Polish the Entire Manuscript

Here’s an interesting trend I’ve noticed in queries versus the full manuscript. At my agency, we request the first 10 pages along with the query in our submission guidelines. That’s great for me because, if I like a query, that means I can start reading immediately and continue (I hope) to enjoy what I see.

There’s only so much a person can tell from a query. A writer could’ve had someone write their query, could’ve workshopped it relentlessly with other writers, could’ve polished it for years. There’s just no guarantee that the quality of writing in the query will match the quality of the sample. And query writing is pitchy and explanatory by its very nature — quite the opposite of prose. Only the manuscript matters, after all. So I like to see a little writing before deciding to either reject or request.

Lately, however, people have been sending more and more polished writing samples in those first 10 pages. On the one hand, it’s great because everything looks good. On the other hand, it’s a horrible trend because after those first 10 pages, or 15, or 20, the manuscript tends to fall apart.

Why? Conferences, critique groups, writing workshops and the like usually work with the first 10, 15 or 20 pages of a manuscript. It’s a manageable enough chunk and the writer can learn a lot from getting it critiqued. Also, conventional wisdom goes that the first pages are the most important, so they get a lot of focus. Those writers who use a lot of resources like conferences and workshops end up with freakishly well-polished first chapters… and then are left to their own devices for the rest. And the agents who read these types of first pages/chapters are tricked over and over again, only to become confused and frustrated when we see a noticeable decline in quality.

Here’s the bottom line. Are you especially proud of your manuscript’s beginning? Great! You’ve accomplished a lot. Now, though, you have to put that same amount of work and excruciatingly close attention into every other page of the project. If it starts out great, we’re only expecting it to get better, not worse, when we read the rest. The last thing you want to do is disappoint.

Rejection Follow-Up

I hope this post will lift the veil a bit and let writing hopefuls see some of my thought process as an agent. There’s some truth here about rejection that might not be fun to hear. Sensitive souls might want to turn back now.

An issue that some writers wonder about is rejection follow-up, aka., what to do once you get a rejection in your inbox? Tread carefully, writers! A rejection is, by its very nature, unpleasant. There are many different types of rejection — something I’ll post on very soon — and some rejections are better than others, but at the end of the day, it’s still a “no” when you want to hear a “yes.” Here are two frequent rejection follow-up responses agents get:

The Salesman: “Oh, you don’t like this particular manuscript? Well, I’ve got something else here in my Bag o’ Tricks that might just fit the bill instead.”

Here’s the ugly truth, writers: when we reject something, it is because we don’t believe we can sell it to a publishing house. About 90% of the time, this is because the manuscript is just not ready to be shown for possible publication. The writing is weak. There’s no voice. The idea doesn’t have any spark. (The other 10%, of course, is reserved for people who are rejected because they’re just plain crazy…) I try to give some constructive feedback if I see the opportunity. But most of the time, it’s simply because the writing is not ready. (The good thing about that, of course, is that every day is a new opportunity to improve your craft and get it ready!)

This problem is not going to be fixed by trotting out another manuscript. Or two. Or three. I used to let people show me a few things if they so insisted but the results were always the same and now I dread this situation.

Whatever you have in your stable, chances are, it still has the same general writing issues as the thing I just rejected. It’s already a less-than-pleasant part of my job to reject you. Don’t force me to do it again.

Please don’t start going through your roster of manuscripts and offering up everything else you’ve ever written unless you can categorically say that the quality is a huge improvement (and if it is, why not just send that in the first place?). Instead, hone your craft, get opinions from readers you trust and query around after some time has passed and you’re confident that your work is stronger.

The Rage: “You are the stupidest/most incompetent/ugliest/smelliest person in the world and you are missing out on MILLIONS, LITERALLY MILLIONS of dollars by rejecting my genius opus. I thought you were one of the smart ones and could recognize brilliance when you saw it. Well I guess I was wrong.”

Nothing needs to be said about this other than: email makes it easy to respond, no matter what emotional state you happen to be in. That doesn’t mean you should.

Long story short? Don’t take a rejection to mean that the door’s wide open for everything you’ve ever written and don’t be a psycho.

What are the two preferred responses to a rejection?

  • “Thanks for reading!”
  • Nothing

Simple as that.

References in your Manuscript

Over the weekend, I got the following email about using pop culture references in a manuscript:

I’m a grad student trying to write her first children’s book.  As I go over my notes, I see a lot of references to events or pop culture from the 1990’s.  They are funny anecdotes to me and people in my age group but, I don’t know how to make it meaningful for my audience (2nd-4th graders).

Thanks in advance for the help.
Jac

While Jac is writing for a younger audience than some of my readers, the references question applies to every manuscript, from a picturebook to a YA. And it is a contentious issue. Lots of people have very different opinions about references.

In Jac’s case specifically, I’d definitely say that hearkening back to the 90’s might be a mistake, especially for an audience that young. Remember, you’re writing for your readers, not for yourself. Not to mention, of course, that a 2nd or 4th grader is going to care about entirely different things than an adult. What kind of references are they? Movie? Music? World events? Those might be a bit outside the realm of your reader’s awareness (or caring). It might be a good experiment to cut out the references and focus on the world of the story, the characters and the plot. Those are going to be much more interesting to your target audience, Jac, than anything you bring in from the outside world.

While younger projects like Jac’s might have less room for references, older projects, like MG and YA, have lots of opportunities. Overall, I’ve seen references tackled in four different ways:

  1. References from our world are included in the manuscript.
  2. References from our world are parodied in the manuscript.
  3. References are made up for the purpose of the manuscript.
  4. References are omitted entirely.

Let’s tackle these one by one, both pros and cons.

If you use references from our world, you can make your story seem more realistic and seamless to your reader. They’ll look around your book and see things they recognize. The inherent danger here, of course, is that your references a) might be totally irrelevant by the time the book is published and b) might make your book less attractive to future generations of readers. It takes about two years for a book to come out. All those manuscripts written a few years back that use a line, for example, like “You’re crazier than Britney Spears!” are going to seem totally out of touch if they were to be published now. And teens have an Uncool-o-Meter that’s finely honed. Let’s not forget that, ideally, you’re writing for longevity. Are your references going to seem hokey to a reader who picks up your tome in 10 years? 20?

If you are parodying references, you get your point across but your appeal will also be limited. You get the benefit of giving something a name, but when you parody, you assume your audience knows what you’re parodying, so it’s almost like using a real world reference, only one degree removed. I see some manuscripts that talk about “the latest social networking site, MyFace,” or something similar. I’d say this presents the same problems as above, only you add in a very distinct cheesiness factor that might elicit a few eye-rolls from your audience.

If you create your own references, you might be dodging the reference bullet. All the names of movies, websites, music acts, colleges and maybe even cities are new to your readers. If you give your readers enough context, they’ll get what you’re going for. Like the bands in NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST… they don’t really exist but you get what kind of music they play and that’s pretty much all you need to know. I just finished Sarah Dessen’s ALONG FOR THE RIDE, which made up names for colleges and totally immersed me in the world of the book by shutting out the “real world.” I’d say this is my favorite elegant solution — at the moment, at least — for those who like using references. Make some up. You won’t run into the issues outlined above and, if you give your reader enough context, they’ll know exactly what you mean.

If you use no references, you’re avoiding all the issues. References can add something to your story if you need to pull in a simile or nail down a particular shade to your character or your world, but they’re also not necessary. Plenty of books don’t have any nods to anything outside the story. In Meg Rosoff’s HOW I LIVE NOW, we have hardly any specifics about the outside world. The war that swirls at the heart of the story doesn’t even have a name. By not using references, however, you do run the risk of creating an anemic environment. What’s playing on the radio? Where do your characters point their browsers to research the hot new girl in school? It really depends on what kind of story you’re writing, but some references, whether real or made up, can add some authenticating details to your world.

One of my personal pet peeves about using pop culture references is that they either seem tacked on to a story, or they’re obviously there to entertain the author’s age group. This is distracting. In the spring, I read a rash of books where a “quirk” of the main character was that they loooooved watching 80’s movies. Um. This reads like a quirk of the author, who loves John Hughes, and not a quirk of a character who was born sometime in the 90’s, like that author’s target reader was. I’m sorry, ladies, but 16 Candles is already irrelevant to most teens today.

Make sure your references augment the story but don’t take over it, and make sure they’re not limiting or tacky or more about you than your audience. I’d say that’s my rule of thumb.

Direct Address in a Query

Which brings me to another point. Several queries have come in recently that use this technique:

Dear Ms. Kole,

You are an aspiring garbagegirl in Brooklyn who is allergic to flies. And your mom says you have to go to beauty college when you get out of high school. Your world turns upside down one day when a faerie vampire crashes through your bedroom window…

This is a <sarcasm>fun</sarcasm> new spin on my absolute pet peeve: the rhetorical question query. And the use of second person in general, when it’s not earned or warranted. I don’t understand this technique… and there are several examples of it in my slush. Did some blog somewhere tell well-meaning writers that this was the new no-fail query fad?

I understand it’s meant to be arresting and pulse-pounding, it’s meant to grab me and never let me go and all that junk, but here’s the reason it bugs me: I want to read about you and your work. LEAVE ME OUT OF IT!

The example up there is one I wrote. But it’s not too far off from what I’ve been seeing. And honestly? Instead of thinking “Wow, that sounds cool,” I immediately think: “I am NOT a garbagegirl, my mom does NOT want me to go to beauty college and there’s no way in heck that a faerie vampire is crashing through MY window without picking up the repair bill!”

And you don’t want me to be thinking about ME when I’m reading YOUR query, right? Didn’t think so.

YA Literature That Pushes Modern Boundaries

I recently read Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR (Bloomsbury, September 29, 2009) and Libba Bray’s GOING BOVINE (Delacorte, September 22, 2009) back to back. Both books are similar in that they blur the line of “reality” and leave the reader wondering what really “happened” and what didn’t. The reason for the gratuitous quotation marks (lest anyone accuse them of being unnecessary) is: this is fiction. Technically, none of it is real.

But even with fiction, the reader tends to assume that most things they read are true. Just like Micah says in LIAR, people expect truth, they need it. They want to believe. Similarly, readers want to believe a narrator, especially a first person one.

That’s what makes an intentionally unreliable narrator like LIAR’s Micah — who revels in the falsehoods she spins, sometimes with (dubious, perhaps) apology, oftentimes without — so challenging and so delicious. In the case of Cameron, from GOING BOVINE, his unreliability isn’t necessarily a choice, seeing as his brain is quickly deteriorating from the variant Creutzfeltd Jakob virus, or mad cow disease. Nonetheless, his view of the world is extremely skewed. Both narrators spend their arcs in the messy gray area between what might be happening in a realistic, linear plot and what they insist is the true story.

Two such similar books — that question truth and reality and how easily these things can be manipulated in a reader’s experience of fiction — coming out in the same month makes me think that we might be entering a new phase of postmodernism in YA literature. These books don’t just tell a story, they comment on the medium of the storytelling, on the life inside the story and outside of it, on reality itself, for both the characters and the reader. Postmodernism, in terms of literary criticism, refers to art that is self-conscious, self-referential. Metafiction, also at play here, means fiction that never lets the reader forget that they’re reading something somebody made up.

I think these books are an important bit of evolution, especially when I consider the young adults who will be reading them. The question of what reality is posed here is apt for teens growing up today, whose reality is augmented by technology, the Internet, social networking and virtual worlds that seem to nestle within each other like stacking dolls, among many other things. Reality has a different flavor, more layers of experience and a faster tempo right now than it ever has before, and YA is changing to reflect this.

Every art form has a moment when it begins to fold in on itself and comment on the established tropes, the form, the function of its ancestry. I think this point has arrived for YA — at least for the rich and extremely meaty incarnation of the genre that has developed into a market powerhouse over the last ten to fifteen years. More so than before, this fall and books like LIAR and GOING BOVINE seem to be leading the charge. I’ll be very curious to see if more and more boundary-bending, metafictional YA starts to emerge. Also, I can’t wait until reactions from teen readers pour in. I want to know whether or not these stories will resonate with a generation that gets more and more postmodern, that seems to press against it like a plane nosing the sound barrier, with every passing every nanosecond.

Rhyming Picture Books: A Rhyme With Reason

There’s a fairly strong consensus out there that some editors are moving away from rhyming picture books right now. One reason for this, as I see it, is that picture books in general are evolving. They’re being acquired by younger editors, they’re being purchased by cooler parents, they’re becoming modern and… if I dare say… maybe even hip. Not all picture books, of course, because lists and houses have room for the traditional, beautiful picture book reminiscent of the good old days of yore. But there’s definitely been innovation, and that’s crucial to remember when you sit down to write yours.

Rhyming picture books — especially those written in rhyming couplets — take us back to more traditional picture book legacy. That’s not bad, per se, but with all the new styles and ideas hitting the shelves, the more traditional is becoming a more difficult sell. Here are some other reasons rhyming picture books are becoming less attractive to some agents and editors:

  1. They’re old hat. See above.
  2. Not everyone can write brilliant rhyme. And, in this market, it has to be brilliant, fresh, unique, imaginative, unexpected… No lazy or conventional rhyme will cut it.
  3. There also has to be a reason for the rhyme. Too many times, I feel like a manuscript’s rhyme is forced or dictates the story… that the author is making decisions based on which words would fit into their scheme, not based on which words would make the best possible storytelling sense.

If you’re considering writing a rhyming picture book, ask yourself this question: Why does it need to rhyme? If you answer: “Because that’s how a picture book goes” or “Because that reminds me of the books I read as a kid/to my children/to my grandchildren,” then that might not be reason enough.

One of the most compelling reasons to rhyme, in my opinion, is if you are an author who relishes playing with the language. It’s also a good thing if the rhyme is an integral part of the story. I read a book a little while ago that blew my mind with its dizzying, sprawling, complicated rhyme. If there was no rhyme in this book, there’d be no book! If you’re up to the challenge of writing truly astounding rhyming picture books in the current climate, definitely add BUBBLE TROUBLE (Clarion, 2009, by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Polly Dunbar) to your bookshelf.

Using “Suddenly” in Creative Writing

Using “suddenly” in creative writing can be a faux pas. There are tons of writing adages out there along the lines of “Show don’t tell” that you’ve no doubt heard your old creative writing schoolmarm repeat hundreds of times.

But unless you know what they’re really saying and what they really mean, though, these cheerful mottoes can’t help you. Today, I want to fire off a quick explanation for why writers generally should stay away from the word “suddenly.”

using "suddenly" in creative writing, writing cliches, writing crutches, writing strong transitions
Suddenly, a wild chameleon appeared!

Using “Suddenly” in Creative Writing Is a Cheap Crutch

“Suddenly” is a crutch. It’s cheap. It’s easy. Lots and lots of writers pepper their manuscripts with it because then they don’t have to worry about writing transitions, describing actions or giving the reader any context. They just slap a “suddenly” on to an event or feeling and voila! It fits!

Except it really doesn’t. A reader’s job is to react and infer and analyze what is going on in a manuscript or book. When we’re faced with “suddenly,” it’s like a power surge. Our system is scrambled. Something suddenly comes on the scene that takes us by surprise, whether it is a plot twist, an action, a feeling or a thought. And that’s fine. We react. We try to understand what the new development means. If it is an emotion, we try to fit that into the character and situation. We do our job.

The problem is, though, that a writer who leans heavily on the “suddenly” crutch usually thinks that “suddenly” is enough. They wallop the character and the reader with something and then move on. We don’t get a reaction from the character, we don’t get the feeling explained, we don’t see a lot of context. The “suddenly” has been used to shoehorn something into the narrative without much regard for how well it fits.

Examples of When “Suddenly” Works and When It Doesn’t

For example:

Suddenly, a big slimy alien burst out from behind the wall.

Reader’s reaction: Jarring, but okay. Hopefully there are aliens elsewhere in this book and this isn’t the first one we see.

A rage overtook her and she suddenly punched him square on the nose.

Reader’s reaction: Whoa! Wait. They were just kissing. Where did that come from? Why?

As you can see, “suddenly” is usually a treasure map of lazy writing. When you come across “suddenly” in your own work, you’ve likely found a section of the narrative where you could’ve given more context, more reasoning, more explanation. Let’s rework one of our examples:

She pulled away from him and looked deeply into his eyes, only to catch him staring blankly at the TV over her shoulder. The rage that overtook her was so intense that she sent a fist flying straight for his nose.

Context Is Key

At least now we understand her rage (even if we think she might be overreacting just a liiiiittle bit). So take a look at your manuscript. Are there any places where “suddenly” is standing in for something that could be expanded, deepened? That could be given some more meaning and context? It’s not the word itself that’s bad, it’s what it does with the reader’s understanding of your work.

If you’re finding crutches and clichés in your manuscript, bring me on as your novel editor. I will give you actionable revision challenges to help you take your work to the next level.

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!

Teenage Perspective Cheat Sheet

One of my favorite parts of SCBWI (where I took no pictures, because I am made of #epicfail, by the way) was Krista Marino’s voice workshop, where we dissected and discussed what an authentic teen voice is. One of the keenest insights came when she invited her author Frank Portman (mastermind behind KING DORK and the forthcoming ANDROMEDA KLEIN) to talk about his songwriting for his band, The Mr. T Experience (better known as MTX).

Now, full disclosure time: Frank Portman didn’t land on my radar with his brilliant YA debut novel, far from it. I was a fan long, long ago. When I was 14-15-16-17, I’d pile into a friend’s ride or drive my junker Ford Taurus up and down the San Francisco Bay Area and go to MTX shows. (There’s a fangirl picture of me with Dr. Frank, in fact, that I tried to find for you guys, where I’m wearing a leopard print coat, a rockabilly dress, an Avril tie, knee socks… all the trappings of good teenage fashion sense, believe you me… It’s probably best that I seem to have misplaced it, on second thought…)

Dr. Frank and Krista made a very good point during the workshop. Writers, remember:

Teens aren’t stupider versions of adults. They’re just as smart, just as emotional, just as perceptive… they’re simply lacking the experience and perspective that most adults get in the process of living more years on the planet.

And, since your character will change over the course of your story, your narrative is just one way they’ll get some different perspective and evolve as people, right? Excellent. In the meantime, as you’re fleshing your characters out, MTX songs make an excellent primer in teen voice and angst.

Have you forgotten how desperate guys are to find a girl, any girl who likes them/wants to talk to them/can stand looking at them? Do you remember the sting of feeling completely alone and invisible to the opposite sex? Listen to the hilarious “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” off of Our Bodies Our Selves.

Have you forgotten the tremendous roller coaster of first love? The ups and downs and the dizzy compulsion to make it work despite any and all common sense? Try “Who Needs Happiness (I’d Rather Have You)” from Revenge Is Sweet, And So Are You on for size.

Do you remember the ecstasy of finding the one person who understands you? The relief of discovering an oasis amidst the torture of high school? Listen to “Thank You (For Not Being One of Them)” off of Love is Dead.

If you think your voice is lacking authenticity, if your teen emotions aren’t ringing true, do yourself a favor and pick up a couple of Mr. T Experience albums. And yes, this is extremely, extremely gratifying for my 16 year-old inner fangirl. Who knew my nerdy MTX fandom would pay off career-wise? You can check out their record label’s minisite by clicking here. You can also check out Dr. Frank’s website.

How to Write a Query Letter

There are a lot of “how to write a query letter” articles out there about what not to do. A lot. And I’m going to write some here in short order. But this is a different article. An article on how to do a query right, just so you can see my philosophy on queries.

writing a query letter, fiction query letter, query letter editor, children's book query letter
Writing a query letter that’s simple and compelling is an art form.

How to Start a Query Letter

It’s simple, really:

Make me care.

Cut out the cutesy jokes, the rhetorical questions, the extraneous subplots, the superfluous biographical details and get to the heart of your story.

Start simply, without a lot of throat-clearing, and get to the point:

Dear Name,

I’m writing to you because you represented BOOK/because I saw you at CONFERENCE/because I like your philosophy of WHATEVER. I’ve got a complete manuscript I want to tell you about: MY BOOK, a WORD COUNT – length novel for AGE GROUP.

So far, so good. Personalize the query to the agent and then give them the bare bones details of what your project is.

The Key to Writing a Fiction Query Letter

Now we get the meat. The meat is a longer paragraph (or two shorter paragraphs) that creatively presents the answers to the following questions:

  • WHO is your character?
  • WHAT is the strange thing going on in their life that throws them off their equilibrium and launches the story?
  • WHAT (or who) do they want most in the world?
  • WHO (or what) is the main character’s ally?
  • WHO (or what) is in the way of them getting what they want most in the world (their obstacle)?
  • WHAT is at stake if they don’t get what they want?

The above questions are essential to a complete story. They are, in effect, designed to get you thinking about the most important elements of your book. The funny thing is, when I read the answers to these questions, I start to care about the character! I start wishing I could read the whole story!

Unfortunately, you can’t just present the above information in Q&A format. These are the questions you’ll have to answer in prose, in a maximum of two paragraphs, in a style that tells the agent something about you, your book and your voice. Yes. It is moderately difficult to do. But now you’ve got tons of ideas for how to pull it off and what the meat of your query should include.

How to Finish a Query Letter

Then, you’ll finish your query with:

  1. Some brief biographical information. Things that are relevant: if your life has somehow inspired something in your novel, like you’re writing about a kid who’s obsessed with physics and you happen to be a physicist, also mention previous publication credits, advanced degrees like an MFA or anything else that is applicable to writing, etc. Things that are not relevant: how many cats you have, that your kids loved this book when they read it, how great the weather/food/backpacking is in your neck of the woods.
  2. A cordial invitation to request the full manuscript.
  3. Your signature and contact information.

Voila! Now you have a query letter that hits the very heart of your story, doesn’t waste any space and makes the agent or editor reading it care about the character and the character’s journey.

This is by no means the only way to write a query letter, but it does cut to the chase rather simply and brilliantly, doesn’t it?

Need a query letter editor? I’ve seen tens of thousands of queries, and I can help yours stand out in the slush pile.