Swear Words in Young Adult Fiction

At the last few conferences I attended, people have been very interested in swear words in young adult fiction. Now, a brilliant writer I know said to me, when I asked him for guidance on this issue: “A swear word is just another word. It has to be a choice, just like every other word in your manuscript.”

swear words in young adult fiction, writing young adult fiction, ya fiction
This young adult is about to drop some swear words…or not…

The Considerations of Swear Words in Young Adult Fiction

I completely agree. If you absolutely have to use a swear word in your manuscript, if there’s no other word it could be, then use it. You won’t get a squeamish look from me. (You may get an odd glance from a few people in my DFW Writers Conference audience, who apparently gasped when I dropped an f-bomb or two in response to this same question. What? The guy who dropped it first looked self-conscious, so I had to take some of the heat off of him!) You might also alienate yourself from certain libraries, school administrators, booksellers and editors who work for more clean-cut imprints and don’t publish content. There will be parents who are too scared of their kids growing up, who are in denial of the words and ideas that fly around every middle and high school in every town in every country, too.

The thing is, kids are really good at figuring out what’s a good fit for them and what isn’t. If they are reading a book that has swearing or action or other content that makes them uncomfortable, that they can’t handle, or that they don’t want to handle, most readers will skip that part or put the book down. Parents, librarians, administrators and booksellers shouldn’t always presume to know exactly what kind of book is scandalous to what kind of teen reader.

Everyone Has Their Swear Word Limits

On a recent trip, I was getting really into a story, and dropped an f-bomb. Not loudly or rudely but, you know, sometimes I get carried away. The man in front of us, who was sitting with, no joke, a 17 or 18 year-old daughter, in a college sweatshirt, for Pete’s sake, turned around and hissed, “Can you please not say that? I’m traveling with a child!” He indicated his daughter with an angry nod of the head.

I can guarantee that his scowling teen was 500% more scandalized by being referred to as a “child” in public than she was by a word I said. Words only have power if you give it to them. (Of course, I shut my yap right after that. I may not have agreed with the guy but I’m not a jerk.)

Superfluous Swear Words

Speaking of which, there are certain times when I don’t think swear words in young adult fiction are necessary. If it’s every other word, that might be too much. If it’s peppered in to be hip or cool or edgy, then it will come across as forced. Some people circumvent the issue by creating their own colorful vocabulary. If the language is natural enough, this could work, but it mostly feels contrived to me. The important thing to remember is that nobody’s forcing you to do anything, it’s your manuscript. You can swear if you want to but, by the same token, if you don’t want to swear, you can write a clean manuscript and that’s just fine, too.

Swear Words in Young Adult Writing Are Totally Up to You

If, though, as mentioned above, the swear word is a conscious choice, a careful choice, then there’s no problem with it. An editor or agent can always let you know if something is too much or not right. And if you do publish a book with any kind of content — swearing, violence, drugs, drinking, sex — there will always be people who balk.

But you know what? Fuck ’em.

🙂

Come on. I had to.

Are you hitting the right young adult voice? Hire me to be your young adult fiction editor.

ETA: WOW! Clearly, this is a very passionate issue. Lest anybody here thought that swearing in books was settled, let them come and read the comments. The use of a swear word or an opinion about swearing, one way or another, has caused certain readers to lose their respect for me. It has caused other readers to gain it. This is powerful, powerful stuff.

My favorite part of keeping this blog and of teaching writers is ALWAYS how much I learn about my own subject matter in the process. In throwing up this post — and its intentionally cheeky last few lines — I’ve had so many new thoughts on the issue of swearing in YA. I’ve delved a lot deeper into this issue in my head. Watch out for another post about swearing in YA on Friday.

Lastly, as one reader pointed out, and to repeat the obvious, this is about swearing in YA fiction. The same rules do not apply for MG at ALL. (I would highly recommend NOT swearing in MG.) Thank you all for the food for thought!

What a Great Critique Partner or Group Means

In light of my recent Critique Connection post, where I’ve let readers who want critique partners climb out of the woodwork and introduce themselves, I wanted to focus on what it means to be a great critique partner today, which was a great suggestion from MY critique partner, Martha, in the comments for my last post. (Thanks for keeping me on my toes, Martha.)

So, if you’ve followed the blog long enough, you know that I can’t put enough emphasis on critique and revision. That’s where writing truly grows. First, because nobody can have a perfect (or anywhere-near-publishable) novel in one draft. At least not when you’re starting out and learning about writing. Second, because you cannot be anywhere near objective about your own work. Even if you’ve had many, many books published, you’ll still get feedback from beta readers. All of the published writers I know do this for their first, their second, their tenth books. And I honestly believe that you learn so much from critiquing the work of others that it should be a required exercise for anyone hoping to get published.

What does it mean to be a great critique partner? You give more than you get. Lots of people go into a workshop or critique situation and sit there until the group gets to their submission. This is a waste of everybody’s time. If you’re going to get valuable critique on your own work, don’t miss out on the valuable learning experience of being able to critique the work of another person and do it well.

What else does it mean to be a great critique partner? You don’t just focus on the what, you focus on the why. Sure, any idiot can say, “This part doesn’t work for me.” But when you articulate why something works or doesn’t work, you’re putting your finger on the writing craft and taking its pulse. Does a section seem clunky because there is too much description? Is there too much telling in a writer’s characterization of someone and you don’t actually get a clear sense of who they are? Is a writer’s dialogue clunky because they use a lot of adverbs and physical choreography in their dialogue tags? These are getting to be more concrete than just saying, “It’s slow” or, worse, “It sucks.”

Great critique partners don’t pass judgment and they aren’t prescriptive. Everyone who sits down at the page has got to start somewhere. Everyone writing today is on a different part of their writing and learning journey than the writer next to them. Good critique partners can see and understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular piece and a particular writer in the moment, and work with that. They give constructive feedback, don’t judge the overall merit of the work (because you’re all there to improve, right?) and they don’t tell you how to fix whatever issue they’ve identified. A writer friend of mine says, “If they tell you what’s wrong, they’re probably right. If they tell you how to fix it, they’re probably wrong.” Critique groups can be sounding boards for the writers’ ideas, sure, but they should never tell the writer what to do or what to try. That kind of playing around and imaginative work is how the writer learns, on their own, to make their story stronger.

Balance is important in critique groups. You want one or two really amateur writers, but none more than that. You’ll also want one or two people on the other end of the spectrum, and a few in the middle, depending on size. Be careful of getting into a group of people who are all the same level. You need different abilities, strengths and weaknesses, or you won’t grow as much.

Personality is also important. If you don’t like your critique group or trust them, you’ll stop getting any benefits from the exercise very quickly and you’ll start to resent the whole process, which could leave a permanent block on your writing path. It’s okay to try several groups or several people… you want to find a good fit, not just the first person who’ll read your stuff.

Finally, the worst thing your critique group can say is, “It’s fine” or “It’s good.” Even if it’s good, your critique group should always be pushing you to new horizons in your writing. All my published writer friends who are in critique groups get feedback, tons of it, and it helps them take their work to the next level. And those are published authors, even bestsellers! Sure, they could probably get their first drafts published, some of them, but why would they want to?

It’s all about growing and learning and evolving in the writing business. It’s up to you to find partners who are like-minded and who understand that. And once you get their feedback, it’s up to you to use it in your work and do the revisions. I may write a post sometime about processing feedback and using it in a constructive way, but I think I’ve given you some food for thought to start.

And again, everyone, go to my previous post and cruise the comments to see if any critique partners catch your eye. If their email isn’t listed, post a comment. If you want to write your own “Critique Partner Wanted” ad there, make sure to post your email so people can get in touch with you.

Genius at Work vs. Working Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Layer Points of View

If you are writing a manuscript with multiple POVs (points of view), ie: first or close third person narration through the eyes of different characters for different sections or chapters, how do you space them? Do they have to be evenly spaced throughout? Here’s a question that Kathryn sent in:

If I am doing a novel with a defined MC, but alternate between him and the supporting (but also very important) character’s POV, do I need to have this happen constantly? Because there are a few times in my book that I switch to ‘the girlfriend’s’ POV, but it isn’t like VAMPIRE DIARIES, for example where LJ Smith has each scene switch to a different character’s POV. Is this something that has to be completely consistent? Or can I put it in as needed?

This is a relatively easy question to answer. When writing from multiple POVs, you don’t need to lock yourself into any kind of scheme. A lot of people think, if they’re splitting the story between two POVs, for example, they have to alternate always POV 1, then POV 2, then POV 1 again. This isn’t always the case. If your two POV characters have almost equal “screen time” in the novel, maybe you can keep it that consistent, but there are no rules that say you have to.

Especially if your story has a MC and then the POV of a supporting character, you can use her when you need her. A few things to consider, though, for any manuscript where you alternate POV:

  1. Give us the first instance of the “other” POV pretty early on, so the reader knows to expect another POV throughout the story.
  2. Don’t go too long without hearing from your other POV characters. You don’t want us to forget that their voices are there and we will if you go for like 50-70 pages without changing POV.
  3. It’s all about balance. You don’t want to switch POV every 4 chapters at the beginning and spend 70 pages in one POV near the end. Make sure they’re somewhat evenly spaced, even if they’re not totally consistent.

Finally, one thing I would urge all of you to consider: do not include adult POVs in manuscripts that have predominantly kid or teen POVs. I’ve seen a lot of writers try this, and it never works that well, unless yours is a very specific type of story (and yes, I expect mentions of THE BOOK THIEF to pop up in the comments, but that is a very specific type of story, more on this later). Besides, a kid who is reading a book targeted to their age group is going to be SO BORED dipping into the head of their teacher, their parents, their minister, their librarian, their whatever. I’ve read manuscripts where we dip into Dad’s head while he’s fretting about the mortgage… his marriage… troubles with his manager at work… Yikes. A lot of adult writers want to reinforce to teen readers that adults have problems and to be more sympathetic to them. Probably because they’re raising teens at the time and feel unappreciated. This is not the way to help teen readers empathize because this type of moralizing usually doesn’t get published and reach teen readers. Even if they’re dipping into the head of the adult villain, it’s still not advisable to do this. You don’t want to alienate your reader, and adult POV does that more often than not. I see the adult POV issue most in fantasies and mysteries, so people writing in those genres, take extra caution.

Other than that, feel free to experiment. You’ll probably be rewriting a lot if you end up changing your mind but really nailing the balance of POVs is important. And, also, do keep in mind that you should vary the voice. If you have a few different characters providing their POV but they all sound the same, use the same words, use the same imagery, etc., then what’s the point of multiple POV? That’s what makes this technique very difficult.

Contest Redux

The Novel Beginnings contest is officially over and now you’ve had a chance to see the winning entries. This is what writers have done right. That’s not to say that every great submission I received placed in the top five — there were lots of submissions that I enjoyed and that had compelling beginnings — but these offered up a skillful and interesting, I hope, selection of what was sent my way.

I want to use this opportunity to debrief a little bit and talk more about novel beginnings, lessons learned from the contest, and what I could possibly do with the rest of the month on this blog, if you all are game.

In my line of work, where submissions are always streaming into my inbox like water from a faucet that doesn’t turn off, I see a lot of beginnings. In most cases, the beginning is ALL I see. Sad, but true. After reading thousands and thousands of queries, you really do start to notice the quality of the writing immediately. At a glance, I can usually tell how far along a writer is in their learning journey, how many books they read in the same genre and for the same audience that they’re targeting, how much attention they’ve given to revisions and how “ready for prime time” they are. It’s an unfair system that so much of my judgment of their work is based on the first 10 pages — or sometimes opening paragraph, if I start to notice writing problems right away — but such is life. I do not have time to stick with a book whose flawed beginning may someday yield “the really good stuff that comes near the middle.” I’d like to have unending faith in everything that comes across my desk — that the writing will get better, that the voice will become more natural, that it will find a plot — but I just can’t.

A lot of agenting is deciding which projects and which clients are worth taking a risk on and worth the time investment. Some gambles pay off, others don’t. Each project I work on is a chance that I’m taking and a labor of love, because I may spend weeks and weeks on revisions for something and it might never sell. But if I see promise and if I fall in love with it, it’s worth trying. Taking a gamble on a submission with a weak beginning, however, almost never pays off, so I don’t do it. If something fails to grab me from the first paragraph, I will, most likely, stop reading and move on. How’s THAT for depressing? How’s THAT for the opposite of what you want to hear about a book that you’ve spent moths or years of your life writing?

So nailing a perfect beginning, while somewhat artificial, is a very specific skill. And I want to help people do this well. Of course, once you nail the beginning, you also have to nail the rest of the book. If you don’t, you’ll have what I call Conference Polish Syndrome. Since conferences pay close attention to the first 10-15 pages, writers who have been workshopped a lot usually have a really strong sample… but fall apart on pages 11-20. I’ve written about beginnings before. You can check out my other post about novel beginnings from Revision-o-Rama this past December.

However, there’s nothing like seeing beginnings in action. With the contest, I hope I provided some good beginnings — ones that would catch me — and talked about what makes them work well. Now, Wednesday’s comments gave me another idea, and I wanted to run it by everyone. What about posting some beginnings that… need a little help?

I don’t want to pick from the contest submissions because that would involve me judging someone’s work publicly when they didn’t explicitly sign up to be judged. But I do agree that comments on solid, good work can only go so far. You can learn a lot from reading stuff that doesn’t work — and, more importantly, why it doesn’t work — as well.

First, I need to know if, a) there’s any interest in this and b) if anyone will step up and volunteer their beginning to be workshopped. The point here, again, is to identify what doesn’t work and why, not to judge or ridicule. That’s why, if you want to participate with a piece of your own writing, send me up to 250 words of your novel beginning and ALSO send me a short few sentences about the major problem you’re having or the major thing you’re wondering about (is: Is this too slow? Does this dialogue work? Is this too vague? Is the characterization coming across? Is this too much description? etc.) to mary at kidlit dot com. Put “Workshop” in the subject line. If you’ve already sent me something, inspired by Wednesday’s comments, please resend with these guidelines.

Let’s see if I get any submissions. If I do, the writers must understand that I will post the piece of writing and then provide my comments. Some of these comments will be constructive criticism. I will never judge outright, but I will try and pick out some “teaching moments” in the piece so that both the writer and other blog readers can learn from them.

Does this sound good? Interesting? I’ll take submissions for this until Sunday, March 14th at 11:59 p.m., Pacific. This is not a contest. I’m not awarding prizes. I just want to get some new material in from authors who are agreeing to be workshopped on the blog and who have no problem with some constructive feedback.

Doing the kind of work we’re talking about here is, as you can imagine, very time-consuming for me. I don’t want to venture down this path without first knowing that it’ll be useful to you. Also, to touch on another issue that occurred in Wednesday’s comments, if any male writers want to send me stuff, please do. I agree — it’s time to feature some male writers or male POVs here!

Finally, people have asked whether or not they can query me with the same project that they submitted for the contest. At this point, I will have to respectfully decline to see the same project. Since this entry involved a writing sample, I feel like a query with that same writing sample would be a bit redundant. If you end up revising the project you’re working on (and six months pass) or if you have a new project, feel free to query, but if you don’t hear from me about your entry within the next few weeks, do refrain from querying with it.

Edited to add: Yes, you can send in the same entry that you did for the contest.

Also, since I don’t necessarily want to be doing this for the rest of my natural life, I was originally thinking of posting one beginning a day through March 31st, the end of the month. That gives me 8 slots. If I get more than 8 entries, I will pick and choose the ones about which I have the most to say and which will be the most help to others. Either way, it is probably in your best interest to get your beginning to me ASAP, in case I receive an avalanche of entries.

Edited to add 2.0: I did mean March 14th, fixed now.

Submissions are pouring in. I don’t know why I didn’t expect that. I’m capping this exercise at eight entries selected for workshop, so that means, unfortunately, not everyone who enters will get workshopped. This was not meant to be an offer for a personal critique by me for every entry. I will only critique the 8 entires that will go up on the blog.

Using Freelance Editors

Here’s a question I got from Katie recently:

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

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

My thoughts on the subject are a little… complicated. First of all, I have to say that there are a lot of wonderful writers and publishing professionals who either make a career in or supplement their income with freelance editing. Their talents are many and their insights are deep. I have a lot of great respect for them and for what they do. However, I would not point all writers to freelance editors. Let me try to articulate without offending anyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are just a few thoughts on this very complex subject. At this time, I can’t recommend any freelance editors. Not because I don’t know any great ones, but because I don’t want to have anyone feel left out of a list if I were to compile one, since several Andrea Brown clients work as editors. Plus, I don’t want to be responsible for a recommendation if a reader uses an editor and, per above, the experience doesn’t meet their expectations (whether the editor or a set of unrealistic expectations is to blame).

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

Just a Thought…

The old cliche is that, when two people have nothing better to talk about or they’re too awkward to talk about something real, they talk about the weather. Why do so many manuscripts, then, start with… descriptions of the weather?

I should hope that, if you’ve decided to write an entire manuscript, you’ve got better things to talk about than the weather and you’re not feeling too awkward to say them.

Think about it. (Yes, I am reading contest submissions right now. Yes, every other entry for the last 50 or so has mentioned some kind of weather in the first paragraph. No, I am not automatically dismissing these entries, though the author is putting themselves at a bit of a disadvantage. No, this isn’t unusual compared to the slush I usually get. No, you probably shouldn’t start a manuscript like this.)

What Next?

Here’s a question I received a while back from Michele:

What is a writer to do when and agent really enjoys their work but passes? Obviously a form rejection tells you you’re way off the mark. If you are rejected because of an issue with the writing you can look at fixing it. But a rejection because the agent doesn’t connect with the story leaves a lack of direction. Do we leave our work as is and search for other agents? Do we assume the MS isn’t marketable and scrap it? Do we consider submitting other another Ms to that agent in the hope it will be a better fit? And, if we did submit to that agent again (and got accepted) would he/she pitch the stories the he/she already passed on? If the agent works for a house we really respect, do we query a different agent there with a future MS because they might be more passionate about our work?

Rejection isn’t just disappointing and hurtful, it’s frustrating, too. The writer is left with very little direction, as Michele so astutely points out. If the writer goes back to the agent with a question or a request for more detailed critique, the agent will usually decline to elaborate or not answer the email. We simply don’t have the time and energy to give personalized advice to everyone who wants it. So what’s next?

I’ll address Michele’s thoughts in order, starting with the first two. After an agent fails to connect with the manuscript, do you submit to other agents or do you scrap the MS and call it unmarketable?

When we submit a client’s manuscript to editors, we often get detailed feedback. If we made our client do a revision after every rejection, the client would feel jerked around, it would take forever, and there’d be no guarantee that the editor who offered some thoughts would go on to buy the project. It’s exactly the same here. I personally submit to smaller rounds of editors to see if we get some of the same feedback over and over. If we do, I can guide the client on a revision before submitting to other editors (or editors who wanted to see a revision). I suggest you do the same. Send to a group of agents and see if they all say the same thing. If they do, maybe think about revising. If they all hate it, try another group or, yes, it might be time to consider how saleable your work is. But do bounce it off several people before making revisions or the drastic decision to give up on that manuscript. There are so many tastes and opinions out there that letting one person’s rejection decide these questions isn’t the smartest thing to do.

As for querying that agent again (or another agent or editor at the same agency or house) with a different manuscript… I say you can try, but only after some time goes by and you really hone your craft. We really do get annoyed hearing from writers we’ve just rejected, if we rejected them because of basic writing issues. We’re going to think their new writing has the same issues, because so little time has passed since we saw those issues in a previous piece. Michele astutely wonders, also, if getting representation after a previous rejection means we’ll have to represent the previous project, too.

This is a sticky situation. I firmly believe that all writers are on a path toward improvement. So I never swear off a writer just because they’re not “there” in their craft, their ideas or their execution just yet. You never know. Everyone starts somewhere and then they go on to grow and learn and really impress people. That’s why I’m always going to at least look at a project from a writer who I’ve read and rejected before. If I do end up offering representation to them after time has passed and after they send along a different project, we’ll talk about their previous project. In most cases, writers who improve a lot tend to hate their previous work because they can see all the flaws in it. I can’t stand to look at most of the things I’ve ever written because I know so much better now. If the client wants to pursue it, we’ll look at it together and see if it’s viable. If it’s not, I am under no obligation to represent a client’s past work and drawer novels because I put my name and reputation on the line with everything I send out to editors, too.

If you still want to work with the same agency or house but want to try another editor or agent there, do make sure that you’ve done significant revision. And wait until you’ve heard from all the other agents and editors who you have submissions out with. One of them might have feedback for you. If you’re really set on working with a particular company and they’ve already rejected you once or twice, really do put everything you’ve got into that next submission, since you may not have that many more chances. And, as always, patience is your #1 asset at this point.

Growing a Thicker Skin

It hasn’t happened to me yet, but I know that I’ll get ragged on for telling people the truth, as I see it. Writers are sensitive beings. I say some pretty harsh things. Like that you’ve got to write a million bad words before you can start writing seriously. Or that getting published is easy, if you’re good. Some of these things are not fun or easy to hear. I’m sorry for that, but I’m not sorry I say them. Why? Because they’re true.

Writing is a difficult, solitary, extremely personal thing. People spend years of their lives pouring their souls and creativity into a project. I’m acutely aware of that fact every time I sit down to read slush. Not only am I rejecting a particular manuscript, I could be rejecting years of a person’s life. It’s a tremendous responsibility and an amazing act of trust. I don’t take it lightly, even if I do make jokes about bad queries or the slush sometimes to keep things lively on the blog. Many of my friends are writers. I make a living by working with writers. I write myself. I have the highest respect and reverence for both writer and the written word. And that’s exactly why I dish out the truth, even if it sometimes sounds harsh or callous.

The biggest thing that stands between a writer and their own success is their ego. So many critique groups flourish on the idea of positive reinforcement. Unpublished writers sit around complimenting each other for hours and tiptoe around the problems. Everyone feels good but nobody learns, nobody grows, nobody goes through that horrible revision that makes them want to eat a gallon of ice cream every five minutes. And nobody gets published.

It’s very difficult to divorce yourself from your writing, since writing is so deeply personal. However, writing is personal, yes, but the business of publishing isn’t. Divorcing the two in your mind is the only way to grow and learn anything. Feel free to have that “I’m a genius and nobody else understands me!” moment. But don’t get stuck there. The fact of the matter is, there are many aspiring writers out there who are constantly honing their craft. Don’t get behind just because you’re afraid of a little criticism. (Don’t follow all criticism and change everything about your work for other people, of course, but that’s for another post…)

Here are the facts, as I see them: Not everyone who wants to will get published. A lot of people’s writing is mediocre and will most likely stay that way because nobody has ever told them it’s mediocre. Some critique groups are more harmful than helpful because everyone is afraid to actually, you know, critique. Not every book deserves to be published… in fact, many writers practice with two, three, five, ten manuscripts before they ever start to see a positive response from agents or editors.

It’s tough going. Really tough. It’s in your best interest to develop a thick skin, learn how to take criticism and rejection, separate yourself from what you’ve put on a page, learn everything you can about the industry, get realistic, and keep writing every day. The one-in-a-million publication stories are the ones you hear because they’re glamorous. Most people get published through the tears, snot, spilled coffee, midnight breakdowns and rare moments of joy that comprise a long time spent chasing a dream. It’s not terribly sexy, nor is it quick. But that’s how people make it and that’s the truth.

You come to this blog to learn things from the perspective of someone who sees thousands of queries, reads thousands of manuscripts and meets thousands of writers. Unlike well-meaning critique partners or clueless friends, it’s not in my best interest to sugarcoat. But I will tell you that books sell every day and that dreams do come true. When they do, though, it’s no accident or luck on the part of the writer, agent or editor, it’s hard work and determination and the hard-earned reward at the end of a long road. Unless you’re Stephenie Meyer, as this funny op-ed from agent Stephen Barbara recently pointed out. But that origin story is taken, so it’s time to find your own.

Revision Resources

Today, the Revision-o-Rama series of posts draws to a gentle close. I hope you’ve gotten some new ideas and the food for thought has been fruitful for you. Of course, I will keep posting about revision topics on the blog and, of course, you will keep revising into the new year (right?). Now it’s time for me to take a breather, reset back to my “regular programming” and give you all a few ideas for how to proceed from here, as well as recommend some books on revision that I’ve read and found helpful in my study on the subject.

I have to say that the biggest revision weapon in a writer’s toolkit is… other readers. It’s that simple. Writing is most definitely not a solitary pursuit, at least it shouldn’t be. With writing, the following thing tends to happen: the more we write, the more we revise, the more we muck around in the same material over and over, the more blind we grow to it. The most obvious example is missing typos. Our eyes just tend to gloss over the words if we read them too much. Or we know our manuscript has problems but we leave them in because a) we love that part, b) we’re too lazy to really fix it, c) we’re waiting for someone to call us on it, d) we figure that’s what an editor is for.

No, no. As editors tighten their belts and only take on the most polished projects, it has become even more important to revise to perfection before you even seek an agent. (Who will then tell you to — you guessed it! — revise yet again, if they’re the kind of agent who places a  lot of emphasis on editorial work, which I do.) So, since you’re effectively blind to your own work, you have to bring in qualified readers as soon as you’re feeling strong enough to hear their feedback.

Join a critique group if you’re not in one already… there are plenty of writers on message boards and various websites who are just dying to get together and are maybe too shy to ask. Whether you do one online and email manuscripts back and forth or whether you find a group in your area through a writing or arts center, the Internet, Craigslist, etc., make sure the group you’ve got is quality. If they don’t write kidlit, they should at least respect it and want to learn more about it from you. If they’re not published, their work should at least be damn close. The best groups have at least one published or agented writer in the mix. Strive to join those that feel slightly more advanced than your level, so that you can really trust and enjoy their expert advice.

The other great thing about a critique group is that you learn a whole lot about writing just by looking at someone else’s work. If you see a mistake or something that jumps out at you in another manuscript, and you get good about analyzing what works and what doesn’ t — guess what? — soon you’ll be turning that same sharp and critical eye on your own work. (It usually takes a while to translate… anyone can be a critic but actually implementing the same advice toward oneself is the real challenge.)

Even if it’s not a traditional critique group with regular meetings, you should at least hook up with one or two writing friends or take a writing class. Maybe you can make some bonds that’ll extend past the last day. Or go to local or national conferences. There are plenty of writers there that you can befriend and keep in touch with. But the key is getting eyes on your manuscript, and getting eyes that know what they’re talking about (now that, my friends, is a mixed metaphor). Teach yourself to hear their wisdom but take it with a grain of salt. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll also discard a lot, but I can tell you one thing for sure: the more feedback you get on a manuscript, the more it’ll inspire you, the more it’ll spark your own imagination and the stronger it will be.

If you want to do more independent study on writing and revision in general, I can recommend the following books on revision, specifically, and the writing process in general:

BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott
REVISION AND SELF-EDITING by James Scott Bell
WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass
STORY by Robert McKee
THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST by David Morrell
ON WRITING by Stephen King
FINDING YOUR WRITER’S VOICE by Thaisa Frank
NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM by Chris Baty
FINDING YOUR VOICE by Les Edgerton
TIME TO WRITE by Kelly L. Stone

Books on grammar and punctuation:

EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES: THE ZERO TOLERANCE APPROACH TO PUNCTUATION by Lynne Truss (hilarious!)
THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (stylish!)

Books on writing for children:

DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM ed. by Leonard S. Marcus (highly recommended!)
THE SPYING HEART by Katherine Paterson
THE WRITER’S GUIDE TO CRAFTING STORIES FOR CHILDREN by Nancy Lamb

Books on reading:

READING LIKE A WRITER by Francine Prose

Finally, Maggie Stiefvater did this on her blog with great success, so I just wanted to open it up to you all in case anyone is looking for a critique buddy. You can use the comments for this post as a personal ad to find fellow writers who might be looking for the same. Maybe talk briefly about what you write (What age group is it for? What genre is it? Is it complete?) and what you’re looking for, and we’ll see if we can’t match anybody up so you guys can go off and work together.

As for me, I’m going to take January 1st off, again and drink in the last little bit of holiday time before publishing comes back in earnest (as will I) on January 4th.