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. 🙂


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!  🙂



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

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.


  • 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.

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.




In the doldrums?

Lately I’ve been having very vivid dreams. This morning I dreamt I was floating on a surfboard or boogie board in the sea near Hawaii. I could still see land, but just barely. The waves kept swamping the board. Not choppy, not big kahuna waves, just enough to keep me cool as I floated along.

Oddly, I didn’t feel worried. I knew I needed to get back to land, but no matter what I did, I never got any closer. Drifting along in the doldrums…

Sometimes we find ourself in the doldrums of our stories. Ever had one of those days where you write and write and write – and then realize none of it actually moves your story forward?

No development of character, no action for the plot, not even a great setting.

Yep, that’s the doldrums. Sometimes it’s pages of description and sometimes it’s pages of dialogue. Either way, your story is drifting. Going nowhere.

For your first – or zero – draft, you might want to just keep going. Pantsers often need to write themselves into the story, producing lots of pages they know won’t be used, but that give them great backstory.

Or perhaps it’s a matter of B.I.C: Butt In Chair. You’re writing, trying to meet your page or word goal. Doesn’t matter that you’ll end up cutting most of it; your rear is firmly in gear and you’re keeping it that way.

Maybe you need a break. No shame in taking a timeout from your story to digest what needs digesting in order to produce better quality pages. I often find that if I’m writing in circles, it’s because I need more time to consider the story or the character.

Meditation – Laurie Calkhoven’s workshops are great – can be helpful. Plenty of writers swear by a good walk, with or without your dog. This time of year, a retreat is always appealing, too.

What do you do if your schedule doesn’t allow for a retreat – or even a quick break? I sneak some long peeks at my outline. Even though I tend to the pantser side of the pantser/plotter spectrum, I do create a plot summary and brief outline to give me a map. Many times I’m stuck in the doldrums, it’s because I’ve given up on my map and am just rambling along a dusty byway.

Don’t be afraid – you can always get back. Recently I got up from my chair KNOWING the 1,200 words I’d written were useless. Not bad, just useless.

I gave myself permission to stop writing. Spent a little time meditating and some more time getting chores done.

And you know what? The next morning, I woke up, cut the chapters – and wrote more words. Enough words to replace what I’d written and then some.

This time, the pages were getting my protagonists where they needed to be. Things were happening. Characters were revealing themselves. I knew where I was in the story.

What do you do when you’re drifting?


Pyramid scheme

What does revision have to do with the pyramids? Or suspect money making schemes?


But Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA does have a wonderful way to get you started on revising your work:

The Revision Pyramid.

One of the best sessions I attended at this years NJ-SCBWI conference, Gabriela’s “Rock Your Revisions” gave me a sure-fire scheme for successful revision. Resembling Maslow’s theory of needs, Gabriela’s scheme lays out a roadmap for revision that should keep you from floundering around, rewriting, redrafting, and creating more work for yourself.

Oh, how I related to this. My last attempt at revising one of my novels lasted several months. Worse, while I wrote more words in revision than existed in the first draft, I never even got to the middle of the manuscript! I wasn’t using what was already good and I never fixed what was wrong in the first place.

I gave up and decided to let it digest for a bit. I’ve started work on  a new novel, but Gabriela’s presentation gave me confidence that, as soon as I’m ready, I can tackle that revision and make a good story great.

For specific details, buy her book and/or sign up on her website (see above). The gist of her advice was to approach revision in a systematic manner.

  1. Write a draft! Get a complete draft on the page.
  2. Don’t start with copy or line editing. Leave the little details till last. Which makes sense. You wouldn’t touch up your makeup if you were about to go in for a facelift, would you?
  3. Approach the most basic level of your story first: narration. What POV are you using? Is it consistent? Does the voice change? Can you distinguish between the narrator and characters and between the different characters?
  4. That leads you to characters. What does your character want? Is he or she proactive or reactive? Are your secondary characters stealing the show?
  5. On to the story. Is something actually happening? What’s your pacing like? Do you have too much – or too little – backstory?
  6. Moving on to the scenes. This is where you examine your world building, descriptions, dialogue, and theme. Yes, theme.
  7. Now you can get into the nitty-gritty of details! Word choice, sentence rhythm, typos, errors, and of course, “killing your darlings.”

Possibly the most important advice she gave was to write fresh. When fixing something, don’t just edit it. Delete the scene, dialogue, whatever, and WRITE FROM SCRATCH.

But if something’s working, leave it alone. Don’t start the whole novel afresh from page one. If you need to play around, do it outside of your manuscript. Don’t fix what ain’t broke. 😉

Find an outline method that works for you and use it. Before you start writing – and after you’ve finished.

Finally, Gabriela advised using more than your critique group. Working with beta readers outside of your group and freelance editors will help you make your work shine.

I’ll leave you with a thought. Everything she advises for revising. . . can also work for your beginning draft. Thinking about the pyramid just might help you get to your zero draft quicker.

And then you can put it into practice revising. 😉




I’m on a deadline today preparing a writing sample and submissions package.

Plus, Sean McCarthy has said far better than I can what makes an agent (or their assistant) stop reading your query. Pay attention to his oh-so-good advice!

Especially the parts where he tells you not to use your children or students as a test audience and to address the query correctly. 🙂

Got a few more minutes? Head over to Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating to see the second half of her interview with Jennie Dunham of Dunham Literary!

It’s HOT here in NYC. Stay cool, stay hydrated, and keep writing!