Chip MacGregor

February 5, 2008

Thoughts for Beginning Writers


A grab-bag of questions about publishing and writing today…

Mary-Lynn wrote to ask, "What do I need to know about creating a proposal for an agent? Is it like filling out a form, or do I create the story for them to see?"

I guess you could say that creating a proposal is a bit like filling out a form, in that there are certain elements you really need to include: title, subtitle, author bio and sales history, notes on the manuscript (word count, when it will be completed), genre and audience notes, overview of the book, table of contents or story synopsis, comparable titles, sample chapters, and marketing information. If you’re a first-time novelist, you are doubtless going to have to show the agent the entire manuscript, whereas with a nonfiction book you can still sell it based on a great proposal and some sample writings. If this is a non-fiction book, you want to show an agent what the need is for this book, why you’re writing it, and what your qualifications are for writing the book. Those are fairly universal. If it’s a novel, you want to reveal a brilliant story, interesting characters, and snappy writing. An agent isn’t usually going to agree to represent your book based solely on the idea. He or she will also want to know that you’re a fine writer, that you have other ideas, that you’re willing to help with the sale and marketing of the book, and that you’re a person who is easy to get along with. (This part doesn’t get talked about as much as it should. An agent/author relationship is similar to both a creative friendship and a business partnership — so you need to be a match, or neither party is going to be happy.) If you’d like to see some sample proposals, I keep both a fiction and a non-fiction proposal on my business web site.

And Debbie wondered, "Do you suggest a writer seek endorsements before approaching an agent?"

I don’t "suggest" it, but every agent likes to see that a trusted, successful author has endorsed your writing. Just remember, agents aren’t stupid… they’ve figured out that sometimes an author will go to friends he or she has met at a writing conference, and asked for a blanket statement that basically says, "This person is my friend." That won’t do you much good. If you’re going to get an endorsement, make sure it’s from a recognized voice in the industry — someone who speaks to your potential readership. In addition, make sure the individual has actually read your work, so that the endorsement speaks directly to your voice and style and story. Anything else won’t mean much.

Ashley asked, "How extensive of a platform do you look for in a first-time novelist (as opposed to a new non-fiction writer)?"

This is an excellent question. I can’t speak for all agents, because different people view this different ways. Personally, the most important aspect I look for in a first-time novelist is great writing. I want to see strong characters in interesting situtations, facing big choices and having to make decisions that are left up to interpretation. More than anything, I look for a strong voice in the work — something I rarely see, since I’m of the opinion it takes significant experience for most people to establish their writing voice. That said, I’ll admit that I love to see a novelist come to me with either a strong track record or a healthy platform — options most first-time novelists don’t bring to the table. Establishing a platform takes time and effort — you’ll do well to get a head start on yours, whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction.

Carol wrote and wondered, "What do you think about getting a copy of your book printed by LULU or some place like that, for the sole purpose of showing it to publishers during a pitch session?"

I don’t think much of the idea. I don’t believe it helps sell the book — in fact, I believe in the majority of situations it turns off the publisher. In the first place, most self-published books I see are poorly edited. Many have bad covers. Some are in need of a serious re-write. If you show a book like that to an editor, you start the conversation by putting a negative thought into her head. In addition, no publisher wants to purchase somebody else’s rejected or out-of-print book. Even though your book might be hot off the presses, it gives the appearance of already having been done — so when you hand it over, the editor is thinking she’d be buying used goods. Think about it: editors aren’t normally buying printed books; they’re normally buying loose manuscripts. I just don’t see this working very often, so I discourage it with the authors I represent.

Lisa wrote to ask, "How has the huge influx and influence of blogging in recent years affected writing, writers, and the writing industry?"

Blogging has had a huge impact on writing and the business of writing. First, the internet has turned people back into readers instead of watchers (the younger generation may not be reading books, but at least they are reading), so people the world over are reading favorite blogs and getting turned on to words. Second, blogging has opened up all sorts of new avenues for writers. Instead of just waiting for a magazine to come out, or hoping for a book deal to give them a voice, a contemporary writer has an immediate opportunity to create his or her voice by establishing a blog. Third, the advent of blogging has given rise to an entirely new marketing outlet — blog tours and blogging buzz have multiplied the chances an author has to talk about his or her book. And fourth, blogging has created writers by giving many "a place to be bad."

That’s an old entertainer’s term. When I worked as a magician and standup comic years ago, we used to say that the little clubs and bars in cities across the country served a valuable purpose: they gave us all a place to be bad; a place to begin our acts and work out the bugs. After a bunch of performances in venues like that, we were ready to move to a bigger venue. We’d figured out the art, had entertained tough customers in the real world, and the best were ready to move to the big time. (Note: This doesn’t mean all the shows at small venues were bad; only that there were places where putting on a show that was a work-in-progress wasn’t the worst thing in the world.) Similarly, blogging and e-zines have created untold opportunities for new voices to write, practice, and be heard. I know from having talked to authors at conferences all over the country many writers are learning the ropes on the internet, then moving to either a bigger web audience or into print media.

Got a publishing or writing question? Send it in and we’ll offer you an answer.

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