The Oxford Comma

This is a small bit of punctuation nerdery about the Oxford comma. Have you heard of this little guy? No? It’s this (bolded and italicized):

I like my scrambled eggs with lox, cheese, and chives.

oxford comma, serial comma
People tend to have strong feeling about the Oxford comma. Do you use it?

What is the Oxford Comma?

It’s that last comma before the last “and” (or sometimes “or” or “nor”) in a sentence with a list of three or more items. This is a smartypants comma, as it’s also sometimes called the Harvard comma (or the serial comma). And, of course, it has a Wikipedia entry. The big controversy is: Should we use it or shouldn’t we?

Do You Use the Oxford Comma?

I didn’t used to, but now that I have a Master’s degree and am pretty much a huge smartypants, I’ve started using it. (That’s just my theory for why I’ve added it to my writing…I think I started using it consistently about two years ago after seeing it somewhere and wondering, in my paranoid way, whether I’d actually been doing it wrong all these years. Just like I consciously changed the “a” character of my handwriting in middle school after seeing someone doing it differently because I thought I’d been in the wrong for years. Call it a grammar version of “keeping up with the Joneses.”)

There’s no consensus for whether or not you should or shouldn’t use the serial comma in your manuscript, but isn’t it wonderful to be aware of such civilized things and to make such überimportant decisions? Without thinking about commas, we turn into animals. Or cannibals, even! (I’m referring here to a funny comma omission that implicates Rachael Ray on a magazine cover…even though this isn’t an serial comma issue.)

Using commas correctly is only small part of writing good sentences. Follow the link for more advice for honing in on those details that’ll make your writing sparkle.

An exciting novel begins at the sentence level. Hire me as your novel editor and we will engineer great fiction together from the ground up, Oxford commas or not — your call. 😉

Best. Quote. Ever.

From now until forever, I am going to refer writers who ask me query questions to this quote. It comes from Andrea Brown, my brilliant boss and mentor, and it’s about query letters:

A query letter is like the perfect skirt: long enough to cover everything but short enough to be exciting.

I have worked with the woman for about two and a half years now and have never heard this gem. Where has it been all my life?

This Big Sur, I think, was my absolute favorite. Sure, it was at the Embassy Suites in Monterey (as our March workshops are) instead of the gorgeous Big Sur Lodge in Big Sur proper (as our December workshops are), and the weather spoiled on Sunday, but I think this mix of writers, faculty, and agency clients along for the ride was one of the best I’ve experienced.

A special shout out to Jamie Harrington and Pat Netzley, and to my wonderful colleagues. We missed two of our Jennifers (Mattson and Laughran) at this Big Sur. Fabulous faculty members like Ellen Hopkins, Eric Elfman, Mary Colgan, Anica Rissi, and Deb Wayshak shared their writing expertise with our group of just under a hundred attendees.

My two workshop groups inspired several blog post ideas which you’ll read in the near future. For right now, though, I’m going to catch up on my sleep after this exhausting weekend and start chipping away at my pent-up email. Today is a very exciting day for me in San Francisco, Berkeley, and the Napa valley, which all ties in to my secret new blog/professional project. Soon, my pretties, soon all shall be revealed! For now, delight yourselves with Andrea’s fantastic quote.

Remembering Lisa Wolfson

For any of my readers who aren’t also plugged in to the Twittersphere or other online kidlit writer and author hangouts, I just wanted to take a minute and collect some thoughts on Wednesday’s very sad passing of a phenomenal writer and ABLA agency client, Lisa Wolfson, who wrote under the name L.K. Madigan and authored two amazing books, FLASH BURNOUT (William C. Morris Debut YA Award) and THE MERMAID’S MIRROR, both from Houghton Mifflin.

She was 47 years-old, a 20-year breast cancer survivor, a mother, a wife, and taken from us too soon and too quickly by pancreatic cancer. I only had the pleasure of meeting Lisa once but am deeply saddened by her passing because she was just one of those people who shone so brightly that you couldn’t help but love her instantly. I know from the outpouring of love online that so many others felt this way. Here is a sample of their thoughts:

From Jennifer Laughran, Lisa’s agent.
From YA and adult author Sarah MacLean.
From Galleycat.
From OregonLive, her homestate news source.
From YA author Malinda Lo.
From PW Children’s Bookshelf.
From a photo album that friends made and sent to her.
From Kate Messner, fellow Jenn Laughran client.
From YA author Courtney Sheinmel, where she talks about the night in San Francisco when I met Lisa, as well.

Finally, from Lisa herself, a January blog post about her diagnosis.

Please keep Lisa’s husband, Neil, son, Nate, family, and friends in your prayers and thoughts. Neil has just posted on her blog about a trust fund set up for Nate’s college education, if you or anyone you know wants to make a difference in this family’s life and a contribution to Lisa’s memory.

Blogs, Get Your Blogs!

I’m sure some of you could see this coming. Long story short: I’m going to be branching out with not one but two new blogs. One now, one next month. I don’t expect a lot of my Kidlit audience to transfer over, because of the new blogs’ (in one case) slightly related and (in another case) not-at-all-related subject matters, but I’m writing about them here so that you know what I’ve been up to lately and so you can see some new directions in my career. I’m also telling you about my other online dalliances so you’ll come visit me and tell your friends.

The first blog, which I’m launching right this second is an extension of the Kidlit site but for digital children’s books and story apps, called…drumroll please


An obvious choice, right? You’ll see and immediately recognize the playful matching header by my client Josh Ferrin. Here, I’ll be posting app reviews, tech news, developer thoughts, industry insights, and the things I learn from diving headfirst into the digital book side of publishing, both as an agent as as a former dot-commer from the Silicon Valley. My goal for this blog is to ask a lot of digital book questions from the publishing/client advocate perspective. I’m breaking it out into a separate site because I think some of you guys would quickly tire of all the tech blah blah blah in favor of my usual writing/publishing/agenting tips.

The second blog is one I won’t talk about yet. It will keep the “…lit.com” branding of the other two blogs, but it will be about a totally different area of publishing and, gasp, one that lies outside the children’s book realm. (No, don’t worry, I will never, ever leave children’s books!) This will be about a special niche that is a sweetheart love of mine, and that I am going to start working on in the near future. This change isn’t inspired by anything major, really, or anything bad. My career in kidlit is going really well. I’m super happy. I love my kidlit contacts. So why this change? I’m sick of ignoring my life’s other great passion. More on that soon. Cue the mysterious music…

Out of wild curiosity, I’d love to know what my readers think this area of publishing might be. It’s something I have mentioned on this blog before. And, no, it’s not Green Day publishing. (Though I did go see American Idiot with Billie Joe Armstrong last night… I still hate the “story” of this one, but seeing Billie Joe on a stage again gave me crazy teen flashbacks.) Or Stephen Sondheim publishing. (I wish!) There’s not a large enough market sector of books about Green Day or Sondheim to keep a literary agent productive, unless you’re Green Day’s or Sondheim’s agent, though Sondheim’s Knopf books (FINISHING THE HAT is the first) are gorgeous. Please leave your guesses in the comments! 🙂

How does that change things here at Kidlit? You’ll hardly notice. But it will change my schedule, effective immediately. Before this, I blogged at Kidlit on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. In order to make these new blog ventures work, I’ll have to take one Kidlit day away. My new blogging schedule will be:

Monday: Kidlit

Tuesday: KidlitApps

Wednesday: Kidlit

Thursday: KidlitApps

Friday: Secret Project of Mystery and Wonder / The occasional article round-up, conference post, or random thing over at Kidlit

Plus, I have about two years of older posts here on Kidlit that are evergreen. I’m going to do a better job of highlighting those for my new guests while still adding content for my loyal, longtime readers. This way, I also won’t run out of things to talk about! More soon. In short, I’m ambitious and maniacally excited, as usual, and can’t wait to see what other mischief I can cause on “teh interwebs.” We’ll see how it goes, and you’ll hear more soon. In the meantime, check out my latest over at KidlitApps.com!


I first started writing this post on May 3rd, 2010 when my cat, Sushi, sixteen years old and in kidney failure, was really, really sick and I feared the worst. With all of your lovely hopes and prayers and support, I felt so blessed and grateful when she pulled through. After that, she would get sick every few months, but would always buck up after a course of antibiotics and a week of subcutaneous fluids.

Still, nothing lasts forever, and this recent bout was different. Sushi had been losing weight pretty steadily by the time she fell ill last weekend. This wasn’t the usual infection and she wasn’t her usual, cheerful, goofy Sushi self. She stopped eating, couldn’t really get on the bed, and gave up on her litter box.

When I took her to the vet last Monday, I walked away with pain medicine instead of antibiotics, and the heartbreaking instructions to take her home, spoil the hell out of her with cuddles and delicious food, but to bring her back, and soon, so she wouldn’t have to be in pain for too much longer. In the Death Cab for Cutie song “What Sarah Said” from their album Plans (most depressing album ever, seriously), Ben Gibbard sings, “Love is watching someone die.” As much as I wanted to protect myself, drag it out, keep her alive with drugs and fluids, I knew I had to do the loving, merciful thing.

Long story short, the vet just left after a very caring home visit, and my little cuddlebug is finally at peace. My eternal gratitude to Dr. Mollica at the Carroll Gardens Vet Group. I put together the most wonderful — if I say so myself! — play list as she fell asleep. “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” (Death Cab), “Magic” (Ben Folds Five), “Levon” (Elton John), “When I Fall” (Barenaked Ladies), and, finally, “Lullaby” (Ben Folds Five). Right now, as the music ebbs, I’m imagining her in one of those afternoon sunbeams she loved so much.

For almost exactly five years, I’ve been so incredibly lucky to share my life with two amazing cats. I lost Smokey to old age in July 2009, and it tore me apart to see Sushi fade from the same so soon after. A heart without a pet to love is truly a lonely thing, and I miss both of them so much. I always will. If this strikes a chord, please donate to the Humane Society of the Silicon Valley, the non-profit shelter that gave me both of my wonderful girls. I love them and every moment they’ve given me has been a joy and a gift. Even on this very sad day, I swear, I live an incredibly charmed life, in no small part because I got to be Sushi and Smokey’s “forever home,” as they say when you adopt.

I’ll let Ben Folds take it away perfectly because, well, he always does:

Goodnight, goodnight, sweet baby
The world has more for you
Than it seems
Goodnight, goodnight
Let the moonlight take the lid off your dreams.

Belated Inspiration for 2011

I promise not to get all weepy and new-age-y on you — I am Tough Agent Lady! (Some of the time…) — but there’s this amazing photographer called Meg Perotti who works in the SF Bay Area and she posted a wonderful, inspiring image on her blog to ring in the New Year. (MK trivia time: I love photography. I have written for a photography trade magazine called Rangefinder. I’m better at appreciating it than doing it myself, but I am an absolute sucker for a stunning photograph, especially portraiture, which is how I fell in love with Meg Perotti’s blog in the first place!)

It’s a bit small here but if you click on it, you can blow it up, print it out, and look at it often, because that’s what I’m doing. I know that New Year’s Eve was, like, a week ago, and everyone is already over it and back to work and slogging through and waiting for the next vacation, but, dang it, there’s too much that’s good and creative and powerful about life to let it streak by unnoticed!

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the bottom of this picture is the beeeeeeautiful city of San Francisco, which I will be visiting next week.

I got a nice month’s break from traveling in December and now it’s back to the skies. I’m flying to ALA in San Diego today for some fun, meetings, and face time with my Southern California colleagues Kelly, Jen, and Jamie. Then on Monday I’m up to San Francisco to see family and friends and to meet with my NorCal colleagues, Andrea, Laura, and Caryn.

For a belated Christmas present, I’m taking my mom to go hear Elizabeth Gilbert speak next Friday. (I think this Gilbert lady wrote a book? Something about eating? Just kidding. It’s pretty hilarious, actually: my mom just discovered EAT, PRAY, LOVE. I’m all like, “Remember that whole collective ommmmmm hovering over 2006? No? Oh well!”) Then it’s back to NYC for a whirlwind!

On January 17th, I’m doing my last Learning Annex class for now. It’ll be in the evening, somewhere in midtown Manhattan, and you can find a link to the event here. If you’ve already gone to one, this will be the same material: an overview of the children’s publishing marketplace. Come out, see me, and get your work critiqued! Next weekend is the Writer’s Digest Conference (see you at the Pitch Slam!), then Digital Book World (more on this next week), and the NY SCBWI. (I’m not speaking or giving a workshop, I’m doing the roundtable critiques on Friday, so I’ll be around all weekend, but I’m not doing any Saturday or Sunday sessions that people can show up for. You’ll just have to find me. Hint: I’ll be near the coffee…) That’s all within two weeks, folks!

Whew! It’s no wonder I’m finding so much calm, solace, and inspiration from Meg’s lovely thought for 2011! I hope you all enjoy it. See you next week with ALA updates.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Can you believe Thanksgiving is upon us?!

I certainly can’t. My mind is still halfway in sticky NYC August or cool, colorful September. What are these boots and jackets? What is this Christmas music piping into the coffee shop? Why are stores opening at 3 a.m. this Friday (!!!) to entice shoppers with big bargains? Where did fall go?!

Maybe time flew so fast because I’ve been doing so much flying, myself. From Florida to Illinois, from South Dakota to Wisconsin, from Louisiana to Ohio, I’ve checked off a lot of new states on my “Places to Go” map and met a lot of writers, organizers, and new friends in the process. (I’ve also eaten cheese curds, lobster, beignets, buffalo, and enjoyed a whole lot of wine!)

This week, I’m happy to be back in California for a while to enjoy friends, family, and my wonderful colleagues. The ABLit team will be congregating at Big Sur next weekend. (If you missed out on planning for December, March spots are still available for this intimate writers workshop with a great student/faculty ratio (and a gorgeous setting!). To find out more, click here. We’ve got the ABLit agents teaching, as well as big NY editors and beloved children’s book writers and illustrators. Marla Frazee’s going to be there in December! Squee!)

As for the blog, I’m taking today and Friday off to just hang out and relax after my hectic fall adventures. I’ve read a lot of great manuscripts, I’ve picked up a few great clients, I’ve sold some fantastic projects, and now it’s time to sit back and check in with myself and plan for next year.

This is, of course, the season of giving thanks, and I wouldn’t be anywhere without the love of my family, my friends (west coast, east coast, and everywhere in between!), my inspiring colleagues and amazing mentor, Andrea, and all the other meaningful relationships in my life. And Sushi, who is my little furry ray of sunshine. I’m grateful for my readers, too, who challenge me and ask the right questions and spread the word and make what I do on this website so fulfilling and interesting. I read my old posts all the time — to update them and post them as “from the archives” features on Twitter and Facebook (click the links to follow me or add me as a friend) — and it’s been really interesting to see how the blog has changed, how my opinions have shifted, how I’ve grown in the last year.

Not all changes have been for the best, though. From talking with colleagues and other friends in the agenting business, I know that the second year can be one of the most frustrating, especially with all of these fundamental shifts in the business and the bad taste of a recession still in the mouths of many publishers. I feel like I’m still finding my way, honing my judgment, getting the most accurate read on the industry and my own place in it. These are not new experiences for any agent, but this fall has seen projects I love go unsold, manuscripts I love go to other agents, and clients become former clients.

This, of course, is part of building a career, and I’m keeping my usual longview perspective. I’m also reinvesting time and energy in myself and my passion for writing, teaching, and publishing. This spring, I’ll see the wonderful milestone of the first actual books I’ve sold hitting shelves! (The months are March and May and the books are PELLY AND MR. HARRISON VISIT THE MOON by Lindsay Ward and BUGLETTE, THE MESSY SLEEPER by Bethanie Murguia.) I think that will help a lot with this odd in-between feeling.

Just like writing is a journey, and life, it should come as no surprise that agenting is full of ups, downs, lessons, and revelations. I hope to share some of those as the blog moves forward, and as I wrap my head around them!

As for December, I have loads more questions to answer from the last time I reached out for question ideas. I’ve also been reading a lot, so I will recommend some books that I think are especially wonderful from fall and from the upcoming spring season. My travel schedule in the next few months is nowhere near as hectic, so look forward to an engaging and tranquil December, with regular posts. For all of you finishing up NaNoWriMo novels…good luck sprinting to that 50k finish line!

Thank you, thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to all who read, enjoy, and support kidlit.com. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

My Year of Living Digitally

Digital nesting dolls: MacBook Pro, MacBook, iPad (in black case, nuzzling Kindle), Kindle, iPhone.

Here’s a list of the computer stuff I had last week: MacBook Pro, MacBook, iPad, and iPhone. Plus, the black sheep of the Mac family: Kindle. The MacBook Pro is my “desktop” computer; it sits on my desk in my home office. The MacBook is my travel laptop. The Kindle is my submissions reader. I love flicking through requested fulls on it, as I tend to skim more when I read on the computer, and the ereader focuses my attention.

In April of this year, I let myself get swept up in the iPad tsunami that rushed through the media. It didn’t help that my boyfriend is a Mac fanatic and wanted to get one first thing. So we went and stood in line on the first day, having reserved our iPads online the previous week, and participated in what can only be described as a circus of consumerism.

When we walked into the echo-filled glass lobby of the Apple store in the Meatpacking district in Manhattan, all of the dozens of gathered Apple employees cheered. I felt like a rock star. The only thing missing was paparazzi as I made my way to the third floor. About $700 later, I had my iPad, my case, and a sincere “Congratulations!” from an Apple employee. They wouldn’t let us leave until they’d shown us exactly how excited they were to have our money. Some were giving out handshakes, others high-fives. It was a rush!

But it didn’t last. The only thing I wanted from my iPad was a MacBook replacement. The iPad weighs 1.5 pounds, about two pounds less than the laptop, and slips easily into a purse. More battery life means I don’t always have to lug around the charger.

While iPad fit the bill in terms of its portability, it let me down in all other areas. I edit manuscripts using Word and its Track Changes function. A lot of other agents and most editors do this. Pages, the word processor on the iPad, doesn’t have Track Changes or a similar function (yet…Pages for other Mac platforms has Track Changes, but I haven’t heard wind of an update like this for iPad). So I can’t bring manuscripts to edit when I travel with iPad. And the backlit display, even though I turned the brightness down, hurt my eyes after long periods, so I couldn’t use my iPad for submissions, either.

The other issue was the keyboard. When I took the iPad with me to editor meetings, I would then have to spend hours, in some cases, correcting typos and getting the notes in order afterward. Every third word or so would be illegible, and sometimes I lost whole swaths of my notes just because I was trying to type quickly…and looking at my hands the entire time!

The iPad was good for presentations. I’d have my talks loaded on it and would scan through them at the flick of a finger as I spoke. It was light enough to hold in one hand or prop up on a podium. I also loaded my clients’ artwork on it and showed art to editors that way during meetings.

But, even though it was useful in two small areas, it still wasn’t doing everything I wanted. So what did I do? For most trips, I brought my iPad (for presentations and art demos), my Kindle (to read submissions on the matte e-ink screen), and my MacBook (to edit client manuscripts with Track Changes).

Instead of getting a gadget that replaced two others (ereader and laptop), I wound up using three gadgets. In wanting to take a step forward and be more efficient, I’d ended up taking a step back. And it’s not like travel is a small part of my life — I’m flying every single weekend from October to December. The same with meetings — it’s a rare week if I don’t have anything scheduled with an editor.

So last week, when the new MacBook Air debuted (less than an inch thick, a full keyboard, long battery life!), I finally did what I should’ve done a lot earlier. I sold my iPad and my MacBook, and defrayed over half of the Air’s cost. So after an interesting six month experiment, I’m back to two: my Air for traveling and meetings, and my Kindle for reading requested material. I figure that I can put my talks on my Kindle and scroll through them that way, and that I can give editors an art show on my Air.

I can’t say I’m pleased with the iPad, overall. And I really dislike apps. I think most apps, unless you need them for a specific work function, embody exactly what I experienced by adding the iPad to my life: they make things more complicated instead of more simple. I like to make grocery lists on the backs of index cards. Sure, there’s an app for that, but do I really need to take every single aspect of my life to the digital realm?

I don’t mean to sound hopelessly old-fashioned. I grew up in the Silicon Valley and, in fact, a lot of the people telling me that I need these apps and widgets in my life are friends and former colleagues. But I don’t care. Nor do I need a gadget that’s, basically, one giant store made to sell me things I don’t need. Let the app developers make their millions (I hope, by licensing my clients’ books!), but leave me my analog grocery list.

I could’ve probably held on to the iPad in order to track how ebooks, book-related apps, and book-related games are developing, but it’d be collecting dust for a while that way. In my opinion, the iPad is ahead of its time and trying to usher in a technological revolution that most people (publishers) aren’t ready for, and some people (me) just don’t want. The revolution is coming, of course, and I’m staying on top of it because agents in this new digital world have to and their clients need them to, but I’ve decided that the iPad and all of its bells and whistles really doesn’t belong in my life.


Hey all! I’m going on vacation! Later today, I’m jetting off to Ireland and Scotland to drink Guinness, eat fish and chips, flounce around haunted castles, drink Guinness, delight in authentic brogue, and otherwise have a great time. I’ve been to Dublin before, but never to Edinburgh, so this will be an exciting trip that mixes old favorites with, I hope, new ones. I also have a client in Scotland…and we are, of course, cooking up appropriate shenanigans.

Long story short: I will not be monitoring the blog, reading comments, responding to emails, or doing any of my usual deskbound stuff until the week of September 13th, and even then, you’d be wise to give me some time to catch up on all my correspondence.

I do have posts scheduled for the duration of my vacation, so the blog will carry on in my absence. However, if you are new to Kidlit.com and have never commented before, your comments will go into my moderation queue until the week of the 13th and won’t be posted on the site until I have a chance to check them out.

You can still query me and send me emails and all that good stuff, just know that I’ll be blithely ignoring them until I get back to New York.

In the meantime, don’t forget to sign up for my Writer’s Digest webinar, which is happening on Thursday, September 23rd. You can enroll by clicking here. It’s the next best thing for all of you who have been waiting to see me live…and you don’t have to leave your pajamas! If you have to miss the live event itself and can’t call in, you can always register for the webinar and have access to the recording of it for one full year.

I pledge to answer all questions posed to me, either during the seminar or later, in writing, and, as a registered student, you will get a critique of the first 500 words of MG or YA novel or the first 300 words of your picture book manuscript, depending on what you’re writing. If I get a good turnout for this webinar, Writer’s Digest will host me again, and  you know how much I love getting teaching opportunities, so tell your friends!

Speaking of Writer’s Digest, if you pick up an October issue or order one online, you’ll find a mini-profile of me in the “27 Agents Looking for New Writers” cover feature. I’m on the “annual hot list”! Hot dog!

In Case You Missed It…

In case you missed it, I did my first-ever vlog for WriteOnCon, which was last week. If you haven’t gotten over there to read any of the content, do yourself a favor and block out the afternoon today. There’s so much good stuff. Also of interest might be the chat transcript from my session with agents Suzie Townsend and Joanna Stampfel-Volpe and Simon Pulse editor Anica Rissi, which you can find here (to access the chat transcript, click the play button in the screen…it will play an ad and then it will load the content and you can scroll through it).

There’s also a secret about this video. Some of my clients know it and urge me not to share. I have to admit, I’m intrigued by maintaining the mystique a while longer. Sorry, readers!

In other WriteOnCon news, the organizers had over 11,000 visitors to the website for the three-day conference. Wowza! That’s huge! To keep a good thing going, they are planning on hosting some ongoing events, contents, and chats, and I will, of course, participate more. Look out for more good WriteOnCon stuff, coming up.

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com