five really terrific looking projects. It never rains, etc.

So let's talk a little bit about what makes a good query. There's a lot to say on the subject, so I'm planning to spread this out over a number of posts.

Let's start with the very first thing I notice: the salutation.

Did the author address me by name? (I prefer "Dear Ms. Miller-Callihan" for the initial query, though I'm considerably less formal in my day-to-day interactions with clients I've signed. And if there's no salutation at all, I've been known to delete the email without responding, if it doesn't immediately wow me.)

Did they spell my name right? (This sounds very petty, but wouldn't YOU want someone to spell your name correctly?)

Did they even GET my name right? (I think this is a mail-merge problem, but once a month or so I'll get a query that's addressed to another literary agent, someone that's not even part of my agency.)

I'm under no illusions that my name is easy to spell. Think of it like the SATs: there are points awarded just for that.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

hello out there

Hi there.

My name is Courtney Miller-Callihan.

I'm a literary agent with Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, Inc., in New York.

My agency webpage can be found here.

And now I have a blog!

So what would you like to know?