Self Publishing Case Study: SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND

It’s my pleasure today to feature a picture book self publishing case study for a change of pace. Full disclosure: Shelby Wilde is an editorial client of mine from earlier this year. We worked on this picture book manuscript together and discussed her career next steps. She decided to self-publish her project, and did, in my opinion, a wonderful job with it.

I don’t often feature client work on the blog or do interviews, but I chose this project because I think it’s extremely well done and I think Shelby has some great insights that will be useful to other writers considering self publishing, especially picture book self publishing. (For any writers in this boat, I highly recommend the Self-Publishing Blueprint from Writing Bluerpints. It’s a comprehensive online class on the ins and outs of becoming an indie publisher. I watched the whole thing with great interest.)

Here, she shares her experience with deciding to “go indie,” the unexpected things she learned, and her lovely book. A long article, but a must-read. Hear about it directly from Shelby, below. I will pop in occasionally to comment with takeaways over the course of the interview!

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Scavenger Scout: Rock Hound by Shelby Wilde, today’s picture book self publishing case study!

Deciding to Self Publish

When I decided to self-publish SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND, I spent months researching the process. I knew I would have to pull out all the stops in order for the book to compete with the quality of traditionally published books on the market. I chose to have hard cover books printed in China, which I would then sell through Amazon. Hard cover format is the preferred format for children’s picture books.

There is another self-publishing path called Print on Demand (POD). I did not choose that option because there are very few POD options for hard cover books and the quality is not where it needs to be, in my opinion. Traditional publishers have set the bar high when it comes to the quality of children’s books and self-publishers need to meet and exceed consumers’ expectations.

Kidlit Takeaways: Picture book writers have the self-publishing options of choosing to print physical books in softcover, hardcover, or both (a big investment upfront as you have to buy a print run of expensive books), POD (no upfront investment but quality control can be an issue), or ebook (despite being easily suited to illustrated content, ebooks do not offer the same reading experience for parents/children as physical copies).

Shelby’s point about competing with traditionally published books is spot on. I tell this to my clients all the time: You can do whatever you want when you self-publish. But you are selling to customers who are used to spending money on traditionally published books, and standards are high as a result. You need to offer them something equal or better in order to convince their dollars to come over to the indie side!

Self Publishing Case Study Interview: The Decision to Go Indie

What is this book’s “origin story”?

SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND was inspired by my daughter, who is a rock hound—she loves hunting for rocks. One day she sat me down and started telling me stories about how she acquired each of the rocks in her collection. In her stories, she debated with dragons, haggled with mermaids and convinced aliens so she could take home her treasured rocks. The combination of fantasy and reality inspired me, and I know it is something that captivates kids.

How did you make the decision to self-publish and why?

Early on, I considered the traditional publishing path for SCAVENGER SCOUT, but soon after the manuscript was completed, I realized I felt a strong connection to the main character. I wanted to guide her story through the publishing process myself, overseeing every aspect. Another reason I decided to self-publish is that I wanted to select the illustrator. If you choose the traditional publishing path and sell your book to a publisher, they will select the illustrator. Because I was so connected to the character of Scout, I wanted to be able to choose the style of illustration that would bring her to life.

Kidlit Takeaway: Choosing to self-publish gives you ultimate control over your project. Control you would lose with traditional publishing because the publisher does have final say on issues like title, format, illustrator, etc. But with great power comes great responsibility, and it behoves you to do your due diligence and make strong, marketable decisions.

Self Publishing Logistics

Describe the process of preparing the book for publication. What was unexpected? What did you learn?

When it comes to preparing the book for publication, selecting the illustrator is only the tippy top of a very large iceberg. The most important thing I learned is something that should have been obvious to me: When you decide to self-publish, you will need to wear all of the hats that a traditional publishing house does. You will need to hire an editor (or editors—did you know there are different kinds?), an illustrator, a book designer (or your illustrator may be able to provide this service), a printer, a shipping company, storage space (if you are having your books printed and shipped to you, instead of ebook or POD). The difference is that the publisher has a team of people who are specialists in their areas and you have just … you. A writer. The learning curve is steep, but it is doable as long as you’re willing to put the time in.

One unexpected challenge was dealing with long timelines. Traditional publishing cycles are long: it typically takes two years to bring a book to market. Self-publishing is a little bit faster—mine took 11 months from start to finish, but still not quick. You have to have a lot of patience. If you have ever created something to sell, the last thing you have is patience. You can’t wait to get it out there. And even though you are a small, nimble company (yep, you need to get a business license if you want to self-publish), you are stuck with a lot of timelines that you don’t own. It takes weeks to months for the illustrator to complete their illustrations, months to print and ship the books, months to promote the book before launch.

Another unexpected challenge: Advertising budget: I didn’t think much about funds for advertising when I was in the planning stages. It’s just a fact that if you want a product to sell, you have to advertise it. Advertising is a skill and it costs money. It’s also relentless. If you stop advertising, you will see an immediate drop in sales. While it’s true that even if you sell your book to a traditional publisher you will still have to market it, at least you’ll have some support from the publisher.

Kidlit Takeaway: The leap from writer to publisher can be a rude awakening. Self-publishing isn’t just a shortcut to making your work available. You are responsible for many things you’ve thought of–and haven’t yet! Shelby also brings up a great point: budget. Do you have one? Picture books are especially expensive to self-publish (as opposed to a novel made available on Kindle, for example) because the biggest expense is the illustrator. To hire a good one, you have to pay thousands of dollars (five figures isn’t unusual). Otherwise, it will show. Unfortunately, readers do judge a book by its cover. Layout costs more money. Then, if you’re creating a physical book, you have to pay for expensive full color printing on a bigger trim size product. Shipping. Storage. Shipping to the consumer. And that’s before you even think about marketing. Picture book self publishing comes with sticker shock!

Describe the process of launching the book. Any lessons there?

This is another area where you have to understand that publishing is a business and you have to do all of the same things that traditional publishing houses are doing in order to compete. Among the activities you will want to put on your launch list: blog tour, social media ads, frequent social media posts, giveaways, partnerships, cross promotion with coordinating products, press release, media interviews, email blasts. Just like the production of the book, launching the book involves skill sets that writers don’t often have: public relations, media relations and marketing. The most important thing I learned when I launched my book is that you have to start months in advance.

Kidlit Takeaway: Marketing is a skill in and of itself. But all writers, whether indie or traditional, have to learn it at some point. The good news is, you are allowed to take small bites. That’s why I like the tip about starting months in advance–you’ll want to give yourself plenty of runway to learn.

Self Publishing Marketing and Career Path

What’s life after independent publication like? How are you currently involved in marketing the project?

I have completed my launch communication plan and have now moved into the “Keep the momentum going” phase. Frequent social media posts, cross promotion, blog tours, book reviews, giveaways, email blasts, etc. Once you self-publish a book, you are now on the hook for marketing the book forever. That sounds daunting, but you have to think of it like any other product. Products don’t sell themselves. You have to put yourself out there as the author, put the book out there through ads, all to keep the stream of people flowing to your book. I enjoy the marketing aspect so it’s fun for me, but it is also time consuming.

Kidlit Takeaway: Ah, the old “art vs. business” debate! A great reminder that any book, even a traditionally published one, becomes a product. And then you sell it forever. The good news is that every positive review, blog post, interview, etc. gives you additional traction, but you always have to be proactive about creating opportunities. Unfortunately, “if you build it, they will come” is not a realistic adage in the age when hundreds of thousands of books are being traditionally and independently published per year.

What’s on the horizon for you? Would you self-publish again? Why or why not?

When I wrote SCAVENGER SCOUT, I also wrote a sequel so I have committed myself to self-publishing that book as well. I anticipate launching in Q2 of 2019. Once SCAVENGER SCOUT Part 2 is out, I will definitely have my hands full managing the printing, shipping and inventory that will come with both books. I am just one person and I’m not interested in becoming a small publisher. I have three other completed manuscripts that I’ve decided to pitch to agents in hopes of getting a contract from a traditional publisher. Choosing the self-publishing path means you are choosing to focus on the business side more than you will focus on the creative side. I want to have more time to spend on writing so I’m happy to let a publisher handle the logistics, even if it means lower profits for me.

Kidlit Takeaway: The takeaway I hear from clients all day every day is that writers are very surprised that they have to become publishers/marketers/businesspeople when they self-publish. They are not just writers. In fact, writing often falls to the bottom of their To Do list. Shelby’s point here is a great one to remember. It’s echoed in Teresa Funke’s excellent and very in-depth online class on self-publishing via Writing Blueprints: each project has its own life and potential. For some projects, self-publishing is the way to go. For other projects, you can always try traditional. Having these options means you can learn about them and choose the ones that are right for you on a project basis, and on a career basis! The bigger message is this: Successful, tenacious writers have more than one project in the pipeline!

If you’re so inclined, support Shelby and SCOUT:
Looking to make the jump into self-publishing? My editing services are perfectly suited to writers preparing to go indie. Get professional eyes on your work so you create the strongest product possible.

Query Letter Submission Opportunity

While I’m no longer a literary agent, I still want your query letter submission for an upcoming project! Aspiring writers are desperate for feedback on example query letters, and to see what their peers are working on. Reading real, live queries is one of the best ways to learn about query writing. But a lot of writers don’t have a venue to share their letters or read other people’s work.

I’m looking to change that. But I need your help!

Are you currently working on a query letter? Have you successfully used a query letter to get literary agent representation or a publishing deal?

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Help me help other writers, and submit your query letter examples!

I am seeking submissions of successful query letters AND query letters in progress to use for a teaching resource. For query letters in progress, I will provide feedback on every letter that I select for inclusion in this resource as my token of gratitude for your participation. Everyone whose query is selected will receive access to the teaching resource.

I’m especially looking for queries in the following categories:

  • Picture book query
  • Nonfiction picture book query
  • Early reader query
  • Chapter book query
  • Middle grade query
  • Young adult query
  • General fiction query
  • Literary fiction query
  • Genre query query (fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, romance, etc.)
  • Memoir or creative nonfiction query (for any audience)
  • Nonfiction query (in any category, eg, business, reference, parenting, etc.)
  • Self-published project query

The queries will be used for a paywall-protected teaching resource only, they will not be published or distributed widely on the blog. Since this is a project in progress, I will provide more concrete information only to people who are selected. You will need to provide written/signed permission for me to reproduce your query letter and provide annotations. (If you don’t want to give permission, that’s not a problem, this post simply isn’t for you.) If your query is in a category that I have already filled, or it does not fit the needs of the project, it will not be selected and I will, unfortunately, not be able to provide the complimentary critique.

If you are submitting a successful query letter that has earned literary representation or a publishing deal, please mention that. You are welcome to crow about your agent’s name, book title, etc. I can include your name and project title in the resource, or omit identifying information. The teaching resource will be released in early 2019.

Query Letter Submission Instructions

Please send your query letter as a Word doc or docx attachment (not a PDF, because I will annotate in Word) or share via Google Docs to:

mary@kidlit.com

The deadline for submissions is November 16th, 2018. I will respond to every submission. I will ask for a 30-day turnaround on query annotations, so, unfortunately, the query critique opportunity is not for queries you’re planning to go on submission with, like, tomorrow

NaNoWriMo 2018

Ladies and gentlemen, start your Scriveners for NaNoWriMo 2018! It’s officially that time of the year again, when thousands upon thousands of scribes spend the month of November pounding out 50,000 words of prose (or more) in the name of writing achievement, damn it!

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Love this poster image, which is available in the NaNoWriMo 2018 store!

Your NaNoWriMo 2018 Success Strategies

For all of this year’s National Novel Writing Month participants, here are three success strategies I’d like to plant in your heads on this, the heady first day of unbridled writing creation.

  1. Don’t Sweat Your Novel Beginning
  2. Edit Your Novel Later
  3. Focus on Character

Let’s unpack these tips one by one.

Don’t Sweat Your Novel Beginning

As I mention in my novel first pages webinar, first pages are so tough to write. Starting a novel can be very intimidating because there’s so much pressure on a novel beginning. That’s why I’m able to speak for over an hour about it, and many books have been written on the topic. (If you missed the webinar, I’ll give it again. See my Webinars and Events page!)

For National Novel Writing Month purposes, don’t sweat your beginning. Besides, you won’t know what your novel opening truly needs to be until you reach the end of the manuscript (on approximately the 30th of this month!). So you can–and should–always go back to the start and revise.

So do your best today and lay some groundwork. Remember to start in action, a compelling scene that introduces the character and kicks things off without immediately sliding into an info-dump of backstory. The balance of action and information is crucial in a novel beginning.

Then leave it. Seriously. Leave it be. It’s going to change. You aren’t going to nail it on the first try. Nobody does. Move on. Because otherwise, you risk getting stuck on your opening, or obsessing about it, and then you may lose your NaNoWriMo 2018 momentum right out the gate.

Which brings me to my next point…

Edit Your Novel Later

Some writers go through an entire novel without looking back at their work once. Some writers hammer and edit and refine on a scene or chapter until it’s perfect, only then do they proceed. For National Novel Writing Month, you obviously want do more of the former and less of the latter, just in the interest of finishing your project.

Writing is writing. Revision is revision. Huh? What I mean to say is, they are two completely different skills. They live in the same neighborhood, but opposites sides of the street. Revision’s for December! (And January, February, March … honestly, it could be a while once the initial rush of creation wears off.)

Some participants psych themselves up for their writing day by reading the previous day’s work. Others barrel straight through. Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of going back further than that, at least for the time being. The first week of this exercise is the most important in terms of creating good writing habits.

If you start to read what you’ve written, you may be tempted to revise and, again, might stall out and being nitpicking or obsessing. Most of your success with this project will be created in the revision stages, and those are going to come later, using different parts of your brain and different skills.

You have my permission to step on the gas and ignore your blind spots. For November at least, don’t look back!

Focus on Character

The biggest job in front of you (other than, you know, writing 50,000 words in a single month!) is to get your character down on paper. The first chapter will change (weren’t you listening a minute ago?), the plot will change, individual scenes and descriptions will change. But once you’re able to “birth” a character during National Novel Writing Month, this really will be the anchoring element of your manuscript going forward.

Remember, readers read primarily to bond with character. A writer’s most important job is to make readers care. This comes from character. And it’s never too early to start fleshing out a strong and compelling character. As you write, you can forget the nit-picking and first chapter, but remember to add as much emotional substance to your protagonist as possible. This is where the quick work of creation can really pay off for later drafts.

Have you heard of my concept of interiority? If not, read up on it and keep it in mind on your adventures. The more you get down about your character now, the less you’ll have to develop later. If your manuscript reads like a giant character sketch at the end of the month? I wouldn’t be too upset. You can always shape the character and focus and give them stuff to do (plot) during the revision process.

What Happens After NaNoWriMo 2018?

You might laugh, but literary agents cringe at the end of National Novel Writing Month because their inboxes swell with “novels” on December 1st, nary twelve hours after well-meaning writers have finished their masterpieces. Because a novel is done once the word count gets to 50k, right?

As you’ve heard me suggest several times, the real work, unfortunately, of crafting a novel happens in the months after this one. So whatever you do, as tempting as it is, don’t rush to submit just yet.

Over the winter, I might suggest reading some writing resources. I just dove back into The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. It’s a dense read, but I came away from it with some rewarding ideas. National Novel Writing Month is all about passion and fire and speed. It’s a rush.

Revision is a slow burn. Appreciate both for what they are. You have the rest of the year to revise before this whole crazy trip happens again!

If you want personal feedback on your project, or revision proves overwhelming, hire me as your novel editor. I work on manuscripts in all stages of creation, from WIP to if-I-have-to-look-at-it-one-more-time-I’ll-cry.

Query Letter Format

This post is all about query letter format, a perennially popular topic that won’t quit! While there isn’t just one query letter format or query letter template out there, I’ve developed a handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.

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Click this image to download my query letter format and query letter example PDF!

Query Letter Format

From my recent webinar on query letters, I’ve learned that writers continue to be fascinated with this little one-page document. It’s my most popular webinar by far, and a constant fixture of Google searches about writing.

But what makes successful queries? And can I get a query letter template? Writers are desperate for query letter examples.

When I was speaking at writer’s conferences, I always gave out a handout with a query letter example that I’d written for Twilight. Cue your eye rolls, but it’s a well-known story that everyone has at least glancing familiarity with. (My query letter example is written with Edward as the protagonist because I think Bella is such a wet blanket, ha!)

Now I’m making that handout (only spiffier) available to you, no conference attendance required. Click this link to download the PDF.

Query Letter Template

Writers are also curious to see if there is a query letter template that they should be following for formatting their query letter.  Is there a set formula for writing a query and organizing the information? Not really, unfortunately. Even if I was going to call my query letter template the perfect way to write a query, many writers wouldn’t get the memo and the slush would still be filled with queries that don’t follow this flow.

But I believe very much in my query letter template, which you’ll find in the second page of the PDF. It has a nice flow to it, and is a good way to organize all of the elements of the query letter.

The handout includes a query letter template on the second page. Click this link to download the PDF.

Successful Queries

Here’s something to keep in mind about writing a query letter: IT’S A ONE-PAGE COVER LETTER. Your query letter length? 250 to 450 words. That’s it! Sure, it feels so much more monumental than that, but the query letter only has one job: To get the agent or publisher interested enough to move on to your writing sample or proposal. That’s it. That’s all.

Writers obsess over the query letter. It feels like their “one shot” to achieve publication. Their foot in the door. But believe me when I say that I never offered representation based solely on the query letter, and I have overlooked many crappy queries to then offer on a great manuscript. The query is a means to an end.

While I hope this query letter format tool helps you work on your query writing, I want to make sure you keep your focus where it belongs: on crafting an amazing manuscript.

As a book editor, I work on everything from queries and book proposals to complete novel and memoir manuscripts. If you’d like personal advice on your own pitch or manuscript, reach out!

Picture Book Structure

There are quite a few ways to think about picture book structure. Here, I’m going to present a looser “Problem and Solution” structure, and a more specific

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Look at that masterful plot twist in Act II! Didn’t see it coming at all…

The Basics of Picture Book Structure

Keep in mind that you are working with 24, 32, or 40 pages for most picture books, with 32 being the hands-down favorite. Take three or four pages away because you need to accommodate front matter (like the copyright and title pages), and I’d say you have about 28 usable pages to work with.

When you are planning your picture book, imagine telling the story in individual pages (either the right or left side of the book, “profile” view) or spreads (both pages, “landscape view”).

How do you fill those pages? Spend five of them describing the character’s favorite ice cream flavor and how nice they are? NOPE. You need to dive right into story without wasting too much time. Preferably, you will jump straight into action. Here are two examples of common picture book structure that you can work with.

Picture Book Structure: Problem and Solution

When I was doing some speaking on picture books in 2012, I wrote a talk that incorporated simple Problem and Solution picture book structure. Basically, your character is introduced in terms of a problem they’re having. Then they make several attempts to solve the problem, before some kind of resolution. It looks like this, assuming that your book starts on page 4 because of front matter:

Page 4: Character introduction

Page 5 to 6: Conflict introduction

Page 7 to 8: Raise the stakes (establish why the conflict fights the character, what happens if they don’t get what they want, etc.)

Page 9 to 18: First two attempts to solve the conflict, story stakes rising

Page 19 to 26: Third and biggest attempt

Pages 27 to 29: Climax and success hanging in the balance

Pages 30 to 31 or 32: Resolution, reversal, final image (whether you go to page 32 depends on if you end the story on the right side of the page or after one more page turn)

Note: These page number prescriptions are a starting point for helping you map out your thinking, they are not a hard-and-fast rule.

Character Development in Picture Book Structure

Nobody cares what your character’s name is or what their favorite ice cream flavor is. Sorry. You do, but nobody else does. That’s not what makes them a character. Fancy Nancy was a character not because she liked poodles but because her whole driving passion in life was making ordinary things fancy. This is a characteristic that will fire up reader imaginations.

So once you’ve established a character with an objective (something they want) and motivation (why they want it), you can give them a conflict that grates against who they are. This makes the conflict more powerful, and gives them extra reason to want to solve it. Is also establishes stakes–what happens if they aren’t successful, why it matters.

Otherwise, if readers don’t understand why your specific conflict is a big deal for your specific character, your whole story won’t matter. But if you create a strong foundation that ties character to plot, their attempts to solve the conflict will be noble, and the classic Problem and Solution picture book structure will work well for you.

A Reminder About Preaching in Picture Books

But keep in mind something I mentioned above. Their attempts to solve the conflict. That means you’re writing a proactive protagonist who is going to drive the story.

Preaching in picture books is very tempting but a huge no-no. You need to empower your main character, rather than having wise old Grandma swoop in and solve everything.

Examples of Problem and Solution Picture Books

You can check out the following simple narrative books that may not hew to the page counts mentioned above, but which follow a relatively straightforward attempt/resolution structure:

CLICK, CLACK, MOO, COWS THAT TYPE by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin
A GARDEN FOR PIG by Kathryn Thurman and Lindsey Ward
LITTLE BLUE TRUCK by Alice Schertle and Jill McElmurry
TOAD ON THE ROAD: MAMA AND ME by Stephen Shaskan

Picture Book Structure: Symmetrical Paradigm

This idea for picture book structure comes entirely from Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s HOW TO WRITE A CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK: VOLUME I: STRUCTURE. Her writing on the topic of picture books is definitely worth investigating. I’ll summarize the structure here but won’t reveal several fine-point components, in fairness to their creator.

The Components of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Book Structure

This is a looser wrapper and more applicable to different types of story. It has a lot in common with the Problem and Solution structure, but there are some nuances. Here’s how it goes:

Act I: the Beginning or the set-up, about 20% of the story or 5-7 pages

Plot Twist I: a plot twist that separates the Beginning from the Middle

Act II: the Middle, or the primary action, about 60% of the story

Midpoint: a moment in the middle where the story splits into a “before” and an “after”

Plot Twist II: a plot twist that separates the Middle from the Ending

Act III: this contains the resolution or the Ending, about 20% of the story, or 5-7 pages

What I really like about this Symmetrical Paradigm is that it inspires writers to carefully consider what separates the different sections of their book, the plot twists and midpoint, which provide emotional layers to the character and story.

Examples of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Books

Bine-Stock cites many classic examples in her book, and her explanations are worth looking into. They include:

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak
CHICKA CHICKA BOOM BOOM by Bill Martin, Jr., John Archambault, and Lois Ehlert
IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE by Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond
GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd

Other Types of Picture Books

There are exceptions to every rule. While the above are good options for narrative-style picture books, those aren’t the only ones around. Non-fiction picture books are their own animal, and need to be organized according to the narrative structure of their subject matter (for example, in a picture book biography, the subject’s life is going to provide its own flow).

Concept picture books or picture books for very young readers often have their own structure, and it tends to be very repetitive. Alphabet books are obviously organized according to … the alphabet. And concept books like DUCK RABBIT by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld follow a Problem and Solution framework but only insofar as there’s a question asked, and then variations on an answer (or question) are given over and over. If you examine that example, there isn’t really a resolution at all.

Let’s dig into your own picture book project. Hire me as your picture book editor and get advice customized to your manuscript.

Writing a Proactive Protagonist

Writing a proactive protagonist is one of the single most important things you can do to set your novel up for success. I feel like I’ve been giving this note over and over in my freelance editorial practice lately: Your protagonist is too passive. They do not drive the plot. They are passenger, not driver. What is this problem and how can you address it? Read on!

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Your character needs a strong idea of where they’re going. They should be someone the reader will be compelled to follow.

Do You Have a Reactive or Passive Protagonist?

Novels are hampered when a “main character” takes a backseat to action. Higher concept plots are often vulnerable to this. (Because, remember, high stakes can be tricky.) If you have Ordinary Kid and you throw them into Extraordinary Circumstances, they are likely, a) not going to know what’s going on for quite a while, b) not going to know what to do, and c) going to rely on others for help.

You’ve perhaps made a plot that’s “too big” for your Everyman character. This thwarts them because they spend the entire novel either, a) learning the ropes, b) discovering their talents, and/or c) figuring out where the fit in.

Thematically, this makes sense, especially for a middle grade or YA novel. If every kid was self-assured at the beginning of their story, you wouldn’t have a relatable novel for tween and teen readers (who often feel incompetent or unsure). But it’s possible to make your character too impotent.

Take a look at your novel. Does your character spend a lot of time receiving instruction? Are there a lot of guide/mentor characters? Do events happen to your character, rather than your character making events happen?

You are in danger of having a passive protagonist. After a while, if the character doesn’t become “activated” and start acting with their own goals, desires, and agency, they are going to be the eternal backseat driver and their power to affect the story–and, more importantly, the reader–will evaporate.

Writing a Proactive Protagonist

No matter how unsure your protagonist is about their life, themselves, or their upcoming challenges, they still need to be a hero. For sure, this doesn’t have to happen immediately, or there’s no growth trajectory. But even better if there’s at least the hint of some confidence/ability at the beginning.

Everyone is good at something. And even if a character is not good at anything (or just believes they aren’t), they have a secret weapon that you shouldn’t hesitate to deploy: their desire or need.

Desires and needs are universally relatable and everyone has them. They come together to form your character’s objective and motivation. The objective is what they want, the motivation is why they want it. I define desires as things characters want, which can be external. Whether a physical object or an outcome. A need is something a character, well, needs on a deeper level, so it’s usually an internal conflict. They desire to win the championship but they need the validation such a coup would provide, for example.

The best thing about desires and needs? They make us brave and they make us active. I may not usually be outspoken (Ha! Obviously not speaking personally…), but if my desire is on the line, I’ll act.

Too many times, a character arrives on the page without strong desires or needs. “Ugh, I’m so ordinary. Ho hum. If only something good would happen.” This isn’t specific. Sure, everyone can relate to being bored, but boring characters are … boring. Sitting around and waiting for “something, anything” to happen is a prime set-up for a passive protagonist. This leaves them wide open to anything that comes along, but not really pursuing anything.

Instead, give your character strong goals and wants. Let’s see them chasing after something right away, even if it isn’t yet their central objective. And when the plot does kick in, solidify their objective, motivation, desire, and need. That way, even if the plot sweeps them along on a wild ride, they are always able to take proactive steps, they always have their eyes on the prize.

Better yet, the plot might threaten their objective. Then the stakes rise. They can’t lose X. They can’t sacrifice Y. They only have one shot at Z. Or else what? They go unfulfilled, because their deep need isn’t being met. If you have your character actively chasing, no matter what else happens, you give the impression of a hero.

Secondary characters and subplots help in this regard. A character can do things for others, or do things that dovetail with another plot thread. Ideally, all of these actions serve their core need (not every need should be 100% selfish, but you should always have strong personal reasons for selfless actions, too). If the primary plot puts your protagonist in a passive position for a moment, is there anything they can DO for anyone else?

Finally, too many writers hamstring their characters by not giving them enough information. Why? The misguided urge to save everything for a huge reveal at the 70% mark of the plot. Well, guess what? If readers aren’t compelled by a character or story right away, they won’t even get to the 70% mark. Too many writers withhold too much information, stalling until “the time is right” for a reveal. Instead, give your protagonist information earlier. Empower them. Allow them to act with some of the facts in hand. Otherwise, they’re sitting on their thumbs until you’ve decided to throw them a bone. This is a recipe for passive protagonist disaster.

Big Choices and Small Moments

Even if you can’t give your character a bunch of information or make them an ass-kicking hero from page one, you can let them be proactive from moment to moment. Study this article on writing active reactions. If they simply can’t participate just yet, at least let them be engaged. You’ll also want to take a few big risks and step outside of your comfort zone.

Keep training/explaining to a minimum, especially in the first 100 pages. It’s always better to have your protagonist act and pursue, even if they make a mistake doing so because they’re green or don’t have all the information yet. Really take a close look at all of these types of montages. I will bet that you can make some big cuts and redistribute key information elsewhere.

Perhaps the biggest choice you can make to empower your hero is to stop giving them so much help. The best friend who only exists to support them? Give that friend some nuance and conflict, or they’re just going to be boring scaffolding for your protagonist. The older, wiser mentor who gives the trainee the lay of the land? Let the character start to discover things for themselves, make assumptions, and get out there, ready or not.

Remember, fiction is life elevated. Big stories. Big characters. Big stakes. Most of us feel like we’re just along for the ride in our daily lives. When we come to get away from it all and read fiction, we want to see protagonists who take risks, make choices, chase dreams, and grow into their power. There’s definitely an aspirational component to relating to character. Make sure your hero is someone readers can be inspired by, warts and all, and put them in the driver’s seat. What are you waiting for?

Are you struggling with the intersection of plot and character? Hire me as your novel editor for actionable, hands-on manuscript advice tailored to your story.

Query Letter Webinar Registration Is LIVE!

The query letter webinar is coming up! As I posted a few weeks ago, I’m going to be trying a new webinar platform and running some independent webinars. This first webinar is “Writing an Irresistible Query” and focuses on nailing that oh-so-elusive document, the query letter. Registration is now live!

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Join Me for a Query Letter Webinar

My first-ever query letter webinar is a test run of the class, as well as a webinar software that’s new to me. If you join me for this first outing, I invite you to participate for FREE! All I ask is that you fill out a short feedback survey after the webinar to let me know how you enjoyed the experience.

The webinar will be held:

Saturday, September 29th, at 11 a.m. CDT

All you need is a computer with Internet access and the capability to play video and audio content. The webinar will feature me, speaking on camera, as well as a PowerPoint presentation.

Once you register, you will receive email instructions for joining the webinar live, or watching the recording after the event.

Please clink the link to register for my first-ever query letter webinar, or fill out the form embedded below:

Register for September 29th Query Webinar

Grab your spot. Seats at the live event are limited. You will receive email instructions for accessing the webinar once you sign up. Thanks!

 

If you can’t make that date or time, please register anyway. As a registrant, you will receive a link where you can replay the recorded program. Please note: Only the first 100 registered attendees will get to view the webinar live, so show up a few minutes ahead of time. There are already more than 100 registered listeners, two days after the link went live. If you really want to hear it live, please plan to be early. If you aren’t able to hear it live, you will still receive the recorded event via email later that afternoon.

Looking Forward

I love speaking and teaching, so I hope to bring you more webinars on topics like character, voice, interiority, queries, the agent submission process, etc. If I like this webinar platform (and this is where I’m especially looking for your feedback!), I hope to do one or two events per month.

In the future, different webinars will be free and paid. Paid webinars will always include critique of any relevant documents. For example, the query letter webinar will include critique of, of course, your query letter. To clarify, this September query letter webinar will not include query letter critique because my focus is on testing out the platform.

If you’d like personalized help with your query letter without the wait, consider hiring me as your query letter editor today!

Upcoming Virtual Conference and Webinar

I’ve been really getting into virtual conferences lately, like WriteOnCon. They’re a great (and economical) way of hearing some wonderful presentations without, you know, putting on pants and leaving the house. The best of both worlds!

With that in mind, there are two upcoming ways to hear me speak in September! One is run by the awesome Writer’s Digest University program. Another is something I’m launching independently, the very first of many webinars to come.

Writer’s Digest Middle Grade & Young Adult Virtual Conference

Coming up the weekend of September 14th, you can hear me and several other wonderful presenters discussing about topics specific to writing for middle grade and young adult readers!

My specific presentation, all about character development and the topic of interiority, will be on Saturday, September 15th, at 5 p.m. Eastern. You can learn more about it and register for the event here.

I hope you’ll join me there!

Brand New “Writing an Irresistible Query” Webinar

And then, for my next trick, I’m trying something new. I love speaking directly to writers and teaching live. I love it. But since I have a small child, traveling to a conference can get tricky. (Plus, there’s the whole putting-on-pants thing! What a drag it is to leave the house and make oneself presentable!)

So why don’t you stay in your house, and I stay in my house, and I will come to you! A webinar is the perfect venue for doing just that.

writing a query letter webinar, query letter webinar, how to write a query letter webinar

In the next few months, I will be ramping up a webinar program that allows me to speak directly to writers via an online video and audio presentation. Some webinars will be free, others will be paid (but include a critique element to really make them worth your investment). I love speaking, and I am so excited about this!

WHAT:  My trial run! And there’s seemingly nothing more interesting to aspiring writers than the query letter, so why not talk about that? In the future, my query letter webinar will be paid because I will also provide critique on attendee queries*. For my first outing, I’m really interested in testing the webinar platform and process, so this is a chance to hop on, hear the presentation, give me feedback, and do it all for FREE!

WHEN: Come join me for the first ever “Writing an Irresistible Query” webinar. Pencil me in on your calendar for Saturday, September 29th, at 11 a.m. Central time. The format will be about 40 minutes of presentation about queries, then some time for questions. (If you cannot make this date and time, the recorded webinar will be available to view at your leisure.)

HOW: More info on registering will appear on the blog in the next few weeks. Registration is first come, first served, and attendance is going to be capped to the first 100 people in the room, so keep an eye on this space! (If we reach the limit, all overflow attendees will be sent the recorded version a few hours after the event, but they won’t be able to ask questions or otherwise interact.)

I will be trying out a new webinar platform. The process promises to be seamless, from registration to email instructions to joining the webinar. You will not have to download any software to participate. The only equipment you’ll need is a computer with Internet access. I’m definitely interested in feedback from attendees on the logistics of the webinar. If you could fill out a brief survey after your experience, I would really, really appreciate it.

I look forward to connecting with you at one of these events in September!

* (To clarify, a critique will not be included with this September presentation because I’d really like to focus on creating the best webinar possible.)

 

How to Write a Novel Synopsis

The novel synopsis is a source of great consternation for many writers, and I completely understand why. To be honest, I hate writing them, I hate reading them, and I know I’m not alone. They are, usually, both crime and punishment. But they are a necessary evil for several reasons, which I’ll mention. Read on to find out how to take the sting out of this basic publishing skill.

synopsis writing, novel synopsis, how to write a synopsis
“Do I really have to read this thing? You read the synopsis! You read it and I’ll get you coffee for a week…”

What a Novel Synopsis Is and What It Does

A novel synopsis is, in very basic terms, a one-to-four-page document that explains every major plot point and character development moment. That’s it and that’s all. For such a short and simple document, it sure seems to stir up a lot of angst.

Okay, so maybe my perspective is biased. I’m sure not everyone hates the novel synopsis. I’m sure there are writers out there who write amazing synopses, and agents/editors who gobble them up. Don’t get me wrong, they serve an important purpose.

A synopsis demonstrates how you think about story, how you plot, and how you wrap everything up. These are very important skills. Wonderful pitches fall apart all the time in the execution.

Agents and publishers are curious to know:

  • that you have a lively cast of characters
  • that you are working with enough plot and subplot, or whether it’s too little or too much
  • that you’re building appropriate stakes and tension as the story progresses
  • how you plan on landing this thing once it’s going, whether everything will be resolved or you’re leaving some threads open for potential future stories
  • if you have any big red flags or fatal flaws in your story, which usually happen in the second half (see “Fair Warning”, below)

Some agents and publishers pay a lot of attention to the synopsis. Some glance at it. Others don’t even request one. No matter what, it would behoove you to have this document available in at least two lengths, to deploy when necessary.

How to Write a Strong Novel Synopsis

The best way to write a strong novel synopsis is to sit down and do it. Sorry! That’s it! There’s no secret magic dust that I can give you in this case.

Open a blank document and jot down all of the major plot events of your story. You can start in bullet points, if that helps, but eventually you’ll want to write them out in narrative format. Don’t worry about making it cute, pitchy, or voice-y. Your writing should be clear and tight. Just the facts, ma’am.  Be sure to fold in the three or four biggest character turning points, too. These are the changes your character goes through as they get where they’re going. My strong belief is that a synopsis will involve character somehow, to give a sense of how plot and protagonist play together.

For plot, at minimum, you want to hit your opening (the inciting incident that launches your story), a handful of strong points in the middle as things go wrong and obstacles arise, your climax, and your resolution.

Mention only those details that are necessary for clarity and understanding. If the mom’s job is important to the plot, include it. If the dog and cute neighbor factor into the story but not in a big way, you may want to leave them out. For the purposes of this document, you are running lean.

For all of my surprise and reveal fans: Sorry. I’m about to crush your dreams. But you have to reveal your twists and turns, and your ending. I know you want to tease, tease, tease an agent into reading the whole manuscript. You think that if you just withhold the major twist ending, they will fall over themselves to request and sink five hours of reading into your novel because the suspense will kill them otherwise. Well, catch-22, the odds that they’ll request the full and then get all the way to the end are slim if you don’t demonstrate that you know what you’re doing first and that your twist is worth it. (There are people who vehemently disagree and will fight me on this. You’re not changing my mind, but I fully expect to hear from you!)

Tips for Novel Synopsis Writing

The most common lengths for a novel synopsis are: one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages (roughly the same as one single-spaced page), two single-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages. The reason for this wishy-washiness is that different agents/publishers will request different things in different formats. I recommend having three synopses available to send when you start submitting: a tight one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages (this one will not be requested that often).

So you can attack this beast in one of two ways:

Option 1: You sit down and write your entire novel in one single-spaced page (you still need normal 1″ margins and paragraph spacing, so you can’t just use every available centimeter of space). This is the more difficult approach, because I’m guessing your novel probably has more than one page of material. So whittling it down so drastically is daunting. But doing it all at once is also very helpful, because once you’ve shrunk it, you can much more easily add some substance to make a longer synopsis for a two-page and four-page option.

Option 2: You sit down and you do the painful shave. Start with four double-spaced pages. Put down more detail than necessary. Introduce the bulk of your secondary and tertiary characters. Mention events that don’t have a lot of bearing on character change or plot stakes. Save this version. Open another document. Now you’re aiming for two double-spaced pages. Shave, shave, shave. Delete everything possible that doesn’t impact the reader’s understanding of your story. Save this version. Then single-space it and realize that you’re over one page. Now the real agony begins as you distill further. Save the one-page version. And voila! This is perhaps the more scenic route, but the destination is the same.

There is one great test of a synopsis that I recommend to everyone: Show it to someone who doesn’t know your story, and then have them explain your book to you. If they kinda sorta get it and are able to hit the major points, you’ve written a successful synopsis. If they start to squirm, you’re not being clear enough. Your synopsis is either too thin or too detailed.

The only way out is through, my friends. So sit down, embrace our love/hate relationship with this document, and let’s get started.

Fair Warning: Part of the synopsis’ job is to reveal story problems. If you write a synopsis and have trouble filling it with actual plot points, it might mean that your plot is too thin. If you can’t possibly omit any plot points and your synopsis is five pages, that might mean that the scope of your novel is too broad. Be prepared to learn that you might have bigger issues as you write this summary document. It definitely happens.

I had a client recently come to me for a 30-minute discussion of his query and opening pages. My big piece of feedback was, “I don’t know if this is a query problem or a novel problem, but I’m not seeing any plot here. Something should be kicking into gear in these opening pages, and the query should be covering more development than I’m seeing.” We moved on to a complete manuscript service and, guess what? There is very little plot, and that is a big issue. Keep your eyes and ears open as you prepare your synopsis documents, you might learn more than just how to write a novel synopsis.

I include synopsis comments with every service as a manuscript editor. If you’re really struggling with yours, let’s work on it together.

Now Hiring! Part Time Social Media and Web Marketing Associate

As my editorial business has grown (and grown, and grown), I have slipped behind in my social media and web marketing engagement. It’s time to fly the surrender flag: I can’t do it all by myself! You may have noticed that I’m also hiring an editorial and research assistant. Five years into my business, I can admit it freely and happily… There are only three things I like to do at Mary Kole Editorial: Edit, edit, and edit. There’s not a lot of room for anything else! So I’m looking to hire a part-time social media and web marketing associate to help support my business.

Laptop? Check. Coffee? Check. Facebook/Twitter/Insta? Check. I’m looking for someone with social media and web marketing tools and skills!

About You

Top priority is given to candidates who have professional SEO and social media marketing experience, whether self-taught or, ideally, corporate. Be prepared to discuss your success metrics. My ideal fit is someone who already works  in the startup or marketing space, or manages a portfolio of small business clients and does social media support as their primary gig. Any existing access to SEO tools like Moz, etc., is a big plus. Of course, publishing and/or writing experience counts here, but it isn’t the first thing I’ll look at, as this is a specialized position.

You must be comfortable with updating and maintaining profiles/pages on all of the major platforms. You will be creating content once or several times a week (negotiable) and stay on top of engagement. You’ll also be checking in with each platform regularly, managing responses, and identifying opportunities to grow profile presence.

About The Job

This blog has ten years of evergreen content that can be mined and packaged into “From the Archives” material. I’m interested in freshening up the SEO optimization for my most popular posts, as well as keyword research to make sure I’m not missing any opportunities. This is Phase I.

Once you perform an overhaul, the job becomes a maintenance gig: checking in with existing platforms, engaging with users, generating new social media posts and content (except new Kidlit blog posts, those are always going to be my territory), and otherwise keeping things fresh. This is Phase II.

I have several big projects coming up that will need an extra marketing boost, so support around these will be crucial. Long-term, I’m interested in maintaining, engaging, and growing my social media audience, and making sure the blog functions well to a) serve new and existing Kidlit readers, and b) dovetail with my editorial website. You’ll be working primarily with my Kidlit family of profiles, though this online presence is tied to my freelance editing business, Mary Kole Editorial, which is my primary revenue generator.

I’m hoping to monitor your concrete progress and strategize together using tools like Google Analytics. Marketing can be an art, rather than a science, but accountability and results are important here.

Logistics

Initially, our “warm up” period may involve more work, as you spruce up and fine-tune what already exists. Then, I hope to establish a maintenance relationship of several hours a week. That’s why I’m looking for candidates who already work in the space or manage a portfolio of other clients, ideally, because this isn’t going to be an especially meaty part-time position on its own.

Pay is negotiable, whether monthly flat rate or hourly. I have some numbers in mind but I’m very open to hearing your pitch. You can break your pricing out into separate fees for Phase I and Phase II, if that helps. This is a 1099 contract job. It can be performed remotely, but candidates must be legally eligible to work in the US. I’m looking for someone who can start immediately.

I’m specifically not looking for spam from dodgy overseas SEO companies. I get enough of that, as is. Since my primary audience is smart and literary, and I’m asking for new content, I’d prefer someone with impeccable English skills. Please be sure to demonstrate that you’re a real US-based professional who’s interested in this job in particular.

Please submit your social media and marketing resume, a cover letter with your proposal for my specific situation, and your pay requirements. Thank you very much for your interest!

Submit to: mary at kidlit dot com

Deadline for Submissions: September 7th, 2018