Genre Breakdown: Magical Realism

Welcome to the first post in the genre breakdown series. One of the biggest steps in the submission process is determining which genre your book falls under. It’s important in both worlds of self publishing or the traditional route. You need to know your genre in order to target the audience most likely to be interested, whether it be readers or agents or editors.

I’ve seen a lot of incorrectly classified submissions, but I’ve noticed the genre authors tend to get the most mixed up is magical realism.

Birds of America – At the Beach – Kevin Sloan

As an agent that represents both fantasy and magical realism, I find a lot of fantasy authors will submit under the genre magical realism, believing, falsely, it gives their fantasy novel more literary cred or makes it more unique. Or, they simply do not understand what magical realism actually is. I don’t blame them. Search the term, and a plethora of definitions pop up that don’t exactly make it clear. As Webster’s Dictionary puts it, “A literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” So does that mean Twilight is magical realism? No. Urban and paranormal still fall under the fantasy umbrella because even though they are set in modern time the reader is brought into a world that is indeed different than our own.

The Sun Sets Sail – Rob Gonsalves

What you do need to know is magical realism has a rich and varied history and is a separate genre from fantasy. If you’re not sure which genre your project falls under, than it is most likely fantasy. A boy from our world who finds out he’s a wizard and goes off to wizarding school to have all kinds of magical adventures, that’s fantasy. A boy from our world who believes he’s a wizard but whose story takes place in reality, that is potentially magical realism. Notice I said “potentially.” Magical realism is an elusive genre, not for the inexperienced or crowd-pleaser. The best way to get familiar with the genre is to read some of the classics, Like Water For ChocolateOne Hundred Years of SolitudeMidnight’s Children, and House of Spirits. You’ll find that even though there is a touch of magic, a bit of the fantastic, a sprinkling of the otherworld, these books are completely grounded in reality and the culture they stem from. Magical realism treats magic as if it were rational, just another aspect of our world, not as something otherworldly. Once you understand it, it will become obvious.

Self Portrait With Necklace of Thorns – Frida Kahlo

Why is this important? Because the average fantasy reader is different than the average magical realism reader. The audience is different, thus the people you submit to will be different, the shelf in the bookstore will be different, the Amazon Bestseller category will be different.

I hope this post has helped a little to understand that difference.

Know Your Rights – Publishing Contracts

Most newbie writers believe that you get your book published and that’s where the publishing train ends. So when they seek out an agent or publisher, or they self-publish, they tend to overlook one of the most important aspects of publishing, the subsidiary rights.

Sub-rights are a great way to bring in more money and get more exposure for your book. If you are self-publishing then you have the responsibility to see if these rights can be sold. If you land an agent or a publisher, they should be taking care of these rights for you. An agent will be shopping these with your interests in mind, the publishers in their own interest. There are a bunch of subsidiary rights that you may not know or care to know about, even after you’ve published, but there are 3 major ones that you should be asking about before you sign anything.

Film/Media:

This is the obvious one. Most writers have already dreamed of that actor that will play their characters in a film. Most agencies have connections with film/media agents or have a relationship with a particular agent, which is their subagent. Find out what type of connections your agent has.

Audio:

Audio sales have seen a steady increase over the years, so much so that publishers are more often trying to retain these rights. With the advent of digital content streaming, companies such as Audible are carving out a place in the market. A savvy agent will attempt to keep these rights on your behalf and sell them later. Most agencies either have an in-house audio agent, or the agents handle these rights themselves.

Translation:

Where in the world and in what language your book is being published is determined by which rights you have signed away. Did you give the publisher only North American English or did they retain World English? What about the right to translate and sell it in different countries? Did you know that every year the world’s largest trade fair for books is held in Frankfurt, Germany? A good foreign rights agent attends the Frankfurt Book Fair to pitch the multitudes of international publishers that will attend. The agent may be able to sell your book to multiple markets in multiple languages, meaning more royalties for you.

If an agent has offered you representation, ask what their process is for retaining and selling these important rights. How does the commission percentage break down? Do they have a sub-agent or do they partner with an agency that specializes? If the publisher insists on keeping one or all of these rights, what sort of parameters does the agent set in order to make the deal worth it? Most agents should be able to answer these questions easily and happily.
If you went straight to a publisher, make sure you understand what is happening with these rights. If said publisher is keeping all these rights, there should be a time limit so if the publisher does not doing anything with these rights they revert back to you.

So before you start shopping your manuscript, know your rights.

 

 

Mary C. MooreJune 22, 2015

Interview with Mary C. MooreSee my interview with Geek on Record about the eBook publishing revolution here.

Reasons For Rules: An Agent’s Perspective

Having been an unpublished author seeking an agent, I know how daunting a task this can be. Each agent has different submission guidelines and there are so many RULES. It seems as if you break any of these sacred RULES your query will go right in the physical and metaphorical trash, never to be seen again and you as an author will be laughed out of any possible opportunity to be signed. And when those rejections start rolling in, you question yourself and your writing. What RULE did you break? Then you get angry and frustrated. Why are the RULES so dang important anyway? Isn’t it about the writing? Shouldn’t they see you for the amazing talent you are and brush all that other stuff away? You start reading about authors who have broken the rules and been hugely successful and you  lurk on online forums to commiserate with other writers that are feeling as bruised as you are. Pretty soon you are convinced that agents have too much power and that their RULES are just petty ways of making authors jump through silly hoops for their own amusement.

Now, being on the other side of the fence, I find myself spouting off RULES to hopefuls at writer conferences, online forums, on Twitter, and everywhere in-between. I have unintentionally become a gatekeeper, because on this side, the RULES have REASONS. Oh. So for your sanity and mine, I am going to explain the REASONS behind the seemingly random RULES. I’m sticking to fiction literary agent RULES to keep it short.
Rule #1: Follow each agent’s individual submission guidelines down to the letter.
Reason: Every agent has a different system for shifting through submissions. Their guidelines are based on what will help them get through the slushpile in the most efficient manner. By not following the guidelines, you are causing a disruption in the system, which means it will take longer for the agent to consider your submission and respond to you, in effect wasting their time and yours.
Rule #2: Word count, 55k-75k for YA, 80k-90k for most adult, up to 125k for historical or fantasy.
Reason: Word counts are a throwback from traditional printing. There was a standard specification for print book sizes, which meant if your book fell outside those specifications, it was less likely to be picked up. Because of this, readers got used to a standard book length. And although publishing mediums have since evolved, the standard has yet to change. Thus, your book is easier to sell if it falls within the word count parameters.
Rule #3: Classify your work as only 1-2 genres, plus age group.
Reason: We want to know what genre your book falls into, so we know which editors we would place it with. Do not say “it’s a unique new genre,” not only is this not true (trust me, after slogging through the slush, I can say with confidence, you are not the first to come up with whatever concept you have come up with) it shows us you do not read within your genre, and do not understand it. We are looking for experienced authors who grasp who their reader audience is.
Rule #4: Address the query to the agent you are sending it to.
Reason: Not only is this courteous, but it shows you’ve at least done a bit of research before querying us, which means you think we would be a good fit for your manuscript.
Rule #5: Only query agents who represent your genre.
Reason: We as agents, develop relationships with editors and publishing houses. If we specialize in a genre, that means we are experienced both in reading/selling said genre, but we also know exactly which editors would be right for it. That being said, there is no harm in querying an agent you are not clear on, especially those who list “commercial fiction” as one of their genres. Just try to avoid querying an agent who only represents thrillers and mysteries with your inspirational memoir.
Rule #6: Have your manuscript finished, edited, and polished before querying.
Reason: Although a lot of agents will do edits before shopping your manuscript, their time is limited. They are not going to be willing to do extensive edits on a project, so if you send out a manuscript before it is finished, you are essentially setting yourself up for rejection.
Rule #7: Do not mention how well the book will do, or what great writing it is, or how you plan to be the next JK Rowling.
Reason: The reality of publishing is much harsher than the success stories of JK Rowling and EL James. Most authors don’t start making a living off their writing until after their fifth or sixth successfully published book (this is true for self-published authors as well) and even then you’re probably not going to be able to buy that island. On average it takes years/decades to become financially successful as an author. We are looking for clients that understand that and are willing to put in the time and energy toward that goal.
Rule #8: Keep your bio to simply your experience as a writer as well as any relevant experience to your novel (i.e. if you’re writing legal thrillers and are a lawyer, mention this). Leave out the names of your pets, your dreams of stardom, your inner demons, and any other personal/professional background.
Reason: Agents are professionals, and they are looking for professional clients. Your query letter should have the same information that a cover letter for a job resume would have. Relevant experience only. Of course once we’ve signed you, then the relationship may evolve to a more personal level, but there will always be a professional line.
Rule #9: Keep the query short.
Reason: The slushpile is no joke. There are hundreds of submissions that an agent or agent’s assistant have to read on a monthly basis. If a query is too long, out of necessity, we will skip most of it.
Rule #10: Only nudge an agent if you have an offer of representation or they have not responded past their posted response time.
Reason: Again, the inbox is flooded already. If you nudge, odds are we won’t read the email until after we’ve seen your original query, (unless in the subject line are the words: OFFER OF REP), so you are just adding to the pile and possibly being annoying. However, things do slip through the cracks. Usually in the submission guidelines, an agent has posted their normal response time. If it is past this date, go ahead and nudge. If it’s a full manuscript, nudging after six months is reasonable.
I hope this post has helped you make sense of a seemingly random set of parameters and given you more confidence to keep going. It is good to remember that most agents are hopeful that authors will follow these RULES, but we are also human and understanding. We may reject you because you didn’t follow one of our RULES, but that doesn’t mean you are blacklisted and we never want to see your face (or pen) again. In all honesty, we are so inundated with queries, we probably won’t remember your particular RULE-breaking query in the first place. So don’t be nervous, just do the best you can. There are many more RULES that crop up in all aspects of publishing: formatting, grammar, design, editing, writing, contracts etc, even self-publishing, and I’m happy to give REASONS for these in the comments below. As for the RULE-breakers out there. You know what they say…

Query Prickles: How To Write Your Novel Blurb

You’ve finished your book. Now what?
It’s the dreaded query letter time.
But how could I possibly cram the multi-layered plot, complex characters, 80k worth of words into one tiny paragraph?
Answer: You don’t.
Whaaaaatttt??

Now it’s like this Little Britches: Authors seem to get the most hung up on the details of their novel when crafting the blurb/pitch. I see it all the time at conferences, the author attempts to fill me in on every aspect of the story, i.e. “this is written in two different POV to emphasize this,” or “Character A did that because of her history with Character B, who is traumatized from Occurrence A,” or “Background XYZ is important to the story because it explains how Event X came to pass.” It’s even worse in the slushpile. At a conference, an author knows their time is limited, so they keep it brief, but in email, it’s wide open. This week I received a 3-page query letter. I didn’t read it. I did however read some of the sample work they sent. It was a no for me, but the writing was not half as dense as the query letter. If I had been an agent who only accepted query letters, there would have not even been a second look.

What would garner a second look? That’s a good question, and one you should actually ask yourself. When you pick a book, or a movie, what is the reason you choose to experience that particular story? Is ever because “this book is written with a narrative from two POV”? No. It’s because the blurb catches your interest. How? As it’s better to teach by example, I’m using Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, because most of you have read/seen it, and those who haven’t, have heard enough about it to have an idea of what it’s about and who the major players are.

Now, before you read further, think about the different layers of the story. Dystopian world as a result of environmental pollution, oppression of the poor by the rich, unequal caste systems, what is real love, feminism, the dissociation of humanity through reality TV, family, post traumatic stress, morality in the face of survival, body image issues, love triangle, and the layers go on and on. Start listing the major characters, Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Haymitch, Effie, Cinna, Primrose, Rue etc. What are the major plot points; district with Gale, train to capital, presentation of the candidates, Peeta’s in love, Hunger Games begins, and so on.

Okay, having all those details swarming in your head, here’s the blurb:

  • In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, “The Hunger Games,” a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed.

How many details made it into the blurb? Notice not even Peeta is mentioned, nor is the fact that Katniss is an amazing hunter. The mockingjay is missing, as is President Snow and Haymitch. Nothing indicates the multi-layered complexity of Collins’ world. It simply offers a taste of the story with the hope that you will order the whole dish.

So learn by example. Find and read twenty-plus back-covers of books that fall in the same genre as yours. (Browsing Goodreads or your local bookstore is great for this.) Choose your favorites, the ones that really intrigued you, and mimic their style. Remember, your blurb is not your synopsis, so next time beware, don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw, when you pick the pear, try to use the claw.

Have I given you a clue?

Forget about your worries and your DETAILS. Just use the bare necessities…

Taking Pitches At SFWC This Friday!

I and my esteemed colleague, Amy Cloughley, will be taking pitches during the Agent Speed Dating sessions at the 2015 San Francisco Writers Conference.
I have gotten a few questions whether I am taking pitches even though it states that I am closed to submissions on the KC&A website.
Although my current schedule does not allow the time for unsolicited queries via email, otherwise known as the slushpile, I am always looking for new clients, albeit at a slower pace. Thus conferences are one of the few places I do take pitches. (I also make requests via #PitMad, a wonderful resource for writers, and I consider Writers Digest Bootcamp participants.) I hope to someday soon to be open to a slushpile, but for now those are the places I take submissions.
If you are attending SFWC, I am most actively seeking adult science fiction and fantasy. I also will consider literary/upmarket fiction with magical realism or a surrealistic bent, romance, historical, and speculative YA. I am not interested in non-fiction (memoir included), mystery, or women’s lit.
Amy, on the other hand, enjoys literary and upmarket fiction of all types in addition to commercial—including well-researched historical and well-told women’s fiction. She also loves a page-turning mystery or suspense with sharp wit and unexpected twists and turns. She has a soft spot for distinctive, strong, contemporary characters set in small towns. She is also interested in narrative nonfiction when the plot and characters are immersed in a culture, lifestyle, discipline, or industry and will  consider a travel or adventure memoir.
She is not currently focusing on military/government thrillers, fantasy, or YA projects.
So if you have a project that fits one or both of us, stop by and give us your pitch!
Looking forward to seeing you there.

A Career In Books?

An editor in New York recently said to me, “This is one of the last true apprenticeship fields.” Although she meant it as just an interesting aside, the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is both a problem and an unfortunate truth in writing and publishing.

If you’re like me, as many in our field are, you spent your childhood with your nose in a book. Late nights under the covers with a flashlight, sitting on the sidewalk while others did sports, and hours at the local library are the bright, shiny, happy spots in your memory.

Books, books, books. Must read all the books.

Sadly for me, as I got older, reading became less an obsession and more of a hobby. My English class in high school was uninspiring, and few of my peers read like I did. I was from a small town and a child of poverty, so although I had dabbled in writing here and there, there was no concept of being a writer for a living. I was privileged enough to go to college, but there was no way I would waste that opportunity on an English major. I didn’t know taking a literature class was an option, let alone having a career in books. (This belief prevails. Check out this Slate article: Major Exodus: How do post-recession English departments attract students to a field losing popularity?) Thus I got my B.S. and reading was further pushed into the “something I only do for fun,” area of my life.

What am I doing with my life?

Ironically, it was my career in biology that reunited me with my love of books. As a field biologist I got to witness many of the amazing creatures nature has to offer. That being said, I was also twiddling my thumbs, a lot. You do quite a bit of “observing” in the field, which means waiting and watching for something to happen. That’s when the ideas for a novel started crowding my brain. I spent my nights tapping away at the computer, and it rekindled the love and obsession I had as a child. One year later, ta-da! My first complete novel.

Ta da! I will be a famous novelist!

I was going to make a living as a writer! This was what I should have being doing all along! Of course as anyone in the publishing world will tell you, it wasn’t ready. But I didn’t know that. It took 100+ rejections, a MFA in Creative Writing, self-publishing my next novel, and a 2-year unpaid internship at a literary agency for me to understand, six years later, what “ready” meant.

What makes you think your book is special?

All of that experience was my apprenticeship, and it opened my eyes to the world of publishing as a potential career. If you love books, despite what people tell you, teaching English or starving writer are not the only career options. The book industry world needs managing editors, literary agents, book-marketing gurus, book buyers, bookstores, designers, proofreaders, copy editors, ghost writers, book reviewers, writing conference leaders, distributors, publishers, the list goes on.

I only wish someone had pointed this out to the little girl with her nose in a book. I would have started earlier, done the unpaid internship in college, taken the courses in writing/literature, begun my career path sooner, so that the struggle would have been at the age it should have been. The MFA programs are equally as guilty, many of them focus on writing as art, scorning the “commercial” world, which is where most people in the book business make a living.

You write commercial fiction?

Many others who work in the book industry have a similar story to mine. They fell into it later in life, and realized they were in love, but it took some time to get to a moderately successful career and there were many financial sacrifices along the way. And still others don’t make it that far. The path to publishing is littered with ex-editors who couldn’t survive on such low salaries, ex-literary agents who didn’t have financial support in those first few penniless years, ex-interns who had to get a paying job and more.

Why can’t being an author and working within the book industry be a viable career path for everyone? Why can’t more universities offer programs like Columbia’s Publishing Course? Why are we expected to toil away at un-paid/low-wage apprenticeships just to get our foot in the door? Why is it that there is not a career path for novelists the way there are for so many other jobs? Why is there so little money in such an important field? And why is most of it concentrated in NYC, one of the most expensive cities to live in the world?

I don’t have to put up with this, do I?

It was luck and privilege that I was able to follow my dream career at an older age, which included a partner willing and able to support me and an educated mother who taught me to love to read. People say that publishing/writing is a career for trust-fund kids and retirees. This is not true, but it is definitely an uphill battle if you don’t have those advantages. One of the biggest reasons for this is a lack of information/opportunity available to those with less means. There are not many options for the not-so-privileged, the need-to-work-for-a-living, and the few paths to work in books that are viable for us are buried under negative stereotypes of post-English-major lifestyles.

Hey there. I work with books!

Books are considered a luxury commodity, even though reading and writing have proven again and again to be a crucial aspect of human nature. See the Guardian’s Reading Fiction “Improves” Empathy Study Finds, or the New York Times’s Writing Your Way to Happiness or NPR’s How Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ Led a Radical Muslim to Moderation.

Yes, you can work with books.
(And maybe the next doctor will be a POC. Maybe.)
The world needs more (and diverse) people working in books, but how will that happen with the current lack of support in the education system and society in general?

The Art of a Great Book

Alice and The Caterpillar by Joni Harvey-Brown

Often the time and energy and money required to produce a book is under-appreciated. The average reader imagines a scene in which the lonely writer sits atop a far-away mountain, banging away at the keyboard. The writer is often blocked by some outside force, until a flash of inspiration occurs and viola, a masterpiece! And thus the reader holds the masterpiece in their hands, quietly devouring the inked pages.

What is rarely discussed in reader circles, and even in writer circles, is the other half of the puzzle. The multitudes of people and teams that also had a hand in the work, and with whom without, that masterpiece of a book would never have reached the readers. The blood, sweat, and tears that have been shed in the process. In this modern climate of self-publishing and DIY attitudes, people often ask: what is the point of a publisher? Or an agent? Or even, an editor?

This questioning haunts me as a literary agent. I see many writers on forums talk about agents as if we are lowly serpents trolling on the talents of writer. They spew venom about the fat-cat editors in New York (whose salary is probably barely above minimum wage). It’s frustrating as no one would ask that in film. No one would ask why a script needs set-designers, or directors, or producers. As a self-published author I fully support the advent of a new publishing paradigm. But I do believe it is important to acknowledge the amount of work that it takes to produce a beautiful book whichever publishing path one chooses to take.

I do hope this will perhaps change a few minds about the people who work in the field of publishing, because believe it or not, most of us are in this because we love books. 

The Windmill by Joni Harvey-Brown

Everyone in the literary world, from publishers, agents, editors, designers, and writers are all working toward the same goal; to produce a good book. No, to produce a great book. A book that shines on the shelf, calls out to potential readers. A book that captures you with its first sentence, whose story draws you in, and whose plot keeps you up all night reading. A book that makes you excited, anxious, and sad as the amount of pages left gets slimmer and slimmer. A book that makes you sigh with satisfaction with its last sentence. A great book.

The writer spends late nights and early mornings to create a story out of 80,000 words. They edit those words for months. Their beta-readers critique it, each comment a stab to the heart, but the writer bravely endures and edits it again, and again, and again. Then months to years later, when they have what they believe to be a finished project, they send it out to the terrifying gatekeepers, the agents.

The agents read hundreds of email queries, tens of writing samples, 2-5 manuscripts a week. They endure angry authors-rejected suitors and demanding writers whom feel they deserve the agent’s time over all else. They read through the slush of manuscripts, the wanna-be bestsellers, the overwritten literary prose, the un-edited sloppy writing to find that gleam, that rough gem that catches their attention. They find out if the gem is available, comb through it and ask for edits. They edit the second draft, and the third, and the fourth. Finally they take the gem, which now sparkles, and send it out to the impossible judges, the editors. Editors with whom they have spent years developing relationships with, learning their likes and dislikes, so that one day when the right ms for the right editor comes along, they know exactly who to send it to.

The editors slough through the agent queries, requesting too many manuscripts. Their desks are piled with submissions, with current manuscripts, and with books they need to read. They read and read and read. They find a book they want to sign, fight over it with other editors, capture it for their own. They deal with demands of the overbearing agents, and with stubborn, pretentious, or diva authors. They work under deadline from the publisher, the pressure always on. They edit, and edit, and edit some more. Finally it is ready to go to design production.

The designer keeps an eye on every book that gets released, they keep tabs on design trends, they know if Lucinda Grande has gone out of style and that vertical stripes are serious but horizontal are playful. They read the manuscript and have a brilliant concept for the cover. They create a first proof of the cover. They love the cover. The next time they look at it, they hate it. They redesign the font, change the image, adjust the hues. They tweak something a centimeter to the left, something else a half inch up. That one shape should be circular. And blue. No, cobalt blue. They create something beautiful. The author wants something else, the agent doesn’t like it, the editor thinks it’s okay, the publisher doesn’t care. They tweak it some more. This time it is perfect.

The publisher gathers the items needed to publish the book. The ISBN number, the Library of Congress data, the copyright, the price, the mega data, the whole sale price, the royalties, the contracts, the marketing copy, the distribution, the costs of production, the marketing and promotion. They work with book buyers and book stores to get the final book out there on the digital or physical bookshelf. The final push so the book is out there, a book that shines, a book that calls out to potential readers.

And all of these people take a deep collective breath and hope that they have given the potential buyer something special.

A great book.

Pandora’s Box by Joni Harvey-Brown