Wednesday, March 31, 2010

VA Book Part 3: The YA Panels, and the Agent I Did Not Stalk

Fun Fact: Until the Virginia Festival of the Book, I had never met an agent. And by 'meet an agent' I mean, never been in the same room as one. I suppose I could've been in the Greenie aisle of the local PetSmart with Colleen Lindsay or at the Baltimore Aquarium's shark tank with Janet Reid and not known it, but this was my first, genuine sighting of a literary agent in the wild.

I walked into the room for the 12pm "Getting Published - Picture Books to Young Adult" panel and spotted Andrea Brown supa-agent Laura Rennert kindly explaining to someone how they could query her via e-mail: Be sure to put 'query' in the subject header and include the first ten pages of the manuscript in the body of the e-mail. In other words, exactly what the web site tells writers to do. She was very patient and I watched a couple of other people approach her as she made her way to the front of the room.

Though I didn't talk to her, because let's face it, she was being bugged enough as it was, I could tell that she was smart, scary smart. If contract negotiation was a martial art, she'd be a ninja master. Whenever the panel touched upon the issue of agenting or deal-making, she'd get this gleam in her eye and you could tell she was in the zone. She probably doesn't walk out of editor meetings so much as vanish in a veil of smoke.

I know there wasn't much to my agent sighting, but yes, it totally made my day in a, "Oh my gods, agents DO exist! They're not just figments of my imagination" sort of way. Besides Laura, who was there to talk about her new picturebook Buying, Training, and Caring for Your Dinosaur, authors Deborah Heiligman, Bonnie Doerr, Emily Ecton, and Ruth Spiro were also on the panel.

Though the panel was supposed to cover everything up to YA, a good deal of the discussion focused on picturebooks and just how different they were from other types of juvenile fiction. Because there's a visual component to the book, you really don't need descriptive words, yet every word you do use should set a mood and tone.

I also knew that picturebook authors didn't get to choose their artists, but I didn't know that they oftentimes don't even see the final product until their book is about to hit the shelves. That was quite the shock!

Besides the subject of picturebooks, there was an interesting discussion on the role of literary agents and whether or not you needed one. I think two of the authors on the panel were unagented, but everyone pretty much agreed that you should get one if you can, but make sure that the agent is reputable and a good fit. In particular, Deborah Heiligman mentioned that her award-winning non-fiction YA on the marriage of Charles Darwin, Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, would never have happened without her agent's support. Not only can agents negotiate better deals, but they can offer long-term career guidance and act as a sounding board, letting you know when to push ahead with a project and when a project needs more work.

My second YA panel of the day was "Hot Young Adult and Teen Fiction" with David Macinnis Gill (Soul Enchilada), Jennifer Hubbard (The Secret Year), Paula Chase Hyman (Flipping the Script), and the wonderful Amy Brecount White (Forget-Her-Nots). See the picture above! Each author read an excerpt from their books and though contemporary YA isn't my thing, I was surprised by how much I liked the work of the two contemporary writers on the panel, Jennifer Hubbard and Paula Chase Hyman. Of course, Amy Brecount White and David Macinnis Gill were amazing too. Amy's excerpt from Forget-Her-Nots had me on the verge of sniffling and crying, which is a little bit embarrassing, and David's sneak peek of his upcoming sci-fi YA set on Mars had me laughing out loud (it's not a comedy by any stretch, but the scene involved the main character high up on a platform, miles above the Martian landscape, fighting with an artificial intelligence that was calling him chicken for being scared of heights).

What followed next was a really good discussion of inspiration, 'edginess' in YA, future YA classics, and what responsibility do YA authors in particular have to their underaged readers.

Up Next: My interview with the author of Forget-Her-Nots, Amy Brecount White!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

VA Book Part 2: Revealed! The Secret to Getting Your Book on Oprah

I stepped into the Omni Hotel, where much of the VA Festival of the Book was being held, sometime around 9am. I had been to a number of conventions before, Faeriecon, Otakon, and the like, so the first question that leapt into my mind was: Where are the cosplayers?

Lesson #1 of Book Festivals: There is no cosplay. Good thing I left my Katniss Everdeen costume at home.

My first panel of the day was at 10am, Book Promotion for the 21st Century, and I have to say, I'm really glad I went, even though the panel had a heavy non-fiction tilt. The panelists were Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Carleen Brice, author of Orange Mint and Honey and creator of the blog White Readers Meet Black Authors, publicist Kelly Powers, and the author of I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, Jag Bhalla. And yes, one of these authors got themselves featured in Oprah's magazine. Dun, dun, dun!

Before I go on, I'd just like to state that besides all the great information I got about publicity, I learned from Jag Bhalla, whose book is about amusing idioms found around the world, that the Germans have a saying, "Living like a maggot in bacon." How can I work this into my everyday conversation?

Listening to the panelists, four common themes jumped out at me:
  1. You're going to have to do a lot of legwork yourself. Pub house publicists are going to do their best to help you, but they're insanely busy people. They might have dozens of other books they have to promote at the same time as yours. Unless you're already a big name with a track record of success, they're probably only going to be able to devote a limited amount of time to you and your book. The industry standard for how long a publicist will work on your book is also about 120 days, which leads to the next point...
  2. You should be working on publicity months, even years, before your book ever comes out and for months after it's published. Publicity requires long-term thinking and network-building well in advance of the actual pub date.
  3. Be creative, use every angle you can to promote your book. Don't unintentionally limit your options. For example, as I mentioned, Jag Bhalla's book is about idioms around the world. Because a lot of those idioms are food-based, he approached food and cooking magazines and pitched stories to them. He also went to NPR and volunteered to write an entire episode of the quiz show "Wait wait..don't tell me" based around his book.
  4. Tailor your pitches. Don't just send a book to the Washington Post, for example, and hope it'll get reviewed. Give the person on the other end a reason to care, a reason to be intrigued. In some ways, it's a lot like writing query letters, you don't write a generic query letter and send it to every agent in the universe (OK, you SHOULDN'T do that, if you are, please don't). You research the agents' individual tastes, find out if they represent your genre, and adjust your query letter accordingly. When trying to publicize your book, make your pitch specific to that person or organization.
Other things I learned:

* Don't have a platform? Then build one. It took author Rebecca Skloot about ten years for her book to get published (it truly is an epic saga, involving one editor getting temporary amnesia and one of her publishers going out of business, amongst other mishaps) and during that time, she worked on her platform by doing freelance writing for magazines, hosting panels at book conferences, and networking in the scientific community.

* This is also how Rebecca got her current agent. She would host these conference panels and would usually be invited out to lunch beforehand to do some panel prep. Well, panel prep lasted about 5 minutes, at which point the editor or agent would ask her what projects she was working on. She'd tell them about her book and then they'd ask her who her agent was. She'd smile innocently and say, "Oh, I don't have one yet!"

* Web sites are essential. Other social media sites like Twitter can be helpful, but first and foremost, you need a good web site. Also, keep your blogroll updated (peers at own blogroll...yeah, I need to work on that one).

* Consider hiring your own publicist. What do publicists do? They help strategize and coordinate and can draw upon their own network of contacts to promote your book.

* Get booksellers and libraries on your side. Build these networks long before your book ever comes out. Bribery in the form of donuts and baked goods is surprisingly effective.

* Whatever you do, it's important to be comfortable doing it. I think this is especially important for us shy writers out there (people = scary, SCARY). Remember why you wanted to write in the first place, focus more on telling your amazing story and less on selling the book. You'll actually sell more books that way.

* Do book reviews, become part of the writing community and part of the conversation. Send out ARCs to book bloggers. The panelists also mentioned and

* Amazon pre-sale numbers can be very important. If you can get 1,000 or more pre-orders on Amazon, that can really help build buzz for your book.

* Don't just take, give! Build relationships. Maybe if an independent bookstore promotes your book, you'll come and do free signings and point people towards their store.

* Sales representatives can really help to push your book, but most people don't even know they exist (I didn't know about them!). Sales reps are employed by publishing houses, work by region, and are responsible for selling the publisher's books to retailers. If you can get them on your side, they can convince retailers to purchase more of your books.

* Keep your expectations in check. One media exposure does not necessarily equal sales. For example, Carleen Brice got a full feature in Essence magazine, but it didn't send her sales skyrocketing. Rather, you need to keep building on the publicity you receive, and as always, repetition, repetition, repetition is the key. Maybe the first time someone reads about your book in a magazine, they won't buy it. But the second, third or fourth time they hear about it, they might decide to check it out.

* Your resources, and that includes time, is finite. Choose wisely where you spend it.

* Publishers follow success rather than create it.

All right, so that author who got her book featured in Oprah's magazine? If you said Rebecca Skloot and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you guessed right! How'd she snag Oprah's much sought after seal of approval? Well, it took a lot of work, planning, and a well-tailored pitch.

When she was building her platform and working as a freelancer, Rebecca did some writing for O Magazine and got to know the editors there. Months before its release date, she was able to pitch the book to the editors and suggest they do a feature. Given the subject matter, the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black farmer who died from cervical cancer, and whose cells ended up revolutionizing the field of medicine, she knew it'd be a perfect fit for the magazine. The editors agreed.

Next up: My report on the festival's YA panels, how I got within five feet of the legendary literary agent Laura Rennert and totally did not tackle her, and an interview with YA author Amy Brecount White! Also, I'll be updating my blogroll.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Virginia Festival of Awesome, Part 1 - Charlottesville

Last Saturday, I went with the ever lovely and wonderful Aine to my very first Virginia Festival of the Book, aka the Festival of Awesome. No, this was not an easy journey. For several hours we crossed time-worn mountains and fast-rushing rivers to reach our destination, lured by the promise of authors, books, and fun. Along the way, we braved the overfriendly denizens of a Chick-Fil-A and ignored the siren call of Dinosaurland, determined to get to the festival, and Aine to the Kim Harrison signing, on time.

Now, I can't say I've never been to Charlottesville before, where the Festival is held every year. But I was about 9 years old the last time my family stopped in town on the way to Monticello, so it's been a while. I never realized what a beautiful town it was, and when I come back next year (oh, I'll definitely be back), it'll be for the town as much as for the books.

It's one of those big little towns that feels so small, but it just keeps going and going. You're surrounded by history and colonial architecture, Revolutionary War troops used to travel down the city's main street, but you're also surrounded by cool restaurants, art galleries and countless book stores.

Charlottesville is a college town, the home to the U of VA campus, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised by all the book stores and cool cafes, but the place has a culture and a vibe that I've never experienced in any other college town. In other words, you can see why Virginia holds its Festival of the Book here every year!

Below are some photos I took along the town's main street, right next to the Omni Hotel where much of the festival takes place.

The town's car-free Main Street. I counted three bookstores, one movie theater, one gelato shop that I must try next time, and more restaurants than you can shake a stick at. Also, there was a place there that sold ladybug slippers. I want!!!

At first I thought this said, "Saloon Drunkya." Ah well.

Flowers. Um, pretty flowers. I bet Amy Brecount White would know what they are.

Couch made of glass and tile that sits in front of an Artists' Collective.

The view from the back of the hotel. BTW-I have about 15 flower pics and 5 pics of the actual festival. Hey, it's spring-time, after three blizzards and months of freezing temperatures, I'm psyched to finally be seeing green and growing things again.

Next up: How I Learned How to Get My Book on Oprah. Sorta. Kinda.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Finding Inspiration

People sometimes ask me where I get the inspiration for my stories, because of all the issues I might have with my writing, coming up with story ideas is not one of them. Truth is, I get my inspiration from every and anywhere... the graffiti on a wall, Ghost Hunters, Anime, a trip to Hawaii... but most importantly, I get my inspiration from art and history and I sometimes worry that not enough writers are paying attention to those last two.

I can't stress this enough to writers: I know you're told to read widely, to know the books in your genre, but there's a whole marvelous world out there that you should be exploring too. Visit a museum, tour some old ruins, read up on the French Revolution. Maybe you'll get an idea for your next book. If nothing else, you'll have expanded your understanding and broadened your mind, because ultimately, history is about people and how they react in certain circumstances, art is about human emotion given form. Gain a better understanding of both and you'll become a better writer.

I recently visited the Terra Cotta Warrior Exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in DC (all sold out, I'm afraid). Not only was it an amazing experience, getting to see statues detailed down to the soles of their shoes, with unique faces and hair-dos, but I got inspiration for a story I've been struggling with for over a year. The tentative title of the book is the Walls of Shangri-La, about a boy who lives in a walled paradise that no one has left for a thousand years. When one day a girl in a hot air balloon flies over the city, the boy becomes determined to find out what's outside the walls, even if it means imprisonment and the destruction of his family.

I already have one villain for the story, but with the way I have things planned out, I needed a second villain, bigger and badder than the first and I had no idea what to do. I was stuck, until I went to this exhibit. Now I think I'm going to base the villain on the First Emperor of China. Here are some things I learned at the show that I'm probably going to incorporate into the character and the book:

  • The Emperor was extremely paranoid (is it paranoia if they're really out to get you though?). He built hundreds of palaces and slept in a different one every night. Once, when he was traveling and it was clear people had expected his arrival, he had his entire retinue of servants executed to make sure whoever had leaked the information would never do so again.
  • There were numerous assassination attempts against the Emperor. In the most famous and nearly successful attempt, the assassin gained an audience with the Emperor after bringing him the head of an enemy general and a map of enemy lands. The assassin lunged at the Emperor with a dagger that was hidden in the rolled up map.
  • The Emperor was a tyrant, but an extremely efficient and capable tyrant. Roads were improved, weights, money and writing was standardized, and weapons were mass-manufactured, which gave the Emperor a technical advantage over his enemies. Every weapon had a stamp on it saying where the weapon had been made and by who to ensure quality control. Parts could also be inter-changed, allowing weapons to be quickly fixed.
  • The Emperor did not always kill rival rulers. Rather, he would bring them to the capital and keep them as prisoners in palaces designed to resemble their own palaces back home.

There are plenty of more details that I want to put into the book, like the decorated tiles I saw and Chinese symbology. As creative as I might be, everytime I learn about the past, I find something amazing that I could have never dreamed up on my own.