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Paranormal

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These last few weeks have been very hectic for me for a wonderful reason! I just sold a really exciting deal for my debut author client Emily Hainsworth. As announced in Publisher’s Weekly a week ago, and in PM this week, THROUGH TO YOU and a second, untitled book, sold to Alessandra Balzer of Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, in a good deal, at auction.

(Photo credit: Matthew Lowery Photography)

Emily and I first made contact last summer, when she queried me with a YA. I read it twice, really loved her voice, but it wasn’t quite there yet. It had some issues and I didn’t know if I wanted to take Emily on without seeing some revision skills first. So I told her to go back into her writerly hidey-hole and return with her next project. She did. It was THROUGH TO YOU. A brilliant, high-concept premise paired perfectly with her strong, literary writing voice. Dreamboat! I fell out of my chair, read it the same day (a busy November Saturday in Chicago when I kept sneaking away from an event to read my Kindle in a locked bathroom stall…true story!), offered representation, and won the opportunity to work on this awesome book.

I gave Emily revision notes, she worked on it for about a month, sent it back, and then we were ready to go out in January. I drummed up some excitement by pitching to editors in person at ALA, then sent it out on Friday, January 14th. Here’s an excerpt from my pitch letter, where I positioned THROUGH TO YOU as a cross between BEFORE I FALL and THIRTEEN REASONS WHY:

The day grief-stricken high school senior Camden Pike sees a ghost is the day he assumes he’s finally lost it. For the last two months, he’s been torturing himself after walking away from the car accident that killed his girlfriend, Viv. She was the last good thing in his life: helping him rebuild his identity after an injury ended his football career, picking up the pieces when his home life shattered, healing his pain long after the drugs wore off. He’d give anything for one glimpse of her again. But now there’s a ghost at the accident site…and it isn’t Viv.

Cam quickly realizes the apparition, Nina, isn’t a ghost at all. She’s a girl from a parallel world, and in this world, Cam is the one who died, and Viv is alive and well. Cam’s wildest prayers have been answered and now all he can focus on is getting his girlfriend back, no matter the cost. But the accident isn’t the only new thing about this other world: Viv and Cam both made very different choices here that changed things between them. For all Cam’s love and longing, Viv isn’t exactly the same girl he remembers. Nina is keeping some dangerous secrets, too, and the window between the worlds is shrinking every day. As Cam comes to terms with who this Viv has become, and the part Nina played in his parallel story, he’s forced to choose–stay with Viv, or let her go–before the window closes between them once and for all.

I still get chills reading this synopsis, because the story really is that good. Luckily, I’m not the only one who thought so. One week after submission, we had our first offer. The next week, we went to auction. The same day I sent out auction rules, my hard-working foreign rights co-agent Taryn Fagerness closed a huge pre-empt from German publisher Goldmann. She sold Italy later that week. The next week we closed the auction and THROUGH TO YOU officially went to its home at Balzer + Bray.

There have been even more top secret developments for this book since then, but I figure this is great news for now. Emily (website, Twitter) has her own write-up of the experience here. And here’s what Alessandra Balzer, Emily’s new editor, has to say about reading THROUGH TO YOU for the first time:

When I read Mary’s description of THROUGH TO YOU, I thought — OK, this sounds very intriguing. A parallel reality is a hard thing to pull off in a convincing way, though, so I stayed a little wary. I started the manuscript and from the first page I immediately liked Cam’s voice and felt drawn in. But still, I wondered — how will this play out? Then, when Cam sees the girl by the site of the accident — I expected it to be his dead girlfriend. When it wasn’t — when it was actually a new character with secrets to reveal to Cam about his own life — that’s when I knew I was hooked. Emily has created so many great and unexpected twists and turns in this plot — you really don’t see what’s coming next. I also love the idea of choices in this novel — and how one bad turn can lead you down a path that you were never meant to be on.

We’re all thrilled with the success of THROUGH TO YOU so far, and hope you will pick it up and discover the twists, turns, thrills, and secrets for yourselves when the novel hits stores in Fall 2012!

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As promised, today is the big reveal of the Grand Prize winner for the Kidlit Novel Beginnings Contest! Without further ado, I present an entry by Mary Danielson, a (light) paranormal/mystery YA called THE SHERWOOD CONFESSIONS. This entry embodies the voice, tension, and intrigue that I like to see at the beginning of a novel. While we haven’t gotten a scene yet — which I’ve always said is very important at the beginning of a novel — I think that one is coming, just by the set-up. Find out why this book sounds compelling enough to read “from beginning to end.”

The funny thing about Mary Danielson, today’s winner, is that she actually entered the contest twice. For my initial judging, I like to keep entries anonymous. Lots of my frequent readers — whose names I recognize from comments and the like — enter the contests, so I don’t want to be biased when reading their entries. Either way, I whittle down the entries to about the top 25 or so without looking at names. Then I start to really analyze the top choices. And, by some incredible stroke of either luck or genius, two entries from this selection of the top 25 (out of more than 400!) belonged to Mary Danielson! And both entries were so good that it was difficult to choose just one to place among the winners that I’ve posted here.

Read on to find out what caught my eye… twice!

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Five weeks before his disappearance, Miles St. John pushed me up against a locker and kissed me. Hard.

I really enjoy the voice here. And we have a disappearance already in play. There’s a lot of action in this sentence, and that “Hard,” for emphasis, is a nice touch.

This didn’t exactly make it into the police report. A lot of things didn’t. Not that night, not our plan, and especially not this little fact: I could have saved him.

Lots and lots of mystery! And the danger element of lying to the police. And the high stakes idea of her being able to save him. There’s immediate tension!

Even the reporters, who descended on Verity with their news vans and power ties, didn’t discover our secret. They badgered witnesses and dug up rumors, but still not a single tabloid mentioned my name.

And this character has managed to fly under the radar. I want to know a whole lot more about that.

In a few hours, I could be away from it all. Suitcases and secrets in hand, I could get on that plane to Texas and never be caught. Those stories would stand and you people could go on guessing and wondering, your theories swirling around and around until pretty soon everyone loses interest. It would be yesterday’s headline.

It would all be a lie.

Now she’s running from it, “suitcases and secrets in hand.” But will she get away with it? Will it be a clean severing of ties? And what will the emotional ramifications of all this secrecy be? I’m already so invested in this character’s story and I’ve only read a few sentences.

And if there’s anything my time at Verity Prep taught me, it’s this: a lie, even one that no one suspects, will do more bad than good every time. So, this isn’t going to be like before. I’m telling the truth now.

Lots and lots of tension again. My question from my last comment — about the ramifications of her lie — still stand here. I find that when the reader thinks something, and then the author mentions it and picks up on it, that’s a really well-written manuscript. I was just thinking about how the lie would impact her, and then it turns out Mary has thought about it too, and mentioned it right as it bubbled up in my brain. There’s the risk here, also, of this character finally telling the truth. I’m guessing this is the “confessions” part of THE SHERWOOD CONFESSIONS. What does this have to do with her impending escape? There’s also tension with the mention of “before” that piques my interest, and I want to know more about Verity Prep, where they’re apparently teaching whole lessons on lies and scandal instead of calculus and chemistry.

Not just about Miles, but about everything – the robberies, the fire, the curse.

And there’s a CURSE! *swoon* I want to know about all these things, but especially the curse.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? Uncle Dash says that the best quality in a good journalist is that she gives all the facts – from the very beginning, when things first get fishy, all the way until the villain’s confession.

I also like that she’s a journalist. If I hadn’t know this, I would still have noticed the way she talks about reporters and the news, abov,e and guessed that it was one of her interests. It’s cool to see a character’s narrative through the lens of their passion, and her interest in journalism is clear even before she says it outright. Good voice here, too.

So, here it is – from my beginning to his end — the confessions of Evie Archer: amateur sleuth, freak of nature, and criminal mastermind.

Great button for this excerpt. I want to know about all three of these roles that she’s taken on for herself.

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So there you have it, folks! Congratulations to all the winners and the entrants… it takes a lot of guts to share your writing and put it out there into the world. I’ll do a bit of a “deconstruction” post for this contest on Friday, with some of my lingering thoughts on novel beginnings. Thank you all for playing along with this great exercise!

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Our Second Place winner is a paranormal YA romance, HALO & WINGS, by J.R. Hochman. This is a funny voice, which is one of the things that I think are key for paranormal these days, and gets us into the “inciting incident” right away. We’re plunged into conflict and carried along into the rest of the story without pause. Check it out!

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I died an extremely dumb death.

There is a whole lot of “I died and now here’s my screwed up afterlife” YA books hitting the market these days, but I was pulled in by the voice and humor here right away. It’s also in-your-face and a bit confrontational. Sometimes this irks me, here, I want to read on.

Picture this: On the Riverville High tennis court, I stared at the sky, thinking my opponent’s shot was going long, but the wind whipped up and the tennis ball hung in the air, blowing into play. So I leaned back on my heels, brought my arm out and wham! I fell . . . my big ass hitting first, then my head just as hard, my brain bouncing inside my skull. Darkness swept over me. Not sudden darkness, mind you, but a curtain slowly coming down.

Confrontational again with the “picture this” but, you know what? I do! And the author uses vivid imagery. From the wind whipping up to the ball hanging in the air, to “my brain bouncing inside my skull” and “a curtain slowly coming down.” The language is also very economical — the writer gets a lot of impact, a lot of different description, with few words here. There’s also the humor of “my big ass” and lots of action. And, in the second paragraph, the character’s dumb death begins. There’s no way the writer could’ve known, but I spent all four years in high school playing varsity singles tennis.

I didn’t die straight away, and I vaguely recall opening my eyes for a moment. Girls from the tennis team stood over me and said, “Sarah, are you okay?”

“Hrrrrppphh mrrrukkee,” I gurgled. Translation: help me.

Really like the quirky sound effects here. Conveys what’s going on with her and how poorly she’s doing without her telling us.

No one could. A vicious pull tore me inside out. My body remained on the ground while my soul–another self hidden inside me, as if I were a Russian nesting doll–came tumbling free. I tried to crawl back inside my body, slipping it on like an ill-fitting coat. The arms were too long, the legs too short, and the eye holes no longer lined up. Terrified, I rolled over on my side and screamed until my voice was drowned out by the arriving ambulance.

I don’t know about the soul being “another self hidden inside me,” as I don’t know whether she’s defining what a soul is — a bit unnecessary — or defining how souls “work” in this particular book and its world — separate selves that can come clean from the body. What I really love are the images here. In her effort to “crawl back inside my body,” she tries to slip “it on like an ill-fitting coat” but “the eye holes no longer lined up.” That’s an image I have NEVER heard used before, and it goes to show — after reading thousands of manuscripts, I can still be surprised by good writing! Love the quick pace again… we have the ambulance’s arrival already.

“She’s not breathing.” A paramedic checked my pulse, pounded my chest, and tried to breathe life into my lungs. It didn’t matter. Nobody was home.

The only thing I want to know here is where her soul is relative to her body in this moment, since “nobody was home” in her corpse.

Only one month into my junior year of high school, with so much unaccomplished–finding a steady boyfriend, winning a tennis scholarship, getting a driver’s license–life was over.

Quick biographical catch-up. Once again, it’s spare and gives us only the info we need.

Worse than the fear of dying were my thoughts about never seeing those I loved again. How could Mom, who’d never recovered from Dad divorcing her, manage alone? I knew she’d fall apart. What about Jason and Liz? Who would my friends tell their secrets to? Maybe a million people didn’t count on me, but the few who did really needed me.

And now we get the people in her life and her emotions about them. Look at how much we know from this one paragraph? This is a sly way to introduce backstory right at the beginning of a novel — oh, my life is flashing before my eyes! — but it totally works in the context of the plot so far, so it doesn’t seem cliche. Notice that the writer never has the character tell the reader: And then my life flashed before my eyes…

This couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t. It had to be a mistake.

But it wasn’t. The paramedics loaded my body–just a shell, not the real me–into the ambulance on a stretcher. I watched them drive off in a cloud of exhaust.

Too pathetic to face my new reality, I relived the moments leading up to my death over and over like a YouTube clip. Each time, my life ended the same stupid way.

The only thing that’s missing here, for me, is what the “new reality” is like. Her soul is just left standing there… what is the rest of the world like? Different? Are people crying and freaking out? I’d love it if she came out of interiority for a bit and take in the scene. Internal conflict versus external conflict is a constant balance in writing.

I sniveled and sobbed until I was an empty vessel with nothing more to give. Then, I dry heaved. Sad. Sad. Sad. This was so not me. I was practically in a fetal position, about ready to suck my thumb, when a funny thing happened. Looking down at the puddle of tears on the ground, I saw my own pitiful reflection and a strength awoke within me.

Enough of this, Sarah. Enough. Get your shit together.

This is the only place where I think things aren’t clear. “An empty vessel with nothing more to give” is a bit vague. Also, the writer is ascribing a lot of visceral actions to a soul. A soul is crying and dry heaving and getting ready to suck her thumb but… those are all very physical things that a body might do. CAN she cry? Apparently she can issue tears, since there’s a puddle. Now I’m starting to wonder what the rules of this world are and how much physical effect/presence/feeling souls have. But I would still definitely read on.

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I’ve tried to mix up my winners so that you get a little bit of everything. The Honorable Mention was more fantasy, the Third Place Winner was literary YA, this is paranormal romance YA and… here are clues for the next two winners… we have a contemporary YA mystery and a contemporary MG, in no particular order. Stay tuned!

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We have our first announcement of a Kidlit Contest winner for this round. I know you all have been very excited to see what novel beginnings I’ve chosen, and I’m excited to share them with you. Once again, this contest features novel beginnings… those tricky but super important first few moments of your manuscript. All of these winners, in my opinion, do it right, and for that reason, I am featuring their entries in their entirety so that you can learn from them.

This doesn’t mean these winners are the only submissions of merit I received… far from it! But these do exemplify what I look for in a novel opening and all have a lot to teach writers.

The first winner is an Honorable Mention. The author’s name is Joan Stradling, for her paranormal YA, WOLFSBANE AT MIDNIGHT.

I’m posting her submission with notes from me below. The text is in italics and my notes are offset below each paragraph. I’m pointing out things that caught my eye about this submission so you get a sense for what I notice, why I notice it and how it works in the overall story.

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The cries from a flight of ravens echoed through the forest as they clamored to escape from the trees behind Scarlet. Fabric ripped as she jumped away from the tree and spun around. She scanned the edge of the clearing.

Great tension here. Good sound details and action. Instead of weather to set mood and convey tension, Joan is using the landscape. We get that something bad is happening without there having to be a storm.

The ragged figures of scarecrows danced in the fall breeze, but nothing else moved. Their waving arms must have startled the birds. Scarlet took a deep breath. The islanders’ stories of wolf attacks unnerved her, but being mauled by wolves wasn’t her only concern. Zev, the woodcutter, roamed the forest, and Scarlet wanted to avoid him too.

Lots of effortless worldbuilding here. We learn about a) the season (fall), b) the general setting (an island), c) a troubling problem in this world (wolf attacks), d) the story’s main antagonist so far (Zev, the woodcutter)… We also learn a little bit more about Scarlet, the protagonist. She’s scared in these woods and, for some reason, wants to avoid Zev. We also have the image of scarecrows to underscore the dramatic setting and tension established in the first paragraph.

He had threatened to cut off a few of her fingers if he caught her stealing from him again. As a result, she’d only taken small branches he left behind.

Until today.

GREAT tension! We learn a lot about Zev and Scarlet here. We learn that he’s ruthless (threatening to cut off fingers) but we also learn that she’s a bit of a troublemaker (“if he caught her stealing from him again,” emphasis mine). We get a sense that she’s been toeing the line and trying not to get into too much trouble… but something has happened today, on the day the manuscript starts, to change all that. We call this the “inciting incident” and I can’t wait to learn just what has made this day, in this creepy wood, different.

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This is a shorter entry, but I hope you can see just what kind of impact 132 words can have. Check back on Wednesday to read the Third Place winner’s entry!

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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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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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This is the question I got the other week from Elan:

How do you feel about authors querying about a series? Is it important to mention that in the initial query letter, or is that something that can be discussed once an author/agent relationship is established? Let’s say the first book is complete but the others in the series are not.

Good question, Elan. This is something a lot of writers should be researching before they query because — if you’ve been under a rock for the last year or so and haven’t heard — the rules in publishing have changed a little bit since the economy tanked. This might not be my answer forever, but this is my answer right now.

Series have been snapped up left and right by the big houses in the recent past, ever since Harry Potter proved that you could keep the cash flowing for many, many books. A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see two, three or even four-book deals right out of the gate, a healthy number of these going to debut authors. Fantasy, sci-fi and paranormal are three genres that lend themselves especially well to series and, if you asked the blogs a little while ago, they’d all say that writing “This project has strong series potential and I’m currently writing books two through five” in your query could very well be melodious to an agent’s ear.

Now houses are taking fewer risks. The average debut author is lucky if they can secure two books with their first contract. I was talking to an editor recently and she outlined the way her house has been approaching series: they buy the first book, maybe in a two-book deal but maybe as a stand-alone, release it, see how it does, and only then do they consider turning it into a series. If they do, they’ll commit through probably a trilogy (so two more books) or more. I like this model, maybe not from a bank account or a prestige standpoint but from an intellectual one. It’s cautious. It’s logical. It’s practical. It doesn’t assume the risk of a series right away, it makes the author and their debut earn the subsequent books. Intimidating thought, I know, but are you really in the writing gig for the easy money? 🙂 Didn’t think so.

This isn’t fun to hear for all the fantasy and paranormal and sci-fi writers who have planned seven-book story arcs. But it’s smart. Publishing can’t really be handing out four-book deals like candy anymore. It’s bad for the house because they’re spending a lot of money on untested talent and will have to compete in a very crowded fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi marketplace. It’s bad for the author, too, because the last thing you want people saying about you is: “Wow, poor writer, Publishing House gave her a four-book deal and the first book didn’t even sell that well. Now she’s stuck, her editor isn’t enthusiastic about the project anymore and the house lost a ton money. Bummer.”

It’ll be that much harder to get a new contract for future work from your publisher — why invest more in a product that doesn’t leave the shelves? — or attract a new house because everyone can see your dismal sales numbers. The conventional wisdom of “If a house pays more for a book or series, they’ll do more to promote it” isn’t necessarily true anymore. Big books and series still tank and, when they do, they tank big.

So, when you’re imagining a series in all its shiny, multi-book glory, the best thing you can do with the first book is make it a complete, stand-alone story. There’s definitely a pattern with series, in terms of what function each book serves. A trilogy, for example, will sometimes go like this:

  • Book One: set-up and background and initiation
  • Book Two: exploration and character development
  • Book Three: showdown!

But if you send an agent a book that’s all set-up and background info and initiation, it doesn’t stand alone. I’m going to say: “Well, that’s great, but what actually happens? This all seems like prologue…” There has to be a full and compelling plot, rich character development, a climax and a denouement for this manuscript, and it has to be satisfying, even if there are other books planned. And why wouldn’t you put all of your best work and your best effort into this first book? Don’t hold on to the good stuff for Book Six. You might never get there. If the market can only bear your debut, you should still feel good that you’ve created a wonderful story. Even if GRACELING didn’t have two other books attached to it, it would still have stood alone and been a perfect, utterly satisfying fantasy novel. That’s what it takes in today’s market.

I’d also warn unagented, unpublished writers away from developing an entire series and finishing all those manuscripts a) before querying and b) before landing a publishing contract for your first book(s). The most painful thing to see is seven completed series manuscripts that are gathering dust because the author couldn’t attract an agent for or sell the first one.

So when you query, do let me know if you’ve got a series in mind. But now, instead of hearing about how you’re working on Book Twenty-Nine, the following sentence would be music to my ears: “This project has strong series potential but this manuscript tells a complete tale and stands alone.*”

* And, you know, have this be true.

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