Commercial

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Here is a question from Royce:

Is there any niche demand for stories for young-adult male readers? Most of the agent profiles and marketplace news indicate demand for Distopian, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, etc., and most of the published books seems to appeal to teen girls.

I don’t want to open a can of worms. So before I begin, let me say that there is The Way I Wish It Was, and The Way It Really Is, and What People Are Willing to Do to Bridge the Gap.

The Way I Wish It Was: Boys reading voraciously into their later teens, publishers publishing robust lists for these readers, teachers, booksellers, librarians, agents, and editors really excited about the market segment.

The Way It Really Is: There is not a robust market for YA contemporary realism, per se, compared to fantasy genres, and the market for a YA boy audience is dreadful because most boys in that age group have either stopped reading altogether in middle school or they’re up in adult fiction that they discovered around age 12 or 13. Books marketed directly to teen boys don’t tend to do well and the YA section of the bookstore is so thoroughly steeped in paranormal romance and purple faces with female faces on them that I’d avoid it, too, if I was a self-respecting dude with money to burn from my first pizza delivery job.

While we all want to work hard to change that, that’s the reality right now, as I see it from many discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues. Unless yours is a boy character who appeals first and foremost to girl readers (John Green’s work), you will have a tougher time, as girls are the overwhelming audience in this age group. One of my upcoming books, THROUGH TO YOU by Emily Hainsworth, features Cam, a boy protagonist who goes across parallel universes in the hopes of getting his girlfriend back. He’s a dude, and he’s the narrator, but the premise is thoroughly romantic and so will attract a lot of girl readers.

If he was on a quest for, say, a cache of lost movies by a legendary horror movie director or a really awesome video game, I don’t think it would’ve sold because its market share with female YA readers would’ve evaporated.

What People Are Willing to Do to Bridge the Gap: Not terribly much in terms of actual action. There’s a lot of talking and blogging on the subject, though. But publishing is a business and, unless the YA boy-book-intended-primarily-for-boy-readers segment of the market starts taking off like, say, fallen angel romances, I don’t know how many editors will be able to put their houses’ money where their mouths are. (Or, if they do publish a good boy YA list, how often they will be able to add to it.)

There are great, great, great books that deserve boy reader attention. FEED by M.T. Anderson. The work of Steve Brezenoff, Barry Lyga, A.S. King, Ilsa J. Bick, Andrew Smith, and more. But either we’ve lost some faith in attracting these readers or the market really isn’t there. For now, all I know is that a boy-targeted YA feels like a really tough sell.

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Evergreen reader and blog favorite, Siski, asked me, a long time ago:

Would you turn down a story you loved but knew wouldn’t be an easy sell? I’m imagining something literary that for whatever reason didn’t suit the market at this time…

Siski really knows how to stick it to the ol’ Kole-ster. (Yes, I really did just call myself that. It’s early. Leave me alone.) This is a great question and one I wrestle with all the time. It also illustrates how I’ve grown in my thinking as an agent. Unfortunately, I haven’t grown in the direction that some writers will want to hear.

Here’s a great qualification for someone looking to get into the agenting business: must love books. But a qualification to stay in the agenting business is that they must sell books, too. I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive, by any means. I obviously need to love, very deeply, all the books I sell. However, it’s the selling part that matters undeniably in today’s marketplace, and I don’t plan to look for another job anytime soon, so I have to build my list accordingly.

Early in my agenting days (and it’s still relatively early, mind), I took on some projects that did tend toward the literary, the quiet, the beautiful. And I’m not going to lie when I say that some of them have turned out to be tough sells. I’ll sidestep a discussion on selling out and how the whole high-concept “commercial” book world is a travesty and what havoc it’s wreaking on the literature-starved youth of tomorrow and all that blah blah blah here and just mention that I am majorly bummed that these fine, beloved manuscripts of mine are still looking for a publishing home. Enough said. The undeniable fact, though, is that it is easier to sell something with a commercial, high-concept premise than something that’s a review-driven award contender or a school and library market darling these days.

Two things. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to sell what I already have that’s in this vein. My love for those books is unwavering. And that doesn’t mean I’ll lower my literary/writing quality standards for the lure of the commercial money-grab. But I do have to think about the sales pitch and market viability as I’m falling for a story. That aspect weighs heavily on my mind as I’m deciding which projects to represent. These days, sales potential is probably the number one thing that separates a beautifully written near miss from a client on my list. So, to answer Siski’s tough question, if I didn’t think I could sell something I loved, I would probably pass and ask to see the writer’s next book. Love can’t be the only consideration anymore.

That’s not a bad thing at all. What would you like? An agent who gushes over your book as it sits unsold? Or an agent who gushes over your book and then sells it, makes your dreams come true, and turns you into a soon-to-be published author? Sorry to be so callous, especially with Valentine’s Day around the corner, but I think you’d best be served by the latter, and that’s who I want to be for my clients.

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This clever question comes from rifferaff, in the comments:

I have a theory, based on the many writer blogs and forums I read, that when agents offer representation, they usually do so quickly, usually within two weeks, but often days. Is there any truth to this? Would you hold onto a full for 2 to 3 months and still offer representation? Or if you’re offering representation do you usually do it as soon as possible?

I can see why a lot of writers would think this. Blogs and forums are full of sexy stories: “My agent offered representation the same day!” or “An editor read it overnight and pre-empted with a huge deal!” It’s a little less exciting to get on your blog or a public forum and be like “I heard absolutely nothing for six weeks, turned myself into a basket case, and then my agent offered representation, but by that point I was locked away in the attic, murmuring to myself, and my husband had to coax me out with a bottle of wine!”

I’m exaggerating, of course, but there’s a reason why the stories shouted the loudest on the Internet are some of the more impressive ones. A long wait and lots of daunting silence — which is often what happens with writers who end up with representation — just doesn’t make a good headline.

While it’s true that agents who spot a really hot premise or really great writing in their submissions pile will be compelled to read quickly, and those really big-sounding projects will most likely have multiple offers of representation, also quickly, that’s not the only way that writers get representation. (I’ve noticed a lot more of this happening recently, with everyone pouncing on the most commercial projects, and wrote about it here.)

It’s not like we “hold onto” a project for two or three months, actively considering it. Sometimes forces outside our control or an overwhelming submissions pile keep us from reading full requests that we’re genuinely excited about. Sometimes a writer will get another offer, which usually shoots that manuscript to the top of my To Read pile. Sometimes, though, nobody else has expressed interest and the manuscript just waits in line until I can read it and give it the consideration it deserves. Unfortunately, it could be months before this happens.

When offering representation, I’ve gotten my clients by offering the next day, by winning contests where a lot of agents were interested, and also by offering in a few weeks or a few months after the initial submission. I’ve also offered representation and gotten a client whose previous manuscript I’d rejected, and then had them come to me with a new, stronger project.

Every writer will have a different experience. If you have a knockout commercial idea–and you’ll usually know it–expect things to happen quickly. But don’t despair if they don’t. It is perfectly fine, and more common, in fact, to wait. The worst thing you can possibly do when you’re out on submission to agents — and I tell this to my clients who are out on submission to editors — is to start reading into every little thing. Sometimes, wait times and rejection letters and communications with agents or editors are laden with meaning. Other times, they’re just a natural part of the process.

While out on submission, I would highly encourage you to start working on your next project, even if it’s just an idea brainstorm or an outline. This will be a much better use of your time. And I can only hope that you don’t have long to wait, but if you do, that’s fine, too.

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I got some great questions while I was away. This one comes from UK reader Adele:

I recently heard someone on the radio ask a famous business entrepreneur (James Caan from the UK version of Dragon’s Den), “What is more important: the idea, or the execution?” His response was that, in business, ideas were a dime a dozen but the execution of the idea was the deciding factor in whether it would turn into a business or not. So when it comes to a book – what is more important, the idea or the execution?

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and I’m so glad Adele landed in my inbox to give me a great launching pad (or, you know, soapbox, if you will).

Books are all about execution. I could pitch editors fantastic, high-concept ideas until their ears bled, but if the actual manuscript didn’t live up to the promise of the great idea, none of my enthusiastic, great-idea-but-don’t-read-it-just-trust-me-that-it-rocks manuscripts would result in a sale. Because the idea is just the first step in a long writing journey.

In my experience of writers (and my own experience as a writer), there are often idea people and then there are execution people. I’m an execution person. The few times I’ve had idea manuscripts, I didn’t execute them as well as I could’ve. Some writers have both fantastic, commercial ideas and then know how to take them to the next level in terms of writing and storytelling (execution). Those are the writers I want to work with.

If a writer came to me and pitched me the idea of, “A group of kids locked in a death match, playing as the political pawns of a crumbling country,” I would be electrified to see it. But would it be done as well as THE HUNGER GAMES? I’m sure there have been similar ideas written and pitched in the world, but most of them remain in drawers and on hard drives because Suzanne Collins took this dynamite, dystopic idea and really gave us a world to immerse ourselves in, characters to care about, and unbelievably high stakes, written like an action-packed thriller.

That’s why I always ask to see writing when I hear a pitch. Many ideas sound fantastic when pitched to me at conferences. But that’s just the idea. How is the actual writing, the execution? I can’t decide anything until I read the manuscript.

In stark contrast to this, I’ve heard that a lot of people in Hollywood don’t read (this is not an insult, Hollywood people themselves always seem to brag about this). They’re all about ideas. Pitches fly around the room and the ones that sound the most awesome are frequently the ones that turn into fast-tracked blockbuster action flicks that have a great premise, but usually aren’t nearly as satisfying as the movie that bloomed in your head after you heard the idea. Why did the movie Snakes on a Plane get made? Not because of its brilliant art house execution, let me tell you (which still didn’t stop me from going to the midnight showing…ahem). It was because Samuel Jackson heard the title (which implies the idea of the movie) and, without reading it, greenlighted the project.

Not so in books. In your writing, you should strive to have the kind of idea that would make a Hollywood board room sit up and take notice, but you also have to deliver on the promise of the premise and write a killer book. Would THE HUNGER GAMES have ridden on the coattails of its great premise to the kind of worldwide success it has enjoyed if the writing had been flat, the pacing slow, and the suspense mild? No. So you can’t rest on the laurels of a great idea, either. You have to deliver the execution.

This is why I still find people who think agents will steal their ideas to be misguided. Ideas are a dime a dozen. If ideas were all that mattered, I’d probably make a nice living off of stealing other people’s ideas and selling them for a lot of money. But the ideas aren’t the hard part. It’s the execution. When I read slush, my biggest complaint is, “What a great idea, I wish they’d made it work.” So to make any money as a plagiarist, I’d have to spend years of my life stealing great ideas and then coming up with my own execution for them since the original writer couldn’t. That kind of labor-intensive theft suddenly starts to look a lot less likely.

I will leave you with one more example of this point: ever since humans realized they were earthbound, they’ve wanted to fly. Drawings for flying machines can be found in Leonardo da Vinci’s journals, and I’m sure he wasn’t the first to have that particular lightbulb flare on. But it took a very long time for people to come across the right execution, and even longer to make that execution commercially viable and safe for constant use (and, I hope, snake-free). So what would you rather trust your life to? Leonardo da Vinci’s great idea for a flying machine? Or an airplane as executed today?

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Reader Melissa asked this a few weeks ago and it’s one of my pet issues in YA. I talk to a few of my clients about this, and to anyone that asks, really, because it is a mystery, a frustration, a conundrum:

I am hoping you can answer a question for me. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about boy MC’s (YA) being a hard sell, yet many agents request boy books on their websites/blogs. Are boy MC’s a hard sell? My current involves a boy MC but with a romantic element to the story. Is this the same topic or are these two different types of books? To me, it would seem that boy MC books directed at boys alone are very different than boy MC books that have the romantic element so desirable to girls.

When people request “boy books,” I find that they’re more often talking about MG, where boy readers are still more active. In YA, boy readers are almost extinct. They have a) stopped reading or b) moved on to adult sci-fi/thriller/fantasy, etc. In MG, adventure and mystery and especially boy/girl teams of siblings or friends are doing well in the marketplace right now, so editors are looking to add those types of stories to their lists.

Not so much in YA. When I’ve gone on submission with boy YA and boy main characters in YA, I have literally heard from editors, “Oh, we’ve already filled our slot.” That’s right. A single slot. Some houses usually do one or two boy-centric YA books per season and that’s it. Because that’s not where the readers are, unfortunately. As much as editors would like to change the reality of older boys not reading, most have found that putting more and more books out there for them doesn’t necessarily move the needle.

One way that writers with boy MCs in YA can be successful is if they take lots of girl appeal, as Melissa says, and apply liberally. John Green is a really successful test case. He writes boy MCs that girl readers want to date, simple as that. His boy protagonists are quirky, nerdy, in love with a girl, and chasing her with such passion that boys can relate, sure, but girl readers swoon.

Girl readers can easily see themselves in the role of that girl, and they want the geeky, cute, dedicated boyfriend type that populates John’s pages, even if he is a loner or flawed or otherwise damaged. Girls love a good fixer-upper in some cases, not just the blazing-hot romantic hero. Vulnerable boys, not just sparkly ones, really do appeal.

So I think Melissa’s on the right track with the romance element. More than 80% of your readers, even with a male MC or a mixed-gender or gender-neutral tale, will be girls. Give them lots to dig into. And a guy they can dig. Give the boy readers good stuff, too, and a character to relate to who’s not a total girl-pleaser, but know that your core audience will most likely be girls. And if you’re planning a book that’s totally boy-centric, it will be a harder push to get it on publisher’s lists, unless it is just really appealing and awesome for teen boys and you nail the demographic well.

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I’d like to preface this post by repeating that I’m not trying to stifle your creative genius. I’m really not. But, as I’ve said before, you should probably learn the rules before you break them. At no time is this more true than when you’re trying to decide what age range you’re writing for. I’m going through some submissions right now and the writers seem to be confused. This happens a lot and it just means one thing: you haven’t done your market research.

For example, and this is from my own imagination, not a recent submission: what do I do with a 5,000 word fiction picture book about world politics? Or a 5,000 word middle grade about a baby puppy who goes on a naptime adventure? Or a 300,000 word YA starring a talking salmon? Maybe a 10,000 word YA about a character’s messy divorce?

If all of those examples weren’t immediately funny to you, you need this post. When I speak at conferences, I tell people all the time that booksellers will not build you your own shelf at their stores just because you want to do something different.

Take picture books as a fine example. Most editors are very specific about what they want these days (and, frustrating yet liberating, there are always exceptions to the rules, but don’t aspire to be one of them right out of the gate). They want highly commercial character-driven (but with plot!) picture books that clock in on the short side, usually under 700 words for fiction.

How do I know this? I talk to editors all the time.

But how might you, if you weren’t a) me, b) reading this blog or c) talking to lots of editors, know this, too?

Go to the bookstore. Head to your local indie or chain store and see what’s on the shelves. Don’t worry about muddying your artistic integrity by looking at other books in the same vein as yours. (I’ll have to post on this, I have lots of thoughts as both a writer and agent and they’re pulling me in separate directions!) You’re just doing market research right now. What do you see? I’m guessing you’ll see a lot of commercial, character-driven (with plot!) picture books that are on the short side.

That’s what publishers are buying from creators and that’s what bookstores are buying from publishers and that’s (ideally) what customers are buying from bookstores. That’s the market.

So if you can tell your story in a highly commercial way (know that this is subjective), base it on a strong character and plot, and in 700 words or fewer, why tell it another way? Why try and write a 5,000-word international political drama and call it a picture book? Why write “YA” about an adult character? Why try a 5,000 word “novella” when the MG books on shelves are between 25,000 and 55,000 words?

The children’s market is unique in that the audience is on a pretty structured developmental scale. Sure, there are 4 year-olds who are reading (or being read) Neil Gaiman, like my friend’s kid (bizarre and perhaps inappropriate but she seems to love it). And there are reluctant readers who are constantly frustrated because the books they can read are all about younger characters. But, at least in theory, kids develop on a scale so their books need to have certain lengths, content requirements and vocabulary levels. Not only is there not much precedent for a sociopolitical 5,000 word picture book on shelves in the bookstore, but there’s no audience for it in terms of the target picture book readership (3-5, 5-7). Same for the 10,000 YA with an adult protagonist or the anthropomorphic epic or the short MG about a baby animal.

When you sit down to write, be super clear about what you’re setting out to do. Check out my post on manuscript length. Make sure your manuscript fits guidelines for the age range that you’re targeting. Make sure your protagonist is someone who people in that age range would care about. Make sure your subject matter is equally interesting. You won’t find practical concerns like these in the adult world, but you will find heaps of them when you’re writing for children, just because children are always in flux.

If you feel a bit clueless about what you’re writing and what category it fits into, spend an afternoon at a bookstore. Seriously. It could be the most valuable three hours you ever spend and it will teach you more about the market than I ever could. There’s just no excuse for me to be seeing some of the submissions that people cook up. And I wouldn’t be seeing them, guaranteed, if some authors didn’t take the time to learn their category, embrace it, and write within it. Why? Because that’s what editors are buying. Because that’s what bookstores are buying. Because that’s what readers are buying. It’s really very simple.

P.S. — Yes, my punk rock teenage self would rail against this recommendation to stay inside the lines, category-wise. But I figure that getting published is hard enough. Why stack the odds against you by turning out that 5,000-word PB or that adult protagonist YA?

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I’ve gotten some interesting questions from readers lately, so I’m going to post my answers here, so all readers can see. The first is from Jeni:

Am wondering if you think the world of children’s books is getting more conservative? Are publishers taking less risks? Are authors being positioned so that they have to play it safe?

Publishers are still taking risks, but the risks they’re taking will be based on story rather than a writer’s raw talent, I find. Publishers are much more willing to try a brilliant book about a strange subject, unheard-of paranormal creature, situation, or whatever (like Libba Bray’s GOING BOVINE (read my review), a book about a crazy mad cow disease road trip, but executed with ridiculous genius, which went on to win the Printz), than to take a risk on a book that’s good but a hot mess by a writer whose craft they’ll need to develop in the editing process.

That’s why it’s so much more important, now than ever before, to have impeccable craft, breathtaking storytelling skills, and a marketable idea. Publishers are still taking risks… but they’re smarter risks, and they’re risking on more quality material than they might’ve been before. They’re also buying things that scream “commercial” or things that fit the trends as they see them. And those are the two main drivers of acquisitions decisions today.

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It has happened many times that I get a great story, full of believable characters, with good voice, and one that’s well-written. Sometimes I jump all over it and offer representation. Other times, though, I hesitate. These end up being the most difficult decisions for me. Why do I hesitate? Because this is the thought in my head: I really like this, but can I sell it?

In other words: Is there a larger market for this? What do I think? Will publishing houses agree with me and buy this?

And this is a very difficult thing to say for sure. TWILIGHT was rejected by a dozen or so agents because, I bet, most people didn’t see a market for teen vampire romance. They were wrong. Very wrong. In order to keep up on trends, I talk to editors and read publisher catalogs, follow publisher and librarian blogs, read industry publications, go to trade shows, the whole shebang. I also stop into every book vendor I see (from the neighborhood indie to big box stores to the airport) to browse and see what books are on the shelves there (what books that store is selling and keeping in stock because that store sees demand for those books). I see what queries I’m getting in and listen to rumors about the next big thing. Even with all this research, I don’t know everything that will succeed in the marketplace. Some books that I’m sure will sell, don’t. Other books that I’m iffy on, go to auction.

The most I have is an educated guess, a passion for the project and a gut feeling. It’s persuasive but not guaranteed. That’s what makes passing on a good manuscript a very difficult decision. Even if I love it, there’s still a voice in the back of my head: “Can I sell this project? Is there a market for it?” When my gut and my market knowledge tells me “no,” I tend to waffle and put the rejection off anyway. Because it is — technically — a good book, and I don’t want to let a talented writer go. But it’s that last detail of selling it to a publisher and eventually getting it into the hands of readers (you know, my job) that prevents me from taking on every single good book that comes into my inbox.

The great thing is, there are many agents with many different sensibilities. There are the types of (sad) agents who passed on TWILIGHT because they didn’t think they could sell it. Then there’s the one who took it on and is very much enjoying that decision. When I see a good book but decide that I can’t personally see a way to pitch it or imagine which editors will love it and buy it, there’s another agent out there who probably can.

It really does come down to that with the most difficult rejections I make. At those higher levels, the deciding factor is the fit and the passion. The projects I end up taking on are those that I’m 100% passionate about and think I can sell to publishers. A writer deserves nothing less from their representation. If I reject a great project, it’s usually because I’m not feeling confident and creative about the selling part. Someone else, though, might feel completely differently.

Now, that’s not to say that I’m hot to reject the next TWILIGHT. If anyone has that kicking around, please do send. :)

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I read a lot of books in my line of work. Most of them are unpublished, sure, but I still have to make time to keep up with the market. I read tons of ARCs (Advance Reader or Review Copies, sent by publishers to reviewers, bookstores and librarians before the book’s release date… I get them through bookseller friends or at industry events) and already-published books. I used to do a lot more in terms of book reviews on here, but now I think I’ll put together lists of my recent favorites a few times a year. In the spirit of Christmas, here’s a quick and dirty last-minute Holiday Gift Guide with recommendations for some things I’ve read lately and loved.

Support the industry you want to work in by buying two copies of each of these… one for the favorite teen in your life and one as research for yourself, the writer!

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flashburnoutcoverFLASH BURNOUT
by L.K. Madigan
Young Adult (336 pages). Houghton Mifflin, 2009.
ISBN: 978-0547194899

For Readers: You don’t need lil’ old me to recommend this book to you. It is a PW Flying Start, a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award and beloved by everyone. But I will anyway, because it is just that good. You will love Blake’s voice. The main character manages to be hilarious and poignant from one moment to the next, a feat that’s not easy to pull off. Author L.K. Madigan has crafted a story where you’ll be frequently put-off by Blake and his choices, but you’ll be rooting for him anyway, all while laughing your ass off. There are some sexual situations, so this might be a good fit for the older teen set.

For Writers: This is what I mean when I say “voice.” A lot of you are still confused on that subject, or you want to see it in action. Just read this.

buckfeverBUCK FEVER
by Cynthia Chapman Willis
Middle Grade (240 pages). Feiwel & Friends, 2009.
ISBN: 978-0312382971

For Readers: I feel like I have to include BUCK FEVER here because I don’t usually cover a lot of MG and I don’t usually cover a lot of boy MG especially. This book features an unlikely hero, a boy who isn’t one of those self-conscious nerd geniuses like the character in FOOD, GIRLS, AND OTHER THINGS I CAN’T HAVE (Read my review). He’s sensitive and shy and genuinely wants to make a difference in his world and to belong to his family, neither of which he’s been able to do very well so far. A sensitively-written novel that’ll appeal to both girls and boys, this MG pits its hero against a really big moral choice… and, in my opinion, that’s the heart and essence of middle-grade right there.

For Writers: If you’re writing more literary or more old-fashioned middle-grade, pick up BUCK FEVER because it puts to bed the myth that these kinds of books have to be slow and boring. There’s a lot going on and the pacing moves briskly. There’s also a great mix here of internal conflict, of the main character and his struggles to define himself and to live up to his father’s expectations, and external conflict, with a local hunting family and the deer that he’s supposed to kill. Yes, it’s a hunting book, and that will turn some people off, but it’s still worth a study.

timothydragonTIMOTHY AND THE DRAGON’S GATE
by Adrienne Kress
Middle Grade (368 pages). Weinstein Books, 2009.
ISBN: 978-1602861091

For Readers: Hilarious hijinks ensue in Adrienne Kress’ second book. Middle-grade readers who want just the right touch of whimsy and don’t want to dip their feet into wizards and dragons will love the author’s unique take on fantasy/adventure. This will appeal to both boys and girls — a rare feat — and will leave readers clamoring for more. Good thing they’ll find it in Kress’ debut ALEX AND THE IRONIC GENTLEMAN, which shares characters and plot with the follow-up. Well worth a read!

For Writers: This is another example of great voice. Kress’ work is a study in the self-conscious narrator. What do I mean by that? It’s a narrator who is very much a part of the story him- or herself. They break the fourth wall, make asides to the reader and otherwise participate. The narrator’s voice colors everything. Kress’ books are also great middle-grade adventure novels with pirates, theatre, quirks galore. They’re over-the-top and they’re romps but there’s also some serious craftsmanship going on. This style worked very well for Lemony Snicket and, if you want another hidden gem example, definitely pick up TIMOTHY.

goodbyerobotHOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT
by Natalie Standiford
Young Adult (288 pages). Scholastic Press, 2009.
ISBN: 978-0545107082

For Readers: I have made no secret of my burning love for this book. It slays me. If I had read it in my incarnation as a geeky, profoundly introspective 15- or 16-year-old, it would’ve changed my life. I think it has pretty much done that anyway. This book is truly for those special readers: the observers, the quirk-ridden, the deep thinkers, the lonely hearts, the painfully awkward. And that’s an amazing thing. I think this simultaneously heart-warming and heartbreaking story is one that will reach out of the pages and grab its readers, never to let them go.

For Writers: “Quirky” is such a cheap word now. Too many people think they have what it takes to write a truly quirky character and instead they emerge with a mish-mash of incomprehensible traits that don’t make a fleshed-out person. Natalie Standiford has created characters who are almost too real. Their interests, their passions, their needs are achingly authentic. They are truly quirky, without being cute or contrived about it. And they don’t harp on their quirks or their loneliness, like most other characters do. I don’t know exactly what lesson a writer can take from this book. I’ve taken so many, over several rereadings, that I really do urge you all to just read it and discover it for yourself.

gothgirlGOTH GIRL RISING
by Barry Lyga
Young Adult (400 pages). Houghton Mifflin, 2009.
ISBN: 978-0547076645

For Readers: Kyra won’t be for everyone, but those who read her and resonate with her will carry her voice and her story for a very long time. Lyga’s angsty, fully-formed character has been waiting for a chance to tell her story and I can’t imagine a better one to showcase her side of things. Despite some very difficult and emotional moments throughout, the ending resonates will a rare, well-earned hope.

For Writers: Barry Lyga is a guy. But he writes an edgy teen girl with all the skill and conviction in the world. Many writers ask me if it’s okay to step so far outside yourself to find a character’s voice. Guy writers, especially, worry that they won’t get credibility writing from a girl’s POV. And I think that’s a valid concern, especially for men writing a first-person woman (I think women writing from a guy’s POV have it slightly easier in terms of criticism, as did L.K. Madigan in FLASH BURNOUT, above, but that’s another bucket of fish). If you are finding your current first-person protagonist is a stretch for you, pick up GOTH GIRL RISING and see how seamlessly the writer a) maintains the writing voice he’s well-known for, and b) slips on a whole new skin.

***

And for the love of goats, go buy these at your local independent bookstore or online at IndieBound.org.

For other books that I have loved this year, click on the “Highly Recommended” tag in my blog sidebar. You’ll see things I’ve reviewed and loved from earlier.

Disclosures: This list includes friends as well as ABLit clients. Books have either been purchased by me, obtained at BEA, passed along from friends, or sent to me by the author in ARC form.

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When I give advice and say that a manuscript has to be amazing to get published, this is the first thing people usually say. Believe me, I’ve let myself think this plenty of times, usually when a fantastic manuscript from one of my clients gets rejected. (Yes, agents get rejected… We submit manuscripts to editors and they reject our submissions, too…)

But the simple fact of the matter is, there’s no accounting for taste. And there are a lot of readers out there. Publishers have to cater to specific audiences and specific interests. If a paranormal NASCAR romance novel isn’t for you, it very well could be for plenty of other people (in fact, the sad truth is, it’ll probably find more readers than your achingly beautiful literary masterpiece, but such is life). That doesn’t make the paranormal NASCAR romance crappy. It just means you have standards. (Just kidding!) And if the writing on a bestselling vampire series, let’s just say, cough, isn’t up to snuff, that’s probably because the idea was so commercial that it came first and the literary nature of the writing came second.

There’s a time for writers to be very aware of the marketplace. It’s when they’re reading analytically or researching comparative titles or getting to know what’s getting published today and what the trends are. There are other times, though, when a writer needs to shut the marketplace out, stop comparing themselves to other books and writers (many of who are more successful, simply because they’re further along in their careers… by the same token, though, all the pitfalls and struggles they’ve had aren’t exactly written on their cover flaps for all to read, so you never know) and focus on the work of writing. Because let’s face it, “But so many crappy things get published!” is a refrain for the bitter. It’s usually uttered after a rejection or a critique. And who wants to be bitter?

If you follow the logic of “But so many crappy things get published!” then… you’re saying that you want someone to publish your crappy thing? Because that’s what it sounds like: I know my manuscript needs work but so many crappy things get published so someone just publish this hot mess already so I can get the book deal and the millions of dollars and wah wah wah!!! Why would you want to publish something for the lowest common denominator? Just having a publicaton credit won’t change your life. Then you’ll have a book out — a crappy book, by your own admission — and you’ll have to worry about sales numbers. And if your first — crappy, let me remind you — book doesn’t sell, you won’t be able to interest anyone in a second one that might be better quality (the one you should’ve waited for and published first).

So stop getting impatient, stop chasing publication for publication’s sake, stop looking around and getting bitter, and produce the best, most polished, most anti-crappy manuscript you possibly can. How’s that for writing advice?

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