The Good Old Days

I recently received a beautifully written question. (If you have questions of your own that are of a general nature, and not necessarily specific to the manuscript you’re working on, check my sidebar for how to contact me!) My reader, Cate, had a lot to say about the golden days of children’s publishing. I know many of you are probably wondering the same things as her, so I’ll let you read it, and then I’ll answer.

Here goes:

A little over a year ago I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, and was amazed that somebody had been able to look at that manuscript and draw To Kill a Mockingbird out of it – and was struck by the fact we probably wouldn’t have TKAM today if it hadn’t been for Tay Hohoff. Then I forgot about it, until recently, when I was reading a collection of Ursula Nordstrom’s letters. She told about receiving a collection of random notebook entries, called the writer in to discuss them and how they could be developed into a book, and was taken aback when the writer finally said, “I’m sorry you don’t like them,” since she’d just spent an hour and a half talking about them. The writer was Louise Fitzhugh and the pages turned into Harriet the Spy. Ursula Nordstrom also talked about going to FAO Schwartz and being so impressed with a window display that she asked the designer, a kid from Brooklyn, if he’d like to “draw some pictures” for her. That was the start of Maurice Sendak’s career. Then last night I was looking at a collection of letters by Margaret Mitchell, who said that (contrary to popular legend that says her book was rejected umpteen times) Harold Latham of MacMillan tracked her down on a trip to Atlanta, persuaded her to let him see her incomplete first draft of Gone With the Wind, and had to buy an extra suitcase to carry it back to NYC with him.

You know where I’m going with this, right? It seems like the relationship between editor and writer has changed a lot over the past few decades. I’m wondering if you can address that – why the change, and what expectations are realistic these days. I’m also wondering if you have any thoughts on the fact that some of our favorite books might never have existed if they came along today?

***

Oh Cate, Cate, Cate, sweet Cate. I hear you, loud and clear. I also think you know what I’m going to say.

In the good old days, a lot of crafts used to be much more obscure, or at least prohibitive to most people. If you wanted to make a video, or take pictures, you had to afford or borrow cameras and film. If you wanted anyone to see your work, you had to schlep it around on media that you carried in your hands, and you had to sit them down, and you had to show it to them. Flash forward to now. Now my dogs could have a thriving YouTube channel with millions of subscribers, and I could film, edit, and post their content all from one gadget. While wearing pajama pants.

Publishing used to be a niche industry. It wasn’t until the paperback revolution that books started selling to the masses and actually making money. It turns out there was a market for this stuff! That revolution didn’t come to children’s books specifically until the 1990’s. If you’ve read Ursula Nordstrom’s letters (and if you haven’t, you absolutely should), you will get a sense that she was seen as the red-headed step-child at Harper. Children’s books weren’t sexy, they didn’t bring in the big bucks. They were…quaint. And then Harry Potter showed everyone what a “dumb little kid’s book” could do. In terms of cold, hard sales numbers. Enter the commercial revolution, kidlit phase!

Editors used to have to track writers down and squeeze books out of them. Develop their careers. Foster their talents. Deal with their eccentricities. Take the train to Vermont and trudge through the snow to their cabins in the woods, if need be, to get good books. Believe it or not, it wasn’t always thought of as glamorous to be a writer. Kids didn’t aspire to it. People didn’t dream of it. “That’s my weird old aunt Emily Dickinson,” folks would say in an embarrassed whisper, “she’s a writer.” So editors wouldn’t have thousands–yes, thousands–of submissions coming to them per year. They’d have to go out and make submissions happen.

Trust me, I would love to have a kindly editor come to my house and say, “Mary, I know that you’re having an existential crisis and have written five pages in the last six months, but I really think there’s something there. Why don’t I advance you a little money so you can pay for that cabin in the woods and some quiet time to create?” I would love it.

But the crux of this new age is that publishers and platforms are swimming in content. They no longer need to make content happen. It comes to them. Their jobs now are to cherry pick good and marketable content. Today’s editors are overwhelmed with submissions. Sure, they do tremendously important editorial work with their stable of authors, but those authors are brought to them on platters. The tough truth is that editors also spend their days attending powwows with marketing and sales people. Doing administrative work. Meeting with agents. They often edit–which many would consider to be their actual jobs–on their own time. Any effort they spend to massage good books out of people becomes a second job.

Furthermore, your weird old aunt Emily Dickinson would have someone standing over her, in today’s market, asking her where her next poetry collection is because the last one didn’t perform as hoped, and we’d really like to get on a book-a-year-schedule, kthnx. Today’s most successful writers are expected to produce. With minimal hand-holding, if possible.

Sad? Yes. True? Yes. That’s why more and more writers are choosing to work with developmental editors before they get to the publication phase. In this new reality, you are just not going to find the same editorial relationships as you did in the good old days.

Happy Holidays and a Joyful New Year

macdonald-family-8

It’s funny that this picture was taken in October and, already, it’s out of date. Theo is now 9 months old and about to walk. He’s babbling and getting into trouble and so big. There’s so much to be grateful for this holiday season. Theo is happy and healthy, pulling books off the shelf for me to read. My husband, Todd, has just opened a new restaurant, Red Rabbit, in downtown Minneapolis with a focus on fun, approachable, satisfying Italian food. Though I took some time off this year to get into the swing of motherhood, I continue to work with wonderful freelance editorial clients through my consultancy, Mary Kole Editorial.

Coming up in the new year, I have WriteOnCon (February 2-4, 2017). I’m involved doing critiques, and this is a great online writing conference. There are a few other things in the works for 2017 that I’m very excited about, but can’t really discuss at the moment.

Please share your 2017 writing resolutions in the comments to inspire your fellow blog readers, and me! I can’t wait for another wonderful year. Though a lot of people would rather see 2016 over and done, I have to say, it’s been a great one here at Kidlit! As always, I am so, so grateful for you, my wonderful readers. I can’t believe it’s been eight years of learning and discussing issues related to writing and publishing together. Here’s to many more!

Writing Blueprints Promotion

Most of my readers know that I hardly ever do any kind of promotion on the blog. I work hard to have credibility with this website, and I don’t want to break your trust by constantly hawking products. (With the exception of my own book and editorial services, though there was some interesting discussion on this issue earlier this year.) You get spammed pretty much anywhere you go online, so I’m not keen to add to the volume of advertising everyone sees on a daily basement.

Every once in a while, I do make an exception. What’s my criteria? If I find a resource that I fully believe is worth your time and money, I will absolutely share it. That’s exactly the case with the Writing Blueprints online courses, created by Children’s Book Insider. I’ve had CBI on my radar for a long time. They’re a trusted voice in the kidlit writing community. We share the same audience: people who are passionate about creating children’s books. Well, they’ve created an online classroom platform called Writing Blueprints, where writers pay a one-time fee for access to content. Then they go through various videos, worksheets, and lessons at their own pace, teaching themselves about writing, marketing, revision, etc. I love the self-paced aspect. People don’t often have time to commit to a set six-week course, for example, but everyone can make ten minutes in a day to watch a video or fill out a worksheet.

Currently, there are courses for picture book and chapter book writers. The information in the courses is incredibly in-depth, the advice is rich and actionable, and the prices are reasonable. The interface is fun and easy to use. I have absolutely no qualms recommending this content to my readers. I’m actually doing the Blueprints myself, just for fun.

When you click the above link, you will go to a store page that showcases all of the available Writing Blueprints products. Through December 31st, there’s a holiday sale on their Book Marketing Bundle ($119, on sale for $69), Picture Ebook Course, Chapter Book Blueprint, and Picture Book Blueprint courses (normally $197 each, on sale for $147 each). Click “Redeem Coupon” during checkout and enter the code HOLIDAY16 (must be all caps) to claim holiday promotional pricing. There’s no way to embed the coupon code into these links, so you still have to remember to use it.

I’ll leave this information in my sidebar so you don’t have to go digging for it later. I’m really happy to tell my readers about this awesome resource. I vouch for it so much, in fact, that I may create my own course for them this coming year. More on that later! When I was agenting, my favorite kind of writer was the one that made it a point to keep learning, keep growing, and keep honing their craft. It’s not too late to put a Writing Blueprints course on your Christmas List. Access is granted as soon as the transaction is complete. Feel free to point your spouse to this post, or share with your writing friends.

Happy Holidays! I’m in my busy, busy winter season. Lots of writers are coming to me for editorial work because they want to make 2017 the year that they finally publish. Writing Blueprints gives you a great tool to get yourself closer to your own goals, on your own time. Check these courses out!

Rushing Through Revision

Recently, I had a potential client come to me for freelance editorial work. He had a 4,000 word manuscript and a dummy that he wanted me to review. It was a rush request, which is fine. I charge more for those because I have a lot of clients who wait quite a while to get on my calendar. Not a problem. But I ultimately ended up declining to work with him, and I got to thinking that I’d write a post about why. The real reason was this client’s personal deadline, and a potential issue it implied. Note that I received this email on December 10th, six days before the writer wanted me to turn the work around, and ten days before his submission goal.

Here is how I responded to this potential client:

Thanks for writing in. Winter is my absolute busiest time. I call it the New Years Resolution effect. Do I have an hour to look at 4,000 words and scroll through a dummy? Sure. But, to be honest, I am hesitant for a number of reasons. Two have to do with how I operate, personally. First, I’ve had people sign up in August to work with me over the winter. I sometimes do expedited services, but because you’re contacting me to skip the line and all of these other clients that are on my plate right now have been waiting so patiently, I do charge 25% more than I usually would to accommodate rush requests. Second, I always need an agreement and deposit in place to begin work. You’re not allowing a lot of time for those logistics. I could just dive in, sure, but I operate on a fairness principle. I don’t want to throw my usual workflow out the window for one client, when others would’ve probably liked for the same. I didn’t make exceptions for them, and so I won’t in this case, either.

My next two hesitation have to do with your self-imposed deadline. First, publishing essentially shuts down during the holidays. Since so many people are away from the office, very little gets done. I’ve been discussing submission strategies with several clients and I’m recommending that they fire work off to agents and editors in mid-January at the very earliest. Could you submit five days before Christmas? Sure. What are the odds your submission will actually be read on the 20th? I would say 1%. I realize it’s a symbolic deadline that has a lot of meaning to you, but it’s probably one of the most hectic times to try and show your best foot forward. You risk hurting your chances if you submit now.

Second, you’re requesting editorial feedback. If I do read the manuscript, chances are, I’ll have notes for you. A lot of notes. But you want to submit by the 20th. Is four days enough to address them and do a revision? A really good revision? That’s where I have to draw a hard line and say, “No.” The bulk of a writer’s work isn’t in the writing, it’s in the revision. You’ve told me that you don’t plan to change your dummy at all. That makes sense. You’ve already created it, and you’d prefer not to repeat that work. But the manuscript might have a lot of opportunities for growth. A lot of opportunities that you don’t want to miss. 4,000 words doesn’t sound like a lot to some, but any story, even a short one, has a lot of moving parts. There’s plot, character, voice…

If you engage a developmental editor who’s likely to give you suggestions for changes, I’d say you’re not giving yourself enough time to make them. There are writers who submit to freelance editors with the expectation that the editor will say, “This is perfect as is, you’re ready to send.” I have only encountered a “ready to go” manuscript twice in my years of editorial work. Even those two could’ve benefited from some tweaking, which both writers took their time to do before going on to secure their agents. Much more often than not, there is a lot for a writer to do after they receive feedback. If you’re looking for someone to just give you the green light and no notes, I’m not that person.

It’s for this last reason that I am going to kindly decline your rush request. I have the hour, absolutely. Everyone has an hour. But I don’t think it’s a good use of my time or your money to give you thoughtful editorial feedback if you’re just planning on zipping through a revision in four days. If you want to really jump into the editorial process, let’s talk. If it’s not right for you at this time, I wish you all the best.

***

I don’t mean to sound harsh. But there are a lot of writers, it’s true, who engage an editor with the expectation that they’ll hear, “Wow! Rush this off tomorrow, it’s perfect!” I’m not saying that this writer thought exactly this, but given the timeline he wanted, I just couldn’t see how there would be bandwidth for anything else. The point is, many people spend all of November pouring 50k words onto the blank page. Is this an accomplishment? You bet! But once their first drafts are done, some writers decide that it’s time to find an agent yesterday. They’ve written a novel, after all! It’s right there in Scrivener, formatted and everything! So what more could possibly be needed?

A lot, actually. If you’re like the other 99.99% of us mere mortals. So I hope this post serves as a reminder of the importance of revision. And a peek into my thought process. (And a reminder that December is a dead zone in publishing!) It’s rare that I turn down an editorial client, but it does happen. Some projects simply aren’t a good fit for me to begin with because of subject matter, genre, or style of writing. It’s very rare that I consider a project unreadable, but it has happened once or twice. In that case, at my rates, it really doesn’t make sense to have me come in and try to bring it up to a basic level. You would go broke, and I would go crazy. More likely, when I pass on a client opportunity, it’s because I don’t see how I’d be able to add value. If I don’t have good ideas for how to work with you, I’m not going to take your money. Or, in cases like this, I see a potential red flag that a writer’s expectations will not align well with the actual service that I pride myself on providing. It’s always a tough call to make.

In a very satisfying plot twist, I heard back from this potential client. He took the points I made to heart and scrapped his self-appointed deadline. We’re working together on his project next month, and he’s giving himself the time to turn around a quality revision. Sometimes these stories do have a happy ending!

“What’s In It For Me?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about marketing. Every week, I get emails offering guest posts, articles, contests, programs, services, etc. The well-meaning writer always says that they’re offering me an opportunity. My blog is pretty humble, but I do get a fair amount of beautiful, wise, talented readers. I’ve been around a long time. It’s not surprising that I come up on search engines and in rankings for people who are looking to market their whatever.

On principle, I turn their offers down. I don’t want to use this blog to sell stuff. (Other than the occasional reminder about my book and services, of course. A girl’s gotta eat!) I don’t want to feature someone’s guest post, unless they’re someone I know personally or professionally and I like their idea. I don’t want to flood my readers with a product or app when I know the average writer struggles with the very idea of scraping together enough focus to practice their craft.

The last thing I want to do is sell my website out. I don’t want to give people guest post slots (with a few notable exceptions over the years). This is my blog, and you come here for my articles. I’m not going to dilute my voice or credibility by letting John Doe publish his “101 Tips for Classroom Success” article (more on this example later). I’m not going to muck up my Resources page by putting any product or service that comes my way. Those are resources I found and loved on my own. They are tried and true, in my eyes. That space can’t be bought.

It’s not an “opportunity” for me. It’s marketing people doing their marketing thing. I get it. How do you get attention for your goods or services? This game has changed completely with the advent of the Internet, and the advent of analytics for said Internet. Now, in addition to trying to score hits in traditional media, people with something to sell are contacting tastemakers with lots of followers. All in the hopes of a mention, a link, and a boost.

I’m not against this practice at all. I sent hundreds of emails when my book came out. I market my editorial services once or twice a year to my mailing list. But I think that the focus of any good marketing piece is, “What’s in it for me?” That’s the question I’m always asking as someone with a blog that gets a certain number of eyeballs. Because I want to always deliver value to my readers. I want them to come here for information, not marketing and sponsored posts and all sorts of other garbage.

And THIS, ladies and gentlemen, this is what makes book marketing so damn difficult!

I’ve just spoken as a person turning down a lot of solicitations. Now, it’s true that I get requests to market people’s individual book projects. When someone writes to me and says, “I wrote this book, I’d like for you to help get the message out,” in my head, I ask, “What’s in it for me?” The answer, again, in my head, is always, “Um, a good…book?” And 99% of the time, that’s just not compelling enough for me to amplify your message. The one exception is the recent guest post I did about a book that was published via a crowdfunding platform. Why? Because I found the process compelling, the writer is a client of mine, and I wanted to hear how it was going.

I wanted to hear how it was really going, mind you. When she sent her first guest post draft, it was full of hearts and unicorns about how great everything was. I wrote back and pushed her to give me the peaks and valleys, the obstacles, the real story. Because I owe you more than a fluff piece. You’ll notice that the article in question wasn’t about the book at all. It had something for my audience about a new publishing platform.

As the curator (major cringe for that word now that everything is “curated” and “artisanal”) of this site, I was asking, “What’s in it for me…and my readers?” That particular guest post passed the test. As did another series about a Kickstarter funded graphic novel that didn’t make it.

There is, I believe, a lesson here for those of you who are looking to market your own work. Because the hard truth is, even once you’ve achieved the major milestone of being published, your work is not done. You have to become a marketing person. And almost everyone will give you the advice of finding people who are tastemakers in your respective subject area, and reaching out to them to pitch your work.

I have the biases I’ve expressed above. I happen to have high standards for featuring stuff. If you want to succeed with someone like me (and believe me, it’s a bigger success to place your story with someone who has standards than with someone who loves free shit and will blog about anything), you need to ask yourself, as if you were the tastemaker, “What’s in it for me? What’s in it for my readers?”

Usually, it’s not going to be just your story. But something interesting about your story. You wrote it entirely on a train. It’s the first novel written by AI. You were declared medically dead and it came to you while you were out. What is interesting about it? What is something I can blog about and find exciting? What is something my readers might like? Pitch from that angle.

And here’s a second bonus tip. Remember how my example article, above, was something about the classroom? Well, my blog is Kidlit.com, and my search terms are (among other things) children’s books. You might be totally justified in thinking that this blog is a resource for children, or about children’s books themselves (like a review site), or about children’s reading habits, or whatever. But you would be wrong.

My site’s audience consists of passionate writers who aspire to write or are actively involved in writing children’s books for publication. It’s a very specific audience. So if you don’t do your research on my site, see the words “kid” and “lit,” and email me a great opportunity to hawk your children’s educational resource for you, you will fall flat.

Marketing is a numbers game. You have to send X emails to get something from even 1% of your targets. It’s discouraging. But if you approach it from the angle of pretending to be the site owner and asking, “What’s in it for me?” AND if you target specific sites which have an audience in common with you, you will have more luck.

AND A THIRD BONUS TIP. As writers for babies, children, tweens, and teens, your marketing audience (most likely) isn’t actual children. There are very few places where children under 13 can legally be online. Your marketing audience is the people buying stuff for those children, and the educators and librarians of those children.

Want more marketing stuff? I recently wrote a somewhat related post about agents and editors who are writers themselves marketing their own work.

Heavy-Handed Imagery and Theme

I was recently working on a novel outline, helping the writer flesh the idea out so that they had the strongest possible “road map” to work from when writing their story. It’s a service that I really like because I push writers to consider all aspects of their story before they invest the time and energy in turning the idea into a manuscript. I believe it makes the writing process tighter and easier. It also leads to less long-term headache because we’re figuring things out ahead of time that most people don’t realize until revision. Well, this writer happened to have a very specific theme in mind. In fact, I believe the theme might’ve been the idea kernel that set the whole story in motion. Unfortunately, the story idea was mostly just a vehicle for this theme. In other words, the theme was so prominent that it became heavy-handed.

Why is this an issue? Well, in the case of this story, the writer could’ve easily turned the theme into a motivational poster and left it at that. You know those inspirational quote squares that are all over your Instagram and Facebook feeds? One of those. Why write a novel when all you want to do is communicate an idea that can be summed up in one sentence? This is why theme-heavy story ideas hardly ever work. There’s simply not enough nuance for the reader to be interested in digging deeper. “The point of the story is so front and center, what is there for me to do?” the reader might ask.

A lot of writers have such strong themes. It’s not bad to have a theme. In fact, every story needs at least one. The issue becomes how to express it. If you’re quite subtle about it, you may not be communicating your idea clearly. But I hardly ever see this problem. Much more likely is the issue of overt theme.

Picture books probably suffer the most from theme overload. Many writers are extremely tempted by the idea of putting a wise adult character into their stories for young readers that voices the theme outright. “And that’s why,” the kind grandmother said, “it’s so important to share.”

Yuck. That belongs on a classroom poster. Not at the heart of a story. Now, if you show a character’s life being enriched by sharing, that’s another thing. That lets the reader see the benefits of sharing for himself, and to make the connection that sharing is probably great on his own.

In novels, theme usually manifests itself in imagery. Let’s go back to my client’s story. It was a classic coming of age, where the character goes on a journey of self-discovery. Now I’ll depart from the actual idea for the sake of anonymity. What images can we use to talk about transformation, freedom, and self-expression? I know. Butterflies! They go from weird caterpillars to beautiful creatures. The journey is painful. The outcome uncertain. They crawl on the ground and then, all of a sudden, they take flight. These images are evocative and they fit the theme. In that sense, using the image of butterflies to communicate a coming of age theme is a home run, right?

The problem is, this image is heavy-handed. Too many writers have gotten to it already. It feels very familiar. There’s nothing fresh here. Unfortunately, more creativity is required not only to avoid clichés in writing, but to couch the theme in a way that’s thought-provoking, and not just a shortcut.

I would wager that if you were reading a YA novel about a character’s personal transformation, and the climactic scene took place in a botanical garden where there’s a butterfly exhibit, and the main character let a butterfly take flight from the tip of her finger, you would…groan a little? It’s been done. It’s a part of a very obvious conversation.

If you innovate in terms of your imagery as it pertains to your key theme, you will likely get a more engaged reader out of the bargain. What is your theme? What images are you using to convey it? How can you freshen up those images, make them more unexpected, ask the reader to use their imagination more?

After all, the world is your…abalone. 😉

Critique Connection

By request, I’m letting this post be a way to find virtual critique partners. I’ve done these in the past, and people have reported finding good connections.

It’s simple. In the comments, please post:

Category: What you write, whether MG, YA, picture books, etc.

Genre: If you write in a specific genre

What You’d Like Critiqued and How: Are you looking for a partner to exchange pages with as you’re writing, someone to read an entire novel, etc. If It’s a bigger manuscript, maybe note the word count.

How to Get In Touch With You: If you’re not comfortable sharing your email, you can type it in a way that discourages spam (mary at kidlit dot com), or you can ask potential partners to reply to your comment…then come back and see if you have any nibbles.

It’s a little old school to do this on a blog, but if you’re looking for a critique partner going into the holidays and New Year, I can vouch that my blog readers are some of the smartest and best looking kidlit enthusiasts around! 🙂

In other news, I’ll be doing some critiques and participating in this year’s WriteOnCon in February. It’s a completely interactive online writer’s conference. I’ll post more as their website for this year gets up and running.

A Boring Edit

I’m not calling my editorial work boring. Not in the slightest! I am suggesting a specific revision technique to work on pacing. I call it the “Boring Edit.”

Now, I can give advice until I’m blue in the face, and I know that maybe only 1% of people will actually try it. For example, I routinely tell writers who are struggling with a manuscript to put it away for three months and THEN try revising it. So far, I’ve heard from maybe a handful of writers who’ve tried it. (They loved it, BTW. Just sayin’…)

Yet I still persist in giving advice! Because it’s good for you! (What a Mom thing to say.) This technique is especially useful if you’ve been told that your writing sags or slumps or stalls. I’m looking at you, Muddy Middle. There’s not much of a trick to it, it’s very simple. All that’s required is a printer and some marginal self-awareness. As you “edit,” you only have ONE task. Sounds great, right?

Here are your steps:

  1. Put your manuscript in single-space formatting. This is so you’ll be less tempted to scribble on it and line edit. Sure, it hurts the ol’ eyeballs, but we all have to suffer for our craft sometimes.
  2. Print it out and pick a time when you can read it as you would any other book. This works best if you have a few solid chunks of time to really kick back and sink into it.
  3. Start reading. Consciously avoid trying to edit as you read. Try and read it like you would any other book.
  4. Have a pen in one hand. The pen is NOT for editing.
  5. Look at your own mind as your read. Your one job is this: Put a check mark in the margin whenever you feel yourself starting to drift, mentally. If you start thinking about the grocery list, or what you’re doing this weekend or sinking into a mire of self-loathing about how crappy your manuscript is, or whatever, put a check. That’s it, that’s all. Don’t even analyze it, just put a check mark.

Awesome. Now you have a manuscript with some check marks in the margins. And what does all that mean?

These are the parts of your book that are boring.

I’m sorry. Someone had to say it. But we can’t all be brilliant for 250+ pages, especially in the early stages of crafting a manuscript. Scenes run long. We lose the point of what we’re trying to say. We get more excited about crafting wonderful prose than actually accomplishing any action. Objectives disappear and are replaced by banter that may or may not be witty. Plot points go into hiding. Or maybe you’re just trying to make your 1,667 words for the day because it’s NaNoWriMo. (I’m on to y’all…) It’s OKAY.

With this largely hands-off read-through, you are identifying the parts of your story that need work. That are, let’s face it, a little boring.

The most important take-away is that, if even you can’t focus enough to read it, you can’t expect a reader to slog through. Simple as that. You have a vested interest in this manuscript. Nobody else does. (Yet.) If you’re boring yourself, you need to take a long hard look at those places. Usually the culprit is too much thinking/talking and not enough action. I have tons of plot-related posts you can check out to help beef up in that respect.

So who’s with me? Who’s excited to do a Boring Edit?

Getting Around First Person POV Limitations

This post was inspired by a question from Debbie B., one of my editorial clients, and her critique group. First person is great. A lot of people use it. It lends a sense of immediacy and accessibility to your work. The logic is that it’s easy to connect to a protagonist when you’re intimately involved in their interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions). But first person POV has a lot of limitations. (Plus it’s overused, and some writers avoid* it because of how common it is.)

Not Being Able To Go Inside Another Character’s Head

Perhaps the biggest character-specific limitation is that you don’t have access to anyone else’s interiority. In close third person, you don’t really, either, but in omniscient third person, you can “head hop” to your heart’s content and access any number of characters. First person limits you. For example, you cannot say something like:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, feeling annoyed.

Since Susie is not our protagonist, we can’t now her inner landscape. So how do you get around it? Instead, you can say something like:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, annoyance in her voice.

Or you can put the emotion in dialogue:

“Ugh, I don’t know, okay?”

Or you can venture a guess like this:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, as if I’d asked the most annoying question ever.

Or like this:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, and she was probably still mad at me for being late.

It’s up to you how much to use these techniques. I would suggest to limit the guessing and let Susie’s action and dialogue tell the story. The hard and fast rule is that the one thing you can’t do is tell the reader what’s actually going on in Susie’s head. That crosses POV lines.

The Protagonist Having to Be Present

The biggest plot-related problem with first person POV is that your protagonist has to be around for everything. Dagnabit! But, they are the narrator. So if they’re not there when the murder weapon is found and planted in their locker, they can’t narrate it. So the reader can’t find out about it. And it doesn’t get on the page.

How do you get around this? I’m less able to prescribe a solution because a lot depends on what you need to narrate. Here are some common workarounds, though do be warned that some of these are cliché at this point:

  • Eavesdropping (they can overhear key information)
  • Clues (they can find clues to key information)
  • Direct confrontation (not everything has to be hidden, sometimes you’ll solve problems by revealing your secret sooner because the ramifications are actually where the drama is)

How else do you get around these issues? Are you grappling with any particularly hairy POV-specific questions? Leave some thoughts in the comments.

ETA: I didn’t meant that agents and editors reject a project just because it’s in first person, I meant that some writers avoid it and try third person because they don’t want to use such a common POV. I have to be careful about the word “reject”! Thanks, Chris!

What To Expect From An Agent

Having a literary agent is great. I’ve been one, and I hope it was a good experience for my clients. It was a wonderful, frustrating, humbling, and incredibly educational experience for me. The publishing game is not for the faint of heart! But thinking about agents always gets me thinking about expectations.

What will an agent do for you? What might an agent do for you if they have certain specialties? What is unreasonable to expect of an agent? First, I’d like to discuss what an agent won’t do.

What An Agent Won’t Do

It’s nice to want an agent you can get along with. Someone who answers your anxiety-riddled midnight emails. Finally, a publishing insider on your side! But is this reasonable to expect? I see a lot of writers wishing for a BFF relationship with their representative. And I understand this impulse. But you have to remember that your agent is your business representative. They are not really around to answer all of your anxiety-riddled midnight emails. In fact, if you make the mistake of treating an agent as a best writing friend, you may drop on their priority list. I’ve seen many agent/client relationships go south because the writer didn’t understand professional boundaries.

The best agent for you may not be the funniest agent on Twitter. Or the one with the best blog. At the end of the day, you want an agent who is going to sell your work and get you favorable terms for your primary contract and any subrights that get sold. Yes, this is a little less “love connection” than a lot of people are dreaming of. That’s okay.

Agents are also not editors. While some do heavy editorial work, it behooves you to approach an agent with a polished, professional manuscript. Agents do not get paid to polish up their clients’ work. They sometimes do it because polished work sells more frequently and (sometimes) for more money. So if they see it as a good investment of their time, they will work with you. But to expect it is unreasonable. If you want to submit with a rock solid manuscript, it’s often in your best interest to partner with an experienced critique partner or developmental editor. I’m not just saying that because I am one, but it’s important to note that even agented writers use me for help with manuscripts that their agents say aren’t quite ready yet.

Agents get paid when they sell books and subrights. That’s it and that’s all. If I was looking for an agent for myself, I’d rather have one who is sitting at their desk right now, selling and negotiating and reviewing contracts, than one who is slogging through draft three of someone’s picture book essentially on spec (because the book hasn’t sold yet and there’s no guarantee it will). The more an agent sells, the more experienced they are at their core competency, and the more they may go on to sell–for all of their clients.

It may come as a surprise to some but not all that an agent is not, for the most part, paid to read the slush, full requests, or even client submissions. Most agents do this outside of their workday, which is spent meeting with editors, pitching things, traveling to conferences, and negotiating deals.

What An Agent Might Do

All this being said, an agent will probably ask you to make editorial tweaks because they have a clearer sense of what the marketplace is buying and what kind of pitch will work. Dystopian manuscripts, for example, are pretty heavily trafficked. So they might ask you to tone down on the dystopian element and bring up the volume on the romance. This is the sort of editorial work that is reasonable to expect. Some agents go above and beyond, offering very detailed notes, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Writers also ask if an agent will help them market their work. This, apparently, is a rather controversial topic. I was surprised to hear that people expect agents to do their marketing for them, but I suppose this way of thinking makes sense. An agent will very likely shout about your sale and/or release from the rooftops, but this is a matter of personal promotion as much as it is a matter of helping you out. If you have an agent who is proactively doing some marketing on your behalf, you are lucky. But it is not really their job to do so. They’re likely doing it because they want to promote their deal-making prowess and sell some subrights.

Finally, many writers are surprised to learn that they’re probably not going to get flown out to NYC to have lunch with their agent as soon as the ink is dry on their representation agreement. In fact, some people never meet their agent in person. Only if the agent comes out to their city for a conference, or they happen to be in the agent’s city, will a meeting happily take place. Otherwise, most business is done over email and, occasionally, the phone.

What An Agent Will Do

By this point, I think you’re starting to realize what an agent’s job really is. It’s not to be your buddy. It’s not to be your therapist. It’s not to be your developmental editor. It’s not to be your PR person. It’s not to take you out to lunch. It’s to sell your rights on your behalf in a way that’s most advantageous to you.

In this regard, an agent is extremely valuable. They’ve likely negotiated deals (or their agency has) with every publisher and they’ve developed top notch contracts at each house. They likely have leverage. They likely know what they’re doing with that 30-page document that, to you, will read like legalese gobletygook. They’ll be able to help you navigate crucial business decisions that could impact your career for years.

This, in and of itself, is a whole lot of work. In my opinion, anything else you get is delicious gravy.