What “Show Don’t Tell” Really Means

“Show Don’t Tell” is the old adage you hear in every writing class, workshop, critique group and probably on some things you’ve had edited, rejected or submitted in your lifetime.

“Show don’t tell,” says the editor or agent or well-meaning crit partner. “You know, this really is an issue of showing versus telling,” says the writing teacher. Well, we all know that showing is good and telling is bad. But do we really know what that means?

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Adjust those glasses because I’m about to blow your mind.

“Show Don’t Tell” Examples of Telling

The common rhetoric is too general. Here’s what it means and, more importantly, why it’s important.

Let me give you an illustrative example of showing v. telling. I’m not saying this is the end-all and be-all, or even that well-written, but I’m hoping you’ll see the difference. Here’s telling:

Katie was so hungry she could eat a horse. She bellied up to the diner counter, her stomach rumbling. If she didn’t eat now, she’d die. It felt like an empty pit had opened up inside her. “A burger, please!” she shouted.

Karl, working behind the counter, looked at the newcomer with disdain. He really hated people who came up and bossed him around, even if they were supposed to always be right. He procrastinated as much as possible with restocking the silverware caddy. Then he wasted some more time wiping down the counter. Finally, he came over to the girl who he didn’t like very much. “Would you like fries with that?” he asked, ironically, a fake smile on his face.

“Show Don’t Tell” Examples of Showing

Now let’s try showing on for size:

Katie ran up to the counter and gripped the edge hard. It felt like a pit had opened up inside her. “A burger, please!” she shouted.

Karl barely registered her from behind the counter. Screw “the customer is always right,” he thought, glancing at Benny, the fat manager. He opened the dishwasher and pulled steaming hot forks out one by one. Then he noticed a coffee stain on the counter that had to be rubbed twice, three times, four. The new girl wove in her seat like she was about to pass out. Victory. Finally, he met her eyes. “Would you like fries with that?”

Digging Deeper Into Showing and Telling

What do you notice? In the first one, the characters’ emotions are very obvious. Why? The narrator tells you all about them. We know Katie is hungry and we know Karl really isn’t digging the bossy way she ordered a burger. That’s fine. It works. It gets the information across, right? (In a very redundant way, mind you!)

What about in the second example. Did we still get that same information? Now what about it is different, then? There are a few things. First, we were able to get “hungry” without anybody saying the word. The rush on Katie’s part to get to the counter combined with a little bit of interiority about what she’s feeling and then matched to her shouting out an order. We’re pretty sure she’s hungry or, at the very least, that something urgent is going on.

Using Interiority: Thoughts, Feelings, Reactions

We get more into Karl’s head here. We get his tension with the manager and his attitude about a common customer service adage right away. He won’t even look at the customer. Instead, he busies himself with painstakingly removing forks “one by one” or the tally of how many times he wipes the counter. These drag out the scene without once using the word “procrastination.”

We also get more of Katie’s hunger from his perspective, and how it makes Karl feel. That way, his rehashed “Would you like fries with that?” still comes across ironically, though, this time, it’s because we know what’s been going on in his head much more intimately. This is called interiority.

How Readers Receive and Know Information

This brings me to why showing v. telling is so crucial, why so many writing teachers and agents and editors and crit partners harp on it: there are many kinds of knowing. One kind of knowing, you get by reading facts in the newspaper. You are a passive recipient of information.

Another kind of knowing, the kind you practice every day in your life, is the detective work kind. You have to do some reasoning, some sleuthing, you have to actively pay attention to what’s going on around you — what the world is showing you — in order to figure people out, judge a situation, make your own assumptions and decisions about things.

This is the exact kind of “knowing” that you’re interested in giving your reader. By showing them a scene, showing them what’s going on in a person’s head, giving them information but embedding it below the surface, you’re inviting your reader to put their thinking cap on, to dive into your story and go deeper. The reader had to work in the second example to figure out what’s going on with both Katie and Karl.

Guess what? That made them feel like they knew the characters better, it made them more engaged in the story and it gave them a sense of ownership of these people and their scene. Since the reader did some work to figure out what was going on, they now feel included, emotionally invested. Cool, right? And every author should pick creating that experience for their reader over just telling them stuff with every sentence they write.

An Exception to the Rule

Showing v. telling with a person’s interiority in third or first person narration is one small exception to the rule. I know some of you will ask why I still chose to tell the reader “It felt like a pit had opened up inside her” in the second example, too. There are some times when you can show too much. If you’re always saying “she punched the wall” or “she spat on the ground,” for example, instead of occasionally just saying what the character feels inside, it can get overwhelming. You don’t have to say “angry” outright, but you can simply tell the reader what’s going on with narration instead of action or gesture. Sometimes that’s easier and more direct.

It all depends on where you want the focus of each moment to go. And it is a balance. Play around with it. Now that you know why showing v. telling is so crucial in your writing, you should really, at least in the beginning, err very much on the side of showing.

Struggling with your balance of showing, telling, and interiority? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll apply these concepts in a completely custom way to your manuscript.

How to Write a Novel Plot in Four Steps

Many writers get stuck on how to write a novel plot. How do I know? I’ve seen thousands of plots, and very few that worked well enough to sell. Plot is one of the most important elements of any story, from picture book to chapter book to middle grade to young adult.

Novels are quite the tricky kettle of fish. We’ve already talked about character, but characters mostly add internal conflict to a story when left to their own devices. They sit and contemplate how lonely they are, or how unpopular, or how much they want something exciting to happen. So what do we do? We give them external conflict: plot.

How to Write a Novel Plot in Four Key Points

I’ve had the tremendous luck to study with middle grade author Lewis Buzbee in my MFA program. Not only is he a very talented writer but he’s an excellent teacher. This way of looking at plot is cribbed almost entirely from him, because I think it’s just that good. (But he often gives this workshop in person and, if you ever get the chance, do listen to him talk about it… my version will be a pale imitation.)

So, basically, what Lewis teaches and what I believe is that there are only four key points to a plot. This is that “dramatic arc” that you hear so much about. Some writing teachers subscribe to a “three act” structure, some like five acts, some like to choreograph your plot right down to what should happen in a story when. I think these micromanaging techniques miss the point.

All The Novel Structure Your Need, With None of the Gimmicks

Put whatever you want in your plot, run your characters through the story that’s in your imagination, but when you’re reading your manuscript over again, make sure it adheres to this very simple arc:

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Memorize this little graph so you’ll know when to zig instead of zag in your plot.

Do you like my lovely drawing? I never said I was visually gifted, mind you. Let me explain what’s going on here, point by point:

  1. Normal: This is your character’s baseline. At the beginning of a story, your character is usually their normal self in their normal circumstances (as much as possible). Something has probably happened to knock them off balance but they are making do. They might even be doing well. Even if they’re starting on their first day at a new school, they’re making a friend or two, they’re not completely failing their classes, they discover a magic shop where the owner seems very interested in them, etc. This leads us to…
  2. The Rise: This, for the near future, is as good as your character is going to get. You want to spend some time, maybe the first quarter of your story, building relationships, exposing your character and their goals and motivations, creating a world and planting all the seeds of plot, story, theme and character that will be important later. If your story is longer, maybe spend only the first 1/5th or 1/6th here. Then get ready for…
  3. The Fall: But things were just moving along so nicely! Oh well. We don’t pick up books to read about nice people in calm, tranquil situations. All that stuff that you’ve established in the first quarter, fifth or sixth of your story… screw it up. Things go from okay to bad, from bad to worse, and from worse to impossible. The character’s relationships get troubled, their goals and aspirations are thwarted at every turn, they make dumb decisions and have to deal with the consequences, etc. The very bottom of this point on the graph is usually the climax of the story, aka. when things seem hopeless or so bad that they can’t get any worse. Then, the character triumphs, and…
  4. The Evening Out: No, not a nice night out on the town with a date. This is the getting back to some kind of equilibrium again. It shouldn’t be the same equilibrium because, hopefully, your character has changed over the course of their journey. It is a new normal, a new way of living and thinking and existing in the world of the story.

There you go. Now, you’ll notice that the graph outlines more of an emotional journey than specific plot points.

Focus on Character Emotions to Get the Most Out of Your Plot

Unfortunately, I can’t sit here and tell you all the things that must happen in your story. I don’t know. They have to be born from the character who’s starring in your book and the story that you want to tell. But take this four-point structure to heart and make sure that the plot you’re creating puts your character in roughly this emotional state over the duration of your story.

How you get them to these emotional highs and lows, to these particular experiences, is up to you, but make sure you’re massaging and revising your story into the above shape. It is the most effective and a great starting place, even if you do want to experiment later.

How to Write a Novel Subplot

Subplots don’t need to be quite as dramatic — the highs shouldn’t be so high, the lows shouldn’t be so low — and they don’t have to span the whole length of the book, but do make sure that they follow some semblance of this graph, too. Subplots are usually generated by secondary characters. Let’s say the plot of your book is American Pie-esque… a guy, Joe, trying to get laid before the end of his senior year in high school.

That quest will form the main plot. Let’s say, though, that he’s got a best friend, Sam, who can’t seem to stop getting laid, and he’s been hiding all his various girlfriends from each other.

Sam’s subplot is that he wants to simplify his life and get rid of some of his attachments. This subplot could interact with the main plot because Sam might try to pawn off girls on our hero Joe, for example, or one of the girls pretends to like Joe just so she can get back at Sam. So subplots usually belong to other featured characters in your story and have this same trajectory. The moments when they interact with the main plot should serve to move the main plot along.

Leave Room for Tension, Mystery, and Surprise

This brings me to my last consideration about how to write a novel plot. Readers like to be surprised, they like suspense, they like the unexpected. Your plot shouldn’t be so linear. That’s why I like using the emotional highs and lows of your story for guidance. For me, as long as you hit these emotional points, there’s a lot more room and flexibility for an interesting plot. Ally Carter, in a workshop I went to, talked about surprises. They’re characters and plot points that dig into the story you’re telling and spin it around, shooting it off in a completely different direction.

Make sure you’ve got key places in your story where a character or event acts like a bumper car and sends the story in a new or unexpected place. Let’s say Joe, our high school virgin, is about to ask his dream girl to the prom — where he’ll try to seal the deal — but she asks Sam, blissfully unaware of his Hugh Hefner tendencies. Now Joe is caught between his loyalty to Sam and wanting to save Dream Girl from Sam’s clutches. This creates a whole new wrinkle in the story.

Complications! Surprise! You don’t have to be zany for the sake of zaniness here, like I have been, but do try to keep the tension and suspense of surprise alive and well in your story.

Wondering what to do with your specific novel plot? Get one-on-one,  in-depth feedback on your manuscript when you hire me as a fiction editor. I can look at your synopsis, a partial, or your whole novel to really drill into how you’re using plot.

How to Create a Character

Today in Revision-o-Rama, I want to talk about how to create a character. What makes a good one? A publishable one? First, let me say: book elements do not exist in isolation. Talking about them one by one is just the way I’m organizing my posts this month. So a stellar character must be put into action with great plot and dialogue, a fascinating plot must have great characters to act it out, etc. etc. etc. Character, for me, is most important, so I’m starting here.

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How to create a character who’ll engage and dazzle young readers.

How to Create a Character

Every story has a main character. If the story is written in the first person, the character is also the narrator. If it is in third, I’d argue that there still needs to be a main character to anchor everything, even in omniscient narratives. (Or two main characters… LEVIATHAN is a good example of a narrative balanced fairly equally between two characters.)

A character-driven book usually focuses on your character and their life, and it is the character who dictates what the plot is. Other books toss a character, a John Everyman, say, into an aggressive outside plot that determines the course of the book.

Questions for Character Development

In either case, I say that the writer needs to have answers to the following questions:

  • What is your character’s nature? Are they shy? Gregarious? A homebody? A great girlfriend? A backstabber? (Examples of personality and nature are endless…)
  • What is your character’s physicality? Are they fat? Thin? Awkward? Do they have some kind of physical issue? Are they a slouch? (Also endless…)
  • What is your character’s self-esteem? Is there something about themselves they want to change? Why?
  • What are your character’s secrets? Are there things they’ve never told anyone? Do they wish they can tell someone? Why?
  • What does everyone else know (or think they know) about your character? Is it true? What does your character wish everyone knew about them? Why?
  • What are your characters goals in life and moment to moment? Their wants in life and moment to moment? The character’s needs in life and moment to moment? Their frustrations in life and moment to moment? Why, for all of the above?
  • What is their motivation in life and moment to moment? Why?
  • What is their “normal” baseline? What is life usually like? (This usually gets disturbed pretty early on in the story.)
  • What are your character’s relationships with other characters? What is the most important relationship? The best? The worst? The most fulfilling? The most frustrating? The one the character most wants to change? The one that will never change? Why?
  • What is the character’s unique perspective on life? (I will talk more about this when I talk about voice.)
  • What is the character’s past? What is their present? What is their future?

Character Development Exercises

When you’re reading your book over, feel free to use some of the above questions as writing exercises to brainstorm. I’ve tried to avoid questions that would trigger simple “yes” or “no” answers. Drill deeper than that. You probably don’t have to be so thorough about every character in your book.

You don’t really need to spend valuable time figuring out the deep, life-defining secret of the guy your character borrows a pencil from on page 37, for example. But your main character? Yes. The important parent/guidance figure? Yes. The best friend? Yes. The love interest? Yes. The enemy? Yes.

When you start brainstorming, you’ll be surprised at what you find out. That’s the great thing about creating (See? You do get to be creative during revision!). When you start thinking about some of these things, your mind will just come up with answers you never anticipated. And they’ll feel right. Give it a try. Maybe answer one of these questions a day. When you comb back over your draft, figure out places where you can reveal whatever answers you want your readers to know.

Character Development Brainstorming

A lot of these things may never make it into the manuscript itself. And a lot of them, like the goals and motivations, will come out in scene, but below the surface. A character’s past will emerge through backstory. Relationships will come out in dialogue and plot. Secrets and yearnings, other private thoughts, will come out in narration (if in first person… if you’re writing in close third, the narrator can peek into your character’s head).

I’d say that, out of the above questions, the answers that will make a huge difference to your story page by page are the questions of goals/needs/wants/frustrations and their motivation. A human being changes from moment to moment. In one scene with their crazy mom, they might want to stick it to The Man. In another, they might just want a parent who can listen to them.

Character Objective and Motivation

As you go through your plot and through ever scene, ever action your character takes, think about what’s driving them in this moment. What needs/wants/goals/frustrations are in play. Those will usually factor into why they’re doing something — the motivation. And every scene and moment in your story — as well as the larger story arc — needs motivation.

Now, the tricky part is, all this stuff is hidden. We never walk into an argument with someone saying: “I want such and such and I plan on yelling at you until you give it to me!” No. First we might flatter. When that doesn’t work, we might get nasty and say something mean. When that backfires, we’ll try to guilt trip the person, and so on and so forth.

In college, I got a theatre degree (as well as an English degree). It was the best thing I ever did because I got to take playwrighting and acting classes. I highly, highly recommend this to any fiction writers, because you figure out just how essential motivation and goals and actions are to character.

Character Development and Subtext

If you think about the stage, every moment has to be alive, to keep the audience engaged (and awake). How to do that? Lots of tension, lots of subtext. Every moment has to have something larger running underneath it. This comes from a character’s wants and needs. If you put two people who usually like each other into a scene and they want totally opposite things underneath the surface… voila! Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!

We all understand this on a fundamental level. There are very few times when we’re just bantering with someone without any ulterior motives. That sounds bad but it isn’t. We are all built to care about our goals/wants/needs/frustrations a lot. And when we do things, we’re primarily motivated by what will serve our goals/wants/needs/frustrations. Be aware that your character would, too. That’s how to create a character, in a nutshell.

From moment to moment and scene to scene, make sure you map out their goals/wants/needs/frustrations and see what their motivation is at the beginning of the encounter. What do they want? What are they going to do to get it? Do they get their objective by the end of the scene? (Sometimes they will, but that’s boring… it’s better if they don’t and then they have to try something else, try another action, fall flat on their faces again… Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!)

Character Development and Plot

And so, with a character who is fleshed out and has strong motivation, you can start to string together scenes and moments. As you go back through your work, make sure you know what’s operating below the surface, what’s important and at stake for each character. What each character is really doing in a scene.

If you have a lot of scenes of people hanging out, making small talk, not moving toward their goals, not caring about their wants or needs, not advancing away from their frustrations… you’re probably creating less tension than you could be. Go scene by scene, moment by moment. And always keep your character’s interests at the front of your mind. This way, you slowly start assembling next week’s topic: plot!

Want personalized help with how to create a character? Come to me for book editing services and we can dig into your protagonist together.

What Is The Best Time of Year to Query a Literary Agent?

Wondering what’s the best time of year to query an agent or send a submission letter? You’re in luck! Erinn wrote in to me a little while ago to ask:

What’s a good time of year to query? I know the week between Christmas and New Years is terrible, since agents across the country are enjoying time with their families and avoiding their computers at all costs. Besides the holidays, is there a time that you get very busy? Is it a few months after NANOWRIMO? Or at 12:02 am on December 1st does your inbox get flooded? Should writers avoid flu season in case you get sick and you’re in “I hate life and everything about it” sort of mood? Are there any major holidays that fill you with joy, like Arbor Day, that someone might be more likely to get past the Publishing Gate Keeper?

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January 1st is the best time of year to send a query letter. JUST KIDDING! Please don’t do that…

The Best Time of Year to Query a Literary Agent Is…

Erinn’s is a charmingly-put question but one I think a lot of writers wonder about. There are two times of the year when I’d avoid sending queries if I was on the agent search. The first, as Erinn mentions, is the holiday season. Publishing mostly slumbers from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, so a lot of agents are using this time to catch up with work, read manuscripts and get all of our affairs for the upcoming year in order.

Plus, you know, we have to pop in at Mom and Dad’s, shovel some turkey in our gullets and figure out how to keep reading manuscripts over pumpkin pie. Queries tend to fall by the wayside during this time. As Erinn so astutely guesses, a lot of the queries coming in after 12:01 a.m. on December 1st will also be for NaNo novels. As I mentioned in my NaNoWriMo post earlier this month, a lot of NaNo novels are not finished come November 30th. They haven’t been revised yet.

So the people who query them around anyway are most likely going to get rejected. NaNoWriMo queries are usually the slushiest slush in the slush, so we tend to not prioritize those as highly on our holiday To Do list.

Avoid the Holidays, and January, and February, and August… Or Just Query When You Query

I’d add that you probably don’t want to query the first few weeks of January either. People are just getting into the swing of things. Agents are pitching a lot of projects that they maybe held off on pitching during the holidays. We’re doing lots of business. Queries usually drop off the To Do list here as well.

Finally, there’s a partially-true myth about publishing shutting down in the month of August. While some editors report working just as hard as ever in the late summer, it is usually true that not a lot of business gets done around that time. Agents are also using this lull to catch up and read manuscripts and get affairs in order, so queries are usually put off.

As for the rest of Erinn’s question… like whether you should take flu season into consideration or if there is a scientific formula for a good time to query, I say: don’t worry about it.

There Is No Perfect Time to Send a Query Letter

The dirty secret is: You’ll query when you query and then it’s out of your hands. The person you queried could break their arm the next day, or drink 15 shots of espresso and race through the slush immediately. There’s really no way to control a submission’s fate once you release it into the world. The best thing you can do for your query letter, is to polish, perfect and truly revise the hell out of the manuscript it’s pitching.

If you get way too into timing this, and you thrive on le control, you may as well avoid the second week of January (ALA Midwinter), the last week of January (SCBWI NYC), the last week of March (Bologna Children’s Rights Fair), the end of May (BEA), the end of June (ALA), the end of July (SCBWI LA), etc. etc. etc. I mean, we’re always going to be busy with one thing or another, so you really can’t predict an optimum time. Getting to the slush in a timely manner is our issue, not yours.

Let me be your publishing consultant. Let’s plan your next steps, put a rock solid submission strategy into place, and address all of your publishing questions. It’s okay if they’re neurotic. I promise.

“But So Many Crappy Things Get Published!”

When I give advice and say that a manuscript has to be amazing to get published, this is the first thing people usually say. Believe me, I’ve let myself think this plenty of times, usually when a fantastic manuscript from one of my clients gets rejected. (Yes, agents get rejected… We submit manuscripts to editors and they reject our submissions, too…)

But the simple fact of the matter is, there’s no accounting for taste. And there are a lot of readers out there. Publishers have to cater to specific audiences and specific interests. If a paranormal NASCAR romance novel isn’t for you, it very well could be for plenty of other people (in fact, the sad truth is, it’ll probably find more readers than your achingly beautiful literary masterpiece, but such is life). That doesn’t make the paranormal NASCAR romance crappy. It just means you have standards. (Just kidding!) And if the writing on a bestselling vampire series, let’s just say, cough, isn’t up to snuff, that’s probably because the idea was so commercial that it came first and the literary nature of the writing came second.

There’s a time for writers to be very aware of the marketplace. It’s when they’re reading analytically or researching comparative titles or getting to know what’s getting published today and what the trends are. There are other times, though, when a writer needs to shut the marketplace out, stop comparing themselves to other books and writers (many of who are more successful, simply because they’re further along in their careers… by the same token, though, all the pitfalls and struggles they’ve had aren’t exactly written on their cover flaps for all to read, so you never know) and focus on the work of writing. Because let’s face it, “But so many crappy things get published!” is a refrain for the bitter. It’s usually uttered after a rejection or a critique. And who wants to be bitter?

If you follow the logic of “But so many crappy things get published!” then… you’re saying that you want someone to publish your crappy thing? Because that’s what it sounds like: I know my manuscript needs work but so many crappy things get published so someone just publish this hot mess already so I can get the book deal and the millions of dollars and wah wah wah!!! Why would you want to publish something for the lowest common denominator? Just having a publicaton credit won’t change your life. Then you’ll have a book out — a crappy book, by your own admission — and you’ll have to worry about sales numbers. And if your first — crappy, let me remind you — book doesn’t sell, you won’t be able to interest anyone in a second one that might be better quality (the one you should’ve waited for and published first).

So stop getting impatient, stop chasing publication for publication’s sake, stop looking around and getting bitter, and produce the best, most polished, most anti-crappy manuscript you possibly can. How’s that for writing advice?

When is a Manuscript Finished? When to Query?

Here’s an email question I got a few weeks ago from Maria, who is writing about her daughter:

My 13 year old has just finished writing the rough draft of her fist novel and is in the process of editing. Do we wait until she feels “finished” to send out query letters or should we do that now?

This question touches on three points, but the three points are related. The first point is knowing when the manuscript is ready to go out for agent consideration. I’m sure I’ll post more about this issue in many different contexts later, since “How do I know when this bloody thing is finally done?” is one of the biggest questions writers have. The second point is when to query an agent. The third point is teenage authors.

Point one: When is a manuscript ready? Think about getting to a point when you’ve worked it so long and so much that you’re frustrated with it and never want to see it again. Then tack a couple more revisions on there. Then you might actually be ready. A manuscript is ready when other people (who know what they’re talking about) have read it and ripped it apart and you’ve put it back together. At least twice. In my previous life as an aspiring author, I sent out manuscripts that I thought were ready. They weren’t and I collected a nice bouquet of rejections. You never truly know until you try, that’s true. But if you’re sending out of frustrations or out of a lack of ideas for what more you could possibly do to make it better, that’s when you should ask trusted readers for feedback and revise again. Speed benefits nobody in publishing, which is a notoriously slow business. You might as well take that time to really, really, really polish and perfect your submission.

Point two: When should you query agents? Simple. If you’re working in fiction, you should query when everything is absolutely, positively done. Don’t query something that’s half finished. If an agent wants to see it, a) you’ll have to get back to them and say “Uh, it’s not done yet” and b) it’ll force you, psychologically, to rush when you do try and finish, which is the worst possible thing you can do. Don’t query something that’s close to finished and then have an idea for a revision a minute after you send the manuscript to someone who requests it. Then you’ll a) have to send the agent an email asking if you can send a different version, which may or may not be awkward, and b) it’ll force you, psychologically, to rush, which etc. etc. etc. Send queries only when it’s ready and never resort to the Reassurance Query. Trusted readers (and NOT agents and editors) like a critique group or published, experienced writers should be your sounding board for all manuscript-related questions.

Part three: Teenage authors. It’s a tough call. Some agents will flat-out refuse to work with teenage authors because that means working with their parents also and all the different legalities involved. A teen author publishing an opus book is rare but it has happened. The biggest issue with teen authors, in my opinion, is something that totally can’t be helped. It takes a whole lot of time and practice to become a good writer. Time is something teens haven’t had a whole lot of yet. So when you and your daughter send queries around, Maria, do understand that some agents will have prejudices against you automatically, if you choose to mention her age. If she’s a crazy prodigy, mentioning her age might be an asset. Otherwise, it probably isn’t the boasting-point you’re imagining. I’ve been shocked by the maturity and quality of exactly two teen’s submissions in my career. One mentioned her age in the query, the other didn’t. He only mentioned it later, when I happened to say, ironically, that his writing read like it was for an audience slightly older than YA. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

The great thing about being a 13 year-old who has finished a complete novel manuscript is, of course, that with that kind of dedication — even if this first project doesn’t find a foothold in publishing, and it might not — she’s got nothing but time to keep writing and honing her craft. We should all be so lucky. 🙂

It’s Easy to Get Published

Here’s one thing I want to get out of the way for all my readers, here and now: it’s easy to get published.

Commence wailing and gnashing of teeth from all the many lovely folks out there who have been chasing publication for years and years without The Big Success they’re dreaming of. Yes, let it out. I’ll wait. Done? Listen: it’s easy to get published when you have an amazing project. It’s not the agents or the editors or the literary magazines or the critique groups or the writing programs keeping you back from publication. It’s all about the strength of your project and nothing more.

I mean no disrespect to all the writers who are struggling and discouraged and beaten down on their search for representation or publication. In fact, I salute you all. It’s not an easy road you’ve chosen but I understand the compulsion to keep slogging down it. What concerns me, though, is the tendency for writers to immerse themselves in the publishing end of things and jump into the search when their time might be better spent really solidifying their craft. Publishing will be here (for the foreseeable future, anyway, *gulp*) while you work on your writing. Focus on that and we’ll be waiting for you when you’re ready.

Agents want amazing books. Editors are salivating to buy and publish amazing stories. If your writing is brilliant, your idea is unique, your hook a mix of the literary and the commercial, your character alive, your plot compelling — in other words, if your manuscript is like a lot of the published books out on shelves now — you will have no problem landing an agent and selling your work.

But it really has to be that good. And it takes nothing less.

So, it’s easy to get published once you and your work are ready. It’s the getting ready that’s hard and dreary and time-consuming. It’s the getting ready part that makes people quit. But if your goal is publication through a traditional channel (and that’s not the case for every writer, some people write for themselves and that’s perfectly fine) and you pursue it doggedly and relentlessly, you’ll get closer and closer to being ready. When you finally are, the things that seemed hard before — getting an offer of representation, getting a book deal — will slide into place. Because you’ve done all the hard work and you’ve persevered and it’s finally your time. For some, of course, that time is years and years and years and years in the making. But every day that passes and you sit down at the computer, your writing grows stronger. And you get closer to being ready. If you’re not published yet, that means you’re not quite ready for “prime time.”

I also want to address something a few readers have asked about on the blog. I use this space to highlight pet peeves of mine and common mistakes I see as an agent. Most of the statements I make are rather general. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. I could read a 2nd person rhetorical question query — something I normally hate — but if the project completely blows me away, any momentary annoyance will be completely forgotten. A writer in my slush could make every mistake in the book, break every rule, but the manuscript is all that matters.

And if it’s ready, you bet I’ll be taking it on.

Querying With a Series and Series in General

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* And, you know, have this be true.

Writing in Multiple Genres or for Multiple Audiences

I got a great question the other week from Gisele:

I had a random thought this morning–do agents typically prefer to represent writers who write in a lot of different genres (like YA, MG, picture books, etc.) or authors that focus on one or two? Are there advantages or disadvantages to either? Or, does the issue depend on the agent?

As an agent, considering a client’s career trajectory is part of the job. We make sure the author has the kind of career they want, we help them choose their next projects, we position them in carefully chosen ways to editors and houses.

I know that a lot of writers want to write in multiple genres or for more than one audience within the juvenile market. Luckily, kidlit lends itself well to this. In adult publishing, it’s harder to go from a hard-boiled mystery, say, to nonfiction investing “how to.” In children’s, it’s a bit easier to transition from middle-grade to picture book to YA, if your voice is flexible enough and you’re familiar with the particulars of each audience.

There are about as many different answers to Gisele’s question, however, as there are agents. Some people believe that a writer should stay with one market audience and establish themselves with a few books before switching. This type of agent will argue that John Green, for example, who has published four contemporary/realistic YA novels, can now switch to another market. There’s a lot of good rationale here. A writer should consider writing at least two books in a row for one audience before switching markets. The benefit of this is that you’ll establish a readership and build a reputation. Once you’ve got a foundation in one market, you’ll start getting a sales record, too, and it will be easier to attract a publisher for that picture book you’ve always wanted to write.

Others don’t see the harm in diversifying. Some suggest market-hopping openly, others might suggest a pseudonym. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t spread yourself thin over too many houses and that you don’t compete with yourself. That means, you shouldn’t sell two fantasy MG novels to two publishers and have them both come out the same season, for example, or any other countless permutation of this scenario. As long as your publishers are happy with your schedule and the variety of projects you’re doing, you’ll be okay.

Personally, I’m happy to work with someone who wants to diversify. At the point where we’re planning career strategy, it really will go on a case by case basis. It’s very difficult to generalize about this. The one constant with everyone who writes across markets, though, is the talent and aptitude to do so. If a writer has a truly excellent picture book and an amazing YA that they want to bring to market, what could possibly be stopping them? Surely not me.

It will be a bit more challenging to sell to multiple publishers for multiple markets right from the beginning, sure. Even if you have sold one or two books already, those books aren’t out yet and you haven’t established a sales record for prospective future publishers to consider. And each time you pick a new market, you’re basically starting from scratch in terms of the money they’ll offer, especially when you’re at the beginning of your career. But such are the growing pains at the start of every journey.

If you want to start diversifying right from square one or establish yourself and then branch out, I will personally welcome the adventure of charting the exact career path you want. For every published writer, though, their career path and the markets they break into will be on a case by case basis between them and their agent.

Sending a Revision to a Literary Agent While They’re Still Considering Your Work

So I hear you’re considering sending a revision to a literary agent while they’re still considering your work. Should you be in this situation? No. Because ideally, you would’ve queried only your strongest work. Because Mary told you to send query only your strongest work. But you didn’t believe me or didn’t know any better and then you decided to revise and here we are. It’ll be okay.

sending a revision to a literary agent considering your work, sending revised work to a literary agent, revision to an agent, revised query letter, sending a revised manuscript to an agent
Dearest Agent: About that submission you previously received from me… Funny story, my account was hacked…

This is a question writers ask a lot. Here’s the situation: you polish a manuscript draft (so you think) and then you send it out to agents. Then, since publishing is notoriously slow, you sit around and have some time to think about what you’ve done. And think. And think. You realize things about your manuscript that you should’ve done differently. You begin to revise and realize there’s a LOT you could’ve done differently.

Oh no.

Will Sending a Revision to a Literary Agent Make you Look Bad?

Now you can’t even begin to fathom how awful your last draft is and you can’t believe that it is sitting in Dream Agent’s inbox in that deplorable, horrid, unfinished condition. An anxiety flares up and makes your pinkie toes tingle. You have to send them the new version. You have to. Right. Now.

But there are lots of questions involved. Will the agent take it? Will it make you look bad? Will even asking guarantee a speedy rejection?

Here’s the thing, and I can’t say it enough: there are only a finite number of agents in the world (or, only a finite number worth working with… The point, remember, is to get a good agent, not just any agent…). You’ve spent all this time writing a book and you can only show it to those agents once, unless they ask to see a revision down the line. Why wouldn’t you take the absolute maximum time you can to make sure this book is polished and perfect?

Because you’re human and you’re impatient and you want to get feedback from publishing professionals on it now now now. It’s okay. I understand this urge. I’ve sent out manuscripts to agents only to do a huge revision. I’ve sent that dreaded “Actually, can you look at this instead?” e-mail.

Making Your Request to the Literary Agent

So if you find yourself in this situation — having rushed out a manuscript that wasn’t ready — you are in the same boat as many, many other writers. It happens. Agents know it happens. So when you e-mail us and ask to submit another draft, it is likely we’ll say “Sure, send it in,” unless we’re already reading your manuscript. If we are, we still might still say “Sure, send it in,” but only if we like what we’re reading so far. Or we might reject you, because some agents have no tolerance for this. At this point, it’s up to you whether you want the risk.

The fact that writers pull the trigger too early is no secret in agenting circles. Besides, there are precious few debut manuscripts (if any) that go out on submission to editors without some revision. Whether you do that revision for an agent before or after signing their contract, you will do some revision. So, agents know that a manuscript is a malleable thing.

If You’re Going to Send a Revision to a Literary Agent…

It doesn’t exactly impress us that you submit a manuscript and have a brand new draft the next week, but it happens. Just make sure the second draft you submit is really, really, really good. Otherwise, you will lose points in the competence and professionalism departments. I repeat: if you plan on re-submitting something, take your time, for the sake of all that is holy. Don’t just rush through this draft, too! Someone once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results…

I will say it once, I will say it a thousand times: patience is a virtue, my dears. You’ve got a list of agents. You’ve got a manuscript that represents your tears, blood and late-night tiramisu binges. That stack of words and paper better be your damn best piece of work before ever the twain shall meet. Dig?

Are you revising and revising only to figure out that you don’t know what you’re doing? It’s okay. Make your next revision your best revision yet with me as your manuscript editor. I’ll give you feedback to not only inform your next revision, but your entire approach to fiction writing.