Wrapping Up On Agents and Editors

We’ve been talking about writing conferences and about agents and editors for quite a while now. I think it’ll soon be time to move on to a new topic. I’ll try to answer any pressing questions that are still not answered.

Tim asked:

So how do you pitch a book series instead of just a stand alone novel. Most of my novels are part of a bigger series, so how would I got about doing this?

Randy sez: Pitch Book #1 in the series as if it were a standalone novel. (Assuming it stands alone. If it’s one long story in seven volumes, like the Harry Potter series, then you need to make that clear up front.) At some point in the conversation, the agent or editor will probably ask if you have anything else. Then you say that you have ideas for other books in the series. This is normally considered a Good Thing. Then they know you aren’t a one-trick doggy.

Heather asked:

So would people agree it is generally a bad idea to mention the word “series” as a first-timer, unless handed an appropriate lead-in, as alice was?

Randy sez: It’s not so much a “bad idea” as “an irrelevant fact.” The first thing you need to do is show the agent or editor that you can write a book. One book, start to finish. Once they see that, then they’ll naturally be interested in followons. Tom Clancy’s first book featured Jack Ryan, who then featured in Books #3 and on. (Book #2 was RED STORM RISING, a co-authored book that stands alone from the others.)

Jack Ryan has proven to be a durable player who could carry the ball for a long time, occasionally handing off to Clark, but usually doing most of the work. And Jack, (as Sarah Palin may possibly do) became an out-of-the-blue vice president. Jack even made it to Prez, allowing Clancy to show how things “ought to be done” in his opinion. The one thing Jack Ryan couldn’t do well was to wear a bikini. There is a PhotoShop-faked picture on the web of Sarah exhibiting that very skill and holding a gun. The photo is funny, but it would look simply stupid if it featured Jack Ryan.

Heather asked a second question:

actually, I am curious about this because I wonder whether to go for a series as I would like (which would develop the story so that the “meatiest” parts are in subsequent books), or, if a series deal is thought to be more unlikely for a newbie, then changing the story so that everything important is encompassed in the one book (and possibly sacrificing telling the story exactly as I had envisioned). has anyone grappled with this conflict before?

Randy sez: Write the first book as well as you can without cramming it too full of the meat. If it does well, then those meaty parts will make it in to the later books. One only has to look at Harry Potter, where the meat gets juicier the further you go. My kids and I are almost done reading the series aloud together. There is a 30 page section of backstory just before the end. This is the place to put the backstory–just before the extraordinary, incredible ending.

A novice writer puts the backstory at the beginning when nobody cares yet about the character. This is why JK Rowling is worth every dime she earns. She puts the backstory at the tail of about 3000 pages of story, and NOW it all makes sense. Every detail of the story now has a clear place.

James wrote:

I’m really seeking advice for how to go about finding the RIGHT agent/editor for your genre & someone you’re comfortable with in the on-going process of making it all happen? Especially for an unknown.

Randy sez: The first thing is to know your genre and know your niche. Then look for agents who cater to that niche and who like that genre. My niche is Christian fiction, and my genre is suspense. So if I needed an agent, I’d go to a major Christian conference, such as Mount Hermon or the upcoming ACFW conference and talk to those agents who do suspense. If I had a mystery for the general market, I’d go to a major mystery writers conference, such as Bouchercon. If I were writing a romance, I’d go to RWA.

So ask yourself: What books do you like to read? What authors do you love? Can you find out which agents have represented these authors? Can you find which agents represent these kind of books? Of course you can. Authors often thank their agents in their Acknowledgments section of their books. They may link to them on their web sites. The reference book WRITER’S MARKET lists zillions of agents and tells you exactly what they want. If you go to the web sites of those agents, you may find out what conferences they go to. Or you can search for conferences near you and research the agents that’ll be there.

You need to do your research, but it’s easier than ever to do that research. When you sit down to your appointment with the agent, you will make things massively easier on yourself if you can show that you have a clue who they are and what they do. It is extraordinary to see writers sit down to an appointment with an editor or agent who caters to a genre or a market niche wholly unrelated to what the writer is writing.

Hannah wrote:

I have a question regarding not finding an agent. What are your views on being an agent to oneself? For me and for many of my European colleagues finding an agent is just not an option; we have to talk to the editors first hand at all times. So, my question is, how do you become your own agent?

Randy sez: If an agent’s not an option, then it’s not an option. Fifty years ago, many American authors didn’t have agents. Now most do. There are some books on how to be your own agent. Check Amazon for exact titles. It’s been a long time since I considered this option.

Karen asked:

Hmmm all very interesting. Knowing that the ideal situation is probably to develop relationships at conferences, can email also work if you are on different continents? I’m not at that stage yet (realistic expectations!), but assuming that when I am ready, I don’t make it over the ocean, is it likely that I would have any luck via email? I’m guessing (hoping) the answer is that if the writing is good and I’ve done my research and chosen the right agent/s, it is likely. I wonder though, how to get their attention (professionally) in a mail box that’s likely full to the brim of people they do know…

Randy sez: Yes, email can work. It’s not as good as in person, but it can work. Remember that agents probably hear from zillions of people every day. Many of the writers who query them are spammers, just blasting out shotguns full of email queries. If you’re going to shoot out a query by email, use a rifle. Study the agents and send each one a personalized and short query that makes it clear you’re a professional who respects them as a professional.

Kim asked:

Do publishers prefer to work through an agent or directly with an author?

Randy sez: I’m not an editor, but if I were, I’d prefer to work with somebody who understands the business, knows how to negotiate, plays fair, and gets back to me promptly. This describes most agents (but not all of them) and some writers (not as many as we like to think).

Typically, the agent’s job is to do those things that you don’t do well. Most agents will not get between you and the editor when you’re working through the editing phase.

The one exception is if a problem arises. If you know you’re going to miss your deadline, call your agent and let him deliver the bad news and negotiate a solution. If the editor is asking for outrageous changes, call your agent and let him show the editor the proposal and remind her what the contract says. If the marketing department is backing out of spending all that money they promised in the contract, call your agent. The agent’s job is partly to be the bad cop so you can be the good cop.

I think I’ve now caught up with all agent questions. Let’s turn to something new. What’s your biggest craft-related problem in writing fiction? Post a comment here and I’ll read through them to decide what I’d like to talk about next.


  1. Mary DeMuth September 5, 2008 at 6:05 pm #

    I wanted to respond to someone not living in the US. My first four books released in the US when I lived in France. But I still flew back, doing publicity, meeting with folks, doing media interviews. It was important for my publishers to see me being visible in the US.

    I would think it would be the same if you are trying to acquire an agent. Start saving your money now for a trip to a US conference. Work on your craft in the meantime, polishing, polishing, polishing. Do what Randy says and learn the industry like the back of your hand. Then, when you take that trip, you’ll be ahead of the game.


  2. Mary DeMuth September 5, 2008 at 6:07 pm #

    From my perspective as a mentor to writers, I see the biggest problem being something Randy highlighted here. Most beginning novelists start their books far too early, mired in backstory. I often flip through pages and find the actual beginning on page 17 or so.

    A series about how to start a novel with a bang instead of backstory would be a great discussion.

  3. Katie Hart September 5, 2008 at 7:01 pm #

    One of my biggest problems is writing a scene so readers can visualize it in their minds. My characters seem to stand on a blank stage, occasionally coming across pieces of furniture. And they move around awkwardly, shoes squeaking across the floor as I push them where they need to be for the scene. I know I need to incorporate all the senses, but for familiar locations the characters simply don’t notice enough consciously for me to make the setting come alive. I also want to avoid “interior decorator” mode, where I describe the position of every major object in the room.

  4. Daniel Smith September 5, 2008 at 7:15 pm #

    How about an article on how to outline a book before writing?

    I remember reading something on your site somewhere that said all a writer needs is a good word processor and spreadsheet program and to dispense with the expensive, so-called writing software that’s on the market.

    So, how do you begin this process? I have some ideas that I want to flesh out. (OK. They’re driving me absolutely bananas!) I can’t get my head around them in any kind of tangible form or them out of my head. I’ve tried note cards. I’ve used up I don’t know how many legal pads. I’ve got a copy of JKR’s ouline for the first half of HP5 and I know that’s the sort of thing I need. But how to go about it? How do I break up the various characters/groups/plot points/etcetera so that they fit into an outline? Is there an order to the madness that helps make it all fit together somehow?

  5. Amy VR September 5, 2008 at 9:18 pm #

    Thanks for all the advice and insight on agents. I hope to need the info someday!

    My biggest craft-related problem (today) is keeping all the “science” straight. My story is set 60+ years in the future and takes place on the moon. I know I need to invent “future history” but I still want to the science of it all to be plausible. This story is for kids ages 8 to 12 so I can’t get overally technical but it still needs to be “real.” How much leeway with the science do I really have here? Can I take current theory on moon colonies, use of lunar resources, etc and twist them to make it work for my plot? Is it ok for a scientist to read my book and say “that could never happen because…” or do I, as the author, have permission to stretch reality here? I wouldn’t ask this question if I were talking about characters or location… but SCIENCE just doesn’t seem like something I can fool around with very much!

  6. John Harper September 6, 2008 at 12:55 am #

    A craftey issue of mine is detail. I don’t like over detailing things, but this leads to what I believe is under detailing. Quite often my characters are in tense situations and its all speed and action and no time to really slip in details of the environment etc. At least that is how it feels to me. How do you deal with that in your novels?

  7. Camille September 6, 2008 at 8:17 am #

    I know narrative summary can be effective when done right. How do you know when to use it, and what are some ways to do it beautifully? I know every scene should have a GCM and create a PEE – so if the events I need to show aren’t enough to warrant a scene, what are some ways to slip them into a summary?

    I’ve also heard that a scene is also necessary if it moves the story forward, reveals more of the character, gives important information to the plot. But I probably should not be stringing too many scenes together which don’t pack some GCM or PEE, right?

    Maybe it’s a pacing issue? I have a 48 hr period of time in the middle of my 360 page novel that spans 90 pages. Is that a problem?

  8. Lois Hudson September 6, 2008 at 8:19 am #

    Mary DeMuth’s suggestion appeals to me – learning how to get the backstory out of the beginning. I’ve tossed a whole first chapter about a woman whose character greatly influences the entire story, but who died before the current action begins.
    Much as I loved her and the chapter about her, I’ve said goodby, but need to show places where her influence impacts the story.

  9. Martha Miller September 6, 2008 at 8:24 am #

    I’d like a discussion on the importance of the author stating the protagonist’s goal for the story at the beginning of that story/novel. Doesn’t making the goal clear up front give the story forward momentum and spine? Or am I barking up the wrong tree?

  10. Lois Hudson September 6, 2008 at 8:25 am #

    Camille’s question about pacing is also intriguing. Instead of 48 hours, my issue is needing to jump several years at a time. Is a date at the beginning of each chapter enough to cover that? In order to keep myself moving, I’ve simply dated and written each chapter as it develops, without worrying about transitions. On later readings I can go back and insert transitions if they seem necessary to clarity.

  11. Mark Goodyear September 6, 2008 at 12:22 pm #

    Your advice on researching agents is really helpful here, Randy. It’s only easier than ever… if we know where to look. Thanks for the tips you gave.

  12. Mark Goodyear September 6, 2008 at 12:24 pm #

    As for your question at the end. I’m interested in how you sort through needed revisions. Once the draft is done, what’s a good method for ironing out all the inconsistencies?

  13. Karen September 6, 2008 at 1:52 pm #

    Well, as a freshman, I like pretty much all the ideas so far!

    Thanks Randy for answering my question – I really don’t know how you manage to answer us all. Thanks Mary for your input too. That’s my plan, now let’s see if I can pull it off!

    🙂 Karen

  14. Barbara Witcher September 6, 2008 at 2:17 pm #

    You need suggestions for fuether training….how much description of places and people for a novel….do you give them little bits and pieces or devote one or two paragraphs to the description and then that is it…especially as it pertains to place?
    Also can you give me a definition of the following: “cardboard” character and “three dimensional character? I have been accused of creating the first and editors want the latter but no one has been able to tell me what exactly they are so I know to either avoid them or create them…thanks.

  15. Julie September 6, 2008 at 10:07 pm #

    Hmmm…how about how to write poetically in MRU format while still making things interesting?

    Building characters and finding their “voice” is also a soft spot for me.

  16. Kim September 7, 2008 at 6:38 am #

    My biggest craft related problem is giving my fiction a better literary style and voice. I can work at my writing so it comes out with the finesse of an author I admire, but people still say, “I could hear you speaking through every word.” Rats!

    Perhaps I should stop speaking.
    Yeah, that should do it.

  17. Hannah L. September 7, 2008 at 2:10 pm #

    Dear Mr. Ingermanson,
    I would love to hear about how to introduce a set of multiple characters so that the characters are distinguishable. The family in my story is a brother and sister who have both married and have children, and now live (with their families) on the same farm. When people read my work, they say that they have trouble keeping track of all the people. But the characters are mostly together, so how does this work?


  18. Bonnie Grove September 7, 2008 at 8:06 pm #

    It’s interesting to read what Mary said about publishing her first books in the US when she was living in France. I think the advice is good, and it’s important for the publisher to see the writer visible in the US. I’m Canandian and it’s pretty easy for me to jump the boarder to the US for a conference (easier than living in Europe!) but still, it’s a big trip. My agent in American and she is a huge help to me, keeping my name and work visible in the US when I can’t be at events.

    Interestingly, when you are Canadian it can be difficult – not because US editors don’t like Canadians, they do, but Canadians are getting right ticked off with other Canadians who keep taking their talent and work across the boarder (like me!). It’s a catch 22 in some ways – but in the end each person has to do what they have opportunity to do.

    Just some thoughts North of the boarder.

  19. Ivye September 8, 2008 at 1:29 am #

    I have a feeling that I’m being slightly dense here, but, much as I like the MRU theory, I sometimes have trouble applying it. It is all very well when it’s tiger hunting, but how do I write, say, inner monologue into MRUs? Or dialogue, for that matter? I can’t help thinking that, technically, dialogue is a series of very short connected MRUs (such as Tom saying something that motivates Dick to react with an answer that, in turn, serves as a motivation for Tom’s next speech, and God help and deliver me if Harry feels a compulsion to speak up too…), but somehow I don’t think this is how it is supposed to work?
    So yes, what I’d really love is some more about MRU, please?

  20. Camille September 8, 2008 at 7:36 am #

    I gotta vote for Mark’s question too, because I’m a simultasking lunatic and can’t seem to make myself go through the novel with one element in mind to look for and edit. Or is that realistic? Would you go through the manuscript with only layering in mind, then again looking for repeated words/phrases, then again for setting, subtlety, senses, then again to check for MRU and S&S,? OR do it all in one sweep? Is there a method multi-pubbed authors use to accomplish all this once the novel is down?

  21. Melissa Stroh September 8, 2008 at 9:28 am #

    I’m indecisive. I like Mary’s idea about backstory, but I also really like what Mark and Camille have to say. I’m not afraid to tackle editing at all, but it’s far too easy to get caught up in several aspects of it and miss others.

  22. Kristi Holl September 8, 2008 at 12:22 pm #

    I think the biggest craft related problem I have is voice. I taught writing for 22 years (taught it the way I was taught with lots of rules–many of them great.) But now I feel as if I need to unlearn a few of the rules that turn my individual voice into Ms. Bland. Is it a matter of having sufficient confidence in your own voice? I have a couple of great books on the subject, but it’s still a struggle sometimes.
    Kristi Holl
    Writer’s First Aid

  23. Lynda September 9, 2008 at 5:37 am #

    I’m with Marcus, Camille,and Melissa. Tips on editing would be wonderful.

  24. Tim September 9, 2008 at 9:44 am #

    I would like to explore writing style from outlining to write as you go. The styles are so vast and different that unless you know your style it is hard to write. I know I am an outliner. Also, possible ways to get motivated to work, because I have ideas for other projects and because of how detailed my style is I have yet to start on them since I lack the motivation.


  25. The Wannabe Scribe September 12, 2008 at 11:19 am #

    I vote MRU’s!

    Thanks 🙂

  26. The Wannabe Scribe September 12, 2008 at 11:26 am #

    Did ya spot my intentional mistake? No neither did I until I clicked the submit button. For those with brains that auto-correct typos I had a rogue apostrophe.

    Sorry folks!

  27. Mark Anderson September 24, 2008 at 12:42 am #

    I’m not published yet so take my advice with a grain of salt. After several years of banging my head against a brick wall, I finally succumbed to a literary agent. And while I don’t have my words in print yet, at least doors have started to open. Positive feedback has started to flow. I’d recommend against being your own agent, at least until you have the publishing contacts to actually make things happen. Because really, that’s how the agent makes their services worthwhile.

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