Posted On September 12, 2011 by Print This Post

What I’ve Learned From My Agent, Al Zuckerman

Shake off the Monday doldrums and join us as thriller author PAMELA CALLOW shares tips she’s learned from her agent, AL ZUCKERMAN of Writers House Literary Agency. One lucky commenter will win a copy of Pam’s book INDEFENSIBLE.

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to meet Al Zuckerman, founder of Writers House, at Thrillerfest in New York City. Several weeks later, I accepted representation by him.

Timing, as they say, is everything.

Rewind ten years ago. I had left my corporate career as a strategic services manager at Andersen Consulting when my local office closed. I opted to stay home with my young family. And I decided to return to an old passion: writing. I didn’t have much time to write in those early days, but the simple act of attending an adult education creative writing course once a week kept a certain part of my brain engaged.

I began working on my first manuscript, a time travel historical, eight years ago. At that point, I knew I wanted to make writing a career. But it was only when my youngest daughter started kindergarten that I was able to write regularly. That journey is for a different blog post, but eventually I won some contests, had editorial interest from a large NYC house, and landed my first agent.

But the manuscript did not sell. I decided to try my hand at a different genre: contemporary suspense.

At the end of 2008, I attended a writing conference and pitched my editor. I landed the sale, signing my first two-book contract with MIRA books to publish my legal thriller series.

A year later, DAMAGED, my first release, was chosen by Levy Home Entertainment as a “Need to Read” Pick, with Top Ten Bestseller display in Target and Wal-Mart US. When my editor told me that my book was a ”pick”, I almost fell off my chair.

For various reasons, I realized that I required new agency representation. After I terminated my relationship with my former agent, I queried a few agents whom I had met in NYC. I decided to go with Al Zuckerman because I have huge respect for Al’s work. Al has worked very closely with Ken Follett in the outlining stage of all his blockbuster novels. I am an outliner by nature, and I knew I could learn a lot about structure from him. Also, I had met him, heard him speak, heard Ken Follett discuss Al’s input into his work — and, importantly, I liked him.

Over the past year, we’ve worked together on the outline and revisions of TATTOOED, the third book in my thriller series. Here are some of the best tips I’ve learned from Al – with a few of my own — about outlining. Some of them are new to me, some I knew, and some I had forgotten :

• Picture the climax and outline backwards from there. In effect, outline backwards. This was a real change of approach for me. It is almost impossible for me to not work sequentially from beginning to end. However, I like to try different approaches (and if Al advises me to try it, I will try it!), so I did picture the final scene, then I started at the beginning and worked towards it. Then I worked backwards from it. Interestingly, I was chatting with Diana Gabaldon at Thrillerfest this year (huge fangirl moment!), and she told me she pictures major scenes in her books, writes chunks around them, and threads them together.
• For each chapter, detail main event and the conflict
• Identify turning points in book
• When writing suspense, the main character has to be in jeopardy. I write a series, and sometimes other characters have major events that happen to them. Keep your main character in the forefront from the get go.
• Give readers a reason to love your character. Need I say more?
• Keep the number of characters to 3 or 4. Again, when writing a series, there are returning characters and new characters. Sometimes, it’s hard to not want to include your old friends, especially when readers ask you to bring them back.
• In a thriller, villains drive the plot. Protagonists react to what villains do.
• An outline is not the first step to writing your book. Before I wrote DAMAGED, I read Elizabeth George’s book on writing: WRITE AWAY. What really stuck with me is her point that characters – not plot– drive suspense. Suspense is not the exclusive terrain of thrillers. It can – and should — appear in any genre of novel: women’s fiction, romance, fantasy, YA. In essence, suspense occurs when the reader cares about what happens to the character. That is how you get readers to keep turning the pages. Readers don’t care if a car goes over the cliff. They care if the two year-old daughter of struggling single mother Annie is abducted by her crazed ex-husband and he drives the car over the cliff – with the toddler strapped in the car seat. Keeping Elizabeth George’s most excellent advice in mind, I realized I needed to figure out my characters before and during the plotting process of DAMAGED. After writing their backstories, I utilized Debra Dixon’s Goals, Motivation, and Conflict approach. Then I created the outline in flow chart form as I went along.

In closing, what I want to share with you is this: this is your career. Your livelihood. Your future income. Writers don’t have pensions or benefits. We rely on our hard work and perseverance. Thus, it is crucial to surround yourself with a team who can help you capitalize on your efforts. This is business, plain and simple.

There is a lot of discussion about whether we really need agents in this revolutionary time in the publishing industry. I can’t say whether everyone needs an agent. In fact, I’m sure there are many authors out there who are doing very well without one. But I need one. What I have learned – the hard way – is how crucial it is to get the right one. Al has provided me with guidance and advice that has helped me tremendously over the past year. He is invested in my career, and he takes a broad perspective beyond the day-to-day realities of my contract. I know that if I have a problem, he will do his utmost to help solve it. When I call him, he responds that day. He has picked me up when I am down, sometimes giving me a little shake while he’s at it.

What I have learned from Al is what an agent can do for you.


What’s the best advice you’ve received from your agent (if you have one)? If you don’t have an agent yet, what would you like to ask one?

Join us at RU tomorrow when author HOPE TARR discusses strong heroines in a historical setting.



Inspired by a U.S. tissue harvesting case, Pamela Callow wrote DAMAGED, her debut novel and the first book in her legal thriller series for MIRA Books. Pamela drew on her experience working in a blue-chip corporate environment to create series lead Kate Lange, a struggling thirty-something lawyer, whom RT Book Reviews described as “…a standout”. DAMAGED was a Levy Home Entertainment June “Need to Read” Pick, with Top Ten Bestseller placement in Target and Wal-Mart.

In INDEFENSIBLE, book #2 of the Kate Lange thriller series, the managing partner of Kate’s firm is accused of domestic homicide – and his defense lies in the hands of the one person who knows too well the taint of criminal scandal: Kate Lange. TATTOOED, the third installment of her series, will be published in June 2012. A short story featuring a character from her series will be published in the International Thriller Writers’ THRILLER 3 anthology (June 2012).

Prior to making writing a career, Pamela worked as a strategy consultant for international firm Andersen Consulting. She is a member of the Nova Scotia Bar, and has a Master’s degree in Public Administration.

Pamela lives in Nova Scotia, along with her husband, two children and a pug. She loves to go for walks (unlike her dog), drink coffee, and is currently working on the next two books of the Kate Lange thriller series. You can find Pamela at her Facebook Book Page, on Twitter, or contact her via her website.

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55 Responses to “What I’ve Learned From My Agent, Al Zuckerman”

  1. Hi Pamela,

    I like the one on one input from an agent. Someone who would get involved in the stories and offer suggestions.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | September 12, 2011, 5:49 am
  2. Great blog, Pam. Outlining backwards – I have not heard that before, and I love learning new things :). Thanks for sharing that.

    You asked what was the best advice an agent has given – my agent has often reminded me to think long term, that we’re in this for the long haul, and a slow build is not a bad thing.

    Posted by Julianne MacLean | September 12, 2011, 5:54 am
  3. Great Post, Pam. I like the outline Backwards technique. When I begin to plot a story, I always have to know how I want it to end.

    Posted by cathryn fox | September 12, 2011, 6:20 am
  4. I like the outlining backwards idea too and can see where it would be especially beneficial in suspense/thrillers.

    The best advice my agent has given me has to do with managing editor relationships – communicating my concerns by focusing briefly on two or three most important points.

    Thanks for a great blog, Pam!

    Posted by Deborah Hale | September 12, 2011, 6:26 am
  5. Thank you for your post! It’s great to read tips from accomplished writers and hear about their journey to becoming published.

    Posted by Sara Hubbard | September 12, 2011, 6:31 am
  6. Thanks so much for joining us today, Pam, and for sharing Al’s tips! The one that resonates with me is his tip about chapters – identify the main event and conflict for each and every chapter. All of the suggestions are really helpful!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | September 12, 2011, 6:53 am
  7. Hi Pam,

    So nice to see an ITW-mate here! Al sounds great. Congratulations on working with such a wonderful agent.

    My agent introduced me to the term “microtension.” He believes microtension drives readers forward through the story. It doesn’t have to be big, but it should be there on every line of every paragraph of every page.


    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | September 12, 2011, 6:58 am
  8. I’m so enjoying the great comments so far — and learning a lot, to boot! Love it!

    Thank you, Becke, for inviting me to participate today. I’m going to be offline for a few hours, as I’m getting ready to fly to St. Louis on Wed to attend Bouchercon, but will check back later this afternoon!


    Posted by Pam Callow | September 12, 2011, 7:47 am
    • Pam – I wish I was going to Bouchercon, too! I’ve only made it once – in 2009. Last year my niece’s wedding was the same week (and another niece got married the week of RWA National – it’s a plot!). This year B’con overlaps with my anniversary celebration, so once again I’ll have to miss it. Hopefully I’ll make it to B’con in Cleveland in 2012!

      Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | September 12, 2011, 7:54 am
      • HI Becke,

        This is my first time attending, so any advice would be welcome!


        Posted by Pam Callow | September 12, 2011, 12:50 pm
        • Pam – Hah! You should have seen me walking around gawking! Lee Child got in the elevator with me and I swear my hands got all clammy and I forgot how to talk!

          I wish they would do the nametags differently at conferences. Like make them huge, and hang them on people’s backs so when conference newbies like me can figure out who’s who without walking around squinting at chests, trying to read the relatively-small print!

          Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | September 12, 2011, 1:04 pm
  9. Pam – excellent post! I love it when I get to read somethign that gets me back-to-the-basics of writing.

    I plot backwards and always have and I also picture big moments and those are the kernals for my story. It’s good to hear that I’m not the only one! : )

    Thanks so much for coming by!

    Posted by Robin Covington | September 12, 2011, 8:05 am
  10. Pam, I find it interesting how different agents operate. What an added advantage to have one that is so helpful with revisions.

    I always know my ending before I start. And usually the turning points and black moments – although I haven’t actually outlined an entire novel.

    Posted by Anne MacFarlane | September 12, 2011, 8:18 am
    • HI Anne,

      I think different writers need different things from their agents, but in my case, having Al’s input on the book is really helpful.

      It’s great when you know so much about the book before you begin the outline!


      Posted by Pam Callow | September 12, 2011, 12:54 pm
  11. Outlining backwards. Worth a try. Hadn’t thought about anything like that but perhaps that’s a good way to get unstuck. The outlines from the beginning and from the end should meet in the middle, right?

    Posted by PatriciaW | September 12, 2011, 9:03 am
    • Hi Patricia,

      I think one way of approaching it is knowing the final scene, and then starting from the beginning and working to that goal. Then, take the outline and go backwards to make sure that every step leading to that climax works in terms of motivation and conflict.

      Does that make sense?


      Posted by Pam Callow | September 12, 2011, 12:56 pm
  12. Pam –

    Thanks so much for being at RU today. Your relationship with Al sounds like one a lot of writers dream of. I wonder how many agents really have that close brainstorming relationship with their clients.

    Thanks so much for the great tips!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | September 12, 2011, 9:46 am
  13. Morning Pam!

    Great post, especially in this day and age where the question definitely IS do I even need an agent? Yours sounds like he’s really made a difference in your writing career.

    I too like the outlining backwards part, or using the turning points and building outward. Going to have to give it a try!



    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 12, 2011, 9:52 am
    • Yes, asking yourself whether you really need an agent is an excellent question, and I think it depends on your publishing route, and whether you feel you need a specific type of expertise that an agent can bring to your business.

      Thanks for dropping by, Carrie!


      Posted by Pam Callow | September 12, 2011, 12:58 pm
  14. Hi Pam,

    Lots of food for thought. There are so many perspectives on the question of whether or not authors need an agent. It seems that the wrong agent may be worse for a writer’s career than no agent at all.

    I’ve also ‘written backwards,’ though at heart I’m a pantser, not a plotter. I usually have a clear picture of the beginning and end of a story, and sometimes working backwards helps me figure out the middle. Thanks for the interesting post, and I’m looking forward to TATOOED.

    Posted by Jennie Marsland | September 12, 2011, 10:22 am
    • Hi Jennie,

      Thanks for your thoughts on this! I agree, a bad agent is worse than no agent, because they can give you advice that has long-term contractual and financial consequences. Plus, you end up paying 15% on all your earning ad finitum.

      Thanks for dropping by!


      Posted by Pam Callow | September 12, 2011, 12:59 pm
  15. Hi Pam. Thanks for hanging out with us today. I was very excited to see that I plot using the same method as Diana Gabaldon. I hope that bodes well for me! LOL.

    In all seriousness, I find if I don’t have at least my middle and end figured out, the story gets away from me. Figuring out the major plot points really helps me to stay on track. I also think this method lets me identify major plot issues as I’m going along and I have fewer revisions to deal with on the back end.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | September 12, 2011, 11:07 am
    • Hi Adrienne,

      I’d be excited, too, if I found out I plotted like the great DG!

      Sounds like you are also an outliner by nature — and I agree, it helps down the road when revisions hit you!

      Thanks for having me at RU!


      Posted by Pam Callow | September 12, 2011, 1:01 pm
  16. Pam – can you tell us anything about TATTOOED, your 2012 release?

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | September 12, 2011, 1:10 pm
    • HI Becke,

      I’m very excited about TATTOOED. Kate Lange, my series lead, is thrown into a cold case that involves the former rebel from her high school, who is now a celebrity tattoo artist. It delves into a lot of areas that interest me: the right to die, the mainstreaming of the tattoo culture, and forensic anthropology, to name a few .

      TATTOOED will be released in June 2012. I just saw the cover and it rocks!

      I also have a short story featuring a secondary character from my series — Eddie Bent, a recovering alcoholic criminal defense lawyer — in the International Thriller Writers’ THRILLER 3 anthology, headlined by Lee Child and Sherrilyn Kenyon, and that will be released in June 2012, as well.

      June is going to be a busy month! 🙂

      Posted by Pam Callow | September 12, 2011, 5:36 pm
  17. Hi Pam,
    Yeah, I like Al Zuckerman’s ability to cut to the core of reasoning when it comes to setting up a story. If you don’t know the climax, the ultimate fear exposed for the character, how can you know the character.
    I read his book on writing, and gained so much from it.

    Posted by Stella MacLean | September 12, 2011, 1:20 pm
  18. Hello Pam!

    No agent yet, but I think it’s important to have one. Like you stated, someone who’s invested in you and will help guide your career.

    You brought up some terrific points, especially about characters driving the story. I love reading suspense and thrillers, but if I can’t empathize with the protagonist, finishing the book becomes an endurance test.

    Great post. Thanks for being with us today!

    Posted by jennifer tanner | September 12, 2011, 4:15 pm
    • Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks so much! I think character is key, and it was a lightbulb moment for me when I read Elizabeth George’s explanation of how necessary it is in suspense novels.

      Thanks so much for having me! It’s been a great discussion. 🙂


      Posted by Pam Callow | September 12, 2011, 5:39 pm
  19. Great post, Pam. You’re books are full of suspense and tense moments, and it was interesting to see how you do it.

    Posted by Tory | September 12, 2011, 4:22 pm
    • HI Tory,

      Thank you very much! I can always tell when things are working on the page, because I physically react to the tension. When I wrote the climax for DAMAGED, my fingers were literally shaking as typed.

      Thanks for dropping by!


      Posted by Pam Callow | September 12, 2011, 5:40 pm
  20. Ta Da! The winner of Pam’s book, INDEFENSIBLE, is SARA HUBBARD! Congratulations, Sara!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | September 12, 2011, 6:30 pm
  21. Pam – Thank you so much for spending the day with us today, and for sharing Al’s tips with us! It’s really been a fun day!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | September 12, 2011, 6:39 pm
  22. I met with Mr. Zuckerman in New Orleans last week, and he spoke at length about Ken Follette’s plotting process. Luckily, I had read Al’s book and had previously used Martha Alderson (The PLot Whisperer) to help plot my story from the climax back. Before I could get to my pitch, Al asked me to send him my first fifty – all because I knew how to speak and understand his language.

    Posted by dk Kelleher | December 3, 2012, 9:31 pm

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