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Debut Novelist

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Wonderful agent Kristin Nelson took on an interesting topic a few months ago on her blog. She talked about feeling like some of her recent offers of representation have felt more like entries into a bidding war. I’ve felt the same way, as I mentioned in a post last week. The last six months, when I’ve offered rep, the author almost always already had other interest or got other interest after my offer. (I read very quickly when I’m interested and tend to be the first to offer. This is sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing.) Most of the contests I’ve been involved in have been me and two, three, sometimes even five or six other agents. All fighting for the same happy-but-overwhelmed author.

Sounds like a dream scenario, right? Well, not for the agent, obviously, but not for the author, either. They’re stuck making a very important business decision between people who all love their book, who are all good at their jobs, and who are all trying to be persuasive. It’s stressful (I say that having been on the writer end of this situation myself in the past, with six offers blurring on the table in front of me).

I’ve been in this situation a handful times in the last six months or so. I recently saw two of the books I’d offered on announced as sales in Publisher’s Marketplace, under other agents’ names. I was happy for the authors and I love the books, obviously, but gosh darn, I sure wish I could’ve been the happy agent listing those deals. I’m not whining about losing out on these manuscripts at all, and it’s not sour grapes. The author went with the best fit for them and that, at the end of the day, is the best possible thing for everyone involved. The clients I get and the books I sell all happen for a reason. And I do genuinely mean it when I tell the authors who go elsewhere that I look forward to reading about a huge sale in PM.

But for me, there are other issues at play here, other than, “Gee, I wish I’d gotten that one!” Being the first to offer (usually) and being myself and losing makes me wonder what types of things the other agents are saying that tip the scales in their favor. The last thing I want to do is to disparage any of my brilliant and hard-working agent colleagues, at my agency and outside of it. But there are different agenting styles, and I wonder if my particular agenting style isn’t serving me in this regard. Follow my train of thought a moment…

I pride myself on being a very realistic person. In my line of work, I do a lot of “managing expectations” and I practice a lot of cautious optimism. Lots of writers think they have the next HARRY POTTER meets TWILIGHT on their hard drives. Runaway bestsellers like that are very rare, and they can’t be manufactured. Of course I want all of my clients to do well and to make a living at their writing. And I’d love a runaway bestseller (who wouldn’t!). But I’m also realistic (some might say skeptical).

When I offer representation, I don’t make big promises. Of course I love the book. And of course I think I can sell it to a great editor. And of course I’m an editorial agent with ideas for how the manuscript could be even stronger. Otherwise, I would have no business offering representation. It isn’t my job to gush over a book or tell the author how brilliant they are (though I often do). It’s my job to sell that book. So if I think I can do my job, I offer representation. But I also caution the writer that there are no guarantees. And that agents aren’t a magic bullet. Besides, I offer for the long term. I’d love to sell the first book but, if it doesn’t happen to sell, I know there will be another manuscript, or another, to try with. I’m a very longview type of person, which plays into my agenting style.

What I don’t do is offer the author any sure bets, tantalizing dreams of big sales or tasty foreign rights possibilities. “This’ll be a movie, dahling, starring Robert Pattison. I’m already casting it in my head!” is a very LA way to go about the whole agent stereotype (sorry, LA!), and it’s really not my style. I obviously want all of that and more for my clients but I wouldn’t talk big and promise even bigger. I’m much less “wining and dining” and much more “let’s work together to create something irresistible to editors.”

There’s also, of course, the issue of track record. I’m a newer agent. I have six sales listed on Publisher’s Marketplace. Though that’s not a comprehensive view of my sales, that’s the only thing writers can check. The first books I sold won’t be out for another nine months or so. I don’t have years of track record or bestseller clients to woo with… yet. And I’m very conscious that in a “beauty contest” (as we call these competitive situations), these things really do weigh in. (See my pro’s and con’s of newer vs. more established agents post for more on this.)

What’s the reason for this recent trend of multiple offers, then? Or for those times when it didn’t go my way? (Luckily, I’ve offered and won many, many more times than this, and I’m thrilled for the clients I do have.) I don’t know. But I’m really curious. As the comments on Kristin’s post mention, it could be an issue of agents hopping on the bandwagon when they hear about an offer. I have to admit, when someone comes to me and says they have an offer of representation, my interest is definitely piqued and I read fast to see if I want to throw my hat into the ring. I want a chance at the fantastic manuscript, too! But it seems like every offer has competition these days. I wonder why that is and, I have to admit, I’d love to be a fly on the wall and see how other agents are offering representation.

What would you all prefer in your offer of representation (other than, you know, getting that offer in the first place)? Big, exciting promises or my preferred brand of “cautious optimism”? Is the offer phone call the time to really rip out all the stops and get the writer hyped up or is it a frank chat about the business, the market, and how this manuscript will into the big picture?

This whole issue is fascinating! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Here’s a quickie but a goodie, since there are lots and lots of magazines, small presses, contests and other opportunities for publication out there. Cara asks:

Would getting a book or two published with a small press such as a religious press hurt your chances in getting an agent?

Getting published with a small press won’t hurt your chances at getting an agent, as long as it’s not a small press that you, yourself, founded to be your self-publishing or vanity project. It won’t necessarily increase your chances, though, either, because some small presses have looser quality controls than the larger publishers do, and a published book from one of them might sometimes hold less clout than a book from the Big Six. But everybody starts somewhere, and not only are small presses accessible to beginning writers, they also provide opportunities and take unagented submissions.

The above advice holds true for magazines and contests, too. Unless you’ve been published in a really, really prestigious magazine or have won a really prestigious contest (magazines that come to mind: Highlights, Cricket, any glossy available on national newsstands; literary magazines that impress: Glimmertrain, Paris Review, Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker; contests that are good to win: anything held by one of the large publishers themselves, where you won a publishing contract, Pushcart Prize, had your work selected for a The Best American… anthology (Nonrequired Reading is my favorite), etc.), then you aren’t really catching my eye either way.

You can list your credits, sure. Do realize, though, that some places that publish writers have lower standards than others, and that’s just a fact of life. So if you win the $10 Olive Garden Gift Certificate Grand Prize at the Podunk Literary Festival, you could list it, of course, but it will not get my attention the way a clip from Highlights will. The competition at a larger national magazine or contest is much more fierce and editors can seek out the best of the best, not just pick the most “readable” entry out of a slow drizzle of submissions.

Now, I did bring up something in my first paragraph that lots of writers are curious about: self-publishing. It’s something agents think a lot about, since new “alternative publishing” methods and models are cropping up all the time. It’s not something I’m ready to tackle on the blog just yet, though, because it is such a controversial issue and because it’s still very much in flux.

At every conference I go to, there’s at least one question about self-publishing, whether it comes up in person or on an agent panel. If you are lucky enough to see me during this moment in a live situation, when I’m actually forced to talk about self-publishing to a crowd of conference-goers, you will see the elusive… the hilarious… “I’m-Reading-Something-Bad Face of Awkwardness” that I discussed earlier. But since this is my blog and nobody is staring at me, eager for answers, I’m going to gracefully tiptoe around the issue until I have the perfect post on it.

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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.

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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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Here’s an email question I got a few weeks ago from Maria, who is writing about her daughter:

My 13 year old has just finished writing the rough draft of her fist novel and is in the process of editing. Do we wait until she feels “finished” to send out query letters or should we do that now?

This question touches on three points, but the three points are related. The first point is knowing when the manuscript is ready to go out for agent consideration. I’m sure I’ll post more about this issue in many different contexts later, since “How do I know when this bloody thing is finally done?” is one of the biggest questions writers have. The second point is when to query an agent. The third point is teenage authors.

Point one: When is a manuscript ready? Think about getting to a point when you’ve worked it so long and so much that you’re frustrated with it and never want to see it again. Then tack a couple more revisions on there. Then you might actually be ready. A manuscript is ready when other people (who know what they’re talking about) have read it and ripped it apart and you’ve put it back together. At least twice. In my previous life as an aspiring author, I sent out manuscripts that I thought were ready. They weren’t and I collected a nice bouquet of rejections. You never truly know until you try, that’s true. But if you’re sending out of frustrations or out of a lack of ideas for what more you could possibly do to make it better, that’s when you should ask trusted readers for feedback and revise again. Speed benefits nobody in publishing, which is a notoriously slow business. You might as well take that time to really, really, really polish and perfect your submission.

Point two: When should you query agents? Simple. If you’re working in fiction, you should query when everything is absolutely, positively done. Don’t query something that’s half finished. If an agent wants to see it, a) you’ll have to get back to them and say “Uh, it’s not done yet” and b) it’ll force you, psychologically, to rush when you do try and finish, which is the worst possible thing you can do. Don’t query something that’s close to finished and then have an idea for a revision a minute after you send the manuscript to someone who requests it. Then you’ll a) have to send the agent an email asking if you can send a different version, which may or may not be awkward, and b) it’ll force you, psychologically, to rush, which etc. etc. etc. Send queries only when it’s ready and never resort to the Reassurance Query. Trusted readers (and NOT agents and editors) like a critique group or published, experienced writers should be your sounding board for all manuscript-related questions.

Part three: Teenage authors. It’s a tough call. Some agents will flat-out refuse to work with teenage authors because that means working with their parents also and all the different legalities involved. A teen author publishing an opus book is rare but it has happened. The biggest issue with teen authors, in my opinion, is something that totally can’t be helped. It takes a whole lot of time and practice to become a good writer. Time is something teens haven’t had a whole lot of yet. So when you and your daughter send queries around, Maria, do understand that some agents will have prejudices against you automatically, if you choose to mention her age. If she’s a crazy prodigy, mentioning her age might be an asset. Otherwise, it probably isn’t the boasting-point you’re imagining. I’ve been shocked by the maturity and quality of exactly two teen’s submissions in my career. One mentioned her age in the query, the other didn’t. He only mentioned it later, when I happened to say, ironically, that his writing read like it was for an audience slightly older than YA. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

The great thing about being a 13 year-old who has finished a complete novel manuscript is, of course, that with that kind of dedication — even if this first project doesn’t find a foothold in publishing, and it might not — she’s got nothing but time to keep writing and honing her craft. We should all be so lucky. :)

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ChristaCarol asked this question a bit ago and I thought I’d answer it for everyone, since it really is on people’s minds. I almost hesitate to get into this discussion publicly but, well, that’s never stopped me before. :)

I have a question about your opinion on word count in YA fantasy. And this may be one of those subjective things that drive us all nuts, but my manuscript is at 90K, which I’d thought (for a Fantasy) was high, but okay. A wonderful agent who offered to critique the query through a contest mentioned she would pass on the project just because of the high word count. Is this done often? Should I be scared? Should I go back and find a way to chop out 10K? Another writer mentioned just querying it at 80K even if it’s 90K, but I’m not sure, wouldn’t this dirty up my integrity or something?

This is a great question. I love getting publishing myth/rumors that I can confirm or deny. Now, ChristaCarol is astute when she mentions that this might be one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts, because… this is one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts. I can give you two answers. First, the cute and fuzzy one: As long as the manuscript and the story has earned every single one of those vital and carefully-chosen words, the word count doesn’t matter. There are those very rare exceptions where I see a word count in a query, have a mini heart attack, but then the author convinces me that each word is necessary and I agree whole-heartedly. If given enough reason, people (and that includes editors and agents) will read long books.

Now for the more practical, everday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, right now, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query for anything over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside. It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts.

There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there. I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace. Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic. Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm.

But, truthfully, if your word count is anything over 100k in children’s, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your babies,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life. Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.

Now, there’s also a real reason I usually balk at manuscripts with a high word count, besides my own busy inbox and the fact that most really wordy manuscripts reflect a lack of polish and revision. So, as we’ve already established, a lot of my highest word count submissions come from debut authors. For editors, debut authors are an exciting but fundamental risk. They’re untested in the marketplace, they could potentially lose the publisher a lot of money.

Words equal pages and pages equal money in terms of production costs. Longer books are also heavier and bigger, so the publisher will have to invest more in shipping costs and warehouse space, which all figures into their bottom line before they even acquire the book. (All editors have to guess how much money their house will have to spend to publish this book and how much earning potential the book has. They have to put it together and present it to their team before they can make an offer. It’s called a Profit and Loss Statement or, in my mind, The Spreadsheet of Terror.)

The more words a manuscript has, the more expensive it’ll be to turn into a book. So editors will frown if I try to send them a really long book from a debut author. Their investment in this book will have to be much higher and, these days especially, there’s less chance they’ll take that kind of risk on a debut. So I have to think about that when I think about representing a longer manuscript, too. I’m here to sell your many words, not just enjoy them by myself. :)

As ChristaCarol says, there are different accepted word count limits for different genres and age groups. This is the part I hesitate to do, but I will throw my hat in the ring and suggest some maximum word counts for different types of projects.

  • Board Book — 50 words max
  • Early Picturebook — 300 words max
  • Picturebook — 700 words max (Seriously. Max.)
  • Nonfiction Picturebook — 2,000 words max
  • Early Reader — I’d say 1,500 words is the max.
  • Chapterbook — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level. 15,000 words max.
  • Middle Grade — 35,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor, 45,000 max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
  • YA — 70,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 90,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.

Now, again, these are just estimates I’ve gathered from my experience. (Disclosure: Early Readers and Chapterbooks are not my personal forte.) If a manuscript goes over the maximum that editors usually deal with, there has to be a damn good reason.

Let me also address right now that I’ve been seeing some queries for “Early Middle Grade” in the 7,000 word range. No, no, no. That’s too tiny. Middle Grade, even Early Middle Grade, beings at around 15,000 words minimum. But this does bring to light that there are all sorts of gray areas. Upper Middle Grade. Lower YA. The sometimes-mocked label of “Tween.” So word count is a tricky wicket. How about this? If you’re worried that your book is too long and you sometimes dread doing yet another revision because there’s so much of it to read… cut! And know that some agents do automatically reject manuscripts because of their length. I’m not quite there yet but, if I do see something over 80k, it has to work pretty darn hard to convince me that all those words are necessary.

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by Suzanne LaFleur
Middle Grade, 272 pages.
Wendy Lamb Books (2009)
ISBN: 978-0385737746

At the beginning of LOVE, AUBREY, we don’t know what kind of tragedy has rocked Aubrey’s world, we just know she’s utterly alone. As we watch her buy herself a beta fish and putter around her empty house, it emerges that her father and sister died in a car accident and her mother fled from the grief of losing them and the guilt of being behind the wheel. Grandma comes to pick up the pieces and moves Aubrey to Vermont. The two women, young and old, united by tragedy, try to put the pieces of their lives back together while searching for Aubrey’s mother.

Once they find her, it becomes clear that her pain is too raw and she simply isn’t ready to be a mother yet. Aubrey must begin the slow and complicated process of making friends, grappling with her memories and reimagining what home and family mean in this new life of hers.

If only most adults had the strength and grace of this eleven year-old character. Aubrey is so hurt — on many more levels than she’ll ever admit, even to the reader, who knows most of her secret heart — but her wisdom shines brilliantly from these pages. Through writing letters, first to her beta fish, then to her dead sister’s imaginary friend, then to her dad and finally to her mother, she expresses just how strong she’s become, how strong, in fact, she’s always been. These letters cap off chapters in the perfect balance of narrative and the character’s own self-expression.

LaFleur’s writing is a thing of beauty and simplicity. Through Aubrey’s crystal-clear voice, she expresses longing, love, pain and hope with the lightest touch. The reader is always deeply involved in Aubrey’s emotions but never told about them outright. We just know Aubrey so well from the first page that everything she does makes total, resonant, brutally honest emotional sense. When her mother doesn’t come home for Christmas, we know her rage and grief, even if we’ve never experienced her circumstances.

This is the whole point of fiction, the very essence of creating a character who lives and breathes. For such a short, quiet book, LaFleur manages not only startling character development but a fleshed-out plot. Memories, emotions, flickers of new life and tortured pangs of the old combine seamlessly as Aubrey does chores to keep her mind off her grief, goes to a new school, visits with a guidance counselor, rediscovers her relationship with her mom and finally chooses her real home, at least for now.

The tagline of the book is: “She will make you cry. She will make you smile. Aubrey will stay with you forever.” I can’t put it any better than that. In this age of high-concept paranormal adventures, barbed-wire edgy and unrealistic, cookie-cutter romance, sometimes I wonder where all the small, literary books of amazing emotional depth and power are. LOVE, AUBREY is the book I’ve been waiting for (Gayle Forman’s IF I STAY (review) and Carol Lynch Williams’ THE CHOSEN ONE (review) also come to mind). It fills me with utter joy that such a talented writer and such a passionate editor found each other and created this unassuming, completely take-your-breath-away masterpiece.

LOVE, AUBREY comes out on June 9th, 2009. If you’ve forgotten the glorious ache of feeling your entire register of human emotions, read it as soon as you can. You’ll be so glad you did. I didn’t even know how much I needed Aubrey in my life. Links: Amazon, Shop Indie Bookstores.

For Readers: This book will appeal to middle grade readers as well as, um, everyone on the planet. Buy this for the kids in your life and tell them to pass it on to siblings, parents, grandparents. I’m serious. Everybody needs to read this book and its appeal is so broad, so human, that it will charm and touch each person who comes in contact with it. Of all my recent reads, this one is most likely to stand the test of time. It is a modern classic in my head already and it hasn’t even come out! Yes, I know I’m gushing, but I’m totally allowed.

For Writers: It isn’t often that writers achieve the ultimate goal of transparency, as LaFleur does here. There are some writers, of course, who thrive on their trademark voice, who use it everywhere as an indelible stamp. LaFleur has a style, sure, but as a writer, she completely disappears into Aubrey’s voice, she spins her words without once interrupting the “fictive dream” to call attention to a flourish of writing, a clever joke, an important moment. Most writers, whether consciously or not, just can’t quite get themselves out of their own writing. Not LaFleur. What you see here is all Aubrey, all the time. Please read it. If it doesn’t change your writing, and I’m not sure it will because its lessons are very subtle and complex, it will change the way you see character and it will redefine your boundaries of how deeply into a fictional soul you can go.

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Just last night, I had the pleasure of hanging out with some awesome YA authors. Cheryl Renee Herbsman, who wrote BREATHING (Viking, 2009), Sarah Quigley, author of TMI (Dutton, 2009) and C. Lee McKenzie of SLIDING ON THE EDGE (WestSide Books, 2009) were our three debutantes at Books Inc. They can be seen pictured here from left to right. (Sorry your eyes are closed, Cheryl, it’s hard to get three people coordinated in a group shot!)

The reading was wonderful, with so many friends, family and fans in the store to cheer our debs on. Punch, cupcakes, cookies, tiaras and pearls were in abundance to make it a truly white-glove affair. In fact, bookseller extraordinaire, Summer, even showed up with kid gloves. Cheryl read from BREATHING first, and had some inspirational words for writers:

Read a lot, write a lot, kill the inner critic.

When her first manuscript didn’t sell, Cheryl admitted the following:

It was hard not to give up, but people told me to start working on something new. That book was BREATHING. It was the best advice I got.

C. Lee McKenzie read from SLIDING ON THE EDGE next. In fact, she had her first paragraph memorized! She told the audience that her idea for the book came from a newspaper article, and brought the clipping that started it all. So look out, writers, inspiration is everywhere. She also told people to build their web presence, book deal or not, so that you can start connecting with readers and develop your career.

The pretty pink princess of the evening, Sarah Quigley, then read from TMI (here are links to: my review, my interview with Sarah). No wonder Becca, her character does theatre… Sarah had great stage, er, bookstore presence and totally nailed her character’s voice.

After getting books signed, everyone poured out of the store on a total sugar high. This isn’t the last you’ll hear from these debut authors, so if you haven’t picked up their books yet, do it now and get in the know. Some of my lucky readers don’t need to go through the trouble, though. They’ve won autographed, personalized copies! Click the link below to reveal the contest winners and see more awesome pictures from the event!

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So, I was talking to a writer today and they said something many writers have thought before:

I wish I could just query agents, even if the book isn’t finished yet, just to see if they like my idea and if they’ll request it.

As and agent and as a writer who has done the reassurance/ego-stroking/tell-me-I’m-not-crazy-with-this-book-idea query, I say unto this writer and all others pondering this same path: Don’t. Do. It.

I know you will, against my advice. I know that writers misjudge the words “I’m ready” all the time. I know it’s part of my job to read reassurance queries and gently hint to writers that they may not be ready for publication yet with every rejection I send. I know that the most resounding lessons are learned through experience, through querying, through feedback. I know. But this way, I feel like I’ve at least said my piece about it.

First, let me say that I know why you reassurance query. It would be so very nice to know that an agent likes your idea and whatever sample pages enough to request more of your manuscript before you sink a year or two into writing something that could go nowhere. But here’s the problem: they might request more of your manuscript…and what will you send them?

Nobody wants to hear about the really awesome Christmas present they’re getting…in July. I assume that you’re querying me because you have a book you want me to sell. My job isn’t to stroke your ego, at least not until you’re my client and we’re working together. I can’t be expected to give feedback to everyone who sends along an idea. Don’t clog up my inbox with queries for things that aren’t done, just because you want reassurance that you’re on the right track.

If you need reassurance, get a critique group. If you need reassurance from someone in the industry who’ll be a good judge of whether your project is saleable or not, go to a writers conference and pay for a critique. At a conference, at least, you’ve paid for my time and I’ll happily oblige. Maybe find a freelance editor. See if any agents or editors or industry types are auctioning off critiques or giving them away on their blogs.

Most of these options, as you might guess, cost money, but such is life. If you don’t have an agent or a finished manuscript yet, you can’t expect someone in the industry to make you feel better for free. There are not enough hours in the day and, besides, I can’t really tell how good your project is until I see it finished. An idea and a snappy first 15 pages are one thing…the execution of that idea and the rest of the pages are what will either make you or break you.

But again, I know humans. And I know writers. And sometimes humans and writers are even one and the same! (Just kidding!) So I know I will get reassurance queries for as long as I have a slush pile. It’s part of the service I provde, and at the end of the day, I can make peace with that.

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I’ve got a special treat for you guys today. Here we’ve got Sarah Quigley, author of TMI, which debuts today. I posted a review of it earlier and I’m so happy to feature her interview. With interviews on this site, I’ll be focusing on certain aspects of writing and publishing. For my first interview, I wanted to lighten things up. Here’s How to Write Humor, An Interview with Sarah Quigley!

Kidlit: The tone of Becca’s blog posts is so much fun and such a cool addition to her character. What came first for you as a writer, the story and the narrative or the posts?

Sarah Quigley: TMI would not exist if it weren’t for my own blog, which was discovered by an editor at Dutton Children’s Books. She contacted me to see if I was interested in writing a young adult novel, and it was her idea to have a blogging heroine.

On my own blog, I created an alter ego named Babs. Babs was living my life, but she was much cooler, wittier, and sexier than me in everything she did. I wanted the same kind of blogging outlet for Becca in TMI. On her blog, Becca becomes Bella, who verbally slays her enemies and woos the hottest guy in school.

The story/narrative and blog posts had a chicken and egg relationship. They were so intertwined from the beginning that I have no idea which came first. As I developed the story, I added and reworked blog posts many times. Some of the original posts were fairly tame, and my husband encouraged me to make them more outrageous and elaborate. I had a blast chasing after Becca’s runaway imagination.

KL: How did you hone and develop Becca’s voice? What was your inspiration?

SQ: Becca and I have lot in common. We’re both sarcastic and emotional and inappropriate. Many of the things that Becca says and thinks are things that I have said and thought, so that part was easy. However, early in the story, Becca vows to stop oversharing, and this left me with the challenge of maintaining the voice of a TMI girl who can no longer say whatever she wants.

I had to simultaneously show how conflicted Becca was about what she could say and not say while allowing her to continue to think freely. As I wrote every conversation, I had to layer the things that Becca actually said with what she wanted to say.

KL: There is a lot of verbal humor here, too, but a lot of funny situations. A lot of humor writers think that the right mix of both is the key to a consistently funny novel. What do you think has more humorous potential, witty dialogue or putting a character into funny or embarrassing situations? Which of these two was more challenging to write?

SQ: This question immediately makes me think of David Sedaris, one of my favorite writers. Sedaris often writes about weird things that happen to him, and that can be funny. Even funnier, though, is Sedaris’s knack for drawing the humor out of ordinary situations with dialogue and observation. His style inspires me.

I find plotting quite difficult, and I struggled to come up with a storyline for TMI that put Becca in funny situations. I was much more comfortable staying in her head, giving her snarky little thoughts and observations about the world.

KL: TMI is mostly funny but there are definitely serious situations in the mix. How did you handle juggling these two aspects of it?

SQ: In early drafts, I actually made some of the serious parts of the novel even more dire. My editor advised me to tone them down because they were detracting from the humorous parts and because they were unrealistic. I also made the villains a little too evil, almost cartoon-like. Looking back on the first version of TMI, I can practically see them twisting their mustaches and cackling maniacally. I thought their nastiness would be funny, but it was merely a distraction from the real story.

KL: The naked younger brother is definite comic relief. Was there anything else that you put in the book just for huge belly laughs?

SQ: Some of the blog entries don’t really move the plot along. I was just having fun being silly and thinking of ways for Becca to vent.

KL: You got a book contract with your blog but did it ever get you in trouble? Do tell!

SQ: One of the earliest posts on my blog was a story about a guy I made out with one summer in college. He had an entertaining name (it would look perfect in the opening credits of a porn film), and I couldn’t resist mentioning it.

Mistake.

Fast forward eight years. I got an email from this guy asking me to remove his name from my blog. Apparently, my mention of his name had caused some “awkward personal and professional situations.” Of course, I felt awful. I immediately removed the entire story and apologized. He was very gracious about the whole thing, but I definitely beat myself up a little for believing that people I wrote about would never see my blog. You’d think I would have learned that after writing TMI. I guess life really does imitate art sometimes.

Sarah Quigley’s TMI hits shelves today! Pick it up at your favorite independent bookstore or order it this very minute! Check out her website at www.SarahQuigley.com.

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