Writing Rhyming Picture Books

Rhyming picture books were the bane of my existence as an agent, honestly, because not many people are that great at writing rhyming picture books. I had one rhyming PB client out of maybe fifteen PB “generalists.” And yet 8 out of 10 picture book manuscripts that came into the slush were in rhyme. That’s a pretty big disparity, right?

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There’s not a lot of demand for rhyming texts, so you need to be writing rhyming picture books that stand out.

The Problem With Writing Rhyming Picture Books

Part of the issue is that a lot more picture books used to be in rhyme than are being published now. So some writers still have this idea in mind that PB = cutesy rhymes. To those writers, I would suggest a trip to the bookstore, so they can see what’s being actively published now. Last week’s post on paying attention to the market would apply a little more heavily here…

Whether it’s a misconception that you have to write rhyme to publish a picture book, or an affinity for rhyme, or a misconception that young kids can only communicate in rhyme, I’d like to discuss this controversial topic with a little more clarity.

Now that I’m a freelance editor, I actually love working with rhyme. Why? Because I have creative writing training, know my poetics, and can identify rhyme issues a thousand miles away. I’m not bragging, but I am here to ruin your day a little bit: Rhyme involves a whoooooooooooooole lot more than putting cute words at the ends of sentences. Yet a lot of people who choose to write in rhyme don’t seem to make that connection.

How to Find Unique Rhymes

First of all, most of the end rhymes I see in manuscripts are about as inspiring as “cat” and “hat,” and I’m pretty sure someone else has already cornered that market. The point of rhyme isn’t to find a word that works and wedge it in somehow, the point of rhyme is to delight, impress, and surprise. If I see an unexpected rhyme in a manuscript, that immediately tells me that the writer knows what they’re doing.

A big mistake I also see is letting rhyme dictate story, not the other way around. Writers become so fixated on getting those rhymes in that things become arbitrary. Why is her name “Dorange”? Because you had to rhyme with “orange”? Okie dokie… Why is he sitting on a wall? Who does that? Oh, so he can have a great fall? Gotcha. But are you writing in service of your story or reaching for a rhyme? If the story falls by the wayside, you are choosing style over substance, and that’s problematic. The integrity of story must come first.

Rhythm and Rhyme in Picture Books

Yet another consideration is rhythm. This is where the poetics training really kicks into gear. Shakespeare didn’t just write in iambic pentameter to torture college students. There is actually a lot of (please forgive me, for I am about to sin) rhyme and reason to rhythm in poetry.

If you haven’t read your rhyming manuscripts aloud and counted your syllables at least once, what are you doing reading this blog post? Make haste! Because if I try reading your rhyming manuscript aloud, and the rhymes are fine, but your syllabic counts are all over the place and I’m tripping over my tongue with each line, this is what it looks like to me:

7 syllables
6 syllables

7 syllables
8 syllables

9 syllables
7 syllables

Books Teach Us How to Read Them

Whyyyyyyy? Why are you making my head hurt? What’s the pattern? Books, especially poetry books, teach us how to read them. Rhyme is a pattern. It says, “You are about to learn that if one line ends with rhyme A, the next line will also end with rhyme A. Then the next couplet will introduce rhyme B…” The rules are right there. So if you’re going to go through all that trouble with end rhyme, why would you not consider your rhythm, too?

I think that reading your work aloud will be extremely illuminating to you if you’ve never even considered counting syllables. The trick here, of course, is actually reading your work as it’s written, not reading your work with the rhythm that you want to impose on it.

It’s amazing how writers tend to snap into their ideal rhythm when reading, even if that’s not exactly the rhythm they’ve written. Better yet, have someone else read your work to you. Where do they falter? Which sentences trip them up? It’s an incredibly illuminating exercise.

The Odds Against Rhyming Picture Books

Now, you might think that I’m just being a stickler. Or that having the letters “MFA” somewhere in my personal history have put me on a high horse. Here’s the real poop on rhyming picture books, and I know you’ve heard this before: Most agents and editors don’t love them. When I was an agent, I didn’t love them because I didn’t know a lot of editors who loved them. When you’re an agent, it makes a lot of sense to really love stuff that sells well, because then you’re providing great service to your clients and making money.

And I’m betting that editors see a whole lot of rhyming manuscripts, too. Maybe not 8 out of 10 submissions, but maybe 5 out of 10. And let’s say that their houses are pressuring them to acquire more quirky/funny picture books along the lines of Peter Brown and Mac Barnett. So they only have room for 2-3 rhyming PBs on their lists each year.

Examples of Great Rhyming Picture Books

Then there’s the idea that there are people out there who really, really, really, really know how to write rhyme. My example in this category is always BUBBLE TROUBLE by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Polly Dunbar. I took one look at that text and never wanted to try writing in rhyme, because I think it’s just such an accomplished, virtuoso rhyming text.

If there are writers out there who are carrying Margaret Mahy’s torch and talents for rhyme, they are going to get those coveted and limited PB acquisition slots. Because they know what they’re doing. And the editors who want to work with them are going to hold them up to Mahy-like standards, since that’s an example of rhyming done extremely right that’s already out in the market.

Make Sure You’re Doing a Good Job

As you can see, there are a lot of considerations to writing in rhyme. And finding a good end rhyme to shoehorn in there is just the first level. If you are at all curious, college poetics textbooks are always enlightening, even if you have to also invest in some toothpicks to prop your eyelids open. Long story short, poetry is an ancient art form that has tons of rules and ideas all its own. It’s a system. And if you’re going to bind yourself to a system, you better know the system.

Within the system, you might just find a lot of freedom and creativity. Otherwise, if you don’t know it well or you’re just playing around with it because you think it’s what you have to do, it’s a set of handcuffs that will start to chafe pretty quickly. And it’s likely that you will not be truly competitive.

If you’re writing rhyming texts, don’t freak out. Just make sure you’re doing an excellent job. I mean, that’s good advice for any type of writing, or any pursuit, really, but I’ve found that it especially applies to getting rhyme past gatekeepers. Because rhyming PB texts often come from good, but misguided, intentions.

Hire me as your picture book editor and we can dig into your rhyming text together. All picture book edits include feedback on other picture book ideas you might have!

Children’s Book Writing Trends

Today I was thinking of the very important and potentially controversial issue of children’s book writing trends and creating fiction with a market in mind. What do I mean by this? Well, if you see that novels about alligators (ridiculous example) are heating up in the marketplace (“the market”), do you pursue that above any idea you may have come up with organically? Or do you keep writing what you’re writing and put relative blinders on as to what publishing is doing?

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Is the current writing trend worth following, or are you better going your own way?

Are Writing Trends Worth Chasing?

Writers tend to fall into two camps on the issue. Let’s talk pros and cons to help you see it more comprehensively.

By paying attention to the market, the market-minded writer is aware of what publishing is doing, and probably more aware of various guidelines. For example, you know that you could very well write a 200-page picture book, but that it probably wouldn’t get as much traction as if you’d slated your work toward the common 32-page format.

Sure, you can do whatever you want, but it’s going to come to a screeching halt if you try to wedge it into a marketplace that has no category for it. Categories, as we all know, are especially important in children’s books, where writing for specific ages means you have to pay attention to things like word count, protagonist age, etc.

You are of the opinion that you need to know the game before you step onto the playing field, so paying attention to what’s getting published is a way for you to learn the business and (potentially) get a leg up, especially if one of your ideas happens to align with what’s currently sought-after. Think of market awareness as giving yourself a stronger potential chance for success.

If You Don’t Pay Attention to the Publishing Market…

If you are a market-ignoring writer, you may be surprised when you try to submit. “What do you mean they’re not publishing 3,000-word fairytale storybooks anymore?” you ask. “I’ve put two years of my life into illuminating this manuscript with my daughter’s kindergarten illustrations!”

Well, if you had been in a bookstore in the last few years, you would’ve seen very clearly the way the wind is blowing in terms of length, tone, and illustration quality. Hey, whether or not the market is right or wrong in not really publishing the type of book that you want to write is up for debate, and that’s not really the scope of this post.

The truth remains that there are trends and preferences to today’s publishing culture, and that it would behoove the savvy writer to at least know what they are if they intend to offer up a product for sale. The same applies to any economy. If I happened to notice that twee handmade jewelry and adorable knit caps are selling like gangbusters on Etsy, I wouldn’t, for example, try to hang my shingle out as a lady mechanic selling rusty old car parts. I’m not going to get as much traffic there as I would on, say, the fantasy marketplace of RustyOldCarParts.com. The same idea applies here. It’s just common sense.

When Market Savvy Can Pay Off

There are, however, potential cons to paying too much attention to the market. You can become a slave to trends and lose what’s yours about your work. Your ideas will start to sound like copies or rip-offs of what’s currently trending, and you might lose some passion for your projects because you are chasing the market instead of your potential contribution to it. The market is also fickle, and trends come and go.

There’s also lag time to consider. What you’re seeing published now was acquired two years ago, so unless you are very connected or have an agent in your corner, it’s hard to know what editors are looking for at the present moment. Paying too much attention to the marketplace tends to create anxiety, whether it’s founded or not, and takes the fun out of the creative process.

The Pitfalls of Trendy Manuscripts

And if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, and approaching it with a more mercenary attitude, chances are good that others will find it more difficult to be passionate about it, too, and treat it like a project-of-the-week. Emotionally, this can lead to some bitterness. I heard it a lot during the Twilight era. “Why did that stupid vampire novel get published, while I have a perfectly good vampire novel and nobody wants it?!” writers would gripe.

There’s no good answer to that question. Maybe the stupid vampire novel was submitted before yours, or the writer had started it before the Twilight epidemic as an original, unlikely idea, and it’s full of that type of passion, whereas the griping writer’s novel was written in haste to make a few quick bucks. Who knows. But sometimes trend-driven projects take on a competitive edge that wouldn’t otherwise be there, and prove unpleasant to their creators.

Plus, a lot of the wild successes of publishing have come out of left field, as far as categories are concerned. So there’s something to be said for originality influencing the market, not the other way around.

The Perfect Blend of Writing Trends and Timelessness

I think an approach somewhere in the middle ground is the best. Know what the marketplace is doing so that you can give yourself a fighting chance. But don’t dwell on trends or haunt the deals notices too closely. Stick to your original ideas and pursue them passionately, as long as you’re also keeping a distant eye on what it might be like to sell them down the road. This, to me, is the sane road.

What kind of writer are you when it comes to paying attention to the market? Do you let it dictate, or do you follow your heart and then see if there’s a spot for what you’ve created? Or are you a little bit of both?

Wondering if your idea has market potential? Hire me as your book editor or manuscript consultant and I can give you feedback for where your project might fit into the publishing scene.

Should You Try Publishing a Novel Excerpt

Thinking about publishing a novel excerpt as a way to generate interest? My readers have been on a roll with some really good reader questions lately. As a reminder to anyone out there who may be new to the blog, I do open myself up to general inquiries about writing and publishing via email.

publishing a novel excerpt, generating buzz for a novel, attracting literary agent attention
Does the novel excerpt approach generate buzz for the novel as a whole?

Sometimes these exchanges end up on the blog, sometimes they’re between you and me. Information on how to reach me is available in the sidebar. I regret that I can’t answer very specific questions or review work…that’s reserved for my freelance editorial clients. But questions Kate’s, below, are more than welcome!

What are your feelings about submitting an excerpt from an as-yet unrepresented novel for publication in a literary magazine? My concern is that on the off-chance that the excerpt would be published I would thereby render the whole novel unsellable to a publisher. In my case I’ve rewritten the submission to make it work better as an excerpt, but I’m not sure if there’s enough difference between it and the version in the manuscript, or whether that even matters. Thanks!

Does Publishing a Novel Excerpt Get My Novel Noticed?

This is a great question, and one I see from time to time. I didn’t find out the exact circumstances until later, and it turns out I was right. Because I imagined a few things about Kate’s situation that would lead her down this path of reasoning.

First, Kate is frustrated by a novel that’s not getting picked up. She later reported submitting to agents for quite some time and not getting where she wants to go. Second, she has likely started thinking…Well, what else can I do with this thing? Is there a shortcut to getting to getting noticed? Hence the literary magazine idea. And it’s not a bad idea, in theory. But would I recommend it? This was my response. Read on:

Good question. I’ll answer, but start my answer with another (blunt) question: Why? What’s the point? If you want to get a novel published, it is very, very, very unlikely that you’re going to get there by publishing something in a literary magazine from it that an agent will see or that will otherwise draw attention to your efforts. That’s a very circuitous route.

Focus Your Publishing Energy More Directly

And getting published in a literary magazine involves learning about good literary magazines to submit to, submitting to them, getting immersed in that, etc. If your big goal is to get a novel published, your energy is much better used focusing on the DIRECT route: writing a kickass novel and getting immersed in the novel/agent submission process.

While, yes, writing credits are kinda sorta important to collect when you’re trying to make your name as a writer*, they are not the determining factor. And literary agents and literary magazine people don’t spin in the same worlds some of the time. You’d think they would be connected, and some definitely are, but agents have so much to read that when a literary magazine lands on their desks, on top of everything else, it may or may not get attention.

For me, even if someone is published in The Paris Review, one of the most noteworthy journals and pretty impossible to get into, if I hate the novel they’re submitting, the credit is impressive, but meaningless to me because, as an agent, I am looking to sell you as a novelist, not a literary magazine writer. So, you could be doing all that UNRELATED work for very dubious payoff. If the journals even want you.

Demand For Novel Excerpts in Literary Magazines Is Low

The thing is, lit mag demand for unpublished novel excerpts is quite low compared to standalone articles, short stories, and poems. They’d rather publish those because they’re more satisfying for the reader, rather than some random piece of something that, who knows, nobody may ever hear from again. Unless they’re inspired to contract you for a serial series, I wouldn’t imagine that this type of piece is hot property. And if they do, you may have more problems publishing it eventually because more will have appeared in print.

So the print rights issue is certainly one to consider, and some publishers might be jerks about it, saying that since you’ve already exploited some rights by putting the excerpt in print, the property is less attractive, etc. It has happened. But that’s honestly not why I’d reconsider this idea.

Focus on Writing and Revising Your Novel Instead of Publishing a Novel Excerpt

Finally, what about when you revise your manuscript, as you’re bound to do, because you wake up one day and realize the piece you’ve been missing? It happens all the time. And then you have this excerpt floating around that’s now horribly broken, in your eyes. And that’s your “sales piece” that’s now immortalized in print.

I know that you are probably very eager to do something, anything to move your chances forward. Think of taking the more direct path. Write the best manuscript you can. Write a killer query. Research agents. If you really have enough free time to also research literary journals, more power to you. But to me, that’s not going to be your strongest potential path to success.

  • I know many of you are going to find this statement interesting. I will cover clips and writing credits in a subsequent post!

The best sales piece to generate excitement is a strong novel manuscript. Plain and simple. Hire me as your novel editor and I can help you get there without resorting to gimmicks.

Preaching in Picture Books: Writing Child Characters With Their Own Wisdom

Nobody wants to admit they’re preaching in picture books, but… Most people also start out wanting to write picture books and their idea has a point to it. Their child characters have to learn something. It’s usually a lesson about living that they’re eager to pass on to impressionable young minds. But writing child characters is a bit more nuanced than that, if you want to do it right.

preaching in picture books, how to write child characters, child characters, how to write picture books, picture book moral, picture book didactic, didactic writing, moral of the story, theme
Preaching in picture books is not the way to electrify impressionable young readers. Now you’ve got me preaching, too!

Even if that lesson is zany and fun and uplifting, rather than moral or serious in nature, there’s still an element of “Let’s distill some life experience for these child characters.” Even if it’s not as conscious or overt as all that, teaching is still part of the urge that draws people to writing for the youngest readers.

How to Avoid Preaching in Picture Books

There’s definitely a way to act upon these instincts and get across to these impressionable readers. Absolutely! But it’s not to preach or state your “message” aloud. Today’s market, and discerning young readers, don’t much appreciate the, “And then we all learned to share” kumbaya moment at the end of the book where everyone lives happily ever after in peaceful coexistence. Writing child characters demands more nuance than that.

Not only is it a bit Picture Book 101 to tell this kind of moralizing story, but think of your audience. You want to avoid the situation of “wise older character comes and tells the young child characters all about how life works.” Kids get this all the time from parents, grandparents, teachers, older siblings, pastors, babysitters, etc. They receive a lot of the “should” type of education.

Incorporating Message and Theme in a Picture Book

This way of conveying your idea also doesn’t show your child audience the utmost respect. Why? It implies (even if you didn’t mean it to, and many writers don’t!) that the kid doesn’t know all that much about much, and that it takes a wiser (usually older) character to set them straight. This takes all the power away from the kid and gives it to an adult. Again. Just like what happens all over your average 3-7 year-old’s daily life. That’s not as sympathetic to their experience.

They come to stories for maybe another way of getting information. Maybe the “message” is buried in subtext, below the surface. It arises naturally from something the character might experience or realize as they journey through the story you’ve created. Writing child characters who come up with their own wisdom via life experience is key to creating a proactive protagonist.

I urge every aspiring picture book writer to try and stretch beyond this, maybe to the point where the character realizes some things, or better yet, comes up with the solution to the problem, all by themselves. Through seeing it experienced by a relatable character, kids will interpret your meaning on a deeper and more approachable level.

Do you want to make sure your picture book manuscript is compelling without being preachy? Hire me as your picture book editor and we can convey your message without moralizing.

Why An Agent May Not Submit Widely

I’ve had many writers coming to me over the course of my leaving myself open to questions. (If you have any general writing or publishing questions, email me at mary at kidlit dot com or leave them in the comments anytime!) Some of these writers are struggling with their agents. I know, I know. Most would simply die to have an agent in the first place, but once that hurdle is cleared, there really are issues that come up. Sometimes agent/writer relationships dissolve. Sometimes communication isn’t the best. It’s certainly a wonderful professional achievement to land an agent, but being agented isn’t a magic bullet guarantee of getting a publishing contract.

One question that a lot of writers have goes along these lines:

I got an agent. Yay! But my agent isn’t really sending my project out to a lot of editors. Is this normal or does this spell trouble? Do they not like me anymore? Etc.

There are a few behind the scenes reasons why your agent might be sending to a smaller list. First of all, “small” and “a lot” are quite subjective. That’s why you should talk to your agent about submission strategy before you sign with them. They might be the type to blast your submission all over New York, or they may be more selective, sending to six or eight carefully chosen editors at a time. Both of these approaches can be the “right” way of submitting. It all depends on the project, its prospects, and the agent’s personal style.

When I was submitting, for example, I would try between six and twelve editors at a time for a project, and I’d have a list of other potential names ready to go for future submission rounds, if necessary. That way I could control the submission, be deliberate about my selections, and usually only contact one editor per publishing house. You can submit to more than one if you target different imprints, and sometimes that approach makes sense, but those judgment calls, again, depend on the circumstances of the project.

This is the part that can get dicey, though, and it’s frustrating because it’s largely out of the client’s control. Sometimes an agent has projects out with a lot of editors. If you have twenty clients, for example, and they’ve all turned manuscripts in recently, you can find yourself with fewer and fewer potential available editors that aren’t already considering your other submissions. You want to send to the right editor for the project, always. But you also want to send to editors you know and like. This keeps your relationships alive and inspires those editors to give your projects more careful consideration. You want to work with them, they want to work with you. And, more importantly, they trustyou to bring them good stuff that they can buy.

This brings up the issue of capital. Just like editors have capital with the pub boards–it’s understood that they will bring their directors great manuscripts and only really fight for what they believe in, rather than bringing ten things to every meeting and trying to make a case for things they’re lukewarm on–agents have capital with editors. You don’t want to send an editor three projects while they’re still reading your previous subs. That’s careless and maybe they won’t be as excited to open your future emails or take your future calls because soon your pitches will feel like impersonal spam. You’ll be backed into a corner, because you don’t want to cannibalize their attention in favor of one client over another. So if an agent already has other projects with the Perfect Editor that they had in mind for you, you may not see Editor’s name on your submission list. At least not until the previous project either goes through or doesn’t.

And sometimes an agent gets into a relationship with an editor at a certain house, and they want to take care of that relationship because said editor is handling a big book or top client for the agent or agency. (This sounds a lot like office politics, and it is. Sometimes an agent has the agency’s other interests to consider.) It’s unspoken but recommended that the agent bring more projects to that editor, in the hopes of lightning striking again. If that’s the case, and that editor isn’t a fit for a certain client’s work, maybe that whole publishing house falls off of the submission list for the new client. Agents try to be as diplomatic as possible, but it’s a tough decision sometimes between thinking either “I hope it doesn’t alienate Mr. Editor that I sent him something not quite his style” or “I hope it doesn’t alienate Mr. Editor that I contacted a colleague of his instead of wasting his time with something not quite his style.”

Sometimes, it’s true, an agent will only submit to a few editors because they don’t believe in the project 100% and they want to test the waters. That’s a tough pill to swallow. To be perfectly honest, sometimes agents send out projects against their better judgment because they are feeling undue pressure from their clients. “I have a feeling this won’t sell as is, and I feel like I’ve tried to discuss the issues with my client,” they think. “But the client says it’s ready and wants to see a submission list, so maybe I’ll send it to a few editors. If it doesn’t sell, at least the rejections might mention the same issues, and maybe the client will finally listen.” That, and sometimes you want a little vindication when a publishing colleague agrees with you. This way you’re not the only bearer of bad news about a writer’s beloved manuscript, and there are more messengers to shoot! Editors, of course, do not appreciate being used as a “second opinion” on problematic manuscripts, but this does happen on occasion.

This article lists some scenarios that might result in a smaller submission list from your agent. The key takeaway, though, is that you should keep all this in mind and yet be more proactive. It’s your agent. They work for you. If you suspect any of the above, ask them why their list seems small. Get into specifics. Don’t look at it and take offense or start constructing conspiracy theories. A lot of realistic considerations go into a submission strategy, and you deserve to know what’s going on. If an agent is out with projects all over town and that leaves no editors out there to give you a fair audience, see if you can’t wait a little bit. If an agent is frustrated because they feel like your manuscript still needs work, do the difficult thing and try to see where they’re coming from.

Client management is difficult, as is sitting at your computer and waiting for news from your agent–the person in charge of making your dreams come true. Be honest, be informed, be understanding. Keep your lines of communication open. And if you feel like something is going on, and it’s not making you feel great, start that conversation sooner rather than later. Judging by the emails I’ve received from agented writers, there are too many out there stewing in silence or complaining on message boards. That doesn’t have to be you!

Submitting to Publishers

I’ve had a few writers recently come to me with questions similar to this one (summarized) regarding submitting to publishers:

Help! I am simultaneously submitting to publishers and agents and I’ve noticed something strange. All of the agents seem to say complimentary things about the writing but reject my idea. Some have even said that they wouldn’t know how to sell it and that there’s no market for it. One went as far as to say, “Give up already, nobody is going to buy this.” Meanwhile, the editors I’ve reached out to rave about the writing and say that it’s a really good idea. Does this happen often? Who’s right?

submitting to publishers, do i need an agent to publish my book
Agents vs. Editors: Who’s right?

Agents Vs. Editors

I’m going to try and address this intelligently without insulting too many people. When you’re submitting to publishers, keep in mind that agents and editors are different and represent different steps in the publishing process. Agents can often be accused of taking more mainstream projects with an eye toward the market and current trends. That comes from the way that agents make money: They want to attract as many buyers to your project as possible so that you, your project, the agent, and the agency get the most favorable outcome, which usually tends to happen to “bigger” or “commercial” projects that inspire a bidding war. Then they want to use this momentum to sell even more rights, like foreign and film. They take a percentage of the sale (sometimes with a salary, sometimes working only on commission) so they have to do a lot of big sales in order to profit.

Editors, on the other hand, often seem more sympathetic to more marginal projects without paying as much attention to market trends. They know that their publishers service many audiences, including schools and libraries, and that there are many different slots that a potential book can fill. They are willing to look at things that aren’t as immediately marketable and see their potential. They also don’t have to hustle for their money. Sure, they are under pressure from their bosses to acquire profitable projects. But since they have more job security, they can take more time and be more charitable with feedback for things that come across their desks. (This is not to say that editors don’t work hard. They work incredibly hard! But they, in general, are also more secure financially because they work for large companies that pay a salary.)

The Reality of Submitting to Publishers

Before you think that I’m calling agents mercenary art-killers and editors starry-eyed idealists, though, here’s another layer of complexity: In the real world, it is very difficult for either party to get what it wants. Blockbuster commercial projects that will go on to sell in the six- or seven-figures come around once in a blue moon. Everybody wants one, everybody fights for it when it appears, but only one agent gets it. The rest of the time, agents have to see the potential in more challenging concepts. And as fun as it is to hold a huge auction, it’s just as fun fun to sell a “quiet” book to the perfect editor who immediately “gets it.” Finding this fit is a lot more work for often less (monetary) reward, but it feels amazing, too.

The Reality for Editors

And while an editor may love the idea of doing a book for a very limited audience or with a totally out-there subject matter, they have to answer to their bosses, their pub boards, their finance guys, their marketing departments, etc. etc. etc., and they sometimes get brought back down to earth by a “no” that comes from above. So while the editors in the sample question about submitting to publishers all seem to be much more amenable toward marginalized concepts, I didn’t hear that any of them were offering to buy the manuscripts in question, either. Liking something and saying nice things about it is very different from putting cold, hard money on the line. We all go into children’s publishing to help get amazing books into the hands of worthy young readers, but these aspirations often butt right up against the fact that publishing is a Business-with-a-capital-B. And sometimes a book with a challenging subject matter, or one without “high-concept” commercial potential will take more work to see in print.

The Reality for Agents

Agents do have to focus on more commercial concepts sometimes to stay afloat. And editors have to jump through a whole lot of hoops and “sell” a book to their team before they can make an offer. For books where the potential to profit isn’t obvious, that means it will take time to place them with either and agent or an editor. I don’t think it’s right for anyone to say “Just give up, this is a fool’s errand!” But I also don’t want to say that every book will get published, because some ideas are jut too far out there to invest in in a competitive market.

Understanding the Process

Part of trying to get published, however, is understanding the process. Here I hope I can offer some insight into why agents and editors sometimes seem at odds when it comes to their decisions. It’s never quite as black-and-white as it appears. A caveat: This post is NOT about drawing a line in the sand and saying “this type of book is commercial and this isn’t.” Part of the gamble of publishing is to look and imagine and take chances. I will never tell a writer that they should stop submitting to publishers because their idea categorically won’t work and that idea is a guaranteed bestseller. It doesn’t work like that. There are no certainties.

My core message has always been that writers who focus on the craft and learn about the publishing industry are setting themselves up for greater success. This post is instead about addressing a disparity between agent and editor responses that several writers have noticed, and trying to explain the possible reasons.

My editorial services come with a decade of experience in the publishing industry. When you’re ready to submit your work, I can help you navigate the process.

Getting the Most Out of Writing Conferences

I’ve done several posts on writing conferences (some are here). If you’re wondering what to bring to a writers conference, the answers may surprise you. What I want to hammer home to writers about to go to their first or their hundredth writer’s conference is that it’s all about what you make out of it, much like writing-related programs and work experience. Many people go to conferences in the wrong mindset, and it can impact their experience in a bad way.

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Wondering what to bring to a writers conference? A great attitude. But your laptop probably wouldn’t hurt…

Writing Conferences Are an Emotional Rollercoaster

For example, they put a lot of emphasis on their pitch session, thinking that whether or not they get a request will mean the conference either was or wasn’t worth the money, respectively. Or they enter a conference-sponsored contest and hang all of their hopes on winning. Or they expect to corner a visiting agent or editor and sell them on the book. In their search for what to bring to a writers conference, they print off ten copies of their 300-page novel. It’s very rare that these American Idol moments happen at conferences, and expecting them is setting yourself up to have a bad time should the stars not align.

But before you think I’m trying to talk you into shooting low at writing conferences, remember that it’s very rare indeed for the stars to align. And even if you make a connection with an editor or agent, it’ll most likely be long after the conference when they’ve finally had a chance to read the manuscript they requested from you at the event. Because that’s how it has always worked for me: I request and read later, not at the table, while the writer is nervously staring at me.

What to Bring to a Writers Conference? Realistic Expectations

Your primary job at writing conferences, therefore, isn’t to walk out of there with a book deal (though I can’t swear this has never happened), it’s to be cool, personable, and open to the experience. Most importantly, it’s to be without agenda. I know this sounds lame. You are paying a lot of money to be there, you’ve likely taken time off work or away from your family. You have a manuscript burning a hole in your hard drive. You don’t yet understand that publishing moves slower than molasses unless you’re one of the very few debuts that’s destined to set the world on fire. While it’s important to have a dream and a strong motivation, it’s more important not to only be there in obvious service of it.

This means chatting with your tablemates at lunch about things other than you project (though you can definitely discuss it). Maybe you’ll find a critique partner or learn about another genre. This means introducing yourself to visiting authors, agents, and editors without immediately launching into your pitch. (Most of my most successful writing conferences have yielded writers who chatted me up about something random, had a good sense of humor, and were very casual-yet-professional about getting a card and following up with business later.) This means using your pitch session as a fun practice exercise in distilling your ideas instead of The End All And Be All Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity you might think it is. What to bring to a writers conference? A sense of humor and a casual vibe.

Writing Conferences Are Just a Piece of Your Success Puzzle

Expectations are hard in that they’re always present and always tied to emotion. Writing expectations, especially, because they have to do with something so personal and creative. But everyone has a different path to publication and a different path once published. Any of my clients will tell you that having a book out in the world is great but (and there’s always this but) nothing like they expected or imagined.

The house is late in processing your payment. Your book does unexpectedly well or poorly. You get questions from readers that blow your mind. Your book gets banned because of one word from a school library. Your next book isn’t picked up or you end up scrambling to write a sequel because of demand. Your editor leaves. You switch houses. Your house announces a huge merger with another house. And on and on and on. Everyone is in a long learning curve together in this publishing business, and every time I think I’ve seen or heard it all, a new story emerges that changes my perspective on it.

The best way to go to writing conferences is to temper your expectations, be casual and professional, make a good impression by being friendly and curious, and take as many notes as you can on sessions that interest you. I recommend conferences 100% but I have been to hundreds of them and can tell you now that one isn’t going to change your life. That’s not to say that you won’t get an idea, have an “aha!” moment, or meet someone who is going to be part of your journey. Go into the experience with your head in the right place and be open to anything.

Describing Plot in a Query Letter

Describing plot in a query letter can be tricky. Many writers stumble over the “meat” of the pitch. One of my favorite notes to give because it make so much sense to me is “A situation is not a plot.” (Though Stephen King is quick to absolutely disprove me by giving the opposite note here, ha! Proving once and for all how subjective writing advice can be. As the author of a book of writing advice, I’ll be the first to admit it.)

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Fill this page with your query “meat.” Sounds gross, but I’m about to rock your world. Get your mind out of the gutter!

This note applies especially to queries and I wanted to remind everyone to concentrate on specific plot points in their pitch letters as 2013 and all the make-your-dreams-come-true querying gets underway.

Are You Listing or Are You Describing Plot in a Query Letter?

Here’s an example of a query letter that relies overly on situation instead of plot:

Emma wants to be normal so badly, but she can’t. Between a cheating boyfriend, an abusive father on his way out of the family, and a rivalry with the most talented softball player in school, she has no time at all to discover that the tattoo she got over spring break is giving her secret powers.

Sorry for the lame example, but I rather like the idea of a tramp stamp giving you a little more than you bargained for. Maybe it’s my childhood memory of that one episode of the X-Files when Scully gets that snake tattoo and all hell breaks loose? Wow. Blast from the past. Anyhow…

Sell the Reader on Your Query Letter

This query is fine and I see it a lot in the slush. But it’s not the best it can be, and that’s why I’m calling it out here. What’s missing? A specific sense of plot. This query gives us a fine idea of everything that’s going on in Emma’s life, but it doesn’t really do any of the heavy lifting to connect the dots. It’s like dumping the jigsaw puzzle of your plot in front of your reader and saying, “Well, there it is.”

In a pitch letter, you’re not just selling the reader on the hook of your story or how marketable it might be, you’re also selling them on your story itself.

Here, we don’t know if the father is going to be the main secondary plot (giving it a darker, more contemporary realistic shade despite the tattoo element), or the boyfriend (giving it a more romance flavor), or the softball rivalry (making me think it’s going to be a school-heavy story). If I’m left to reassemble the pieces of Emma’s situation in my own head, I could find three very different books in there.

Structure the Pitch, Don’t Ask the Agent to Do the Work

That’s a problem. You want to not only give us the elements of your story but arrange them in such a way that your plot shines through, guiding the reader even more into the specific world and events of your unique novel. Something that’s more specific would go like this:

Just as her abusive father is on his way out of the family, Emma discovers an uncomfortable secret: that tattoo she got over spring break is giving her the ability to see people’s futures. And she doesn’t like what it forecasts for her relationship with Rufus when she predicts his cheating on her at prom. From there, it’s one catastrophe after another, especially as she races against time to best her softball rival before the last game of the year determines who gets a coveted scholarship. As her power predicts doom and gloom for everyone around her, Emma has to do everything she can to secure her own future.

Okay, now I know that the father isn’t really going to be a big part of it, and the boyfriend’s cheating is more of an incident for the first third. The main thrust of the plot will probably be the rivalry, ending in a championship at the climax. The story feels much clearer to me now that the query is guiding me along instead of throwing me in the deep end of situation. This is a nuanced distinction, but an important one.

I spent five years as a literary agent, and I saw tens of thousands of queries. Hire me be your query letter editor, and I’ll help you avoid common traps and rise above the slush.

Having More Than One Literary Agent for Different Books

At conferences, I used to get frequent questions about having more than one literary agent. This version of that question comes from Wendy:

I am looking for an agent for my YA fantasy novel. While researching, I cross the names off my list of those agents who state that they are not looking for picture books. I do this because I also write smaller stories that would make great picture books. My question is: If and when I find an agent and he/she does not want to take on my other stories or does not believe in them as strongly as I do, do I find another agent for these works? Do authors usually have multiple agents?

having more than one literary agent, multiple literary agents
While it probably won’t come to fisticuffs, having multiple literary agents in children’s publishing could get real hairy, real fast.

It Depends on the Agency

A lot of agencies who represent you for the children’s market will want to represent ALL of your work in those categories. (Eternal point of clarification: “middle grade” is not a “genre,” it is an “audience” or “category,” same with “picture book” and “young adult.” “Fantasy” or “contemporary” are genres. This is a vital distinction to make.) When I worked at Andrea Brown, this was definitely our MO. Since we all specialized in ALL children’s categories, from picture book to young adult, we took on clients writing for multiple audiences with the full confidence that we would be able to pitch their picture books as well as their gritty YA (as long as all were done very well, of course, per this previous post about writing in different genres). When I worked at Movable Type, I also expected to be a writer’s only children’s agent because I was the only person at the agency doing children’s books.

It Boils Down to Ownership

Suppose you have multiple literary agents for a picture book, a chapter book, and a middle grade book. (This is a pie in the sky scenario that assumes you write well in all three categories, used only as an example, and extremely unlikely.) What if you are working on a picture book property with an agent and they’ve invested a lot of revision and time. You go out on submission. All the editors say, “Wow, this is great, but it should really be longer and a chapter book.” Or you’ve written a middle grade and worked on it with your MG agent, and all the editors say, “Gee, this rocks, but your voice is a bit young. Can you age it down and make it a chapter book? We’d love to see it again!” This is when having more than one literary agent can get hairy.

Who Gets Compensated?

Your picture book or middle grade agent did a lot of work on the project and therefore they have a lot invested in selling the property and earning commission on it. But if you also have a chapter book agent, they would be the agreed-upon choice for selling the chapter book side of your portfolio. Again, this is a silly example, but you can see how easily you’d slip into a gray area and pit your multiple literary agents against one another if you had separate representatives for each category.

If you write for multiple audiences, rather than having more than one literary agent, you need to seek a representative who is confident in their abilities to submit to editors in all your desired categories, and, most importantly, who LOVES YOUR WORK in each category. If they are crazy about the YA and not the PBs, but you have your heart set on writing both, it might be very difficult to walk away but it might save you some heartbreak down the line (them saying, “I just took you on for this YA and, really, I don’t know if these PBs will go anywhere.”) They might be totally correct in their assessment, but you had your heart set on being a PB author as well as a YA author, so that might leave you in a tight spot.

Having More Than One Literary Agent is Okay When…

For example, you also write adult (and you can have an adult book agent either at the same agency or a different one) or screenplays (another agent or manager there). Those divisions are much clearer than the divisions between kidlit categories. As long as all agents know about one another and each agency contract is written in such a way that permits having more than one literary agent, I don’t see that being a problem. But within children’s books–a very tiny world where all the editors usually acquire for multiple audiences and everyone knows one another–it could get really hairy, fast.

Are you ready to submit your work to agents? Hire me as your query letter editor and I’ll help you develop a strong pitch.

Communicating With Literary Agents While On Submission

Today’s question about communicating with literary agents while on submission comes from Peter:

I’m submitting simultaneous submissions (only when they say it’s OK, of course). I know it is common courtesy to let agents know the submission is not exclusive and inform the others when I receive representation from one. But what of the time in between? If I query two agents, and one emails me back with suggestions and asks me to resubmit, do I need to tell the other one? In other words, should I keep everyone in the loop of events prior to anything less than a signed contract?

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The train is leaving Fiction Station! Rec’d offr 4 rep. U in? (No, please don’t text or call literary agents that you have another offer, but you do want to send an email…)

Keeping Literary Agents in the Loop–How Much Is Too Much Communication?

Good question! There are a few things going on here. I’ll do my best to unpack them. I hope all of you are already as up-to-speed as this writer and know that it is courtesy to both inform agents when something is a simultaneous submission (and most things should be, you know how I feel about exclusivity), and when you receive an offer on a manuscript.

Now, some people are torn as to whether to contact EVERY agent who has the query when you receive an offer, even if they haven’t responded yet, or just those agents who are reading fulls or partials.

I’m neutral on the issue. I’ve had querying writers inform me of an offer and this made me read their query immediately if I hadn’t already. I’ve also had writers whose fulls I was reading email me to tell me that someone had scooped me and offered quickly. Both work for me. What I don’t love is someone whose full I am considering emailing me to let me know that they’ve received an offer–and accepted it already–without letting me have time to decide whether I’d also like a chance at the manuscript.

Communicating With Literary Agents When You Receive an Offer

Of course, I understand that sometimes you have an instant connection with an offering agent and all other agents start to immediately look like chopped liver. But the usual time to inform everyone is when you receive an offer. If you do accept without giving anyone else a chance, a courtesy notice to other agents reading is, of course, appropriate, but try and make them aware earlier.

What I don’t care about are partial and full requests you’re getting while I either have your query or full manuscript. There is no need to keep everyone informed about this. I understand the psychology behind writers sometimes think this is a good idea, but it’s more annoying than anything. They want you to think, “What a hot commodity! I must read immediately!”

This is what I think instead, “As nice as they feel to this writer, partial and full requests are actually quite common. Depending on the agent, however, they could mean very little in terms of getting an offer, and we all know it.” This type of nudge email is just that: a nudge. And, the more often a writer does it, the more annoying they might start to seem.

My response may not apply to all agents across the board, but the above are pretty standard best practices that you can follow to play fair and also not antagonize the agents you’re hoping to impress. If it’s an offer, keep us in the loop. If you’d like to withdraw your query, partial, or full for any reason, keep us in the loop. Otherwise, wait. I know it’s tough, but it makes a good impression if you can be patient.

Do you feel lost navigating the ins and outs of submission to literary agents and publishing houses? Bring me on board as your manuscript and publishing consultant, and we can work on a game plan together.