Advice

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Thank you to Susan who, in the comments for my last post 10 Questions to Ask When Offered Representation, wanted to know the opposite: What questions might an agent have for a potential client? There’s no way I can speak comprehensively for everyone in the industry on this one, but here’s what I’m often curious about, and why.

A little more about yourself: All that crazy stuff you left out of your query bio? Give it to me here! Just kidding. I don’t want your entire life story on the call, but I am curious about you as a persona and about your sense of humor, sensibilities, storytelling abilities off the cuff (no pressure!). I’d rather have one or two cool and unique facts about you that are memorable than the dry this-is-where-I-went-to-college spiel. In turn, I usually take a few minutes to say what makes me tick.

Future ideas: I want to get a sense for what else is in your pipeline, so I ask you to pitch me a few more ideas that you’re kicking around. Your pitches don’t have to be perfect and the books can be far from finished–or even started–but this is a biggie for me. If you have one amazing idea and then a nightmare litany of things I will never be able to sell in a million years, that will honestly dampen my enthusiasm. I’m not looking to sign you for one project, I want to work with you for a long time. Those projects are a-comin’ ’round the mountain, whether I like it or not, and it’s only going to mean friction down the line if I sign you now and then fight you on every subsequent manuscript. If that’s the feeling I get, we’re likely not a good fit for the long-term, and it’s better to find out now. Don’t feel too much pressure on this one, though, because sometimes all I’m really curious about is whether those ideas are workable. They don’t have to be perfect just yet.

Your submission goals and overall career goals: I’ll ask you a little about where you see your career going and how you see this submission being handled. This is where I’ll also talk a little bit about my submission plans for the book and see if the two sync up nicely. The subtle thing I’m trying to figure out here is about your expectations. If you start talking book tour and six-figure advance right off the bat, I know you are going to be a handful down the road. Publishing is full of big and little frustrations and decisions about your work that are completely outside of your control. Sure, you want to be as proactive as possible about your book and your career, but that doesn’t mean expecting the world handed to you on a silver platter by publishers who are, frankly, not handing out much of much to the majority of debut authors these days. Are you savvy and humble? Are you realistic? Are you prepared to work hard to see your goals to completion? This is what I’m really asking here. (God, I can’t believe how much I’m showing my cards in this post…)

Your reaction to feedback: If I’m offering representation, I will have editorial feedback for you. Now. A lot of agent colleagues have spent hours on the phone with a potential writer, giving all their notes, laying out a revision plan, only to have the writer go elsewhere and incorporate their revision notes anyway, but after signing with a different agent. I’m not this precious about my editorial suggestions for you, but I do think it’s a bad idea to dump all of my feedback in your lap at once. It’s overwhelming, and it may come across as me not liking the book (which, if I’m calling to offer, is the opposite of what I want to convey). So I take my three biggest revision suggestions, including one or two that might be controversial, and float them your way.

This is probably the most important thing that happens during this call, for me. First, I get to see if you and I are on the same page editorially. If you’re writing a dark psychological thriller and I call, saying, “What I basically need from you is to make it more like the Clique series,” then we’re not going to be a good fit because you and I see the book differently and we want different things for it. (I sure hope I never miss the mark this badly…) It’s fun for me to get into revision back-and-forth with authors, even if we disagree. But there’s workable disagreement and then there’s an impasse. If we butt up against the latter in the call, we probably shouldn’t work together. You’re always going to want one thing, I’m always going to want the other, and that sort of resentment is not good in a partnership.

Your revision style: If we do agree on most of my revision suggestions and it seems like we’re thinking about the book and its potential in a similar way, I still want to know about your revision process. I’ve found that being able to revise is the single most important skill a writer can have. I’ve taken on promising first projects, given tons of notes, and what really made or broke the new relationship is how well the author has been able to run with those notes and take the manuscript to the next level. Every manuscript will need work once it comes in. I’ve only had one manuscript in my career come in that only needed a minor revision before going on to sell. How well and how thoroughly and how deeply you delve into the task of revision is paramount. Of course, I can’t know all the specifics of how it will really be from a phone call, but that’s what I’m really talking about when we talk about revision.

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This is a list that I’d written a while ago to help a friend who had just been offered representation. I thought it would be perfect for the blog, and frankly can’t believe I held on to it in my files for so long.

When you’re offered representation by a literary agent, you should have the opportunity to talk to them about potentially working together. This is an exciting and nerve-wracking phone call for a writer (and sometimes for an agent if we want to work with you really, really badly!), but it’s important that you really take the time, ask the right questions, get full answers, and give yourself as much information as possible.

The following are 10 questions that I would ask if I were signing with an agent. They’re questions I answer about myself when speaking to writers all the time. If you get an agent who is unwilling to answer questions or seems to balk at these basic ones, that would be a red flag for me, personally. Communication problems and transparency are big issues in a writer-agent relationship, and if there are issues from the word “go,” the situation is unlikely to get better.

So do your due diligence. Here’s the list I would use to get started:

1. What is your communication style? Do you prefer phone or email? Do you check in often even when we’re not on active submission?
2. Tell me more about how your agency works and handles clients. Is there an agency agreement for new clients? (There usually will be, it’s okay to ask to see it beforehand.) What are steps for termination? (You hope it doesn’t happen, but you need to know that you have an out if you need it.)
3. Are you a member of AAR? (The Association of Author Representatives. Member agencies agree to abide by a code of ethics. Their website is www.aaronline.org.)
4. What books have you sold and what publishers do you work with?
5. What is your submission strategy? Do you go on a big round to editors or do you do smaller rounds that let us hear feedback and make changes, should we need to?
6. How would you position this book to editors? Where do you see this fitting in to publishers’ lists?
7. What editorial changes do you think I should make to this manuscript?
8. What happens if we don’t sell this book?
9. How do you work on revisions with clients?
10. How do you work with clients as they’re generating new ideas? (For example, I ask clients for idea pitches and then help them hone in on what’s strongest to pursue.)

Before you put these questions to an agent, of course, figure out what you feel like you want the answers to be. Some of these issues may not matter to you, but you may have strong opinions about others. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, per se, but right and wrong answers for you. (“If we don’t see this book, I will burn down your house and run around your backyard naked,” would probably be a wrong answer for everyone, though…)

Different agents have different styles. Part of this feeling-each-other-out process after an offer of representation is made is to see if you like their answers and strategies and if you can see working well with them.

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Karen wrote in to me the other day to ask the following:

What is the role of the artist/writer of children’s picture books in parallel platform markets if they are to be successful? How can knowledge or experience in multiple areas be leveraged when submitting to one platform with the hopes and vision of it transcending to multiple platforms? Should something be included in the query letter?

Here’s what I wrote in response:

When someone is talented or knowledgeable in many areas, it is difficult to know how to wrap it all up in one package. However, I urge debut writers whose interest lies primarily in landing a print book deal to focus there first. If you try to pitch an idea in too many directions at once (as a magazine, app, TV show, clothing line) without first having any print titles under your belt, agents and editors will think you’re ambitious…and not in a good way.

Focus. Create the best book you can, publish it well, and let audience demand for your talents make ideas evolve across platforms. Don’t start by stretching your idea in many directions right off the bat.

This happens to me all the time in query letters. The author will write something like:

While I think SAMMY THE SKUNK would be a very strong picture book in today’s market, I am also envisioning an app with the same branding, and have turned Sammy’s story into a feature film. The script for potential theatrical release is being written as we speak.

This almost makes me think that the author isn’t in love with his idea being a book…he’s just in love with his idea and will throw it against any wall to see if it’ll stick. That’s not a focused approach when trying to enter the publishing game, because we are into books. That’s what we do. That’s what we love. And it takes a lot of passion, dedication, knowledge, and, yes, really strong ideas to be involved in the book world. You have to really want to have a book, specifically.

Lots of books do get picked up by other platforms and go online or into theatres or into toy stores. Sure. But those properties are usually leveraged when the property that started it all (be it a book or a movie or whatever) stood on its own merits and attracted and audience and made other platform gatekeepers and tastemakers seek out the creator.

I’ll say it again: Focus. Seek to make one really strong impact on one part of the entertainment/content industry, then spread out from there.

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Every once in a while, I hear from readers who inspire me to see the bright side and feel wonderful about the creative work that we all do when we sit down to write. 13 year-old writer M wrote just such a letter. Since I know I always need a creative pick-me-up, especially as I crank on a soon to be revealed very secret project (cue mysterious music), I wanted to share the exchange between M and I, in the hopes that it will get you to care about your own craft as the New Year gets underway.

This is what M wrote to me a week or so ago:

I’m a beginning novelist (if that’s the proper term) and I’ve been writing since second grade to my current age of thirteen. I’ve always known what I wanted to be an author. Unfortunately, I’m a very nervous writer. Whenever I’m writing a “non-serious” story, the words flow so easily, but whenever I’m working on a story that I’m serious about, the words only come in short spurts. It’s so frustrating, mostly because the story and the scenes are laid out perfectly in my head, but I can’t translate them onto paper without worrying myself to death.

I’ve also read a lot of your blog, which has been an amazing source of information for me, and one of your blog posts really jumps out at me: That one about making readers care. I totally get where you’re coming from, mostly because I’ve read a few books that really have taken me on an emotional roller-coaster ride. The thing is, I’m terrified that I won’t be able to do it right. Is there such thing as a writer that just isn’t able to make the reader care about the character no matter what they try? Or is it just a matter of practice and revision? Do you have any tips for manipulating the reader’s emotions? What about making my inner editor shut up? Is there a significant difference in the quality of manuscripts written by older and younger people?

Well, thank you in advance. I just wanted the chance to ask you some questions and tell you how much I admire you. (And here I am, worrying about whether or not this email makes me seem too formal, or- God forbid- obnoxious.)

Sincerely,
M

Immediately, I could see so much of myself in M (and no, M isn’t code for “Mary,” this is a real letter, not one of those “well, my, uh, friend really wanted some writing advice” type of situations, hehe). I mean this in the most loving way possible — the girl’s neurotic. But so am I! And so is almost every other writer I know. There’s a lot to love about being up in one’s head all the time, but there’s also a downside to thinking and caring so intensely. This was the core of my answer to M, which you can read below:

M,

Thank you so much for writing in. I love hearing from writers, and young writers especially. Now, I know exactly how you feel about being creative even under pressure (a serious story vs. a non-serious one). Here’s the thing…you can’t do anything well when your brain is getting in the way. When your inner critic is telling you that you’ll never get down on the page what you have in your head. When you start worrying whether people will care about it or not. That kind of anxiety is the absolute enemy of creative work.

It’s easier said than done, but I would tell you to write something “non-serious” and then part of your “serious” work EVERY DAY. Get yourself in the mood by doing something that’s just for fun, the push through to the real stuff you want to accomplish. And as for making your readers care, I have a feeling you won’t have a problem there. You obviously care very much about your writing, that’s why you’re worried about it so much. We don’t worry about things we don’t care about.

When a writer has emotions about what they’re writing, then they’re likely to stir up a sense of caring in the reader. However, do keep in mind that the best way to make a reader care is to create a character who cares deeply about something — a goal, a person, an outcome — and then take it away from them or put obstacles in their way. Think about it like this: We don’t care about a story that goes, “They were together and happy, with no problems in the world.” We care about, “They were separated from one another by the worst luck on the planet and moved mountains to be reunited.” We like to read about struggle, we like to read about accomplishing the impossible goals, we like to read about characters who would do anything in the world to get what they want. Why? Because we all know what it feels like to yearn, to want, to hurt, to be frustrated, etc. Give your characters something they want, then get in their way. I think that’s central to making a reader care.

Nobody’s inner editor will ever shut up all the way, but you have to keep going through it. You said some very nice things in your email about my blog. You probably think I have it all together and just cruise around, inspiring people and being helpful. But you know what? I have to write it almost every day and almost every day I have those nagging voices in my head that I’m going to run out of stuff to talk about or that the article I’m doing isn’t what writers need to hear, etc. So it’s not something you can ever get rid of, but it’s something you can learn to deal with. The worst thing you can do is worry yourself so much that you become creatively paralyzed.

Finally, stop worrying about whether younger writers or older ones make better manuscripts. I’ve read wonderful things from young writers, awful things from older writers, and vice versa. When you have the right story and you tell it in a way that only you can, you will find your audience and your success. Don’t let anything else obsess you in the meantime. In a word, make it your New Year’s Resolution to quit worrying so much and focus on the writing. :)

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Sorry for the slow start to posts in 2012. There are just so many events that I need to promote as the year gets underway. Watch this space for more focus on craft…and that big announcement I promised…(mwahahahahahaha).

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One of my very favorite picture book writers, Amy Krouse Rosenthal (LITTLE HOOT, DUCK! RABBIT!, and many more) gave an interview in the 2012 CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET book that I would love to excerpt here the day before my picture book webinar at 1 p.m. Eastern tomorrow, January 12th, which is still open for registration. As a reminder, you will get a 90-minute craft intensive talk on picture books, the opportunity to ask all the questions you have (every question gets answered, either live during the presentation or in an email afterward), and a critique of one picture book manuscript (up to 1,000 words in length).

During the webinar, I’ll talk about how to find the right hooks and universality to really make your picture books marketable on today’s shelves. I’ll also talk about the writer and illustrator relationship in publishing, as well as how writers need to think more like illustrators (and vice versa) in order to come up with truly successful picture book projects.

This excerpt features Rosenthal’s thoughts on finding just the right book idea, as well as working together with an illustrator and how that creative collaboration takes her work to new heights. Read on:

“When my kids were small, there were countless stories told. Often for the boys, I’d tell them stories about dinosaurs, monsters or something in a cape—all these nonsense stories they loved. Ninety-nine percent of the stories I made up for my kids were nonsensical things. But once in a while there was some kind of cool stuff. You have to tell one thousand bad ones to get to the one good one.”

Rosenthal says finding that one good one amidst all the others is a little bit like dating. “When a relationship isn’t right, even if you think I know this is going to work out, he’s really cute, it always has some convoluted glitch—this non-fluid, non-seamless barrage of obstacles. But true love is this flawless, shiny, perfectly smooth thing, at least in the beginning. When I’m writing something, I’m coming at it from a number of different angles. With the ones that end up working, everything falls into place more fluidly.”

That feeling of fluidity can also come from working well with an illustrator. For one of her most recent books, Plant a Kiss (which explores what might grow if you, quite literally, planted a kiss), Rosenthal worked closely with illustrator Peter Reynolds to develop the vision and feel of the book—a process she says has “been a dream.” Not only was it a chance for her to work with one of her favorite artists, but she was thrilled with the vision he brought to the book.

“When I started, I had mocked up the book with stick-figure illustrations. It was tidy, executed visually 100 percent. There was a moment of talk when we thought maybe the book should look like this. It was kind of cute. But thank goodness we reached out to Peter and he said yes. During the first conference call he said he’d send us some sketches. Later, I opened the document, and he had illustrated the entire book. And it was just this moment of ‘Oh my god, he nailed it.’ The characters are beautiful.”

With all of her picture books, Rosenthal has strived for this type of creative partnership. “I really value the collaboration. Oftentimes the writers are kept apart from the illustrator, but that paradigm never made sense to me. From the first ‘yes’ [for Little Pea and Cookies] I made the plea to be involved. I couldn’t imagine not doing it. The books gain so much by the writer and illustrator interacting.”

Interview excerpt of Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Meg Leder from 2012 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market (c) 2011 Writer’s Digest Books. All materials used by permission of F+W Media. All rights reserved

Now that you’ve heard one picture book creator’s thoughts, you can hear even more thoughts on the craft of PBs during the webinar. To sweeten the pot just a little bit, I am going to give away one more copy of CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET, edited by Chuck Sambuchino, but this contest is a quickie. You can enter in the comments below through 1 p.m. Eastern tomorrow (Thursday, January 12th). I will announce the winner during the webinar (and on the blog next week). If you are taking the webinar, do mention that in your entry. US residents only, please.

Forward this post around and let’s give away another copy of CWIM. Those picture writers out there registered for the webinar will hear more from me tomorrow afternoon!

For those blog readers wondering when I’ll get back to the craft posts here, those are coming up next week. It’s just that 2012 has so many exciting things going on right out of the gate that I have to spread the word. I’ll resume my regular programming once the Writer’s Digest Conference excitement dies down. I seriously can’t wait for this year’s conference. You can check out more details here, and be sure to email me if you still need a special $115 discount code!

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Big Revision

In Big Sur this past weekend, we had a collective “lightbulb moment” in one of my workshops. A writer had come to the Friday session, gone back to the drawing board, or so she thought, and returned with a revision on Saturday. We noticed some new turns of phrase and a few things cut but, overall, the issues we’d isolated for her on Friday were still on the page.

Let me be quick to say that it’s highly unusual to expect that much change in one day of revision, let alone one month, but such dramatic manuscript evolution is the name of the game at Big Sur. It’s not unheard of to have writers pull amazing all-night feats and return to workshop with a completely fresh 10 pages, the ink still wet from the morning printer queue, for example. So while we didn’t expect a profound change in her work, per se, we were a little underwhelmed by what actually showed up.

“Help me. I keep having this same problem,” she begged after we finished Saturday workshop. The middle of the story was dragging but the end — we’d all agreed on both days — was gripping. She’d also been focusing on this piece for quite some time at home, to no avail.

A second member of the group was an author as well as an illustrator. My biggest note for him on Friday was that the middle of the story was static and, perhaps more pressingly, all of his pictures were landscape-view and eye level, like dioramas or posed vignettes in a museum. There was only one perspective and he used it on every page. That added to the draggy pace.

“Try moving ‘the camera’ here, and see if you can’t envision any of your scenes from a unique perspective. Down low. Bird’s eye. Close up. Tilted. There are so many ways to see a scene, so many vantage points. What you’re doing is fine, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind, and there’s also no variety. Stretch yourself,” I told him.

In contrast to the first writer, he came back on Saturday with his story completely reimagined. He hadn’t had time to create a new dummy, but he did describe the changes he’d make on every page, including significant cuts to the middle. He also brought in new sketches that he’d dashed off — all of them incorporating new and exciting perspective.

This isn’t a game of “which writer is better,” however. But I think seeing his transformation shuffled something loose for the first writer. She’d been doing something that I see a lot of writers do without meaning to or realizing it. I call it a “tinkering revision.” Instead of going completely back to the drawing board, she’d just been mucking around with what she’d already written and, while she was technically revising, as in, switching words around and making cuts, she was getting nowhere.

It’s extremely tempting to tinker. Those words are already on the page. You’ve already done all that work. When you revise with the existing manuscript in hand, you are that much more inclined to keep making small scale changes because, hey, it’s already there in front of you, it represents a lot of past work, and it’s probably not that bad, etc.

Let me say it here once and for all: unless you make big changes, a revision isn’t worth doing. If you go out on a submission round and get roundly rejected, you’re not going to solve your problem by going back to the page to tweak a few words here and there. I’ve said this before, but look at the word revision…it means “to see again.” To see your story in a whole new light. To make massive plot, character, and language changes. And having so much on the page already often lures us into a false complacency.

The second writer in workshop got a big idea for some big changes and ran with it. The note about new perspective is a tough one because it meant he would have to throw out every single page he’d already done, but he said “Okay, what the heck!” and tried it. When I heard the second writer beg us to finally tell her what to do, I had this to say: “Go to your computer, back up the file, highlight the entire problematic part, and hit ‘delete.’ Sure, it’s scary, but I think you’re locked into what is already on the page and you’re not seeing creative solutions as a result. Writing is all about experimenting. You should get used to generating words and then getting rid of them or changing them. They’re a renewable resource. Take a day or a week or a month to write a completely new beginning and middle, full of completely new ideas, fully free from what you had in place before. If you hate it, you can always go back to the old version. But I doubt you will, because you’ll be thinking outside of the old version, and it will be fresh and new. And if it’s a bust, nobody has to know. It’s just you and your computer.”

This seemed to communicate the second writer’s lightbulb moment to the first writer. She seemed excited to go home and try the experiment. I think what she needed was the reminder, and maybe the permission, to wipe the slate clean and play around again. The manuscript had become a dreaded tweaking project that wasn’t behaving, not the fun story that she’d set out to write. Now she could relive some inspiration and just play with it all over again.

In my experience, the best revisions are the most drastic. Whether a writer has a bolt of inspiration and rips up their manuscript on their own, fueled by the manic energy of creation, or whether they’re forced to push further by a well-meaning agent or editor and, out of spite or adrenaline or fear or all of the above, finally takes the torch to the problem parts, it’s those writers who have the guts to start over in a piece that usually reap the biggest rewards.

So if you feel like you’re just tinkering, shoveling text like a kid pushing peas around his plate, be brave and try starting over completely. You know what you want to accomplish with the section, so just take a brand new run at it. Or maybe you’ll realize that the section wasn’t working and trash it entirely, or find another, better part that fits. Change is tough, especially when you’ve been working on something for years and are eager to see it in print. But it’s once you kick the ladder out from under yourself completely, I’ve found, that you discover resources and ideas you never could’ve imagined.

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This interesting question comes from Diana:

Platforms continue to elude me. How to build one without pigeon-holing yourself, how to assess the best methods, how to find the time (snort). Is the scope of your platform important to an agent? Are publishers looking for genre-specific platforms or more generalized author-focused approaches? Am I worrying too much about this?

First and foremost, when a writer asks, “Am I worrying too much about this?” the answer is almost always “yes!” Not to make light of Diana’s plight, but writers do have a reputation for getting hung up on things and then swirling in their own heads until panic arises. I get it, too. It’s the curse of hte intellectual/creative type.

Now, “platform” is one of those buzzwords that you hear on blogs and message boards and at conferences. First and foremost, it’s much more important for non-fiction writers. That is a fact. When you put together a non-fiction book proposal, the publisher really wants to know how many people you can reach and sell books to. That’s a crucial concern for them at acquisitions. Professionals with big networks, popular bloggers, experts with connections, people who have caught the media spotlight…those are the types of people who can impress editors with the promise of big NF sales.

Fiction writers are different. They’re not selling themselves (an essential part of every non-fiction book is either that the author or the idea are noteworthy and attention-grabbing), they’re selling a story. In most cases in fiction, it really is all about the book and not about the personality behind it. Some fiction authors don’t even do promotion for their work.So the average fiction writer’s platform is, “I like to write fiction,” and that’s okay.

Let me repeat: Fiction lives and dies by the manuscript itself, unless you’re famous. And you would know if you were famous (hint: you wouldn’t be reading this blog because you’d already have five different types of agents).

A lot of my (unpopular) thoughts on developing platform for fiction writers can be found addressed in this previous post. I stick by what I said. Just like a query letter does not have the power to make or break you as a fiction writer (query letter writing and manuscript writing are two different things), a fiction writer’s huge platform does not have the power to land you a book deal if your book is horrible, nor does a lacking  platform get in the way of an acquisition if the book is brilliant. (Unless, again, you’re Snooki.)

All that said, however, it’s important for writers in today’s market to think about platform at some point. You should start getting familiar with the idea of self-promotion, the venues for developing your marketing strategy (blogs, social media), etc. However, platform shouldn’t be the thing you need to focus on before you write your manuscript.  Once you get a book deal, you’ll need to shift into two modes, a) marketing Debut Novel, and b) writing Follow-up Novel. But that’s after. Building a platform now, before you have a book, before you have anything to leverage it with, is a bit like putting the cart before the horse.

People love their blogging and their Tweeting and the communities of unpublished writers that they’ve created online. I’m not trying to take that away from you. But realize that a platform without something to sell is not something you really need to be worried about at this point. I’m all about writers getting themselves out there and starting to participate in the world, build buzz, etc., but that’s not what I’m selling when I sell your fiction. If platform is stressing you out, go back to focusing on the writing.

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Here’s an interesting question from Anne:

I’m looking for clever ways to write physical descriptions of first person narrators. It’s just so awkward to have people describe their own looks. I’ve heard that editors are sick of the old “I stared in the mirror” approach. I’ve used the self-effacing “I wish I were better looking” approach, but that too seems overdone.

I have to admit, when I read some bad character self-description in a manuscript, it makes me wince. Never in my life have I, for example, “examined my dark brown locks in the mirror, giving my tall frame a once-over, and wishing, for once, that my blue-green eyes would just pick a color and stick with it.” Who thinks like that? The obvious problem is, of course, that we may think like this if we were seeing ourselves for the first time, but most of us are very familiar with what’s in the mirror. In this case, I feel like we’re all expecting the contrived, super unique self-description, and we’re already groaning about it. What you can do instead is stop trying to make the character’s self-description into a creativity moment and just tell us the details that we need to know.

“I swatted a clump of black hair out of my eyes and ran down the field,” or whatever.

Don’t be too precious about it, don’t put physical description in dialogue unless you can get it to sound organic (none of this “But gosh, that skirt looks really great with your hazel eyes” stuff, that doesn’t sound like authentic speech, we would just say “your eyes” because both characters know what color they’re referring to), and don’t think this is your big opportunity to revolutionize character self-description. Less is definitely more, so just tell us (yes, you can tell and not show in this case) and move on. That’s what I say. This is a frustrating question because I’ve seen it done very poorly, and most likely not noticed when it’s done really well, and would just rather have the necessary details out of the way. I’m guessing your character’s look isn’t the most important thing about the story, so all we need are a few details peppered in.

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First off, a caveat to say that this is my opinion, not necessary The End All and Be All, though I’ve heard other agents who share my thoughts.

I am not impressed by queries that come to me with too much voice. Of course you want your query to have some voice, in the same way that good advertising copy has a personality. But one type of query I often see and that tries way too hard is the query written “by” the protagonist that “introduces” me to the protagonist’s author. It goes something like this:

Hiya! I’m 12 and my name’s Mackenzie. I’m in a story about all these crazy adventures that my friends and I go on. Even though everyone says I run the show, the gal taking it all down on paper is Jane Doe, a schoolteacher from Philadelphia who has a B.A. in Child Psychology. Whatever that means, teehee! If you want to read my story…

Etc.

Point is, a query is a cover letter for your writing. It’s your foot forward and your first contact with an agent. It’s also a business letter. I know I’d never apply for a job by submitting an overly playful resume that’s covered in hologram stickers unless I wanted to work at a clown college (and I’m sure that even clown colleges respect a degree of professionalism). That’s gimmicky. While gimmicks sometimes pay off, more often than not, they become the stories agents tell when they’re hanging out after hours at conferences: “Did you hear the one about the guy who showed up to the pitch slam dressed as a giant baby?” (That’s a fictional example I pulled off the top of my head but, actually, I’m sure it has really happened.)

This reminds me of that episode of Arrested Development in the third season where Tobias, a struggling actor, enlists Maeby, his daughter, who has been cutting school because she’s secretly a prominent film executive, to help him make goodie bag packages for casting directors. He stuffs them full of headshots, candy, vaguely threatening notes, and packets of glitter…all in the hope of catching their attention.

Maeby, by this point way jaded by the film biz, says, “Casting directors hate this!” Then the scene cuts to a casting director opening one of the packets, getting a shot of glitter to the face, and yelling into the phone, “The glitter queen struck again. Never hire Tobias Fünke!”

Just as I discussed in my post about social networking abuse last week, there are good ways to get attention, and there are bad ways. Glitter-filled packets? Bad. Queries that bend themselves into pretzels trying to be clever and “voicey”? Not my cuppa.

The #1 surefire super-secret can’t-fail way to impress a literary agent? Your manuscript!

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We all know that the Internet is a great way to “get out there.” Get known. Put yourself in people’s sightlines in a new way. This can be intimidating, but it’s also inspiring. Shy people become less so online. Connections and friendships and business relationships are forged. More people know about you than ever before. But the kind of “shoot for the moon” attitude that social networking sometimes inspires also has a bad side. Sometimes people do things to get noticed that they wouldn’t ordinarily do, all because the Internet makes them feel bolder.

Here are some things that I absolutely hate when people do to me on social networking sites*. Just because I accept a friend request on my public agent profile (I have two Facebooks, one for Agent Me, the other for people I actually know from high school, etc.), just because it’s easy to find me and add me, that doesn’t mean you now have an open channel to do whatever. My colleagues at ABLA or other agencies may feel differently, but here are the social networking moves that I consider a faux pas:

Queries via Facebook and Twitter

Don’t do it. Just don’t do it. Don’t ever do it. Don’t ask me if I want to read your work via a Facebook or Twitter ping, either. Follow submission guidelines and get your work to an agent or editor the way everyone else does.

Obnoxious Wall Posting

I welcome posts to my profile thanking me for the add or talking about a conference where you just saw me speak or about a book I’ve represented or whatever, but leave it at that. Don’t post things to my wall about your book. The thinking is probably this: “Lots of people visit this person’s wall, so I can generate some extra traffic to my blog/ebook/whatever. It also looks like this person is endorsing my thing. That’s great!” I pick the things I endorse, whether for my Resources for Writers page or things I mention via social networking very carefully. I’ll either review something or retweet it. In fact, earlier this year, I retweeted a contest and it turns out the company running the contest was claiming rights ownership for things submitted, so I deleted my Tweet and didn’t recommend the contest anymore. I take whatever I mention seriously.

Don’t use an agent or editor’s page as a billboard for your stuff. Not only is it annoying, but I guarantee that any such posts to my page will get deleted, which takes time, which will only make it even more annoying. And forget about those quizzes or game invitations — we may be “friends” on Facebook but we’re not that kind of friends, and my real life friends know better than to waste their time (and mine) with that nonsense.

Invitations

There are a few blunders in the invitation arena, too. Don’t invite me to Events unless I actually know you. No book signings if I’m not a real friend of yours, no virtual launch parties, no poetry slams or what have you.

No group invitations, either. There was this one writing group that I was invited to a few months ago. My name was added to this group without my knowledge or permission. Members of the group started posting their writing samples. I’m guessing a lot of agents and editors were added to this group because the leader thought it would be a great and creative way to get some work noticed. Since I don’t join groups, I had no idea that my mail settings for Facebook sent me an email every time someone posted. The day some random person added me to this writing group, I got over 200 emails from people posting. All for a group I didn’t want to be in. I was traveling that day, and couldn’t figure out how to leave the group from the Facebook app, so I had all this spam in my inbox and I was ready to kill someone.

The new thing people are doing is adding me as a co-worker. They click that they work as “Writer” or “In publishing” or whatever, and they mark us as working together. Then I have to go to my profile and say to ignore this work information. Please stop doing that. It started happening like two weeks ago, for some reason, and it’s maddening. I work alone at home and I know, for a fact, who my co-workers are. These people adding me as a peer on Facebook are not them.

Mailing Lists

Another abuse of the Internet is adding my email address to mailing lists and newsletters. I’ve had authors do this. They will add me to either their newsletter or add my email to another social networking site where they want to connect with me, and I get deluged in emails that I didn’t ask for. Do not sign anyone up for anything without their permission by using their email address. This should be common sense but you’d be surprised at how often it happens.

The bottom line is: there’s a right way and a wrong way to get attention. There’s also a right way and a wrong way to get your work noticed. Don’t try and catch my eye through tricks or overstepping your bounds on the Internet. Catch my attention with the strength of your work and through official channels. All of the scenarios I mention above annoy me. And when I’m grumpy, I focus my frustration on the source of the social networking error: you. You may be trying to expose me to the coolest event, newsletter, query, game of Angry Birds ever, but I am never going to notice it because I’m too busy thinking you’re rude. If you really have something wonderful to show me, just show me like a normal person, don’t resort to Internet gimmicks.

* I make it sound like this stuff is the bane of my existence but, really, it’s pretty low on the totem pole. I don’t sit around all day crying about people abusing my profile. There are bigger fish to fry. But I do want to get my point across here, so I invoke emotion a lot.

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