Articles Tagged with literary agent advice

Mary C. MooreSeptember 11, 2023

One of my favorite independent publishers is hosting an auction. Levine Querido is doing amazing work in the kidlit publishing space, so I’m happy to support them with a donation of two query letter + five page critique. To bid on one of my critiques click here! (If I have already reviewed a submission of yours, you can still bid.)

Or check out the rest of their amazing offerings at the auction here.

Skimming vs Deep Reading Submissions

I quietly opened to queries ten days ago for the first time in over two years. I was closed for so long mainly because my clients were turning in multiple manuscripts regularly. It was averaging 30 manuscripts a year, which meant there was no time nor room in my head for deep-reading fulls in my submission pile. And the idea of opening up to queries was daunting, I’d been hearing from others how there’s been a surge in submissions since lockdown. But a few things aligned that pushed me forward. Most important, I caught up with my clients. On top of that my baby is now posed to enter toddlerhood, so the newborn days are a foggy memory. And lastly we revamped the website at the agency (check out the new Kimberley Cameron & Associates site, it is lovely, professional, and friendly in my totally biased opinion).

My cat Rainbow has a sixth sense for when I’m reading on my tablet.

Once I made the decision to seek new clients, I realized I was ready, keen even, to read subs. When over a hundred submissions rolled in that first weekend, I was surprised, but not overwhelmed, jumping in late at night, as the baby slept curled against me. I tweaked my submission form a few days later to find the quickest way to work through them thoughtfully, and plowed on in the odd hour I could find here or there. I skimmed through some fantastic pitches and lovely samples, all of them had potential, but only a few I set aside for further consideration. This is the easy part, the scanning, skimming, flicking through text. If this was all there was to it, writers would never have to wait long for a response.

But of course that’s not how it works. Many of you probably have partials or fulls that have been with an agent for months, even a year. Sure enough, five hundred submissions later, I’m slowing down. The maybe pile is growing. As eager as I am to find a new client or two, I’m not going to rush this part. Although I can enjoy a quick read, see potential in a few sentences, I’ve learned from experience that I have to truly sit with and deeply read a manuscript in order to absorb it, to have an editorial vision for it, to know if the connection I feel will be enough to champion it through the ups and downs. And that is a must before I take on that manuscript for representation. To find that vision, I have to be in that “Deep Reading” space. There’s a fantastic interview by Ezra Klein with literary scholar Maryanne Wolf on the difference between scanning and deep reading.

Both methods are valid, and indeed necessary when I’m considering submissions, but a deep read is the final step before I would offer representation, and it’s the most difficult to achieve. The research done by Wolf and others of the neuroscience behind the different ways we absorb information, is fascinating and enlightening and helped me further define how I want to work. It has also meant clarifying something I had already sensed, that I was going to take longer than ever to read and consider fulls for representation. But I have to be okay with that, and I hope after reading this, writers will choose to query me (or not) with this deeper understanding of my process.

Unwinding the Anxiety and Joy of the Writing Process

An old adage you often hear in writing circles is that “writers write because they have to.” There’s this idea that true writers don’t write for any reason other than that they are called to. They were born to write. Like all the arts, there’s the romanticized idea of the starving artist, someone who does it purely for the love of it, no matter the cost.

I’ve always had an uneasy understanding of this concept, even before I became a literary agent. My internal drive to write comes and goes. I grapple with whether or not I’m a true author. Despite having written two full manuscripts, novellas, and a short story collection, I doubt myself. So when my daughter was born, and I found it too hard to keep up the habit, I let the idea that I was a writer go. I believed I just wasn’t wired that way. I wasn’t born to write.

Maybe I was born to read. After all, it was always almost effortless for me. As a child I read almost the entire children’s section at my local library. In high school I could read a book a night. Postpartum I joined a book club and didn’t take a maternity leave from agenting. I inhale books like a kid with birthday cake. So a career as a literary agent feels natural, like it was what I was meant to do. I never doubt my reading ability, reading is a comfort.

When the pandemic hit, I further explored and expanded that comfort. I found fresh joy in editing my client manuscripts. I discovered a surprising new love for nonfiction, immersed myself in musings on firebombing a woodchuck den and the origins of our discontents. Particularly I was drawn to books that dug into how the brain is wired. I made tiny changes and really began to understand how hooked I was. This attraction to learning more about neurology wasn’t surprising, as even before this anxiety-inducing pandemic, neurosis is an old foe of mine. I was diagnosed with PTSD in my early-twenties, and have struggled with anxiety-related problems since then. Add a global pandemic, well it’s not hard to imagine my state of mind in 2020, as many of you felt it too.

So when browsing the nonfiction new releases section, a specific book caught my eye. Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD. With a healthy dose of skepticism and hope, I dug into it. To my delight, I found it offered wonderful tools to help rewire my brain’s knee-jerk anxiety and rethink how I approach stressful situations. I suspect it is a great audio book, and have been recommending it to friends with anxiety from all corners of my life. It’s not a cure-all, but I found it helpful.

But what does this have to do with writing?

A lot actually.

I was struck by a particular line: You need to find a reward that is more rewarding and doesn’t feed the habit loop through mere substitution of a different behavior (165). What a great line. To put in context, your brain is reward-based and its default is to operate on habit loops. Negative loops can’t be broken by simply changing the reward. To break negative loops, one must step back and examine where the anxiety is coming from.

I wondered if those authors that were “born to write” in reality had found a positive internal reward process for their writing habit. (I was validated soon after in chapter 22 where Dr. Brewer explains his own writing process.) And those who gave up writing, maybe found they couldn’t break out of the negative anxiety cycle that comes with writing, submitting, and publishing.

As a literary agent, I can support this in practical terms. We all know the intensity of writers who want to be published. You’ve heard the urban legends of manuscripts slipped under bathroom stalls, mailed with expensive bottles of booze, etc. I’ve been pitched on the beach, in an airplane, even at a lab while getting my blood drawn. It’s pretty wild. Looking through the lens of Dr. Brewer’s thesis, it becomes more understandable. Obviously being published represents a big reward, validation of the writing process. And maybe that’s what is needed for a person to continue writing. It’s not that writers are aggressively desperate to get published for fame and fortune, but rather their writing habit is at risk. Because, for whatever reason, financial, mental, energy, timing they need outside validation that their writing is worth it. If the author feels good about writing, the author writes more, the author becomes a better writer. But if the author feels bad about writing, well what then? Hence this belief that getting published will solve that anxiety.

In theory, along with publication comes financial support, accolades, film interest, an audience etc. All factors that should feed the writing validation loop. But what writers can be faced with, once they are published, is the results do not meet their expectations, does not validate them in the way they believed it would. For many reasons. The book could not sell well (or at all), the reviews could be bad, social media could dogpile it, etc. Maybe the editor or the agent wasn’t a good fit. Maybe the author finds being on deadline to be draining and so on. This feels especially poignant currently, with pandemic burnout and increased levels of anxiety seeping into all aspects of our lives. Now the author is fighting bigger and meaner obstacles to feel good about writing. They may be dragged down by a negative feedback loop cycle, causing unhappiness, stress, disillusionment, or even paralyzing them from writing more. They might convince themselves they don’t have what it takes, because even when they achieved the dream, they aren’t happy. So then they think, maybe this means I wasn’t born to write. I’m not a writer after all.

Which of course is not true, it’s their anxiety controlling their thoughts (side-eyes my own writing insecurity). My favorite advice for writers is to breathe, look forward, and focus on the next project. Because, just like being on submission, publication leaves a void in your writing process. Your project is out of your hands, out of your control, giving anxiety an opportunity to step in. Dr. Brewer calls this feeling, a hungry ghost. Like big empty stomachs, voids don’t feel good; your brain, when faced with one thinks, Do something! Fill this! This is terrible! I’m getting sucked into this awful pit of despair. But you can’t fill a void–by trying to fill it, you just perpetuate the habit loop (171). His answer to a negative feedback loop is a combination of mindfulness, curiosity, and kindness. Rewire the cycle, so that the reward is not anxiety, but something positive. Perhaps joy and pleasure in the act of telling a story, sharing your thoughts, processing life itself. Maybe these ”born authors”, whether it be through privilege, passion, or perseverance, have hijacked their feedback loops so that the act of writing itself is the reward for their writing habit.

This would mean that I wasn’t born to read, but rather the rewards for reading throughout my life have been high, so my reading habit loop is dug deeply into my brain. Reading was my comfort, I could escape a lonely childhood, not fitting in, social awkwardness, toxic relationships, a traumatic event. It rewarded me with knowledge, wisdom, empathy, a career I love, insights into worlds I never dreamed about. And the joy I find in reading and editing my clients’ manuscripts have allowed me to weather the ups and downs of literary agenting, even in a pandemic. Dr. Brewer refers to this joyful approach to a habit as Loving Kindness Practice (209). It has many names and, as he acknowledges, it stems from ancient practices.

I use this practice with my clients, although I didn’t have exact terms for it. I started to see early in my career, that by championing my authors in all aspects and phases of their writing process (even if that process is not writing at all for a time), and sticking by them if they struggled, they had a validation feedback loop. Make no mistake, they are doing the work, but they have more incentive and breathing room to keep writing (often they also have writing groups that can deepen this needed support). And watching their writing blossom when working together is incredible. The longer I’ve been doing this, the more I’ve developed my client list around this idea. It takes time and patience, it’s not the right fit for some writers, and it’s not always exciting or newsworthy, but it seems to work for my clients, who hopefully feel they have stability and support in an ever-changing chaotic industry and an increasing anxiety-laden outside world.

So what about my own writing?

Back in March I was interviewed on the Middle Grade Ninja (episode airs June 26). The host Rob was wonderfully warm, and we had a lovely chat about publishing and how I work as a literary agent. Near the end he took me off guard with the question, “do you still dream about being a published author?”

I blurted out, yes. Surprised the hell out of me too. But it wasn’t my old dream of getting the big book deal and becoming a household name (not that I would turn that down). Rather, as I tried to clumsily explain, it was a quieter dream. I dream of writing a novel in which I truly enjoy the process of putting words to a story. When I think about the first time I found joy in writing, it was because I wrote about my trauma and subsequent PTSD under the thinly veiled guise of a fantasy novel. I reframed my narrative into one that gave me power and one I could love.

I thought I had lost that joy somewhere along the way, but then why do I continue to blog? Blogs are outdated, writers don’t really need yet another literary agent advice blog, and each of my posts garners no more than a few hundred views per year. I’m not even sure my family and friends read this. So I’m not exactly getting outside validation. (Thank you my handful of loyal readers, I see you.) Did some internal appreciation of simply writing the posts sneak in there? I’d been so distracted by my own negative feedback loop that I had missed the possible positive reward signals. That I am still writing. I am a writer. As Dr. Brewer states, Awareness is also required in order to affect or change behavior: you have to become aware of or wake up to being in the middle of a habitual behavior before you can do anything about it (162).

So for those of you struggling with the writing process, whatever stage you are at in your career, know you are not alone. Maybe you took a few years/decades off. Maybe you pivoted from being published with the big publishers to indie. Maybe you don’t have the privilege of time or financial support right now. Maybe the agent query process is really draining you. Maybe you are burnt out. That’s okay. That doesn’t make you less of a writer. Be kind to yourself. Respect yourself, starving artist or not. Don’t write at all costs. Meditate on what about writing gives you pleasure, and find your way back to its joy.

Blog Post Image by Mary C. Moore

Examining the “I Just Didn’t Fall In Love” Rejection

As I gear up to open to submissions for the new year, I’m once again faced with the task of whittling down the remaining fulls in my query inbox. I’d love to get down to zero, a fresh start to 2020. I have less than ten manuscripts to consider. Should be easy right?

Wrong.

As the pile of “maybes” gets smaller, the harder it is to make decisions on what to let go. There’s the young adult thriller I’ve had since spring, in which, although the plot is a mess, I’m in love with the narrative voice. The contemporary middle grade that’s been there since late summer, with the amazing concept and natural tension, but rough writing. The adult fantasy, just requested before shutting down my inbox, that is totally epic and totally up my alley, but perhaps not enough to break out in the smaller SFF market. The interesting women’s fiction from early fall, with the really cool author with lots of great experience and a huge platform, that doesn’t quite catch, but maybe could with some edits.

I can’t take on all of them. But there isn’t a good reason to reject them. So I start typing those dreaded words, “I just didn’t fall in love,” cringing because after months of considering a full manuscript, I know the author is going to be frustrated by this lame response. Sure I try to dress it up best I can, but the bottom line, is “it’s not you, it’s me.” I’ve gotten plenty of those types of responses from editors to know that wrapping it in a pretty ribbon of words isn’t going to make the seemingly arbitrary rejection any less baffling and/or disheartening.

How can I explain myself, and my cohort of literary agents across the country, for sending rejections we ourselves dread to receive?

So I emphasize once again, how in tune I must be with a manuscript and its author. My vision for what editorial the manuscript needs and who the target audience is should be crystal clear. Knowing those two factors, I can lay a path forward for myself and the author. My vision has to be strong, because that path will most definitely veer and fork and turn on itself. This business is a roller coaster at best and a human-eating monster at worst. As one of my favorite lit peeps Literary Agent DongWon Song pointed out in a recent Writing Excuses podcost:

Now, the thing is, publishing is a system that is designed to be extremely random. What makes a book work is highly unpredictable. What makes a book tank, also highly unpredictable. So when you’re thinking about this, there’s two things you need to keep in mind: always have a plan. But also be ready to throw that plan out the window at the drop of a hat. . . . You will go completely mad if you try to map the whole thing. So you pick your path, but then you’re ready to know, we can pivot wherever we need to. 

https://wetranscripts.dreamwidth.org/166134.html

So when I’m reading a particularly strong submission, I’m considering the biggest factor that will push me to make an offer: Is my vision for it strong and clear enough to survive through the inevitable roller coaster?

The writing may be excellent, the author may be fantastic, the story may be right up my alley, but could I take it the distance? If I give it more time, will my vision potentially solidify or should I let it go now?

The next time an agent hangs on to your manuscript for months and then all you get is a “I just didn’t fall in love” rejection, pat yourself on the back, you’re rising to the top of hundreds of thousands of submissions. It’s only a matter of time before you find someone who will “fall in love.”

And in the meantime, remember, it really wasn’t you, it was me.

Writer’s Digest Bootcamp is Back!

After a long hiatus, the agents of Kimberley Cameron & Associates are once again teaching a Writer’s Digest course. Sign up and you get to join an online forum where you have four hours over two days to ask me anything about publishing. I will be there in real time, and there are no stupid questions.

After the forum, I will critique your query letter and first ten pages (this does not count as a submission, it’s for you to improve your work, you can always submit to me officially at a later date after you’ve incorporated the feedback).

Even if you are not ready to query, you are welcome to join us and to get feedback on your rough draft.

Enroll here: https://www.writersonlineworkshops.com/courses/agent-one-on-one-how-to-craft-query-letters-other-submission-materials-that-get-noticed-boot-camp

*Note, although you will have access to all the KC&A discussions, whichever agent you are assigned to will be the one answering your questions on the forum and critiquing your work, so if you are looking to connect with one of us specifically, make sure you let WD know.

How To Query an Agent Workshop

I’m pleased to share that I’ll be heading an affordable and local workshop on how to query a literary agent this month! On Sunday, September 22, at 2pm during the Marin California Writers Club’s monthly meeting, I’ll be discussing the importance of the query, advising how to craft one, as well as answering questions and critiquing a few (anonymously) for the group (if you wish for yours to be critiqued, bring a print copy minus any identifying information).

The event will be held at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera.

Although it is hosted by the CWC, non-members are welcome as well. At $10 a person ($5 for members) this is a really good deal, when you consider attending a conference or online workshop to get the same information would be at least 20 times this price.

I’m always keen to share what I wish I had learned back when I was a querying author, and am strongly aware of the lack of affordable resources for writers. So please feel welcome, even if you’re not ready to query yet. This is a great opportunity and I hope to meet more than a few local writers there!

Agents Query Too

One of the most important and also hardest aspects of my job is getting a project past the publishers’ editorial front line. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the process: once an agent has sent a manuscript to editors, said editors will read and consider whether or not they want to take the ms to acquisitions. That means the editor has to be passionate about it enough to get their team to read it fairly quickly (all of whom are swamped with their own tbr pile), draft a profit and loss statement, convince a room full of people that the ms is worth investing in. Basically stake their reputation on it.

This excruciating process can take weeks, and it is a lot of time and energy away from current work (not taking into consideration the project going to auction). So an editor can like a project–they mostly do like the client work that I send, as I work hard to maintain a standard and appeal to individual tastes–but simply liking a project isn’t enough. So I have to do everything in my power to get them excited before they read it, which means creating a letter that indicates why they are a great fit for the project, and one that includes a powerful pitch, current successful comparative titles, and a clear author bio. Sometimes I will pitch in person or on the phone, but the power points remain the same. Sound familiar?

If it works then they go in primed to love the manuscript. Which gives it the best possible chance to make it past the front line. And ideally go further–then the editor will use those same power points when lobbying your manuscript to marketing, financial, the publisher itself. And those points will be part of the final decision, i.e. if you are going to be made an offer.

So remember, that’s the end game. Your query is not just a way of introducing yourself to an agent, but to show how your manuscript can be positioned positively in the market and that it has potential to sell. You’re clearing the road blocks, so the decision gets down to the writing itself.

Don’t be intimidated by this, we don’t expect new authors to navigate the market with years of experience and execute the perfect query letter (that is why you’re looking for a literary agent after all), but at least understanding why these concepts are important can only benefit you on your road toward publication.

And even if you do pull off everything perfectly, you will probably still get rejected. It’s incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking, but you’re not alone, and we feel it too. Every agent has a few of those projects that they’ve never forgotten and were stumped as to why they didn’t sell.

But you can and will navigate the process with more confidence and knowledge and eventually there will be a project that will get that yes.

The Publishing Echo Chamber

Echo and Narcissus (1903) by John William Waterhouse

I recently read an interesting post on Pub(lishing) Crawl by Patrice Caldwell about the importance of shutting out external noise in order to better focus on your writing. (Fyi, Pub Crawl is a fantastic resource for writers. Y’all should be following.) This post really hit home. In particular her discussion of “echo chambers,” and how your support circle can become one, and because of this actually fail to support you. It’s so true, and not just for writers.

As a West Coast literary agent, the majority of my work happens online. Online, the echo chamber becomes more pronounced. On social media I follow and interact with a lot of publishing professionals. My feed is full of success stories, major deal announcements, and “advice to writers.” My mornings are spent browsing Publishers Marketplace and answering NYC-based emails. When I’m not reading submissions, I’m reading those books that recently “made it,” Newberry award winners, Hugo award winners, NYT bestsellers etc. Podcasts such as Print Run and blogs like Pub Crawl and Jane Friedman fill my subscription inbox. It is a lot of cyclical information.

These helpful resources are full of supportive and amazing people.

And yet.

There is constant competition within this echo chamber. Everyone wants the next big deal, and we want it now. We want to be a part of the exclusive inner circle where magical connections spark best sellers (spoiler, there is no inner circle). Tweets that go viral and books that get buzzy film deals. Instant gratification in an industry that rarely gives anything instantly. It’s a constant tease that there could always be a bigger, better opportunity around the corner.

It’s so easy to lose sight of the reason I became a literary agent.

That love of reading. A passion to bring amazing words to more readers. To champion under-represented voices. To change the world as only literature can. To reach that shy girl who spent her nights with a nose pressed into a book, reading about a world so much bigger than the limited one she was growing up in. That teenager in the throes of hormonal depression reading that she was not alone, that young woman traveling to faraway places because she had been inspired by the words on a page. To the grad student having an internal feminist revolution with experimental fiction, and the new mother fighting drowning in post-partum blues with beautiful prose. They are why I’m here.

It’s important to step away from the noise, to take a breath and remember why we do what we do, as I am reminding myself right now. If you are online (maybe your agent made you start tweeting, so potential editors could stalk you) try to filter the noise the best you can. Go to bookstores and libraries, meet people in person and have face-to-face conversations. Remind yourself that what you see online is only a small piece of the big picture.

Don’t get lost in the echo.