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Identifying Your Writing Genre

This question about identifying your writing genre comes in from Kimberly:

I find identifying the genre to be very difficult. What if your novel is a mash-up of two different genres? Is it bad to mention this? What about saying something like, “YA suspense with paranormal elements”? Any guidance you could give would be much appreciated!

writing genre, identifying writing genre, writing category, book category, book genre, publishing marketplace
Which writing genre fits your book? What if you don’t slot in neatly enough?

What is Writing Genre?

You’ve heard of writing genre, even if you haven’t tried to determine writing genre for your own work. Books are referred to as “fantasy” if they have strong worldbuilding and elements of magic, “paranormal” if they feature creatures like vampires or ghosts, “romance” if a love relationship is at their core, and “sci-fi” if there’s a strong technology aspect.

(For children’s books, by the way, the different age groups are generally referred to as “categories” rather than “genres,” therefore “picture book” is a category. There’s no such thing as the “picture book genre.” Learn more about the different children’s book categories.)

If your book doesn’t have a writing genre, it might fit into the “general fiction” bucket, or maybe “contemporary realistic.” In middle grade fiction, stories that concentrate on real life and regular issues are often called “coming of age.”

Determine Writing Genre as Best as You Can

Writing genre isn’t rigid, and many high-concept ideas borrow from multiple genres. For example, Emily Hainsworth’s Through to You was pitched to me as “YA paranormal.” Then I pitched it as a “magical realism YA” because I thought that it wasn’t quite paranormal in the way that today’s YA market takes the term. Then the published decided to market it as a “YA paranormal thriller,” but emphasizing the book’s romantic and sci-fi elements as well.

While it’s very difficult to aim into the mists in between different audience categories, say, “upper MG” or “younger YA” or “tween” and I actually wouldn’t recommend it at all, genre is a completely different beast and, in today’s more evolved MG and YA markets, is more malleable.

Pick the Strongest Writing Genre for Your Pitch

Kimberly’s example of “YA suspense with paranormal elements” is fine, though I would choose “thriller” over “suspense,” personally. “Thriller” is more of a buzzword in today’s market. Still, as you can tell from my Through to You example, everyone has a slightly different way of describing genre.

What’s important to note here is that we’re picking one writing genre to highlight. It’s not a “YA thriller paranormal,” where both genres fight for attention. A “thriller with paranormal elements” tells an agent or publisher that you have written a fast-paced, action-centric plot, and there may be a werewolf here or there. If it was a “paranormal with thriller elements,” that would communicate a focus on otherworldly characters, with an extra kick for the plot.

At the end of the day, your literary agent or publisher will make the decision of how to position it, just like they will end up choosing the final title. Title and genre are both subject to change on the road to publication. Pitch your writing genre accurately and to the best of your ability, and that’s good enough for the query!

Having trouble deciding where you fit? Wondering if you’re hitting the right notes of your chosen writing genre? I’m a novel editor who works in every category and genre, with a special emphasis on children’s books.

Picture Book Alliteration

Picture book alliteration always annoys. Just kidding! Well, not always, but it’s getting there. Why? Because this is such a common technique that amateur writers use, so the overall quality is lacking. I’ve been thinking a lot about alliteration picture books recently, after working with a lot of picture book clients. Here are some more nuanced thoughts on the topic.

alliteration in picture books, alliteration writing, alliterative writing, alliteration, alliteration children's books, alliteration kid's books
The best picture books are fresh and vibrant, and alliteration dates a manuscript.

Picture Book Alliteration Is Overdone

This post isn’t inspired by any one picture book manuscript from that batch (so don’t worry, students, I’m not talking about one of you in particular)…and that’s the problem. One of my growing pet peeves about picture book writers (and their imaginations) is alliteration. You’ll often find alliteration in rhyming picture books.

Gosh, I have a lot of pet peeves, I know. But I sit here and read manuscripts all day. That’s what I do. Tens of thousands of them. And so I see a lot of common trends and writer mistakes that I know you don’t because you don’t read nearly as many different potential books as I do. It’s an issue of context.

A lot of people seem to think that the bulk of their characterizing work or word choice craft in picture books comes down to alliterating. And that’s it. Just name him Sammy Skunk and kick up your feet because your work here is done! Right? Not quite. And “Sammy Skunk skips smilingly down the springtime sage-speckled slope” is all you have to do in order to nail that pesky concept of voice! Right? Again…not really.

Alliteration Doesn’t Add As Much As You Think to a Picture Book Manuscript

But more and more, I get alliteration picture book submissions that lean way too heavily on alliteration in order to “accomplish” (so thinks their author) both character and voice. It’s a lot like rhyme. A lot of writers remember rhyme in picture books, so they think they have to write in rhyme. A lot of writers see picture book alliteration on the shelves, so they alliterate. Both cause scribes to contort themselves into a type of sentence pretzel of unnatural language.

In rhyme, writers adopt an almost Victorian syntax in order to make sure they end on the right word. In alliteration picture books, word order also tends to sound unnatural because you’re letting the first letter dictate your word choice. This blog post has a terrible opening line. “Alliteration always annoys.” Nobody talks like that! It doesn’t sound organic! But I had to in order to shoehorn some alliteration in there, and the writers in my slush perpetrate a lot worse in order to stay consistent at the expense of meaning.

So instead of lending you a coveted voice, picture book alliteration makes you sound contrived in most cases. And if I see another cutesy alliterative character name, I will scream. Aim for more sophistication in your writing, especially for the picture book audience. That will set you way, way, way above and beyond the rest of the slush.

Picture books are some of my favorite manuscripts to work on. If you’re using alliteration (or other cliché techniques) but suspect you could do better, hire me as your picture book editor. We’ll figure out your unique writing voice.

What Do Literary Agents Look For?

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

what do literary agents look for, how to tell if you're a good writer
What do literary agents look for? If you know the magic answer, you can supply it…right?

It came up on a panel this weekend at the excellent San Francisco Writers Conference, as usual. It’s what writers are very curious about, naturally, right up there with the perennial “How to tell if you’re a good writer.” Because, if they know what agents and editors want, they can supply…right?

What do Literary Agents Look For?

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

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

Specific Answers Are Hard to Come By

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

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

Aim for a General Picture of Their Sensibilities

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

It’s the Writer’s Job to Come Up With Amazing Ideas

In all honesty, you shouldn’t be fishing for the answer to “What do literary agents look for?” You are the writer. It is your job to come up not only with a really well-written story, but with an idea that’s going to resonate in the marketplace and grab attention. That’s becoming more and more important, and I’m sure I’ll blog about this a lot later. (Not being vague…it just has a lot to do with the Big News I keep talking about.)

A lot of writers say in their queries: “I am happy to write whatever you need.” No. Want to know how to tell if you’re a good writer? You put the work into developing a bang-up idea and then building your writer’s toolbox so you can execute it with aplomb. That’s what will sell. And if you’ve put the work into writing a great novel, many different agents and editors will be a fit for it, because we’re all looking for, basically “Good stuff done well.”

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

Want to know how to tell if you’re a good writer? When you invest in my book editing services, I’ll evaluate your current skill level and then help you build your writing and revision toolbox so you can do you story idea justice.

Questions a Literary Agent Might Ask You When Offering Representation

Today we’re discussing questions a literary agent might ask you when they’re considering offering literary representation. Thank you to Susan who, in the comments for my last post about questions to ask a literary agent, wanted to know the opposite: What questions might an agent have for a potential client? There’s no way I can speak comprehensively for everyone in the industry on this one, but as a former literary agent, here’s what I was often curious about, and why.

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A call with a literary agent is a great chance to interview them. But know that they’re also interviewing you, and trying to suss out if you’ll be a pleasure to work with, or a pain in the espresso.

Literary Agents Want to Know About You

A little more about yourself: All that crazy stuff you left out of your query bio? Give it to me here! Just kidding. I don’t want your entire life story on the literary agent phone call, but I do want to get to know you. So questions a literary agent might ask could address you as a persona and your sense of humor, sensibilities, and storytelling abilities off the cuff (no pressure!). I’d rather have one or two cool and unique facts about you that are memorable than the dry this-is-where-I-went-to-college spiel. In turn, I usually take a few minutes to say what makes me tick.

Questions a Literary Agent Might Ask About Future Projects

Future ideas: I want to get a sense for what else is in your pipeline, so I ask you to pitch me a few more ideas that you’re kicking around. Your pitches don’t have to be perfect and the books can be far from finished–or even started–but this is a biggie for me. If you have one amazing idea and then a nightmare litany of things I will never be able to sell in a million years, that will honestly dampen my enthusiasm. I’m not looking to sign you for one project, I want to work with you for a long time.

Those projects are a-comin’ ’round the mountain, whether I like it or not, and it’s only going to mean friction down the line if I sign you now and then fight you on every subsequent manuscript. If that’s the feeling I get, we’re likely not a good fit for the long-term, and it’s better to find out now. Don’t feel too much pressure on this one, though, because sometimes all I’m really curious about is whether those ideas are workable. They don’t have to be perfect just yet.

Your Overall Writing Career Goals

Your submission goals and overall career goals: I’ll ask you a little about where you see your career going and how you see this submission being handled. This is where I’ll also talk a little bit about my submission plans for the book and see if the two sync up nicely. The subtle thing I’m trying to figure out here is about your expectations. If you start talking book tour and six-figure advance right off the bat, I know you are going to be a handful down the road.

Publishing is full of big and little frustrations and decisions about your work that are completely outside of your control. Sure, you want to be as proactive as possible about your book and your career, but that doesn’t mean expecting the world handed to you on a silver platter by publishers who are, frankly, not handing out much of anything to the majority of debut authors these days. So some questions a literary agent might ask: Are you savvy and humble? Are you realistic? Are you prepared to work hard to see your goals to completion? This is what I’m really asking here. (God, I can’t believe how much I’m showing my cards in this post…)

Literary Agents Are Gauging How You React to Editorial Feedback

Your reaction to feedback: If I’m offering representation, I will have editorial feedback for you. Now. A lot of agent colleagues have spent hours on the phone with a potential writer, giving all their notes, laying out a revision plan, only to have the writer go elsewhere and incorporate their revision notes anyway, but after signing with a different agent.

I’m not this precious about my editorial suggestions for you, but I do think it’s a bad idea to dump all of my feedback in your lap at once. It’s overwhelming, and it may come across as me not liking the book (which, if I’m calling to offer, is the opposite of what I want to convey). So I take my three biggest revision suggestions, including one or two that might be controversial, and float them your way.

Out of all the questions a literary agent might ask, this is the most important area for me. First, I get to see if you and I are on the same page editorially. If you’re writing a dark psychological thriller and I call, saying, “What I basically need from you is to make it more like the Clique series,” then we’re not going to be a good fit because you and I see the book differently and we want different things for it. (I sure hope I never miss the mark this badly…) It’s fun for me to get into revision back-and-forth with authors, even if we disagree.

But there’s workable disagreement and then there’s an impasse. If we butt up against the latter in the literary agent phone call, we probably shouldn’t work together. You’re always going to want one thing, I’m always going to want the other, and that sort of resentment is not good in a partnership.

How Will You Handle a Novel Revision?

Your revision style: If we do agree on most of my revision suggestions and it seems like we’re thinking about the book and its potential in a similar way, I still want to know about your revision process. I’ve found that being able to revise is the single most important skill a writer can have. I’ve taken on promising first projects, given tons of notes, and what really made or broke the new relationship is how well the author has been able to run with those notes and take the manuscript to the next level.

Every manuscript will need work once it comes in. I’ve only had one manuscript in my career come in that only needed a minor revision before going on to sell. How well and how thoroughly and how deeply you delve into the task of revision is paramount. Of course, I can’t know all the specifics of how it will really be from a literary agent phone call, but that’s what I’m really talking about when we talk about revision.

Is your project going to net interest from a literary agent? Are you ready for submission? Hire me for consulting or editing services and I can give you a no-nonsense, actionable take on your manuscript’s strengths and opportunities for growth.

Publishing Predictions for 2012 and a WD Webinar

I’m putting some digital-related publishing predictions on KidlitApps tomorrow, if you want to take a gander. I’m also going to be speaking on a panel about picture book apps in Palo Alto, CA this Saturday, January 14th, from 4 to 6. If you’re in the area, I really encourage you to come by and learn about it. More info here:

PICTURE BOOK APPS: A BRAVE NEW WORLD
An SCBWI SF South Saturday Series Event

Saturday, January 14th, 4-6 pm, First Congregational Church of Palo Alto

Please join us as industry insiders share their experience and wisdom around the explosive new world of picture book apps. Learn about this potential-filled market and find your place in it! A wine and cheese reception will follow the presentations.

Panelists:

Sam Berman, Co-Founder of book app developer Grids Interactive;
Alan Katz (via Skype), children’s picture book author and writer of the book app, Andrew Answers;
Mary Kole, agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency and blogger

SCBWI members $10 advance/$15 door; Non-members $20 advance/$25 door (join SCBWI to receive the member rate!).

Click here to RSVP!

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Also, I’ll be speaking about picture books and how to write and publish them in a Writer’s Digest webinar on Thursday, January 12th at 1 p.m. Eastern. You can call in or listen to the talk online, in the comfort of your home or office. If you’re not available at the webinar time, you can still register and receive a recorded version of the talk via email next week, once they put all the information together.

I’ve given this picture book webinar once before, so if you’ve already heard the picture book version, this will be the same information. However, new students and returning students alike get a 1,000-word picture book critique from me!

To register for the webinar, click here.

If you want to hear me speak in person, I’ll be appearing at the Writer’s Digest Conference in Midtown NYC from January 20th to the 22nd! I’ll be on an agent panel, will be participating in Saturday afternoon’s agent Pitch Slam, and will have my own talk about children’s writing and the marketplace on Sunday morning. Whew! It will be a busy, busy weekend, but I can’t wait to meet more of you in person. It’s not too late to register for the conference, and you can do so by clicking here.

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Finally, those of you watching the publishing business…what are YOUR publishing predictions for 2012? Other than, of course, you getting one or many steps closer toward your own writing and publishing goals. At least, that’s my prediction for all of you! 🙂

New Adult and College-Aged YA Protagonists

If you’re interested in writing new adult or fiction with college-aged young adult protagonists, read on. This question comes from Christina Marie:

Should YA only be centered on high school aged characters or can a novel expand into the college years, mainly the freshman year, and still be considered a YA novel? Is it hard to sell a book that has the setting on a college campus instead of a private or high school setting? Personally, do you stray away from novels set for that age group and setting or do you wish you could see more of it in your inbox?

new adult, college aged young adult, young adult market, pitching young adult, how to write and publish young adult
Thinking of writing new adult or YA with a college-aged protagonist?

The whole “New Adult” “trend” that we all heard about on Twitter a year ago is the work of one imprint (St. Martin’s) at one publishing house (Macmillan). It has failed to take off. A few other publishers have tried to publish books with college-age protagonists, THE IVY out from Greenwillow comes to mind, but they’ve failed, in my opinion, to get traction.

Is New Adult a Real Category?

Just because we heard a lot about New Adult, it’s wishful thinking. There is a Middle Grade (sometimes called Independent Reader) shelf and a Young Adult shelf at most bookstores. There is no New Adult shelf, and they’re not sharpening their saws to build one anytime soon.

Imagine the difference between going to middle school and going to high school. Your world completely changes once you cross this threshold. Now imagine what a huge shift it is to go from high school to college. In high school, you’re worried about taking SATs or passing your driver’s test or making out with your girlfriend or boyfriend. If you fail a class, you are going to get grounded, because you still live at home.

The Problem With College-Aged Young Adult Protagonists

In college, you are on your own for likely the first time. The stakes are much higher, you don’t care about the SATs anymore, and you can drop a class without telling anyone. The choices you make don’t determine which college you’ll get into, they determine your career and the rest of your life as a real adult.

If I’m sixteen, I’m not going to be able to relate to the problems of a college-age kid, just because the frame of reference is so drastically different. It’s all about relatability. And that’s why I don’t think New Adult holds any water in this marketplace. I’m open to changing my mind but so far the evidence isn’t convincing. If I had my druthers, nobody would ever mention New Adult to me again until it was a real phenomenon, and I’m almost always skeptical of writers who simply have to set their YA novel during the college years.

Wondering where your novel idea fits in the marketplace? Market analysis is part of many of my editorial services.

Anthropomorphism: Writing Animal Characters

I got some questions from Darshana and NAP about anthropomorphism and writing animal characters. NAP asked why they seemed to be unpopular in today’s market given the many perennial animal favorites, and Darshana wrote the following:

I am under the impression that when you have a topic that could be traumatic to a child using animals lessens the effect. Example: Corduroy or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Also there are wonderful stories such as CLICK CLACK MOO, BEAR SNORES ON, LITTLE BLUE TRUCK that simply can’t be told any other way. Or is that if you use animals in your story, it has to be a story that couldn’t be possibly told with any other setting/character?

writing animal characters, talking animals, anthropomorphism
If you’re writing animal characters, it should be because your particular story wouldn’t work any other way.

Animal Stories: Not Quite as Popular Anymore

When I talk about animal stories, by the way, I mean mostly picture books, chapter books, and some MG. It’s highly unusual to see anthropomorphic animal characters in YA. And it’s true that there seems to be less excitement in general about talking animals than there was a few years ago. Sure, in ye olde days, animal protagonists were de rigeur. Now, I can acknowledge that they’ve somewhat fallen out of style, though publisher’s catalogs are still crammed with all sorts of critters, especially on the PB side. (Looking for more picture book ideas? Read more here.)

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with writing animal characters. Ask Erin Hunter, the creator of the WARRIORS middle grade series. I’m pretty sure you can find her on the road to the bank…she’ll be the one laughing. And, as I said, there are tons of creatures on shelves today. But why is there this aura that animal stories aren’t quite as popular as they used to be?

Are Animals Better Suited For Difficult Stories?

Darshana brings up an interesting point. Are talking animals better suited for difficult stories that need one step of remove from reality? This could be a reason for themes of anthropomorphism, though lots of the animal stories I’ve read are simply stories with critters who act very much like human children. In fact, as an interesting counterpoint, I know that one publisher, Lee & Low, will not publish stories with anything but real children, because their mission is diversity and they want the opposite of that remove, they want the human experience only so that their readers can instantly relate. In this vein, I think that we, as people, are so used to relating to protagonists in stories, whether animal or inanimate object or kid, that I don’t know how real this psychological distance is. I’m guessing it’s negligible, though it is good food for thought.

Is Anthropomorphism Integral to Your Story?

As for the other examples that Darshana mentions, she’s right, they can’t be told any other way, but I think the reason there is just because…they are stories that happen to include talking animals (or Little Blue Trucks and their animal friends). Her last point is true of all stories, I think, or at least it should be: You make the choices you do in your fiction because you simply cannot make any other choices. Your particular choices are so right that they seem like the only ones. This should apply to characters, of course, but also to setting, plot, word choice, etc. THE VELVETEEN RABBIT is a story about a discarded toy looking for a home. It literally cannot star anyone else but a toy character.

It’s a Matter of Personal Taste

I think anthropomorphic animals are very much a case-by-case question, as well as one of very personal taste. Personally (and here I speak for me and me alone), I do not like chapter books or MG with talking animals. And most unpublished picture books with animals fall short for me. From what I see in the slush, I get the distinct feeling that some people are writing animal characters simply because they remember reading a lot of animal stories when they grew up (read more about how to write children’s books here). This is a red flag because it shows that they may not be as familiar with today’s market and that they may not be making the strongest and most inevitable choices.

Writing Animal Characters: The Overall Market Trend

Overall, across the tens of thousands of submissions I’ve read, animal stories tend to cluster near the bottom of the barrel. This is by no means true across the board, it’s a huge generalization, and it has nothing to do with the canon of successful anthropomorphic stories out there, but this is a clear effect I’ve noticed. (Again, just speaking for myself here.) So I’m wary of them most of the time. And it could very well end up being my loss.

However, I’ve personally broken that mold on my list with BUGLETTE THE MESSY SLEEPER (Tricycle Press) by Bethanie Murguia (and its sequel, coming from Knopf in 2013, SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER), WHEN BLUE MET EGG (coming from Dial/Penguin in 2012) by Lindsay Ward, and POCO LOCO (coming from Marshall Cavendish in 2013) by John Krause. It’s important to note that none of these books deal with issues so difficult that we needed to project them onto talking animals. It’s more important to note that all of them are tales that could only happen with these particular characters, because their creators made very active story choices. This is a critical point to keep in mind when you’re approaching how to write a character. I think that’s the bottom line, right there. (Check out our full video on this topic!)

My developmental editing services will help you determine which kinds of characters (whether animal or human) will best suit the needs of your story.

Young Adult Fiction for Boys and the Male Protagonist Issue

Here is a question about young adult fiction for boys and the male protagonist in YA from Royce:

Is there any niche demand for stories for young adult male readers? Most of the agent profiles and marketplace news indicate demand for Distopian, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, etc., and most of the published books seems to appeal to teen girls.

young adult fiction for boys, male protagonist, boy YA, teen boy book, teen boy young adult, teen boy YA
Thinking of writing young adult fiction for boys? Here’s how the male protagonist factored into this market, and it may not be great.

Is There Really a Young Adult Fiction for Boys Market?

I don’t want to open a can of worms. So before I begin, let me say that there is The Way I Wish It Was, and The Way It Really Is, and What People Are Willing to Do to Bridge the Gap with the male protagonist issue in YA.

The Way I Wish It Was: Boys reading voraciously into their later teens, publishers publishing robust lists for these readers, teachers, booksellers, librarians, agents, and editors really excited about the market segment.

The Way It Really Is: There is not a robust market for YA contemporary realism, per se, compared to fantasy genres, and the market for a YA boy audience is dreadful because most boys in that age group have either stopped reading altogether in middle school or they’re up in adult fiction that they discovered around age 12 or 13.

Books marketed directly to teen boys don’t tend to do well and the YA section of the bookstore is so thoroughly steeped in paranormal romance and purple faces with female faces on them that I’d avoid it, too, if I was a self-respecting dude with money to burn from my first pizza delivery job. (More considerations of teen boy books here.)

How to Make the Male Protagonist Work in YA

While we all want to work hard to change that, that’s the reality right now, as I see it from many discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues. Unless yours is a boy character who appeals first and foremost to girl readers (John Green’s work), you will have a tougher time, as girls are the overwhelming audience in this age group. Through to You by Emily Hainsworth, features Cam, a boy protagonist who goes across parallel universes in the hopes of getting his girlfriend back. He’s a dude, and he’s the narrator, but the premise is thoroughly romantic and so will attract a lot of girl readers.

Other recent examples of boy characters tend to strongly feature female protagonists as well. So this puts the lie to the idea of “young adult fiction for boys,” because the closest we’re getting is “young adult fiction for both … but mostly girls.” Here, I’m thinking of The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon and All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.

If he was on a quest for, say, a cache of lost movies by a legendary horror movie director or a really awesome video game, I don’t think it would’ve sold because its market share with female YA readers would’ve evaporated. Though books like Ready Player One by Ernest Cline prove me wrong, but notice that it wasn’t published as YA.

What People Are Willing to Do to Bridge the Gap: Not terribly much in terms of actual action. There’s a lot of talking and blogging on the subject, though. But publishing is a business and, unless the YA boy-book-intended-primarily-for-boy-readers segment of the market starts taking off like, say, fallen angel romances, I don’t know how many editors will be able to put their houses’ money where their mouths are. (Or, if they do publish a good boy YA list, how often they will be able to add to it.)

There are great, great, great books that deserve boy reader attention. Feed by M.T. Anderson. The work of Steve Brezenoff, Barry Lyga, A.S. King, Ilsa J. Bick, Andrew Smith, and more. But either we’ve lost some faith in attracting these readers or the market really isn’t there. All I know is that a boy-targeted YA feels like a really tough sell.

If you’re writing a male protagonist, maybe your work can be slotted elsewhere. I can help you with market considerations as well as craft ideas as your developmental editor.

Picture Book Lessons

Are you excited to impart some picture book lessons? Read on! I’ve been thinking a lot about picture books because I recently taught a Writer’s Digest webinar craft intensive all about them. Now that I’m digging into the critiques for the webinar, I wanted to reinforce a point that I made about books that teach life lessons.

picture book moral, didactic picture book, preaching in picture book, picture book lessons, books that teach life lessons
I don’t want picture book lessons! Entertain me!

The Problem With Picture Book Lessons

Overt picture book lessons make agents and editors squirm. Books that teach life lessons come to the page with an agenda, and that kind of moralizing in picture books rarely turns out well. Now, don’t get me wrong…the best picture books all contain big, universal ideas. They all aim to leave the reader with an emotional experience or a realization.

The difference between masterful picture books and those written by writers who maybe haven’t honed their craft quite yet, though, is that the masterful picture books get their point across without preaching overtly.

An Example of Preaching and Moralizing

For example, if you want to write a picture book about a stubborn girl named Tally who learns that sometimes compromise is good, too (because what parent wouldn’t like to teach their kids this lesson?), you would never write:

And then Tally learned that she could let her sisters choose the movie once in a while, and it would still be a lot more fun!

You may have a lesson in mind, but it has to be uncovered by the reader in the context of a) a character’s experience, and b) a larger story. If you find yourself coming out and saying the lesson, you are hitting it too much on the nose and it’s very likely that your story is skewing didactic.

Basically, you’re working too hard and being too obvious. The best picture book lessons are subtle, and they inspire the reader to come to their own conclusions without hitting them over the head.

How to Tell If Your Picture Book Is Didactic

Here’s a simple litmus test that I’ve been asking writers to apply to their picture book lessons:

If you remove the lesson at the end, does the story stand alone?

For example, if Tally’s entire picture book is about how she won’t compromise and she won’t compromise and finally, is surprised when her first compromise works out well, then the plot serves the lesson. It doesn’t stand alone. If we took out the moral of the story, we would take away the plot because each event has been in direct service to the obvious ending.

How to Impart a Picture Book Moral Without Preaching

The best picture books are good stories (a very basic definition of “story”: a memorable character faces and overcomes conflict, is changed by the experience), first and foremost. The big picture idea and any picture book lessons are then delicately layered over and under the plot.

But if we take the lesson away and your plot crumbles, you’ve been leaning too heavily on only using your book to prove a point. Find your character. Find your conflict. Go back to the drawing board and stop attacking your moral so directly.

(There are, of course, obvious exceptions. Books that teach life lessons are a hit with some institutional publishers, and people need them for teaching aides, etc. Also, you are free to teach if you are writing non-fiction, obviously. Here I’m just talking about story-driven picture books for the trade market.)

Are you worried that your picture book isn’t hitting the right note? Hire me as your picture book editor and I will help you stay on message while telling a great story.

How to Write a Nonfiction Query Letter for a Children’s Book

Many writers want to know how to write a nonfiction query letter for children’s books. Now, a nonfiction query isn’t entirely different from a fiction one, but there are some nuances. First of all, I have to make the distinction between a nonfiction picture book and nonfiction for older readers. With a nonfiction picture book, you want to have the full text complete. With nonfiction for older readers, you are most likely pitching with a proposal (there are many excellent books on writing nonfiction book proposals, like How to Write a Book Proposal by Jody Rein and Michael Larsen from Writer’s Digest Books, or The Weekend Book Proposal by Ryan Van Cleave, so, trust me, you really don’t need to hear my thoughts on it).

How to Write a Nonfiction Query Letter

In your query, you also have a different objective. With a fiction query, I want you to make me care about your characters and your story. With a nonfiction query, I want to know three things:

  1. What’s cool, different, interesting, or unexpected about your idea?
  2. Why are you the one to write this book?
  3. Why does this book on this topic need to be published now?

So, basically: What is it? Why you? Why now?

First, in a nonfiction book market that is suffering because of library and educational budget cuts, I can sell only the most unique ideas. Do we need yet another Ben Franklin picture book biography? Yet another guide to puberty or friendships or doing well in school for middle grade readers? Probably not. But if you can find a unique twist or a subject that is surprising, interesting, or just dang cool, then you probably have a nonfiction book idea. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you have a nonfiction picture book idea or a cool article, so read more about that issue.)

An example of a cool nonfiction picture book: Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender: The True Story of a Civil War Spy  by Carrie Jones and Mark Oldroyd. It’s about a girl who pretends to be a boy and joins the Union Army during the Civil War. It’s not a known person from history but it’s someone with a great and unexpected story, and it teaches readers about the Civil War and about the state of women at that time in America.

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A nonfiction query letter case study.

How to Start a Nonfiction Query Letter

For your nonfiction query, start by hooking your reader with what’s unexpected about your story…what unturned stone you’ll be turning over…and then also discuss what the other educational hooks are, like I did when discussing Sarah Emma Edmonds. Not only do you need to sell the reader on why your idea is awesome, you need to give it a larger educational context as well, so that you show the agent or editor that you’ve thought of where in the curriculum your idea might fit.

Building Your Query Letter Case

Next, you will need to keep building your case. Now you need to prove that you are the right person for the job of discussing this subject matter. In fiction queries, your bio isn’t all that important unless your life relates directly to what you’re writing. In a nonfiction query, you need to spend more time establishing your authority on the subject you’re discussing, as well as building your platform. Are you a Civil War reenactor who wants to write about a specific battle or person from the history of the war? Great. Do you keep a popular Civil War reenactor blog? How many visits does it get? Do you travel to over a dozen reenactments a year? Speak to groups of students about the war? Teach a university class on a famous battle? Fabulous! Sounds like you should write a book!

How to Write Bio Information in a Query Letter

For fiction, you don’t really need any qualifications to sit down and start writing. Being alive and wanting to write is enough. In nonfiction, you really do need to convince the agent or editor that you have enough expertise and authority to write about your subject matter, and if you have a media, online, or in-person platform that will help you sell your books, that’s a big consideration. After all, you need a reason to be writing on your particular topic and, once you write nonfiction, you will be seen as an “expert” on it. Make sure you can back that up with proof from your life.

Finally, nonfiction needs a timeliness peg. Is a timely anniversary coming up? Did a new study just come out? Did something just get discovered? An editor will want your idea not only to be cool and written by an expert, they will want something that will be easier to sell to bookstores and libraries, and a hot topic is one of the best markers for nonfiction success in this challenging market.

Sample Nonfiction Query Letter

If I were writing an imaginary nonfiction query example, it would go like the following. And please keep in mind that this is a quick brainstorm, but it demonstrates the basic points I made above:

Dearest Mary,

I’ve enjoyed reading your kidlit blog and just found an article on how to write a nonfiction query letter. Funny, that, because here’s mine! Did you know that there are only four cemeteries in the city of San Francisco? It’s true. All of the other ones were dug up during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and moved outside of city limits because of mass hysteria over contamination [true story]. Now, Colma, CA, directly south of the city, boasts a bigger population of vintage San Francisco corpses than it does living residents. This is just one fun fact from my nonfiction book manuscript Spooky San Francisco. This book will take you on a tour of one of America’s most haunted and interesting cities, from the tunnels under Chinatown to the eerie shuttered hospital on Alcatraz Island (tourists are not allowed, but I’ve been there) [true story…I went yesterday, in fact]. San Francisco will host the America’s Cup sailing race in 2013, so there will be renewed interest in the city just in time for my book.

I grew up in and around San Francisco, have taken ghost tours in seven American cities [true!], and even worked at the Winchester Mystery House [okay, so it was for a day, but my roommate in college worked there for two years and I once got to spend the night with her there, just the two of us, it was awesome], the most haunted site in the Bay Area, so my interest in all things spooky runs deep. Through my network, I have access to all of the haunted sites that I will be showcasing, and have a team of ghost hunters standing by [believe it or not, true!] to help me with my research. The 1,200 word manuscript for Spooky San Francisco details the top ten haunted sites in SF, including the old Presidio Hospital, Alcatraz, Chinatown, the University of San Francisco Lone Mountain campus, and more. If you like this idea, I could take my show on the road and highlight the most haunted sites in other cities like New Orleans, Salem, Savannah, and New York City.

The manuscript is pasted below. This is a simultaneous submission. I hope to hear from you soon!

Sincerely,
Mary

Query Letter Analysis

Okay, so this is not a very good query, but it illustrates the point of how to write a nonfiction query letter. I’ve tried to hook the reader with some interesting facts, I made a lame attempt at explaining why a book about San Francisco would be timely (to answer the Why now? question…which I don’t do very well because a boat race has nothing at all to do with ghosts…yours should be better). Then I cherry-picked some interesting details about myself that make me sound like somewhat of an expert in the paranormal (again, yours should be better…if yours is as lame as mine, maybe you haven’t found the right nonfiction topic to cover yet).

I’d probably reject this query because it’s not very good and the author, despite having really cute hair, didn’t build a very good case for herself, but, since I’m the same person and since I wrote it in like five minutes as an example, I don’t feel too badly.

Hire me as your query letter editor to come out on top of the slush pile.

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com