Today I have a very, very special guest post by Literary Agent Laura Bradford of the Bradford Literary Agency. I'll let her explain the whats and hows of the post itself, but in sum, and why this post means so much to me (and why I want to share it with all of you) is that it demonstrates one of the HARDEST of the P's of Publishing: Perseverance.
I realize that I haven't actually gotten around to having a whole post on these P's yet, but in sum, the P's of Publishing are the P words that are all you need to make it in Publishing, such as:
The list could go on and on. I'm going to try and put together a few posts on these P's, starting with this very special one. Take it away Laura!
Alrighty, so a couple of months ago my lovely new assistant, Natalie, asked me to write a guest blog post for Adventures in Agentland. I said of course and then did what I always do and started to stress about not being able to come up with anything interesting to say. I suggested to her that she should give me a deadline and a topic or else I would probably drag my feet forever. Skip ahead a few weeks and we were at the Romantic Times conference and for some reason or another I was relating a story about one of my author’s recent sales and how it was a super EXTRA special one. She told me THAT is what I want you to blog about. Tell THAT story. And here’s your deadline. (Natalie is an excellent listener.) So here we are.
About a year ago I had an author who lost her publishing contract. And by lost I mean she had finished her contract and her publisher decided not to re-option her. This kind of thing does happen from time to time, and I think given the recent economic downturn and the publishing climate of late, this probably happened even more than usual in the last year. It happens to good people and good writers. We all know perfectly well that sometimes good books get lost in the marketplace and even with excellent reviews and covers sometimes readers just don’t respond and open their wallets. And publishing is a business so we all understand that sometimes a publisher has to make a hard decision and let an author go. But it totally sucks. Sometimes the author can see it coming, sometimes it comes as a surprise but I think no matter what, the news brings the author a certain sense of upheaval, self doubt, anger and sadness. Why did this happen? What will I do now? Is this [genre, series, pen name] lost to me forever?
My author had been writing science fiction romance which is one of those romance sub genres that people either adore or REALLY don’t care for. Like time travel. It just isn’t quite as mainstream or considered as widely appealing as say…a demon hunter theme or vampires. The author loved writing paranormal romance and while I AM fairly biased, I think she is very skilled at it and it made sense for her to pursue another contract in paranormal. But after she lost her SF romance series, she discovered just how much of an outside-the-box author she was. She wanted to write about all the things that NY was not really interested in…her ideas were risk-taking in a market that had become increasingly risk-averse. So where did that leave her? Questioning A LOT. In a situation like this, does an author choose to write something that doesn’t interest them in order to please NY? Do they choose to go another route entirely and move to epublishing where greater risk-taking is allowable? Do they find a new genre and try it on for size? In my author’s case, after a lot of soul searching she decided to try something completely different. She might fail spectacularly but at least she would be writing something that made her happy and we would work out the future as we went.
So she made the leap from very, VERY sexy science fiction romance to young adult historical romance with steampunk elements. There are some similarities between the two genre types but really they are more different than the same. And writing for young adult is TOTALLY different than writing for adults. As an agent who handles YA, I see a lot of YA manuscripts and if there is anything I have learned, it is that writing a truly authentic YA voice is VERY hard to do. Many, MANY more people fail than succeed at it. There is no shame in that. Not every writer is skilled at writing every type of thing and that is okay. If it was easy, everyone would do it. My author told me the story she had in mind and it was really pretty awesome. I told her to go for it. And she did.
In fairly short order she sent me the 1st 30 or so pages of the new story and I was thrilled to take a look. This is what happened: I didn’t like it at all. It just didn’t work. The voice was wrong…it didn’t feel age appropriate…the pacing was off. The hook was solid and I knew the plot twists were very cool but at the end of the day, with YA, if the voice isn’t there, the most compelling plot in the world can’t make it work. And it is my job to tell the author this. We brainstormed some ideas on how to make it work better and she tried again. This is what happened then: it still didn’t work. The voice was not right. Not just a little not-right. A LOT not-right. And if it wasn’t right, it wasn’t going to be sellable.
Now I am an editorial agent, so my response to a manuscript one of my clients sends me will almost never just be NO. I think it is my job to help the author make their work better, to make it appealing, to make it sellable. To make them money. I WANT to be encouraging. I BELIEVE in their skills and talents. And I do not like to hand out news that will be disappointing. But as I said before, not every writer is good at writing every kind of book and that is okay. And I am not doing my authors any favors if I continue to encourage an endeavor that may never be the right fit for their skills…when the result might ultimately be a lot of time spent without a sale to show for it. It is hard to know in these cases what is the right thing to do. Should I suggest the author keep going? Should I suggest they hang it up and try something else? I told the author what was not working with the piece. I told her what it needed to be in order for it to have a chance. I gave it to her straight. I didn’t sugarcoat. I also did not expressly suggest that she try it again. I left the decision to her to decide whether to continue working on the piece. And she decided to hang it up. She’d known all along that the project was far outside her writing comfort zone. She agreed that the voice was not right. And she understood that she might not ever get it right. And that it was okay.
Though she was very nice about it and kept a stiff upper lip, I think this decision was really quite upsetting. She LOVED this YA story. It was cool and romantic and fresh and adventurous. It made her happy. It was what she wanted to write and like the SF romance, it was turning into something else that she loved that she might not ever get to publish. And now she would abandon it in search of something else that might please that fickle bitch, NY (even if it didn’t please her).
I didn’t hear from her for a few weeks after that and I gave her some space. I knew she was planning on finding some mainstream paranormal idea to work on in an effort to get back into the romance game. It was probably for the best. Then she emailed me and told me that after she’d decided to set aside the YA, it just would not let HER go. And she couldn’t help but to give it one. more. try. I thought: oh, boy. If this doesn’t work again, this is when the break up (the author and the story) is really going to hurt. This is what happened: I LOVED it. It was fantastic. All the issues with voice and pacing were gone. It had turned into everything that we had wanted it to be. It turned out she DID have a YA voice in her repertoire. I don’t know if the author had needed that time away from the story for that intangible thing that was missing to crystallize but whatever had triggered the change, it was a great thing and I told her to hurry up and write the full. She did. And it was awesome. Then this is what happened:
Kristin Welker’s YA debut, THE CLOCKWORK KEY, a clockpunk romantic adventure set in Victorian England about a girl who unravels the secrets of a mysterious society of inventors and their most dangerous creation, to Anica Rissi at Simon Pulse, for publication in Fall 2012, by Laura Bradford at Bradford Literary Agency (World English).
So what was the point of this rather long and ramble-y story? Everybody did their job, especially the author and her job was the most difficult one of all (and I don’t mean writing the book). My job was to support my author and tell her the truth. And I did exactly that. Even when the truth wasn’t nice or pleasing. Those earlier drafts DIDN’T work. The author’s job was to believe in herself. To believe in her story. To dig deep and to risk failure. And boy did she do that. If it had not been for her belief in herself and her abilities, a gut deep knowledge that she had the chops to write the story she had dreamed of, she would not have a hardcover YA debut coming out next year. She’d been prepared to leave the story behind and I think that decision broke her heart a little…but then that determination and grit way down deep made her try again. It wasn’t MY encouragement. It wasn’t that anyone had told her she could do it.
She knew it. She believed. And she did it.