Lamar Giles
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July, 2010

Learning to love red ink

Last time I said I’d discuss training your brain to write original stuff (in other words, the opposite of what most aspiring writers are doing based on what I’ve seen the agents complaining about). I’m sorry to disappoint, but another more timely subject came up. My agent sent me the editorial letter for my YA Mystery WHISPERTOWN today, and I thought it would be a good topic to get into.

Direct your attention to the cartoon on the left. It’s kind of funny, but not the red ink I’m talking about (though mine can be just as difficult to handle). I’m talking about editorial changes, something you’re going to have to deal with when your writing career takes off.

If you’re really trying to break into this business, I’m sure you’ve got critique partners and beta-readers (if you don’t, you better get some) to help you iron out rough spots in your manuscript. These folks are invaluable, and they can really get your work past the initial suckage. However, you have to understand that even the most conscientious beta-reader, while enthusiastic and often willing to go the extra mile, probably lacks two things: 1) A vested interest in your work beyond friendship or reciprocation 2) True editorial experience.

Bottom line: serviceable editors are all around, but GREAT editors are hard to come by.

What’s that mean? Maybe nothing. But let’s say you’ve gone through your beta readers a couple of times, they’ve given the stamp of approval, then you’re fortunate enough to get an agent. That stamp just got revoked. All those re-writes are out the window because now your agent wants to fine tune.

This is the point where you might be tempted to get a little huffy. “The book was good enough for my agent to sign me, how could it possibly need more work? I’ve reached the pentacle.”

No, you haven’t. You’ve got potential, your agent saw it, and now she wants to make sure you’re not wasting her time by sending her out into the world with a mediocre manuscript. This is why the agent you choose is very important.The editorial pill will be much easier to swallow if you’re confident that your agent knows what she’s talking about.

My agent has great editorial experience, and backs up every change she requests with sound rationale. For the record, I didn’t feel the slightest bit of huff when I read her letter. I only disagreed on a couple of points, and once I explained my position, she backed me. We work well together.

If you’ve chosen your agent wisely, then you should look forward to those requested changes, because they mean your agent can go into the world with confidence in your project. A confident agent will work hard for you, because success benefits you both.

But, what if you don’t look forward to the letter? What if you hate the letter?

Then you better get over it. Because if you agent sells your project, most likely you’re going to get another letter from your new editor. More changes. And what are you going to do then? Throw a fit at the person who’s cutting you a check and fulfilling your lifelong dream at the same time?

It’s not your book anymore. Sure, your name’s on the cover, but you have investors to please. Beyond the investors, you have readers to entrall. If you’re lucky, you’re birthing your new career, a career that will bleed red ink often.

Learn to love it. Because as long as those agents and editors are staining your manuscript, you’re still in the business. When no one’s telling you what to change, it means they’re not reading anymore.

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The Query Process: My .02

I’ve struggled with this blogging thing for some time now. I’ve stopped and started several times, always searching for a sustainable angle, the oft-mentioned “sticky content”. Haven’t had much success, though.

The obvious direction is a writing advice blog. But, I’ve always avoided it for a couple of reasons:

1) Only a billion other writers are doing it

2) I always felt like I wasn’t quite qualified enough

Recently, a good friend pointed some things out to me. She noted that I’ve been writing for over 20 years (and in the past 10 years I have racked up some professional sales). I’ve completed several novels. I’ve won awards and placed in prestigious contests. I’ve crafted a query letter that generated a nearly 70% positive response rate from the agents who read it. And, just recently, I actually acquired an incredibly qualified agent at a well respected agency (Jamie Weiss Chilton of Andrea Brown Literary, for those who don’t know).

Basically, I know a little bit about this writing game.

My friend went on to point out that my reluctance to give writing advice wasn’t about my qualifications, but my confidence. In my mind, anything less than a book deal was a failure, and failures shouldn’t give advice.

Yes, I’ve been hard on myself. But no more.

I have knowledge to share, and I’m not shying away anymore. So, if you have any topics you’d like me to touch on, feel free to ask. In the meantime, I’ll steer the ship.  First up, let’s talk about your query process (not the specifics of the letter, that will vary), particularly when and how.

The First Thing

This should go without saying, but don’t query until your book is complete. I’ve met more than a few writers who worry themselves with what agency they should sign with (you’re lucky if you have a choice), whether they can negotiate commissions (not likely), and whether or not their agent is going to have the experience to negotiate six-figure deals BEFORE THEY’VE WRITTEN THEIR FIRST WORD (your agent actually needs something to negotiate with). It’s so counter-intuitive to me, but I’ve met enough of these writers to know this has to be said. So, please, write THE END before you even THINK about writing query letter.

Tier-y Eyed

Even though you have a list of 20 agents you wish to query, I suggest you break them into tiers. Your top choices, the middle, and the guys you’re not that interested in. Then, pick a couple from each group so you can send out an initial 5-6 queries. Based on the response, you’ll know if your query is solid (they’ll ask to read your whole book) or still needs work (some lowly office worker emails you a letter that begins “Dear Author, thank you but…”). If you bomb on the first tier, make adjustments and try again. With a little polish, you might get to choose your agent after all.

Pull a BP…

…and always have something in the pipeline (rimshot). Um, okay, anyway…always be working on the next thing, because the reality is you can polish a rusty tin can all day and it’s still going to be a rusty tin can. That was a metaphor. For your book. Which may not be as good as you think. I’m not trying to diss you, but sometimes the project just isn’t solid and you’re not doing yourself any favors by obsessing over it for six years (like I once did). Always keep writing. Crank out your ideas faster while improving at the same time. Sounds like a lot of work, but think about it, that’s exactly what you’re going to have to do when you do get the call you’ve waited all your life for. Might as well start practicing now.

That’s all for now. Next time, I’ll talk about training your mind to generate original ideas…it may help those of you who are currently working on your YA romance about a girl who’s torn between a vampire, and a werewolf, and derivatives. (I know, I know…yours is DIFFERENT. The girl has a peg leg. I get it. Really.)


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