If you need something a little less dire to read than the ongoing tax debacle in the U. S. Senate, I did an interview with Superstition Review where I talked about If We Were Villains, writing, writing If We Were Villains, acting, authorship, and everything in between. You can find it here!
The ladies over at The Attic on Eighth asked some great questions about art, writing, and If We Were Villains. Read here!
I am, as ever, awkward in front of a camera, but excited to be interviewed by the Dallas Morning News. Read here!
A few more thoughts about Shakespeare, writing, and If We Were Villains. Read here.
As Villains rolled out in the UK, I wrote some thoughts about writing, publishing, and debut authorship for Writing.ie, a great daily writing mag based in Ireland.
Over the past week, my agent, my editor, and I have been collecting your questions about books, publishing, and If We Were Villains. Here’s the first round of answers from me and Arielle (but first a quick reminder who we are):
Arielle Datz is a New York transplant from Los Angeles, who started as an intern at Dunow, Carlson, & Lerner Literary Agency in 2011. She then worked in the foreign rights department at WME, followed by the Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency. She returned to DCL full-time in 2015. She is currently obsessed with April the Pregnant Giraffe (aprilthegiraffe.com). Other loves include whales, contemporary chamber music, and noodles in all forms.
M. L. Rio is the author of If We Were Villains, coming to a bookstore near you on April 11th from Flatiron Books. Before she was an author she was an actor, and before she was an actor she was just a word nerd whose only friends were books. She holds a master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies from King’s College London, and probably won’t break away from the cult of academia any time soon. Her other favorite things include music, wine, and her dog Marlowe.
And without any further ado, our first questions from you.
For Arielle: Are there some things that you encounter in query letters that immediately or always make you turn them down (apart from people not following instructions)?
Arielle: People not following instructions is a big one. But more generally, if it’s clear the writer didn’t do any research on me (check out my bio on our website, maybe check my Twitter or IG, where I often say what I’m reading and loving, and it’s easy to get a sense of what I’m into), that’s a turn-off. On a smaller scale, if there are grammatical errors in the first lines, I tend to be out. This may seem trivial, but usually it’s indicative of the writing style. Some agents (and an agent is also an editor) can see the potential past sloppy writing and are willing to work with the writer to clean it up, but I get easily lost in the fog of errors to see the story. Careful writing in the query letter shows me there will be careful writing in the manuscript.
For A/M: Is it better to find an agent or send your manuscript straight to a publishing company? I’ve heard opinions on both sides so hearing pros and cons from the professionals would be fab. How do you go about finding an agent? No one ever talks about this mystical part of the publishing process, and I’d like to figure it out before I reach that point. How did you do it, how do agents suggest you do it?
M: I think I’ll let Arielle take the first half of this one, but as for how to find an agent, I can’t stress how important it is not to query at random. When you’re sending query letters you want to take a couple of things into account, which include but aren’t limited to the size of the agency (a bigger agency may have better contacts but you’ll get less attention), what their ‘mission statement’ is, and most importantly, whether they represent the kind of stuff you write and whether they’ve had success selling it. Once you’ve figured that out, you need to look at what specific agents are interested in and be able to articulate why they might be interested in your work. For instance, it doesn’t make any sense to send a query for romantic high fantasy to an agent who’s only looking for middle grade mysteries. Finding an agency is all about fit, so if you can’t say why you’re querying a specific person, you probably shouldn’t be querying them. Last but not least, don’t send query letters to agents who aren’t taking submissions, because that just wastes everyone’s time. The most important thing if and when you do finally get an agent on the line is to make sure your visions for the book are compatible. I talked to a few different agents about representing Villains, but when I spoke to Arielle I could tell she just got it. She knew exactly why the story mattered, I think partly because she grasped the fact that the precarious age of these characters is really important–that strange liminal place between adolescence and adulthood. Some of the agents I talked to wanted to make everyone older or younger so they fit in a more clearly defined category. Arielle understood that their not fitting clearly into one category or the other was precisely the point. Sharing a vision with your agent is really important. As another agent friend said to me when I was weighing my options, “Who do you want talking about your book when you’re not in the room?” It can be tempting to jump on the first agent who expresses an interest, but it’s much better to wait for an agent who’s really the right one.
A: In a broad sense, if your ambition as a writer is to be published by a mainstream publisher, then you need to have an agent. The big publishers generally don’t take submissions that don’t come from an agent, because they don’t have the capacity to field that many submissions. Moreover, an agent acts as a gatekeeper of sorts; it’s an agent’s job to have good relationships with publishing houses, so that they only get bombarded by us with submissions (and they know us, and we know each other’s tastes), rather than by every writer in the world. That said, some small, independent publishers and presses do take submissions from writers directly, and should indicate as much on their websites. As M says, research is key. There are tons of online resources with information on agencies and publishers, so you can begin to figure out which path is right for you, and which agencies or agents you think you would work well with.
For A/M: Do you have to live in a big city to get traditionally published?
M: Nope. When we sold Villains I was living in a small college town in North Carolina. Because most communication in publishing happens either online or over the phone, your physical location is pretty much immaterial.
A: What M said!
For A: What would you advise someone who does not live in an English speaking country to do differently when hoping to find a literary agent? Is it possible at all for, say, people living in Germany to gain the attention of an English/American agent?
A: This is a little bit out of my wheelhouse, but I do have some experience with foreign rights (i.e., selling translation rights for English books into other languages), and I imagine it works in a similar way. My impression is that there are agents in pretty much every country/language, and they should have resources and connections in the English-speaking world. Using your example, I would recommend looking first for a German agent, who would hopefully have the connections to get an English-language agent’s attention. However, it also depends on what language you’re writing in – if you have a manuscript that is written in English, and you just happen to be German, I’d say go ahead and submit to English-language agents. However, if the manuscript is not yet translated, that can be a barrier (and a good reason to get a German agent first). Simply put, it’s certainly possible, but a bit more complicated.
We have many more questions in the queue, but don’t forget you still have two more days to send them in–so if you have questions about writing, agenting, editing, or Villains, ask them soon! All the info you need lives right here.
This is one of the things I most often get questions about, from the online community and real-world friends and acquaintances who learn my first novel is being published the old-fashioned way. And about six months ago I had an opportunity to talk about that, with Books Show Off 5 at the Tottenham Court Waterstones in London. I always meant to share some of that here, but never got around to it. With publication a mere eighteen days away (!) now seems like as good a time as any. So, from your friendly neighborhood debut author, here are 10 Steps to Getting a Book Published. They might not be what you think.
10 Steps to Getting a Book Published
Step 1: Admit that there are way more than ten steps to getting a book published.
Let’s try that again.
10 20 Steps to Getting a Book Published
Step 1: Have no friends in middle school. Spend all of your spare time reading until you realize that’s not enough anymore.
Step 2: Pick up a pen. Spend two years writing your ‘first’ book. Realize as soon as you finish it that it’s a pile of crap, shove it a drawer and never speak of it again.
Step 3: Keep writing. Write something new. Inevitably realize it is also crap, shove it in a drawer, and never speak of it again, but don’t give up because this time it was slightly less crappy crap than it was the time before and hey, that’s progress.
Step 4: Repeat Step Three for roughly ten years.
Step 5: Take creative writing classes in college. Have professors give you arbitrary rules like “You can’t use the word ‘nervous’” or “Don’t write about snow.” Abide by these rules because you’re nineteen years old and grades are more important than artistic integrity. Then have a professor tell you you’re not allowed to write a male narrator because that’s an experience you, with your feeble female mind, can’t possibly comprehend or do artistic justice to. Turn in your final story, with a female narrator this time, and be unsure whether to laugh or scream in fury when the same professor reads it and says, “Your narrator sounds like a man.”
Step 6: Realize that every rule you’ve ever been told about writing is actually just an arbitrary personal preference disguised as wisdom by a bunch of boring old white men who still worship Hemingway. Decide to make your own rules. Keep writing.
Step 7: Apply to do your senior honors thesis in the creative writing department. Get rejected, probably because you broke the rules. Keep writing.
Step 8: Graduate anyway with a BA in English and a minor in creative writing. Get so sick of the question, “What exactly do you plan to do with that?” that you start responding with “I was thinking of becoming a bum,” or “Right now I’m really enjoying my quarter-life crisis,” or “I got a great offer to join a cult last week. Can I give you brochure?” Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone you’re a writer. Because then they’ll want to know if you’ve ever published anything, and when you say “No, not yet,” they’ll give you The Look. That look which is somehow simultaneously knowing and condescending, as if they know that what you really mean when you say you’re a writer is that you write kinky Star Trek fanfiction that only gets published on WattPad and still live in your mom’s basement. Keep writing, but keep it to yourself.
Step 9: Spend a summer at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Denver Publishing Institute. Talk about books and writing with a lot of people who are a lot smarter and more talented than you are and finally realize that the reason you’ve been writing crap for ten years is because you’re trying to write about stuff you don’t understand (and no, Professor, being female has nothing to do with it). Realize that there’s a grain of truth in the old adage ‘write what you know,’ because you know a lot more than you think you do—enough to make a story out of, anyway. Go back to Step 3. Write something new. Write something you know and as soon as you finish it, know that it’s different. It’s still crap, but it’s crap with potential.
Step 10: Get a job in a bookstore to support yourself while rewriting the Crap with Potential. Love your job, but daydream while you straighten the shelves, and linger in the Rs, telling yourself that one day your name is going to go right there. After your first few paychecks, accept that regardless of how great working in a bookstore is, it’s not nearly enough to live on. Get three other jobs. In the wee hours of the morning between getting off work at the wine bar and going back to work at the bookstore, keep rewriting. Keep telling yourself, “This crap has potential.”
Step 11: Apply to graduate school. Apply to ten MFA programs. Cross your fingers and send them a sample and hope they can see that it might be crap now but it has so much potential. Get rejected, again, by every single one.
Step 12: Actually have that quarter-life crisis you used to joke about. Wonder if this whole writing thing is just a pipe dream but keep writing anyway, because at this point it’s kind of like a drug and you can’t quit cold turkey. Put what’s left of your faith in the Crap with Potential. Do ten drafts in six months and when there’s nothing else you can fix, take a deep breath, and write the first draft of a query letter. Then scrap it and write fifty more drafts of that query letter, wondering how in the hell you’re supposed to turn your 110,000-word Crap Masterpiece into three paragraphs and somehow do it justice. Eventually, cross your fingers and hit ‘send.’
Step 13: Query 25 agents. Receive no response from most of them, a couple of polite “thank you but no thank you”s, one weirdly personal rejection, and finally get a nibble. Schedule a phone call. Talk to a real live agent who actually read your book, actually loved it, and actually wants to represent you. Try not to say anything nuts that might scare her away, all the while secretly screaming on the inside. Reach an agreement. Say how excited you are to work with each other. Hang up the phone and burst into tears.
Step 14: Go meet your agent in New York. Feel like a real writer for the first time. On the way out of the restaurant, have her turn to you and say, “By the way, we’re going to have to change your name.” Ask why and find out that you have the same name as a Colombian porn star. (Realize much later that this should have been your first hint that pretty much nothing in publishing goes according to plan.) Do revisions with your agent’s input. Be thrilled to have someone involved who actually knows what they’re doing and try not to draw too much attention to how totally clueless you are.
Step 15: After a few months, decide that the book’s ready for submission. Try to take your agent’s advice to heart when she tells you that you probably won’t hear anything for a few weeks and not to hold your breath. Hold your breath anyway.
Step 16: Wake up to the phone ringing at seven in the morning two days later and wonder if you might still be asleep and just having a really kickass dream when your agent explains that an editor read your book in two days, loved it, and wants to talk to you. Do the same thing you did six months ago where you tried not to say anything crazy and play it cool while kind of secretly having a meltdown. Call in sick to work and spend the rest of the morning pacing back and forth in your driveway, waiting for the phone to ring again. Silently pray to every god you’ve ever heard of because you’ve never wanted anything so badly in all your life and if it doesn’t happen there are pretty good odds the disappointment might actually just kill you. When your agent and the editor call back to tell you that yes, they bought it, it’s happening, scream into the phone together like a bunch of teenage girls at a slumber party. For the second time in six months, hang up the phone and burst into tears. Stand there crying in your driveway in your pajamas with all your neighbors staring at you like you’re a lunatic. Let them stare. Call your mom and scream with her. Drink an entire bottle of wine and cry some more.
Step 17: Start working with your editor. Realize that she, like your agent, is a lot smarter than you are and be desperately relived that they’re both there to help you tease the Potential out of the Pile of Crap and keep you from publicly embarrassing yourself. Do forty-five drafts. Then venture to admit to yourself that with a lot of professional help, you’ve finally written something you’re proud of. Resist the urge to send a smug note to that one professor, and anyone else who ever made you think that that was never going to happen.
Step 18: Bask in the euphoria, but only for a few weeks, because getting a book published is a lot more complicated than you thought and there are still a million things to do. Start writing letters to writers who are much better than you, telling them how much you love their work and not-so-subtlety begging them to read yours and maybe, if they have time, if they like it, if it’s convenient, and only if they want to, say something nice about it. Read through an RBM, then first pass, second pass, third pass, all the while wondering when it turned into a baseball game.
Step 19: Reach a point, finally, where there’s nothing else you can do. Let the book fall into more capable hands, count down the days until release and wonder what to do with yourself in the meantime. Pick up a pen again. Start writing something new. Because as insane as the last three years have been, and as scary and enormous and overwhelming as it is to get a book you wrote published, it’s also the most fun you’ve ever had and you can’t wait to do it again. So you keep writing, and you start to call yourself a writer, because you feel like you’ve earned it.
Step 20: Last but not least, plug your book shamelessly. Because marketing is important, and you know your publisher will never forgive you if you don’t.
I wrote a book called If We Were Villains. It’s about seven young Shakespearean actors who make some really big mistakes. But more than anything it’s about loving books and words and storytelling, and if that’s something you love, too, I think you might like it. It comes out in April, but you can pre-order it now, and I would love you if you did. Thanks for reading.
As some of you may have noticed, the whole website got treated to a facelift today. The primary reason for that is that things are picking up in Camp IWWV. Here’s a brief update:
- Reviews! We have some advance praise for Villains, which I am so excited and so humbled to share with you. If you want to hear what some amazing early readers had to say, you can check out the shiny new If We Were Villains page.
- PRE-ORDERING! That’s right! You can now pre-order If We Were Villains from a variety of retailers and have it on your doorstep the day it comes out. I would love you if you did. To do that, click here.
- Cover art. Not to tease you, but it’s coming. Soon.
- Chatter. If you want to chat about the book, you can send me any question you like on Tumblr.
In the meantime, if you want to get all possible information as soon as I have it, you can track my movements on social media. Just browse that handy new sidebar to the right of this post. Please like and share with abandon! Every little click helps.
I can only speak for me, but I had a great time last night at Books Show Off 5, which was graciously hosted by the Waterstones on Tottenham Court Road. People spoke on an eclectic range of topics, including Tolkien, Harold and Maude, elegiac dog poetry, inappropriate Latin, and sculptures that look like they’re having sex with angels. Nothing I said was that nearly that interesting, but I did manage to talk about Star Trek, porn stars, and Ernest Hemingway all in under nine minutes. Obviously what I was really talking about was writing.
Specifically, what I talked about were all the steps involved in getting a book published–and the fact that there are so many more than you think there are until you’ve actually done it. But this was a nice reminder that we’re getting much closer to the finish line with Villains. We still have to figure out cover art and what goes on the dust jacket and a lot of other stuff that falls under the category of “How do we market this thing?” But in T-minus six months, it should be facing out on a shelf in a bookstore somewhere near you. And that will be an exciting day indeed (for me at least).