Research

You are currently browsing articles tagged Research.

One of the most difficult things to do if you get a lot of critique or pay for reads at conferences is to synthesize all the feedback you’re receiving into something that makes sense. Last week, a blog reader wrote in to ask the following:

I have a question about feedback about a WIP. I recently had 3 manuscript assessments completed, two full reads by highly recommended freelance editors (paid for), and one 10-page review by a professional agent (also paid for). The first two were really positive with minor ‘fixes’ to consider and when asked if I should persevere, the response was ‘absolutely’. However, the third feedback, from the literary agent, basically told me to start something new and give up on that MSS. So how does one take such varying feedback? Which feedback do you take on board and which do you reject without being biased?

This is a tough one. If it were me and my manuscript, I’d try and find a middle ground between “minor fixes” and “trash the thing.” Also, keep in mind that the editors read the full manuscript, which is helpful, while the agent only read the first 10 pages. In this writer’s case, I would be very tempted (as a human) to choose the editors’ opinions and discard the agent’s. However, as an agent (definitely not human, LOL), I say that the source does matter. Don’t reject the agent’s harsher feedback because you don’t like it. Here’s why: Besides writing quality, agents also have to react and think about premise and marketability, and they know more on that front than laypeople or even trained freelancers. They’re the ones staying on top of trends and the ones closely familiar with what is and isn’t selling.

(Sidebar: I’m not particularly thrilled with the agent’s response myself, though I would say there’s probably some truth to it. The reason for this is that saying “burn it” isn’t constructive to a writer. Even if I see little hope for a manuscript, I always try to at least provide some actionable feedback. I’m sorry to hear this wasn’t the case in this situation.)

Freelance editors focus primarily on the strengths and opportunities for grown in the manuscript as it exists before them. If the manuscript is technically good and the story moves along well, they may be tempted to rate it highly. Agents, however, are looking at the quality of the thing, sure, but they are also always trying to place it in the context of saleability. Because the most amazing piece of writing isn’t going to do anyone much good if it can’t be published for whatever reason (usually a too-slow or too-quiet or too-clichéd premise). So while the agent’s feedback is harsh, there may be truth to either the writing or the concept not working.

If the writer in question wants another agent’s opinion and money is not an issue, I would encourage them to seek yet another agent or editor’s opinion (someone from the sales side, not another freelance editor). That should clarify the picture a bit. If they can’t get another professional critique at the moment, I would focus on tweaking the story and concept to something that’s more exciting by today’s standards. Concept might, after all, be what the agent reacted poorly to. There’s also nothing like actually putting a project aside and getting a fresh new idea. The project doesn’t have to die, it can just step aside for a minute while you chase something else. Odds are good you’ll come back to it, ready to see it with new eyes. That’s a way to take the agent’s negative-sounding advice and make it empowering instead.

Tags: ,

At every conference we attend, with every interview we do, and for every bio we fill out, there’s one question that always makes its way into the mix: “What are you looking for?”

It came up on a panel this weekend at the excellent San Francisco Writers Conference, as usual. It’s what writers are very curious about, naturally. Because, if they know what agents and editors want, they can supply…right?

Well, I hate this question. And I said so. And the smartass answer–”I know it when I see it”–isn’t helpful. My actual answers on the panel were “Good stuff done well” and “Literary spark and commercial appeal.”

I’m not trying to be coy here. But I think that fellow agent Taylor Martindale‘s answer to a different question illustrates my point perfectly. When talking about books we were excited about, she said she recently sold a YA novel about a girl whose mother has a nervous breakdown and thinks she has become Amelia Earhart. Taylor had just sold the book and, to be honest, it sounds really interesting.

It’s a rare agent or editor who knows exactly, in very specific detail, what they’re looking for. Sure, some editors will say, for example, “I am looking for Dexter for teens.” They tell everyone they know. This actually happened in 2010 with one editor, and they got their wish. Their very specific request inspired author Barry Lyga to write the forthcoming I HUNT KILLERS, which comes out in April and, if you don’t mind me saying, is mind-blowingly great.

It’s much more common to get a vague answer like my panel responses. I bet Taylor Martindale never went on a panel at a conference and said “I’m looking for a YA about a girl whose mother has a nervous breakdown and thinks she’s Amelia Earhart.” I never went on a panel and said “I’m looking for a picture book about a bird who befriends a snowball” (WHEN BLUE MET EGG by Lindsay Ward, which was written up in last week’s New York Times), or “I really want to read about a boy who stumbles into a parallel universe to try and reclaim the love of his life” (THROUGH TO YOU by Emily Hainsworth) or “I really want a story about a Polynesian volcano goddess with a bad tempter” (WILDEFIRE by Karsten Knight).

In fact, when we meet with editors, they very rarely get super specific about what they’re looking for. We’ve all been shocked and delighted about what has grabbed us in the past. So I, personally, never say never and leave the possibilities wide open. Most of my colleagues in agenting and publishing do the same. When I meet with editors, it’s less about what they say they want and more about learning the flavor of their imprint and hearing them talk about books that have excited them. Are they focusing on the characters? The plot? The writing? Do they like to laugh? Cry? Fall in love? Basically, I’m trying to get a more general picture of their sensibilities, then match projects to them on that level. Of course, if they have specific requests, I keep those in mind, too, just in case I ever have a perfect match.

You are the writer. It is your job to come up not only with a really well-written story, but with an idea that’s going to resonate in the marketplace and grab attention. That’s becoming more and more important, and I’m sure I’ll blog about this a lot later. (Not being vague…it just has a lot to do with the Big News I keep talking about.)

A lot of writers say in their queries: “I am happy to write whatever you need.” No. With the exception of work-for-hire projects that houses commission writers for, it’s on your shoulders to provide the idea and execute it with aplomb. That’s what will sell. And if it’s awesome, many different agents and editors will be a fit for it, because we’re all looking for, basically “Good stuff done well.”

So I hope you can understand why “I’ll know it when I see it” isn’t a copout answer.

Tags: ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: , ,

Yesterday, I talked about the difference between situation and plot and I used some examples of life issues, one of which was a kid with a parent addicted to meth. In response, a reader named Alan wrote this:

Other than the gay issue, plot or not, it’s a story that can only be told by someone who is living the story. It’s not a one book or essay or short story, it’s a never ending saga and life style. Please do it justice if any of you pursue this issue (meth) and the destruction of the family.

This raises the bigger question: do people who are not living a certain story have a “right” to pursue it in fiction? I personally happen to both agree and disagree with Alan’s comment, which is why I wanted to dig into it here. I agree with the fact that people who write about a certain issue need to roll up their sleeves, dig in and absolutely do it justice. (For this post, yesterday’s post and future posts, an “issue book” is one that deals with one of the many more serious problems or predicaments that a teen might face in their coming of age: drugs, sex, rape, discrimination, sexual orientation, abuse, divorce, alcoholism, death in the family, pregnancy, abortion, eating disorders, immigration, legal trouble, murder, crime, running away, etc. These issues will figure more heavily into a story and a plot than, say, a lying friend or a bad grade on a math test.)

However, I disagree with the idea that only people who have lived through something can write about it. For certain books — like memoir — this is very true, obviously. Also, it does happen that some of the most comprehensive and gripping issue books tend to be written by people who have lived certain experiences. Ellen Hopkins’ breakout, CRANK, came directly from family experience and I don’t know if she would’ve been inspired to write it or if she could speak with such authority if she didn’t have this front lines perspective on meth and drug addiction. Still, what if men only wrote books from the male POV? What if gay people only wrote gay characters, or straight people only wrote straight characters? What if I could only write about white, middle class, female, Russian literary agents? I’m exaggerating to prove a point here but I think you get it.

Most issue books, in my opinion, need to start with character. And remember, every character is different. Some people who suffered rape think of themselves as victims. Others think of themselves as survivors. Every person reacts to an issue differently, so there’s not one way to tell a rape story or a meth story or a gay story. So the character and their story should really be your starting point. Besides, a lot of people who really did live through an experience are emotionally invested in it. They may not be able to separate their experience from a fictional story with all the moving parts of other, wholly fictional novels on the shelves. As a result, they may only be able to think of a particular issue in one context. That’s not bad, but it is important to remember that there are many different experiences for every issue out there. How do you make sure you’re writing a valid character having a valid issue experience? There’s a fantastic thing called research, and more fiction writers need to use it.

If you are writing about a person who has been adopted, go interview people who have had different adoption experiences. Interview people in closed and open adoptions, people whose parents raised them with the awareness that they were adopted and people whose parents did not, people who ended up with a great adoptive family and those who never quite bonded. Go interview mothers who gave up their children for adoption. Those who are grateful for their choice and those who regret it. Even if the birth mother is not a character in your story, you need to understand the issue from all sides. Interview an adoption counselor who matches families with birth mothers or a doctor who counsels or treats a lot of pregnant teens who are grappling with this choice. Sound like a lot of work? Well, yeah, but how are you going to understand this issue and these characters if you just make it all up?

Do the same level of research, with the same layers, for all the issues you choose to write about. If you really care about an issue, if you really want your book to be authentic, if you want people who have lived this issue to read your work (and they will) and respect it, do research. There’s so much to be said for having a fantastic imagination, sure. But there’s even more to be said for knowing the limits of your imagination and for reaching out to people who might give you information, details, scenes and experiences that are totally new to you. Sometimes, something made up by you is the perfect thought, image or turn of phrase for a certain moment. Sometimes, though, you will find something in your research that will change your story, change a scene, add just the perfect touch of authenticity to what you’re writing. A thought. An image. A bit of dialogue. A certain term that only “insiders” use. These details will only make your manuscript better.

Good writers know that they are not an island. They can’t possibly — nor should they — be expected to fabricate absolutely everything. They need “authenticating details” and they need to really be invested, emotionally and intellectually, in the issues they write about. So Alan’s concern for doing the issue justice is very much at the front of my mind. However, I think that a fantastic writer can take on any subject and, by augmenting their imagination with really comprehensive research, write a compelling book that rings true. If we could only write what we’ve lived through, we’d be limiting ourselves and the book market. Plus, we wouldn’t have great stories from masterful storytellers like Laurie Halse Anderson, who has written about issues from rape to anorexia with absolute clarity and respect. And that’s what you need when tackling an issue book, I think. It’s definitely not the easy way to go but it is very important work.

As one reader posted, in response to Alan’s comment:

Hmmm, Alan’s comment made me think. I have a experience with a number of subjects that could be touchy (being gay, living with an alcoholic sibling, suicide in the family). I’ve never had a problem with someone writing about these things who doesn’t have any experience. But I’ll tell you what…a lack of authenticity really sticks out to me. And it’s kept me from doing things like writing from a male perspective or a different race or about addiction.

I wonder how many people write from unfamiliar situations and how often that’s done well.

I think the point we’re coming back to is authenticity and that it does have to be done well, and that’s pretty much the bottom line.

(By the way, if anyone has a phenomenal issue book that’s been backed with lots of great research and where the issue isn’t the only plot point, I’d love to see it!)

Tags:

Since I have an online platform — and since a lot of agents talk a lot about online platforms for their clients and for prospective clients (even though this is more important for non-fiction writers who hope to sell projects on proposal) — I get asked about it fairly often. And for fiction writers and children’s writers, it’s a difficult topic. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and have some thoughts to share. People seemed to like my do’s and don’ts for the “how to pitch” article, so here is another list for online platforms and online presence.

Basically, most authors and writers these days have an online presence, whether through Twitter or Facebook or a website. I think that every person trying to break into publishing should at least have a 3-page website (welcome page, About page where you talk about yourself and your writing, and a contact page or whatever other things you think might be interesting to throw up there). I don’t, however, suggest that everyone blogs or Twitters or Facebooks. The reason?

If you aren’t comfortable with social media and you don’t have any content that has value to it (other than hawking your own book or talking about yourself), then you won’t get an audience for your online efforts anyway. This blog, for example, offers value. You wouldn’t be reading it if I insisted on talking about MY clients or MY own writing or MY cat. I give you stuff YOU can use. A lot of writers who blog fall into the trap of only talking about their own stuff. While this might help other writers come together around one writer’s journey, or whatever, the appeal will be limited (and, I’ll add, all those aspiring writers who read the blogs of other aspiring writers could probably spend their time more wisely by, you know, writing).

So if you’re only Twittering or Facebooking or blogging to give information about yourself and to hawk your own projects, people will stop reading. Also, if you’re clearly uncomfortable with social media and you feel forced to do it, your efforts will clearly reflect that. There are enough bloggers and Twitterers out there already. We don’t need any reluctant Web 2.0 people joining the ranks… there’s too much other content to sift through already.

Finally, with kidlit especially, and with fiction writers, there’s the question of audience. Kids don’t really read blogs that much. Teens hang out online but they’re more interested in social networking with friends, so there’s little conclusive data on how they interact with blogs (unless some one has read a study and has a link on hand… I’d love to check it out). If you write for kids, your audience for your online presence won’t necessarily be… kids. You’ll hit other writers, book bloggers, parents, librarians, and, if you write for older kids, some of your teen readers.

So make sure your content is geared toward your audience. And make sure it’s good content. That’s at the heart of building an online presence. With that in mind, here are some more tips!

DO’S:

  • Create interesting content.
  • Leverage everything you do — blog about school visits, author events, books you’re reading, movies you see that have a good writing take-away, milestones of your book’s journey to publication if you’re that far along (check with your editor, though, to make sure you can post cover images and other production-related stuff), your agent search, etc.
  • If you’re an illustrator, share sketches and finishes, talk about your process, talk about the tools you use, show works in progress.
  • Use pictures or cover images to liven up your posts.
  • Tweet or Facebook or post interesting links you find, don’t just blah blah blah all by yourself.
  • Leverage other people to create content for you — host blog tours, have guest blogs, do interviews, bring added value by using your blog to spotlight fun and different people who fit in with the theme of your blog.
  • Write about things that interest a wider audience — like here, sometimes I write articles on writing craft that can apply to children’s writers but that can really benefit a broader audience, too.
  • Do contests and giveaways — remember, people are always asking “What’s in it for me?” when they read blogs.
  • If you write NF, use your blog as a place to talk about interesting things you’re learning about your subject matter, or research you’re doing  yourself, or articles and research that’s currently coming out. For example, if you’re writing about butterflies, post the latest news, or current migrations going on, etc. With non-fiction, whether you’re writing picture books or novels with certain real world elements, you can make a blog that will become a resource to teachers… who might then teach your book int he classroom!

DON’T:

  • Rant or talk endlessly about yourself — make your blog a place that other people will want to visit. Besides, if you rant about how hard it is to get published or what scum publishing professionals are, it’ll come back to bite you. The agent who clicks on your blog link in your query will think you’re a negative and difficult person… not a positive business partner who will be a joy to work with.
  • Force it. Again, there are too many blogs online to try and add yours to the heap if you’re not committed. You’re better off not having one instead of doing a bad or unenthusiastic job.
  • Leave your blog hanging. Blogs are a huge time commitment and endlessly hungry little monsters. By the very virtue of a blog, your most recent post will be the first thing visitors see. If it’s from eight months ago, you’ll look outdated. If you can’t update at least once a week, you should think of a static website like the one I mentioned above.
  • Promote via Facebook. Use Facebook to get in touch with friends and fans and writing buddies. Don’t use your Facebook as a platform, just set up a simple profile and use it to connect.
  • Exist in isolation. When you’re staring to blog, reach out. Respond to comments on Twitter. Post comments on the blogs of people who comment on your blog. Read other blogs. You can’t expect the “social” part of social media to be a one way street. (Note, readers… I am a total hypocrite because I am too swamped to do this part… Forgiveness, please.)

This should at least get you thinking about how much social media you really need and how much to get involved in. It’s a slippery slope. Some people start and can’t stop, others start and can’t wait to stop, leaving their blog skeletons up for the whole world to see. Find your own style. Concerns of online platform are more pressing for non-fiction writers, so the pressure is less for fiction writers, but you should still have SOME kind of online face. We do look for one, even for fiction folks.

If your book is picked up by a publisher, they’ll expect you to do some online marketing. It’s better to have at least a small website and some presence than none at all.

Tags: , ,

There was a brilliant article in Time Out New York, meant to have a parenting advice hook, I think, but it is so well-written and does such a great job of dissecting the tween age range that I wanted to let y’all know about it: Click here to read the article. Lots of great insight for those of you writing middle-grade.

It’s no surprise to me that the author of this article, Rebecca Stead, has written a brilliant MG novel, WHEN YOU REACH ME, out earlier this year from Wendy Lamb Books (Click here to read my review of it). Her research and observations about the tween demographic reflect a lot of my fears about how quickly kids are growing up and being forced to act like little adults these days.

The way I grew up is so different from how tweens are growing up now. I can’t even imagine what it was like growing up as a middle schooler in 1979, as Stead did. She makes an excellent point about the 24/7 news feed (to use a social networking term) of awful that we’re always privy to, and how it affects people’s rational thinking, their judgment, their paranoia. Reading this article just makes me yearn even more strongly for the “off” switch to all the info and anxiety that is our current world. Or at least a “mute” button.

Tags: ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: , , , , ,

A friend of mine, a published adult writer whose characters have ranged from sixteen to twenty-five years old, mentioned an interesting opinion the other day. “I was thirty four when I wrote my twenty-five year-old character,” she said. “I wanted to write her then because, now that I’m older, I don’t think I can justifiably write someone that young.”

She writes for the adult market but her comment is even more applicable to kidlit. Most characters in our market are eighteen and under. Most writers, though, are older than that. Sometimes much older. And yet older writers manage, in most cases, to make their voices and their characters sound authentic and true-to-age.

Here’s a question for the writers out there. Aside from interacting with your kids and their friends/schools/lives, how do you keep in touch with your market? How do you bridge the age divide and keep yourself fresh?

Tags: