Sunday, June 28, 2020

Tips for Querying an Agent

Always be professional and courteous when sending out query letters to agents. This will be your first introduction to the agent and you want to make a good impression. Below are tips to guide the newbie and refresh the seasoned writers.

1. Address the agent formally by their last name: Mr. or Ms. Smith followed by a colon. You may address them by their first name if you have a relationship with that agent or the agent addresses you by your first name.

2. Remember your query letter is a business letter. Use spell checker, be concise, don’t ramble on about your story or yourself, don’t put yourself in a negative light (listing how many times you’ve been rejected), don’t use flowery fonts, do be respectful. Nathan Bransford's How to format a query letter

3. Follow the agent’s guidelines. If they want the query and X number of pages pasted in the email, don’t send attachments and vice versa.

4. Read their profiles to see what they represent. Don’t send genres they’re not interested in. You are wasting your time and theirs.

5. Don’t get cute or clever with the query letter. One writer turned the query letter into a question and answer format about the writer. The end result was the query letter was all about the writer and very little about the writing project.

6. Do try and highlight your writing voice in your query letter. This can be accomplished by taking text from the manuscript and using it in the letter. Text that is funny, witty or a clever turn of phrase gives the agent a taste of your writing style and hints about the story.

7. After you make your submission, do not call or email the agent pestering them if they received it, did they read it or when will they read it. Believe it or not, reading their slush pile is not their primary job.

8. Be respectful of their time. Their primary job is taking care of their current clients including tracking down royalty payments, getting submission packages ready for editors they want to query, reading manuscripts and making revision notes for current clients, negotiating deals with editors over current submissions and negotiating contracts once an offer had been accepted to name a few of their jobs.

9. When you receive a rejection letter, do not contact the agent complaining that they didn’t tell you why the manuscript was rejected it or how to make it better. 

10. If you receive a detailed revision request from an agent (multiple pages with thoughts, comments or suggestions on how to make the manuscript stronger/more marketable), you owe that agent the first look.

11. Know the acceptable word counts for your story. Don’t send a 2000-word picture book or an 80,000-word chapter book or middle grade. This is an instant rejection. You can find word counts online. 

12. Pick a lane. Don’t write your story, intentionally or unintentionally, so it straddles the line between middle grade and YA. There are important distinctions between a middle grade story and a YA. Writer's Digest Key differences between middle grade and young adult

13. Always be courteous and considerate of the agent’s time. Never insult, threaten, berate or belittle the agent. Being rude never works in your favor and agents do talk to each other.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Secrets of a Librarian

 1. Librarians love local authors and want to promote their books, usually through book talks, signings, and even local author stickers on said books.

 2. Libraries will accept donated books by local authors. The conditions are the book must have a quality binding (no spiral bound bindings), be edited (no spelling or other grammatical errors) and individual preference (for example, if the librarian feels the book would be a good fit for their library).

 3. If you write nonfiction, you would be wise to pay attention to the state curriculum. The curriculum does change and librarians find a shortage on books relating to the new curriculum. (Contact your librarian for contact names regarding state curriculum.)

 4. There is usually a shortage of picture books relating to current social issues. For example, the coronavirus and children missing grandparents, friends or teachers.

 5. Publishers won’t sell directly to the libraries. Books are purchased through distributors (Baker & Taylor), chains (Barnes & Noble, Amazon) and other consortiums.

 6. After an eBook has been read by only 26 people, the libraries must repurchase said eBook if they want to offer it to the public. Side note: there are a limited number of digital copies /book available. (Who knew!)

 7. If seven people request a book (and the library system doesn’t own it), they must purchase said book.

 8. Libraries cull their inventory by using the following criteria: condition of book, relevance of subject matter, educational value and why would anyone want to read it. You’ll find these books on the For Sale table.

  9. Public libraries don’t ban books. They follow the ALA (American Library Association) rules which state libraries must allow the public access to all books, be open and free to the public. There is no censoring or restricting of books from the public.

10. When a book is not returned (stolen), the euphemism is “borrowed without benefit of card.”

This is a repeat post. Catherine Nuding, a Youth Services Librarian at the East Fishkill Community Library spoke at our local writer’s meeting. Any misinformation is mine and mine alone.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Difference Between New Adult and Adult Books

New adult books bridge the gap between young adult and adult. The protagonist is older than a teenager,18 to 20 (or 25) years old. The setting is usually contemporary.

If the character is in school, it’s college. They could be living on campus or still living at home and commuting. If they live on campus, this may be their first time having to do laundry and light housekeeping. Most likely, they are in debt with student loans, so your character is broke, unless they are a trust fund baby or their parents are wealthy.
For some, it’s a level of independence and responsibility that is foreign to them.
New adult books are about new experiences and freedom. They can decide to join a fraternity, blow off classes or ignore schoolwork. No one is going to call their parents or ask for an absence note. Maybe they’re introduced to hard drugs for the first time. The main character could have their first love or maybe it’s their second serious relationship.
If the main character is not in college or trade school, they may have their first full time job or working the gig economy and probably still living at home or have several roommates.
The issues are more adult like, more drinking, more drug abuse, more sex and more discussing sex. The years spent in college are a time of exploration, they have responsibilities, but are not completely liberated. They have one foot in adolescence and one foot in adulting. It’s an exciting time for self-discovery; they feel like an adult without a lot of the complications.
Adult books have adult protagonist that deal with serious life issues (marriage, divorce, domestic violence, child rearing, bankruptcies, crime, prison, serious drug addiction, extramarital affairs, etc.) and more explicit sex. The adult protagonist is more confident in who they are.
Depending on the genre, the books may end with the answer: the protagonist solved the crime or mystery, or the protagonist made a life changing decision, or the ending expounds on the book’s theme or conflicts.
Bonus link for more explanations and examples:

Monday, March 30, 2020

Improve Your Writing Through Improv Exercises

As writers, we're always trying to hone our craft. We take courses, we form critique groups, we join online writing communities, we read books on craft, we read within and outside our genre, we write or "percolate" and revise.

Ten Creative Exercises That Will Improve Your Writing is written by Leigh Anne Jasheway, a guest writer on The Writer’s Dig. She is a comedy writer, standup comic, author of 21 published books and teaches comedy writing.

Leigh has discovered that the concepts taught through improv can spark creativity, advance your storytelling, expand your dialogue expertise, help in problem solving and, best of all, restore the fun in writing.

These exercises can be done alone or with a partner. Pick your favorites, free yourself from the writing world of rules and have fun with it!

Friday, February 28, 2020

Middle Grade Versus Young Adult

One of the first decisions a children's novel writer must make is will the novel be a middle grade or a young adult? Knowing the differences will save you an enormous amount of time and inconsolable frustration. (Been there, done that.)

I wrote a 70,000-word YA, revised it many times, had several critiques including paying for whole novel critiques. The last critiquer suggested “it’s more of a middle grade than a young adult.”

Ok, I thought. I can make the changes, it shouldn’t be so bad. Shortly after I started, I realized I’ll have to check and revise almost every sentence, delete scenes, change scenes and add scenes. It was a nightmare and I realized I would be rewriting the entire novel. (I have shelved that project until I can decide what to do with it.)

I’ve broken down the differences between middle grade and young adults novels. 

1. MG basics: Age of readers, 8 to 12; word count 30,000 to 50,000; age of protagonist usually 10 to 13.

YA basics: Age of readers, 13 to 18; word count 50,000 to 75,000; age of protagonist 14 and up.

2. Romantic relationships: MG: holding hands, having a crush, innocent kiss or first kiss and starting to like someone as more than a friend.

YA: character can be sexually active and relationships can involve deep feelings of love.

3. Language: MG: swearing should be avoided (even though we know that many in that age group swear). Your book could be banned because of profanity and parents won’t buy it. 

YA: swearing is more acceptable, but don’t do it gratuitously, in other words, is the swearing appropriate to the situation, the emotion that is being displayed, etc.

4. Violence: MG: brutal viciousness (stabbing, machine gun slaughters, etc.) are not acceptable in this category. Remember the reader is as young as 8 and in third grade. Your book will be banned or rejected by editors or agents.

YA: violence is acceptable, but it should serve a purpose and not thrown in because you’re trying to make the book edgy or feel this will make it YA. YA books can also be banned for sexual content, language and violence.

5. Their world: MG: their focus is on home, family and friends and their place within that structure. They may engage in pretend play. They are dependent upon parents for transportation, money, food, clothing and shelter. Even if they have a part time job, they are not able to meet all their needs. They do not think long term, for example, what college do they want to attend, etc.

YA: they have more freedom, more experiences and more opportunities which means more decision making. They drive, they may drink, do drugs, etc. They may make poor choices because they are inexperienced in the real world of adulting. They start thinking about the future: going to college or not going, what do they want to do with their life, etc.

6. Interpreting experiences: MG: they will be having new experiences and new feelings that will be foreign to them. They may have trouble processing them and understanding them.

YA: when they have new experiences, they may be able to draw on a past experience to help them interpret the situation.

7. Language and voice: MG: simple sentence structure (not easy reader structure), but the sentences are not punctuated with a lot of asides and howevers and extraneous thoughts and are usually written in third person.

YA: sentence structure is more complicated, there can be multiple clauses within a sentence and the sentence could be a whole paragraph. The voice is usually first person.

8. Ending: MG: these usually have a happy ending or end with hope. The main character is transformed because of her experience and now sees her world with a different perspective.

YA: the ending can be happy or sad. Through their experiences or journey, their world has crashed into the real world. The main character is trying to find their identity, their purpose. Some of these questions have been answered and some not, but they knows the answers are out there.

If you’re writing MG, read MG and pay attention to the sentence structure, vocabulary, word choice and if using analogies, make sure they are relatable experiences to the MG reader.

The same applies if you are writing for YA. Read them. Study them. Pay attention to content, message, amount of sex, violence and language.

For more information and my sources:

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Role of Your First Chapter

The first chapter is more than the opening pages of your story. The functions are many and sometimes it may feel like mission impossible as you revise and rewrite. Who knew the burdens and challenges inherent in our first chapter? 

The roles of our first chapter are listed below. Some of my examples are personal favorites or well known titles.

1. Grab the editor’s, agent’s or reader’s attention by your compelling first few lines, sentences and paragraphs.

           In THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, his sixth line reads “You are going to die.” What? Why?! You are immediately intrigued, curious, maybe even frightened, but you keep reading.

2. Introduce the main characters

In THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins, Rachel is a heavy drinker, divorced, and unhappy. She lives in Cathy’s flat, a former school friend, and frequently leaves drunken messes that Cathy cleans up. We learn about Rachel’s former life with Tom, her ex-husband, who she still loves. Rachel doesn’t respect boundaries and drunk calls and texts him which causes problems between him and his new wife, Anna. Rachel is obsessed with a couple that she watches through the train window at a signal stop. She calls them Jess and Jason and has invented a perfect, happy life for them.

       3. Hints at theme

In THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, a Newbery Honor, by Katherine Paterson, we learn in the first chapter Miss Ellis, the social worker, has placed Gilly with multiple foster families desperately trying to find a home for her. The theme is about love and belonging.

       4. Sets the tone

Is your story humorous with silly plotlines line the CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS books by Dav Pilkey or is it a serious subject like gangs and police violence in THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas? 

       5. Lays down the foundation for conflicts or problems that will arise later.

In THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas, Starr and her friend, Khalil, suspected of being a drug dealer, run out of a party after shots are fired by a gang member. They drive away, but see the flashing lights of a siren behind them. We have a shooting in a black neighborhood and a cop pulling over the main character and her friend, what could go wrong?

Once you've completed your novel, you may have to revise your first chapter to include or strengthen one or more of the elements above. Sometimes, it is because your novel has wandered and what you intended to write about has changed. Now you have to revisit the first chapter and make sure you've planted enough seeds to ensure that it will grow in the right direction.

You can do it!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Is Your Picture Book a Short Story?

After rough drafting your picture book manuscript and revising it several times, you anxiously share it with your critique group. You hear suggestions and comments, some of which you agree with, some not, but the devastating opinion is when you hear, it’s more of a short story and you should consider magazines. AAAAH!

As writers, we need to accept criticism of our work.  Okay, we can do that. But when is a story more suited for a magazine than a picture book (ages 5 to 9)?

Both traditional picture books (not mood books) and short stories have main characters who should solve their own problems and both picture books and short stories should have a take-away message. There should be rising tension and a narrative arc. The basic differences between short stories and picture books are explained below.

Short stories have more descriptions of your characters and setting because there are only a few art spots, word counts will vary for each magazine (400 to 800 for Highlights for Children), the read-a-loud quality and multiple readings are not as important and you don’t have to worry about scene changes or page turns.

In a picture book, there is little description of the characters and the setting because we leave room for the illustrator, the word count is short, usually 500 words or less (different publishers have different guidelines), the take-away should not be pedantic or preachy, the language should be amusing with a read-a-loud quality to encourage multiple readings, enough different scenes to support a 32-page format and a text to encourage page turns.

The differences are few, but critical to your understanding if your objective is to write picture books.  

I recently read  Go Sleep In Your Own Bed by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Lori Nichols. When the pig goes to bed and finds a cow in his sty, it sets off a chain reaction of all the animals moving to their own bed.

The language is entertaining with onomatopoeia, fun verbs like “straggled, peckety-droop” and pleasing expressions like “Oh, fluff and feathers.”

Page turns are encouraged by each animal going to bed and finding a partially hidden animal already bedded down. “Who do you think he found?” The reader must turn the page to expose the animal. The repeating refrain of “Get up! . . .Go sleep in your own bed!” is read by the reader.

Go Sleep In Your Own Bed is an outstanding example of lively, read-a-loud language and a text that encourages page turns.