Again?!

I know I just took a hiatus in August, but…

It’s NaNoWriMo. I’m not officially participating*, but I’m trying my darnedest to crank out a first draft.

And reading a HUGE amount of slush from the pile. The good news?

It all looks pretty good at first glance. Might mean some new clients for Dunham Literary!

The bad news?

It all looks pretty good.

Agents – and their assistants or interns, if they have them – use the rule, “Read till you know.” Which is usually about 20-30 pages. I try to read at least 25% of the story before making a judgment call.

The flip side is that if the judgment call is good, you usually want to confirm your judgment – and finish the book. 🙂

So:

Manuscripts with a lot of potential = More reading.

More reading for work = Less time to read for pleasure.

Less time to read for pleasure = Making time to read during the day = Less time to write.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try and crank out another few hundred words so I can dig back into that pile today.

See you after Thanksgiving!

 

*Update: Wrong. Thanks to a budge from writing pal Lauri, I am officially participating. Here’s to tracking that word count!  🙂

NaNo-2017-Participant-Badge

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The golden rule

I can’t believe I even have to say this, but…

BE POLITE.

When you query an agent or editor, be polite.

Use their name, spelled correctly.

Do NOT tell them how you’re going to make them rich or that you have written the best book since [INSERT BESTSELLER HERE].

And more than anything –

Above all else –

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE –

Do NOT respond to a form rejection with vulgarities, foul language, and the sentiment that the agent is a loser or an idiot or a jerk. (To put it politely.)

Be grateful that you received a rejection in these uncommunicative days – and if you can’t appreciate that, then tell yourself that the agent is missing out.

We just might be.

But not if you send a Howler (thanks, J.K. Rowling!) in reply. Then we know our instinct to reject your manuscript was correct, because who wants to work with someone so unprofessional, hot-tempered, and rude?

Rejection hurts. We get it – after all agents and editors get rejected too as we try to sell your book.  No agent worth their salt expects a courteous reply to a form rejection. Silence is more than adequate.

But how can anyone in their right mind think that sending a nastygram via email is going to have a positive effect?

Just follow the golden rule:

Treat others as you wish to be treated. Keep calm and keep querying.

Thank you!

X meets Y

Nope, not algebra – COMPS!

Comps are comparable titles to your manuscript. Often expressed as “my story is X meets Y” – as in “My YA science fiction novel is DUNE meets DIVERGENT.” (Not a comp I’d go for, personally.)

Today, I got to thinking about comps when I saw these two great tweets from Jessica Sinsheimer: (@jsinsheim) of ManuscriptWishList.com:

You don’t HAVE to use comps for fiction. If you find comps that give a strong image of your work, go for it. If not, I say go without. 1/2

Replying to

We were talking about this last week at . Comps are like the triple axel. Pull it off? Awesome! Think you’ll slip? Safer without.

 

Jessica’s right. You don’t have to have comps for your query. You can play it safe and skip them. You can mention books and/or writers that have inspired you.

Whatever you do, DON’T say that your book is the next [INSERT BLOCKBUSTER BESTSELLER HERE]!

Agents hate that. And it’s usually not true. You can say your middle-grade fantasy is “Harry Potter” meets “Matilda” – if that’s what it really is – but it’s immodest at best to claim your story is going to be a best-selling/literary prize-winning book. Plus, if you really have just re-written Harry Potter?

Likely not a win for an agent. See, it was already written and is still selling well.

Personally, as a writer, I tend to cite other books or writers that inspired me. As an agent, I am excited by comps for books and writers I love or a particularly intriguing combination.

But all too often, the sample pages don’t live up to the comps. And then, as Jessica says, your poor story is left sprawled on the ice, your query limping off to the locker room, because you didn’t nail the triple axel.

Comps create expectations – make sure you live up to them. Like most things about writing, practice makes perfect. You should be reading a lot in your genre/audience, too. Nothing spells disaster faster than an outdated comp – and if you’re using a classic, make sure there’s a good reason for it.

After all this, why bother making up a comp? Well, a great comp can make for a great pitch – kind of a two-for-one. Twitter pitch, elevator pitch, cocktail party convo – you’ll be all set. 🙂

 

Picture book pitfalls

Don’t get me wrong – I love picture books. I even thought I was going to write them.

Until I worked with a very well-known picture book author at the Highlights Children’s Writers Workshop. He was wonderful! A great help – although probably not in the way he expected. I realized I was writing the wrong books.

I may not be a picture book writer. But I am a picture book reader, and I’ve had plenty of experience reading picture books to audiences of children. I’m pretty savvy about what makes a good picture book these days.

Most folks decide to write picture books for one of three reasons:

  • They’re easy.
  • Their child/grandchild/niece/nephew/godchild/student inspired them.
  • They know children just need to learn THIS.

WRONG.

  • Picture books are not easy. They are a few hundred words of pure genius and incredibly hard work.
  • Picture books tell a story. Both through the text and the art.
  • Children want more than a lesson. They want the story.

The three most common reasons a picture book query is rejected?

  1. There’s no story. A charming incident perhaps, or a clever joke, or a moral – but NO STORY.
  2. There’s no illustration potential. Perhaps a good magazine story or an article. Perhaps just too many words. Perhaps too vague a concept.
  3. There’s no audience – or a very small, very specialized one.

How do agents say these things in their rejection?

  • It’s too didactic. (Preachy, boring, more of a lesson than a story. Many older picture books likely would not be published today. And the reason many classic picture books are classics is because they use a wonderful STORY to imply a moral or lesson.)
  • It’s too quiet. (Also can mean boring. Too vague – a story that lacks kid appeal and/or the possibility to be read again and again.)
  • It’s too limited. (Trade publishers need books that appeal broadly to children. Diversity is important, not just because of the theory of windows and mirrors* but because books that appeal to nearly everyone have a large market. Books that are very narrowly focused may do well in an educational or specific setting, but they’re often published by small presses.)

So what can you do to ensure your picture book query makes it past the slush pile?

  • Make sure your picture book is a story, with a beginning middle, end, and a narrative arc.
  • Make sure your story has illustration potential. Leave out all but essential description – and yes, that includes most art notes. Unless the note references a sight gag or something that can’t be inferred from the text, leave it out. Focus on action and emotion. Give the illustrator room to create something wonderful. Picture books are a collaboration between the art and the text.
  • Finally, make sure your picture book is appealing. If there’s a lesson, let it be subtle. Humor is almost always a plus. Children should want to hear or read it over and over. (Parents should, too. I find the best picture books are never boring, no matter how simple. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS or THREE NINJA PIGS. They never get old.)

 

 

*Books that show us other cultures, races, religions, etc. are WINDOWS. Books that show us ourselves are MIRRORS. IBBY has an excellent speech about this concept.

Proofing problems

Today, let’s talk proofing problems. I’m not talking about yeast issues with homemade bread or difficulties solving for x in geometry.

I’m talking proofreading.

Stop sighing. Proofreading is fun!

Okay, maybe it’s not fun unless you’re Grammar Girl or Mary Norris. But it’s necessary. No matter how much time you’ve spent working on your manuscript, nobody’s perfect.

We all make mistakes.

How to prevent them the best you can?

  1. Skip the software. SpellCheck and all its relatives? Useless. Why? Because often we make typos that result in actual words. If you type “form” instead of “from” (cough, cough) – the software doesn’t correct it. Same for discreet/discrete, two/to/too, and all their happy homonym friends.
  2. Print it! I am assured that this is still the best, most reliable way to check for errors. Manuscripts appear different in print than on a screen. Don’t have a printer? Can’t afford the quantities of ink cartridges required for your opus? Try changing the font. Or read your work on an iPad or Kindle instead of your computer.
  3. Keep a manual close at hand. I prefer Kalman’s illustrated edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style  – classic with a whimsical twist. (Like my favorite cocktails.) Your friendly local library will have multiple choices available at the reference desk, should you not wish to buy a manual.
  4. Have someone else do the dirty work. Enlist your most nitpicky critique partner or grammatically correct friend to give your ms a thorough going-over. (Check their credentials.) Or bite the bullet and pay for a proofreader.
  5. Take a rest. if you’ve been working on the same manuscript for some time, leave it alone. Take time off and come to it with fresh eyes. You’ll be surprised what you find. Much like some of the clothes in my closet, proofreading can be a case of not seeing the trees for the forest.

The above hints work for your query letter and bio as well as your manuscript. Bonus tip: Concerned about how your query and sample pages appear in email? Send them to yourself at a different email address (use a different email client!) or a friend.

In the end, will an agent reject your query because of a typo or two? Not likely. But you’re making a first impression, and don’t you want it to be your best? A query or manuscript riddled with errors gives a poor impression. Words, punctuation, and grammar are the most basic tools of our craft.

Use them wisely and well!

Fatally flawed

Here’s a third common reason requested manuscripts are rejected:

“The premise is flawed.”

Or, “The story feels thin.”

Or, “The narrative feels stretched.”

All of which signify the same thing: your story isn’t much of a story.

For picture books, most often this is because the writer has fallen in love with an image, or a phrase, or a concept. There’s no narrative arc, no real conflict, or no growth for the characters. Agents often say a picture book without a true premise is “one note.”

Think about it. No matter how funny, or clever, or beautiful the concept is, will people want to read it over and over and over again to children? Will a young child want to hear it over and over and over? Does it have illustration potential for 32+ pages?

That’s the nature of picture books.

For novels, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t succeeded in making the reader suspend disbelief. The same objections to a one note picture book apply, too. Is there actually a story, one that people will want to read? Or is it just long pages of writerly indulgence in a favorite theme or situation?

Nothing is more disappointing to an agent who’s requested a manuscript from a solid query with sample pages that shine than realizing partway through said manuscript that there is NO story.

The only thing worse than a flawed premise?

Having a GREAT premise with a flawed execution.

Bonus tip today:

If your 5-10 sample pages have been workshopped, critiqued, and polished to death – make sure the rest of the manuscript lives up to that standard. 🙂

 

 

All about that voice

Last week’s post proved popular enough that I’m going to continue “translating” what certain terms mean in agent-speak.

Voice is another common reason for rejection, usually framed as:

“The voice isn’t fresh enough.”

“The voice doesn’t sound authentic.”

“The voice doesn’t appeal to me,” or “I’m not enthusiastic about the voice.”

Voice is one of the hardest aspects of writing. Some say it can’t be taught – either you have it as a writer or you don’t. I disagree – I do believe voice comes naturally to some writers, but it is part of the craft, just like plot or character. You have to work at it.

Let’s take the first instance. A common response, it means that the voice doesn’t stand out from already published books. This is often true of YA stories. The voice may be authentic – it sounds like a teen  – but more importantly, it sounds like EVERY OTHER TEEN OUT THERE.  What makes your narrator special? When I’m reading your sample pages, I don’t want to feel like I’ve read the story before even though the plot is unique. The voice needs to shine. Your story needs to stand out, and voice is a major distinction.

(Distinction does not always mean dialect, by the way. Writing dialect is like adding salt to a dish – a pinch is all you need. Too much, and it’s unpalatable.)

Unique expressions, favorite words, the rhythm of speech and dialogue – all of these combine to create a fresh voice. It may well be straightforward, but it should be recognizably yours.

Second, authenticity. Especially when writing for children, authenticity is important. If you’ve not spent much time around kids recently, or read much current kid lit, you’re going to have a problem. Kids do not sound like adults. Nor do young children use baby talk exclusively. Slang is tricky – it gets old faster than yesterday’s fish.

The easiest way to fix this is to eavesdrop. Yes, eavesdrop. Listen to people everywhere. Hear how they speak, the words they use, the tones that color their voices, the non-verbal sounds they make.

For kids, spend time with your target audience. Don’t have kids? Aren’t a teacher or librarian? Read what they read. Listen to their music and watch their movies and shows. Play their games. Listen to how the characters speak.

If you’re writing a character of a different race, ethnicity, or geographic origin, sensitivity readers can be your best friend. Ask for help.

Finally, what does it mean if the agent say your voice just doesn’t appeal to them? Sometimes this is code for either of the above issues. More often, it really is just personal preference. Agenting can be like dating. “It’s not you, it’s me.”

And if you’ve heard that from multiple agents? Then you either need to do a better job of researching agents to query – or you need to take a good hard look at your story. Read it aloud. Have someone else read it aloud. Does your voice fit your story?

I can’t stress enough that publishing is a business. If you want to be traditionally published, read what sells. Read what wins awards. Ask your local librarian what’s always circulating.

Many writers claim they can’t read while they’re writing, that it affects their voice. That can be true, but you can make time for reading, just as you make time for writing.

Here’s hoping you find your voice!