Wednesday, April 24, 2013

One Hour with an Agent

I've been quiet for a while, and when I'm quiet that means I'm means I'm nervous.

This might be news for some of you, but a little over a week ago I got the amazing opportunity to Skype chat with an agent!

Short version: I won a blog contest sponsored by Authoress. The Tiny Agent contest. There were twelve photographs of various agents as younglings.
I love pictures. I'm a picture fanatic - not taking them, but looking at them. You are looking at a moment never to be re-created ever again. The feelings, the face, every single thing about that exact moment is unique. I'll spare you more in depth commentary than that; suffice it to say pictures are one of the most magical things ever invented in my opinion.

I only guessed on three agent photographs. They were the three that I already followed on Twitter.

The next day the winners were posted, and I hopped on over to see who won. Keep in mind, that I didn't enter the contest to win anything; I just thought it was a fun game - and I love photographs. Besides, I only guessed on three out of twelve.
Imagine my surprise when MY name was on the list of winners...

I e-mailed the Anonymous Authoress to claim my prize, and a few hours later I had a Skype chat scheduled with Agent A.
If you recall my previous blog post, The Prince of Purple Prose Tries to Abdicate the Throne, I mentioned Agents A, B, and C.
This agent was Agent A.
From my perspective we had already met, and now the universe has conspired to embarrass me further by causing me to heckle someone who has already told me "No".

I seriously considered declining. If only for a moment. Not necessarily declining, but maybe not claiming my prize. After all, someone else was more deserving; I already had my chance.

But then I realized how Not-Often such a thing happens - not to mention how Not-Often I win something - so we scheduled the Skype session, and I spent the next day and a half panicking.

I woke up Friday morning at 7am (our chat wasn't for another two hours) I spent an hour and fifteen minutes performing every single one of my morning ablutions as if this were someone I had been romatically courting for sometime and this was the "third date". I must say, I looked as flawless as I possibly could.

Every curl was in place, eyebrows perfectly tweezed, it was even the inaugural wearing of my Malificent tee from I was so ready...
9:01 arrives and I see the smiling face of Agent A, and I hear their voice.
(Sidenote: I could write a whole entry on voices; how I think they are just as unique as a fingerprint, and how absolutely thrilling I find hearing the speaking voice of someone whose texts/tweets/blogs you read on a daily basis is.)
Agent A  broke the ice beautifully. When I'm in control of a situation I find charm and general conversation easy; when I'm the lowly one in a conversation I am entirely lost for words. I got to say "Good morning" and stammered out a couple of questions, and they took off with polite conversation.
About 6 minutes in they asked, "Can you see me?"
I replied in the affirmitave.
"Hm. Okay. Well, I can't see you..." they said.
My heart literally stopped beating for approximately 3 seconds.

I still don't know what happened. But in the next few minutes after they hung up and called back trying to assist me in getting it to work (Oh the torture! You don't even understand the embarrassment!) my internet dropped completely and the call was lost. When they called back we were both completely without video, and basically we carried on the rest of the conversation while I stared, nodded, and made Colten-Phone-Faces at the computer screen.

We spent an hour on the phone. Some ice-breaking, and the two minutes of "Can you see me now?" Hell; then we segued into the thing that I was too nervous to talk about, but the thing that an Agent and an aspiring author should talk about - my book.

"Actually," I began, "I believe you've already had an introduction to my work..."

We shared a laugh, and Agent A began to peruse a re-vamped version of my query I'd sent prior to our conversation.

Now here's where you other pre-published authors pay attention...

Agent A noted the ages of my characters. Bianca and Scarlett are 12 when the story begins, but approximately halfway through the book they turn 13. It's an important event within the story.
"This is Middle Grade, not Young Adult," says Agent A.

My heart sank.
See, I don't think I have what I would consider a MG voice. That's been one of my woes in categorizing my story in my queries. At some points the writing is...dark. The narration expresses character thoughts and emotions that I commonly read in YA but rarely see in MG. Hence my uncertainty regarding voice. I couldn't have been wrong all this time could I?

Agent A explains that given the borderline ages of the characters it may be categorized as Upper MG Fantasy - allowing for darker moments, but publishers are now (moreso than ever before) more stringent in regards to categories as a result of the flooded market.
"Readers, especially younger readers, tend to read about characters that are older than they are," Agent A explained. "So if you're characters are twelve/thirteen then you can expect nine, ten, eleven year olds to be the ones reading your book."
My mind exploded in that moment. Common sense! How had I not recognized this before? I was the 9 year old reading about teenagers. Middle grade doesn't mean your characters are necessarily Middle means your readers are!

Next big thing:
"You've noted that it's the first part of a series," Agent A observed. "Be careful. Some agents balk when they see the word 'series'. Ultimately, not to sound harsh, but it isn't necessarily you who decides if your book is a series. It's your sales. You can plan or hope for a series, but realize that book one needs to stand on its own because if it doesn't sell then your publisher will not want book two."

This is something I had already considered (thank goodness). Bianca and Scarlett's first adventure does stand alone (it lays A LOT of groundwork - but it stands alone).
I've noticed a few writers on Twitter with itchy writing fingers. They don't have an agent, they've been looking for a while, and their querying while writing the next five novels in their space opera. I always backed away from that kind of behavior (sometimes my best-friend Kim would have to pull me back). This is a business. It's best not to forget it. And writing a page of book two before someone tells you book one is worthy of being on a shelf at a bookstore is presumptuous at best, and utter foolishness at the worst.

Finally...the thing that has been the bane of my writing existence since day one.......

"Whoa!" Agent A said when they saw my word count. "96,000 words is too long for Middle Grade...It's rare to find a Middle Grade over 70,000 words."

In truth, Agent A isn't the only agent with that opinion...Agent Kristin Nelson also comments on word count here.

But I had a plan. See I took out the over-writing, but now with this news my mind instantly flew to a character who I had been considering removing from the manuscript since January. Agent A's advice just convinced me to write this person out of existence. ...Truthfully, I didn't mourn the character - he was kindof an ass.

"I can fix that," I replied with assurance.

There was uncertainty in Agent A's tone: "You can cut 25,000 words? That's over a quarter of your manuscript."

"There's a character that needs to go," I replied, "and other things that can be moved to future books if it's allowed to be a series."

"Well if you think you can..." Agent A replied.

"Consider it done," I promised.

A few minutes later our conversation came to a close, and I was invited to use Agent A's first name. (It took all of my reserve not to squeal)

.....Later that day one of my CPs and I traded manuscripts. In getting to know him I definitely trust his critique - a trust that has exponentially increased since getting to read his work. I wanted to wait until he had a chance to review my MS before making any changes. I didn't tell him at first how many words I was looking at cutting, or which character I'm looking to do away with (he still doesn't know that). I wanted an unbiased critique. I wanted to see if he naturally came to the same conclusion I on and so forth.
In the meantime, I've been writing up all of my CP critiques. I've finished reading all the MSs, all of them have their strengths and weaknesses. In looking at other's work with a critical eye my mind always travels back to my own work, and what it is missing. I get the first one sent out tomorrow, and the next ones will follow as I finish writing them.
Now, when the time comes and I get my critiques back (I hunger for that day) I can dive in with a machete in each hand. What was once a wild jungle, became a fenced-in preserve, then a cultured forest, and now it must be transformed into a stately garden - with only the best, most appealing flowers and trees on display. 

Now, do not misunderstand, fellow writers. These 25,000 words aren't going to go quietly, even with removing a supporting character and moving a few to Possibly Someday. Those people don't get much screen time anyway. They're important to how the story is written now. They add an interesting dimension to the world, but ultimately the story (at least book one) can be told without them.
I'm truly worried at losing less that what I intend to lose.
When I take out X characters I still have to accomplish the same purposes that those characters served by giving Oliver, Scott, Mrs. Hamilton, and Vanessa bigger roles than they already have, but doing it in such a way that it doesn't add words.
 I'm going to have to experiment and play with what must come and go, but I do know that the more words, scenes and characters that end up on the cutting room floor will mean that only the most necessary elements of my story remain - and shine.
It's definitely going to take work.

But that's all I needed. If someone had said straight out of the gate months ago: your word count should be ____, and your book is categorized as _____; I could have already been done.
We can research until our eyeballs bleed, but even Agent A stressed that guidelines like this are exactly that - Guidelines. This is a subjective industry, and as a result there isn't a magical formula that you can follow for landing an agent, or publishing a novel. But I'm a person who works best with deadlines and guidelines. So this nudge in the right direction was all I needed.
What about you?
What are some little known facts you've come across in your research or experience?
I hope someone out there found this helpful; let me know if you did!

Until we meet again...

1 comment:

  1. Great informative post. I really do think you have a great MG series. I'm curious about the character you are thinking of cutting...