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 Nothing spells disaster faster than an outdated comp – and if you’re using a classic, make sure there’s a good reason for it.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. 🙂

 

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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!

Driving Miss Story

Fall is in the air, and with it, hundreds of new queries awaiting my attention in the slush pile. Yes, you read that correctly. Hundreds. Dunham Literary re-opened our query inbox as of September 1st, and lots of busy bees promptly sent in their query.

I’ve also had the sad task of sending out rejections for a few manuscripts that I wanted so much to love. One of the more common reasons for rejection – by any agency – is “lack of narrative drive.”

What does that mean?

“I have plenty of action!”

“My plot is great!”

“Balderdash. What was the real reason?”

If an agent tells you s/he felt your story lacks narrative drive, it’s not a comment on your plot. Not about the events or story arc, though it’s possible those are issues too. And it is a real reason.

Narrative drive is a literary way of saying “Why should I keep reading?”

(Before you complain that we’re not your audience, remember this: Agents read and request stories for a reason. They LIKE those stories and feel some connection to them. If I request your middle grade novel, it’s because I read a LOT of middle grade fiction. For fun. Even if I am way past my 12th birthday.)

Your characters may be vivid and beautifully drawn. Their relationships may ring truer than a silver bell. You may have plenty of thrilling action. The events of the story may be meaningful.

But if I can put your manuscript down and go to bed, your story lacks narrative drive.

When I read your manuscript, I should miss my subway stop. I should be unable to pay attention to the blowout baseball game. My neighbors should be ticked off at me for leaving my clothes in the dryer long after the cycle ends.

(If you’re one of my neighbors, please just pop my load into one of the rolling baskets. I’ll be down soon. Thanks! 🙂  )

 

That’s narrative drive.

A great story should carry you along like a river. The current may be quiet but insistent, or it may be thundering past the rocks, but you should be at its mercy. Unwilling – maybe even unable – to halt your raft and head for the bank.

 

The good news is that if your manuscript was dinged for narrative drive, you can fix it. My advice is to put it aside for a while. After a few weeks or months, pull it back out and read it as if you’ve just checked it out of the library.

Read it in print, or read it on an e-reader. Not your computer screen. Don’t read it as a writer. Read it like a reader. Like you’ve never seen this story before.

Note when you put it down and why. (If you can get some beta readers to do this too, so much the better.)

Impatient? Do the same exercise with your favorite books or books by popular or well-regarded authors.

Think about that WHY.

 

 

 

A worship of writers

Surely there’s a better collective noun for writers? If a group of ravens or crows can be a ‘storytelling,’ why not writers? I’ve not found a better group name, but perhaps you have one.

“Critique group” is the most common collective of writers. And when most writers think of critique groups, they think of a small group of people drinking coffee (or other beverages) and going over each other’s pages.

Well, that’s one helpful function of a critique group. But constructive criticism isn’t the sole function of such a group.

Many people use their groups to brainstorm story ideas. Or help plot out a story. Or resolve thorny plot points. Often it helps just to talk about your story with folks who understand you’re not complaining, not really. Or who know who you’re talking about when you call your characters by name.

A writing friend told me that a well-known romance writer spoke about her critique group at a conference. This writer and a few close writing friends hold a short retreat once a year. Each writer gets two ninety minute sessions – and at the end, each writer has the plots for two new books! The group then meets monthly to check in, and at those meetings, writers can ask for feedback on pages, hash out plot tangles, or discuss progress. It’s up to the individual writer.

This process sounds great to me! My own group is thinking about trying it. We’re pretty flexible, and two of us have decided not to submit work to the others unless it’s a finished draft. (I personally get caught up in the merry-go-round of revision frequently.)

Do you have something special you do with your critique group? Any wonderful ideas for keeping the group fresh and energetic?

One last note – L is for Literary will be on hiatus at least through the end of summer. I’m working on a draft and making plans to revise last year’s book. I’m also doing a lot of reading for the agency – requested manuscripts are in, and I’m looking at a few in hopes of getting my first client!