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We All Want That Secret Handshake

This was the very first article published on Red Room in 2008, and nothing has changed much. I'm still using my writing skills to pay the bills with "corporate communications" (i.e. providing content for everything from annual reports to whole websites). My fiction projects still lead to very interesting conversations. Writing about the arts inspires me daily. And nobody has taught me the secret handshake yet.

Seeking A Secret Handshake Or How To Sell Your Book

When people hear that I am a published writer, they always ask how I sold a book. In short, the secret handshake that everyone always knows that writers and publishers have but won't reveal to other people. Many seem to believe that there is one surefire route to being a published author that will allow them to skip all that dreary business of sending out queries and reading rejection letters.

Sadly, nobody taught the secret sign to me. Instead, I've sold nonfiction books, novels, stories, and several hundred articles to publishers without one single handshake. I also have supported myself in a less than luxurious lifestyle by doing various forms of commercial writing: catalogs, advertisements, press releases, and other business media. I've even hopped to the other side of publishing blanket and actually produced a number of books for other people at the start of this century. For one brief period in the 1990s, I ran a bookstore, an experience that left me with nothing but admiration for independent booksellers and the amount of work that they do to sell books!

These days, my writing life is a nice mix of business assignments (the stuff that pays my bills) and what I consider "fun assignments" (the assignments that might only pay for a dinner out but lead me into interesting conversations and friendships).

But if you know the secret handshake, can you teach it to me?

Still No Agent, But Not Shutting The Door

This Red Room article was written in response to the second most common question that I get about my writing career. Agents can be great for a writing career, and many are easy to find online. I love reading Twitter pitch fests and it's interesting to see how agents are responding these days to a rapidly changing publishing field.

Do You Need An Agent?

The most common question that other writers ask me is "Do you have an agent?" And most are surprised when I say no. I've sold several nonfiction projects to publishers throughout the U.S., as well as novels to Wizards of the Coast, without an agent.

I love the idea of having an agent: somebody to sell my work, read contracts, and make sure royalties are paid on time. In the best of all possible worlds, somebody who cares about my writing, gives me suggestions on how to make it better, and maybe even mentors me through the ups and downs of pursuing a writing career.

There are agents out there who do all those things. I believe that paying them 15% of earnings is more than fair if they are the ones establishing where I can earn those earnings.

However, I've always found a market for my work without an agent. Mostly because I like to sell before I write (it's a time management issue), I've pursued publishers who accepted queries and issued contracts before I completed the manuscript. I could have sought an agent to handle the back end of the process, but I don't find reading contracts intimidating or troublesome.

Most of my publishing contracts were straight forward, and (sadly) I never thought I had a project worth so much money that it would pay to involve an agent or a lawyer to close up possible loopholes.

Realistically, I write for the midlist, not the bestseller list. Niche nonfiction, genre fiction, and shared world projects. In those markets, you can find publishers who are willing to work directly with an author.

Now, should I get the big bestseller idea, the Oprah book, the one that I know will sell millions, I would go look for an agent. But until then, I'll keep chugging along, working with publishers who want to work directly with me.


How I Started Writing In The Realms

With the closure of Red Room this month, I'm moving some "how to" writing articles from there to this blog. The following on how I got started writing shared world adventures always got the most hits on that site.

So here's my history for anyone who is contemplating jumping into a shared world or collaborative publishing project.

How I Started Writing For Wizards Of The Coast

Several years ago, I was one of the writers who entered the Wizards of The Coast "Maiden of Pain" contest. The editors were seeking a writer to craft a novel about a very dark goddess. My idea was rejected. Apparently a romantic comedy involving the Forgotten Realms' own goddess of torture was not what they were looking for...

However I was invited to "keep trying" as the editors liked my sample chapter. This led to multiple rejections -- even as fellow competitors/losers like Erik Scott de Bie secured contracts (and this is the only context where I would call the tall dude a loser, as he's a fantastic tale teller and all round nice guy. But his Maiden of Pain idea also was rejected).  I eventually wrote to the editor who  kept inviting me to "try again" and asked "How can I do better?"

He suggested focusing my one-page proprosals on the main character and tell how she or he achieved their goal in the course of the plot.  So I wrote my proposal for Crypt of the Moaning Diamond focusing only on what the heroine was trying to do and how she accomplishes it. The novel eventually hosted many minor characters, subplots, etc. But the proposal was very short and very focused and received the editorial stamp of approval.

About the same time, I also pitched short story with a similar very, very short focused outline. That made it into Realms of Dragons II. A number of "young dragons" emerged from that anthology to become fantastic email buddies. This includes Erik, who lives here in Seattle. He invited me to meet him for coffee in a bookstore. Which led to many cups of coffee and discussions of writing since -- and again shows what a gentleman he is, because Erik doesn't drink coffee! Shocking....or at least to this caffeine-addicted lady who cannot even contemplate living in a city without an espresso place on every corner.

Erik's friendship -- and that of many other authors in my life -- provides that essential cheap group therapy that all writers need ("I'll never write again." "Yes, you will." "No, I'm doomed to eternal rejection." "Want a doughnut?"), invitations to participate in other projects outside the Realms as you can see from the covers on the sidebar, and a whole host of new books on my shelves. Because friends buy friends' books (yes, this should be my bumper sticker).

The moral of the story should be not everyone sells on the first try. Or even the tenth. And, although I made many runs at writing for a specific shared world project, don't lock yourselve into one specific path to publishing. I've known a number of writers who only want to write for publisher X or set their story in world Y. Sometimes you have to be willing to walk away. I write many things outside the Realms and always will. Just as I'll always be happy to answer the call when somebody wants me to go adventuring there.

The important thing for me about all shared world projects is that I do get to pick WHAT I write in terms of plot, characters, and resolutions, even if the physical setting is dictated by the publisher or world creator. Having that freedom means that shared worlds, for me, are much like writing something set in the real world. You have to do your research, and check your maps, but there's no limit on where you can take your story.

Writing in somebody else's world or collaborating to create a new such world does not have to be restrictive or limit your imagination. You may find it freeing as fellow adventurers lead you into places that you never suspected existed.


How To Turn A Book Reading Into A Party

We've all been to those readings. The ones where some poor author stands pinned at one end of a very empty room and the two people in the audience fidget until the half hour is done. These happen far too often at cons where the party continues outside in the corridor and bookstores where some clerk leans against the cash register looking sad.

Then there are the other type of readings. The ones where people come away feeling like they've been to a party, swear that they will read the book as soon as they get home, and everyone (including the host) feels like they'd want to do this again.

I went to the second type of readings last night.  A packed room full of authors, authors' friends, and many people who just stopped to listen and then hung around for conversations afterward because it looked like a cool group.

So how do you  get scenario #2 rather than scenario #1? Same way that you throw a good party. Make people feel welcome.

Imagine a party where the host spent the entire time in a corner of the room speaking to the crowd at large. Now add that the host isn't a good friend or relative, but the friend or relative of your date, somebody that you have never met. Would you ever want to go back to that party again?

On the other hand, have you ever gone to a party with a friend and the host made a point of talking with you, making eye contact, and actually listening to what you had to say? What did you tell your date about that host afterward?  Probably you were pretty complimentary.

The authors at the reading last night were those type of hosts. They greeted their friends. Many made a point of wandering over and asking to be introduced to people who came to hear other authors. They were friendly, complimentary about other people's work, interested in hearing what the audience was interested in, and nobody made a hard sell pitch.

The people involved in the Broken Eye Books reading at the Wayward Coffeehouse also didn't rely on the host venue or the publisher to do all the heavy lifting to publicize the event. Every one of the authors involved sent invitations to friends and tweeted or posted about the event ahead of time.

I went because I'd gotten at least three invitations, all from different authors involved, and was glad when I got there because I ran into even more people I knew. The readings were short, pithy, and intriguing, but the conversations before and afterward are what caused me to break out the wallet and buy another book for my overcrowded shelves. 

The reading also confirmed my own preference for group readings as being the easier way to draw a crowd and grab new readers. When I've been invited to do "single slots" at cons, I generally turn them down or get a couple of friends to join me. The more the merrier at the microphone -- and nobody will be wondering if the party in the corridor is more exciting than what is happening in the room.


Be Prepared For Yes

About once a month, somebody sends me an email that boils down to "Why don't you write about me right now?"  That's because I cover Seattle theater and dance companies (links to those articles in the sidebar) as well as covering events of interest to Northwest publishers at

The most recent example of this type of email came on a Friday that I was traveling. By Saturday morning, the agitated sender was tweeting me about why hadn't I written about their event yet.

There were a couple of reasons. First, although I'm fast with a keyboard, I need Internet access to publish my article. So, when I'm in transit, as I was that Friday, nothing happens. Second, despite many people guessing otherwise, I'm human, not super-human, and I sleep, eat, and do other things that take me away from the laptop.

So, as I finished reading the Friday email a day late, the Saturday tweet barrage started. Since it was an event that I liked, I thought "OK, I'll write something." However, I do have a requirement that all articles be accompanied by a visual (either YouTube video or jpg). That's because two of the blogs I run are on sites that mandate that. The other just gets more hits if I do that.

So I sent agitated Tweetperson a email saying "Send me a jpg or a YouTube link this morning and I'll get something up." The morning deadline due to other plans for the afternoon.  See above about "have a life outside the laptop."

The first response from Tweetperson was: "Go look for yourself on our website." (I already had done that and found nothing fit the visual requirements of my site).

The second response, after I explained the problem:  "Well, I'm too busy. I can't send anything. Maybe someone else will."  Which I found strange, as this was the person insisting that I write about their event right now. And I had said "yes."  At which point, they dropped the conversation.

So why am I writing about this? After all,  I'm old enough to brush it off as "oh well, guess we both learned something."

Because it is an old truism that you can get more press if you help folks with the little details. It's the same as pitching your books to agents, editors, and publishers. Be prepared for a "yes" as well as a "no."  If you're sending out information about your book, you may not want to send everything all at once but have the following ready to go:
  • A good digital photo of yourself or your book cover (preferably both). High resolution jpg, minimum size 1 mb, maximum size 3 mb. If they want more or less than that, do know how to resize yourself so you don't have to wait or go back to the photographer.  Clearly identify who took the photo as well as who is in it (especially if there is more than one person). Many news sites and publications will no longer publish photos if the subjects and the photographer are not credited. If a photographer credit is not needed or the subjects are "adoring crowd of fans at Con," be sure to tell them that.
  • Your biography written in third person with solid information about what you've done and how it is related to your book.  
  • Information about any and all upcoming events related to your book should included the when (date/time), where (location),  and how (website link, email, or phone number for directions) that the public need to attend that event. Add a little why (people should attend) if you can.
Most journalists will use that information to build their article. In the best of all possible worlds, they will do an interview with you, either by phone, email, or in person, to flesh the article out. If they do indicate that they want to do that, try to remember that you are one of many subjects and some flexibility in scheduling may be required.  The more equipment they need to tell their story (radio and television), the more rigid the time requirements -- if they tell you that they only have the studio from 3 pm to 4 pm on Tuesdays, try to make that work out. Don't insist that you can only be there on Wednesday morning.

Since I'm writing and not recording or filming, I can usually make an interview work at any time during the week. But life does it does for any journalist, blogger, or reviewer. The worst response for me when I'm trying to set up an interview is "Well, call me any time."  Because playing phone tag is never fun and that always is the result.  A set time and date, and being ready at that time, is much appreciated.

Be ready for "yes" and don't get agitated if someone asks for extra time or information to write about you.. Your professionalism will be noted and appreciated!*

*Like the darling director at a local theater who accepted my recent "aargh, the plumbers are pounding on the door, I need to call you back..." during a 10 am interview with a very professional "I'll be available at 3 p.m. today at this number."

Update for theater and dance groups: Soon after I posted this, Seattle Theater Writers shared this article. When putting together information for a performance, think about other things writers can do beyond reviewing. My column focuses on "previews" rather than reviews, and I'm always looking for good interview ideas. Sure the star of the show is newsworthy, but so is the 40-year-old bit player who is moonlighting at your theater to pursue a lifelong dream.  All writers have different goals and interests. Listen to what they ask for. If they tell you that they love to do backstage stories, be ready to pitch designers and directors. Or maybe they are more interested in the community angle and want to talk about how your show brings people to the neighborhood or a local kid is making good with you.


Nothing Wrong With Flying Monkeys But There's More

Got to admit that watching Jake 2.0 turn into a flying monkey on ONCE made my Sunday night. For those obsessed with the Oz series (this would be a large pack of my friends),  this isn't Disney's first foray into Oz.

They've been diddling about for decades with various versions, including the much underrated Return to Oz, one of the few post-1939 movies or theatrical adaptations to break out of the MGM mold and really delve into the later books of the Oz series. 

Books? I always hear people say when I mention the plural.  Yes, there were 40 "official" books published in the Oz series between 1900 and 1963, all of which added significantly wonderful and delightfully weird critters to Oz and surrounding kingdoms. This was one of the longest running and highly successful fantasy series for children of all time. Long before the 1939 MGM musical, there were dozens of silent movies and stage adaptations inspired by Oz.

Lately, reinterpretations of Oz story have been dominated by the steampunk sensibilities of Wicked, which draws heavily on the green make-up worn by Margaret Hamilton in the MGM movie. But if anyone bothered to go back and read the original books, they'd find that flying monkeys and green-faced witches aren't the only interesting characters in Oz and there's a vein of fantastical gold for writers.

Personally, I'd love to see the folks in the Enchanted Forest wander into Princess Langwidere's cabinet of changing heads or match wits with Gnome King. Run into the dreadful Mombi. Or sink below a lake with Queen Coo-ee-oh.

Still, you can't go wrong with flying monkeys. Let's hope more of the avian chimps show up and inspire some readers to check out their true origins as well as all the additional creatures of Oz.

Wizard of Oz and Friends details the "canon" of Oz books published in the early 20th century including how to identify first editions.  It's the latest in the Reader's Checklist series for those interested in expanding their collections.