Getting Into a “Closed” House

An issue came up in the comments about my recent catch-22 post. Christine asked about “closed” house editors (those who do not accept unsolicited or unagented submissions) who go to conferences and request materials or open up submissions to conference attendees only.

Editors do not rely solely on agents to bring them fantastic material. They are always on the hunt. Just like agents, they love the possibilities of the search, the thrill of discovering something brand new and phenomenal. I know plenty of editors who read blogs and websites, scout literary magazines and otherwise keep their antennae up. This includes going to conferences and picking up potentially talented writers. When agents and editors are at conferences, our role is very much the same: hone in on the cream of the crop and get their submissions. There’s even a similarity to how editors and agents treat submissions from conference attendees. Sometimes we reject outright, sometimes we reject the particular project but leave the door open to receive future work, and sometimes we take that writer on and develop them.

The key difference, though, is that agents are, inherently, more free to gamble. We have more time and resources (and incentive…a lot of agents work on commission, while editors get a salary…both go above and beyond the call of duty all the time, but agents do have an extra hunger) to develop raw talent into something saleable. Editors have bandwidth for this as well but they have all sorts of other things to do, projects already on their list to edit and lots of internal office duties that most writers don’t even lend a thought to. So they will sometimes pass on something that needs work (or pass it along to an agent friend), whereas an agent might dig in and really shape it into a great book.

Here’s what I said to Christine in the comments:

Yes, editors who attend conferences will sometimes tell attendees to send them submissions (usually a query or ten pages, sometimes for a limited time window like 3 months). Sometimes editors will also requests manuscripts based on a meeting or consultation with a writer. So yes, there are ways to get into closed houses by meeting editors at conferences.

However, as an agent (and as an agent, obviously, I would argue the merits of agents), it is my job to help writers get their manuscripts to an “editor ready” level. Sometimes these conference connections result in a direct offer from an editor. More often than not, though, they don’t. I’d much rather have a writer come to me and say “I met with So and So at a conference and want to get my manuscript in shape before s/he sees it,” than, “I met So and So at a conference and they passed on this already.” An unagented writer has less idea of what “editor ready” means, is all.

***

For a lot of unagented writers, meeting an editor at a conference seems like the Golden Ticket. If you do have this opportunity, though, I strongly urge you to query some agents as well. If you keep getting form rejections or no response, or if any of your requests come back with the same general feedback…do go back to the manuscript and give it some more elbow grease.

Agents have one goal: selling a book to an editor. So if agents keep rejecting your book, it’s a really good sign that an editor will probably reject it as well. Your chance with an editor (as with an agent) is sometimes a one-time opportunity, so you really do want to make sure your work is in fantastic shape. An agent, obviously, would be a great asset in determining whether or not you’re going to compete with everything else that editor has in his or her inbox. At least think about trying for an agent, even if you do have an invitation to submit from a conference or another opportunity.

The Catch-22 Dilemma

Rosena wrote in with a very familiar question a few days ago:

I have a query regarding the never ending circular line I seem to have stepped on to! I have written several short stories (children’s picture book types) and just finished penning a child novel and I am stuck because if I write to a publisher they won’t read my manuscripts unless I have an agent and almost all of the agents will not read my manuscripts because I have not yet had anything published. Could you offer me any advice on securing a read by one or the other?

This is a perceived problem that some writers have. Let me explain why I say “perceived.” It’s understandable thinking but I’d love to put this “I can’t get published unless I’m published” thing to rest for good.

First things first: we need writers to do our jobs. Most agents, at my agency and at others, are constantly on the lookout for new talent. We read unsolicited submissions from rank amateurs, we go to conferences, we blog, we reach out, all in the hopes of getting quality material sent our way. There are agents who are not accepting submissions or only working with referrals, sure, but they are in the minority. My inbox is full of mail from writers at all stages of their journeys. I don’t really care if they’re unpublished or published in the Podunk Literary Journal that I’ve never heard of. I’ll maybe take notice if they’ve had previous books published by a traditional publisher (not self-published or published with a vanity press) but I’m really evaluating the submission, first and foremost. The writing and story premise are all that matter, and I think that the vast majority of agents will agree with me on that point.

In terms of publishers, most major houses will not accept unagented submissions, that’s true. There are, however, houses that still take submissions directly from writers. Each of these houses has bought at least one manuscript that came from the slush, guaranteed, just like every agent has taken on a successful client from the slush. Houses that accept unagented children’s books are easy to find online. In terms of agents, I vehemently disagree with the statement “almost all of the agents will not read my manuscripts because I have not yet had anything published.” It’s just not true.

Don’t believe me and want to see for yourself? There are many, many of ways to find agents online. My favorite is Agent Query. Head over to the site. Click “Full Search” in the left-hand toolbar. Check the genres you want to write in. When you scroll to the bottom, you’ll see one additional dropbox: “Are you looking for an agent who is actively seeking new clients?” Click the dropbox and select “Yes.” Click “Search.”

When I did this search for you just now, I checked the “Children’s” and “Middle Grade” boxes under the Fiction category. (I’m assuming middle grade is what you mean when you say “child novel.” You might want to find out what category you’re writing in, as “child novel” is not a widely-used term.) With those three criteria (1- Children’s fiction, 2-Middle Grade, 3-Yes, looking for new clients), I returned over ten pages of agents. That’s about a hundred agents who you can query and who will read your submission.

Now, that doesn’t mean they’ll automatically offer representation, of course. The submission has to be excellent. If you’re reaching out to agents who are accepting new clients (most of us) and still getting form rejections or no responses at all, it isn’t your “unpublished” status that’s hurting you…it’s the quality of the submission. But keep trying. Every published author was unpublished at one point. Everyone has to start somewhere.

I’d love to stick a stake in this publishing myth and call it a day but writers are going to keep believing this anyway. Oh well. I just hope they stumble across this post at some point.

Know Your Category

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

how to identify genre, book genre, book category, children's book category
You fit in somewhere. The trick is figuring out where, before you write that 5,000-word picture book.

How to Identify Genre in Children’s Books

Now, one thing to clear up. A lot of writers don’t know the difference between book genre and category when it comes to children’s books especially. Book genre is stuff like fantasy, historical, paranormal, etc. Book category is the age range you’re writing for. With this post, I’m going to talk about the latter, mostly.

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

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

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

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

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

Active Tips for How to Identify Book Genre

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

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

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

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

In Book Genre, Know Your Audience

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

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

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

Struggling with book genre or publishing category? I’m a manuscript editor with deep experience on the publishing side of things, and I can help you hone your pitch and your project to the market.

Genius at Work vs. Working Writer

There was an interesting discussion in the comments on one of the workshop entries a little while ago. It’s very common that, whenever us agents mention something that doesn’t work well in writing at a conference or on our blogs or on forums, there are always a few devil’s advocates who say, “Well, what about VERY UNIQUE BOOK by Famous Writer? That broke the rules!”

Of course it did. But as I said in the comments thread, Famous Writer gets to do what they want because a) they’re well known, b) they have a history of book sales, c) their publisher felt good taking a risk on them. If you look at the publishing history of most genre-busting or groundbreaking authors, you’ll notice that their first few releases are usually, ahem, bad pun alert, by the book, in terms of craft and genre and structure. Unless, of course, they were already famous when they started writing novels, and the publishers took a risk on them regardless, because of the commercial value of their name.

Not a lot of first-time, unknown authors will get to publish their completely off-the-wall, genius masterwork the first time out of the gate. I’m definitely NOT saying that everyone should stop being creative or dreaming big. I am, however, saying that you should learn novel craft, genre, form, structure and what the “standards” are inside and out before you start to innovate. And you should prove to publishers that you can do well with a more conventional novel that follows the rules in terms of all these nitty gritty things (but feel free to be innovative in terms of plot points, story, language and characters, of course), before you try to recast the mold.

There are, of course, some writers who only have one brilliant novel in them, like Harper Lee. “Wait a minute, ” you might say to yourself, “I’m one of those genius artists and my genre-busting, completely-unlike-anything-you’ve-ever-seen novel is going to take the world by storm and win me a Nobel Prize!” I will most likely counter with the thought that, if you sit around musing about what a genius you are, you’ve probably got a few delusions about your stories and your writing. Geniuses don’t spend their energies trying to convince everyone of their genius. They just do what they do and then the rest of the world is left scrambling to catch up.

Most writers follow a very predictable publishing path. They publish a few novels that fit in to the marketplace and adhere to the work of their peers. Then, if they’ve got enough of a track record and if their publisher will give them the leeway, they can experiment and innovate. There’s nothing wrong with this. And, if you work hard and get a great track record, you very well could hit it big and write the exact kinds of books you want to write. (Not that there’s anything wrong with writing conventional books for your entire career, of course.)

Take a client of one of my colleagues at the agency. She has made her bread and butter for a long time by writing tie-in novels (like mass market paperbacks that use the characters from a popular TV series or movie), which some might say are the ultimate in adhering to “the rules” or today’s fiction marketplace. A lot of people who write tie-ins or novels for specific publishers even get guidelines for, if not what to write, but how to write it. Talk about books by the book.

This client, though, also writes her own fiction, with her own ideas. After years of writing tie-ins, she’s finally started selling her YA work to various publishers. On her most recent sale, she hit it big: she is going to be a publisher’s lead title with a trilogy that garnered a lot of interest and a high advance. This was already announced on Publisher’s Marketplace, so I’m not spilling any agency secrets, but wow! Can you believe that? After all her hard work and playing by the rules, she’s finally writing the books that she wants to write.

It’s the same thing with M.T. Anderson, who wrote a lot of books before he got to write OCTAVIAN NOTHING. It would’ve been very difficult, I’d imagine, to convince a publisher to take a risk on something like that from a complete unknown. And I’m firmly convinced that you can only innovate and break the rules once you’ve internalized every single nuance of them and have adhered to them successfully.

When a first-time novelist “colors outside the lines” in terms of novel craft or structure, I don’t give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re a mad genius and that they’ve totally revolutionized the novel form. I assume that they don’t exactly know what they’re doing yet. You’ve got to learn the scales and the instrument before you can start to ad-lib and play jazz. That doesn’t mean that you can’t express yourself and make beautiful music, but this kind of OCTAVIAN NOTHING virtuosity only comes after putting in a lot of time and a lot of traditional work.

Would you rather be an unsung genius or a working writer who is building their career toward their shot to produce whatever they want? That kind of thing is a hard-earned privilege and not really something beginners should be obsessing with.

Workshop Submission #6

This is a submission from Livia Blackburne, for her YA fantasy.

Here’s what she has to say:

I’ve had this project reviewed by several agents/editors, and the feedback has mostly been positive. I still think though, that it’s missing something. While nobody found anything glaringly wrong with it, I don’t think it would stand out in a crowd. I’ve thought about adding more sensory detail, although I worry about seeming artificial or overdoing it.

Ah, the familiar situation of “I know it’s good but people still aren’t nibbling.” Somebody asked me to print the material in its entirety at the top, then dissect, so here’s that format. Let me know if it works better for you. Here’s the material!

***

Maybe James wanted her dead. The thought didn’t occur to Kyra until she was already coiled into a crouch, ready to spring off the narrow sixth floor ledge. She supposed it was a distant possibility, but she did not let the thought interrupt her jump. She was in no danger here.

Silently, she launched herself off the ledge, clearing a gap of three strides before softening her body for the landing. She alighted on the ledge of the next building and touched a hand to the rough stone for balance. For a second, she froze, her senses alert, looking to see if her movement had caused any disturbance. Her amber eyes scanned the buildings, but the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago. Six stories below her, the pathways were empty. Kyra relaxed. Tucking away a stray brown hair that had escaped its ponytail, she allowed herself the luxury of stopping to ponder her new theory.

She had already spent the last two days trying to figure out the aloof stranger’s motives. It was not surprising that James had come to the Drunken Dog. Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of. It was his request that made him unusual. He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay. The amount he offered was carefully chosen – high enough to be tempting, but low enough that only someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt . . .

***

Maybe James wanted her dead. The thought didn’t occur to Kyra until she was already coiled into a crouch, ready to spring off the narrow sixth floor ledge. She supposed it was a distant possibility, but she did not let the thought interrupt her jump. She was in no danger here.

Good first line. Lots of tension. Then it gets disorienting. Kyra is crouching somewhere… on a ledge. Is it night? Is it a city? Why is she crouching? I wish I’d been more grounded. The tension dies with “She supposed it was a distant possibility.” Why open with something really dramatic like “Maybe James wanted her dead” only to deflate it and admit that it’s a “distant possibility” only? That takes all the drama out of it. The tension drains further with “She was in no danger here.” So now there’s no danger, she’s just jumping. That’s not nearly as exciting.

Silently, she launched herself off the ledge, clearing a gap of three strides before softening her body for the landing. She alighted on the ledge of the next building and touched a hand to the rough stone for balance. For a second, she froze, her senses alert, looking to see if her movement had caused any disturbance. Her amber eyes scanned the buildings, but the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago. Six stories below her, the pathways were empty. Kyra relaxed. Tucking away a stray brown hair that had escaped its ponytail, she allowed herself the luxury of stopping to ponder her new theory.

The voice in this section is an issue for me. Also an issue is the lack of motivation. Why is she jumping? Jumping for jumping’s sake is nowhere near as exciting as… jumping to save someone from a burning building… jumping to save YOURSELF from a burning building… jumping on the last car of the last train out of the station for the night… whatever. So, voice. “Alighted” doesn’t seem to fit the tone here, though it’s a great word. “Her senses alert,” “had caused any disturbance,” “allowed herself the luxury” “ponder her new theory” all feel dry to me, voiceless, like something from a police blotter, a scientific journal or a women’s magazine. “Ponder” especially. You use “building” and “buildings” in this paragraph. Is there anything else you could use for word variety? “But the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago” is clunky with the two instances of “as” and doesn’t roll naturally off the tongue.

There’s still no tension because a) we already know she’s in no danger, b) there’s still no danger, so I don’t know why she “allowed herself the luxury,” since it doesn’t seem like anything is threatening her thinking time here. In the first paragraph, you also said “she did not let the thought interrupt her jump” but now you have her pause and think. So one minute she can’t think, the next minute she settles in for a think? That seems a bit contradictory.

Finally, a total nitpick: why would you be “softening” your body for landing? Don’t you want your muscles tense and ready? Softening your body in mid-jump just makes me picture her landing like a wet bag of sand and totally collapsing.

She had already spent the last two days trying to figure out the aloof stranger’s motives. It was not surprising that James had come to the Drunken Dog. Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of. It was his request that made him unusual. He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay. The amount he offered was carefully chosen – high enough to be tempting, but low enough that only someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt . . .

“The aloof stranger” doesn’t fit the tone and is dry. It’d be much easier to say “… figure out James’ motives…” and then tag him as aloof later, rather than this, because I had no idea who you were talking about at first. “Not surprising” is dry voice again. “No surprise,” for example, sounds more colloquial. “Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of” is dry again, and vague. “Request” is a dry, business-y word. I like the voice on “He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay.” That’s good tension there! Then we lose it again with “amount” and “offered,” which are dry, so is “someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt.” A lot of your sentences are a bit wordy, to the point where the reader loses steam while reading them.

By this point in the sample, I also would want to know how Kyra fits into this whole thing. Is she the thief? Seems like it.

***

Livia’s experience is very common. As an agent, some of what I see is downright bad. Some of what I see is very, very good, and then I reach out to the writer. Most of what I see is… meh. It’s not glaringly bad, nor is it amazing. How do you, as a writer, get out of this “technically fine but not mind-blowing” zone?

Voice. Here, we get a lot of dry language. It doesn’t have style to it, or attitude. It doesn’t have emotion running like a current through it. Lots of these words lack energy. They seem like they’d belong in a periodical or in a business memo. How can this story be told with more style and careful word choice? I’d also tell the author to work on her wordiness and the clutter in her sentences. A lot of what she says can be said more simply and more cleanly, for much better overall effect. In short: loosen up. Read the manuscript aloud. Where does the voice start to drone on? Where does it pick up? Where does it lack emotion?

Speaking of emotion, we could have more of Kyra’s interiority here. We get some of her thoughts, but what about her emotions? Her experiences, both sensory and otherwise? The description of the setting seems rather drab… it doesn’t seem to be colored through the lenses of a character’s eyes. Think… how would Kyra see this cityscape? What would SHE, in this moment, notice about it?

The number one reason some writers make it and others don’t is voice. The scenario here is intriguing enough, even though you could definitely amp up the tension and remove those phrases about no danger that undercut your stakes, but it’ll be the voice that really makes or breaks the execution of this idea.

Online Platform Do’s and Don’ts

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

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

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

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

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

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

DO’S:

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

DON’T:

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

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

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

Moralizing in Books

Here’s a question from reader, Melissa:

I have heard rumblings that the professional field is tired of picture books with moralizing storylines. Is this accurate? Does this signify a move towards content that is more realistic or edgy? Can you also expound on the much maligned, yet common use of anthropomorphic characters?

As for your first question, you are definitely correct. Publishers do not want a moralizing storyline or an explicit message. The best way to deliver a message is to create a vibrant character who goes through something in the plot and emerges on the other side a little bit (or a lot bit) changed, but their realizations should never be blatantly expressed. It must be the reader’s interpretation and understanding that does this work, not the author.

Remember when you were a kid and your parents told you to do something? Or they sat you down for a lecture? Remember how that made you feel? Yeah, today’s agents, editors, and kids don’t like that feeling either, so those books don’t get picked up. It’s your job to tell a story, not to teach or moralize.

As for the anthropomorphic thing, some editors are still looking for these types of stories, definitely. And there are people who can make an animal as realistic and engrossing as a kid character in a picture book. In fact, I love the picture book LITTLE BLUE TRUCK, which features animals and… a little blue truck as the protagonist of the story. But they have human attributes, they go through a big struggle or on a journey, and they come out all the better for it at the end. However, I think a lot of animal stories are written by people who are thinking back to their childhoods and the picture books that were available back then. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it does usually result in books that feel old-fashioned and out of touch with today’s market. Of course, there are reasons that animal books are classics. Look at THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, for instance, which still makes me cry, all these years later.

While this isn’t true for every editor, some of the editors and agents I know do groan when an animal hero comes across their desks. They have to have a very good reason for being an animal, I say, and it has to be crucial to the story. Otherwise you just might be undercutting yourself by today’s sensibilities and standards. If you want to write an animal story, try the animal as a child as well, just to experiment, and make sure you stay in either the first person or the close third so that the reader gets their inner experience as well as their outer conflict.

Do Small Press Credits Hurt My Chances?

Here’s a quickie but a goodie, since there are lots and lots of magazines, small presses, contests and other opportunities for publication out there. Cara asks:

Would getting a book or two published with a small press such as a religious press hurt your chances in getting an agent?

Getting published with a small press won’t hurt your chances at getting an agent, as long as it’s not a small press that you, yourself, founded to be your self-publishing or vanity project. It won’t necessarily increase your chances, though, either, because some small presses have looser quality controls than the larger publishers do, and a published book from one of them might sometimes hold less clout than a book from the Big Six. But everybody starts somewhere, and not only are small presses accessible to beginning writers, they also provide opportunities and take unagented submissions.

The above advice holds true for magazines and contests, too. Unless you’ve been published in a really, really prestigious magazine or have won a really prestigious contest (magazines that come to mind: Highlights, Cricket, any glossy available on national newsstands; literary magazines that impress: Glimmertrain, Paris Review, Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker; contests that are good to win: anything held by one of the large publishers themselves, where you won a publishing contract, Pushcart Prize, had your work selected for a The Best American… anthology (Nonrequired Reading is my favorite), etc.), then you aren’t really catching my eye either way.

You can list your credits, sure. Do realize, though, that some places that publish writers have lower standards than others, and that’s just a fact of life. So if you win the $10 Olive Garden Gift Certificate Grand Prize at the Podunk Literary Festival, you could list it, of course, but it will not get my attention the way a clip from Highlights will. The competition at a larger national magazine or contest is much more fierce and editors can seek out the best of the best, not just pick the most “readable” entry out of a slow drizzle of submissions.

Now, I did bring up something in my first paragraph that lots of writers are curious about: self-publishing. It’s something agents think a lot about, since new “alternative publishing” methods and models are cropping up all the time. It’s not something I’m ready to tackle on the blog just yet, though, because it is such a controversial issue and because it’s still very much in flux.

At every conference I go to, there’s at least one question about self-publishing, whether it comes up in person or on an agent panel. If you are lucky enough to see me during this moment in a live situation, when I’m actually forced to talk about self-publishing to a crowd of conference-goers, you will see the elusive… the hilarious… “I’m-Reading-Something-Bad Face of Awkwardness” that I discussed earlier. But since this is my blog and nobody is staring at me, eager for answers, I’m going to gracefully tiptoe around the issue until I have the perfect post on it.

Are Publishers Taking Risks Anymore?

I’ve gotten some interesting questions from readers lately, so I’m going to post my answers here, so all readers can see. The first is from Jeni:

Am wondering if you think the world of children’s books is getting more conservative? Are publishers taking less risks? Are authors being positioned so that they have to play it safe?

Publishers are still taking risks, but the risks they’re taking will be based on story rather than a writer’s raw talent, I find. Publishers are much more willing to try a brilliant book about a strange subject, unheard-of paranormal creature, situation, or whatever (like Libba Bray’s GOING BOVINE (read my review), a book about a crazy mad cow disease road trip, but executed with ridiculous genius, which went on to win the Printz), than to take a risk on a book that’s good but a hot mess by a writer whose craft they’ll need to develop in the editing process.

That’s why it’s so much more important, now than ever before, to have impeccable craft, breathtaking storytelling skills, and a marketable idea. Publishers are still taking risks… but they’re smarter risks, and they’re risking on more quality material than they might’ve been before. They’re also buying things that scream “commercial” or things that fit the trends as they see them. And those are the two main drivers of acquisitions decisions today.

Freelance Editing Services and Using a Book Editor

Here’s a question I got from Katie recently about freelance editing services and using a book editor:

I was just wondering if you recommend getting freelance editing services and getting one’s manuscript professionally edited? Do you think this would help the revision process or have an effect our our growth as a writer? What are the advantages/disadvantages to a book editor and can agents usually tell if a manuscript has already been edited professionally before? Are there any editor services that you recommend? If an editor does scouting for certain agents do you think this could help the writer get one foot in the door?

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Aerial view a woman using a retro typewriter

Using Freelance Editing Services

There are a lot of reasons to use freelance editing services and a lot of points in one’s writing journey when a freelance book editor could come in and help the writer to the next level. Some writers hire freelance editors at the beginning of their learning experience and give them a very early novel. Other writers hire a freelance book editor after several drawer novels and for the final draft of something they really think, after stumbling around for a while in the dark, might be The One. Some writers don’t hire freelance editors at all.

My thoughts on the subject are a little … complicated. Especially since I work as a freelance book editor, and have for the last five years, since leaving the literary agenting world. First of all, I have to say that there are a lot of wonderful writers and publishing professionals who either make a career in or supplement their income with freelance editing. Their talents are many and their insights are deep. However, I would not point all writers to freelance editors.

Considerations for Hiring a Book Editor

First, here are the types of writers who might benefit from the services of a freelance book editor:

  • Writers who can handle constructive criticism (working with a freelance editor, as Katie guesses, IS a great learning experience)
  • Writers who haven’t managed to find a good critique solution despite trying
  • Writers who don’t work well in a classroom or workshop environment
  • Writers who are starting out and want to strap rocket boosters on their learning curve
  • Writers who are so stuck that their loved ones fear for their sanity
  • Writers who are so close to a good, publishable manuscript, and know it, and want a more complex and professional opinion on the whole thing before querying or submitting

Then there are the types of writers who might not benefit from a freelance editor:

  • Writers who cannot handle critique or constructive criticism
  • Writers who have never been in a critique or workshop situation before
  • Writers who just want to give their manuscript to someone in the hopes that it’ll get fixed for them
  • Writers who don’t intend to learn during the process
  • Writers who want someone to decide, once and for all, if their book is saleable or not… Not everyone will have the same opinion of this and, unless your editor has had significant experience in publishing, do not ask them to make this call
  • Writers who don’t vet their freelance editors… Not all freelance editors are created equal… Ask for references, talk to them to see if you’re a fit, and don’t go with the first one you see…

The Caveat About an Independent Book Editor

Here is why I say I don’t want to send all writers to freelance editing services. And here is why, even if you get your book professionally edited, it might not be a magic bullet for the thing selling.

There are no guarantees, not even if you hire the country’s best, most expensive book doctor. The danger is this: Revision is the most important skill, after writing, that a writer has in their toolbox. Until you learn to revise successfully, I say you’re not ready to be published. An editor will edit you and give you suggestions for revision, but then it’s up to you to turn out the finished manuscript. If you like getting edited and lean on an editor for every manuscript… which is a very real thing that happens… you might not be learning the critical skills you need to see your own work with an editorial eye. And those skills are essential. You’ll be getting great advice, but you’ll be short-changing yourself. Revision will be your blind spot and, these days, it simply can’t be.

Another issue here, which I hinted at above, is expectation. Freelance editing services are expensive. And good freelance editing SHOULD BE expensive. This isn’t something to cut corners on, if you go this route. With expense comes the expectation that you’ll really get something out of it (in this case, a publishable manuscript). But do remember that the final burden is on you. You can get notes until you’re blue in the face, from teachers, critique partners, freelance editors, but it’s up to you and you alone what you do with them.

That’s why, to answer another of Katie’s questions, agents can’t really tell if a book has been freelance edited. When I was a literary agent, I didn’t spent time trying to guess … authors tell literary agents if they want to. It’s really what the writer does with the notes that ends up in my inbox, and if the writer can’t revise, or they take their revision in an unsuccessful direction, or they just didn’t have that strong of a manuscript to begin with, it’s an unpleasant surprise to hear that they’ve been edited already. There really is only so much even the best freelance book editor can do with a bad manuscript… they’re not God. It makes me wonder what kind of mess the writer had before the editor stepped in. On the other hand, if I see a clean, tight, and polished manuscript that has been freelance edited, I might be more wary of the writer’s revision skills, since I don’t know how much is them and how much is the editor they hired. It’s not a deal breaker, but I do want to see if they can revise with me, just to get a feel for how they do on their own.

As for working with editors who scout for literary agencies — a common practice — sure, that’s a way to get in the door. If your editor is good (see above) and well-connected, it could lead to a recommendation to an agent… but there are less expensive ways to get an agent’s attention (namely, writing an awesome book and querying or going to a conference) than hoping for an elusive recommendation.

Freelance Editing Services Are a Personal Decision

Those are just a few thoughts on this very complex subject. Like I said before, I think freelance editors are some of the hardest working and more under-appreciated people in publishing. They see a lot of messes. They labor quietly behind some great successes. They think and critique and inspire. But they’re not for every writer. The decision to hire one, when, and for which manuscript, in your writing career is a very personal one.

If you’ve read this advice and are ready to hire a book editor for manuscript critique, let me throw my hat in the ring for consideration. I’d love to work with you.