I use the word "compelling" a lot when I talk about novels I love, or to explain how a novel with promise becomes unsuccessful i.e. it's not compelling.
So how does one create a compelling story? I think there's a pretense and expectation of D-r-a-m-a with a capitol "D." Start with a fire or a car accident or a car accident that TURNS INTO A FIRE!
But, to compel a reader, stories don't need to be soap operatic. They just have to be, mostly, irreconcilable.
When I say "irreconcilable" I mean this: Something about each scene must be wrong,
must be off,
and that off-
ness can not be understood unless a reader continues.
This is why star-crossed romances are, to borrow an inaccurate but pervasive phrase, "easy hits." It's also why soap operas, rule-the-world villains, serial killers and car explosions are popular (and often awesome). Nothing screams"something is wrong with this picture
" like vehicular fireworks or man hunts.
Spies, Pirates, Killers, Thieves, Forgery, Femme Fatales, Personality Disorders, and Revenge plots rank highly on my "things I am a sucker for" list. I love me some D-r-a-m-a.
But I see authors, particularly in "quiet" contemporary novels struggle with how to "catch a reader's attention." They hear agents and editors repeat "you have to hook us," but there's rarely a lesson on how.
Naturally, many assume something must explode or die.
All you have to do, is create a scene in which something is wrong that cannot be righted unless one keeps reading.
Great examples from novels or memoirs I've represented? Corey Ann Haydu's OCD LOVE STORY begins with a power outage. Lucas Mann's CLASS A opens with Lucas wearing a Mascot's uniform with an outsized head. Kathleen Alcott's THE DANGERS OF PROXIMAL ALPHABETS features a man whose sleepwalking becomes violent.
It happens in real life, too. I remember this story from the daily mail
about a photographer who was documenting material (luggage, letters, photos) left behind in a psychiatric hospital. I was enthralled by it not because of ghosts or creepiness (though it is seriously creepy) but because why were these left? What do they mean? What do they say about the people who left them? about me?
Because something about it was off.
One of the biggest reasons I think readers put down books (and don't pick them up again) is because they've come to a place of reconciliation too early. No one can maintain a 240 page car chase (that i've known), and there's a sense that there's no such thing as quietly enthrallment, but there is! There are ways to be gently compelling.
Kisses that shouldn't happen. A recipe that failed. The search for a lost household item. Siblings in the back of a car. A rumor. The battle of free-will vs. breakfast pastry. All of these are irreconcilable.
Remember the first line of Mrs. Dalloway
"Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself?" It's a memorable first line because - as simple as it is - we must keep reading to find out what the deal is with these flowers. In fact, if you read lists of classic, note-worthy first lines, most of them are quite basic, but there's always something off.
In Paul Auster's CITY OF GLASS, with which I fall in love over and over, it's "a wrong telephone number that starts it all."
The sense of irreconcilability is most important early on, when you have not yet earned the benefit of the reader's doubt. But as you continue to write, find ways to upset the coming together of your story. Even small, quiet upsets create engaging questions for your reader.
I talk to myself. Less so now than I used to because New York seems like a place where I could be involuntarily committed for that sort of thing. Mostly, I concoct scenarios in which I totally won that argument!
Living in New York invites a lot of chaos and conflict. Someone on the subway calls you a "fat-ass." That man certainly did not appreciate you asking him to turn his music down and has called you a word unfit to print. Strangers comment on how you raise your kids. Strangers's kids, um, comment all over your purse.
Inevitably, words are exchanged, and if you're me, you have the perfect comeback ... 10 minutes later.
Has that ever happened to you? You get into it with someone, they insult you, and instead of having that perfect scathing response you say something like "well, well, you're mean!" And then it gets under your skin and you fume and huff and spend the next hour, day, week re-imaging the exchange. This time, you are quick. You are a verbal ninja. You stand cooly and shut-down your opponent. You fantasize about the fight, expand it, condense it. You imagine the shining moment where you win - hands down- whatever exchange it was that left you feeling small.
That's sort of what drafting your book is like. You want to have the perfect scathing response and instead you write "It was a Dark and stormy night."
I suspect the main reason that people who wish to write, but fail to write, do so because they want write well. You must, first, be willing to write terribly. If you want to write a book, your goal should be to write a book. Not a good book. Just a book. Worry about the "good" part later.
If you haven't read Annie Lamott's Bird by Bird go do it right now. Seriously, get off my blog and go read that book. Ms. Lamott is a huge believer in "the shitty first draft." She argues, rightly if you ask me, that a first draft is just for getting it out of your head an onto the paper. It's sort of meant to be bad. Just get it out; word vomit! You don't even need to show anyone (certainly don't show your agent ;). It's just getting the bones of your story on paper.
Once you have that version done (and most people don't get THAT far) you can start to worry about being good. You can start imagining the draft where you win.
It's going to be a while. This is the stage where you're figuring out what you should have said; what you meant to say. Slowly, you're winning this argument.
Then there's the 3rd and 4th and so on drafts. These are for figuring out how to say what you meant to say. How to bring your voice to to the novel.
Some very lucky, very skilled people, are good at getting a near perfect first draft. Just like some very lucky people are quick with the perfect comeback.
But for mere mortal writers (and fighters) accepting the imperfection of the first draft, and just aiming for completion of the first draft is going to the best way to start. Baby steps.
Recently, someone thanked me for a form rejection. He/She said "you'd be surprised how many agents spend NO time on queries for books that have taken years!"
None of that surprised me. I remain nonplussed by the accusation that agents don't spend time on queries. That's a common one. And, sadly, it doesn't matter how long your novel demanded you write it. Everyone who queries has put their proverbial blood, sweat and tears into their book. We can't expend too much energy caring about that. Why? Because it's not our job!
What, exactly, are our jobs and what, exactly, are you entitled to? We represent our clients. Our clients are entitled to our very best effort. That's it.
So, if you are an aspiring querying author you deserve:
- a sense of pride. You finished a book. I never did that! Lots of people never have and never could. Go you!
- a brief break from writing if you want it.
- a treat, damn it, you worked really hard. (I recommend a toblerone and wine)
- investment in a resource that helps you in your craft, whether it's Scrivener or a tougher group of Critique Partners
- if you're very lucky, support from family & friends (sadly, you can't extract it from unwilling parties).
Things you are NOT entitled to:
- a personal rejection, from an agent who responds to queries
- a rejection at all, from an agent who does not respond to queries unless they want to see more.
- consideration from an agent who read something else once (unless he/she expresses the wish to consider it)
- correspondence from an agent who previosuly corresponded with you
- a swift response
- Tantrums, doldrums, bitterness, whining*
* you could throw them, have them, feel it, or do it anyway, but it's not going to make things any better.
Notice, that I say"deserve" and not "entitled," when I talk about the the things you've earned. You deserve much. You have worked very hard. But entitlement is dangerous. Entitlement tricks you; skews judgment. Like Jealousy, it creates comparisons when none need exist... "well, he was on the bestseller list and my book is better than his!" It makes demands... "I think my book would be doing better if my agent and editor and publisher had an e-newsletter and mailed out updates about my book." It blames... "my publisher didn't publish this properly, my editor didn't work hard enough." It projects... my publicist doesn't care about my book, the foreign rights people don't respect me." Like bitterness, Entitlement can undo your general well-being and sabotage your professional relationships because it gets in your brain and warps reality.
First at the querying stage. You worked so so hard on this book and you can't get a soul to even look at it. I get it. Believe me, agents more than most get how painful that is. Time goes by and people don't even answer you! How rude is that? It feels disrespectful and painful and infuriating. But it's not disrespect, it's professionalism. Again, it is my job to look after the professional well being of my clients. Queries must become secondary.
But, Victoria, your queries are a way for you to get clients. Yes, they are. But until you are a client, an Agent doesn't work for you.
Imagine querying is like applying for a job (where your potential employer reads, like, 50 resumes a day). If you never heard back after you submitted your resume, you might nicely inquire as to the status of the position. But you would certainly never insult the company for not answering you in a better, timelier, or more personalized manner.
But let's say you crawled through query hell and back and got yourself an agent! You STILL need to manage your expectations and take care that a sense of entitlement isn't warping your judgement. And please know I understand entitlement to be a fairly regular human flaw. I do it a lot. I submitted this to that editor 5 weeks ago and they haven't bought it yet and they will RUE THE DAY they ignored me. RUE THE DAAAAYYYYYYY! See. That's me getting entitled. It is unwise.
So, my friend, you have your agent. Here are the things, I think, you are entitled to:
*this could mean submission lists, reader responses, editorial feedback and edits. It depends on the agent.
- industry knowledge
- contract knowledge and reviews
* whether your agent, a contracts manager or a lawyer does them. Your agent should be able to explain
contract terms to you
- effort & hard-work
* I mean honesty. I do not mean gossip, fodder, hearsay, or flashes in various pans of non-fruition.
*I hope. I don't know many agents who represent authors they don't respect, but I suppose it's not a necessity. I will say if I represent you, I respect you.
- Many other qualities and services that I'm forgetting that you can talk about and ask about when you discuss representation with your agent.
Things you are NOT entitled to:
- sales both foreign & domestic
- approval of every book you write and every idea you have
- large advances
- book tours
- reviews in The New York Times, The LA Times, People etc.
- submissions to literary magazines
- an agent's weekends
- an agent's nights
- PR and Marketing from your agency (unless specifically stated).
I will caveat this right now by saying many agents are willing to give many of these things. If your agent said "Oh call me on Saturday" or "call me at 9 p.m. tonight" or "oh I know a guy there, I'd love to submit that to the New Yorker for you," that's awesome. You're not being unwise by accepting what is given.
You are being unwise by assuming the agent relationship guarantees you anything that can not be guaranteed. An agent absolutely can guarantee you hard work and their very best effort. They can't guarantee you a six-figure deal or a place in the New York Times or their undivided attention (except in scheduled increments). Even if you had it before.
My point isn't that you should expect failure (none of us courts failure) or even that you should expect less, but rather, that you should expect the right things; the real things.
Once, an agent told me about a potential client who asked "what can you do to guarantee me six figures?" That agent is far more gracious than I, but I feel the correct answer to that question is "absolutely f***ing nothing, and any agent who tells you otherwise is either lying or clairvoyant." I don't care if Andrew Wylie descends from literary Olympus, sits before you, gazes deeply into your soul with his steely blue eyes, and, gently holding your hand, solemnly guarantees you that he WILL get you a million dollars. That is false. No agent can guarantee you a particular advance. I personally, can give a general goal and a plan for achieving that goal, but I can't tell you the future.
Be clear about what you feel you deserve and be open to the responses. If you're feeling like there's not enough communication or attention, that's fine! Say that! Most agents would be happy to work on that with you. If you're feeling really disappointed about your book not selling in more foreign countries, that's fine, too. But if you think it's because the foreign rights team is disrespecting you, that might be an expectation that is not in line with reality.
Above All: TALK. It is the only way you'll manage your expectations and feel a sense of peace. I recently had a conversation with someone who asked how long I generally take to respond with editorial feedback. That's a great question. And now I know that if they get upset next year because it takes me three months to answer when I said it would take 6 weeks, that's on me.
This is all stuff to keep in mind not just during the hunting process, but once you have an agent. So you can have healthy conversations without being all " I AM NOT A NUMBER ONE BESTSELLER YOU HATE MEEEEEE" --> no one has ever done this. Thank goodness.
Ten years have passed since I moved to New York. An unromantic at heart, I don't have a great many things to say that would make a nice love letter.
It smells here. Subways make frequent appearances in my nightmares. No one should wonder whether a found pile of shit is human or animal in origin as often as I have. It's crowded. It's too expensive. Breathing is an art, space an artifact. I love it. You can find a lightbulb at 4 a.m. within 3 blocks. A beautiful woman will offer to help you with your bracelet when it's late in the evening and you're too tired and sweaty to deal with the clasp. I love that.
I love New York the way I imagine I'd love a sibling or a handsome, grand theater actor from the generation before mine. I love it despite thievery or its secret, but virulent alcoholism. Whatever role New York is today, it's perfect for it. Angela Carter said New York is a well-adjusted transexual. Bob Dylan said you could freeze to death on the street and no one would notice. Both are true.
As with all my loves, New York would probably be disappointed by skepticism. Could I be happy without New York? Sure. Do I need it? No, not at all. I can be happy anywhere. But I love it here.
Love, I was told once, was the feeling that you could not go without something or someone. Even at 10 years old that opinion seemed to me a cocktail of terror and disappointment; at the very least a threat to my agency and at worst a forecast of severe codependency issues. I don't love New York because I couldn't imagine myself somewhere else. I can imagine myself, happy too, other places. I just prefer New York.
I once saw a cab driver stop his vehicle on the Brookyln bridge, exit the car, retrieve a baseball bat from the trunk and wail upon the hood of a BMW whose driver refused to get off his cell phone. I even loved that in a perverse sort of way.
The food, Lord the food. I am the best girlfriend I could ever be when I'm involved with food. I am unguarded and brave and wholly available. I love that, too. I secretly feel like if we all only one great romance, mine is with a plate of pad thai.
If you need trashbags at 11 p.m. that's an easy errand. I love that you can buy a single stamp here. No one buys sheets unless they're sending wedding invites. A young man wearing his hair in two long braids that hung past his elbows called me beautiful by typing it into his cell phone and showing me the screen, but when I used sign language to thank him, he didn't know it. Maybe he took a vow of silence? Maybe it was a dare? Maybe he had a crippling case of laryngitis? It would all be perfectly normal and I love that.
I've been called a white devil, a bitch, a saint, a whore, a cracker, a dyke, a sweetheart... one time a guy called me a racist term for a Korean. I had to look it up, and I sort of loved that I was looking up someone else's racism. Not really sure why he thought I was Korean, and it's a possibility he was using a word he didn't actually know either, but - writing this list out now - I feel sort of proud that I seemed like all these things to someone. Potentially, I seem far more complex than I am. New York can do that for people. New York is like that herself; seemingly complex, really quite simple.
Dazzling, but relatively straightforward. Being here is like living in a thriving petre dish for proving Occam's razor. The simplest answer, no matter how weird, is probably true. Thinking that the man with braids who typed "you are beautiful" is some sort of monastic hipster? You're probably right. Oh oh! The guy carrying his prosthetic limb in his arms... who knows, but I bet it's a good story. Maybe it's a sad story. But it's something.
Once, I stole a Christmas tree. It was a long time ago. The man at the bodega refused to help me because he was in a dispute over a pack of fig newtons a teenager had allegedly paid only 75 cents for when a full dollar was due. I'd had free wine and no money and I love Christmas so so much. None of it makes sense (or excuses it) but I spotted a small tree, covered in red felt bows, sitting by its onesy outside the store. It was mutually determined we needed one another. In one fell, ungraceful swoop I lifted the tree from the sidewalk, tucked it - potted side against my hip - under my arm, and hauled ass down the road hoping to avoid police. But the best part to me now is that it's likely someone assumed, despite the odds, that I was tearing ass on a freezing December evening with a stolen miniature tree. They were right. And I love that.
Stories can happen anywhere, but New York is a story, the narrative plotted intrinsically like the Lascaux cave paintings or the pyramids at Ghiza. Sick passengers and window washers stranded on the 38th floor and the woman whose stroller rolled off the train onto the platform are practically religious texts. Fables leftover from the Pagan era or, you know, before Guiliani had the homeless removed back in the 70s.
People who don't love it here are making a mistake. I realize how rude and ridiculous and false of me that is. I even realize how it makes no sense, but I don't care. Mine is a hackles-up, teeth-baring defensiveness. If it makes a difference, I feel that way about music, my loved ones, and most of the court cases of the last 15 years. Hackles Up. Teeth Bared. It's the way I could gossip about a friend, but if someone else did I'd find a way to ruin that person's livelihood. I can hate the great tropes of New York. I've earned it. I can hate them because I love it.
I hate the tourists behaving like they're alone, I hate the heat of the underground; that humidity churning and undulating through the subway tunnels like a bog. Rats the size of kittens. The track fires. I hate the way rain means the F, N/R, L, G, and Q trains aren't running properly, and I'll be touching strangers, and one foolishly angry person will yell as though it's only happened to them, as though their anger is more valid, as though any one else will give a shit. The screaming teenagers. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd times I hear "WHAT TIME IS IT? SHOOOOW TIME!" in one commute. The people who lean on the subway poles. The men who pretend not to notice the very pregnant and very tired women. The girls in heels who notice and don't care because Jesus put them in Laboutins. The way it all still feels like high school. The gum peppering the sidewalks. The moments when you see someone you know on the platform, and hell you even like them, but you're so tired and you don't even like your friends right now and you just need five fucking seconds to yourself but you still feel like you have to talk to them. Crying because your bosses are back from vacation, and you love them, but you can't explain how fedex works one more time. The sickening fear that you might be too old for this. That you're just done. And you go somewhere green for the weekend. You lay on the deck. You watch old men work in their driveways (HOLY SHIT DRIVEWAYS) on the boats they're building for retirement and for 24 hours it's all you want. But then nothing is open past 8:00 and it's too dark to sleep and the silence is creeping you out and what the hell is comcast cable and why isn't Pat Keirnan on it? You need toilet paper, but it means you have to get into a car so you just find a bunch of napkins from the last time someone ordered takeout. Speaking of takeout, what do you mean there is no "seamless" in this neighborhood.
And you come home. And you're like WHAT TIME IS IT, SHOOOOWWW TIME! I love all that, too.
This post has been incubating for a while. Hesitation, on this count, seemed wise, as I don't want anyone thinking this post is the equivalent of one verbose sub-tweet. Nor am I passive aggressively calling out people in particular.
Fortunately, none of my clients would qualify, which is perhaps why I'm writing this now.
Many agents have expressed frustration and we have all certainly experienced at one time or another the client we respect, the client we value, hell, the client we just plain adore... who sends us last nights napkin musings or the first chapter of an unrealized, but potential, but not really, but maybe next book.
I feel comfortable writing this because I can say that none of my clients do this. Brainstorming with my clients means I get to tell them what I want to see and when, and they're all pretty cool about that. So, when I want to see some early chapters because I'm interested, I just say that. When I want to wait for the whole manuscript to be complete and polished (as I most often do) I say that, too.
Folks, unless your agent has stated otherwise, we still want to see your best most complete work.
Agents are a delightful mixed breed professional. We're often brainstormers, editors, counselors, managers, bosses, salesmen, pitbulls, readers, professors, and partners. We are also often, your friends. I've always believed that it helps to plain old like your agent. The relationship is - with luck and sense - a long and fruitful one based off mutual respect, understanding, and confidence. There's plenty of laughter, long conversations, inside knowledge. And how good it is to have an agent who "gets you." Right?
Yes! Right! We love that, too. But take care that mutual fondness, however genuine it is and deep it runs, on both sides, 'cause Lordy knows I lurv my clients, doesn't supersede both our professional responsibilities.
Occasionally, agents and authors get so close that there's this almost imperceptible shift, and we start seeing sloppy first drafts. Try to resist that impulse unless. It's totally okay to say "Hey, I have the beginning of something here, like, 2 chapters, do you want to see?" and we might say "why don't you just tell me what the basic premise is?" or "sure! Send it" but, to be clear, Unless we state directly that we want to see samples, musings, early chapters, or un-read and un-critiqued first drafts... we probably don't.
It's not that we don't have faith in you. Rather, it's that we do have faith in you. So when that next book you send in is littered with undeveloped back-story, plot holes, disappearing secondary characters, lost narrative threads, and it's clear that your critique partners haven't read it and maybe even you haven't read it... that makes us sad and frustrated. You're better than this. What happened? Does this mean we're going to have to read this 6 more times?
Here's the thing: every minute we spend reading is work. The goal is that eventually we'll get paid for all that work when we sell the book (I totally just realized agents are like professional gamblers! I need to go by bad-ass sunglasses or something) so reading sloppy material that we know ( and maybe that you've admitted!!!) is not your best work and we know we're just going to have to read again is essentially asking us to work for free.
You may think "well, no, because the point is you're going to give notes and edits and work with us on making it better." Yes, absolutely. We want to work hard for you. But we're going to do that with your best work anyway. I love editing and brainstorming, but it goes much better when we're both making our best efforts. No agent wants to read something 6 times when they could have read it twice. Do you want to revise 6 times when you could have done it twice? Probably not.
That's why you have crit partners. That's why we all talk about how valuable and necessary beta-readers are to aspiring authors, right? They don't become any less necessary to represented authors and even published authors.
Wanting and waiting to see your best work isn't about working less hard or less often. It's about working efficiently. And it works out for you too. I know it seems counter-intuitive to still go through the whole process of beta-readers and crit-partners and revisions and second reads, all before you send it to your agent, but ultimately it's going to save you a lot of time and energy.
And don't forget, sending your agent a sloppy version of a good idea can color our judgement negatively.
The point is we love our clients. We're happy to work our butts off for you because we believe in you and your work. We probably like you as people and would be delighted to share a bottle of wine and some embarrassing stories, but when it comes to sharing your writing, we still want you to put your best foot forward unless we say differently.
And, as always, if you're confused or you're not sure... just ask! One of the great things about having an agent in your corner is that we have no problem saying exactly what we think.
I am happy to announce that the Gelfman Schneider Literary Agency has formed a strategic partnership with ICM.
What does that mean for you, aspiring authors?
It means that you'll have the same full boutique service that you've always had, but with some major
resources to exploit your film & television, foreign, and audio sub-rights. I'm still here at our 7th avenue offices, still dressing like it's Saturday, still aspiring to be even half as amazing as Jane and Deborah (boss-ladies). But, now we have an army of incredibly prestigious contracts managers, co-agents, and other industry professionals that will give us a powerful reach in selling foreign, film & television, audio, etc, as well as contracts negotiations. Joining forces with an agency of ICM's international stature gives us the power to stay competitive and more efficient in a changing marketplace and provides continuity for us and our clients long into the future.
Essentially, I'm the post-spinach pop-eye of literary agents! I AM MIGHTY. I'm also done bragging now.
For more information you can read the PW article here
You've probably seen me tweeting my unfailing, intense, and abiding love for Corey Ann Haydu and her debut OCD LOVE STORY. It's compelling and beautiful and tense and engaging and tough, and I've been waiting for so long for others to confirm what I already knew: Corey Ann Haydu is special, and so are her novels.
And now, proof positive. I give you the Kirkus review below!
Haydu’s debut novel for teens is not for the emotionally faint of heart, but those who can withstand it won’t ever regret accompanying Bea, a high school senior recently diagnosed with OCD, on a profoundly uncomfortable and frenetic journey dominated by her increasingly manic compulsions.
When Bea kisses a strange boy during a blackout at a school dance, it’s clear she’s a little eccentric, but it isn’t until her therapist slips several pamphlets about OCD into Bea’s hands that readers will recognize her more extreme tendencies for what they truly are. Haydu is a masterful wordsmith, and readers will likely find themselves ready to crawl out of their skin as Bea’s need to perform certain rituals, even at the risk of alienating those she loves, becomes all-consuming. The one bright spot in Bea’s life is a budding romance with Beck, the boy from the school dance, who resurfaces in Bea’s group-therapy sessions. He’s plagued by issues of his own, and Bea finds comfort in a new relationship with someone who also has “one foot outside the border and into crazytown.” They are about as dysfunctional a pair as two people could be, but they’re also heartbreakingly sweet and well-suited for one another.
A raw and well-crafted alternative to run-of-the-mill teen romances that also addresses tough mental health issues head-on. (Fiction. 14 & up)
Foreign rights. Heard about them yet? Do they matter to you almost as much as the air you breathe yet? If you're already represented or seeking representation, you're going to hear a lot about "in-house" foreign rights departments. Here are my thoughts on the "in-house" phrase and what it really means.
Translations and English language foreign rights are about selling editions of your book in foreign countries in foreign languages or in the English language outside the territory of the domestic contract. Generally, this means publishing your book in English in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other English-speaking International territories.
Some agencies have "In-House" departments. Some do not. Gelfman Schneider does not have an "in-house" foreign rights. Rather, we partner with Betsy Robbins and Katie McGowan and the awesome agents at Curtis Brown UK, who sell our books in foreign territories with the same zeal with which we sell them domestically. They do a very, very good job. Biased, I know, but they're kind of the best.
Agencies like Curtis Brown US (which has ZERO affiliation with the UK company of the same name), Folio Literary, Foundry Literary, and Sterling Lord Literistic have in-house foreign rights, meaning a foreign rights director or department with agents who work in their New York offices who facilitate the sale of foreign rights.
Let me disabuse you of any notion that I bear any hostility to any agency listed above, or to any agency with in-house foreign rights. Let me also clarify that I am not suggesting one approach is better than another. I have only positive endorsements to give about these agencies and their incredible foreign rights people. I've met many of them, I consider some close friends and confidants. They are smart people and hard workers. You would blessed to be represented by any of them.
But here's my secret: we use the same process to sell your rights as they do. The only difference is where our foreign agents sit. If Katie and Betsy, for example, sat in our office here in New York we'd have an "in house" team. But because they're in London we don't call them in-house. Do they work as hard? Yes. Do we talk as much? I think so, but I can't say for certain as I don't monitor the phone usage of other agents and agencies. Because that would be f***ing weird.
Almost all Foreign Rights departments use co-agents in respective international territories. It is those co-agents who are on the phone with your Italian / Russian/ Spanish/ French editor. And we often use the same co-agents.
"in house" is something of a buzz word. It's the "cage-free" of the foreign rights world. You know how people think "cage-free" means they're eating a once happy Chicken named Ted who frolicked outdoors with his chicken girlfriend for many years before becoming food, but really those chickens are crammed on top of one another in a huge sty 2 doors down from the caged chickens for the entirety of their short, genetically modified lives? It's a little bit like that, but without the horror or poultry.
People think an "in house" foreign rights department includes a glamorous group of 5 - 10 multi-lingual men & women at your agency who are on the phone with German, Spanish, French, Russian, Hungarian, etc. editors selling your book. They aren't. Your agencies' Co-Agents are doing that (glamourous-ness remains unknown).
Consider, for example, that my foreign rights agent, Katie McGowan, wants to sell a book in Slovenia or Slovakia or other territories in Eastern Europe. Katie is going to get in touch with the Andrew Nurnberg agency who will then do their best to sell the stuffing out of that book in Eastern Europe. Because they speak the proper language and know their countries markets better than I. When Foundry or Sterling Lord does the same thing, their foreign rights agent will call up Andrew Nurnberg and ... wait a minute, Victoria? Isn't this the same thing? Yes. Yes it is. The only difference is that Katie sits in London. You want more proof? Go investigate the "foreign rights" page of some of your most lusted after agencies, see how many times the same co-agents pop-up at both the in-house and not in-house agencies. Tuttle-Mori for example, is used by Gelfman Schneider and Sterling Lord, and Foundry. Taryn Fagerness (who is just plain gifted with foreign rights sales) represents clients from Full Circle, Bradford Literary, Andrea Brown, D4E0, Red Sofa Literary and Renee Zuckerbolt.
Now, it may be very important to you to have a foreign rights agent or manager who can walk across the room to your agent and ask them about Italian rights; a phone call might not be enough for you. That is absolutely your prerogative. Additionally, some agencies may have different commission splits with foreign agents and co-agents but it tends to be between 20 - 25%.
My argument is not that "In-house" is a mistake. NOT AT ALL. Foreign rights agents are absolutely 100% necessary "in-house" or not. My argument is that it is the quality - not the location - of your foreign rights agent that determines international success (not to mention the economy and the weather and a series of seemingly incalculable facts and figures that I'm not even going to handle right now). My argument is that an aspiring author's questions need to go far beyond the: "do you have in house foreign rights?"
More relevant questions include: "who would be my foreign rights agent?" "who are their co-agents abroad?" "how will you communicate with my rights agent(s)?" or "do you attend the book fairs? meet with foreign publishers? etc..." Most agencies have at least one agent who will hand-sell your novel in the UK. Particularly through attending London, Bologna, and Frankfurt, and creating relationships with UK publishers.
Beyond that, you're looking for agencies that use legitimate co-agents, who talk consistently with their foreign rights partners, and who push your book through fairs, catalogues, and face-to-face meetings with visiting foreign publishers.
In totality: this isn't about which of the approaches is better. I don't have the answer to that. The point of this post was to demonstrate the process behind the terminology. In the same way that I would not advise you to sign with a literary agent just because they're in New York, I would not advise you to sign with an agency just because they have "in-house" rights. Rather, sign agencies based on their agents' work ethic, taste, style of communication, relative success with sales, editorial standards, etc...
p.s. - I am not vegan or vegetarian. I still eat chicken. I just try not to think about Ted. Poor poor Ted.
---> this is the face you make when your readers are all "Um, I know you want me to think the Butler did it, but I know how to spot a red herring when I see one. Busted"
Let's talk about "The Man Behind The Curtain Syndrome." I'm assuming you all remember the iconic scene in THE WIZARD OF OZ (the original) where Dorothy and her gang of broken heroes discover the Great and Powerful Wizard is not a fearsome apparition, but rather, a sheepish little white haired man in that suit that makes him look like a fancy garden gnome. The mysticism and awe is gone. The belief in the (other) worldliness of the wizard, the conviction surrounding his myth and legend... poof . vanished.
The same thing happens when a reader can feel you, yes you, the author, pulling the proverbial strings of your novel. When we - your humble readers - feel you manipulating us from behind the veil you've penned, we're kicked right out of the story. The sense of immersion and fluidity is gone. We can see your shoes sticking out from under there!
So, how do you know if you're committing the sin of curtain-dom? And, harder, how do you fix it? There's no formula, but here are some tips:
1.) the super obvious clue - so you wrote the scene where you placed the first clue. You left that teensy trail of breadcrumbs. But you've got this nagging sense that the reader might not see it. Maybe you should make it just a little clearer? Maybe you should up-end a bag of Doritos instead of that trail of crumbs, yeah? DO NOT DO THAT. Reading is an exercise in faith; you must trust your reader to follow your bread crumbs. And it's much easier, I think, to edit the clarity into project than to edit the obtuse out of it.
2.) the bright, neon red herring - I will caveat this by saying that one of my favorite things ever is when I think I'm hot s**t, and I'm all "oh duh, that's totally a red herring and it's clearly Bobby who killed him" and then I find out I am totally wrong and it turns out Bobby's little sister is a rampaging murdering psycho. It's kind of a double-fake, so if you're working on that. Brava! But if you're building a basic red-herring, make sure you're not putting a spotlight on it. Ask yourself if it works in the story organically or if you forced it in there? If you're forcing it in there, chances are your reader will spot it.
3.) Symbolism - C.S. Lewis is a master. I adored the Chronicles of Narnia. But, I have to admit, re-reading them when I was older was an exercise in patience, because OMG I GET IT AZLAN IS JESUS. Can we actually get back to the story now? the point: Symbolism=good. Bludgeoning to death by allegory = Bad.
4.) Like me, Like me, Like me! - look how funny, smart, perfect, snarky, goofy, pleasant, polite, gothic [insert adjective here] I am! This one doesn't happen too often, but every once in a blue moon I come across a protagonist who reminds of someone trying too hard. Unless your MC is a sycophant, you just really want me to get invested. It's alright. Relax. You don't have to lay it on so thick. Worry about your MC, not about me. Not yet, anyway.
5.) This is how kids talk, right? - this is, I think, the most rampant cause of "man behind the curtain" syndrome, and also the most difficult to fix. When your MG protagonist sounds the way adults think kids sounds, feel like I'm being condescended to (and you can bet a Middle Grade editor would, too). It's the feeling you get when parents try to use slang. I'm still not sure how this one happens, but I think it's from concentrating too much on the words; on getting the style right, and not enough worrying about your characters.