Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy Holidays!


‘Twas the week before Christmas, when all through New York
Not a publisher was stirring, not even for work.
The books were shipped out by UPS with great care,
In hopes that gift card shoppers soon would be there.

The authors were settled, auto-responder up in my stead,
While visions of royalty statements danced in their heads.
And editor in her ‘partment, and I with cat in lap,
Had just settled our brains for a short winter’s nap.

When suddenly from Outlook there arose such a PING!
I sprang from the couch to see what it would bring.
Away to the computer I flew like a flash,
Clicked open the email and read it in a dash.

The white on the page of the email screen
Caused my face to glow with quite a sheen.
When, what to my reading eyes should appear,
But a wonderful offer that had me grinning ear to ear.
I called to the author, so lively and quick,
Who knew in a moment that this call was it!
More rapid than eagles I picked up the phone,
And dialed, and shouted until to all editors it was known!

"Now Penguin! Now, Random House! Now, Simon and Schuster!
On, Macmillan! On, Bloomsbury! On, on Little Brown and Harper!
To the top bidder goes! This is no time to crawl!
Now dash away! Run P&Ls! Have meetings one and all!"

As giraffes that meander in the plains by the by
When in chase by a lion, as gazelles do fly
So up to the pub house-top the editors they flew,
With a pitch full of praise, and comp titles too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard from the phone
The TING! and DING! of my cell’s ring tone.
As I pressed ANSWER and talked,  what to my eyes
Though the interweb more offers in endless supply.

One was for three books and filled author with glee,
Yet for World rights, it was tarnished – North American was key!
A bundle of good sub splits it had flung on inside,
And it looked like a good deal, made with much pride.

The next – oh how it twinkled! Its zeroes so many!
Promising so much to author, its flaws there weren’t any!
Its territory, splits and royalties tied up like a bow,
And an amazing editor and marketing plan in tow.

A third bid was placed, trying to beat out all the rest,
And on and on they came, with each new bid progressed!
But to the author it was clear which offer to choose,
From a publisher whose backlist had been her muse!

The editor was bubbly and giddy, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I called her, in spite of myself!
The SQUEE! that she gave and the words that she said,
Soon gave me to know we had nothing to dread.

We spoke not another word, but went straight to our work,
Drafting the contract and working out every quirk.
And laying the final X on the dotted line,
The author gave her approval, and it was payment time!

The editor sprang to her office, to her team gave a whistle,
And away the check flew to us like a missile.
But I read from my inbox, ‘ere I shut it down for the night,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Monday, December 3, 2012

Review: Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole

Mary and I started agenting around the same time. I remember sitting next to her at my very first conference and talking about our sales, how things were going, challenges we were facing as new agents. We’d entered publishing at the start of a crisis, a downslide from the “good ol days” of high advances and easy sales (well, at least that’s how I picture how it was). She had an energy and a passion to make the most of her opportunities that was inspiring, and she said something to me that has stuck with me ever since: If we can make it now [in this economy], we can make it any time. 

Since then, Mary has gone on to become an agent extraordinaire, author of one of the most popular children’sindustry sites, and now, author of the upcoming WritingIrresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers*:

Writing for young adult (YA) and middle grade (MG) audiences isn't just "kid's stuff" anymore--it's kidlit! The YA and MG book markets are healthier and more robust than ever, and that means the competition is fiercer, too. In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, literary agent Mary Kole shares her expertise on writing novels for young adult and middle grade readers and teaches you how to:

  • Recognize the differences between middle grade and young adult audiences and how it impacts your writing.
  • Tailor your manuscript's tone, length, and content to your readership.
  • Avoid common mistakes and clich├ęs that are prevalent in YA and MG fiction, in respect to characters, story ideas, plot structure and more.
  • Develop themes and ideas in your novel that will strike emotional chords.

I was intrigued by her new book both because she’d personally inspired me with her advice, and also because of how much her advice and knowledge already resonates on her popular website, KidLit.com. Of course, there are a ton of other writing resources out there. So what makes this one so special?

MK: I took the Donald MaassWRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL approach and integrated novel excerpts from thirty-four books that I think are some of today's best. So I'm not just talking about voice in an abstract way, I'm showing writers examples of it, and, better yet, how each specific example works and why. Those next few steps are often missing in writing guides that stop at simply being prescriptive. I've also interviewed some published authors and big house editors to round out my own advice, so I hope to bring writers something bigger than just me on my soapbox. 

I found it an engaging and interesting read, not just for honing craft but also for its great introduction and summary about the start of the MG and YA boom to set the stage for breaking into the children’s industry as a whole. The book follows the same straight-forward and in-depth style found on Mary’s website with some really fun notebook doodle designs to set the mood. But most importantly, it steps beyond what any one post on a blog or website could answer by tackling some of the toughest questions on voice, revision, authenticity and even career-minded market writing with thorough examples and explanations. I’ve only just scratched the surface of these tricky subjects here on my own blog, and I know that while I was reading there seemed to be a constant mantra in my head of: Yes. Yep. Check. Yep.

And it’s not just a guide for writing; true to the spirit of that same energetic and inspiring agent I sat next to all those years ago, what Mary hopes readers (writers) will take away from this book is more than advice; it’s the urge not to feel stuck by what you’ve got but to take risks and make the most of opportunity to go out there and MAKE IT HAPPEN:

MK: In assigning exercises and covering the bases of the biggest craft issues, I hope to inspire writers to go back to the drawing board, experiment, and play with their work. Too often, we get locked into the words we've written because they're already there and anything is better than a blank page. We lose that sense of creativity. You are making everything up when you write. There's shouldn't be a sense of "it has to be like this" or "I can't do it this way." Of course you can. And sometimes it's that play that we indulge in once we get over ourselves and break our own boundaries that results in the best writing.
 
So check it out! It’s definitely a resource I recommend.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Too Good to be True?

I got a very interesting, and frustrating, question the other day about self-published* books. The reader asked:

Last week was my birthday and my wife gave me a new kindle.  I was ecstatic and wanted to see what new stuff I could download and read.  I went to Amazon’s marketplace, searched under fiction and found a plethora of titles. I further searched under 'fantasy' to narrow the results and sorted them by 'most popular'. 

The first seven were all old tried and true favorites of mine; number eight, however, was a new book I'd never heard of. It had a nice cover and the summary sounded promising, so I went down to the reviews.  It had an average score of 4 out of 5 stars. Then I read the reviews and of the 120+ that it had, the vast majority gushed about how great the story was. I spent about an hour looking over reviews and only found one or two that didn't make the book sound like the greatest novel on earth, but even those said that it was a fair read and great for younger readers.

As it turned out, it was [horrible].  There were grammar mistakes, bad dialogue, non-existent story. I felt cheated and angry…. I bought this book instead of something [else], so that is at least one less sale that could have gone to a more deserving book.  


My question is, does this kind of under-handed marketing help or hurt more (in respect to the author and the industry in general)? The market is getting flooded with self-published works and most of them seem like they are okay but then something like this comes along and it really makes you think twice.   

This happens all the time, and has been happening for some time ( remember hearing about some weird bird book scam a few years ago). Not just with reviews; authors find ways to “beat the system” and bump their books up to #1 using technological glitches.


Some fabulous talent has been found from self-published work; true, maybe some fabulous unpolished talent, but authors who, nonetheless (and despite whatever quality) truly resonate with readers. Take Fifty Shades of Grey; ok, yeah, not the best written thing I’ve ever read, but you know what, I was totally addicted. My husband and I had friends over the weekend I decided to pick it up and read, and I was constantly sneaking away for ten minutes at a time just to read.


For these, I think self-publishing is wonderful. There is a known disconnect between what is bought by publishers and what readers will read, primarily because what publishers buy is based on what bookstores will stock and what they think they can sell, that self-publishing can help gap.


For the latter, however, authors who decide to take a more manipulative approach to the top, it’s just frustrating. I absolutely hate to hear that a reader is not only turned off from trying any more unknown authors, but wary of all e-books period, now, AND that a good debut author did lose a sale to something that was manipulated as great rather than really great.

To directly answer the question, YES, for all the reasons above and more, it DOES hurt more than it helps, and not just for the industry; an author can’t count on a fan base or repeat customers by forcing bad books to sound good, which means the author’s sales will eventually dry up. 



So, I thought I’d cobble together a list first, on how to help decide if the book is self-published or not:
  • Publisher is CreateSpace, Amazon Digital Services, iUniverse, PublishAmerica, Xilbris, or any other vanity press
  • Publishing house is owned by the author of the book (Google it if you’ve never heard of the publisher)

And what would give me pause before purchasing a “too good to be true?” book (other fab posts on it here and here):
  •  The 1-2 star reviews complain about grammatical errors and lots of typos
  • There are very FEW bad reviews, and the bad reviews there are are very mild (books are so subjective, no way is a book that perfect)
  • The 4-5 star reviews indicate that the author has paid for good reviews (or, alternately, solicited ONLY good reviews – it is ok to give away books for review or hold contests, but not ok to only ask for good reviews)
  • The 4-5 star reviews themselves are full of typos and grammatical errors, or sound like the same person wrote them, and are way too overly gushing
  • There’s a mention of “for the price, it’s not half bad” (I’d want to hear: I expected this to be ok for the price, but it blew me away!)
  • There are a ZILLION reviews, most of them fabulous, and yet it isn’t within the top #500 in Kindle Paid or top #100,000 in books
  • A zillion reviews, period (way too many gushing reviews is pretty suspect)

Definitely not fool-proof, but if you’re just not sure, and it’s more than you’re willing to pay, don’t buy it. I really don’t want to discourage trying on new authors, though, and so worst case scenario, you give it a shot and you’re out a dollar.


Regardless of the outcome, whether a book is falsely touted or not, I strongly encourage you all to leave honest reviews – even more so, of course, if you do end up loving the book!

*After posting this, I can understand how this would appear to be an attack on self-publishing, which was not my intent. Any author, whether traditionally published or not, can use a manipulative approach to the top, and it's those authors, not any method of publication, I wanted to caution readers to. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

NaNoWriMo 2012 Resources


I’m either participating in, being asked to share links to, or hearing about quite a few awesome NaNo things, so I thought I’d just sum things up in one post:

The program will continue for the entire month of November (Monday – Friday) and will spotlight subsequent weekly themes that aim to guide the NaNoWriMo participant through the novel writing process. The schedule includes:

Nov 1-2: Creativity / Idea Generation
Nov 5-9: Story Structure / Plotting
Nov 12-16: Character
Nov 19-23: Inspiration
Nov: 26-30: Endings / Revision

Every day of November (and even a few late-October prep days), YA Highway will be sending out an e-mail note of something inspiring. A blog post that helped one of us get through a rough writing patch, or a picture of a sloth clinging to a llama*. A daily dose of advice, motivation and camaraderie to remind you that we're in this writing game together, and when you succeed, it makes the world of kidlit better for us all!

1st place: $50 gift card to Amazon.com and 10 page novel critique by LM Preston
2nd: 1 year Premium Membership and 1 member book of their choice
3rd place: 1 member eBook of their choice 

Check this out for daily tips and blogging posts!


Post-NaNo

January 4-6th: Designed to facilitate a discussion between authors, agents, editors, and aspiring writers all about the importance (and how-to) of revision, post-NaNoWriMo.

(I am contributing to a Q&A and writing a post on revision)

During the first week of December, will to focus on tips for revising that NaNo novel. I hear rumors of a post of your favorite agent quotes/ideas. Be sure to check back at their blog to check it out!


If there’s things I’ve missed (I’m sure I have) and you want to add, feel free to shoot me an email or post in the comments!

PS – Just for fun, check out this Time article on the whole deal.

Monday, October 29, 2012

...Another Door OPENS! (Contest Results)

Happy Monday!

Below are the seven fabulous winners, chosen at random from the comments on the contest post:

Synopsis/plot arc critique:
  1. Erin_Schultz
Books:
  1. Roza M
  2. Chris Campillo
  3. romancecritique
  4. Unknown (posted October 26, 2012 4:44 PM)
  5. Netbug
  6. Melissa Gorzelanczyk
Congrats! Please email me directly at natalie@bradfordlit.com to let me know your mailing addresses. Let me know if you already have any of the fab prizes; otherwise, I will also be mailing those out at random - as in, you'll just be getting something in your mail one day and go oh hey cool! (except for the synop critique; had to pick that one first, since uh, it kind of can't be a surprise).

Now, as a recap, here is a list of all the wonderful advice from the posts - read, soak in, enjoy:


Don't be bat sh@# crazy. So many people get so obsessed with getting every perfect they over think and obsess over small details. Take a deep breath, do your best, and don't over-analyse.

 
Keep Writing! Don't get so hung up on submitting or promoting or whatever that you forget the key element of being a writer. It's also how you improve your craft and become a better writer. You can take all the writing classes in the world but if you aren't writing after class, then what's the point? A lot of people say "Write every day," but that's not always practical given life's demands. What I think works better is to "Write Regularly," whatever that means to you and your schedule. Just don't stop. Keep writing!

It only takes one "yes." It's easy to get down and depressed when the flurry of rejections start coming in, but you can't give up. Is there validity in the rejections? Are there suggestions on improvement? If so, great! Take it! If not, move on. Your writing, as is your book, is not meant for everyone and not everyone will love it. But find that ONE agent (b/c you only have one in the end anyways) and you're golden.

Do Not Rush Your Work - into the envelop or under the send Key. The one thing I've witnessed (and been guilty of) is hurrying the WIP to be a done deal. It's not worth it. A Pennsylvania Dutch saying (likely from other cultures, too) is: The Hurrieder I Go, The Behinder I Get (atrocious spelling mine, I think). Take the time to read your work again, double check the spelling, get another opinion on the point that puzzles you.

Take criticism and grow from it. Taking everything as a failure won't help and ignoring every constructive word will get you nowhere.

Have more than one project going at a time. That way, no matter when you get stuck or writer's block kicks in, you always have something to work on.

Get your work in front of several pairs of eyes. Beta readers can give you great feedback, and the feedback given from readers who do not also write is often different, yet still just as beneficial, as that given from other writers. Fresh eyes can find typos and misspelled words you've missed. And they can tell you where a story is confusing for someone who doesn't have the ins and outs of the character's entire life in their head.

Don't be afraid to write crap. First drafts are meant to be awful. They're also not meant to be sent out into the world. Write everything you want to write in your first draft, let it ramble and sprawl and just spill out in a putrid, stinking mess of of story and character. It can all be tidied up and made pretty and perfumed in revisions. LOTS of revisions.

Less is more. Get rid of that stuff that doesn't advance the plot. Get rid of extraneous words. Your book is like an un-sculpted piece of marble and you've got trim away the excess to make it into a work of art.

Don't compare your journey to anyone else. Hard to do, especially with the internet, but so important!

Just because you get a brilliant idea for a new manuscript while in the middle of writing chapter 5 does not mean your current manuscript is terrible and you should abandon it for your Shiny New Idea.

Keep writing. Never give up, never surrender. If you're faced with rejection after rejection, don't let it get you down and don't give up. The more you write the more you'll improve and the better your chances to snag that one agent or one editor. Your day will come.

Write for the joy of writing. Don't worry about getting published, do it because you love it. Just like if you run - don't run to win your first race - run for the pleasure of running...oh, and maybe to get in shape ;D - kinda like writing to be a better writer.

Listen to the advice given. You might not agree, but listen first before you judge.

Be authentic. If you're really not a gritty urban fantasy person, don't try writing it, even if it's supposed to be the next big thing. If you hate Twitter, then don't do it. Explore what is comfortable for you and be yourself. You'll find your voice and genre more quickly, and have more fun.

Believe in yourself and your work. You're not born with the talent to write, it's learned. Never stop learning.

Good ideas will stick around. They don't vanish forever if you can't write them down right away. They'll check in on you during your morning walk or while you're treading dirty dishes.

Try and find your "voice" - which, I know, is hard. But necessary.

Keep reading and writing; writing and reading. Because that's what we love doing.

Believe you will succeed. Self-delusion is more productive than self-doubt.

Writing can be a lonely business, so find other writer friends for support. Meet them for coffee or chat with them online, whatever works best. They're the friends you can call or email when you need sympathy after a rejection or when you want to celebrate after a full request or a contest win.

Remember why you started writing in the first place. It's easy to get caught up in revisions, critique groups, agent submissions, contests, etc. and lose sight of your love for writing a great story. Hey, writing is supposed to be enjoyable! Remember?

Don't discount what you can learn from other media. Particularly for YA & MG novels, screenplays and TV scripts have tons to teach. Screenplay writing book, Save the Cat! is among the most useful overall writing books out there.

"Join the SCBWI." A friend gave me this advice and I'm so glad I listened.

When you get writer's block, walk away. Get a glass of wine, a latte, take a walk, run an errand, take a nap. Your brain will work on your writing problem in spite of you.

Keep moving forward- learning, writing, editing, promoting, networking. Never stand still long enough to sink.

Never give up on an idea you once loved just because you've hit a rough patch at some point in the narrative. Even if it's difficult to figure out where you went wrong or how to continue on, it can a lot of times be worth the effort!

Think outside the box. Don't be afraid to take risks, challenge conventions or make daring writing attempts. Whether they fail or suceeed doesn't matter. It will grow and develop your writing. The more you question and are curious, the more you learn.

Writers should follow a 100 to 1 rule: Read 100 novels for every one they write, read 100 short stories for every one they write, and read 100 query letters for every one they write.

"Most of the sentences you make will need to be killed. The rest will need to be fixed. This will be true for a long time." -Verlyn Klinkenborg in Several Short Sentences About Writing.

"Be a writer, not an author." - Jon Bard. The long road to publishing (for me) can make me lose some of my optimism and also make me feel like I have to rush before I "miss out" on the success. When I remember how much joy writing gives me, it calms me and that hope and optimism that is almost always at my fingertips return.

Take your time. Don't do it for the money, do it for the love of writing. Then you will be happy.

Keep a paper and pen outside the shower curtain- it's where the best ideas inevitably hit.

BE PATIENT. Really, patience is a virtue. Don't rush sending query letters to every agent, don't status check a request after only a couple weeks (this coming from me who has been waiting close to 7 months on a response. It's a long story). I've been in the 'Query Wars'for almost 3 years, but I've also been writing more books, and reading a LOT. That helps me when it seems like things are taking FOREVER to happen :)

Don't be afraid to listen to your gut. If a book deal or agent offer doesn't "feel right", it probably isn't. Move on...another door WILL open. Every time my career has advanced, it's because I've bravely listened to my intuition instead of staying with what's "safe".

Write anywhere at any time. Tiny, simple notebooks that you can fit in your pocket are perfect. And, as John Green once said, all writing is rewriting.

Picture Book writers need to "Think Visually".

Give yourself permission to write a sucky first draft. Then rewrite. And edit. And revise. And rewrite again...

You can revise the same manuscript for twenty years and never feel like you've fixed everything. There will always be a word here or a phrase there that can be altered and improved. There comes a time when you have to be willing to let your words go and have the courage to start submitting it to editors/agents, or you'll be an aspiring author for the rest of your life!

GO TO CONFERENCES! If you can possibly afford it, go, hang out in the bar before during and after, and meet agents as casual buds. It makes SO much difference! Also, pay attention to them during panels and dinners and lunches and such. I'm so much less stressed submitting to them after seeing one I'd considered up close and personal. Seeing her in person convinced me I had no desire to be agented by her. If I get another rejection, I can just picture that particular agent and tell myself that this one also wasn't right because they don't GET me.

The polishing and editing never ends. At one point you just have to look at your manuscript and be confident that it's ready to go out into the world. When it does, you need to know that this is THE BEST manuscript ever (at that moment) because every writer's last book is always the best book s/he ever wrote.

Don't believe every piece of advice you hear on the internet. There are a lot of self-entitled people and often can give ill-advice and make a writer question their own work. If you question it, find a professional to help (there are so many GREAT mentoring writers out there LOOKING to help). This is particularly critical for anyone who writes literary fiction.

Forget about the traditional publishing industry and do it myself. I spent three years trying to break in and was continually rejected. I finally self-published my books instead and I am suddenly making enough to quit my day job and write full-time. Despite years of rejections on three different books, despite working with two different literary agents at a major agency, despite following all the sage writers' advice who supposedly knew what they were talking about, despite doing everything "the right way," publishers had no interest in me. But I've known all along that I write a killer book, and that readers will be interested.

Respect critique from all levels of writers and readers. Yes, there is advice only a talented writer can offer, but if you sneer at the every-day reader you miss a unique perspective.

Be disciplined. Love what you do, but be diligent in pursuing it. Study it, practice it, talk about it, but most of all, do it. And don't stop doing it, even when you don't want to do it anymore. It's pushing past your comfort zone and swimming in the discomfort of not knowing that leads to your next breakthrough. You get better by not giving up.

When an agent is kind enough to e-mail you feedback, listen to it. Don't let your anger from being rejected cloud an important opinion. Take a week, then go back to your novel and consider revising.

Writing is never finished, even if it gets published. It's a living piece of art, forever changing. You have to accept that if you want to succeed in getting published.

Be humble. Plain and simple. We never stop learning, as writers or in life. Also, NO one has ALL the answers. So take naysayers with a grain of salt ;)

Ray Bradbury had the best advice: "You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you."

Always have something to work on, to look forward to, to think about--other than the manuscript or query you just sent out--while you're waiting for feedback and answers. Waiting has a funny way of breeding doubt--and you want to squash that monster!

Agents read subjectively. One rejection does not mean your writing is bad. It could just mean its not right. And at the end of the day, if all you have is a lot of rejections, there are always more ideas hovering in your mind, waiting to be written. Above all: "Explore the reason that compels you to write; test whether it stretches its roots into the deepest part of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would have to die if the opportunity to write were withheld from you." -Rainer Maria Rilke

Be persistent. Keep writing. Keep revising. Keep submitting. Taste is subjective, but if you write great stories, someone will want them.

Advice from Kurt Vonnegut: "Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

You can't wait for inspiration. You have to just kind of keep going at it and hope it'll come. Paraphrased, but good tip from Pullitzer winner Jeffrey Eugenides.

Write the story only YOU can write :) It's helped me more than I ever thought it would!


Monday, October 22, 2012

When One Door Closes... (Contest CLOSED)


A lot of days, I feel like this guy:




I’m sure all of you do.


For this contest, I want all of you to be the door openers. 

It's simple: to enter, post one piece of advice you’ve learned on your publishing journey, at any stage of the game.

Limit one per person – I will be drawing seven names at random from the posts to win one of SEVEN fabulous prizes, which include:

Two ARCs of the upcoming RENEGADE by Jessica Souders, one synopsis/plot arc review and critique (from me), one copy of SIRENZ: Back in Fashion by Natalie Zaman and Charlotte Bennardo with timely SWAG, a signed copy of IMMORTAL HOPE by Claire Ashgrove, a copy of HOOKED, and a copy of THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE.

The contest begins on Monday, October 22nd, and ends on Friday, October 26thWinners will be announced the following Monday, when I will also compile a blog post using all the entries for easy viewing and reference.

Thank you all in advance for your words of wisdom and advice – to kick it off, here’s mine:

NEVER GIVE UP.      

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Contest Crazy?


I love contests; I love that they open up extra exposure for authors, not only to agents but also to other writers who can offer advice and critiques. However, I’ve started to notice that these pitch and logline and first 500 word and secret agent contests are happening so frequently that not only do I find myself judging the same entries over and over again…I’m exhausted.

I know there are some major plus sides to all of this for authors – aside from the free extra exposure, there’s also a chance to query without having to meet query requirements (like a darn synopsis), a quick (possibly frenzied) response, agents coming to YOU and not the other way around, networking, and even just plain ol’ fun and excitement.

For me, though, I’m starting to feel a lot of down sides. Originally, these contests were a fabulous way to get my face out there and find new talent. Still are of course, but really, as an agent my job isn’t to search the slush pile. It’s to be an advocate for my clients. The contests force me to spend more time in the slush, basically, rather than on my clients. If I do decline a contest to avoid this, I feel like I’m missing out, because of course, not all writers who enter contests WOULD query me – but then, does that mean that they didn’t put me on their submit list on purpose, which means to read a contest entry is a waste of time anyway, or because they didn’t think of/ know of me?

Bottom line: I don’t want to miss a fresh find just because I’m growing as an agent (i.e., have more clients and sales), and so I scramble to make it all work, but…how much longer can I go?! I’m going contest C-RAZY!

It’s all exciting, of course. And I don’t want it to STOP. But NaNoWriMo is coming up (oh, how I love that too…) and, despite the pluses, I have heard my exhaustion echoed by a few authors scrambling to keep up with it all – which takes away from writing time!

So I’m going to keep this short and simple. I would like to put a call out for some fresh, either craft-oriented, giveaway or inspiring contests for a while, to let you fabulous writers create some fresh material and hone your skills to knock my socks off. And…maybe a call for some more spaced out agent contests!!

To that end, I have one up my sleeves I shall announce shortly…

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Let Your Reader be the Doctor: on Showing vs. Telling

I think one of the most frustrating critiques an author can receive is “you’re telling, not showing.” For the one pointing it out, it’s pretty obvious; but for the poor author who has to fix it – how?! Particularly if the telling is plot-related and not description-related.

My favorite way to think about it is to imagine that your book is the patient, and your reader is the doctor who needs to figure out what is wrong with them. When a patient walks in, they don’t say: “I have appendicitis.” They’re going to say, “My side hurts and I keep throwing up!”

How this translates into your fiction:

Don’t write: She was sad. 
Do write: She felt as if the sun would never shine again. It was a crushing, heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach. 

Of course, there’s debate over whether even the “she felt” should also be avoided. In which case, you might want to consider:

A heavy, crushing feeling settled over her; tears welled in her eyes and she couldn’t breathe. Etc.etc.

Let your reader diagnose what this heavy, crushing feeling is that leaves her crying - desperation? Sadness? In the context of your story, it becomes clear, just as, in the context of the person sitting in front of the doctor’s lifestyle, health history, family history, etc, the doctor will diagnose.

Of course, it just may not be possible to avoid all telling, in which case, I advise to keep it real. Your patient isn’t going to walk in and say, “I believe I have an acute hyperactive diaphragm”; they’re going to say, “I have the hiccups!”

On a larger scale, telling can seep into the direction of the plot. It leads to nasty things like predictability and frustration. Readers like to feel smart; they like to be able to say, “I knew it!” without feeling like they were told or led to that conclusion, but rather because they’re just that awesome at reading into clues. Your reader doesn’t want to feel disconnected from your characters, either, by knowing something your character doesn’t – and feeling frustrated they’re too oblivious to act on it!

So how do you avoid a telling plot?

Think backwards. You’re the doctor; what do you need your patient to tell you in order to figure out what’s wrong with them? What logical order do you need to hear these symptoms in to figure it out?

How this translates to your fiction: 

Diagnosis: Larry killed Sally because Larry was furious she slept with his brother and not him.

Symptoms: Sally is dead. Sally did not kill herself or die in an accident. Sally was raped before she died. Sally was dating Jack. The DNA isn’t Jack’s, but similar enough to show a genetic link. Jack’s brother Larry doesn’t have an alibi. The police find text messages from Larry asking Sally to go out with him, which she declined. …

If you start with Jack’s brother Larry doesn’t have an alibi you’re telling, because you’re answering questions out of a logical order. The reader didn’t think to ask that yet, did they? Try to think through if what you’re leading with, or what you’re developing plot-wise, is answering or revealing things that don’t need to be answered or revealed yet. And also check if what you’re revealing is a why or a what:

What: Sally is dead. Sally did not kill herself or die in an accident. Sally was raped before she died. Sally was dating Jack. The DNA isn’t Jack’s, but similar enough to show a genetic link. Jack’s brother Larry doesn’t have an alibi.
Why: The police find text messages from Larry asking Sally to go out with him, which she respectfully declined.

The WHY is really an icing on the cake, the motive behind a crime. You can certainly convict without it – just like a doctor can diagnose a patient saying “I have this weird mole” without needing to know that he or she never used sunscreen in his or her entire life. But definitely, that lack of sunscreen information could help in preventative measures…or even leading to the diagnosis, cutting the time to the diagnosis in half.

How this translate to your fiction:

Symptom: Jack never likes to be around Sally much anymore, even though they’re engaged. Jack smells like perfume Sally doesn’t wear.

Why: Jack finds Sally annoying and fell out of love with her.

Diagnosis: Jack is cheating on Sally.

Reader reaction after symptom: you IDIOT! Can’t you tell SOMETHING IS WRONG?! WHY are you still sitting there planning your wedding when there is OBVIOUSLY something wrong?!

If you reveal the why too early, the reader already knows he’s cheating on her, thinks Sally is an idiot, and maybe even starts to sympathize with Jack for dating such a dolt in the first place. Will they finish the book (i.e.: need a full list of symptoms in order to diagnose): nope.

In other words: be careful you don’t frustrate your reader with what you reveal, either, and lead them in a direction you don’t want to go. You want to root for Sally, not think she’s an idiot and just completely oblivious to the obvious. If you plot centers around Sally ignoring, for example, these obvious signs, you should sprinkle in some reason as to WHY she’s ignoring them – i.e., Sally knows she doesn’t wear that perfume, but she rations it must be his mom’s. She notices Jack isn’t around much anymore, but he just must be busy. She becomes in denial, now, instead of an idiot. 

Your whys and whats need to work together in logical order leading up to the conclusion.

Whew! Happy writing!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

LGBTQ in Fiction

I had the honor of being a special guest at the LGBTQ Q&A at the SCBWI’s 41st annual LA conference last week. While there is a fabulous review of the whole meeting, I wanted to highlight a few things that I took away.

There was quite a heated debate going on about the fears some people hold in regards to including LGBTQ characters in their fiction. Does it make it less marketable? Does it make it a harder sell? How does a non-LGBTQ author authentically create an LGBTQ character without offending anyone? 

There was really only one answer to all of the above: write authentically, not stereo-typically.

A good story is a good story, regardless of the main character’s sexual preference. I’m driven to a hook; a fresh, unique voice with a story that wows me. I look for LGBTQ submissions that stand up to the same, sweep-me-away standards of non-LGBTQ submissions. It is a major turn off for me if a story with LGBTQ themes starts turning issue-driven or preachy and stereotypically wooden and loses sight of what made me want to read it in the first place: the plot. The characters’ identities will shape how the characters act, live and breathe within the narrative, but they should not be the driving force of the story; the story should drive the story.

And, as Arthur Levine said: love is love. Regardless of whether you’re lusting after a man or a woman, the butterflies, the hunger, the yearning – the human experience of it won’t change. The fear of coming out is still fear; the pain of rejection and bullying is still pain and loss and frustration and anger. And as writers, that human experience is what you should seek to capture. It is that human experience that will create authentic characters, who, regardless of sexual preference, coupled with fabulous writing and a hook, will sell.

Now, are there some editors, agents, and readers who will disagree: yes.

But, are there editors, agents and readers who will disagree with any of my tastes: yes!

The bottom line is this: there’s no guarantee a book will sell regardless of whether it has LGBTQ themes or not. But you definitely are going to make your journey harder by writing inauthentic, wooden characters for the sake of a message or token diversity. So don’t try and fit your characters into any kind of little box or situation you think accurately portrays them. Write people, not types, and focus on getting the heart of your story right – that’s hard enough! Don’t feel a need to prove yourself or your writing to anyone (regardless of topic); reach into the humanity behind your characters’ actions and emotions and knock some socks off.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Why do I Need an Agent?

I’ve found this question to be the new hot topic at a lot of conferences lately; it’s right up there with questions on self-publishing and thoughts on ebooks and the effects of digital publishing on the industry.

 My take: really, if your only goal is to be published, the answer is you don’t.

 There are so many small presses popping up these days (but please read this warning on recognizing legit small presses) that accept unagented work that it’s very possible to obtain a contract on your own. Or you can just self-publish. You can even hire a publishing lawyer (BIG emphasis on PUBLISHING lawyer) to look over your contract. You can Google a PR agent or even do marketing on your own.

 But if your goal is to grow a career and explore exciting new options and opportunities…well, you kind of do. 

 An agent can:
-reach publishers you can’t (who often pay more money upfront)
-edit/help polish your work
-negotiate (without getting blue in the face over industry standards no one will ever cave on)
-protect your rights/options (contractually and otherwise)
-sell retained rights (foreign, film, audio, etc)
-offer advice on marketing or PR opportunities (we are usually contacted by bloggers for author recommendations etc)
-offer advice on future projects/career path (making sure a contract leaves your goals in mind for the LONG TERM, such as narrowing an option clause so you can branch out, is something a publishing lawyer on a one-off basis may not do)
-assist with self-publishing (I personally like to do line edits, e-formatting, and cover art, but that’s just me)
-vet manuscripts for editors & get more attention/faster response times (WITH feedback!)

 Guess how much THAT whole kit-n-caboodle can cost you if you just want to hire people to perform the above one-time? Upwards of $2-5,000 (encompassing all of the above; obviously much less if you hire out only one or two things). And we do ALL of it for the bargain price of 15% commission. 

Even where self-publishing is concerned, there is a big difference between hiring freelance editors or formatters who offer a la cart services and having an agent who will offer these services in conjunction with career planning and advising. It would be beneficial to have a hand in more than one method of publication (self, e, and traditional) to balance out and protect both income stream as markets shift and distribution for readers - which an agent can help manage. And just for the sake of sanity I would imagine it gets exhausting to have to be writer and production manager and business manager and marketer all alone; it detracts from the time spent writing to have to be the only one in your corner.

 Not enough? Ok. Here’s a post from an editor on why agents rock.

 Still thinking…yeah, but you’re an agent. Of course you think you’re relevant!

 An editor friend of mine, who was recently asked on a panel: do you think it’s important to have an agent, even though you accept unagented work? Addressed this question quite nicely. She said that she is a publisher; not a hand-holder.

It is incredibly difficult to have to answer basic questions to a client which, quite honestly, she is going to answer in the best interest of her company, not the author. She was from a smaller press, the kind you don’t need an agent for, and she candidly admitted that of course she’s going to want an author to stay with her forever; she’s never going to suggest hey, you’re really good – ever think you should try it with one of the Big 6? Or hey, ever think you should branch off into cookbooks instead of mystery thrillers?!

 Basically, she added a few more bullet points to the list above on what agents can do:
 -answer questions
-advise in your career path’s best interest
-be a go-between

 There are often things that an editor or publishing house will need to say to an author that are not so nice – like, hey, your sales aren’t so great…we’re going to have to drop you, or hey, just so you know, if you get upset and want changes to ONE MORE cover my boss is ready to fish and cut bait. As an agent, I know how to deal with these (and a myriad of other very unpleasant) situations in a way that might offer a compromise, or explain with a ray of hope instead of causing panic and slamming shut a door.

 There are also more positive reasons to have an agent, such as potential work-for-hire, film, foreign and audio possibilities that, due to our contacts, we are presented with. We got the hook ups, baby!

 As an example, recently one of our clients at Bradford Lit was in a precarious position as a published author at a Big 6; her sales were not performing as well as hoped and her editor wasn’t sure they’d be able to do another book despite the fact that the author had talent to spare. The economy can be very cruel. In a trip to NY, the editor met with Laura B and started picking her brain on potential authors for a top-secret-totally-cool project the publisher had just hatched. Laura pitched this client to her, and the deal was born; the project gained incredible press and attention, and her publisher was so thrilled with how cooperative and professionally she had worked, they blindly offered on four more books...for a substantially increased advance. Yowza!

 I do think the question of whether or not to sign with an agent is more common within the romance genre than any other; many authors are obtaining contracts for first novels through e-or-small presses first, and doing quite well that way. But, money isn’t everything; it’s always a dream to try and reach out and be accepted by the publishers an author grew up reading. The big hesitation I’m hearing on actually signing with an agent, however, is: so what if I get an agent…and she can’t sell my next book to anyone but my existing publisher? How is it fair to give her a commission on something I established myself?

 It’s ok to ask to exclude anything in an agreement that could fall into this category; but not all agents will agree to that. Agreements are usually intended to cover representation for an author's published works, however that work becomes published. Publication comes in a lot of forms these days and agreements are evolving with the changes. In which case, the question becomes: do I take a chance and sign, keep searching until I find an agent who agrees to what I want, or continue on my own and hope to gain enough clout to break into the big 6 myself?

 That’s not an easy call to make. Personally, I think it’s worth it to find an agent you click with, who has all the clout and contacts you’re looking for, and dive in. I don’t recommend giving up after only one book, either; sometimes, things just don’t sell. But if, several books down, you’re not seeing any progress with that agent, I think it’s completely fair to part ways and either decide to find a new agent, or continue with the e-or-small press rout.

 Yes, this runs the risk of having some books tied up with an agent you’ll no longer work with, but if you never try…you’ll never know. The agent can also start to withhold rights you may have granted to this smaller press, like film, audio and translation, which you couldn’t do anything with before, but your agent can. I would simply recommend heading into any relationship like this will full clarity and understanding on both sides of expectations and concerns. Keep open communication and an open mind (after all: it’s also not fair to get mad at/dump an agent for not selling books, like homosexual erotic romance, that are so niche they have such a limited chance of selling to New York in the first place) and stay professional, positive, and polite about it all.

 Still not convinced?

 Ok. I recommend not submitting to me. ;)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Novels in Nowhere Land



There are times when I’ll find a manuscript that I truly love…but it seems to be in nowhere land genre-wise.

Some fancy new terms have been created for “upper teen” (New Adult) and “lower YA/upper MG” to classify books with more mature voices and atypically aged characters. But what about when the voice speaks to a younger MG audience, but the characters are…over 13 and going through over 13 experiences, or perhaps the characters start out at 12/13 and end up…16? These younger voices with older characters seem to be floating around in empty shelf space.

Usually I’ll let an author in this situation know my take: that I would LOVE to take on the project if they would be ok aging down the main characters. After all, if the voice speaks to a younger audience, the book really is best suited for that younger audience, and today’s MG is predominantly full of MG-aged characters.

But what about ELLA ENCHANTED, CALLING ON DRAGONS, HARRY POTTER, SONG OF THE LIONESS series, THE BLACK CAULDRON, etc. etc?

Those are some of my FAVORITE novels, and it really pains me to have to tell an author to steer away from these shining examples of MG books with older characters. But at the end of the day…I’m an agent. And I will represent what I can sell…not necessarily just what I love.

I was so torn up about this lately that I went ahead and asked a few editor friends of mine for their take on this; I was really, really hoping they’d prove me wrong.

Here’s what they had to say:

Sara Sargent, Balzer & Bray
I don’t like to make a lot of rules when it comes to books, but if an author is authentically writing about a 15- or 16-year-old protagonist, I have to believe that protagonist would have concerns not appropriate for a middle-grade novel. I’m not talking about lewdness, but about emotional resonance. What resonates emotionally, psychologically, or socially when you are 12 or 13 is not what resonates when you are 15 or 16, and vice versa. 

Alyson Heller, Aladdin
Honestly, if the subject and voice were definitely MG, but the characters were 15-16, I would just have the author age them down to 11-12. I think there would be too much of a disconnect between voice/subject/situation if it all seemed young, but then had a 15-16 year old protagonist. I think with Ella Enchanted, it would probably just be considered “clean teen”, not necessarily MG.

Sarah Barley, Harper Collins
I would consider a middle grade novel where the voice/subject were clearly middle grade, but the characters were 15 or 16. Generally speaking, yes, it’s the rule that characters should be the same age as the readership, but as ELLA ENCHANTED and others show, there are ALWAYS exceptions to any rule!

Some very interesting things to consider here.

First, that today’s definition  of MG is not what it was when the classics above were written – which means, writing like those books…is writing in an outdated style, like writing a Victorian novel. You can write a Victorian novel, and it doesn’t mean it won’t be good…but will it resonate as widely as it would have in 1840?

Second, that though the style is outdated, there may still be a place for them – as “clean teen” – but again: is “clean teen” going to resonate the same way as it did ten years ago, when there are books like THE HUNGER GAMES and TWILIGHT to pick up?

I understand this is a frustrating situation for an author; after all, shouldn’t what people love be the same as what sells?!

Unfortunately, it isn’t. Readers aren’t the direct buyers for publishers – bookstores are. Strange to think of, but true: and bookstores won’t stock what they a) can’t classify and b) don’t think is hot (i.e.: what isn’t going to sell).

Maybe this is changing – with e-publishing and self-publishing, perhaps that gap between readers and publishers can be breached. I’m not unwilling to take a risk on a project; obviously, I’m willing to hope I’m wrong. But I am unwilling to give false hope. Representing a project I don’t believe will sell is completely unacceptable. If I have doubts, I can’t be the best champion.

So, while I would always say that if you believe in it, champion it - don’t fight an uphill battle and try to fit a round peg into a square hole. It is important to keep in mind today’s market and readership when considering your ultimate publication goals; writing without a market in mind can indeed cause a writer to end up…in nowhere land.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Unsolicited Revise & Resubmissions



Here’s my take on this: though it is tempting to take an agent (or editor’s) feedback on a pass and write back – great thoughts!! Soooo…if I just change x,y, & z will you take another look?!  My advice:

DON’T.

Why? Because really, if an agent (or editor) wants to see a manuscript again – he or she will leave that option open in the pass letter.

Personally, I’d also apply this advice to wanting to re-contact and re-submit a manuscript you sent months (or years) ago that you got tons of feedback on and ended up revising – unless you’ve basically re-written the novel. 

I have never signed a client from a revision I did not ask to see (meaning: requested R&R’s, or, “I see so much potential, this was SUCH a hard call for me, if you ever rework..” etc does not apply to this blog post). 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I won’t say YES to taking a look at a revised manuscript I’ve passed on, because honestly, there is ALWAYS the chance someone will knock my socks off with a revision. 

The problem is…I find that it’s really hard to feel motivated to read a revised manuscript I didn’t ask to see. First impressions are hard to beat; I know what’s coming plot-wise the second time, too, so the element of mystery is completely gone – which means unless that hook really grabbed me in enough the first time for me to ASK to see it again…chances are, it’s just not for me.

Now, does that mean that you shouldn’t query an agent who has rejected you before with a NEW work? Hells to the NO! 

I LOVE getting submissions from authors I’ve rejected in the past, as odd as that may sound. I HAVE signed clients that way - and through requested R&R’s. 

Why? Because an author is only going to be better the more practice and time that passes; and if I saw something in the FIRST (or well, latest as the case may be) manuscript to catch my eye…there’s a very good chance there will be something even BETTER in the next manuscript. 

Of course, this begs the question: why SHOULD you even consider querying an agent who rejected you in the past…because when you sign up, you want to sign up everything?

Two reasons: 

1. That rejected manuscript…really may not have worked. Period. And it doesn’t mean you suck as a writer, or that that agent isn’t for you – it just…may not work. 

2. If the agent DID request a partial, and passed…that still means your ideas and initial writing caught his or her eye. The execution may have needed more work than he or she had time or vision for – but a more flawless manuscript may get you in the door…and open a window for thoughts on how to re-work and revise that older manuscript so it DOES work. 

Not that I suggest the latter; I am a BIG fan of moving on to better and brighter things. 

In sum: unless asked…move on. Revise the manuscript with feedback…and query a fresh agent with it. Or start a new project and knock your dream agent’s socks off!