Friday, February 29, 2008

10 Things I Learned Talking to Literary Agents

[Originally published 28 October 2007]

So I went to an Agents' Forum and this is what I learned.

(An Agents' Forum, in this case, was a panel discussion by a bunch of literary agents, followed by an agonizing pitch session where a bunch of writers queued up and stood there, muttering loglines to themselves and trying not to talk to each other, for a LONG time. This one was held at the University of Southern California last weekend. All due kudos to the Master of Professional Writing program there for setting it up. It's rare that you get to pitch to an agent in person, but I found the experience so terrifying as to be educational.)

1. Before you go, Google. Before going to the forum, I Googled all but one of the agents who would be present. This allowed me to identify, for example, the agent whose website declared that she refused to consider fantasy or SF. Since she had the longest line in the room, I saved myself quite a bit of time and heartache by not trying to pitch to her. I focused my attention instead on the one agent on the list whose site indicated she was interested primarily in commercial material—that's the stuff mere mortals buy, and the stuff I usually write. That pitch session went quite well . . . or, at least, she didn't cut me off at the sixth word like another agent did. Success with my first-choice agent emboldened me to pitch to three others. It also put me ahead of everybody who didn't Google and waited in the wrong lines.

2. If you're going to Google, spell the names right! Like I said, I Googled all but one agent, thanks to a typo on the flyers. The horror . . .

3. You really do have to have a logline—that dreaded one-sentence summary of everything your story is, was, and will be, carefully crafted to grab an agent's attention like the G-force on Montezooma's Revenge. Condensing your entire story into one sentence so you can squeeze it into an agent's attention span is a harrowing experience. It's also a good way to figure out what your story's really about, even if you've already written it. Get your friends to help you and act as sounding board. Sleep on it. And then be sure to rewrite whatever you come up with—things written by committee sound like it!

4. Buck yourself up before pitching. It sounds corny and your third grade teacher said it too much, but a positive attitude really does make all the difference. For one thing, you cry less in public. Always a plus.

5. When someone does cut you off on the sixth word ("superhero"), say, "Thank you for your courtesy and candor. I'll not waste any more of your time." Then shake hands and leave. I'm not sure this is the optimal solution, but it worked for me this time, and it will probably go over better than screaming, crying, or trying to convince the person rejecting you that he or she is dead wrong. And I got two more positive interviews after that, so I think I won.

6. Mention alternative media. I got better responses when I mentioned I had a MySpace page. It makes you sound hip and savvy. And if you want to start your own writing MySpace page, I'll be your buddy. Bonus! I wonder if I can work YouTube into a pitch for a novel . . .

7. This sounds counterintuitive, but be nice to everyone in the pitch session, especially other writers. It's good karma, it makes you friends, and it keeps you calm. In my case, it also freaked a couple of other writers out, apparently because they thought I was trying to sabotage them by telling jokes and offering to share my notes on the various agents. Being the only friendly person in the room is a surprisingly useful thing. Mwa-ha-ha.

8. Find lonely people. I had a very good interview with an agent who was leaving because no one wanted to pitch to her. She ended up asking for my first 50 pages. Agents want to be wanted. And if there's one thing writers understand, it's insecurity . . .

9. Speaking of which--ladies, whatever you're going to wear, wear it at least once before the big event. I'm not kidding. This is not the time to find out that jacket doesn't go with that skirt. Or the time to break in new shoes. Yikes!

10. Do not gripe. Do not snipe. Do not whine, moan, groan, complain, bitch, or lament. All of this is for later. Bemoaning your fate in a room full of nervous people will make you a lot of enemies, in a hurry. Good thing I'm a fast learner. Heh heh.

There's lots of other stuff I learned in the panel discussion, and I'll get to that in the next entry. For now, I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Some pages went out to some interested agents this week, and it looks like I'm about to find out if I handle rejection as well as I think I do.

But hey. It only takes one yes, right? I like them odds . . .

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The saga begins . . .

[Originally published on MySpace on 27 October, 2007]

The story behind Masks begins, like most writers' stories, with rejection.

Like pretty much every other literate kid in America, I was short on friends growing up. My best (and only) pals in junior high school were my school's geek patrol—mostly boys, all computer freaks, all obsessed with comic books, sci-fi, and all things nerdy—and my neighbors' dog, a sweet-natured Labrador retriever who was very sympathetic to my need to cry into her fur about how the girls at school were kicking the emotional stuffing out of me every day. It's tough being the only girl in the geek patrol, especially when you prefer novels to computers.

The idea for Masks arose when I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about the then-crashing comic book industry. (Yes, I read the paper in junior high. The business section, no less.) The collectors' bubble had burst, 12-year-old boys were being seduced by the Internet, and the poor old print-media folks were in serious trouble. There was only one hope, the article said—getting girls to read comic books.

Psh. Yeah, right.

Still, I was game for any challenge—especially one that might get me some breathing room. I spent most of my time at school spying on the popular girls, anyway, trying to figure out some way to get them to leave me alone. I knew their interests, inside and out, although I didn't share any of them. And let's face it, some of these girls had gone to see Titanic 50 times. That kind of disposable income could save the comics industry, easy.

So I sat down with my spiral notebook and, after fiddling around for a few pages, decided to write the journal of a teenage superheroine. One without flashy superpowers, like most of my favorite good guys. She had to struggle for everything—lie about her age so other heroes would take her seriously, pretend to have powers so villains wouldn't beat her senseless, hone her brain and her reflexes so she could plot circles around anyone who stood in her way. And against all odds, she triumphed—most of the time. It was fun being her, sliding into her brain to pass the time during English class.

And then somebody found the notebook.

I'd gone to so much trouble to make it look like a diary that one of the popular girls thought it actually was one. Mine, to be specific. To be fair, I'd used real locations around town, real details of my own life. I walked into a room one afternoon, spotted the girl reading it, and grabbed it away. She immediately began pestering me about my "secret life"—which, for some reason, she thought was real. Some mighty interesting rumors went around school after that. I shoved the notebook into my backpack and promised myself that nobody else would ever get into my private world.

Then somebody stole the notebook.

More precisely, she bullied me out of it. This time it was a high school sophomore who took an interest in the nerdy little freshman and wanted to see what she was reading. It's hard to say no to someone who has more friends than you have fingers. It wasn't that I wanted her approval—it was more that I didn't want to suffer her wrath. I let her have my poor, tattered notebook, now full of superhero intrigue and teenage romance and a hell of a lot of explosions, and then I ran for cover and waited for the inevitable.

To my great surprise, she found me two days later, shoved the notebook back into my hands, and ordered me to finish the chapter I'd been working on when she "borrowed" it. She wanted to know what happened next.

Things moved fast after that. I lent the notebook out to a couple of other girls, with whom I was slowly becoming friends. Talking about the notebook made us good friends, even after our chatter ticked off a cheerleader and she ordered us to "stop writing" and "stop reading". Fat lot of luck she had. Take that, popular crowd.

I wrote more stories and passed them around. The notebook fell apart, so I began typing the chapters and passing them out. Then one of the geek patrol from junior high started photocopying his and passing them out to his entire track team. An e-mail distribution system got going. Then a website. The story expanded beyond my heroine to include her friends, family, enemies, unlikely allies. From stories about a lonely, secretive girl, we moved on to cowboys and ninjas and mad scientists and lost civilizations and city politics and cows getting loose on the freeway at rush hour. My heroine became the kind of smart, tough, vulnerable woman I always wished existed in the comics. The cast expanded to include an entire generation of young heroes, and a lost generation before that, wiped out ten years earlier. I wrote the geek patrol in as good guys, my new friends in as wisecracking sidekicks. I based an entire superhero on that Labrador. And somehow the stories kept coming, and so did the requests for subscriptions. I went to college, and made a friend in the dorm by giving someone a CD-ROM of the last few years of stories.

Somehow, improbably, I was popular.

Who'da thunk?

So when I had a chance to go to graduate school in writing, I revised a few old Masks stories and sent them off with my application. Crazy as it sounds, I got into a master's program with a murder mystery and a story about geeks arguing in a comic book shop. And while I pitched several different stories to my professors, somehow the conversation about possible thesis projects always came back to the same question . . .

"What's this thing with the superheroes?"

So for now, "this thing with the superheroes" is the name of the game. I'm busily writing the all-new, never-before-seen adventures of Rae Masterson, the unlikely superhero, and her magical and deadly world. Good thing I've lived with her for ten years. I'm getting to like her. She's got moxie. And she meets the most interesting people and does the most interesting things. Have I ever told you about how she got another superhero to teach her to drive when she was fourteen? Everything was fine until they got to Dead Man's Curve ...

Next entry: Pitching to literary agents, and why it pays to Google them in advance.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Welcome to the MASKS Blog!

Hello and welcome to the Masks blog!

Actually, this is the recap of the Masks blog that has been running on MySpace since October. I'm going to post a previous entry every day until we're caught up, and then post simultaneously.

So who's "me"? Well, my name's Rebekah, and I'm an L.A.-based author of a novel called Masks, about a secret crimefighter subculture in Los Angeles and the thoroughly un-super girl who's trying to use it to her own ends ... but ends up having to save the world instead. A website with tons of free stuff is in the works, but until then, come be my MySpace buddy ( and join the vast conspiracy. (More on the conspiracy later.)

[Originally posted on MySpace on 14 October 2007)

As you may have read already, this page has two purposes—to promote my novel, Masks, and to provide all of you with some free entertainment, thought-provoking content, and a place to hang out. New entries will appear weekly—more often if I can swing it. Some of the cool stuff you can expect here over the next few weeks:

-Character of the Month: Every month, I’ll take one of Masks’ wild and wacky characters and give you the complete rundown on him or her. We’re talking everything from superpowers to favorite ice cream flavors . . . and they can both get pretty weird. For example, did you know that the character currently serving as the profile image ended World War I single-handed? At least, he thinks so . . .

-The Free Lunch: Your high school economics teacher lied. There IS a free lunch. Watch for free mini-stories set in the world of Masks. Secret origins, skeletons in the closet, and little-known moments in characters’ lives will all be on display. Also, perhaps, ninjas. That’s still being negotiated.

-Watch This Space: What’s the point of having a blog if you can’t just yak from time to time? Expect trenchant wit and brilliant observations on the state of modern culture, from comic books to opera to whatever else catches my attention. Always entertaining, often timely, and probably not going to get me sued. What more can you ask?

-The Neverending Battle: Getting published ain’t for sissies. Watch this space for updates on everything I learn about agents, marketing, contracts, and the other stuff they don’t teach you in creative writing classes. I used to wish more experienced writers would talk about this stuff in interviews, and while I’m still pretty new at this, I’m happy to share whatever knowledge I obtain. Somebody should.

Ready? Everybody got a nice, tight grip on their emotions? Then click our happy little “Subscribe” link and gear up for our next thrilling installment—how this bizarre genre-bender of a novel got started in the first place. Highlights include horrible childhood traumas, an overly friendly Labrador retriever, and (what else?) an evil cheerleader! Don’t miss it!