You Probably Think This Post Is About You

There’s a funny side effect of being an agent who blogs. On more occasions than I care to mention, I’ve gotten emails from my clients after a post, asking if the post was about them, specifically. (And, clients, if you have done this, then yes, for probably the first and only time, this post actually is about you! Now stop reading my blog and go write/revise/be brilliant!)

While I don’t make it a habit to write thinly-veiled posts about clients or writers and I don’t think I’ve said anything that would greatly offend clients or writers on this blog, this little quirk does drive home a big point: writing is extremely personal.

A writer is putting their craft, their imagination, their hopes and their dreams on the line when they sit down at the keyboard. This is a deeply sacred and important thing. No matter how far along a writer is on his writing journey, no matter if she’s writing her first book or her tenth book, the act of writing and creating is absolutely essential. And every day that I sit down to read a submission from a writer, I honor the sacred bond and trust that writers expect from me when they reach out to share their creative work. Their creative passion — even if the writing isn’t agent- or editor-ready just yet — is what makes them tick. I would never do anything to break their trust and risk hurting their creativity.

At a conference one time (and yes, this is a specific example…I hope this writer would allow me to talk about this in the hopes of illustrating a very important point that could spare the next writer some heartache), a writer told me that a creative writing teacher of hers had once taken her story, held it up as an example in front of the entire class, and completely ripped it apart. It took this writer twelve years to bounce back and type another word after that day.

Sure, this writer could’ve been overly sensitive to her teacher’s comments or excessively shy or whatever, that’s true, but it only goes to show how much power a person-perceived-to-be-in-authority has over a person’s writerly self-esteem. This isn’t something anyone, whether a critique partner or a teacher or an editor or agent, should take lightly.

People have all different levels of sensitivity about all different sorts of things. But because writing is so personal, because it deals with hopes and dreams and deep, creative desires, it is all the more fragile. People tend to be all the more protective of their writing. And I am always sensitive to that fact.

I’ve said this in my disclosures on the About Me page, but I think it bears repeating here: I will never use a specific or identifiable example on the blog unless I have permission from the writer to do so (like with questions emailed to me, the workshops or contests, for example). Stuff asked and shared at conferences is fair game because conferences are a public setting and a lot of good stories come out of live events. If I want to illustrate a craft point, I will make something up (usually exaggerated) to suit my purposes. I will never cull directly from slush or from client manuscripts.

So where do I get my post ideas? From questions people ask at conferences, from questions people ask via email, from issues that come up in the comments. Between the publishing business end of things, the craft side and the agenting side, I don’t think I’ll end up running out of things to talk about anytime soon.

And if I do discuss a particular craft issue, it is never unique to any one writer. First of all, that would make the post a lot less universal! Second of all, there really is a list of common craft traps and pitfalls that most writers fall into, if they’re going to fall. Believe it or not, but I find myself giving many of the same notes over and over. I end up seeing many of the same writing issues in 10-page sample after 10-page sample. When you read as much unpublished writing as I do, a writer’s unique strengths and challenges often match up pretty well with other strengths and challenges that you’ve seen before. So if there’s something wonky with craft, it’s usually pretty universal.

The only things that really stick out, usually — and the ones that I will obviously not blog about because of that trust I mention — are zany story ideas. The plots and premises that NOBODY has ever come up with before (usually not a good thing because they’re too out there to be widely commercial). But these types of slush gems aren’t for Twitter or the blog or Facebook. They’re just between me and Sushi.

First Workshop Selection Posted Tuesday, March 16th

The Big Sur Workshop in Monterey, CA this weekend was SUCH a blast, as always. I met great writers, connected with some new and already favorite editors and got to spend some quality time with my beloved colleagues, which is always a special highlight of the conference for me. If any writers reading met me there, feel free to drop me a line and keep in touch!

As a result, though, I’m a bit exhausted this morning and find myself unexpectedly staring at over 50 new submissions that I didn’t think I’d have to squeeze into my schedule. I usually update the blog on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays but I’m going to take an extra day to put together my first workshop from the idea I posted on Friday.

In the meantime, I’ve got client manuscripts to read, contracts to look over, emails to answer and a Monday to jumpstart. See you tomorrow!

Contest Redux

The Novel Beginnings contest is officially over and now you’ve had a chance to see the winning entries. This is what writers have done right. That’s not to say that every great submission I received placed in the top five — there were lots of submissions that I enjoyed and that had compelling beginnings — but these offered up a skillful and interesting, I hope, selection of what was sent my way.

I want to use this opportunity to debrief a little bit and talk more about novel beginnings, lessons learned from the contest, and what I could possibly do with the rest of the month on this blog, if you all are game.

In my line of work, where submissions are always streaming into my inbox like water from a faucet that doesn’t turn off, I see a lot of beginnings. In most cases, the beginning is ALL I see. Sad, but true. After reading thousands and thousands of queries, you really do start to notice the quality of the writing immediately. At a glance, I can usually tell how far along a writer is in their learning journey, how many books they read in the same genre and for the same audience that they’re targeting, how much attention they’ve given to revisions and how “ready for prime time” they are. It’s an unfair system that so much of my judgment of their work is based on the first 10 pages — or sometimes opening paragraph, if I start to notice writing problems right away — but such is life. I do not have time to stick with a book whose flawed beginning may someday yield “the really good stuff that comes near the middle.” I’d like to have unending faith in everything that comes across my desk — that the writing will get better, that the voice will become more natural, that it will find a plot — but I just can’t.

A lot of agenting is deciding which projects and which clients are worth taking a risk on and worth the time investment. Some gambles pay off, others don’t. Each project I work on is a chance that I’m taking and a labor of love, because I may spend weeks and weeks on revisions for something and it might never sell. But if I see promise and if I fall in love with it, it’s worth trying. Taking a gamble on a submission with a weak beginning, however, almost never pays off, so I don’t do it. If something fails to grab me from the first paragraph, I will, most likely, stop reading and move on. How’s THAT for depressing? How’s THAT for the opposite of what you want to hear about a book that you’ve spent moths or years of your life writing?

So nailing a perfect beginning, while somewhat artificial, is a very specific skill. And I want to help people do this well. Of course, once you nail the beginning, you also have to nail the rest of the book. If you don’t, you’ll have what I call Conference Polish Syndrome. Since conferences pay close attention to the first 10-15 pages, writers who have been workshopped a lot usually have a really strong sample… but fall apart on pages 11-20. I’ve written about beginnings before. You can check out my other post about novel beginnings from Revision-o-Rama this past December.

However, there’s nothing like seeing beginnings in action. With the contest, I hope I provided some good beginnings — ones that would catch me — and talked about what makes them work well. Now, Wednesday’s comments gave me another idea, and I wanted to run it by everyone. What about posting some beginnings that… need a little help?

I don’t want to pick from the contest submissions because that would involve me judging someone’s work publicly when they didn’t explicitly sign up to be judged. But I do agree that comments on solid, good work can only go so far. You can learn a lot from reading stuff that doesn’t work — and, more importantly, why it doesn’t work — as well.

First, I need to know if, a) there’s any interest in this and b) if anyone will step up and volunteer their beginning to be workshopped. The point here, again, is to identify what doesn’t work and why, not to judge or ridicule. That’s why, if you want to participate with a piece of your own writing, send me up to 250 words of your novel beginning and ALSO send me a short few sentences about the major problem you’re having or the major thing you’re wondering about (is: Is this too slow? Does this dialogue work? Is this too vague? Is the characterization coming across? Is this too much description? etc.) to mary at kidlit dot com. Put “Workshop” in the subject line. If you’ve already sent me something, inspired by Wednesday’s comments, please resend with these guidelines.

Let’s see if I get any submissions. If I do, the writers must understand that I will post the piece of writing and then provide my comments. Some of these comments will be constructive criticism. I will never judge outright, but I will try and pick out some “teaching moments” in the piece so that both the writer and other blog readers can learn from them.

Does this sound good? Interesting? I’ll take submissions for this until Sunday, March 14th at 11:59 p.m., Pacific. This is not a contest. I’m not awarding prizes. I just want to get some new material in from authors who are agreeing to be workshopped on the blog and who have no problem with some constructive feedback.

Doing the kind of work we’re talking about here is, as you can imagine, very time-consuming for me. I don’t want to venture down this path without first knowing that it’ll be useful to you. Also, to touch on another issue that occurred in Wednesday’s comments, if any male writers want to send me stuff, please do. I agree — it’s time to feature some male writers or male POVs here!

Finally, people have asked whether or not they can query me with the same project that they submitted for the contest. At this point, I will have to respectfully decline to see the same project. Since this entry involved a writing sample, I feel like a query with that same writing sample would be a bit redundant. If you end up revising the project you’re working on (and six months pass) or if you have a new project, feel free to query, but if you don’t hear from me about your entry within the next few weeks, do refrain from querying with it.

Edited to add: Yes, you can send in the same entry that you did for the contest.

Also, since I don’t necessarily want to be doing this for the rest of my natural life, I was originally thinking of posting one beginning a day through March 31st, the end of the month. That gives me 8 slots. If I get more than 8 entries, I will pick and choose the ones about which I have the most to say and which will be the most help to others. Either way, it is probably in your best interest to get your beginning to me ASAP, in case I receive an avalanche of entries.

Edited to add 2.0: I did mean March 14th, fixed now.

Submissions are pouring in. I don’t know why I didn’t expect that. I’m capping this exercise at eight entries selected for workshop, so that means, unfortunately, not everyone who enters will get workshopped. This was not meant to be an offer for a personal critique by me for every entry. I will only critique the 8 entires that will go up on the blog.

Contest Update

Hey all! Due to the overwhelming response to the contest, I’ve been a bit snowed under in terms of narrowing down entries and picking winners. However, I have it down to a small group of great entries right now. I will post the first winner of the contest, the Honorable Mention, on Monday, March 1st. I will then post the 3rd Place Winner on Wednesday, March 3rd, the 2nd Place Winner on Friday, March 5th, the First Place Winner on Monday, March 8th and the Grand Prize Winner on Wednesday, March 10th!

Thank you for your patience and I think this is going to be a great round of winners. Stay tuned…

WooHoo!

I’m a little late posting this but that doesn’t mean I’m any less excited. I’m so thrilled for my author/illustrator client, Lindsay Ward, and her first author/illustrator project, PELLY AND MR. HARRISON VISIT THE MOON. It’s going to be a really fun story… and gorgeous art, of course! You can visit her website here: Lindsay’s Bake Shop. I can’t wait until 2011. My first projects will be coming out then and it’ll be so fantastic to finally hold a client’s book in my hands and see them in stores!

pelly

Happy New Year! And… Contest!

Hey readers, Happy New Year! May 2010 bring you closer to your writing dreams and be filled with joy, prosperity, craft and laughter for you and your loved ones.

I’m ducking in quickly to dispense good wishes and also to reveal my new contest for January! Since the new year is all about new beginnings… this contest is, too. This round, I’m accepting entries for the beginnings (up to the first 500 words) of your MG or YA novels (sorry, no picture books this time around). Then I’ll dissect what makes a strong novel opening — one of the most difficult and crucial moments in your manuscript.

Head on over to the Kidlit Contest page to find out more!

Happy Holidays!

As most of publishing slumbers, I’m going on a quick holiday blogcation and will refrain from posting until Monday, December 28th. In the meantime, read over old posts, share your thoughts in the comments or, you know, step away from the computer and go spend time with loved ones. This blog won’t be able to hoist a glass of champagne or eggnog and warble through the canon of Christmas carols like only your tipsy extended family can!

Revision-o-Rama will return for a few posts at the end of the month (And the end of the year! Can you believe it?) with some exercises and “action items” for you all as you continue with your writing and revising into 2010.

And since I believe in gratitude and looking around every once in a while to say, “Wow, my life is awesome!”… I want to thank all of you readers and comment-leavers and writers for making Kidlit’s first year such a success and a great experience, both for me and for the other writers who visit. May this holiday season and the new year bring you all love, happiness, writing mojo, and, of course, closer to the end of a Million Bad Words!

Great News!

Since it is officially up on the website now, I can announce it: I am an associate agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency!

Check out my bio on the agency website!

If you are a YA, MG or picturebook writer, please think of me when you put together your query list.

As a result of my new position, I’ll be making changes to the blog, vetting some old posts and generally getting everything into brand new shape. Please pardon the dust while I revamp some of my old content and look for more content geared to aspiring writers in the future!