Helping authors and publishers flourish in the digital age. I have more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship.
If you’re pitching a nonfiction book, at some point, an editor or agent will expect you to describe the readership that your book is intended for. Or, if you’re self-publishing, you’ll need to define this for yourself to market the book properly.
Sometimes a book’s readership seems obvious from the title alone. For example, we can reasonably assume that Running Your First Marathon is for people who are training for their first marathon. Easy, right? Yet consider that such a book might be written for a more advanced or serious runner than, say, The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, which indicates a reader who has little or no history of running. The title tells part of the story—but not the whole story.
Thus, even books that strongly indicate their readership in the title require useful elaboration from the author on who the book is meant for—or perhaps who it is not meant for.
For example, my latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, is primarily intended for students in the classroom, earning creative writing degrees. For a self-publishing author, it has less to offer. Even though both groups self-identify as “writers,” we’re talking about writers at very different stages of their careers, with different ideas about “business” and success.
By being disciplined about who your readership is, and defining this readership, you can avoid long-term strategic blunders that lead to everything from ineffective pitches and vague marketing copy to bad customer reviews. So where to start?
First, admit the hard part: Your audience is not everyone.
Some authors find this hard to accept, but it’s the first step to getting somewhere useful with your pitch. If your book is for everyone, it is for no one. If you don’t know who you’re talking to, your book may wander or have a voice that lacks distinction.
Consider how differently you speak to someone or tell a story based on what you know about their background. If you meet someone at a party, and you’re both from Indiana, you will tell a story from home in a very different way than you would if that person is from New York City and has never stepped foot in the Midwest. Being in lock-step with your audience is critical to knowing what to include and what not to include—as well as what language to use. It gives your approach definition.
A shortcut to understanding your readership: look at competitors
Let’s hope you’re not of the mistaken belief that your book has no competition. More than a million new books are published every year; there is something out there that is at least comparable and can be usefully studied.
When you look at comparable titles, carefully study the back cover copy (how the pitch is angled, the language used), who it appears to be appealing to, what the aesthetic is like. Then look at customer reviews: how do these readers describe themselves? What traits jump out? What language do they use?
What professional sources are reviewing or talking about the book? What does this indicate about the readership?
By being a thoughtful and studious book detective, you can put together a portrait of your reader. You might be going after a similar (or the exact same) audience as your comparable titles, or you might be going after a different one. Frankly, that part doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you’re able to express the differences in readership among titles because you have a strong understanding of the market.
Let’s say you’re writing a cookbook for people on gluten-free diets. That’s pretty specific, right? Isn’t it enough to say, “Anyone on a gluten-free diet will be interested in my book”? Not really. Consider these three gluten-free cookbook covers.
Do you think the same reader would buy or be interested in all three books? I don’t think so. Even if there is some weird person out there who would fit into the target demographic of each, these titles are also marketed in very different ways. They would be reviewed or featured by different types of websites/magazines, and they would be advertised in very different places.
Look at the digital breadcrumb trail of competing authors
From the competing titles, choose a few of the authors you would want to consider (one day) your peers or colleagues. Where do they focus their marketing and promotion time? Who do they seem to be appealing to? What brands or outlets do they affiliate themselves with? Who reviews them or talks about them? This is another path to understanding your readership.
Do a Google news search to deepen your understanding of the readership
Let’s say you’re writing a book on motherhood and it’s targeted toward millennial moms. That’s a good starting point for exploring your readership through a tool like Google. Go to Google and search for the phrase “millennial mothers” and see what turns up. While a general search may be sufficient, if you don’t get enough that’s relevant (i.e., if you turn up too many shopping or promotional links), then click the News tab.
You should find well-researched reports and trend articles about how society, companies and brands see this demographic, such as “5 Tips on How to Successfully Market to Millennial Moms” or “Secret Goes After Millennial Women By Aligning With Wage Inequality.” Voila—you have instant market research about your target audience that can be put into a book proposal or inspire ideas for your marketing strategy.
Mistakes to avoid in a book proposal when discussing your target reader
Don’t state the obvious. Let’s say your book is about how to start a small business. Don’t say your target readership includes “people interested in starting a small business.” That isn’t telling us anything useful, and not all people who want to start a small business are the same. Are they rural, suburban, or urban? Are we talking about twentysomethings out of college or retirees? People who will start an online-driven business or a bricks-and-mortar business? People with or without business experience? And so on.
Don’t say your readership is the US book-buying audience. Sometimes authors will intensively research the book publishing statistics in their category or the industry, then cite those in the proposal, e.g., “More than 10,000 titles are published each year on X,” or “More than 75% of women will buy a book this year.” Agents/editors already know all about the book-buying audience. The readers of your book will be a subset within the known book-buyer universe. So you don’t need to clarify who buys books.
Don’t refer to an entire generation as your audience. Stating that there are 76 million Baby Boomers is not a way to establish there’s an audience for your work. It’s rather another way of saying, “My readership is everyone.” And that’s precisely what we want to avoid.
Memoir: Defining readership is tough and (I think) nearly impossible
While everything I’ve discussed above could be helpful for a memoirist (especially the don’ts), ultimately, I find it nearly impossible to write a compelling target audience section for a memoir book proposal. It almost always ends up looking obvious, trite, or a terrible reach. E.g., when writing a memoir about adoption, authors inevitably end up discussing adoption statistics. Or if they have been abused, or have overcome cancer, or take care of aging parents, etc, then inevitably here come the statistics on people who are in the same boat.
I find this unhelpful for two reasons. First, just because there are lots of other people like you doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a market for your story. In fact, it could hurt your chances if there are hundreds or thousands of stories just like yours either already on the market or being shopped around. Second, the market of readers who avidly buy memoir aren’t necessarily buying them to read about people like themselves. They’re often reading to experience a life they will never lead, or to acquire a better understanding of people or voices they don’t typically hear from.
Furthermore, memoir tends to sell because of a compelling premise, where tension keeps us turning pages, combined with an irresistible voice. If sensational stories (landing a plane in the Hudson) or celebrity stories readily sell because of the author’s notoriety or platform, then more “average” person memoirs sell because the lens or voice is spellbinding and absolutely captivating.
Thus, I find it utterly unconvincing for a memoirist to say that their story will sell because it’s “universal” or “unique.” Any story told by a human being will (I hope) have universal qualities whether you plant them there or not. And, on the flip side, “universal” isn’t necessarily a selling point if we’re reading to experience the unfamiliar.
As far as having a “unique” story, every single life is unique. No two lives progress in the same way, but more important, no two lives are understood and made meaning of in the same way. To showcase the exceptional nature of one’s life, one must show (let the details speak for themselves), and not tell to be convincing. Better yet, memoirists should build a track record of publication (and a platform) to demonstrate that the lens they apply to life can find a home and a readership in the existing market.
When assisting memoirists with target market concerns, I suggest in most cases they rely on comparable titles and authors. (I rarely refer to them as “competitive” titles with memoir, as the existence of someone else’s life story rarely precludes interest in another—unless you somehow look entirely derivative, jumping on a trend.) This is the same strategy, of course, that novelists should use when pitching. Instead of trying to define or describe the market for your upmarket crime novel (which is well established and not in question), you instead point to the authors you would sit next to on the shelf and how you fit within the current milieu.
I believe, for memoir, the agent or editor will decide for themselves if your voice, style, and theme will appeal given current trends and what’s selling. No amount of editorializing in the query (“Readers will love my rollercoaster-loving outlook!”) is going to change the mind of a professional; the decision gets made based on the manuscript itself and the appeal of the premise.
For those agents who insist on it, I’d love to know what you think constitutes a helpful statement of the target audience for a memoir—please comment!
Recently, I learned a trick for falling asleep when conditions are not ideal for rest. (I promise this has relevancy for writing, stick with me.)
Starting with closed eyes, relax the eyes. Feel them deepening into your sockets. Then let go of any tension in your face.
Move on to another part of the body. (I like to start with the feet.) Focus on the muscle group, release it.
I never make it past the feet; by then I’m asleep. If I’m not asleep, I’ve allowed my mind to wander onto something else.
Why this works for me: I stop thinking about trying to sleep, and focus my attention on a single thing.
Focusing on the smallest thing you can accomplish: this is my magic trick to making progress or getting unstuck.
In this month’s Glimmer Train bulletin, fiction writer Jane Delury says that when she’s overwhelmed with her novel draft, she goes to her bookshelf, opens a book she loves, and finds a sentence she’s underlined. She writes:
It’s easy to forget about sentences. They don’t call out for our attention like plot or character. They rarely get chapters in how-to books about fiction. But without them, there’s no plot or character, no story at all. … So for now, instead of going back to fix a scene or make a stretch of dialogue more interesting, I suggest that you set yourself the goal of writing a perfect sentence.
Earlier this year, the book publishing world was rocked by stories of unethical behavior by literary agents. On the one hand, this news was disheartening to hear. On the other hand, it opened up a candid discussion on social media about how different agents communicate with their clients and approach the submissions process. This led to a bigger discussion about how to distinguish between an agent who is unfit for the job—and an agent who is fit for the job but a mismatch for a particular client, and vice versa.
These stories made me think about writers who are represented by reputable, successful agents but are quietly contemplating change. If you’re a writer, how do you know if it’s worth the risk of leaving your current agent? Does past representation impede your ability to find a new agent? I asked literary agents John Cusick and Holly Root. As with all my agent Q&As, neither knew the other’s identity until after they submitted their answers to my questions below.
Sangeeta Mehta: When should a writer who’s been previously represented give you this information? During the query letter stage, or once you’ve requested pages? Would it be appropriate for a writer to mention this during an in-person pitch event?
John Cusick: I definitely want to know at the query stage that the author has been represented before—but not because it’s necessarily a bad thing. People part ways with their agents all the time, and when I learn an author has been represented before, my usual takeaway is “this person’s had experience working with representation, and probably knows what they need and like, and what they don’t,” rather than, “Oh their agent must have fired them.”
I think it’s important to be forthcoming with your publishing history, but that doesn’t mean you need to spill the whole saga in your query letter. I appreciate the author letting me know, “I have been represented before, and I’m happy to discuss the details if you’d like.” That way, precious query-letter space isn’t taken up with long explanations, but I still know the author is happy to answer my questions if I have them.
During an in-person pitch, however, I’d say past representation isn’t the most important detail to convey, especially where time is limited. If, during an in-person pitch, there’s space to talk about your old agent, that’s fine, but not necessary to my thinking. Writers should remember, though, if a project has been shopped widely before (in other words, if an agent has sent it to several editors already), that does affect what I might be able to do with the manuscript. That’s information I need before I can offer representation.
Holly Root: I think it’s fine to say up-front at the query stage, though I don’t view previously represented authors more or less favorably, so there’s no strategic advantage. The writer doesn’t have to go into details about the whys of the split at the query stage unless they’re pretty straightforward (like an agent who left the business). Just a quick line in the query that also identifies the status of the manuscript suffices: “I was previously represented by Agent XYZ. This manuscript hasn’t been on submission.”
If you’re talking with an agent in-person, ideally that will be more of a free-form conversation than a strict pitch. In that situation, there will be room for more nuance and context so it should be pretty straightforward to bring up the prior representation, since you’ll be able to answer any follow-up questions about how far down the road you’ve been with a prior agent.
“We’ve amicably parted ways” has become the standard wording regarding a writer’s split from a former agent. If the parting wasn’t particularly amicable—perhaps the writer was frustrated by the agent’s dimming enthusiasm, or the agent wasn’t happy with the writer’s revisions—would you still be open to representing the writer?
JC: Of course! Again, agents and writers split for many reasons, and sometimes an agent-author pairing just isn’t the right fit. A great writer can have a great agent and still experience great differences of opinion. Sometimes it’s just not the right meeting of minds, and no one is really at “fault.”
Also, an “amicable” parting could just as easily mean that the agent (politely) fired the author for not delivering publishable material, just as much as it might mean anything else. So whether or not an author characterizes their split as “amicable” usually doesn’t affect my desire to represent them.
HR: At this point I assume “amicable” just means no one wishes the other party active bodily harm—there’s always some reason underlying the change, or there wouldn’t have been a change! But I do think it speaks well of a writer if they are presenting the parting professionally, particularly in writing. If it wasn’t amicable, you shouldn’t lie. It is still entirely professional to say only, “I was previously represented by Agent X; we parted ways earlier this year.”
Would you be willing to take on a previously represented project that has gone out to a handful of acquiring editors, or would you consider only a new project from a writer with past representation? If the latter is the case, would the manuscript need to be finished, or would a partial be sufficient?
JC: Whether or not I’d take on a project that’s been submitted previously depends on a lot of factors. There are risks in taking on such a project. If multiple editors have rejected it already, that means the pool of editors I can now submit to is smaller. Also, if the project has already received a large number of rejections, that doesn’t bode well for its chances of ultimately selling (though certainly a book can get many rejections and still find a great publisher). Moreover, editors talk to each other. If I submit to a new editor at the same house, and they bring the project forward to acquisitions, I have to assume their colleague who read and rejected it would say, “Oh yeah, this book. I read and rejected that.”
But that’s not to say I don’t take on projects that have been previously submitted, especially if enough time has passed and if the author has done some major revisions. It just means I have to be that much more passionate and certain of success, given the potential risks.
As to considering partials from an established author, I’m open to it, especially if the author has a solid track record, and/or if I’ve read and enjoyed their previous books. I’ve also taken on previously published authors without a new manuscript in hand, or who were still under contract for several more books, simply because I love their work and I know they’ll still have great stories to tell two years down the road.
HR: It’s always easier for a new agent to shop a fresh manuscript, versus picking one up that’s been out before, but you can never say never. I would have to really love a book and author, and/or the submission list from the prior round would have to have been really different from who I would target (like a manuscript that had been shopped as a YA, but I saw it as adult, or vice versa). Sometimes this might happen if an agent was trying to work outside of their area of expertise as a favor to a client, before the agent and client agreed to part—then there might be an opportunity for me to resubmit with full disclosure about why, and use the change of agent to reshape the narrative. But again, that’s a much heavier lift, so it’s the exception, not the rule.
As for full vs. partial, a full manuscript will always be easier to sell than a partial (and usually goes for more money), but a lot of that depends on the author’s sales track record and reputation, so there’s no one hard rule.
If the writer and agent never signed a formal agreement, and the writer has repeatedly tried to communicate with her agent but to no avail, can she in good conscience put out feelers to other agents by chatting with them at conferences? Participate in contests or pitch events that other agents are taking part in?
JC: There’s nothing wrong with giving an uncommunicative agent the boot, but my suggestion would be to send that agent something in writing saying you are now going to pursue other representation before you actively pitch your material to someone else. That way, your parting with them is official, and no one can say you’ve done anything untoward. And this is really more for the author’s benefit than the absentee agent’s. But still, it’s important to split up before you hit the dating pool again.
Also, as a general note, agents talk to each other. If you query other agents before firing your old one, you can bet your old agent will find out about it.
HR: I would recommend mailing a letter to the agent officially severing—then you’re free and clear to do pitches, query, or whatever else you’d like. It’s hard when the relationship is nebulous like that, but insofar as you can make it clear, I suspect that will let you sleep better. And other agents will be much more willing to talk if you’re free and clear.
In addition to being the right thing to do, officially parting also makes it much easier to get a new agent. When people reach out before severing, really all I can say is “I can’t really talk while you’re represented,” which comes with the awkward potential for the author to walk away with the impression that I am totally planning to sign them once they part. Meanwhile, I might not at all be right for that author. Or have thought about their work in depth at all, frankly! I’m just trying to stay on the good side by not having conversations with other people’s clients that I wouldn’t want my clients having with other agents. I have a sense that this “swing to one vine before letting the other go” approach is more common in other forms of entertainment representation, but in general in the book world, parting before shopping is a good practice to work by.
If an agent leaves one agency for another but doesn’t take all her clients with her, or if she leaves the industry altogether, can the client who’s left behind expect that someone else at the original agency will still represent her? Is the agency head responsible for sending out the writer’s work or helping the writer find a new agent, or does this depend entirely on the agency agreement, assuming there is one?
JC: I think this is going to vary from agency to agency. Any agency can terminate their relationship with an author, so I’m not sure writers should expect their agency head will definitely take them on as a client if their original agent leaves the business. In any event, the agency isn’t bound to continue representing the author, and definitely isn’t responsible for helping the writer find a new agent. But the originating agency can and should continue to manage whatever books they’ve sold on behalf of that author, just as they would for any other client.
However, in my experience, agencies will make an effort to keep working with authors when their original agent can no longer represent them. That doesn’t mean staying with the original agency is always the best move—sometimes seeking a new agent elsewhere is preferable to becoming someone’s inherited client (though not always). Styles and expertise always vary from agent to agent, even within the same agency, which the author should keep in mind when seeking new representation.
HR: This sounds like a tricky internal situation that would differ from agency to agency. If the agent didn’t take her clients with her, I would reach out to whoever your contact is in the wake of the departure and ask—politely and directly—for clarity on your representation status with the agency. Also, if you’re not certain that whatever arrangement they have for coverage is right for you, you should also always feel empowered to part ways and seek a fit you choose, who also chooses you.
What is the number one reason you’ve seen an author-agent relationship dissolve? Unrealistic expectations? Lack of patience on the part of the writer? Lack of effort on the part of the agent? A change in the trajectory of one party’s career but not the other’s? Is there a way to prevent these differences from terminating the partnership altogether?
JC: I think that agents fire authors when they become too difficult to work with, or, despite best efforts by all parties, nothing seems to be selling. In the latter scenario, a split is good for both parties, because clearly the agent doesn’t have the vision to help the author’s career move forward, and clearly the author isn’t providing the agent with something she thinks she can sell.
It’s the “become difficult to work with” part where things get tricky. I’ve seen agent-author relationships deteriorate simply because the author became so anxious and distressed that things weren’t going the way they expected with their career, that they began to see their agent as A) the only person who could solve all their problems, and B) solely responsible for their lack of multi-million-dollar success. This is where trust becomes such an important factor. Agent-author relationships fall apart when the author doesn’t trust the agent’s judgment, and/or the agent doesn’t trust the author’s ability to respond constructively to bad news.
The other common reason authors fire their agents is for lack of attention: their agent either can’t or won’t give the author’s career the time and focus it needs. If you feel like your agent isn’t as focused as he used to be, set up a call to discuss it. Sometimes there’s just a miscommunication, or both parties merely need to reconnect and refocus. And if your agent doesn’t have time for a heart to heart? Well, then you’ve got your answer.
HR: Different visions is probably the biggest one, and that you can’t really know until you’re in it, but talking it out if you’re feeling out of sync is always the right call. Communication is hard—I mean, for humans in general—but also in this context specifically because it’s easy to have a mismatch of expectations, especially if there aren’t clear boundaries. I do think many challenges can be worked through if writers are willing to express their needs clearly and the agent is able to take that feedback onboard without defensiveness and be honest about what’s realistic for them, too. From the writer side, it’s challenging for agents when an author can’t or won’t stay current with the expectations of the genre they’re working in. A book that was a slam-dunk for the 2010 market might be unsellable today, and that’s a hard reality. But ideally we’re all going to keep leveling up together, communicating well and clearly along the way.
Do you think that changing agents once—or multiple times—carries the same stigma it has in the past? After all, some writers must change editors multiple times because editors often move from house to house. Should writers assume that they might eventually need to adjust to a new agent? Or can they go into author-agent partnership trusting that it will last throughout the course of both their careers?
JC: I don’t think it carries the same stigma it once did. A third of my list is comprised of authors who had agents before me; I love helping writers launch the second act of their careers.
But I wouldn’t suggest going into an agent relationship assuming it will end one day any more than I’d suggest that of a marriage. Ideally, you want to build a long-lasting career with your agent. But, like any kind of relationship, some don’t last, and that’s okay.
HR: I don’t think anyone cares about how many agents so much as about why you left. I always ask why someone is making a change—what worked for them and what didn’t in their prior relationship. (It’s easy to focus on the bad, but knowing what was good is also really informative.) In part that’s me trying to check for fit. And in part that’s me seeing if someone knows themselves well enough to know what they need in an agent, and knows what is within the scope of an agent’s role. I have many clients who were represented elsewhere before we started working together, but I have a good number who’ve only ever worked with me, too, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope for a partnership that lasts.
Do you have any other advice for writers who are considering leaving their current agent, especially those who are apprehensive due to the time and energy they’ve already invested, or obligation to the agent who jumpstarted their career? Are there any advantages to staying put in a less-than-ideal agent-author relationship, especially if it began on a positive note?
JC: No agent is better than a bad agent, or an agent who isn’t helping you grow your career. But my first piece of advice would be to talk to your agent. If there’s a conflict or a concern, let your agent know you need to have a conversation. Express your concerns exhaustively, but with the understanding that you might not have the whole picture. Give your agent a chance to respond and address the issues—how they respond will tell you everything you need to know about whether they’re worth sticking with.
There are many agents out there, and I think most all of us are more than happy to work with an author who’s been previously represented. You just don’t want to blow up a good thing—or a fixable thing—without first communicating your needs, expectations, and concerns (if any). This goes for the author and agent both.
HR: I would always recommend that an author who is on the fence about their current situation reach out to their current agent to let them know they’re not happy and need a little help righting the relationship. Agents can easily assume that if you’re quiet, you’re just off writing, when in fact you’re freaking out. And you’re a writer, so you are very highly skilled at creating fictional dialogues, which will often be much scarier and more dramatic than the actual conversation will be! (A huge plus on the page; a minus IRL.) So it’s always better to have that discussion for real with your agent, not with your own inner critic.
Also, agents often feel like we can’t or shouldn’t have personal challenges of our own or tough seasons at work. So clients might not have all the relevant information from the agent’s side if the challenge that was causing the issue (a medical issue, a staffing problem, etc.) is something that the agent is actively addressing and will resolve relatively soon. You shouldn’t stay with an agent who isn’t meeting your needs out of obligation, but I do think most agents genuinely want to do right by the authors they’ve represented. Even if that conversation ends up with you guys mutually agreeing it’s time for a change, you’ll both feel so much better about it if it’s out in the open. If that conversation doesn’t result in changes that make you feel confident you’re back on the upswing and you ultimately still need to make a change, then you can part knowing you did everything you could to make the parting as amicable as you will say it was in your next, sure-to-be-successful query letter.
John Cusick (@johnmcusick) is a VP and literary agent with Folio Jr. / Folio Literary Management. He represents a diverse list of bestselling and award-winning creators of picture books, middle-grade, and young adult novels. He is also the author of Girl Parts and Cherry Money Baby (Candlewick Press), and a regular speaker at writers’ conferences.
Holly Root (@hroot) represented over two dozen New York Times bestsellers as a literary agent before founding Root Literary in 2017. She represents books for kids, teens, and adults.
I’m just now coming up for air after Googling “fictional characters on the spectrum.” The number of characters—all very recent—astounded me. They range from popular television shows (Crazy Eyes from Orange Is the New Black) to indie movies (Adam in Adam and Amelie in Amelie), with a few superheroes thrown in (Mr. Fantastic in Marvel Comics). As well as being recent, they were all intentionally developed as being on the spectrum, if you can believe the published backstories.
I suppose it’s not surprising that characters who are on the autism spectrum, including those who have Asperger’s Syndrome, are currently populating our stories. These days, most of us know at least one person who is on the spectrum. My younger sister Beth was diagnosed as being on the spectrum before the phrase “on the spectrum” was even used; initially, Beth’s doctors used phrases like “autistic tendencies.” Beth won’t look you in the eye; she likes precision and repetition, and she is very sensitive to physical touch. She was one of my inspirations for the character May Bedloe in my novel The Floating Theatre.
Writing about a character—whether on a flap jacket, an Amazon book description, a press release, or other metadata—can be tricky, but it’s absolutely essential. Every writer needs to be able to describe their characters in short, succinct ways that immediately captures that character’s essence. At least, that’s the goal.
When I first went about describing May Bedloe to my friends, I sometimes used the word Asperger’s, because that’s how I imagined her. I never felt that Asperger’s defined her—her AS is not the main thread of the story—but it was a shorthand way of conveying certain characteristics: direct, smart, highly focused, and socially a little awkward. But the novel takes place in 1848, before the term Autism was coined, and long before Hans Asperger, the scientist who in 1944 described a very particular form of autism, was even born. In May’s world, no one would have used either of these terms.
And sure enough one day, after describing May this way to a group of writers, one of them said:
“Wait. How can your character have Asperger’s? It wasn’t even a thing back then.”
Well, obviously it was a thing back then, even if it was an unnamed thing. Still, I understood her point. It’s an anachronism to say a character in 1848 has Asperger’s Syndrome. So what words should I use to describe May in a way that reflects her time, the antebellum era in the United States?
How do you describe Asperger’s before there was Asperger’s?
Like my sister, May was born into a world that didn’t recognize the autism spectrum, and I realized that I had to find another way to describe her. May often does not pick up on social cues and she stands a little apart from other people, although she is not shy, exactly. I disliked language that felt belittling, such as eccentric or quirky. Quirky in particular felt too light for May, who is full of integrity and, like my sister, always strongly herself. Nothing I could think of felt true to her character, so I decided to look around for examples—for past characters who might be described, today, as being on the spectrum.
Not Amelie or Ray Babbitt in Rain Man, but a character in a world prior to 1944.
Jane Eyre immediately came to mind (her disregard for petty authority and her compulsion to speak the unvarnished truth), and Sherlock Holmes. But after that I got stuck. I turned to the internet for help (“historical characters on the spectrum”) but I didn’t find much. Instead, it being the internet, I went down another rabbit hole for a while (see Lewis Carroll, below). It turns out that while people may not speculate about past characters, they love to speculate about past writers.
Writers on the Spectrum: How Autism and Asperger Syndrome Have Influenced Literary Writing, by Julie Brown, contains a wealth of thoughtful and well-researched speculation about writers and their characteristics. The book examines writers from Hans Christian Andersen (who walked through the streets with his eyes closed reciting Shakespeare) to Emily Dickinson (why so many dashes?). There is a long chapter on Lewis Carroll, a gifted mathematician who was obsessed with train schedules, had a fanatical interest in word games, and who “did not mix well” with the other boys at school.
And here’s where I had my revelation. All of these authors, and the few characters that I’d thought of earlier, are what you might call outsiders. Perhaps, I thought, I should focus on socially renegade characters.
Now, suddenly, a whole world of historical characters opened up. I began to see AS everywhere. Miss Havisham? Absolutely—witness her intense, persistent focus and her repetitive routine (not to mention her repetitive bridal tableaux). Garp’s mother Jennie Fields is another one who disregards—does not even seem notice—social conventions. Leopold Bloom? Humbert Humbert? Boo Radley? All, I thought, might easily qualify. Even Frodo Baggins seems to develop some unquestionably autistic characteristics as the One Ring takes hold of him.
Maybe I was going too far. But it occurred to me that any character who lacks some or all social awareness, who ignores social conventions, who doesn’t camouflage their intelligence, who has a passion, who follows that passion with discipline, who takes obvious comfort in rituals or inanimate objects—all of these types might be described as being on the spectrum.
Of course, these characters are all very different. So are people on the spectrum. My sister Beth communicates in nuanced ways that are unlike any other person I’ve met. There’s a reason autism is described as a spectrum, and not a fixed point.
The characteristic I kept coming back to again and again was “outsider.” Someone who stands a little or a lot outside of the culture. It reminded me of something I read in an artist’s statement once, when I attended show for a local artist in France. I liked it so much that I copied it down: It is only someone who stands apart from the culture who can deliver the news about that culture.
Perhaps the reason why so many historical characters display, as my sister’s early doctors would have said, autistic tendencies, is precisely because these are the characters writers create in order to examine the culture. They are the counterpoints thrown in relief, the ones who stand out, while others walk around (like so many of us readers) holding onto social conventions that range from silly to harmless to amoral.
These are the characters who throw back the curtain to reveal underlying cultural assumptions, precisely because they don’t follow them.
These are the characters who show us who we are.
One of the things I think is hard to convey to people who have not lived for many years with a person on the spectrum, is how much richer my own life has been because of my experience. Along with the challenges, there are moments of real joy and insight—many of them. And I don’t mean insight about our loved one who is on the spectrum (although there’s that, too), but about ourselves and our society.
In the end, my English editor at Bonnier Zaffre was the one who worked it out for me. In a letter, she described May as “charmingly frank and naive.”
I liked that. It’s true, and it’s lovely. It works.
Freelance editor and former literary agent Amy Tipton discusses her love of young adult and middle grade fiction, the “unlikable female character,” whether agents who don’t want a manuscript will be likely to pass it along to an agent friend, her personal editing style, and more.
Amy Tipton graduated from Naropa University with a B.A. in Writing and Literature and received her MFA from New College of California in Writing. She has been working in the publishing industry for 13 years and started freelance editing in 2018. Prior to that, she was a literary agent at Signature Literary Agency since 2009. (She first stepped into the role of literary agent at Peter Rubie Literary Agency, now FinePrint Literary Management, in 2007.) She started out as an assistant and office manager at several agencies including JCA Literary Agency, Diana Finch Literary Agency, Gina Maccoby Literary Agency, and Liza Dawson Associates, as a book scout for Aram Fox, Inc., and as a freelance editor for Lauren Weisberger (author of The Devil Wears Prada).
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI:You’re reading as a young person, and…What’s the strongest reading memory that comes to mind? Why does it stand out?
AMY TIPTON: I honestly don’t have any strong memories about reading per se, but looking back, I was one weird kid with weird reading habits. I did a book report in 4th grade (3rd grade? I was young…) on the book Gracie: A Love Story by George Burns! (It was a book from my mother’s bookshelf; I’m sure I misunderstood lots.) While other kids were reading Where the Red Fern Grows (great book!), I was reading about the comedian Gracie Allen, wife and professional partner to George Burns…
Another report (another book from my mom’s shelf) was on the life of Sidney Poitier.
I also remember that the movie My Left Foot started an obsession with Christy Brown and I did a report on him, too!
I do remember the more age-appropriate books I read, but not the when or where or if anyone else was involved. I mean, I know my mom always read to me (even in the womb she read The Little Prince—which 1. is my favorite book [with To Kill A Mockingbird] and 2. is a strange thing to read to your unborn child; it probably started my weird reading habits). Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny were big hits. I also remember The Secret of Nimh (book, not movie—though I loved the movie) as well as A Wrinkle in Time and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and I devoured any Nancy Drew story and every Sweet Valley book in sight. I loved the Fear Street books, too, and yes, I was a Judy Blume fan and a Beverly Cleary fan!
I try to read everything, now.
Your website submission page expresses a preference for young adult and middle grade fiction. What draws you to the genres in general, and what would you like to see happening in YA/MG in the future?
The totally solid, professional answer: I believe writing is an act of resistance (the personal is political) and kids are the future. We must teach our children that doing what’s right is important and they should stick to their values and beliefs.
And you can do this without sounding preachy! I think a lot of writers view right/wrong and sticking to beliefs as stories with morals at the end–like a sort of Aesop Fable. Writers tend to view these things didactically; we teach them, they’re academic, or something… I don’t necessarily see it in edited/published work, but I do see it in rougher drafts. That’s something I revise. I think “lessons” can/should be organic, and these teaching moments can be so natural that when you’re done reading you can be, “Whoa, I think I learned …”
(I think The Hate U Give does this beautifully, by the way. Also, I’ll say I’m not really the audience for Tupac, but I found myself watching YouTube videos of him for days after reading it!)
I think kids respond to that more, anyway.
The unprofessional answer: I feel younger than I am. I laugh at (probably) wildly inappropriate/immature things and therefore become Amy Poehler in Mean Girls: “I’m not a regular mom, I’m a cool mom.” Haha!
(Both answers are true, by the way.)
Author Lyn Fairchild Hawks wrote in a blog entry about her experience working with you, “I tease her that ‘Uh, no!’ is her signature marginal comment, telling you to cease and desist, immediately, with that nonsense you just wrote.” What nonsense do you see most frequently in manuscripts that will get an “Uh, no” editorial comment from you?
It’s hard to give a concrete answer, here. Every book is different, the plot/characters/dialogue/world is unique. I would say anything that reads unbelievable or is inconsistent with the story definitely earns an, “Uh, no.”
And that comment is so true, too—I do write ALL KINDS of things in the notes! Some writers are offended, some can take the critique. I have learned over the years to soften feedback, but I admit I can be intense (ok, mean!), sorry.
From your website: “There is no female character too ‘unlikable’ to pique my interest.”
I’m very interested in the “unlikable character” conversation: are male unlikables more tolerable than female unlikables?; is “unlikable” the same as “unrelatable”?; do male characters get to have more flaws before they’re deemed “unlikable” (would any male John Irving character be considered likable as a woman?); etc.
What are your thoughts about all of this, and who are (or who is) your favorite “unlikable” female character(s) (and what makes that/those character(s) unlikable)?
Well, hmm. This is a long/complicated subject! A subject author Claire Messud took on in 2012 in a Publisher’s Weekly interview, when the interviewer called her main female character “grim” and said they wouldn’t want to be friends with her [the main character]:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.
Basically, there’s a double standard that pops up in fiction (and in media and in life) all the time: we expect males to be flawed (it makes them complex), but our expectations for females are stricter.
Plain and simple, it’s unfair.
For example: we forgive—even root for!—our male heroes when they show emotion (like cry hysterically; they could be heartbroken, after all) or are moody or are alcoholic or just drink and smoke way too much and swear constantly or are selfish or lie—we’re ok if they are unredeemable—yet these traits we love in our male MCs become, in female MCs, qualities of the dreaded “unlikable character.” (Dun, dun, dun!)
Males are hardly ever subjected to such criticism. One commenter on Erica Jong’s blog post concerning “unlikable characters” said “Unlikable = interesting,” and, well, that’s one way to look at it/(over)simplify it, but yeah!
A lot has been written already regarding Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, so I’ll mention how I love the female friendship explored in Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls From Corona Del Mar, and I love Ani FaNelli from Luckiest Girl Alive and Rachel Watson from The Girl on the Train. I love Megan Abbott and Gillian Flynn characters. They buck societal norms/deviate from the system—they don’t necessarily need or want the marriage, 2.5 kids, a house with a white picket fence life. These ladies scheme, swear, rage, lie, drink, and don’t really apologize for doing so. (Which is really why they’re “unlikable”—a woman can only be this complex if seeking redemption or is punished at the end…)
Look, there’s no “right” way to be a woman. We’re all “unlikable” (meaning interesting)! I’m pretty sure if I were a character in a book, I’d be labeled “unlikable,” too.
According to one of your bios, pieces of your first two novels are published in a variety of literary journals. What are your novels about, and what is your favorite and least favorite thing about writing?
I wrote a lot while I was in school (college) and most of my work was character based. I loved Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and set one of my stories in and around a neighborhood 7-11. (I was also influenced by Karen Finley and Miranda July, so I was a bit arty AKA experimental AKA weird in my work…Ha!) I, unfortunately, don’t write as much anymore (so, good thing I get to work with writers).
I think it’s hard for me to make the time to write—to stop checking my email or doing laundry or watching TV or cleaning the bathroom in order to make writing a priority. I say yes to coffee with a friend and brush writing aside; I say “tomorrow, I’ll do it tomorrow,” and tomorrow turns into 10 years, or something! But once I set aside time, once I get my butt in the chair, you can’t pry me away. It could be 3am and I started writing at noon, but I’m not leaving. That’s the thing for me—I write in huge chunks of time. I’m not one of those “I have 5 minutes waiting for the bus so I’ll just get this down” people. Yes, sometimes, I jot down notes for a funny scene or a character quirk, but I can’t write like that. I constantly edit as I go, too. If I get stuck, I can’t “just move on”—that’s not my process.
5 On publishing
Janet Reid writes in a blog post about what authors should do if their agent stops being an agent, “An agent who is looking to switch careers is an unhappy agent.” What did you so love about being a literary agent that you got back to work in 2009 not long after having had a stroke, and what are the parts of the job that might make someone—or, you—not want to do it, anymore?
I wouldn’t say I was unhappy agenting per se; I was super into reading the work—reading queries, requesting books, offering to rep, getting to revise (I love revising!—not surprising, I mean, considering I’m a writer, I get to put a creative stamp here), but it’s also businessy work like contracts and royalties, and I’m just not a suit. I went to school for writing, I’m not a lawyer or number cruncher.
I think (ironically enough) Lyn’s blog post about me as a great agent made me realize I am pretty great! Humble brag, here—did you know I came up with the Courtney Summers book title This Is Not A Test? And my mom’s advice to me about boys showed up in Courtney Summers’s All The Rage? I also encouraged Amy Reed to edit the Our Stories, Our Voices anthology and helped shape the 2014 Stonewall Award winner Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills. (I’m not here to take credit away from anyone, either—these books are incredible—I just think I also deserve some credit!)
That blog post made me realize I would make a great developmental editor. Which was the “hands-on” part of (my) agenting—the reading/revising/notes/talking of ideas/etc. I did all of that and more, and I did it because I loved it. So, voila! Offering editorial services seemed like a good fit.
I thought about opening up my own agency, but a friend who runs her own agency said you can’t be creative, or as creative as you want, since it’s more paperwork/business stuff. Being a boss is hard! So I just decided to go the freelance editor route. Yes, I’m a boss, but it’s creative, so it feeds my punk rock/anarchist/progressive soul.
It wasn’t an easy decision. The feeling of guilt was heavy (the guilt of failing authors—not getting their books published or not getting a higher advance for their book, which you know they deserved). It was all too much. I am only one person, and tracking down editors (who just ignore follow-ups) or arguing about higher advances with editors or scrambling to find an audio publisher or a film/TV agent (garnering their interest is almost another full time job!) and keeping track of foreign rights—who has what where (another full time position)–was an insane workload. Most of the stuff I represented was not easy—the subjects were not big, splashy, blockbuster/fun reads—so it’s very easy to be frustrated. With every pass I, honestly, felt like a failure.
But at the same time, admittedly, I’m at the top of my game. Courtney Summers is a NYT bestseller, and Amy Reed just did a NYT interview on her book The Nowhere Girls and the Me Too movement. (Both ladies have exciting things coming their way.) And my first sci fi/dark fantasy YA mystery What the Woods Keep is holding its own! But this success was a looooong time coming… As they say, too little, too late, right?
I had been reading a lot of writer/editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch‘s website/blog, and while I sometimes disagreed/it (sometimes) induced eye rolling, there were things I agreed with, like maybe—not saying “definitely”—maybe you should compartmentalize your career: have a lawyer look at contracts, have an accountant do your royalties, get a foreign rights agent, film agent, have an editor (or someone like me). Maybe you shouldn’t rely solely upon your agent … Your agent maybe should just submit/sell your book…
But in this fast-food/one-stop-shop culture, the writer-agent job grows, and so stress is greater. I had a stroke at 30—I’m not about to have a heart attack at 40!
It seems like writers today are told to think about marketability more than they might have been told that in the past. I can’t see Fitzgerald or Steinbeck worrying over what editors and/or the market is looking for. Has publishing changed in that way, or does it just seem like it? Or, maybe, were Fitzgerald and Steinbeck worried about marketability…?
I don’t know if Fitzgerald or Steinbeck worried about marketability (I doubt it, too—if they did, it was a lot less/very different). Today you have to consider the current climate and how fast-paced life is and how technology is a big part of our life—social media/platform/audience. The writer has to worry about whether they even have the right to tell certain stories (and suffer the consequences of whatever they decide). I also think writers have to have hooks or concepts. Sadly, I’m part of the problem. I watch The Real Housewives and Little Women L.A., so I feed this stupid reality-TV culture that affects what books (stories/ideas) get published. (Sorry.)
Long gone are the 1990s, when I spent time aimless in plot, following my characters’ f-ups, like so many indie arthouse flicks I loved…
As someone with such an established background in the business end of writing, how do you approach a manuscript as a freelance editor—with a creative eye or with a business eye?
Both, but more so with a creative eye. I mean, sure, I bet I revise/edit (subconsciously) from a business stance (I do want these books to sell!), but I feel freer/able to edit work and go with whatever flow the author wants. I am not necessarily in charge of selling this book, so I am a lot less controlling. Ha!
Asked how often you would pass a query along to a fellow agent who might be more interested, you said, “Sometimes. It has happened.” It’s possible writers hope this happens more than it does, but is it actually pretty rare? If so, is it usually that agents are passing because they think no one will like it? Or is there a competitive element (“I don’t want it, but I don’t want anyone else to have it, either!”)? Or is it more like that picture of the double yellow line painted over a dead possum with the text, “Not my job”? Or: Is it that agents don’t, in fact, all know each other and have no idea what anyone else is looking for?
I have done this. I actually passed Amber McRee Turner’s Sway on to Joanna Volpe in 2008! However, writers probably hope this happens more than it does. Contrary to belief, not all agents know each other (they probably know of each other) and know more editors and what editors want/buy. Some agents are friends, for sure, but a lot are more invested in what editors like rather than, say, what their competitor is looking for.
Your editing service, Feral Girl Books, is geared toward female/female-identifying voices. You write on your website, “I am drawn to the unique pressures and circumstances girls and women face. […] I firmly believe female characters deserve to be featured with the same depth and range as their male counterparts.” When did this focus first become a priority for you, and are you seeing a change in the publishing landscape as far as female-identifying voices are concerned?
I feel like my whole life has been leading up to this moment, actually.
I have always been drawn to females/female voices; feminine energy is something I’ve always been around. My mom and my BFF are very strong females in my life. (My BFF has been my partner-in-crime since we were five! We went from elementary school to junior high to high school together, and we are close to this day. She was in my hospital room as I recovered from this stroke…she might as well be my sister.)
I was lucky growing up, having strong female role models in the form of family friends and a great lady who lived across the street and who kinda became my substitute grandma. But I also came of age in the ‘90s on the West Coast, and I’d be remiss to not credit the Riot Grrrl movement—Bikini Kill in particular—as a driving force. I credit that movement for keeping my confidence/self-esteem afloat through high school and bad boyfriends, etc.
Briefly, I played with the thought of working for a rape/sexual assault hotline (like RAINN) or a domestic-violence shelter, but I also loved writing, discovered zines, and through zines discovered Emma Goldman, Simone de Beauvoir, Claude Cahun, and Diamanda Galás…
A lot of the Riot Grrrl movement was overwhelmingly white, so it wasn’t until college that I got thinking about intersectionality and women, race, and class—which is the title of the first Angela Davis book I read.
Knowledge is so powerful.
I know I’m lucky to have studied women’s studies/read feminist texts, and I now think it’s important to big up these voices. Kathleen Hanna believes archiving is a vital feminist act. Me too. We [women] don’t want to be erased.
I want to help be part of that change. I want to get writers before the agent stage, and I want to whip them into shape so an agent won’t overlook them/won’t say no. This certainly happens—which is why so many straight/white/rich dudes get published before anyone else. The same thing happens when writers work with a less hands-on agent and get requested rewrites/revisions from an editor but end up rejected. I want to help! (Yes, some agents are more than capable of revising, but they’re busy, and their clients feel ignored.) I also want to help them be/feel heard! I don’t want us to be erased–not now, not ever. If I can, today, I’m here to help stop it. They say the future is female, so welcome to my fempire, ladies. (Thank you Lifetime [Television] for the word fempire. I use it all the time!)
Science and technology are fundamental elements of many literary genres. Unfortunately, the depictions of these subjects in books and movies are entirely fiction.
A classic example of this is in the movie Avatar, when the character played by Sigourney Weaver uses a micropipette. These hand-held instruments are used in a laboratory to move tiny, precise amounts of liquid from one tube to another. They’re a vital—and expensive—piece of lab equipment.
There’s just one rule for using a micropipette: they must be held upright. If you turn a micropipette upside down, the liquid that it just picked up will get into the mechanism. And that’s exactly what Sigourney Weaver did while using a micropipette in Avatar. Amusingly, the makers of that micropipette, Eppendorf, even chided them about it on Twitter. The amount of lab equipment that’s irreparably destroyed on-screen would give university accountants a heart attack.
Space explosions are another trope with no basis in real-world science. Space is a vacuum, so spaceships (and death stars) don’t explode in massive fireballs (fire requires oxygen). Realistically, a spaceship that loses hull integrity would decompress and implode. Oh, and you wouldn’t hear an explosion either, because sound waves also can’t travel through space’s vacuum.
Researching Your Writing: Source Reliability
These are just a few of the misconceptions that pervade popular science fiction. Many, if not most, could have been avoided if the writers spent some time doing research. During this crucial phase, not all sources are created equal. Let’s take a brief tour of the various places you might get information, from most accurate to least.
The most scientifically accurate sources are the papers published in peer-reviewed journals, but these can be pretty dry for the casual reader. I personally read a lot of scientific reviews, which summarize the current state of knowledge about a topic while drawing on that literature. After that, textbooks and reference books tend to be very reliable information, though these (let’s be honest) are prohibitively expensive.
Science media aimed at a general audience—such as PBS, The Scientific American, and National Geographic—lose some of the nuance, but are much more accessible to non-technical readers. Curated websites like Wikipedia are nice resources for casual reading and research, and tend to be updated as new discoveries emerge. Still, these are written and maintained by the general public, so use with caution.
You’ll note that social media ranks as #997 in terms of scientific accuracy. Remember, social media companies are for-profit organizations. You don’t pay to use them, because you are the product. An increasing proportion of the “sources” you may encounter have paid to show up in your feed or search results. Simply put, anything served to you by a social media network should not be treated as factual information. Especially when you’re performing research that you plan to use for your own work.
How and Why to Ask an Expert
All of the things I’ve discussed so far are passive research sources—that is, materials you go find and read on your own. However, one of the best ways to research your writing is to ask a real-world expert. I do this all the time. For the past few years, I’ve hosted guest posts from numerous experts for my Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. If I need spaceship design advice, I can ask a Boeing engineer. If I need to know something about brains, I ask my go-to neuroscientist.
This works well for two reasons: first, because real-world experts are usually versed in the current state of the art for their field. They don’t just read those research papers; they write some of them. Second, most scientists, engineers, and other professionals love talking about their work. All you need to do is find one and approach them the right way.
If you’d like to ask an expert for advice, here are some tips to make sure it’s a pleasant experience for all parties involved:
Do your homework. Give some thought to the technical subject in question (and how it applies to your story) before you start the conversation.
Briefly provide some context. In a few sentences, summarize your story and how the technical element comes into play. This will help the expert understand what you’re looking for.
Be considerate of their time. Experts don’t exist for the sole purpose of answering writers’ questions, so don’t monopolize their time. Keep your interaction polite, concise, and respectful.
Recognize that you might need a different expert. People who work in medicine, science, and other technical fields tend to specialize. You might find out in the course of conversation that you need a different type of expert.
Balancing Accuracy with Story
You’ll probably get far more information from your research than you can actually use in your writing. It’s up to you to select the most important elements to convey on the page, and to leave the rest out. If you have to choose between telling a great story and being technically accurate, go with the former. Story should come first.
If you enjoyed this post, I highly recommend Dan Koboldt’s Putting the Science in Fiction. It’s a collection of expert advice from scientists, engineers, medical professionals, tech experts and more, who debunk the myths, correct the misconceptions, and help writers create more realistic yet engaging stories to satisfy discerning readers.