The Importance of Writing Clips

A lot of writers hear the well-meaning advice that, in order to break in more easily, they should have some writing clips and credits to their resume. It’s good advice, and I especially don’t want to disenfranchise the many writers who have been actively pursuing this strategy with my answer, because it is a very worthwhile strategy.

In case you haven’t thought about this issue before, I’ll summarize here: When you’re an aspiring writer, you have a lot of ambition to write, but not a lot of platform. People aren’t buying what you want to sell, basically. Or, if they are, they aren’t really paying you for it. You’re probably getting opportunities to showcase your work on blogs and at other web-based venues that don’t have a budget to compensate contributors. Or maybe you start your own blog, like this ol’ hack did! This is how a lot of people get going.

Then you think that there has to be more out there that’s, well, more noteworthy to a potential publishing gatekeeper. So maybe you explore other avenues to showcase your work. Whether it’s in the children’s writing realm, say, Highlights Magazine, or in an unrelated area, like an op-ed for the local newspaper, or a poem in a general fiction literary journal, you start to set your sights higher.

Whether you try to gather clips in print journalism, the literary community, scientific or medical magazines (a lot of writers have done a lot of technical writing for their day jobs), etc., you’re basically writing and racking up pieces that someone else has vetted and decided are good enough to publish.

This all makes a lot of sense, right? If you want to write, write, and maybe the momentum of all your writing will speed up your efforts on the book publishing front. Being published is being published, no matter what you’re publishing. And writing professionals love to see writing credits. Right? Weeeeeeeeeell…

It’s not often that clear-cut. Publishing an op-ed in your local paper in Portland is not the magic ticket to calling attention to yourself with a children’s book editor in New York, unless, of course, your op-ed or Huffpo article causes such a stir that it goes “viral” and attracts a lot of attention or controversy. In fact, under my original name (a much longer version of “Kole”), I published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, which is a notable newspaper that people have heard of. And I thought, for sure, this was my golden ticket. The day it ran, I waited for the phone to ring. Aaaaand…my mother was very proud of me. Then one man from Idaho took offense at my sense of humor. That’s about it.

The fact of the matter is, if you can say in your query that you’ve published with a top-tier publication that most casual readers have heard of, that’s going to be an amazing feather in your cap. And agents and editors might take notice. But it’s likely not going to get you a book publishing contract.

And outside of that, if you’re publishing on blogs, or in smaller literary magazines, or in venues that have nothing whatsoever to do with publishing novels, then your clips are going to tell a potential agent or editor one positive thing, but one positive thing only: That you’ve hustled a little and know a little bit about the process. And that’s a positive thing, because that might indicate that you’re at least somewhat easy to work with during the publishing process. But it’s not a guarantee of anything.

My main objection to splitting your focus and concentrating on amassing clips if your primary goal is to publish a book can be expressed in this recent post. The truth of the matter is, some journalists spend years trying to crack the New York Times for their own resumes. It’s an entirely new skillset. First, there’s learning how to write well enough that the Times would take interest. Then it’s cultivating contacts and editor relationships that will get you prime consideration. Then it’s learning the culture of the publication (and every publication has one, no matter how small they are) and learning how to work within it successfully. After a lot of effort, you may finally get published in the Times. But then you’re published in the Times, not in the book realm.

What’s missing from this picture of all the effort you’ve put in? Oh yeah, honing your novel craft, which is why you’re doing any of this to begin with. So gathering clips is phenomenal, but it doesn’t help you accomplish your primary goal directly. And there’s no guarantee that it will help you accomplish your primary goal indirectly, either. You may sink a few years into pitching freelance articles to magazines, distract yourself, and maybe emerge with one well-regarded piece in Real Simple…that has nothing to do with your novel.

Is that payoff worth it? Only you can decide. This strategy only seems to work well when you’re a journalist in your day job, and a novelist by night. Then you possess both skillsets already, and you can jump back and forth more easily. Otherwise, it’s like going through all the work and trouble of growing a new arm, just so you can give your primary hands better manicures. It seems like a lot more effort than it’s worth.

Questions a Literary Agent Might Ask You When Offering Representation

Today we’re discussing questions a literary agent might ask you when they’re considering offering literary representation. Thank you to Susan who, in the comments for my last post 10 Questions to Ask When Offered Representation, wanted to know the opposite: What questions might an agent have for a potential client? There’s no way I can speak comprehensively for everyone in the industry on this one, but as a former literary agent, here’s what I was often curious about, and why.

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A call with a literary agent is a great chance to interview them. But know that they’re also interviewing you, and trying to suss out if you’ll be a pleasure to work with, or a pain in the espresso.

Literary Agents Want to Know About You

A little more about yourself: All that crazy stuff you left out of your query bio? Give it to me here! Just kidding. I don’t want your entire life story on the call, but I am curious about you as a persona and about your sense of humor, sensibilities, storytelling abilities off the cuff (no pressure!). I’d rather have one or two cool and unique facts about you that are memorable than the dry this-is-where-I-went-to-college spiel. In turn, I usually take a few minutes to say what makes me tick.

Questions a Literary Agent Might Ask About Future Projects

Future ideas: I want to get a sense for what else is in your pipeline, so I ask you to pitch me a few more ideas that you’re kicking around. Your pitches don’t have to be perfect and the books can be far from finished–or even started–but this is a biggie for me. If you have one amazing idea and then a nightmare litany of things I will never be able to sell in a million years, that will honestly dampen my enthusiasm. I’m not looking to sign you for one project, I want to work with you for a long time.

Those projects are a-comin’ ’round the mountain, whether I like it or not, and it’s only going to mean friction down the line if I sign you now and then fight you on every subsequent manuscript. If that’s the feeling I get, we’re likely not a good fit for the long-term, and it’s better to find out now. Don’t feel too much pressure on this one, though, because sometimes all I’m really curious about is whether those ideas are workable. They don’t have to be perfect just yet.

Your Overall Writing Career Goals

Your submission goals and overall career goals: I’ll ask you a little about where you see your career going and how you see this submission being handled. This is where I’ll also talk a little bit about my submission plans for the book and see if the two sync up nicely. The subtle thing I’m trying to figure out here is about your expectations. If you start talking book tour and six-figure advance right off the bat, I know you are going to be a handful down the road.

Publishing is full of big and little frustrations and decisions about your work that are completely outside of your control. Sure, you want to be as proactive as possible about your book and your career, but that doesn’t mean expecting the world handed to you on a silver platter by publishers who are, frankly, not handing out much of much to the majority of debut authors these days. So some questions a literary agent might ask: Are you savvy and humble? Are you realistic? Are you prepared to work hard to see your goals to completion? This is what I’m really asking here. (God, I can’t believe how much I’m showing my cards in this post…)

Literary Agents Are Gauging How You React to Editorial Feedback

Your reaction to feedback: If I’m offering representation, I will have editorial feedback for you. Now. A lot of agent colleagues have spent hours on the phone with a potential writer, giving all their notes, laying out a revision plan, only to have the writer go elsewhere and incorporate their revision notes anyway, but after signing with a different agent.

I’m not this precious about my editorial suggestions for you, but I do think it’s a bad idea to dump all of my feedback in your lap at once. It’s overwhelming, and it may come across as me not liking the book (which, if I’m calling to offer, is the opposite of what I want to convey). So I take my three biggest revision suggestions, including one or two that might be controversial, and float them your way.

This is probably the most important thing that happens during this call, for me. First, I get to see if you and I are on the same page editorially. If you’re writing a dark psychological thriller and I call, saying, “What I basically need from you is to make it more like the Clique series,” then we’re not going to be a good fit because you and I see the book differently and we want different things for it. (I sure hope I never miss the mark this badly…) It’s fun for me to get into revision back-and-forth with authors, even if we disagree.

But there’s workable disagreement and then there’s an impasse. If we butt up against the latter in the call, we probably shouldn’t work together. You’re always going to want one thing, I’m always going to want the other, and that sort of resentment is not good in a partnership.

How Will You Handle a Novel Revision?

Your revision style: If we do agree on most of my revision suggestions and it seems like we’re thinking about the book and its potential in a similar way, I still want to know about your revision process. I’ve found that being able to revise is the single most important skill a writer can have. I’ve taken on promising first projects, given tons of notes, and what really made or broke the new relationship is how well the author has been able to run with those notes and take the manuscript to the next level.

Every manuscript will need work once it comes in. I’ve only had one manuscript in my career come in that only needed a minor revision before going on to sell. How well and how thoroughly and how deeply you delve into the task of revision is paramount. Of course, I can’t know all the specifics of how it will really be from a phone call, but that’s what I’m really talking about when we talk about revision.

Is your project going to net interest from a literary agent? Are you ready for submission? Hire me for consulting or editing services and I can give you a no-nonsense, actionable take on your manuscript’s strengths and opportunities for growth.

Losing Out on a Hot Commodity

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.

Do Small Press Credits Hurt My Chances?

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.

When is a Manuscript Finished? When to Query?

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. 🙂

Manuscript Length: How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

ChristaCarol asked this question of how long should a children’s book be via email. 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.

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That’s a lot of words. How long should a children’s book be? Probably not this long.

How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

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, everyday 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.

Word Count Can Be Flexible

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.

Manuscripts That Are Too Long

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.

The Problem With High Word Count Manuscripts

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. 🙂

Ideal Manuscript Length for Children’s Books

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.

How long should a children’s book be?

  • Board Book — 50 words max
  • Early Picture Book — 300 words max
  • Picture Book — 700 words max (Seriously. Max.)
  • Nonfiction Picturebook — 2,000 words max
  • Early Reader — I’d say 1,500 words is the max.
  • Chapter Book — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level. 15,000 words max.
  • Middle Grade or MG — 35,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor, 45,000 max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
  • Young Adult or 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 Chapter Books 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.

The Problem With Early Middle Grade and Tween

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.

Do you need help bringing your manuscript word count up or down into an acceptable range? I am happy to be your developmental editor and suggest ways to expand or cut your work in a way that preserves your manuscript’s integrity.

Review: Love, Aubrey

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.

The Reassurance Query

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.