Saturday, April 22, 2017

Summer Camp for Writers: An Agent’s Guide to Conferences

It’s that time again. Spring in New England—the tulips are blooming, the trees are budding, and the conference invitations are piling up. With the warm weather comes the promise of fun and frolic in the sun and in bland hotels across the land. That’s right, it’s conference season.

Writers are always asking me which conferences they should attend. That’s a very personal decision as well as a professional one. I think of these events as summer camp for writers: kids thrown together for a common purpose, to make friends and learn new skills and hike and swim and stay up too late. I consider these factors when I schedule my summers. I must really love a conference to go during this glorious season, because my little lakeside cottage is always calling to me to stay home and enjoy the singular pleasures of summer: Garden! Swim! Sun! Kayak! Paddleboard! Play! Play! Play!

Here’s a list of the conferences I’ll be attending, and my reasons for doing so, as an author and a writing teacher and an agent. Conferences are not cheap, and I choose with budget and benefit in mind.

APRIL 28-30
Malice is the fan conference for traditional mystery. This will be my first time going this year, and I making the trek to Bethesda because:
1)      Three of my clients are up for Agatha Awards, and want to cheer them on: Alexia Gordon, Kate Flora, and Roger Guay!
2)      I can share a room with a dear friend, saving on expenses and boosting the fun factor.
3)      Many of my clients write traditional mysteries.
4)      I write traditional mysteries myself.
5)      Dozens of my friends and clients are going, so there will plenty of people to hang out with at the bar.
6)      Many editors to whom I shop projects will be there, and I can buy them martinis.

MAY 18-21 
This is an online WD workshop I do with my sister agents Gina Panettieri and Saba Sulaiman of Talcott Notch Literary. It’s fun and I don’t have to leave the house.

This is the big annual trade show for trade publishing. Going is obligatory for me as an agent, because:
1)      Everyone is there, at the parties if not at the Javits Center.
2)      Our agency always has a table in the Rights Center, where we meet with editors and publishers and rights people. We pitch our projects big time to all the aforementioned.
3)      Walking the show floor is a great place to check out which publishers are publishing what.
4)      There are lots of informative panels where editors and writers talk about the business.
5)      Book signings abound, and that means free books!
6)      Even editors who avoid the Javits Center tend to be in town, and available for off-site meetings over breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks.

This is a quarterly conference dedicated to the art of pitching. I’m one of the workshop leaders, helping a group of 15-20 writers learn how to pitch their projects, and coaching them through their real-time pitches with four New York editors. It’s an intense and very rewarding experience for me because:
1)      I love working with writers, not to mention conference founder Michael Neff and sister workshop leader Susan Breen.
2)      The level of craft among participants here is fairly high.
3)      I get to meet lots of editors in a setting outside the publishing house, many of whom have gone on to publish work by my clients.
4)      I’ve signed and sold several writers I met here.

JULY 13-16
ThrillerFest is the annual conference put on by the International Thriller Writers (ITW). Graced by big brand-name authors like Lee Child and Lisa Gardner, this conference offers many menu options for writers, from the usual panels to FBI school and a pitching free-for-all known as PitchFest. I go every year because:
1)      I represent a lot of crime writers.
2)      The PitchFest is de rigueur for agents representing crime fiction.
3)      This year I have a client up for a Thriller Award: Richard Thomas!
4)      People watching at the bar is awesome!
5)      So many of my friends, clients, and heroes/heroines will be there.
6)      It’s a great opportunity to network with editors and other publishing executives.

AUGUST 18-20
This is one of the best all-around general conferences for writers, which is no surprise given that Writers Digest is one of the premier organizations for writers. And I don’t say that just because they publish my writing books. I go most every year because:
1)      This is a great community of writers, both published and pre-published.
2)      I get the chance to meet with my own editor and publisher.
3)      The faculty is first-rate; as a presenter, I’m in good company with the likes of Hallie Ephron and Hank Phillippi Ryan and Jane Cleland.
4)      The Pitch Slam is a good time for meeting new writers and seeing all my fave fellow agents.

So, there you have it. My summer camp schedule for 2017. Hope to see to you somewhere, soon. I’ll be the agent at the bar waiting for you to buy me a martini and tell me all about your book.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Top Ten Reasons You Can--and Can't--Get an Agent

Top Ten Reasons You Can’t Get an Agent

1.     You are approaching the wrong agents.
2.     Your marketing strategy is all shotgun.
3.     Your query letter isn’t working.
4.     Your story idea is not unique enough to stand out in the marketplace or to stand up to the competition.
5.     You have no idea what the competition is.
6.     Your story idea is not strong enough or compelling enough to sustain a book-length narrative.
7.     Your story idea is not well-executed.
8.     Your level of craft is not high enough.
9.     You are not an active member of your writing community.
10. You are not prepared to be an author as well as a writer.

Top Ten Reasons You Can Get an Agent

1.     You know which agents would work for you.
2.     You’ve written a great query letter.
3.     You come highly recommended.
4.     Your work is based on a strong idea.
5.     You’ve executed that idea well.
6.     Your level of craft is high.
7.     You’ve already published in this or other formats: literary journals, digital and/or print publications, etc.
8.     You’ve got a platform.
9.     You are an active member of your writing community.

10. You present yourself and your work in a professional manner.

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Monday, January 2, 2017

A Writer's Tools: The Cork Board

I love index cards. They're the key to my plotting, the tools I use to conceive, arrange, and rearrange scenes. I describe how I do this in my writing workshops and in my writing books, most notably WRITING WITH QUIET HANDS.

But some of you complain that you live/work/write in small spaces, and so you use Scrivener, which features a digital version of index cards that allows you to do the same thing electronically. (Some of you prefer doing everything digitally, and to you I say, good for you, you digital natives you.) But if you love the feel of cards in your hands, and the sound of the magic marker scraping against the paper as you write, and the flash of creative lightning that strikes when you flip and shuffle and place those cards, then try my solution to the small space problem.

I converted two closet doors to corkboards. Well, I personally didn’t do it, I sweet-talked my love Michael into doing it for me. But it was my idea, for what’s that worth. (See photo.) Michael tells me that it was pretty easy, but if you are as mechanically disinclined as I am, I trust you can use your writer’s powers of persuasion to convince someone handy to do the same for you.

My doors have four sections, which allow me to assign each quarter its own purpose: one for fun, one for plotting, one for inspiration, and one for whatever pleases me at any given time. These corkboard doors are located at the edge of my living/working/writing space on the way to the kitchen, so every time I pass by for a cup of coffee I get a shot of creative energy that spurs me on to the next scene of my work in progress. I often stop to play around with the plotting cards, especially when I’ve come to a knot in my plot. Right now, I’m reworking a major storyline thread in my mystery at the request of my editor, and the plotting board is a critical part of that process.

So if you’re short on space and long on plot, try creating a corkboard of your own. You won’t regret it. And be sure to send me a photo…happy plotting!

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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Here's to a New Year of Writing!

There are two kinds of writers in the world. And no, I don't mean fiction writers and nonfiction writers, plotters and pantsers, or literary writers and commercial writers. I mean the writers who make New Year’s Resolutions and those who don't.
I fall in the first camp. With a vengeance. An inveterate list maker and planner, I view the new year as the Super Bowl of Goal Setting.
2017 is no exception. My calendar is already full of sales objectives (for my clients), events and conferences (for agency business), writing deadlines (for my publishers), and more. So many of the hard targets I aim for this year are related to these enterprises; hitting them is not an aspiration, it's an imperative.
But I know that freaking out about having too much to do in too little time will only sabotage any progress I hope to make—and kill the creativity I count on to keep me on track.
My New Year’s Resolutions are the ones critical to my creative process. They're the ones that I've proclaimed loudly and in technicolor in the one place I'm bound to visit more often than I should every day: my refrigerator.
That’s right. Last summer I painted the bottom half of my refrigerator with chalk paint, thinking it would prove an amusement for my grandchildren. But over time the space morphed into my own personal and professional planner.
This morning, in honor of the dawn of 2017, it reads: Breathe. Read. Write.
Breathe, because yoga is the fastest way for me to plug into my subconscious.
Read, because as Stephen King says, “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write.”
Write, because real writers write. End of story.
Okay, so my kids will all tease me unmercifully when they see it, my non-writing friends will think it's weird, and my neighbors may view it as downright subversive, but I don’t care. It works, as least for me.
            So … what's on your refrigerator this year?

Note: If you're having trouble getting started, check out my new book, The Writer's Guide to Beginnings.

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Monday, October 3, 2016


It’s Monday morning, and as I sift through the many submissions in my in-box, as well as those by my own clients, trying to plan the week ahead, I can’t help but think of Evan Marshall. Evan Marshall is a literary agent and author of several novels, as well as The Marshall Plan series of writing books and writing software. I’d been a fan of his for years, but I had the good fortune of meeting him in person not long ago, and that encounter has stayed with me.

I was at the Writers Digest Conference in New York City, where I moderated a panel with the congenial Mr. Marshall and fabulous authors JaneK. Cleland, Libby Cudmore, and Reed Farrel Coleman. The “You Know My Methods, Watson” panel was billed as the “Secrets to Succeeding as a Mystery Writer.”

But the words of hard-earned wisdom revealed there applied to stories of all kinds, not just mysteries. But perhaps the most intriguing story was the one Evan told of his own path to publication. He’d been a big success as an agent, but was not having much luck selling his own work.  When his wife asked him what he’d tell himself if he were his client, he said, “Give the people what they want.”

Evan had been writing whatever he wanted to, without regard to his audience—and failing to sell it. As opposed to giving the people want they wanted—which is what he always told his clients to do (and the aspiring writers who read his writing books, of whom I was one). So Evan changed his strategy, gave the people what they wanted, and went on to sell several traditional mysteries.

If you’re writing commercial fiction, you can figure out what your people want.  Study the conventions of your genre, and then play with them. Tweak them, twist them, turn them on their heads—but do not ignore them. Becasue you ignore them at your peril.

I often meet writers who know their craft and tell a good story, but have not found a publisher, or if they have, they’ve not broken out of mid-list. Often this boils down to a failure to take the audience for their work seriously. They’re not acknowledging the conventions of the genre; they’re dismissing the expectations that the readers of the genre bring to the reading experience. (Note: If your work is often called “quirky,” this could be you.)

So respect the readers you’d love to call your own. They know their genre, and they’ll reject those writers who think they are “transcending the genre” (a phrase bound to annoy the devotees) when all those writers are really doing is playing without a net.

Which is another way of saying: Give the people what they want. 

PS: For more on Evan Marshall, see

PPS: For more on my upcoming Well-Sold Story intensive at the Writers Digest Novel Writing Conference, see

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

“There’s No Crying in Publishing!” (and other baseball rules of writing that work for me)

I love writing. I love baseball. And I love the Boston Red Sox. 

These are the truisms that direct my summers. Like most every writer I know, I have a day job—literary agent—and my own writing takes place outside the 50 to 60 hours a week I dedicate to helping other writers get published. In summertime, I work summer hours, just like the rest of the publishing world, which means I cut back to 40 hours a week. And try to get more writing done.

But the trouble with summer is that there is a lot to distract me from my writing:  paddle boarding on the lake, reading on the beach, gin and tonics everywhere.

And baseball. But baseball I find helpful, in that I can apply and/or adapt the philosophies and paradoxes of America’s favorite pastime to my own favorite pastime—and get more work done.
  1. “There’s no crying in publishing.” This is what I tell my writer clients and my writing students when they suffer rejection. (I suffer rejection on my clients’ behalf as well as my own for a living.) When the going gets tough, the tough write on. I remind myself to follow my own advice, which as I’m sure you know I stole from Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own.
  2.  Make the bed. On the mornings when I make the bed right away, I get down to my work more quickly, and I write more. I don’t know why this is, but I’ve found it to be true. If Jason Giambi can don a gold thong to avoid a slump, well, then I can make the bed. Whatever works.
  3.  “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Yogi Berra said it all first—and funnier. When he said this, he was talking about baseball or life or the baseball life, but for me this advice is the key to a good plot. Whenever I come to a fork in my story, I take it. Plot problem solved.
  4.  Bake brownies. Mostly I do this because no matter how pathetic my output, no day is a total waste when the smell of freshly baked brownies fills your studio. And brownies for breakfast is my version of the Popeye’s chicken meal Matt Garza indulges in before every start.
  5.  Relax and concentrate. As Annie Savoy tells us in Bull Durham, that’s the secret to making love and hitting a baseball. It works for writing, too: You just have to relax and concentrate.
  6.  “I think about baseball when I wake up in the morning. I think about it all day and I dream about it at night. The only time I don’t think about it is when I’m playing it.” That’s what Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski says he always did, and I believe him—and not just because I’m a die-hard Red Sox fan. I want my story to be there, always, on the back burner of my brain—until I sit down to write.
  7.  Don’t forget the Seventh-Inning Stretch. Some say we have William Howard Taft to thank for the seventh-inning stretch; others credit Brother Jasper of Mary, F.S.C. of Manhattan College. Still others give the Cincinnati Red Stockings the honor. But no matter who we have to thank, getting up off our duffs after hours of sitting is a good idea. When I’m writing, my seventh-inning stretch usually consists of taking my Newfoundland retriever mix Bear—short for Yogi Berra—for a quick run around the bases.
  8.  “Baseball is not life. It is a fiction, a metaphor. And a ballplayer is a man who agrees to uphold that metaphor as though lives were at stake.”  David James Duncan writes this in one of the best baseball novels you may never have read (and should read now), called The Brothers K. Writing isn’t life, either. It just feels that way. But we as writers must agree to uphold that metaphor as though our own lives were at stake.
  9.  Keep swinging. That was Hank Aaron’s motto, during good games and bad games, good times and bad times, strike outs and home runs. Win or lose, you keep swinging. Publish or perish, you keep writing.  
Play ball!

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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Yes, Virginia, the Beginning Does Matter

This morning I got an email from a writer that I found very disheartening. It went something like this:

Dear Paula,
I have written a great novel that I’d like to send to you in the hope of obtaining representation. Now I know that the first chapter doesn’t really work, but the rest of it is very good, and I know that you’ll love it if you read the entire manuscript. Does that really matter? Should I send it to you now or wait until I figure out how to fix the first chapter?
Aspiring Writer

At the risk of repeating myself: Yes, your story opening DOES matter. Because if the beginning doesn’t work, the rest doesn’t matter. The truth is that few readers—and even fewer agents and editors—will read past a poorly executed first chapter.  That’s why I do so many First Ten Pages Boot Camps and that’s why I’m writing a new book about story openings called BEGINNINGS:  How to Craft Story Openings That Impress Agents, Engage Editors, and Captivate Readers that Writers Digest Books will publish in the fall. Because I know how much the beginning matters—and I want to help as many writers get past that first hurdle in the novel-writing process as I can.

The First Page Sells the Book…
That’s what they say in publishing. So take the time to craft a first page, a first scene, a first chapter that engages readers—and keeps them reading.  Here’s a checklist designed to help you ensure that your first chapter:
          What actually happens?
Too often the answer to this is, “not much.” Make something compelling happen!
          Why will the reader care about/relate to the characters?
Readers want to fall in love with the protagonist at first sight.
          How do you want the reader to feel? What have you done to evoke that feeling?
Art is meant to be an emotional experience, not simply an intellectual one. Make your readers feel something.
          Have you used all the elements of fiction at your disposal—setting, plot, character, theme, etc.?
So many first pages fail to weave in all these elements—and you need them all to write fully realized scenes.
          Have you chosen the right voice?
When the voice is right on, readers read on.
          Does the dialogue ring true?
Bad dialogue kills the reading experience faster than most anything.
          Are the story questions strong enough to keep the reader turning the pages?
Without story questions, there’s no story—just writing.
          Is it clear what kind of story you’re telling?
Readers play favorites with genre; they want to know what kind of story they’re reading right away.
          What makes this story different from others of its ilk?
You need to set your story apart from the brand-name competition in your genre—and the sooner the better.
          Have you gotten the point of view right?
The misuse of point of view is one of the big reasons I pass on stories, even when everything else works.
          Is the scene well-written and well-edited?
Professionalism counts.

If your story opening passes this checklist test, then you may be ready to shop your work.  Good luck—and happy querying!

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