On the Obligation to Perfect One’s Craft

Imagine two spheres, of a different color, interpenetrating each other.

This is the writer. Writers are instruments of craft, and that craft comes to manifest in two distinct spheres of being.

The genius writer, when s/he writes, writes essentially from two different modes of being: one that which makes writing sheer art, and the other which makes writing sheer science; in the best fiction, there is no writer who is without both of these dimensions, actualized to their full potential, in their own, distinct way.

I wanted to introduce this distinction here, and leave writers with a bit of a challenge, moving forward, as I do when I teach classes on plot and pacing. (See resources available from those classes here.)

I begin with this radical but absolutely vital distinction between the art and the science of writing:

  • the first, on one hand, is that never-teachable spark of sheer genius (the same way that Mozart has genius before music, and da Vinci genius before the visual arts, and Michael Flatley and Jean Butler genius before tap dancing, and Benedict Cumberbatch before acting, and Steve Jobs before tech/entrepreneurship, and Stieg Laarson before thrillers);
  • the second, on the other hand, is the rigor of coming into possession of the knowledge of technique with its theory, as well as the practice that underlies learning to bridge theory (i.e., the three-act structure with notions of pacing with notions of world-building) with your writing as it manifests on the page itself.

Not all writers will bear the first spark, and there is a huge spectrum by which this kind of giftedness can manifest: giftedness in prose, in imagination, in the study of the interior (say, with a gift for empathy), and more. This is not a problem, though I would without hesitation argue that these are the writers who deserve primacy of publication, of space on the bookshelf, and of attention.

Writing deserves to be magical, and to be considered as such. Poor writing changes tastes, and it ought not to, and so we ought to build communities with a taste for magic and genius in terms of that which the best writers bring to the turf.

All writers should bear the second quality.

I will admit that many genius writers do not have, necessarily, a theoretical formation given to them, but that theoretical formation they come to organically, in reading and picking up on patterns, as well as by deep intuition. To be a storyteller by nature is to possess a particular form of a gift, which then translates into learning to structure stories. Note that we exist in a culture built, in deep, historical ways, upon stories told by spoken word.

The great gift of consuming theories about craft is that these theories, when received from another, give you language and models for thinking through the different structural elements of plot, and so therefore, they ought to, in those who are thinking deeply, intentionally about their writing, elevate the work of their own intuition. Intuition, I’d say, only goes so far, or goes so far in a particular way, unless it’s working against an objective framework for quality.

(Experimental fiction and rule-breaking fiction only goes so far before it starts to tear apart the experience of the one who reads it; where good fiction should work on the heart and affect, should give life, should spark curiosity and wonder, sometimes the rule-breaking in fiction stifles imagination, gives rise to depression, and detracts from an engagement with reality. More could be said.)

I’ve been reading queries and manuscripts, and 90% of the time, the feedback comes down to something simple: You need to learn to write. To write as putting words to paper is not the same as creating magic with purpose and intention on paper, and the writer’s job is universally the latter, the difference being the genre with its set of rules, its audience, its pre-determined focus or purpose, and otherwise.

One of my top-notch secrets (except not, given that I break this in my rejections, revise and resubmit requests, and in my conferences) is to ask clients to do rigorous homework about craft as they learn to write, and write better, with the simple project being this one: Make every novel that you write, literally, better than the one that preceded it.

The space of experience underlying these two modes is its own, separate question, and as with others, I hope to reflect on this later–but there is no genius that can be made manifest without experience and practice, and there is no maturity in craft that can be made manifest without experience and practice.

Learn to not be afraid to experience, and to take the time to measure the quality of your experience against theoretical frameworks that will help you to apply your experience to the creation of a new experience in the space of the novel. See some incipient resources on these questions through the resources link above.

On Agents: An Agent’s Basic ‘Task List’

What does an agent do? What should an agent do?

There are layers of answers to this question. There is, at this moment in time, absolutely no industry standard by which to measure ‘the quality of a good agent.’ Different agencies are good at different things; different agents at different agencies are good at different things. The determination of tasks that is technically the purview of any given agent is not standardized, nor is there a standardization of quality in a way that can be publicly matrixed out and vetted, at least for now.

Whether it is possible to do so (W. thinks certainly so), and whether it should be done so (W. thinks certainly so, in a way that is proportionate to a commitment to a solid business ethic that respects writers and the business both) are debatable questions.

Many writers don’t know this, but membership to the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) demands nothing more than the consistent sale of books, without measuring, as part of the number of sales, the following dozen plus things that can be considered:

+ the nature and quality of the editorial work that went into the book prior to its submission;

+ the nature and quality of the submissions list (the list of editors/publishing house imprints to whom/which the agent submits any given project);

+ the nature and quality of the incipient negotiation for the base offer [advance, publication timeline, publication type, royalty hierarchy, the territory to which rights are licensed (North America, World English, and World rights licenses are three base forms of licensure), and bonuses where they are applicable, among other items];

+ the nature and quality of the boilerplate contract (every imprint has its own contract, and over time, every agency comes to personalize the base version of this contract for its own agency–this is the ‘boilerplate’);

+ the nature and quality of the negotiation into that boilerplate over time (how agencies negotiate, and the degree to which they respond to marketplace changes over time, paying attention to industry standards for different questions), and then from the boilerplate to the personalization that is due every individual author and his/her book;

+ the nature and quality of negotiation for the international, where applicable, and subsidiary markets (audio, options for film/TV, and more);

+ the nature and quality of the vision-casting that is due individual authors for their career, in terms of imagining and balancing between individual titles, trilogies and series, writing in different genres, and more;

+ the nature and quality of intervention, where the publishing house demonstrates some degree of financial, creative, or professional abuse against an author;

+ operational management, in terms of database; accounting; author agreements; mailings for advanced reader copies (ARCs) or galleys (copies sent to readers and reviews prior to the formal publication, listed as ‘not for sale’), contracts, and checks; and other operational demands;

+ relational management, in terms of the relational capital that is developed between an agent and editors, an agent and his/her agency as well as other agents, as well as an agent and his/her writers, which in some ways is the utter foundation upon which everything else rests (but is developed over time);

+ innovation and capacity in terms of project placement and adaptation to the market, which can to a large extent be measured primarily by (in a general sense) the agent’s intelligence, and then weighed against an agent’s mentoring from other agents, which is the fundamental learning methodology in the business (note that most agents do not have a degree in publishing, English, or legal questions; never has the industry required one; and never has this form of a degree been a reflection on the potential of the development of taste in an agent, determined most particularly by the way in which that agent reads), as well as systematic experience actually doing what healthy agenting demands;

+ market research, oriented to a healthy sense of distinctions in genres and thus their markets, as well as a healthy sense of the books that have sold, do sell, and the reasons for their success or failure;

+ and more.

You can find above incipient conceptual categories for the kinds of questions that you want to ask agents offering representation, and questions for which good agents should have healthy, quantifiable/concrete answers. (I’ve always deeply appreciated the questions outlined in this post here.)

(As some key examples, think about these questions, and to a large extent, a really healthy agent will tell you, without triggering or freaking out, if and when a question crosses boundaries. Most general decision-making questions shouldn’t, but I see this as a general forewarning. Just note that, in an hour-long conversation, for example, about basics with regards to the agenting relationship, you may not think to ask some of the more difficult questions about extended career-building needs, and so I share these questions with an eye toward the dozens of writers I’ve known over the years who have chosen to recycle through agents.

I’ve never had a writer walk away from an agency agreement with me (former clients were released by me and the agencies for which I worked, due to my departure). I think one of the fairest questions is, “What is your client retention rate over 1, 3, and 5 years?”

Additionally, conversations with both existing and former clients about the style of communication, submission strategy, and otherwise are all just and proportionate purviews of the agency selection process.

Some particulars, therefore, given the above: “May I see an example of your editorial notes? Can you give me an example of market research that you have done in the past few quarters, to understand why this book is selling so well? Can you tell me why you think this book succeeded? Can you walk me through the auction for this book, in a general sense–given that I love this author, I want to understand what you felt was important for the success of this publication?”)

Differences within agenting structures are diverse, but you can see some basic splits in these dimensions:

+ fiction versus non-fiction agenting; and

+ an argument for the ‘most basic characteristics that every single agent should demonstrate’ (again, the AAR does not give a framework for the answer to this question, and so the burden of the work at this point is on writers doing their own research) versus the ‘characteristics that agents develop over time on all of the turfs above that then give rise to talent, specialization, expertise, and magic’ that makes one agent genuinely, truly more capable in his/her work than another, and the total and utter proportionate foundation upon which all of these decisions can and ought to fall for the writer who has the gift of receiving even a single offer (no agent is better than a bad agent) and, more certainly, multiple offers

I’ll come back to all of this with time, and try to matrix out some examples, in a very basic way, of things I’ve learned much about from experience in different agency contexts and then also through stories, of both magic and horror alike, that can help writers discern, and to discern quickly, the degree to which any given agent or agency should be entrusted with the health of any given writer and his/her career.

Look for more at some point soon!

On Functional Scaffolding

In my free time, which is really time not spent working on strictly agenting-related things, I love to read and do research. One of the lessons I learned a long time ago was the worthwhileness of doing research about one’s own person, and one’s own mind–how I work, how I function–in order to elevate the quality of one’s own life: how I live, can live, ought to live.

Here’s an abstract for an academic, heady article that I stumbled upon, once upon a time, doing some basic research in psychology, on “Functional scaffolding and self-scaffolding,” published in New Ideas in Psychology:

Models of the nature of representation and cognition ground and constrain models of the construction of representation in learning and development: models of what is being constructed ground and constrain models of the processes of construction. Insofar as the notion of scaffolding is intended to refer to particular kinds of supports for learning and development, it too will be variously enabled and constrained by underlying assumptions concerning representation and cognition. I will argue that action based models of representation, which have their own powerful supports, also make possible a functional notion of scaffolding that, in turn, makes sense of processes of self-scaffolding as a central field of development.

A basic translation (in its utter, kindergarten-level basics): Scaffolding is a tool for representing and understanding content learned, through theoretical models to capture and process that content.

One of the most basic examples of a self-scaffolding is a to-do list, but even more specifically, the categories that a person might use within their to-do list. A parallel concept for it is a mind model, or a theoretical framework that is developed to help a person think about the content and set of observations before them about any given question. (An acquaintance of mine once sent me this link to describe a range of ‘available mind models.’ I thought this was the coolest tool ever.)

With to-do lists, a person sort of self-engineers or self-creates a mind model to think about the necessary components of the tasks that stand before them: the content, the deadline, the structure, the framework for engaging in a range of different kinds of conversations that need to move the necessary theoretical pieces, etc.

For example, my to-do list (to be transparent, of course–except not, because I’d have to give you a whole existential spreadsheet if I were to break my to-do list in public!) looks something like this:

  • D4EO/Clients
    • Client Name
      • Client Project/Deadline
    • Client Name
      • Client Project/Deadline
    • Client Name
      • Client Project/Deadline
  • D4EO/Networking
  • D4EO/Market Research & Tracking
  • Non-Profit Support/Accounting
  • Academic Work/Research
  • Academic Work/Writing
  • Book Reviews/Reading
  • Book Reviews/Writing
  • Travel/Misc.

Certainly on the non-fiction writing end, mind models and scaffolds are terrific tools for aiding comprehension, as they are tools for scaffolding in the classroom. (Scaffolding is a classic pedagogical tool.) You can find some links to a few relevant pieces, for some guidance on what this kind of a scaffolding exploration might look like, here: one, two, three, four.

In fiction, a lot of scaffolding work can be done to tier in the release of plot or pacing-related information, such as in really solid thrillers–those clues planted, then pulled together/integrated, etc. The same thing goes for scaffolding out history of the characters and the world, as well as world-building. You want to give just enough for the reader to wrap their mind around the essentials, and keep in the rest of the information until it’s necessary. The author should always know and understand more about what’s on the page and evolving than the reader.

Beyond this, scaffolding aids your own life, and I’d encourage checking out some of these pieces, personality profiles (Myers-Briggs, Greek personality tests, enneagram tests), IQ tests, and otherwise, in order to then do the more important, practical project: figure out how you work, and figure out what best form of self-scaffolding aids your time.

Sometimes, I shock people with the amount of work that I do, editorially, agenting-wise, and writing-wise, but rather than it be a sort of shock to the system, it honestly is for me a project of systematic scaffolding and re-scaffolding, self-learning over and over again, playing with different mind models over something as simple as my inbox and categories for emails received, and otherwise. It’s a good, healthy, and totes existential project.

Some News… — Elixir Club

That one time my #childprodigy sold her debut:

I cannot believe I am finally able to say this, but The Secret™ is Out: I’m going to be a published author!!! It’s been a long, nerve-racking, heart-wrenching journey, not yet over, but another step closer. My science fiction debut, GEARBREAKERS, my absolute heart, will be out 2021 with Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan. Get ready for […]

Some News… — Elixir Club

On Developing Non-Fiction

I love, love, love very intelligent non-fiction published for the popular market. I love it when writers treat readers seriously, and engage their capacity for thoughtful and meaningful dialogue.

Much of my own work on the non-fiction development end requires engaging academics on their area of expertise, both from a philosophical perspective (where philosophy is understood here as the body of theoretical thought underlying a discipline; every discipline has a conceptual theory that underlies it) as well as a reader’s one: Why exactly is this true? Why would you start here? Have you thought about this before? Here’s what I’d want to learn from you.

Sometimes being a literary agent is a little bit like being an academic, and I couldn’t love it more.

While I don’t break the full template in public, here are some general categories for consideration:

  • Book Overview
  • Book Need & Uniqueness
  • Book Structure
  • Expected Manuscript Completion
  • Author Biography
  • Competitive Title Analysis
  • Marketing Plan
  • Table of Contents
  • Chapter Summaries
  • Sample Chapters

One might say that the purview of the development and editorial process here lies to a great extent in the hands of the agent, and so I’ve elected not to share more of my own template for these proposals here, but you can see some more extended questions to consider via another agency here as well as another (former) agent’s list of concepts here.

If you’re interested in working on a non-fiction project with me for the trade market, and have the personal experience, academic expertise, professional expertise, marketing platform, or any combination of these qualities, don’t hesitate to submit an inquiry email to weronika@lightningbugspub.com.

New Interview: Agent Spotlight with Literary Rambles

Natalie Aguirre, blogger at Literary Rambles, has been kind enough to include me for an agent spotlight, and is offering a query critique from me.

For the critique giveaway details and the remainder of the spotlight, see the link included.

4.  Is there anything you would be especially excited to seeing in the genres you are interested in?

I’m—to be entirely honest—not an agent who is overly concerned with tropes or categories. The best stories transcend those categories, or break them apart, or bring something so captivating to them that you forget why you hated the trope in the first place.

I, simply, have a heart for remarkably told stories, and writing proportionate to those stories.

In my first round of agenting, certain writers that I signed did have a debut novel that editors found “too similar” to something on the market, or didn’t add anything to a niche “too flooded.” Fine! This is part of the risk, and the puzzle, and the hard work! It so happens that most went on to write novels that sold, and sold brilliantly, and (in one or two cases) debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. All those that sold have also built sustainable, ongoing careers, and this to me is the essential marker of any worthwhile success. To give a specific example: I never thought I’d love a novel about zombies…but signed a former client, now a USA Today bestseller, who wrote the most delicious literary zombie novel, which didn’t go on to publish but helped break her into serious publishing—and, boy, I still hope to this day she’ll have a chance to place it, when people don’t feel tired of zombies.

Novelists who know their craft I will sign and work with, over long periods of time, any day.

On Writing Memoirs: Short Reflection #1

On Writing Memoirs: Short Reflection #1

I love a good memoir.

Memoirs run a wide gamut. They can be, on one end, very platform-based books–which means that the person who is writing them, either himself/herself or with the support of a talented ghost writer, has a significant marketing powerhouse to back them. The nature of this marketing powerhouse depends entirely on the type of figure we are discussing, but can involve the institutions to which they are affiliated and the public value of their name, developed over time, with money, public exposure, wide-scale impact made through programming or otherwise, etc.

Think Brittney Spears and Michelle Obama-esque figures.

On the entirely opposite end, memoirs can be books with a very high concept–written by an individual without a platform, but are still compelling in some kind of essential ‘hook.’ The story organically captivates the hearts of readers, especially in the realm of particular forms of experience. These experiences can be deeply personal, or professional, or somewhere in between (i.e., ‘how an addict heals from addiction,’ ‘how an orphaned girl discovers her family,’ or ‘how a businesswoman’s career takes off under impossible circumstances’).

In either case, the best memoirs operate from within something like a novel’s structure: because you are not telling about a subject but about a life, and are thus telling a story, for no life can be explained without the story of the life, there needs to be an organic arc that arises from within the memoir’s premise or concept. An organic start, middle, end; an organic tension or problem or arc-in-experience .

Non-platform-based memoirs need tight work at the structural level, to tighten and to frame the individual chapters and scenes that operate along the story’s “arc”–to not just tell a super linear/horizontal series of events, that reads more like a timeline than it does a story, but something more vertical in its nature. This might mean that you the actual manuscript for the memoir begins in the heart of the story, the heart of the experience, and in working forward, works to integrate the background and history of the start in this setting in layers.

In may seem silly, but I think it’s a requirement for writers of memoir to read literary agent Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel (and/or anything else that he’s written, especially with an eye toward the tools he gives to teach structure and craft).

It should be a relatively easy book to read and apply–where memoirs are not writing something fiction, they already have the key story elements: the main characters, and the setting. They should always work to identify what is the sort of plot-like mechanism in this (as this is what will drive the love of the memoir–readers’ investment in the writer, and the story, and the stakes, and the nature of what the writer discovers and learns and has to share), as well as build out scenes to have a stronger beginning, middle, and end around their key ‘tension points’ and ‘focal points.’

Besides this, I think it’s important to read memoirs, and to answer these questions: How is the story structured? How are the scenes structured? What does the writer do in each individual scene? Where do they start and end? What keeps your interest? When is essential historical information introduced, and how does a plot-like or tension-related movement develop from within the early parts of the story? How much is related to voice–how the writer speaks, in telling the story–and how much is related to concrete external events or triggers that shape what happens?

I am actively open to memoirs, and love them, and entrust this as round #1–over what I hope will be many rounds–of some thoughts on memoir-writing. I did not have the opportunity to represent one in my first round as an agent, and hope to discover something that I respond to and believe in this time around.