R.J. Anderson (rj_anderson) wrote,
R.J. Anderson

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Putting Your Best Book Forward: Stephen Barbara, Part I

Last weekend I attended the SCBWI Canada East conference, a one-day event featuring agent Stephen Barbara of the Donald Maass Literary Agency and authors Alma Fullerton and Jo Ellen Bogart. Unfortunately my pen died early in the afternoon, so Jo Ellen's talk has been lost to posterity. But I took detailed notes in the morning sessions, and got the speakers' permission to post them.

Stephen was up first, so here's a recap in my own words of what he had to say:

Getting an agent can certainly be helpful, but it's not the first step in becoming a successful writer. Nobody buys books because they're a fan of the author's agent. The #1 reason people buy new authors is Word of Mouth -- because the author has told a great story and people are excited about it. Your first priority, therefore, should be to become a great storyteller. Don't make agent-hunting your obsession at the expense of your craft.

Here, according to Stephen, are four habits of highly successful writers:
  1. Be a reader -- read constantly and widely. Figure out what makes some books succeed and other books flop. Learn even from books you hate; swallow your resentment and study them to see what they've done right. For instance, Dan Brown may be a terrible prose stylist and his characters may be flat, but he knows how to come up with an attention-grabbing premise and give the reader a sense of high stakes.

  2. Have a substantial writing life. You should always be thinking of new stories to tell. Try to publish wherever possible, and make contact with published writers who can become your mentors and advocates. Learn to take criticism graciously and learn from it without being crushed by it. Welcome all opportunities to make your book better, and get used to the discipline of revision.

  3. Become knowledgeable about the publishing industry. Read Publishers' Weekly, Publishers' Marketplace, editor and agent blogs. Look at bookstores to find out who publishes books in your genre, and try to figure out each publisher's unique tastes and specialties. Do the same for agents -- look in the Acknowledgements section of books you admire to find out who represents the author, and then Google them to see what other authors and genres they represent.

  4. Learn to market yourself intelligently. Don't spend two years writing a novel and ten minutes on the query letter. That letter is your introduction to the editor or agent you're seeking -- craft it carefully and get it critiqued, just as you would a manuscript. Remember that the purpose of a query letter is to interest an editor or agent, not to inform them -- so don't bore them with a blow-by-blow description of your book's contents. Instead your book's description should have a hook, a sense of your authorial voice, suspense, conflict, compelling characters -- all the same things that make a novel great. But at the same time, treat your query as a business letter, not a narrative. It should be clear, professionally formatted, specific to the agent or editor concerned, and succinct -- that means just one page.

In Part Two, which I hope to post soon, Stephen discusses what a good agent can do for an author. Part Three will cover the Q&A session that followed his talk.
Tags: advice, agents, scbwi, writing
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