The Write Stuff, March bluebonnet edition

Table of Contents



Agents need your side gig

Publishers Marketplace is the go-to resource for agent and publishing deals. It also tells the tales about how the agenting business works. As it turns out, agents need more than wonderful authors. Some of them need editing gigs while they wait for the oil gusher of a book to appear.

So many agents have so little prospect of earning enough to survive on commissions alone. Junior agents at an agency usually only get 65 percent of a commission. The latest Publishers Marketplace survey notes that an overwhelming 69% of respondents pointed to low salaries as “a critical issue for the industry to address.”

I heard a version of this problem from an agent a few summers ago. Michael Carr told stories of running a Vermont inn while he was building up his author list. He said he’d have never survived on the early years’ agent payments unless he also managed a lodging. Imagine getting a two-thirds cut of a $7,500 advance, paid out over three years. Yeah, a whopping $2,500 a year on a mid-five figure advance. This is why agents want authors with multiple books in them.

Another agent from the San Franciso Writers Conference said an agent’s monthly income depends on which payments have come in from publishers for their authors the month before. Publishers now pay out advances in quarters. That final payment of the author’s advance can come an entire year after the book publishes. “Until an agent has some established authors who are making royalties regularly, there can be some lean months.”

And so to address this, these experts on story and books take to the editing table. Last year the Association of American Literary Agents altered its Canon of Ethics so agents could offer editorial services to non-client authors. Before last year, agent plus editor was verboten, so people couldn’t call their work a reading fee.

You can argue that the agent as editor arrangement has been entrenched for as long as there have been agents. Development edits are a key part of making a book ready for submission to publishers.

The editing or teaching can become a second income or a second job. It’s true even for mid-career agents. One agent said uneven income, “can add additional stress to a tricky and formative time for literary agents.”

I know, no sympathy for what seems like an uncreative job — until that agent’s giving you development notes for your revisions. At that moment, you should want every bit of their creativity on your side. Don’t have that kind of agent? Well, some are much better storytellers than others. It’s one thing to turn down a manuscript — and another level of skill to improve it to make it salable.


When your story demands change


We are most engaged with a story that shows us transformations. A character goes on a journey, experiencing events, and at the conclusion they have grown or been diminished. Success makes readers happier, but failure and loss holds attraction, too. Did everyone feel satisfied at the end of Succession?

If your story has a goal at the start, we know how to recognize the conclusion. It’s where the character succeeds or fails to reach that goal. This is why it’s so important to set a clear goal for the main character as soon as you possibly can.

However. There’s another kind of story that uses no transformation at all — at least not in the main character. In this kind of tale, the hero is steadfast. Following a code they dare not break, or they wouldn’t know who they were anymore. In the old film noir pictures, the detective or PI who’s investigating gets roughed up, beaten, the works. But the forces of evil cannot break the hero.

The survival is what we root for, because we see if the hero survives, then the evil can be broken. At the end of the classic movie, one character after another says, “I am Spartacus.” Spartacus will be marked for death if discovered. We know Spartacus will survive because every man in the scene says he is the steadfast leader of the slaves’ revolution.

Your character needs changes to make a transformation, if your main character is not defending a code. Your hero’s actions can transform the world and never change your hero. That’s steadfast, a good place to show us an antihero.

Forrest Gump, John Wick: They don’t need changes. The world around them does the changing, while we watch them survive and endure.
How to Write Short and Keep Going books
The reason you’ll create context

While you’re creating a story, readers will engage enough to ask questions. The answers to those questions — those are what we call context. Context is a big word that means The Why. We satisfy readers by revealing the meaning behind choices, beliefs, actions, and mistakes. Context lets me see why your heroine is on her point of the compass regarding almost anything that she does.

The subtle move in making context is to do it quickly, if you can. Don’t feel like you’ve got to draft a couple of paragraphs. Or even maybe more than a sentence or two.

One favorite craft book on my shelf, where it can be seen easily during Zoom calls, is How to Write Short. Nonfiction writers are pressed harder to write short. They know a lot of the skills and tricks, and the book’s author Roy Peter Clark teaches plenty of these tips.

Pay attention to word length. Cut big, then small. Write with a sense of audience and purpose. End with a punch, the most important word at the sentence’s finale.

You then balance the reader’s desire for context with your need for mystery. Kurt Vonnegut said in one of his writing rules, never withhold anything you can release in a story. Saving the context for later is often not a good practice.

“Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible,” said the author of Slaughterhouse Five. “To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

It’s a balancing act, because suspense can contribute to tension — and tension is essential to engaging readers. Your default, Vonnegut says, should be to deliver everything that keeps a reader from stopping to ask, “But why?”

You can probably give readers the foundation of context in the opening pages of the book, so long as it is revealed as part of some action in the story. You take your background contextual sections and consider which one should you present first. Which context is most resonant with your book’s theme?

Stack Talk: How to sink pirates

Up on next week’s Substack edition, we will aim our publishing spotlight on the pirate haven that Amazon has become. Stolen knockoffs of books from both bestseller and author-publishers alike are for sale at the world’s largest retailer. 

Or is it the world’s largest bootleg factory? The expectations are low for honest service from the ‘Zon. Amazon is only being held accountable for pulling down the pirate copies — after an author or publisher complains. One popular memoirist complained after demanding the pilfered edition of her memoir Maid went up for sale at Amazon. Take a look and subscribe to have the latest Write Stuff publishing report delivered once a week.

The worst kind of typo

While you chase your book into publication, the moment of finding typos will make you break into a cold sweat. Try to relax and know you will make things right. It could be worse than sending a new file to the printer, or editing the ebook edition.

You might have the problem that the Los Angeles Lakers have with a statue. Yes, monuments and statues everywhere have typos in them. An NPR story will make you feel better about the effort you must expend to correct typos. It starts with Kobe Bryant, an icon in basketball with typos at his feet, set in stone. The Lakers say they know about it and are fixing it. There are also errors in the MLK monument and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC.

You can take the Lakers’ same approach of assurance that you’ll fix your mistakes. We used to have to print a correction about a story in a completely separate edition. Owning up to the mistake was the hardest part of writing those corrections. People will respect you for working to get it right.

PS. You go to a conference to connect with people who are like you, but shyer. Make a point of meeting the speakers one-to-one after their talks.

Write Stuff, last year: Can that character be you?
Patch of bluebonnets
They are the Texas state flower, these bluebonnets, and on the way to a friend’s house for dinner last night, here they were. Roaring up right in the middle of a subdivision, thick as any pirate’s beard and as lovely as a fairy’s wing. They come up like this during March when the rains in the autumn beforehand favor us. I love a rich and sudden burst of beauty in the stories I edit.
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