Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Unsolicited Advice

Today my guest is Cicily Janus. As a published author, a journalist and sleep deprived intern for one of the best agencies on the planet, Cicily would like to think that maybe, just maybe, that her unsolicited advice helps others.

Being a published author, I was hesitant to tell people, mainly other writers, that I wanted to move over to the dark side. The agent side. Trust me, this isn’t some kind of power-trip. I honestly wanted to help writers become successful in their goals.

The question was, how to do this without losing myself and becoming, what much of the writing world considers agents, a member of the dark forces. To tell the truth, there wasn’t a way around it.

Let me explain.

This process has afforded me considerable perspective as a writer. When I set out on this journey I was optimistic that good writers were in abundance. But after working for two of the best agents in the country for over two years, I’ve learned that it isn’t about being good, it’s about being sparklingly impressive from word one in both your query and MS.

These days the market is overly saturated. The effect it has on agents (and their interns) is this: We’re simply unable to give feedback, advice or anything BUT a form rejection. So...here’s a new angle on agents. Over one year I rejected 3,000+ writers. Among these: 90% were form rejections, 9% didn’t follow published rules for queries and 1% had pages requested. Of that 1%, only one...and that’s one person...was signed. So I began to ask myself, how do writers go from good to great?

In that year, I read page after page of brilliant writing that went nowhere. Believe me, I felt just as rejected when I presented a book I loved to my mentor and he said NO.

The majority of writers submitting have absolutely no clue on what it takes to land an agent. Concepts are either absent or muddled among mindless drivel in query letters. People quote family members for blurbs and consider letters to the editor as publishing credits. Correctly written sentences WITH correct punctuation and spelling, it seems, is too much to ask.

This is when I knew I crossed over into the darkness. Instead of finding something good enough to even offer helpful feedback, I found every possible reason to hate the writing.

When you’re attempting to launch a career off of someone else’s lap, whether you’re an agent or a writer, you must know exactly what you’re doing. Especially when oil is negligible and sludge is abundant and the money to be made is absent. Agents are very competitive and WANT you to be brilliant.

But the hardest lesson learned was this: regardless of how much I love a writer, if the work isn’t marketable, I don’t eat...starving makes me cranky. This crankiness is often passed down to the slush pile. Love the writing...good for you...sell the writing...good for everyone! It is now my JOB to find works that can feed us all. Writing has to be sans major issues (i.e. POV, style, grammar, concept) and the market has to be obvious. Then and only then, can it be considered for sale. The concept of not only selling great writing, but a package deal including author, voice and style, is what you have to take into account with every query and manuscript read as an agent. If only one of those components is missing, your paycheck gets docked.

So when you’re querying for the novel you’ve lost blood, sweat and tears over, be mindful of who’s receiving it. It’s not the easiest of jobs and our livelihood depends on you, the writer.

Of course, you must confront reality. Writers are a dime a dozen. I know this because I’m one of them. Don’t put yourself out there unless you know you’re worth more than the dime next to you.

In my spare time…I own a nifty little business known as Writing Away Retreats and pen books like: The New Face of Jazz ). I’m found, oftentimes, listening to new jazz cats, or drooling around my Facebook page, asking folks for money at Williams Sonoma or signing books at Black Cat Books in Manitou Springs, CO.

For more from Cicily, you can find her at her blog or Writing Away Retreats, or at The New Face of Jazz.

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Terry Odell said...

Just a heads up. Cicily is in the hospital, so she won't be responding to your comments right away, but I'm sure she'll appreciate them.

Jemi Fraser said...

My goodness - I hope Cicily is okay. Sending best wishes her way.

This is a great post - gives lots of insights into the agenting world. Everything here makes sense & makes me want to work even harder! thanks :)

Kristi Helvig said...

I didn't know she was back in the hospital...I just talked to her on Sunday! I'm sending positive energy her way.