JMFrey

WORDS FOR WRITERS: The Value of Fanfiction

WORDS FOR WRITERS: The Value of Fanfiction

There’s been a lot of chatter on social media these last few weeks, recycling that trashy, self-aggrandizing, tired old “hot take” that reading and writing fanfiction is somehow bad for you as a writer.

 

Before we go any further, let me give a clear and definitive answer to this take:

Middle Finger on Google Android 11.0 December 2020 Feature Drop

No, reading and writing fanfiction will not make you and does not make you a bad reader or writer.

 

Period.

 

Why? Here’s the TL;DR version:

 

  • Reading and Writing, any kind of reading and writing, will make you a better reader and writer. And it’s enjoyable, to boot.
  • Fanfiction has been around as long as Original Fiction, so we’d know if there was any negative impact by now (spoiler alert: there isn’t.)
  • Practice is Practice, so matter what medium you get that practice in.
  • Comprehending and writing fanfiction is harder than writing original fiction because you have to hold the Source Media Text in your head at the same time as you’re reading/writing a different story. It improves your understanding of storytelling.
  • No hobby, no matter what it is, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else or yourself, is bad. And that goes double for if you decide to keep it a hobby. Not every fanfic writer wants to write original fiction, and that’s just fine. Not every hobby has to be monetized.

 

Okay. But what do they mean by “fanfiction”?

 

“Fanfiction is fictional writing written by fans, commonly of an existing work of fiction. The author uses copyrighted characters, settings, or other intellectual properties from the original creator as a basis for their writing.”– Wikipedia

 

Basically – it’s when you take elements (setting, characters, major themes or ideas) of a Media Text (a novel, a movie, a podcast, a comic, etc.) and create a different story with those elements. You can write a missing scene, or an extended episode, or a whole new adventure for the characters of the Media Text. You can even crossover or fuse multiple Media Texts, or specific elements, to create a whole new understanding of the characters or their worlds.

 

Similar to fanfic, you can also create fanart, fancomics, or fansongs (“filk”), fancostumes (“cosplay”), and fanfilms. These are called Fanworks or Fancrafts.

 

Fanfiction is usually posted to online forums, journals, blogs, or story archives and shared for free among the public. Before the advent of the internet, fanfiction was often printed or typed, and hand-copied using photocopiers or ditto machines, and distributed for free (or for a small administration fee to cover materials) among fans at conventions, or through mail-order booklets (“zines”).

 

Fanfiction has existed pretty much since the beginning of storytelling (A Thousand and One Nights, Robin Hood, and King Arthur all have different elements attributed to them by different authors retelling, twisting, adding to, or changing the stories; there’s no single-origin author of those tales.)

 

There are billions on billions of fanfics out there in the world—and while a majority of them are romance stories, there are also adventures, comedies, dramas, thrillers, stories based on case files, stories about the emotional connection between characters when one is hurt and the other must care for them, historical retellings, etc. There are also stories for every age range and taste, though be sure to take heed of the tags, trigger warnings, and age range warnings as your browse the archives and digital libraries.

 

As a reader, it’s your responsibility to curate your experience online.

 

So why are people so afraid or derisive of fanfic?

 

People who are hard on fanfic say that…

 

  • It sucks.
    • Well of course it sucks! As it’s a low-stakes and easy way to try out creative writing for the first time, the majority of fanfiction is overwhelmingly written by new and young writers. Everything you do when you first try it sucks a little bit. I’m sure no figure skater was able to immediately land perfect triple axels ten minutes after they strap on the skates for the first time in their lives. No knitter has ever made a flawlessly perfect jumper on their first try. No mathematician has ever broken the code to send a rocket into space after having just been taught elementary-school multiplication. So why on earth do people think that new writers don’t need to practice? I can promise you that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first rap was probably pretty shaky.
  • It’s lazy or it’s cheating.
    • Listen, anyone who tells you that writing anything is lazy clearly has not sat down and tried to write anything. Writing is tedious. It is It takes hours, and hours, and hours to get anything on the page, and then once it’s on the page you have to go back and edit it. UGH. There is nothing about being a writer—even a fanfic writer—that is lazy.
    • And anyone who tells you that trying to tell a fresh, new story within the limits and confines of a pre-existing world and have it make sense is cheating, then they have no freaking clue how hard it is to be creative with that kind of limitation placed on you. It’s harder when you have a set of rules you need to follow. What you do come up with is often extremely interesting and creative because of those limitations, not in spite of them.
    • The argument that using pre-made characters, settings, tropes, and worlds to make up a new story is cheating is also complete bunk. Do those same people also expect hockey players to whittle and plane themselves a whole new hockey stick from scratch before each game? No, of course not. And yeah, a baker can grow all their own wheat, grind the flour, raise the chickens and cows so they can get eggs and milk, distill the vanilla, etc. Or a baker can buy a box mix. Either way, you get a cake at the end of the process. Whether you write fanfic or original fiction, you still get a story at the end of the process.
  • It makes you a worse
    • * annoying buzzer noise * Practicing anything does not make you worse at it. And reading stories that are not edited, expertly crafted, or “high art” will also not indoctrinate you into being a bad writer. If anything, figuring out why you don’t like a specific story, trope, or writing style is actually a great way to learn what kind of writer you want to be, and to learn different methods of constructing sentences, creating images, and telling tales. Or you know, just how much spelling and grammar matter.
  • It’s not highbrow or thoughtful enough.
    • Sometimes stories are allowed to be just comfort food. Not every book or story you read has to be haute cuisine or boringly nutritious. You are allowed to read stories because they’re exciting, or swoony, or funny, or just because you like Anyone who says differently is a snob and worth ignoring. (Besides, fun silly stories can also be packed with meaning and lessons—I mean, hello, Terry Prachett, anyone?)
  • It makes you waste all your time on writing that can’t be monetized.
    • No time is wasted if you spend it doing something that brings you joy. Not every hobby needs to be a money-maker and not everyone wants to be a professional writer. You are allowed to write, and read, fanfic just for the fun of it.
  • It’s theft.
    • According to Fair Use Law, it’s not. As long as the fanfic writer (or artist, cosplayer, etc.) is not making money on their creation that directly impacts or cuts into the original creator’s profit, or is not repackaging/plagiarizing the original Media Text and profiting off it’s resale, then Fan Works are completely legal. So there.

 

How, exactly, does fanfic make you a better writer?

 

Fanfiction…

 

  • teaches you to finish what you start.
    • The joy of being able to share your fic, either as you’re writing it, or afterward, is a big motivating factor for a lot of people. They finish because they get immediate feedback on it from their readers and followers. Lots of people have ideas for books, but how many of them do you know have actually sat down and written the whole thing?
    • Fanfic is also low-stakes; there’s nothing riding on whether you finish something or not, so you have to inspire yourself to get there without the outside (potentially negative) motivation of deadline or a failing grade if you don’t get the story finished. You end up learning how to motivate yourself.
    • Fanfic has no rules, so you write as much or as little as you want, stop wherever you think is a good place to end the story, write it out of order, or go back and write as many sequels or prequels as you like. Again, it’s totally low-stakes and is meant to be for fun, so you can noodle around with what it means to write a “whole” story and “complete” it, which teaches you how you like to write, and how you like to find your way to the finish line.
  • teaches you story structure.
    • Before you can sit down and write a story based on one of your favorite Media Texts, you’re likely to spend a lot of time consuming that text passively, or studying it actively. Either way, you’re absorbing how and why Media Text structures the stories it tells, and are learning how to structure your own from that.
    • Once you’re comfortable with the story structure the Media Text you’re working in is told, you’ll probably start experimenting with different ways stories can be told, and find the versions you like to work with best.
  • teaches you how to write characters consistently.
    • Fanfic is really hard because not only do you have to write your fave characters in a way that moves the story along, but they have to be recognizable as those fave characters.
    • This means you have to figure out their body language, verbal and physical tics, their motivations and they way the handle a crisis (fight, flight, or fawn?), and then make up the details you may need for your story that you may never see on screen/the page, like how they take their eggs or what their fave shampoo is, based on what you already know about them. That takes some top-notch detective work and character understanding to pull off.
    • Once you know how to do that, just making up a whole person yourself for original fiction is a breeze.
  • Teaches you how to hear and mimic a character/narrator voice.
    • You have to pay close attention to how an actor speaks, or how a character’s speech patterns, dialect, work choice, etc. is reflected on the page in order to be consistent in your story.
    • And all of this, in turn, teaches you how to build one for yourself.
    • I have a whole series of articles here about building a narrative voice, if you want to read more on constructing an original voice for your narrator.
  • Teaches you how to create or recreate a setting.
    • Again, like achieving character consistency, or mimicking a character or narrative voice, it takes work and paying attention in order to re-create a setting, time period, or geographical region in a fanfic—and if you’re taking your characters somewhere new, your readers will expect that setting to be equally rich as the one the Media Text is based in.
    • Which, again, teaches you how to then go and build an original one for yourself.
  • teaches how to take critique.
    • Professional writing is not a solitary pursuit. In fact, most writing is not entirely the work of an author alone. Like professional authors work with editors, critique partners, and proofreaders, some fanfiction writers will sometimes work with beta-readers or editors as well. This are friends or fanfic colleagues who offer to read your fanfic and point out plot, character, consistency, or story structure errors, or who offer to correct spelling and grammar errors. This is a great way to practice working with editors if you decide to pursue a professional career, and also a great way to make friends and strengthen your community and skill set if you don’t.
    • Many fanfic sites offer readers the opportunity to leave a comment on a fic, rather like a reviewer can leave a review on GoodReads or Amazon, or any other online store or blog, for a novel they’ve read. Sometimes these comments/reviews are 5 star and enthusiastic! Sometimes they are… not. The exact opposite in fact. As you get comments on your fanfic, and learn to ignore the ones that are just mean rather than usefully critical, you gain the Very Important Skill of learning to resist firing back at bad comments or reviews, while enjoying the good ones. It also teaches you how to ignore drama or haters.
  • Teaches you how to exist within a like-minded community.
    • While the actual writing part of writing is solitary and sometimes tedious, nothing is ever published into a vacuum, whether it be fanfiction or original. Besides your editing/critique/beta reader group, you will also likely develop friendships, a support network, and mutuals. It’s always great to uplift, support, cheer on, and celebrate one another’s accomplishments and victories, whether the writing is fanfic or original.
  • Teaches you that it’s okay to write about things important to you, or your own identity.
    • You can change a characters ethnicity, cultural background, sexuality, religion, or disabilities to match yours, and talk about your lived life through the megaphone of that character. Or, you can insert original characters based on you, your desires, and experiences.
    • Once you’re comfortable writing in your #ownvoice in fanfic, you can approach it in original fiction, if you like.
    • See my article titled Your Voice Is Valid for more on this.

 

What if I want to be a professional writer?

 

Notice how I didn’t say “real writer”. Any writer who writes any kind of story is a ‘real’ writer. I mean, pinch yourself—you’re real, right? The difference is actually between being an “amateur” writer (a hobbyist who does not write for pay), and a “professional” (who is paid for their writing). Just because you only play shinny on the street with your friends, or in a house league on the weekends, it’s doesn’t mean  you’re not still as much of a hockey player as someone who plays in the NHL.

 

Writing fanfiction before or at the same time as writing original fiction that you intend to sell is a great way to learn, or practice, everything I’ve mentioned above. If you read it widely, it will also expose you to different story telling styles, voices, and tropes than your reading of published fiction.

 

  • Can I sell my fanfic?
    • For fanfiction to remain under the umbrella of Fair Use Law, you cannot profit off your fanfiction. There’s some grey-area wiggle room around things like charging a small amount for a ‘zine or a PDF to cover administrative costs, but zero wiggleability around, say, selfpublishing your fanfic and charging heaps for it.
  • Can I “file off the serial numbers”?
    • “Filing of the series numbers” is when you take a fanfic you’ve written and essentially pull it apart, remove everything that’s clearly someone else’s Media Text, and reassembling the story so that it’s pretty much a completely original piece of creative writing.
    • Yes, you can sell these, provided your filing is rigorous enough that you aren’t likely to be dinged for plagiarism. It’s widely known that Cassandra Claire’s Shadowhunters was once Harry Potter fanfic, and that Fifty Shades of Gray was once Twilight But did you know that my Triptych started life as an idea for a Stargate Atlantis fic? There’s lots of stories out there that were once full fics, or the idea for the novel was originally conceived for a fandom, but written as original instead.
    • So long as you’re careful to really rework the text so that it’s not just a find-name-replace-name rewrite, you should be fine.
    • Be aware, though, that the agents and editors you might pitch this novel to know how to Google. They may discover that this is a filed-off story, and depending on their backgrounds and biases, might be concerned about it. There’s no need to inform them of the novel’s origin straight off in your pitch/query letter, but you may want to have a frank discussion with them about it after it’s been signed so they can help you make sure that any lingering copywrited concepts or characters are thoroughly changed before publication.
    • Should you take down the original fic-version of the novel while you’re querying/shopping it? Well, that’s up to you, and whether you’re comfortable with an editor/agent potentially finding it.
  • Should I be ashamed of my fic, or take it down, or pretend I never wrote fic?
    • What? Why? No! I mean, I have hidden some of my most immature work, but I’ve left pretty much my whole catalogue of fanfic online and I don’t deny that I was/am a ficcer. Why? Because it’s a great repository of free stories that people can read before they buy one of my books, so they can get a taste of how and what I write. Also, you will be in good company. Lots and lots of writers who are published now-a-days started in fandom, including:
      • Steven Moffat
      • Seanan McGuire
      • Rainbow Rowell
      • Claudia Gray
      • Cory Doctorow
      • Marissa Meyer
      • Meg Cabot.
      • Naomi Novik.
      • Neil Gaiman.
      • Lev Grossman.
      • E. Hinton.
      • John Scalzi
      • The Bronte Sisters
      • Andy Weir
      • Sarah Rees Brennan
      • Marjorie M. Liu
      • Anna Todd
      • and of course, J.M. Frey

 

How fanfic can harm.

 

Like with anything else, there are ways that reading and writing fanfiction can actually harm you, or others, but it has nothing to do with the reading or writing of fanfiction in and of itself.

 

  • Some creators may prefer that you don’t (and may or may not follow up with legal action).
    • Anne Rice famously went after fanficcers in the 90s who wrote fanfic of her work, handing out Cease & Desist notices like confetti.
    • 99% of creators don’t care. Those who do will generally have a notice on their websites or social media politely asking fancreators to refrain. Mostly this is due to their general discomfort over the idea of anyone else getting to play in their worlds. The best thing to do is respect that request, and find a different fandom to write in.
  • Flamewars and fandom fights leading to bullying and doxing.
    • Regrettably, just like any other community filled with people who have different favorites, opinions, and preferences, there will inevitably be clashes. It’s up to you to decide how to react to negative interactions, and how to model positive ones.
    • Don’t forget, you curate your online experience, so don’t be afraid of that block button.
    • Also, don’t be the jerk who goes after people for liking different aspects of the fandom. Everyone is entitled to interact and like a Media Text their own way. “Don’t yuck my yum,” as they say.
  • Trying to make money on other people’s IP/Media Text (law suits, etc.)
    • It doesn’t belong to you, so don’t try to make money on it.
    • There’s a grey area here in terms of selling prints/plushies/jewelry/etc. and there’s no hard line about where one copyright owner will draw the line, and another won’t. Warner Bros. owns the film rights for both Harry Potter and Hunger Games, but I’ve seen Harry Potter-themed bars spring up while fans wanting to make Hunger Game fanfilms have been shut down. A friend of mine sells hand-made fandom-inspired items at cons—there is no rhyme or reason to what she gets told to stop making and what she’s left alone on.
    • Best thing to do if you’re told to stop is just so stop, move on, and find a different fandom to be active in.
  • Writing Real Person Fanfic (“RPF”) can be considered a violation of consent.
    • This article sums it up pretty well, but basically… if you decide to write RPF, be aware that they person you are writing about is a real person, with real thoughts, and emotions, and they may feel violated by RPF. If you decide to write it, never send it to the people it’s about, and always clearly tag it so other can choose to engage with it, or avoid it.
    • Also be aware that it could ruin their love for what they do. For example: the friendships between the members of 1Direciton became strained and the band eventually disintegrated because people wouldn’t stop sending band members smutty stories or art of them having sex with one another, and it made them too uncomfortable to continue in the band.
  • Showing/sharing fanfic & fanart outside of its intended context. Fanworks are for fans, and there are definitely issues if…
    • It’s shown to celebrities/actors/creators.
      • Shoving your fantasies onto the people who create or portray your fave characters is rude, and wrong, and also kinda gross. If they seek it out themselves, that’s one thing, but the same way you wouldn’t throw it at a complete stranger, don’t throw it at them. You may love the characters these people play, but they are not their characters, and they are not your friends.
      • It may also really weird them out and ruin their love for what they do.
    • it’s shown to writers working on the series.
      • There was a famous case where a fanficcer sent a story to a novelist, and the novelist was accused of plagiarism by the ficcer when their next novel in the series resembled the plot of that fanfic. There was a whole court case and everything.
      • Because of this, writers of TV shows, books, etc. don’t want to (and often times, legally can’t) read your fanfic. They don’t want to get accidentally inspired by what you’ve written, or worse, have to throw out something because it resembles your fic too closely. Just let them write their stories the way they want, and if they choose to seek out fic, they will.
    • it’s mocked by celebrities.
      • I’m not letting Alan Carr and Graham Norton off the hook. If it’s super rude and gross to shove fanworks at actors/writers/creators when you’re a creator, then it’s doubly rude for anyone to take a story or art made for a specific audience (the fans), by a specific community (the fans), lift it out of it’s context, and invite the public to mock it while also shoving it at the actor/celebrity in a place where they are literally cornered and can’t leave (i.e. the chat-show sofa). Man, it really steams me up when they do that. It’s rude and it’s tone-deaf, and it’s not
      • And most of the time they do it, they don’t even ask the artist or writer for permission, first, which is just…. Uuuuugggghhhh. It may be fanfic, but it was still created by someone, and you should always ask permission before publicly sharing something created by someone else.

 

In Conclusion

 

If someone tells you that reading or writing fanfic is bad for you as a creator, tell them to get bent.

Famous Fanfic

  • Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda
  • Wicked by Gregory Maguire
  • Wicked: the Musical by Stephen Schwartz
  • The Phantom of Manhattan by Fredrick Forsyth
  • A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman
  • Sherlock by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat
  • The Dracula Tape, by Fred Saberhaugen
  • Paradise Lost, John Milton
  • Inferno, by Dante
  • The Aeneid, by Virgil
  • Ulysses, by James Joyce
  • Romeo & Juliet, by William Shakespeare
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain
  • The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas
  • Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith
  • Phantom, a novel of his life by Susan Kaye
  • …and so many more.

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Find more WORDS FOR WRITERS articles here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: The Value of Fanfiction
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WORDS FOR WRITERS – In Conversation with Kisa Whipkey – Part II

WORDS FOR WRITERS – In Conversation with Kisa Whipkey – Part II

J.M. Frey, author of THE SKYLARK’S SAGA, in conversation with series editor Kisa Whipkey. Join them as they discuss how the series was first acquired, the decision to split the first book in two, and why they love “enemies to lovers” and slow world-building so much. Warning – contains spoilers for book one of the saga.

 About the books:

The Skylark’s Saga


A Saskwyan flight mechanic with uncanny luck, seventeen-year-old Robin Arianhod grew up in the shadow of a decade-long war. But the skies are stalked by the Coyote—a ruthless Klonn pilot who picks off crippled airships and retreating soldiers. And as the only person to have survived an aerial dance with Saskwya’s greatest scourge, Robin has earned his attention. As a Pilot, Robin is good. But the Coyote is better. When he shoots her down and takes her prisoner, Robin finds herself locked into a new kind of dance. The possibility of genuine affection from a man who should be her enemy has left her with a choice: accept the Coyote’s offer of freedom and romance in exchange for repairing a strange rocket pack that could spell Saskwya’s defeat, but become a traitor to her county. Or betray her own heart and escape. If she takes the rocket pack and flees, she could end the war from the inside.

 About Kisa Whipkey:

Home


Kisa Whipkey is a dark fantasy author, a martial arts demo team expert, and a complete sucker for Cadbury Mini-eggs. She’s also the Acquisitions & Editorial Director for YA/NA publisher, REUTS Publications. She developed a passion for storytelling at a young age and has pursued that love through animation, writing, video game design, and demo teams until finally finding her home in editing. She believes in good storytelling, regardless of medium, and applauds anything featuring a snarky lead character, a complicated narrative structure, and brilliant/uncommon analogies. Currently, she lives in the soggy Pacific Northwest with her husband and plethora of electronics.

 About J.M.Frey:

J.M. Frey – Author, Screenwriter & Fanthropologist


J.M. is an author, screenwriter, and professional smartypants. With an MA in Communications and Culture, she’s appeared in podcasts, documentaries, and on radio and television to discuss all things geeky through the lens of academia. She also has an addiction to scarves, Doctor Who, and tea, which may or may not all be related. Her life’s ambition is to have stepped foot on every continent (only 3 left!)

 Music: “Creative Minds” by Bensound (Royalty Free) – https://www.bensound.com/

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You can find more WORDS FOR WRITERS here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS – In Conversation with Kisa Whipkey – Part II
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ANNOUNCEMENT – I have a Talent Agent!

ANNOUNCEMENT – I have a Talent Agent!

I am extremely excited to announce that I am now represented by Jennifer Fry and Carol Anne Prosje of Star Talent, Inc. as a Voice Actor! (If you’ve never heard them before, you can listen to my professional demo reels here.)

Being a professional voice actor has been a dream of mine since I was 13 years old and first watched Sailor Moon. It was then that I realized that there were actors behind the cartoons, and as a child actor at the time, I was determined that one day, I too would be a Moon Princess, or a colourful Little Pony, or a fiesty school girl travelling through the past with a strange half-dog warrior. Basically, I wanted to be whatever strange and fantastical thing animators and mangaka could think up.

My desire to do this for a living was solidified when I purchased a cassette tape of the English Sailor Moon soundtrack (with most songs performed by the incredibly talented Jennifer Cihi – my absolute freaking IDOL). I played that cassette to death, and more than one person pointed at my stereo and asked me if that was me singing.

Me? I sounded like the literal singing voice of Sailor Moon? Wow.

I was quite lucky, then, later in my acting training, to take voice acting classes and workshops with two separate people who were involved in the English dub of Sailor Moon. As I grew as a performer and author, I was also quite fortunate to be either an actor or fellow con guest of so many other amazing VAs, who all gave me great advice.

Since then I’ve pounded the pavement as a freelance VA for years, and with the guidance of several of those VAs, revised my demos last fall. The lockdown slowed some things down for me, but I started sending out my demos this summer, got some wonderful responses, and had the privilege to choose to be represented by Jennifer Fry.

I want to thank the following people for helping me create an amazing demo, and for pushing me to pursue VA work professionally: Deb, Rodney, Adrienne, Stephanie, Kyle, Roland, Gini, Alyson, and Kirby.

Next stop… hopefully your television screens!

JM FreyANNOUNCEMENT – I have a Talent Agent!
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WORDS FOR WRITERS – In Conversation with Kisa Whipkey Part I

WORDS FOR WRITERS – In Conversation with Kisa Whipkey Part I

J.M. Frey, author of THE ACCIDENTAL TURN SERIES, in conversation with series editor Kisa Whipkey. Join them as they follow the series from idea, to how it was pitched and sold, through the editing stages and concept challenges, to final product.

Warning – contains spoilers! Watch out for Jazz Hands!

About the books:

This book follows Pip, who is pulled against her will into the epic fantasy novel series she’s loved since she was a teenager. However, the world is darker, and far more dangerous than she could have ever predicted, especially when it turns out the hero is a much bigger misogynistic ass than she knew. Pip knows how to circumnavigate the Hero’s Journey and the pitfalls and loopholes of this particular world – but what will happen to her beloved characters outside of the comfort of the fantasy they were written for? And what happens when it’s not the male-power-fantasy hero, but the hero’s overlooked and bullied little brother who proves to be her biggest champion?

About Kisa Whipkey:

Kisa Whipkey is a dark fantasy author, a martial arts demo team expert, and a complete sucker for Cadbury Mini-eggs. She’s also the Acquisitions & Editorial Director for YA/NA publisher, REUTS Publications. She developed a passion for storytelling at a young age and has pursued that love through animation, writing, video game design, and demo teams until finally finding her home in editing. She believes in good storytelling, regardless of medium, and applauds anything featuring a snarky lead character, a complicated narrative structure, and brilliant/uncommon analogies. Currently, she lives in the soggy Pacific Northwest with her husband and plethora of electronics.

About J.M.Frey:

J.M. is an author, screenwriter, and professional smartypants. With an MA in Communications and Culture, she’s appeared in podcasts, documentaries, and on radio and television to discuss all things geeky through the lens of academia. She also has an addiction to scarves, Doctor Who, and tea, which may or may not all be related. Her life’s ambition is to have stepped foot on every continent (only 3 left!)

Music: “Creative Minds” by Bensound (Royalty Free)

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Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS – In Conversation with Kisa Whipkey Part I
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WORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Get An Agent?

WORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Get An Agent?

I’ve talked about this in other articles, but I wanted to dedicate a full post specifically to getting an Agent.

There are thousands of agents out there at any given time, but those thousands of agents are getting requests for representation from hundreds of would-be-writers every month. There’s massive, massive competition for the attention of a single agent, and so the querying process has been developed to separate the wheat from the chaff, and help the agents find the authors with the talent, drive, and discipline that they want to represent. Agents can, therefore, afford to be picky.

The very  first thing that you should know is that agents sign clients on proven, tangible talent, not “what ifs” and “maybes” – you could have the best idea for a novel in the entire world, but if it’s not down on paper, polished and complete, there’s nothing there to actually read and evaluate, and then sell.

This is where a lot of writers first stumble – their first impression is awful. They don’t finish and polish the manuscript, or they don’t research the agents they’re approaching enough and submit to the wrong agents, or their cover letters are horrendous. The agent-writer relationship is very important, and it’s vital to find an agent who not only represents the kind of writing that the author is submitting at the moment, but also the sort of career they want to have – and the agent has to be excited about the writer’s manuscript, too, and have the connections to sell it to the right publishing houses or manage the various rights. The agent and the writer have to like each other, and have to be able to maintain a professional relationship based on trust. They don’t have to be friends, but they have to be able to get along.

It’s also useful, but not necessary to have a handful of publications in short story anthologies, genre magazines, academic journals, newspapers, a completed thesis, a blog that you run and update consistently with a significant following, a series of popular fanfictions, etc. prior to beginning the agent-search.

Basically, that completed manuscript and any other publications are proof that not only can you write, but that you can finish what you write. And that there are other people who believe your writing is good and like it – whether that’s paid, or just a big number in terms of stats in a free-to-read medium like Wattpad or Archive of Our Own. You just need to prove that there have already been others who have invested in you and found your work worth publishing. This can include your stories from Wattpad, Raddish, or any other sort of online story-sharing platform, especially if the story is finished and you have a significant number of read stats and engagement.

Should I try to get an agent with my Online Publishing Platform Story?

Well, that’s a tough question.

See, here’s the thing: agents and publishers are in the business of making money. And a story that is already out there available for free to the reading public is, well, not making money.

There are two times when I would say using your Wattpad/Raddish/Online Published Story on submission is a good idea:

First, if you have a highly polished and complete tale, that is relatively unknown on the site and has low reads. This way it can be pulled for polishing and submission.

And yes, I think that if you’re going to submit with the story, you should delist it from the website. Why? Because agents and publishers know how to use Google and if the book comes up and they find it for free elsewhere, then it’s already out there and not something they can commodity.

The second is the exact opposite – if the story is massively, hugely, incredibly popular. I’m talking like, “After”popular. Like, E.L. James “Fifty Shades of Grey”-back-when-it-was-still-a-fanfic popular. These kinds of stories, even though they’ve already been published online, have a massive, rabid, incredibly dedicated fanbase that is willing to purchase a book they’ve already read for the sheer fannish devotion. That’s a book worth shopping around to agents because it’s a guaranteed money-maker.

And what should you do if you fall between those two points?

Well, I think you should write another book.

See, agents aren’t just here for a one-and-done with their clients. They want to represent your entire career, and that means multiple projects spread over many years. You’re going to have to write multiple books over your career, and this is the time to start. Create book that has nothing to do with your already-published-online one, and make sure it’s a strong one.

And that already-published-online story? Mention it in your cover letter to the agent and cite the number of views, comments, and votes you’ve gotten on it. Use it as proof that people already like your work. Later, down the road, when you have an agent and you guys have a good working relationship set up, that is when you mention that already-published-online story again. Ask them if they’d be interested in reading it, maybe seeing if there’s some potential for money-making there.

Your agent may say yes, they may say no. Heck, maybe the announcement of your publishing deal will have skyrocketed your story’s popularity. You can’t be sure what will happen to that story, but it’s always nice to keep it on the digital story-sharing site so people interested in your forthcoming book have a chance to sample your storytelling style.

Of course, this is just what I would do. If you feel that you’d try a different route, that’s up to you.

So how does this all work?

  • Write a novel. Edit and polish that novel within an inch of it’s life. You can do this with a professional editor, or with critique partners, or beta readers, whatever suits you and your process the best. Just make sure that the novel is 1) complete, and 2) the best version of itself. You only get to make a first impression once; make sure it’s a good one.
  • Write your Pitch Package. This will include the cover letter that you submit along with your manuscript, and should be equally as polished as your book. You can read about what should be in a Pitch Package here.
  • Research which agents you want to submit to.  You can find info in the agency guides that are published each year in your country, as well as on websites like DuoTrope, Absolute Write, and Writer Beware. Read industry publications like your local Writer’s Guild/Union magazine and newsletter, or Publishers Weekly. I also went to the bookstore and wrote down the names of all the authors who were writing books like mine – SF/F, Queer, near-future spec, very thinky – and then went home and researched who their agents were. Social media has also made this so much easier than it was when I was first looking for an agent, because now you can see how those agents communicate, what sorts of things are important to them, and can even have little interactions with them prior to submitting.
  •  Research which agents you want to submit to more. I cannot stress this enough – read their website and blog. Make sure they are even open to new submissions. Make extra sure they represent what you write (i.e.don’t send your western romance to an agent who only does space opera). Figure out if their agency shares submissions between all the agents or if you can query another agent in the practice if one doesn’t offer. Know who their other clients are and the kinds of deals they’ve gotten through thier agents.
  • Submit. Agents prefer that you submit to them one at a time so that they have the chance to read your work without outside pressures. I did it a few at a time, tracking them on an Excel sheet that listed all of the things they wanted in each submission, and more importantly, recorded their feedback. When the same feedback was given more than three times, I took a long hard look at the book, did some revisions to address the issue, and resumed sending the book out.
    This will be a long process and could take anywhere from several months to several years.
  • Start with your favourite, #1, big dream agent. This way you’re not insulting a lesser-desired agent who is offering by asking them to wait while you query someone you’d like better, and it means that if you hit big on the first go, then your hunt is over right away. Woo hoo. (This is also why you need to make sure your book is the best it can be and has been through revisions and edits from outside eyes before you ever start submitting.)
  • When you submit your manuscript, give the agent exactly what they asked for. No more. No less. If they say “Query letter, first five chapters, and a picture of a clown with a purple nose,” give them the letter, the chapters, and the picture and nothing else. Why? They are testing you. Yes. This is a test about whether you can follow directions, and whether you are worth working with as a result. Okay, so no one actually asks for clown pictures, but the point stands. If they ask for the first five chapters, don’t send the whole book. If they ask for the whole book, don’t send them only the first five. They have a specific process for how they evaluate manuscripts and potential clients and you don’t want to mess with their groove. They are just looking for an excuse to reject you so they can move on to the next person in the slushpile. Do not give them one.
  • Only submit to agents in the way they tell you to submit. If they say paper, send it on paper. If they say email, email them. If there is a form to fill out, fill it out. Do not hand-deliver it to the agency offices unless they specifically tell you to do so.
  • Be polite, oh my god, be polite. Be a professional. No one wants to work with a whiny, cranky, self-important snowflake. And trust me when I tell you that agents talk to one another. They will know if you send back a snarky, horrible email when you receive a rejection, or if you bitch about them on your own social media, or neg them in the cover letter. These are human beings that you are hoping to form a relationship with, and you will be asking to manage your career and money. Treat them like the professionals they are.
  • And for the love of little baby ducks, no bribes or weird submission materials. Don’t send cookies, or bookmarks, or a cover you made for your book yourself, or gifts. And if it’s one of the agencies that still prefers paper submissions, don’t send it on scented stationary or in green swirly pen. You don’t know whose migraines that might trigger. Professional, professional, professional.
  • Wait. I know, it’s frustrating and terrible, but you gotta give the agent time to read your submission – and all of the ones that came in before yours. Their website will usually indicate how long you can expect to wait before you hear from them; usually it’s a few months but sometimes it’s upwards of a year. If that time has lapsed and they haven’t responded to your submission at all, you can send them a politely worded follow up to ask about the status of your submission.
  • If you’re like me and query just a few agents at a time, and one comes back with an offer while you’re still waiting to hear from the others, it’s professional to message the others and either politely withdraw your submission from their slushpile, or inform them that you have an offer and that you’d like to hear from that agent too, in case they may also be interested and may like to counter-offer.
  • Agents review your book on several points – does the agent think it’s well written? Is it original, fresh, intriguing, saleable? Is it pandering to a trend that is going to be dead in the time it takes to get the book into print (usually a few years), or could it possibly pioneer a new one? Is the writing good but the plot broken, yet fixable? Would it make a good series?
  • Agents will look you up. Again, agents know how to Google and they will look at your online presence, the way you conduct yourself, and the professional-ness of your blog and website if you have one. They want to know if you’re going to be good for their agency, or a risk to their reputation. (So if you’re going off on Twitter about how stupid a previous agent you submitted to is for not recognizing the special awesomeness of your holy talent, be prepared to have every other agent you query after that say ‘no thanks’ to being a part of your narcissistic dumpster-fire career, too.)

The Rejection

  • More often than not, you’re going to get a politely worded “No, thank you,” with little or no details as to why the manuscript was rejected. Assume that it just didn’t hook the agent, and move on. They’ve got lots of submissions to get through. I always replied with a very nice “Thanks so much for your consideration, and I wish you all the best with your current clients, ta ta” kind of email and left it at that. They’ve made up their mind, and there’s nothing you can do about that.
  • However, you might get a conditional rejection. This will be something like, “I liked this, but I think XYZ isn’t working and I’d like to see you address that and resubmit please.” Now, when you get an email like that, you need to remember that 1) it’s just that agent’s opinion. If you don’t like the agent’s suggestion for changes, you’re not obligated to make those changes and resubmit. You can just politely say ‘no thanks’ and move on to the next agent (although, you know, remember that they do this for a living so they have an idea of what they’re talking about.) 2) It’s not a promise of a yes later down the line. It’s just a promise to re-read and give it a second consideration.
  • You might get an alternate request. The agent might not want or need the book you submitted for various reasons – it’s too close to something one of their other clients is already doing, or the trend is dead, etc. – but they love your writing and want to see more from you. They may ask to look at what else you have. Now, ideally, while you’ve been querying you’ve also been writing. For reasons that I go into further detail about in “How to Plan a Series“, you should be writing something different from what you submitted with, and not the second book of the same series. If it’s not finished, tell the agent that you have a manuscript in progress and if they’d be willing to wait a few weeks for you to polish up the existing chapters to send along, you’d be happy to do so. If you don’t have anything on the go, point them to your story on an online platform (if you have one), or tell them that you don’t have anything else at the moment but look forward to pitching them in the future with another novel when it’s ready. (And if you finish querying to no success with your current manuscript, then absolutely write another novel and send it to that agent. Be sure to remind them that they asked for something else from you when you submit.)
  • Sometimes, there may be something in the letter that you might be able to respond to. For example, when I submitted my debut novel to a small press publisher, the editor said she really, really loved the characters and concept, but that there were several flaws in the manuscript that she couldn’t see a way toward fixing and that’s why she said ‘no’. I replied and politely asked that if I took some time to rewrite the novel to address her concerns, would she be willing to re-read it and reconsider my submission. She said yes, I rewrote, and she ended up accepting the manuscript for the publishing house. However, had she said no, I would have taken her advice, and rewritten the book anyway, and then moved on to other agents and publishers to submit to.
  • Hopefully, all this submitting, and tracking the feedback, and revising your manuscript accordingly, and submitting again, will pay off and you’ll end up signing with an agent. But I’m gonna be really honest with you – it might not. You could get to the end of the list of agents that you wanted to work with, and have no offers.
  • At this point, you need to step back and re-evaluate: does your craft need work, and that’s why you were rejected? Is the story right for the time? Did you tell the story in the right age range and demographic, or is it too mature/juvenile? And, more importantly – do you still want an agent? Is this still the route you want to go, or do you want to give indie publishers, small presses, vanity publishing, or self-publishing a try? (And please, for the love of those same baby ducks, don’t choose to go into selfpub on a knee-jerk defensive reflex because you feel rejected by trade publishing – selfpubbing is a very hard small business to open and run and you need to be even more professional and informed to do it well and make any kind of profit.)
  • If the answer is yes, you still want an agent, then I would recommend putting that book in a drawer and starting a new one. That first manuscript can always be revised and revived later. And you probably learned so much from writing that first book that your next one will be a hundred times better. But for now, stick it somewhere that’s away and move on, and try again. And be heartened by knowing that pretty much every author has a “trunk book” that didn’t get them an agent – a lot of people get agents on their second or third manuscripts. I know an author who got an agent on her eighth.

The Acceptance

  • If an agent likes the sample of your manuscript you sent per their instructions (the “partial”), they will likely ask for a “full” – meaning the whole book. They may also ask for things like market comparisons or series pitches. Don’t worry, if you’ve created your full Pitch Package, you’ll already have that stuff ready to go out. I always recommend taking a day or two before replying to give the manuscript a quick re-read to catch any last-minute typos or glaring errors, and then sending on the manuscript.
  • If the agent likes the full book, they’ll likely ask for a phone call to have a chat with you. This is to see how you communicate together, check if you guys are on the same wavelength, and to give you the opportunity to ask questions. Don’t be nervous – remember, this is as much about you deciding if you can work with this agent as them evaluating you in return. Have a list of questions for them, and note down their answers. Things like whether they’re more of a hand-holder or if they have no interest in being part of your emotional support network, just your business one. Whether they like to offer editorial advice on your new books. Whether they like your ideas for some other novels (again, they’re in this for your whole career, not just this manuscript). Whether they’d be open to meeting in person regularly. What kind of deals they’ve closed in the last year. Then thank them for their offer and let them know that you’re interested and will get back to them with your decision.
  • You don’t have to decide right away. I mean, obviously don’t take too long a time to decide, but give yourself breathing space to review your wants and desires in an agent against what this particular agent is offering. Maybe reach out privately to some of their other clients to see how happy they are and how the agency runs from the inside. Check the agent against Writer Beware and look them up again on DuoTrope and Absolute Write, and Query Tracker. And if something feels off, or if you don’t like something and want further clarification or explanation, address it with the agent. Email them, or ask for another call.
  • You are under no obligation to say yes. Let me repeat that: you are under no obligation to say yes. If you don’t like the offer or something just isn’t jivving, you can say no.
  • Once you have said yes, your agent will send you a contract. Review it carefully, ask for clarification on things you don’t understand, and feel free to discuss amendments with your agent if you feel they’re necessary. Be aware that if it isn’t in the contract, it’s not something your agent is obligated to provide to you – like help doing your taxes as an author, or financial mentorship if you get a large advance. If you want that information, you need to ask for it, and your agent will point you in the right direction.
  • Once you’ve signed, you’ll be an official client, and they’ll likely make an announcement.
  • Celebrate!
  • And then get down to the hard work of getting that manuscript you signed with ready for submission to publishing houses. Communicate, communicate, communicate. As with any relationship, this is the key to a happy future career and a great team effort between you and your agent.

Is there another way to do this, without going through the submission slushpile?

Sure!

I didn’t get my agent through the slushpile. (Though pretty much all of my authorfriends did.) While I was querying agents, I met an editor at a convention and accidentally pitched her my novel Triptych at a room party. At that point I’d had about 20 agent rejections, as well as some publisher rejections as I’d submitted to some small/indie presses that didn’t require submissions to come through an agent.

The editor wanted to read “Triptych”, and eventually rejected it. But she allowed me to try again when I asked her if she’d be willing to let me resubmit after revisions that addressed the reasons why she rejected it. She did, I rewrote, and she signed the book. Many things happened with the book – Publisher’s Weekly starred review, Lambda Literary Award nominations, film adaptation offers, named Best Book of the Year by PW – and I realized quickly that I needed an agent ASAP to help me navigate this new reality.

Through that editor I got some agent recommendations. I also had a few contact me, to ask me if I was looking for representation and asking for the chance to have a chat. I had another book completed at the time (what would eventually become “The Skylark’s Song“), and I used that manuscript to submit with.

I narrowed down my choices to three agents, and got on the phone with each of them. All three more or less offered to represent me. The first, I declined because talked over me the whole call, didn’t listen to what I said, and was frankly kind of a ditz. The second said she’d give me a conditional offer of representation, provided that I revise “Skylark” first with her notes. The third said he’d like to take me immediately and work with me on the “Skylark” revisions. I spoke again to the second agent, and she advised me that if the third agent was keen enough to sign me before he saw the revised manuscript, I should likely sign with him. So I did.

I found out later that agent #2 was mad at herself for “letting me get away”, but not to worry. Turns out the agent I signed with and I had a terrible relationship (he was the one that contact me, and remember, this was before there was really any presence of agents on social media so I didn’t really know much about him), and I eventually ended up leaving him for agent #2.

You can also meet agents by attending pitching sessions at conventions and conferences (this is why you need to read their website – it will tell you where and when they’ll be). In-person-face-to-face pitches can be nerve-wracking, but with your Pitch Package you’ll have already done all the hard work on figuring out how to talk about the book. All you have to do no is memorize some of the info (the elevator pitch, especially), and practice controlling your nerves. And agents are aware that you’re nervous, and are there to see you succeed. No one will judge the quality of your novel based on the the quality of your ‘performance’ while pitching.

I would very much caution you, though, not to try to casually pitch the agent at the conference bar or networking party, unless you have already had a good conversation with them and they seem open to it. Don’t make them work when they’re trying to relax, it’s annoying.

If you do want to pitch them in these situations, I’d say something along the lines of, “Hey, listen, I’m really enjoying this conversation and I think we might work well together. Do you mind if I send you an email later to pitch you my novel?”

They may give you a card and say yes – remind them in the email where and how you met them, when you send them your cover letter. They may say no thanks, and you have to respect that because no amount of bullying to let you pitch them will endear them to you or your work. They may ask you to pitch on the spot (always memorize your elevator pitch!) The point is to let them decide if they are comfortable hearing about your book now, or if they prefer a different form of communication.

As I said earlier, each agent has their own way of evaluating pitches and you want to respect that.

For the love of those little baby ducks we are all now coddling, do not pitch in inappropriate spaces. I have heard horror stories of people slipping manuscripts under bathroom stall doors while agents are peeing. Are you kidding? That is not how to start a professional relationship!

You may want to look into online contests as well, like #PitMad or #PitchWars on Twitter, or blogs like Miss Snark’s First Victim which holds a few Secret Agent contest every year, or any number of hundreds of other opportunities. Your local and online writing community friends will have resources and suggestions, if you ask.

There’s more than one way to find and sign with a literary agent, and I encourage you to look at all the possible options and read lots about different author’s experiences.

Good luck!

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Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS posts here or ASK ME HERE.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Get An Agent?
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