Writing-Tip Wednesday: Writers Read

I’m tempted to leave the post at that and go open a beer. Writers have to be readers. Period. Full stop.

But it’s morning, and I really shouldn’t be drinking beer this early, so allow me to elaborate…

In last week’s Writing-Tip Wednesday post I tried to ease up on the old “truism” that writers have to write every day. This week, I address another truism (Spoiler Alert: notice the lack of quotation marks this time…): Writers have to be readers.

I will admit that I find this one so basic, so integral to all that it means to be a writer, that I’m tempted to leave the post at that and go open a beer. Writers have to be readers. Period. Full stop.

But it’s morning, and I really shouldn’t be drinking beer this early, so allow me to elaborate…

To my mind, trying to be a professional writer without being a serious reader, is like trying to be a professional athlete without exercising. Except golf and NASCAR. Okay, bad analogy… But you get what I mean.

Seriously, though, we make our livings with the written word; we should be consumers of what we produce. And I expect that for most people this is not a burdensome idea. Generally speaking, those of us who care about words and language and storytelling are drawn to reading without need of being prompted.

That said, I have had people ask me what sorts of things I read and, perhaps more to the point, what sorts of things beginning writers ought to be reading.

The answer to the second question, for the most part, is “whatever you want.” Really. If you like epic fantasy and horror, read those. If you like mystery and urban fantasy and space opera, read those. If you like guitar magazines and books about photography (not that there’s anyone here who likes those things…) have at it. Read what you enjoy, what interests you. Just read.

Then again, if you’re serious about being a professional writer, you should be familiar with the genres AND forms in which you write. You should familiarize yourself with some of the classics of whatever sort of story you wish to write, and you should also be reading new work, to see where your chosen genre is headed. At the same time, you don’t have to read EVERYTHING in the field, or even every book or series considered a classic or a current trendsetter. We all have our preferences, we know what we like and what we don’t. There is a HUGE amount of material available to us and life is just too short to read books we don’t enjoy.

So, as a for instance: I have been writing epic fantasy off and on for close to twenty-five years. I started my career writing big fat high fantasies. By that time, I had read extensively in the genre – classics by Tolkien and Lewis and LeGuin, more recent books by Kerr, Donaldson, Kurtz, Brooks, Eddings, McCaffrey (though she considered herself a science fiction writer rather than a fantasist), Mary Stewart, and my favorite, Guy Gavriel Kay. And so I was familiar with the tropes. I knew which I wanted to avoid and which I wanted to build upon. I knew the story structure. I understood what was required in building worlds and magic systems.

When I decided to start working on urban fantasy, I read extensively in THAT genre, learning the tropes and narrative structures and character arcs that one finds in those books.

These are the reasons we read in our genres: because books and stories don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a larger conversation. They are, in a sense, contributions to a dialogue that will, we hope, continue long after we are gone. Trying to write without being familiar with the genre is not only an act of supreme arrogance, it is also a great way to wind up inadvertently writing something that is either too similar to someone else’s work or so far outside the realm of what readers expect that the books fall flat.

On the other hand, there are obvious omissions from my list of epic fantasy authors. I didn’t read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I didn’t read past the first book of Terry Goodkind’s series. I actually stopped reading A Song of Ice and Fire because the set-up was too similar in certain ways to my Winds of the Forelands books and I didn’t want to be accused of copying from George R.R. Martin. (A few people accused me of this anyway, but what can you do?)

The point is, we can read to learn our craft without having to treat that reading as a mandatory study list. Read. Read a lot. But choose books that you want to read. If you’re interested in writing short fiction, and are not as sure of yourself in short form work, pick up a couple of collections and/or anthologies. (What’s the difference? Collections are books of one author’s short fiction; anthologies have works by several different authors.) You couldn’t possibly read all the anthologies and collections out there, so choose the ones that sound interesting to you. (And yes, I can recommend a couple of titles…)

But if you want to write, you absolutely have to read. Yes, I’m going there. This is not negotiable. This is not one of those questions for which there are lots of different answers.

Writers read.

Period. Full stop.

Keep writing! (And reading!)

Monday Musings: In Defense of the Grateful Dead

Hi, my name is David, and I used to be a Deadhead.

Yep. I saw them some twenty-five or thirty times in my youth. I slept outside, on line in front of arenas, in order to get the best possible tickets to shows. I traveled to different venues during tours to see them multiple times. I learned to play lots and lots of their songs on guitar, and I knew which were Jerry tunes and which were Bobby tunes. (That was a thing. It related to who sang lead and, often, who wrote the song. Really, you don’t want to know.)

I was not as devoted a fan as many I knew, but I was pretty devoted. I had t-shirts, bandanas, lots and lots of records, even more tapes of live performances. It is possible – possible – that I got stoned a lot and listened to tape after tape after tape.

Gradually, during my graduate school days, my ardor for the group diminished. Eventually, I stopped listening to them almost entirely, my tastes shifting in a number of different directions. One or two of their studio albums remained in my listening rotation, but otherwise, I let them go.

When my oldest brother died a few years ago, he left behind a massive music collection that included several Dead disks, including some in what’s known as the “Dick’s Picks” collection. These are CD versions of those old concert tapes I listened to in college (curated by a guy named Dick Latvala). At least I think I listened to them. Did I mention that I might – might – have been stoned? Anyway, my other brother didn’t want the disks, and neither did Bill’s widow, so I took them. For more than two years they sat on my CD rack gathering dust, but finally, a few days ago, I took them out again and gave them a listen.

Here’s what I found:

Let’s start with the bad, because where the Dead are concerned, people often do. Yes, the vocals are shaky. Squeaky harmonies, flat melodies, the occasional forgotten lyric. Then again, the vocals are no worse than Dylan’s, or, frankly, Mick Jagger’s later live efforts. Not everyone can sound like the Eagles. And yes, the musicianship is sloppy at times. The Dead played a huge number of shows – well over two thousand. They rarely had hit records. They only broke into the top forty once, and that came late in their run, only a few years before Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. So they made their money by touring. And there were nights when, let’s say, their attention wandered. The spacey jams that were their hallmark sometimes spilled over into tunes that had no business being spacey. Guitar solos spiraled out of melodic control, band members went off in separate directions mid-song, and, on occasion, they fell into the trap of playing the same songs – especially encores – night after night, leaving the songs punchless and at best ordinary.

But there was good as well. Great even. At a time when most rock bands played the same songs – the same setlists – night in and night out, the Dead were remarkably eclectic. Part of the reason Deadheads like me went to so many shows and listened to all those concert tapes was that nearly every concert was different. We never knew what they would play, or what song might seque into another. Deadheads used to compare setlists the way naturalists compare wildlife sightings. Hearing a rare song, like finding a rare bird, was a true thrill.

And despite the aforementioned sloppiness, their musicianship could be truly stunning. The band’s sound revolved around Garcia’s guitar work which was, at times, spectacular. Jerry Garcia played with some of the world’s greatest musicians, appearing on not just rock albums, but also bluegrass, jazz, and country recordings. His pedal steel guitar work on Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Teach Your Children” remains some of my favorite guitar playing of all time. His live solos, when he was on, were innovative, powerful, even mesmerizing. He did way too many drugs, and later in his life and career his health suffered, as did his performances. But if you’re interested in hearing what he was capable of doing, I would encourage you to listen to this (beware — the graphic spins slowly). And to this. The man could play.

Yes, the Dead were an acquired taste. But there was a reason they inspired such devotion and passion from their fans. They were imperfect – some nights they simply couldn’t be bothered to play a decent note. On other nights, though, they were utterly inspired. And at all times they were unlike any other band that has ever been. I’m glad to have their music back in my life.

Have a great week!

Photo Friday: From the Archives

So this is bound to happen a few times over the course of the year. I was traveling and attending a con the latter half of last week and the first half of this week. I returned home to lousy weather. So no new photo this week. Sorry.

Instead, I have for you one of my favorites from last year: This was a photo I took in Ireland in a formal garden at Duckett’s Grove. We visited the ruined Great House on our way to Glendalough, and had the place to ourselves for a couple of ours. In the midst of another cold snap here in Tennessee, the photo reminds me of warmer days and gentle rains. Enjoy.

And have a great weekend.

Duckett's Grove Blooms, by David B. Coe

Writing-Tip Wednesday: On Writing Every Day

We’ve all heard it said — usually with authority and condescension and a certain righteous certainty.

A real writer writes every day.

If you want to be a professional writer, that’s what you have to do: Make it a habit, part of your daily routine.

It is even possible that such pronouncements have, in the past, crossed my lips. And I will say that most professionals I know do write each day, or very close to it. I write at least six days most weeks — I certainly work every weekday. And I would recommend that even those who have yet to make writing your profession make the effort to write as often as possible.

That said, let’s be clear about a few things.

First, when I said that I write every day, and that I work each weekday, that does not mean that I am always writing fiction on those days, or even always churning out pages of prose. “Writing” can mean research. Writing can mean blogging. It can mean updating my website or doing social media stuff. It can even mean, at times, staring out the window trying to work out my next plot point. Yes, when I am in the middle of a novel, I will write 10,000 or 12,000 words per week for weeks at a time. Usually I have some prose project or other underway and I will work on it steadily.

But “writing” can mean many things, can refer to different elements of my job. It doesn’t always mean “writing my book.”

Second, even if the only work we ever needed to do as writers was write our fiction, it still might not make sense for all of us to write daily. As I have said many, many time before, there is no single right way to do any of this. Some writers outline, others wing it. Some writers write in absolute silence, others like to have rock (or country or classical or jazz) blasting in the background. Some writers produce clean first drafts, others sneeze their books all over the proverbial page and spend the next six weeks cleaning up the mess in rewrites.

Some writers write every day. Some don’t. Some writers get burned out if they try to produce pages each day. Such writers are not doing it wrong. They’re not neglecting their art. They work a certain way at a certain pace. Full stop.

Third, life matters and sometimes it gets in the way. I know plenty of writers who would LOVE to write everyday, but simply can’t. It’s just not an option. Jobs, familial responsibilities, financial factors, the sheer enormity of emotional burdens and physical health problems — any one of these things can make writing on a regular basis impossible. Combine two or three of them, and time for writing becomes an almost unaffordable luxury. That doesn’t mean these people aren’t writers. It isn’t cause to question their commitment to their work in progress. It means that right now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, their writing output will be limited.

My point — and it is directed at myself as much as anyone — is that stating glibly that writers ought to write every day reflects the worst sort of arrogance and privilege. I GET to write every day. This is one of the great blessings in my life. I do this professionally, and I have the opportunity to give expression to my creative visions daily. Judging those who don’t have that same chance is pretty far off base.

Look, if you want to write, if you aspire to a career in fiction, and if you have the chance to write at least for some time each day, I would encourage you to do so. I would also encourage you to count your lucky stars that you can.

If you can’t, don’t get down on yourself and don’t let anyone (including me) tell you that somehow you’re neglecting your art or doing this wrong. You’re not.

And finally, if you’re in this position — wishing you could write more — consider keeping a journal, even if it just consists of typing an email to yourself in a moment’s free time with some scrap of an idea or a stray thought, or writing a few words in a notebook. You don’t have to Write Your Book. You can simply express yourself in the easiest, quickest, most convenient way possible. There are no rules to this, no single right way blah, blah, blah. You can’t do it wrong, because in this respect there is no wrong. There is only what we can do and what we want to do.

Best of luck. Keep writing.

Monday Musings: Getting the Most Out of a Convention

I am just finishing up a very nice weekend at Boskone, a terrific regional convention in Boston. This was my second Boskone, and I feel that I am starting to know people at the con, and also to be known. I hope to be back again next year.

The truth is, this was the first convention in some time that I have truly enjoyed. I am frustrated by elements of the business right now, and I’m struggling with my creative process. Over the past year or so, those frustrations have kept me from getting as much out of my convention appearances as I would have liked.

I have read plenty of “How To Approach a Convention” advice posts. I’ve even written a few. There is lots of helpful advice out there on how to network at conventions, how to comport oneself on panels and at readings, how to approach the entire con experience in a way that will maximize its impact on career growth. This is not one of those posts.

Rather, I am thinking about what I did this weekend to ensure that I had a positive emotional experience, to make certain that I didn’t come away with deepening frustration or the sense that I had wasted my time. So here is my $.02 on making the most of the convention experience on a more personal level.

Go into a convention weekend with realistic expectations. The best conventions I’ve attended are not necessarily the ones that result in book deals or anthology invitations or even new relationships with Movers and Shakers. No, the best weekends are the ones that simply leave me energized. You don’t need to have a huge breakthrough or a career changing moment for the weekend to be worth your time and money.

Along similar lines, be aware of the smaller moments and look to harness them. That energizing experience can come from something as simple as a stimulating panel discussion or a late night conversation in the hotel bar or a reading that helps you see beyond a plot point that has held up your WIP. Don’t overlook these encounters and experiences; don’t take them for granted. Try to recognize them as they happen, even if it’s on the very first afternoon of the convention, and make note of the moment. “What a great conversation! [For instance.] Even if nothing else happens this weekend, that justifies my being here.”

Take some time away from the convention. This is a big one for me. I love to travel and explore, and since conventions often take us to new places, I take the opportunity to see the city or landscape beyond the convention hotel. As an example, last year, the first time I attended Boskone, I walked part of the Boston Freedom Trail, seeing historical spots I’d written about in the Thieftaker books. This year it was too cold and windy for that, but on Thursday night, just after my arrival, I went out to dinner on my own, enjoying some good food and the ambiance of a fun restaurant. The next morning, I met a dear relative for lunch in Quincy Market.

The corollary to taking time away from the convention is don’t be afraid to be alone for a while. When we attend conventions, we often feel that we have to be social every minute of every day. That’s not only unrealistic, for many of us it’s a recipe for burnout. Alone time is healthy, it allows us to take stock of the experience we’re having and perhaps make some adjustments in attitude and approach. That dinner I had alone was great fun. So was the one I had the next night with several friends. We need a blend of experiences.

And since I mentioned attitude… Go into the weekend with as positive an attitude as possible. This doesn’t mean that you should be annoyingly peppy or anything like that. But do try to approach the convention with the expectation that it will be a positive experience. This year I was dreading Boskone a little bit. Not because it isn’t a great con, but because my recent conventions had left me so disappointed. But the day I flew up to Boston I tried to force myself out of my own head, as it were. I knew that if I approached the weekend expecting the worst, that would be what I got. Instead, I went in open to whatever might happen. The con wasn’t perfect, but I managed to laugh off those moments that didn’t go so well, and embrace those that did.

A lot of this is pretty basic stuff — and a lot of it can be applied to experiences other than conventions — but now and then it helps to be reminded of even the most simple notions. I needed the reminder before this weekend. And if you find yourself heading to a convention with feelings of trepidation or even dread, maybe this post will help. I hope so.

Enjoy your week!

Photo Friday: Snow Pics!

Last weekend, we had a rare double dose of snow here in southern middle Tennessee. The first snow was a dusting, but the second was one of those magical snowfalls, heavy and sticky, that coats everything it touches. As soon as I woke up, I grabbed my camera and hurried outside to the pond near our home.

Here are a few of the photos I took that morning. I had a window of perhaps an hour. Before long, temperatures rose, the wind picked up, and the branches shed their snow. But for a short while our brush with real winter was truly glorious.

Enjoy your Valentine’s Day, and have a lovely weekend!

Pond in Snow I, by David B. Coe Pond in Snow II, by David B. Coe Grass and Snow, by David B. Coe

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Self-Editing Techniques

We know the shapes of our narratives, and we also know our own voice and style. So our stories are likely to make sense to us, regardless of whether they make sense to others.

On Monday, I wrote about my recent editing experiences and the new challenges I’ve faced helping authors improve their work. Today I would like to continue in a somewhat similar vein with a post about self-editing.

Editing our own work can be incredibly difficult, but it is also a skill we can hone. Let me be absolutely clear, though: No matter how good we become at editing our own work, we still need outside editors. No one – NO ONE – is so good at writing and self-editing that they can get by without an editor. None of what I’m about to suggest is intended as a replacement for the editorial process. Rather, self-editing is a tool that will make subsequent editorial relationships easier and quicker. Every problem we catch on our own is one fewer we need to hash out with an editor. Put another way, the cleaner our manuscripts, the easier it is to navigate future edits and revisions.

So with those caveats firmly in place, let’s look at a few things we can do to improve our self-editing.

The biggest problem we’re likely to encounter in editing our own work is our familiarity with our stories and our writing. We know what we’re trying to say. We know the shapes of our narratives, and we also know our own voice and style. So our stories are likely to make sense to us, regardless of whether they make sense to others. Our prose is likely to be clear and coherent to us, even if it’s clunky or sloppy to others. As a for instance, have you ever omitted a key word from the sentence, and then read that sentence again and again and again, each time inserting the word in your own head so that you fail to realize that the word isn’t there on the page? Only when another reader comes along and says, “You know, you’re missing a word…” do we finally realize there’s a problem. In the same way, we can often come up with plot points that make perfect sense in our own thinking and remain utterly opaque to our readers.

Thus, the secret to successful self-editing lies in creating as much distance as possible between the writing process and the experience of reading our own work. We want the material to feel as fresh, as much like the work of another writer, as it can.

How do we do this? I like to create distance between the writing and editing experiences using several tools: time, format, medium.

Time is pretty simple, but let me back up briefly to say that I tend to write relatively polished drafts. That’s just the way I work. I want the wording of my first draft to be as close to the final version as possible, so I clean things up as I write. That said, though, once I finish a section of a draft, I don’t go back and edit until I complete the entire book. Any edits I think of along the way, I jot down in a separate file. And then I continue writing. As I said in a post a few weeks ago, I don’t retreat into edits because for me momentum is everything.

Once the manuscript is done, I stick it in a drawer (in a figurative sense) for at least four weeks. I prefer six. And yes, when planning my work schedule and juggling deadlines, I factor in this resting period. During the interim I work on other things, ideally something in a different world or series. That way, when I come back to the piece all those weeks later, it’s fresh. I won’t have forgotten it – that’s too much to ask. But it won’t be quite so familiar.

Format is a bit of an inconvenience, at least for me. I write at my computer. Everything. I can barely hand-write a shopping list anymore. And so I am used to looking at my manuscripts on a screen. Ideally, I then edit with a pencil on a paper copy of the book. Now, I understand that printing our manuscripts is a pain in the butt. It’s time-consuming, paper and ink are expensive, and there are environmental factors to consider. But the fact is, if I write on my computer and try to edit on the computer as well, I miss stuff. When I read the book on paper, I see things I would otherwise skim over. If you are in a position to print out your books I recommend doing so. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.

Medium is easy, although you might want to do this one in the privacy of your own home. We write our books in relative silence (though I do often speak as I type, particularly with dialogue), and we can read and edit them that way as well. Or, we can read them aloud. I’ll admit that at this stage of my career, I rarely print out manuscripts. But I ALWAYS edit by reading aloud. I see the page differently when I treat it as a script, catching mistakes I’d otherwise miss. And more to the point, when I hear the book, even in my own voice, I become aware of things that might escape me in a silent read: clunky transitions, words and phrases I’ve overused, stilted dialogue, and a bunch of other problems. Seriously, reading a piece out loud might leave you hoarse and exhausted, but it’s invaluable as a self-editing tool.

There are other distancing techniques that can help as well. For instance, if you write every day in the same spot in your house or in a library or café, trying editing elsewhere. That change in venue can make a difference.

The point is, you want your writing experience and critical reading experience to have as little in common as possible. Anything that makes the manuscript feel fresh and unfamiliar will contribute to clearing your perspective. And that, in turn, will allow you to see and fix issues you might have missed.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Monday Musings: Learning to be an Editor

I’m pretty good at diagnosing both narrative trouble spots and problematic wording. Over the years, I’ve had tons of practice, having found plenty of both in my own work.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I am coediting an anthology, Galactic Stew, with my friend Joshua Palmatier. (The anthology will be out from Zombies Need Brains this summer.)

Joshua and I are done reading slush for the anthology and have selected those stories that will appear in the collection. Now we are on to the actual editing of the individual stories. I’m still relatively new to editing. Stew will be my second anthology, after last year’s Temporally Deactivated (also from Zombies Need Brains, also coedited with Joshua). I am still learning about the process, still gaining confidence in myself. Over the years, I have become pretty good at editing my own work (though NEVER to the exclusion of having outside editors), but editing the work of others is different, and challenging in unique ways.

The edits Joshua and I do on these stories is a combination of developmental editing and line editing. For those unfamiliar with the terms, a brief pair of definitions: Developmental editing focuses on improving story elements and larger narrative issues. Edits of this sort address structure, pacing, character arc, and a host of other matters relating to storytelling. Line edits, on the other hand, deal with issues of prose, syntax, concision, clarity, word choice, etc. It is, in a way, smaller in scope than developmental editing, though it is no less important to the ultimate success of the story.

For me, as a newcomer to editing, the challenge of both line editing and developmental editing does not lie in spotting the things that need fixing. I’m pretty good at diagnosing both narrative trouble spots and problematic wording. Over the years, I’ve had tons of practice, having found plenty of both in my own work.

Rather, the hardest part of editing for me has been trying to help authors fix problems in their stories while preserving their intent and their voice. The best editors I’ve worked with over the course of my writing career are those who help me make my work as strong as possible without making it any less my work. Identifying problems remains roughly the same, whether the issues are in my stories or the stories of others. Sure, it’s possible that a “problem” I see in another author’s fiction might be something they intended to do. The fact is, though, if it doesn’t work, it still needs to be fixed.

And that’s the hard part: coming up with solutions that remain true to the author’s overall intent, finding alternate wording that will fit seamlessly with the author’s style and approach, suggesting changes and fixes that make the story, as conceived, as good as it can be.

I’m still learning to do this well. It takes practice. It demands that I ask myself again and again if the change I’m suggesting is in keeping with the author’s vision and intent. The author-editor relationship is built on trust, and, speaking now as an author, I can say with confidence that nothing undermines that trust faster than the sense that the editor’s comments are making my story into something I don’t want it to be.

Receiving editorial feedback is always hard. As I’ve said before, just once I would love for an editor to come back to me with one of my manuscripts and say, “David this is perfect; don’t change a word.” But that’s never going to happen. I have never seen a perfect published book, much less a perfect manuscript. I’ve certainly never written either. Let’s be frank: It sucks having the flaws of our creative efforts pointed out to us. That, though, is the job of an editor. They/we don’t identify problems to be cruel, or to show how smart we are, or to engage in one-upmanship.

They/we do it to help authors realize the fullest potential of their stories and books. That may sound trite, like the worst sort of cliché, but it’s true. And early in what I hope will be my continuing growth as an editor, I am learning to do this.

Wishing you all a great week.

Photo Friday: Rain-fed Streams

Sometimes we take photos for the sake of art, other times to commemorate events – times with loved ones, special occasions, etc.

And on occasion we snap pictures simply to document something unusual. This week’s Friday Photos are of this last sort.

My brother and sister-in-law came to stay with us for a few days this week, and their visit coincided with soaking rains, thunderstorms, and flash flooding. These two streams, in the woods just below the top of the Cumberland Plateau, usually flow as trickles. By midsummer, they sometimes dry up entirely. Yesterday, they were torrents, their waters frothing, their roars filling the forest. The photos don’t do them justice. But I promised to get out with my camera every week. This week, this was the best I could do.

Enjoy! And have a great weekend!

Stream 2, by David B. Coe Stream 1, by David B. Coe

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Finding an Agent

Agents – good ones – understand contracts. They are fluent in legalese, and not only can they spot troublesome clauses in a written agreement, they can also improve terms on less contentious but equally important clauses. It is worth finding an agent for their contractual expertise alone.

A few of you expressed interest in a Writing-Tip Wednesday post about finding an agent. (And if you’re interested in offering suggestions for future posts, just sign up for my Facebook group here and leave your thoughts in a comment.)

I could write my next three posts about the agenting process and still not cover the topic in a comprehensive way, but I will do my best to start the conversation here. I will likely return to the subject later in the year. And further down in this post I will share a link to a couple of posts about querying written by my own wonderful agent, Lucienne Diver.

To start, though, I want to focus on a question I hear with some regularity: Do I really need an agent?

This is a valid question. The publishing industry has changed markedly over the past decade, and has undergone huge changes since I started writing professionally twenty-five years ago. At one time, when big-house publishing still dominated the industry, when self-publishing was still called “vanity publishing,” and small presses were at best an imperfect alternative, aspiring authors really couldn’t hope to make a professional book-length sale without an agent. Most large publishers were unwilling even to consider unagented manuscripts. And to some degree that remains true today.

The difference, of course, is that with publishing technology being what it is, and e-books and audio books taking up ever larger portions of the book market, small press publishing is far more viable than it has ever been, and, for many, self-publishing has become a legitimate path. Authors can sign with small publishers and/or earn money from their own books without necessarily having an agent.

And yet, I still believe having an agent makes sense. Why? A couple of reasons. First, I can’t tell you how many new writers I have seen struggling with bad contracts, dealing with publishers who, through incompetence or malign intent, have put them in impossible situations. They are stuck earning next to nothing and, in many cases, are unable to regain the rights to their work. Agents – good ones – understand contracts. They are fluent in legalese, and not only can they spot troublesome clauses in a written agreement, they can also improve terms on less contentious but equally important clauses. It is worth finding an agent for their contractual expertise alone.

But a good agent can help in other ways as well. The fact is, even if authors start out signing perfectly fine contracts with small presses, most aspire to more. They want to sell foreign rights to their books, not to mention film or television or game rights. They want to develop a career strategy that will take them to greater and greater heights of success. A competent, honest agent can help with all of that, and the earlier an author begins a partnership with an agent, the more fruitful that relationship is likely to be. So, yes, by all means, find an agent.

How?

There is no single method that is guaranteed to find you the best agent, the most honest agent, the agent who will bring you fortune and fame. Those things are as dependent on your relationship with your agent as they are on the agent herself. A lot of finding the right agent comes down to doing research, listening to people talk about their agent experiences, and then, in the end, finding someone with whom you have some personal chemistry.

The research is fairly simple. Most of us can place our work in a certain genre or subgenre. We know whose work is similar to ours, who our most comparable authors are. Likely, all or most of those other authors have agents who they acknowledge in their books or on their websites. Those names are a good place to start your search. On the flip side, many agents list their clientele publicly. Look at those lists. Do you see yourself fitting in with those other authors? It probably seems obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: If the agent in question specializes in, say, military science fiction, and you write, say, high fantasy for YA readers, you might want to keep looking.

You can also talk to friends, ask around at conventions and workshops, or even meet agents at such events and find ways to approach them. Agents attend conventions and workshops looking to connect with new writers. Approaching them – politely and in appropriate venues at appropriate times – is perfectly acceptable.

If meeting agents proves impossible, you can still query them. Here is Lucienne’s take on how best to craft a query letter. And here is her post on what comes next after the query.

Finally, you want to talk to any prospective agent in depth. It is always flattering to have an agent express interest in representing you, and it’s tempting to leap at that first offer of representation. Finding an agent is hard, and it’s easy to assume that the first offer could wind up being the only offer. The truth is, though, if one agent is interested, another is likely to be as well. And while that first agent might be fine, or even perfect, there is also the chance that the fit won’t be right.

Ask questions. Where do they think they might place the work you’re selling at the moment? What kind of follow-up do they think you ought to write? What do they think is the best direction for your career going forward? If, in discussing these things, you get the sense that the agent either doesn’t have good answers, or is pointing you in a direction you don’t wish to go, you might want to consider continuing your search.

A couple of nitty-gritty points before I finish: Standard agent percentage is 15% on domestic sales and secondary rights (games, media, audio, etc.). For foreign sales it’s generally 20%. Legitimate agents do not ask for retainer fees, reading fees, etc. They do not try to set you up with “book doctors” or freelance editors who will “improve” your manuscript for a fee. If an agent asks for money, or tries to arrange such services, chances are they’re looking to scam you. Run away. Remember that money flows TO the writer. Agents make money when you make money, by taking a percentage of your earnings. And remember as well that a bad agent – someone who is incompetent or dishonest – can do more damage than good. This is one more reason to be careful with your selection and to not rush into anything because you’re just thrilled to be offered representation.

Writers will work with many, many editors over the course of a career. Editors move from publisher to publisher, they might be interested in one series but not another. Changeover in the editor-writer relationship is to be expected. The writer-agent relationship, on the other hand, is for the long haul. It’s a cliché to compare it to a marriage, but it’s also true. I have been writing for a quarter century. I have worked with at least ten different editors on long fiction and nearly as many on short fiction. In that same time, I’ve had two agents. The relationship with the first ended amicably, as I was taking my career in a new direction and he was looking to retire. The relationship with the second is going strong after twenty years.

The search for an agent can be frustrating, it can be slow, it can be discouraging. Can you start your career without an agent? In today’s world, yes, you can. And if you have that opportunity, go ahead. In fact, if you get an offer from a small press, that can be the perfect opportunity to approach an agent. “I have an offer,” you say. “Would you be willing to represent me in my negotiations?” Many agents will leap at such an offer. And if they prevent even one bad clause from finding its way into your contract, if they win even one concession on royalty rates, if they make even one foreign sale of that same work, the percentage you pay will be well worth it.