Building Better Relationships

When you create a relationship with an agent, editor, or publisher, very often you’re going into a long-term relationship. Some authors even compare it to a marriage. Your agent and publisher will want you to maintain fidelity with them—and unless the relationship is in trouble, you probably should.

Think of it this way. They’re your business partners. It isn’t right for you to ask them to make huge investments of time, effort, and money into your career and then just walk away from them, anymore than it would be right for them to do the same to you.

So when you begin courting agents and publishers, try to plan for the long term.

I wrote an article last week about agents—about the weaknesses that some of them have. There are fake agents, dishonest agents, wannabe agents, crippled agents, and so on. If you’re looking for an agent, you want to avoid those.

In fact, what you’re looking for is an honest agent who has solid ties with editors in the genre that you’re writing in and one who

  • Understands how to help you create a viable career path
  • Works hard
  • Has solid relationships with foreign literary agents, film agents, and audiobook companies
  • Is honest
  • Puts you at the top of his or her client list

This last point might need a little explanation. It’s the nature of a literary agent to specialize in a genre that he/she loves and understands. For example, if I am a fan of thrillers, then I’m going to want to read and sell manuscripts from that genre. Over time, I might develop a hundred writers as clients. But which one of them will I push the hardest? Well, I will push the author that I most believe in.

You as an author, want to be your agent’s superstar. You want to become the client that your agent most believes in.

The same is true with publishers. A publisher might sell the works of fifty horror writers, but they have only one Stephen King, one “superlead” author. Your goal as a writer is to become your publisher’s superlead, and you can only do that if you turn in work of very high quality on a regular basis.

So, when you’re looking to build a long-term relationship with a major publisher, you need to look for a large publisher, one who hopefully has a superlead position available in the near future, and then you go to work. You need to pick your agent in much the same way.

How do you find your agent, your editor, or publisher? Here is the way that I recommend: Go to www.publishersmarketplace.com and buy a membership. This is a service similar to Publisher’s Weekly, but it puts out publishing news on a daily basis. Once you buy a membership—which currently runs about $25 per month—you can look on the menu bar to the right and click on the “Top Dealmaker’s” section.

A prompt will ask you, “Do you want to look for publishers, editors, or agents?” Your answer should be publishers. You need to research the best publishers before you start looking for an editor or agent.

The program will bring up a list of the top publishers in the field, and this is a great place to start doing research. You want to make sure that each publisher is doing more than just buying books. You want to be sure that they are promoting and selling well, too. Your research will require you to go to bookstores and check out your future publisher’s displays. You’ll also want to read marketing reports on them to find out where they fit in the hierarchy of publishers. You’ll want to study their contracts and perhaps even talk to some of their authors.

Once you know who you want your publishers to be, begin ranking them from one to ten. If you go beyond about #8, you’re going too far. In any genre, there are only a few really great ones.

Now that you have a grasp of who your publishers should be, you can look at the editors for each publisher. Which ones are actually buying right now? Study their web pages and find out what their tastes are. The folks at publishersmarketplace will actually show you a list of each book that the editor has bought, and you can study those books to research the editor’s tastes and find out if you’re a good fit. For example, if you have an editor who has only ever purchased books with female protagonists and you’re writing about a male protagonist, you will find that it might be a very tough to make a sale to her.

Only after you have chosen your publisher and your potential editors should you pick an agent. You want one who has a good relationship with the editors that you want to sell to. You also want one who can command a decent advance, and when you are researching what novels that agents have sold, you’ll see how much they sold them for.

Armed with that information, you can begin researching the agents now, reading their web pages, looking at articles they’ve written, and talking to their clients.

ONLY after you have done this research should you approach an agent.  If you follow these steps, you can avoid all of the pitfalls that tend to derail a young author’s career for five or ten years, and get yourself on the tracks to success.


Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing is available for $2.99 on Amazon Kindle, and free with kindle unlimited. You can read chapter 1 here as a preview for the novel. If you are interested in reading more, you can buy the book on Amazon here.

Chapter 1

What is Resonance?

In the field of music, a musical refrain is said to “resonate” when it “draws power by repeating that which has come before.” Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a masterpiece of resonance, and it is so well known that you may be able to listen to it in your head from memory:

Da, da, da, dum.

Da, da, da, dum. . . .

In case you can’t play it in your head, you can find the symphony online.

As you listen to the symphony, you’ll hear how Beethoven starts with a simple theme, repeating the same four notes twice, and then he has a change-up and expands upon that theme. He does this dozens of times, coming up with variation after variation, eventually seeming to abandon the theme altogether.

Indeed, a few minutes into the symphony there is a shocking moment where we realize that we have come full circle. Beethoven returns to the original theme, playing louder and more boldly than before. In music, when a refrain gains power by repeating something that has gone before, we say that it resonates.

But the same thing happens in literature. We feel powerful emotions when we read a book that somehow resembles other works that we love. For example, you may read a new author and discover that the author’s world is similar to one that you’ve visited in literature and loved before. If you’re a fan of the pirating world in Treasure Island, you might find that you really like Tim Powers’s On Stranger Tides. You’ll almost instantly feel a great affinity for Tim’s work.

In a similar way, a tale may also resonate when it evokes powerful emotions by drawing upon the reader’s own past experience. For example, a woman who has been divorced may read a passage in a novel and realize, “Wow, this author has really been through it, too. We really do have a lot in common.”

There are literally hundreds of ways to create resonance—through voice, tone, characterization, imagery, setting, or simply by referring to popular works, by bringing common experiences to life, and so on.

To the reader, a story that resonates powerfully may seem especially significant or rich—much more so than a tale that doesn’t resonate.

Readers often become fans of a genre after discovering one defining work in that genre. When I was a teen, I read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I enjoyed the book so much that I began looking for similar titles. At the time, there was no such thing as a “fantasy genre,” but I hungered for books like Lord of the Rings. I wanted to recreate the experience of reading it. So I tried Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Wizard of Earthsea, Patricia McKillip’s The Riddlemaster of Hed, and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, among hundreds of other works.

Eventually, when I ran out of fantasy novels to read, I began to write my own. A Wizard in Halflight, one of my first tales, which I started writing at the age of 17, told the exploits of a young boy going to a high school to study wizardry.

Each time that I read a good fantasy, I found some new little nugget in the fantasy genre that seemed delicious to me. By doing so, I gained a deeper and broader appreciation for the genre as a whole.

You’re much the same. Whatever your favorite genre is, you can probably trace your love for it back to one single book that really moved you.

Many people became vampire fans as children by watching old horror movies. Later they expanded upon this by reading Anne Rice. You may have loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When Stephenie Meyer came out with Twilight, she played upon the works that preceded her, but she also expanded upon the genre in such a way that she brought in an entire new generation of readers. With that, vampire fiction took off to unprecedented heights in popularity, and suddenly we had a piece of Twilight fan fiction, 50 Shades of Grey, become a hit.

Do you see how the genre grows in leaps from a base of fans? Each succeeding work is like a mushroom, rising up from the remains of what grew before.

So readers of romance might begin in high school by reading Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, go on to Jane Eyre, and begin developing a taste for romance. Very often, readers of romance will fall in love with books set in a particular historical period—the Regency Romances—where the genre began, but then will move on to more modern eras.

Historically, we’ve seen a number of genres develop due to one great work. Thus, you can look at something like the success of the film Pirates of the Caribbean and trace the genre back in time first to the rides at Disneyland in the 1960s, and from there on back to pirate books and movies of the past—from the films of Errol Flynn in the 1920s, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s hit Treasure Island in 1883, from there to Swiss Family Robinson in 1812, and from there to Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1718. Each of these bestsellers resonated with huge hits from the past, and thus built up a larger fan base.

So readers are often searching for something that moves them in a familiar way. As they grow more sophisticated in their tastes, widening their interests, the reader begins to look for something a little different. In other words, they want something similar—but better.

Thus, a reader of Westerns may say, “I’m tired of Zane Grey. I wonder what new authors are out there?” And he may discover Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

Readers crave something different, but not completely different.

As writers, we find that entire “genres” or “sub-genres” grow up around great novels. As new genres develop, over the centuries, hundreds of different types of code words, phrases, settings, and standard character types begin to creep into the field.

For example, if you’re writing a romance, do you say that your hero has “gray” eyes or “grey” eyes? The answer, of course, is that he has “grey” eyes. Why? Because Emily Brontë’s Heathcliffe had “grey” eyes, and thus the British spelling became preferred. It has stronger resonance with romance readers.

As a new writer, it’s important to become familiar with these codes, these motifs. Readers will think that you’re ignorant if you don’t know the standards. For example, I recently read a novel by a mainstream writer who tried to dabble in science fiction. In it, she had an instantaneous communication device. She called it something like an “ICD.” However, by doing so, she embarrassed herself in front of real science fiction aficionados. In the genre, such a device is known as an ansible. The word was coined by Ursula K. LeGuin in 1966 for her novel Rocannon’s World. By not knowing this, the author revealed that she was a pretender. In effect, she was “slumming.” So the novel died without real critical or financial success, despite the author’s skill as a stylist.

In the same way, we have “code words” that creep into every genre of fiction. When I used to judge for the Writers of the Future Contest, every few months I would get a story that started like this:

Joe, John, and Dave are sitting in a bar, drinking cool beers, brought to them by a big-chested waitress. They’re jawing about things. “How’s work?” Joe says. “Oh, you know, same ol’ stuff,” John says. “Say, have you seen Tina lately,” Dave asks John.

(This banter goes on for a page or two.)

Suddenly, the door to the bar bursts open, and a dwarf walks in. “Dwarf!” all three men suddenly shout, as they leap up from their stools and draw their swords.

As a reader, you might wonder, “Say what? They’re drawing swords?”

Do you see what is wrong here? Nothing in the text indicated that this was a fantasy world. The author began with a description befitting any modern-day bar in Texas. But in fantasy we have a secret language, inspired by Tolkien and others, that lets us know that we’re in a different time, a different world, where men wear swords and attack dwarves on sight. Using this language signals that the author is writing for a fantasy reader.

How would you then as an author address this problem?

First of all, the characters’ names can’t be Joe, John, and Dave. They have to sound like fantasy characters. So let’s try Theron, Wulf, and Sir Giles.

Second, they’re sitting in an inn, not in a bar.

They aren’t drinking “cold beer,” they’re guzzling “frothy mugs of ale.”

Instead of a “big-chested waitress,” the brew is offered up by a “buxom serving wench.”

When the men talk about their day, they don’t say, “How’s the boss treatin’ ya?” Instead, one might ask, “Is Lord Hebring faring well?” And so on.

All of this prepares us for the moment when the dwarf walks in, and the three city guards suddenly draw swords ringing from their scabbards.

The truth is that if you as an author are not aware of the conventions and vocabulary of the genre that you’re trying to write in, you will fail. Your readers will feel uneasy about your work, the critics who are familiar with the genre will lambaste you, and you will bomb at the bookstore.

Sometimes, authors get the wild notion that “Writing romance would be so easy,” or “If I just moonlighted by writing a fantasy novel, I could write so much better than the rest of those idiots.” It doesn’t work that way.

You have to write in a field that you know. You have to love what you’re doing.

If you don’t, the chances are almost zero that you will succeed.

The literary agent Richard Curtis once pointed this out. He said that over the years he has known dozens of authors who have gone slumming, but they almost never succeed in launching a new career. Why? Because usually the author isn’t familiar with the genre. He or she doesn’t understand what resonates with readers. They don’t know the secret conventions, don’t understand what makes that work delicious to the reader.

Almost every author falls into the trap of writing outside his area of expertise, it seems. I learned to love fantasy and science fiction when I was young. I have written successfully in both fields, becoming an international bestseller. But a few years ago, I got the urge to write a historical novel. “How hard can it be?” I asked myself. It wasn’t as if I were creating new worlds, new societies. All that I had to do was writing about real people, living in a real world.

I soon found that writing a historical is grinding work. Yes, it was based upon a lot of first-hand accounts, but there were so many arguments about what really happened, I had to do two years of research in my spare time just to come up with my own version of the event. There were plenty of holes even in the best-researched account. Then I had to try to recreate the voices of my protagonists by drawing upon the flimsiest evidence—and I had to make them sound historically accurate. In order to flesh out their world, I had to draw upon newspapers, books, first-hand accounts, and military documents. Writing the novel required travel to museums, and stops along 1300 miles of prairies as I followed my characters’ trail. In order to recreate their experience, I even braved a blizzard atop the Rocky Mountains. The novel, In the Company of Angels, went on to win an award for the “Best Book of the Year,” but writing it was maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Here’s what I learned: writing well in any genre is excruciating! If you’re going to write, write in a genre that you love, so that writing will become a labor of love— not a chore.

I’ve pointed out what resonance is, but there is another point that I need to make about it. When you “create” any tale, you will subconsciously draw the story from somewhere. Researchers into the imagination don’t believe that we can actually create worlds, societies, characters, and incidents out of thin air. Instead, the human mind pulls odd little tidbits from our past experience, and we fabricate our tales based upon that. In other words, whether you’re trying to create resonance or not, you’re still doing it. Some authors get lucky. They naturally create a work that resonates strongly without realizing what they’ve done.

My goal here is to train you to consider what you’re doing, and learn to see resonance as the powerful tool that it is.

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