To celebrate the release of DIMENSION WHY: HOW TO SAVE THE UNIVERSE WITHOUT REALLY TRYING and my podcast interview with John Cusick, author and literary agent at Folio Jr. (and dear friend), I’m giving away a finished copy of his latest middle grade, DIMENSION WHY (September 2020, Harper)!
Listen to our podcast interview here:
And fill out the form below to enter the giveaway by the deadline: November 6th, 2020!
After a lot of work and time and the wonderful contributions of many real writers, just like you, I’m thrilled to introduce my ebook, Successful Query Letters: Query Letters That Worked. Check out the cover. Ain’t she a beaut?
Forty-Three Real Query Letters From Real Writers
One drawback of being a querying writer is that you don’t have access to a slush pile, so you don’t know what everyone else is doing. Critique partners share manuscripts, but maybe not queries. It’s tough to get your hands on real query letters from real writers.
Well, I had my own slush pile for five years as a literary agent, and I have reviewed hundreds of thousands of queries over the last decade-plus. Not only have I collected forty-three query letters from real writers (some of which have gone on to gain representation and even book deals!), but there are queries in every category, and I dissect each one with margin notes and overview feedback.
My goal with this ebook was to make it as comprehensive as possible, with as many examples as possible, to be the ultimate query letter resource and learning tool.
Get Your Copy Today
This ebook is only available from the Good Story Company store as a digital PDF download. It will be delivered to your email inbox as soon as you check out for your reading and learning pleasure!
The idea of author platform is vitally important to all writers, but today’s question is about how it relates to writing nonfiction for children. Here is Dena’s question:
I know for NF you need a strong platform, but what if you’re not a teacher? What sort of platform do you need for NF in the MG and younger age range?
Platform and Nonfiction for Children
When we sit down to write fiction, “write what you know” is often enough to get us started. We’re making it all up, anyway! Well, not so in nonfiction for children. There, the idea of qualifications—including our author platform, professional identity, areas of study, etc.—comes into play. The question becomes:
Who are we that we can (and should) write this particular story?
After all, if I’m a parent looking to buy a book on bugs to supplement my child’s learning, do I want a book written by Carl, an enthusiastic but amateur bug fan, or Peggy, a trained entomologist (bug expert) working in the field? I think we can all agree that the latter would seem most qualified. (To be clear, not everyone who writes nonfiction needs to be a PhD level expert in their field. But qualifications like “teacher” or “scientist” don’t hurt when you are writing about relevant topics.)
Does that mean Carl’s story lacks value—educational, artistic, or otherwise? Is Peggy’s book better simply because of her experience? Not necessarily! Carl could have an amazing piece of nonfiction for children on his hands. But now Carl does have to overcome some bias in the marketplace, because he may not be seen as the most credible or desirable source.
In other words, Carl does not have the best platform for writing in his particular nonfiction area. Is this a dealbreaker?
Getting Around Platform
There are ways for Carl to build his case—and his platform—that will allow him to pitch his nonfiction for children and attempt to have his project considered seriously. (Explore the topic of author platform for fiction writers.)
First, Carl can do comprehensive research and include a bibliography and author note at the end of his nonfiction manuscript, which shows how he arrived at his data. When we write nonfiction for children, we aren’t discussing the topics at the graduate level. Writers are generally painting in broader strokes and avoiding too much jargon. So it’s easier to research a topic intended for a children’s audience than, say, a thesis dissertation defense.
That being said, the quality of your research counts here, especially if you are trying to compensate for a lack of credentials. Publishing credits, even if they’re not in your current interest area, also establish credibility and can offset your lack of platform.
A great way to build your platform would be to ask a consulting expert to contribute—and transfer some of their credibility to your project. In your pitch, it would look compelling to say that you’ve reviewed your nonfiction for children about dealing with feelings with a child psychologist or school counselor, for example.
Bolstering Your Nonfiction for Children Platform
In addition to the strategies listed above, you should also think about building your platform as you get into the submission process. In an add-on to my WriterType Marketing Roadmap resource (called Repurpose Your Content!), I divulge ways to spin any content you create or research you do.
Why not try to publish a nonfiction article on the same topic in a children’s publication or newsletter? You’ll now have a writing clip in your new field to add to your platform. The research has already been done. It’s literally a free opportunity to build your author platform.
In a similar vein, find an expert in the field and interview them for your blog, newsletter, or podcast. They may even sign on to consult on your manuscript. Now you have some social media content for your platform, a valuable connection, and another inroad with your topic.
Think creatively if you don’t have a nonfiction for children resume already in place. You may have to work harder, but victory will be that much sweeter!
For in-depth personalized advice on your children’s nonfiction, hire me as your picture book editor.
Title formatting is a pretty straightforward question, but one that many writers are confused about. Carolyn recently wrote in to ask the following question:
When writing the titles of book for comps (as well as your own title), should they be underlined? Or written in all caps?
Title Formatting is Different From Manuscript Title Formatting
Clear as mud, right? The “sometimes” really isn’t in there to be difficult. However, the first thing I want to mention is that everyone approaches title formatting differently, as you will see.
Generally, with published works and publication names (including magazines and newspapers), I recommend italics with standard title capitalization. Here’s a handy widget that will help you know which words to capitalize, as title case capitalization can be confusing.
If you are referencing a published work or publication, be sure to use the same capitalization as the publisher of the work or the publication use. If you are referencing a published article or essay, use quotation marks instead of italics, and refer to how the article or essay is capitalized where it was originally published. Easy!
Where things get muddy is that you have written a manuscript, not necessarily a published one yet—which is why you’re submitting in the first place. So does it get treated the same in title formatting as a published work?
That depends on the writer.
Manuscript Title Formatting
I have seem all kinds of title formatting choices for manuscripts. Some writers use italics, though the work is not yet published. Some writers use quotation marks. Some writers use all caps.
Purely anecdotally, and form my experience referring to manuscripts within the industry, I prefer all caps for unpublished manuscripts, and the above formatting conventions for published works.
Yes, this means that your query letter may have one formatting (italics) for the comp titles you’re citing, and one formatting (caps) for your manuscript title.
This may look like torture to you, but you would be operating very much in the realm of normal for the industry. This would be my personal choice and recommendation. (You can find more thoughts on email query letter formatting here.)
Consistency is Key in Title Formatting
But we are all unique snowflakes and some other writers or professionals may disagree. Variety is the spice of life! I would, however, counsel you to avoid too much variety … within your query letter and manuscript.
All that is to say, whichever choice you make, stick with it consistently. Don’t refer to your manuscript title in all caps, then use quotation marks later in the letter or manuscript. You could risk a sloppy-looking submission, and nobody wants that.
Does your query letter or submission package put your best foot forward? Hire me for a query letter edit and find out your unique strengths and opportunities for growth.
How to hit the right emotional note to attract a reader—or melodramatic vs dramatic—is a key consideration of writing relatable fiction. It’s a juicy question! We want our readers to know that something BIG is happening, but we don’t want to lose them with purple prose. How can we pull this off? Read on!
Melodramatic vs Dramatic, A Definition
It’s important to think about toning down the high emotional description, especially during really emotional events. That’s when you want to rein it in, which seems counterintuitive, I know, but when the situation is screaming and the character is screaming, and the tone of the writing is screaming, that’s overwhelming and can stop feeling authentic.
In the fight of melodramatic vs dramatic writing, I define them this way:
Melodramatic: Inauthentic high emotion that has the potential to distance the reader, including use of histrionics, purple prose, and ?!?!?!?!?!?!??!?!? Facebook punctuation.
Dramatic: Appropriate language and character expression that capture the tension and emotion of a high-impact moment which let readers know that emotion is called for, without going over the top.
Obviously, the melodramatic vs dramatic definitions above are heavily biased, but when we write for kids, I really want to stand up for authenticity first. That’s what will come across as true and vulnerable to your readers. Let’s see it in action. For example, imagine that a kid learns that their parents are getting new jobs and moving across the country.
Sure, if your character has a melodramatic flair, you may have a BIG reaction. After all, this is a big moment and directing reader attention to big moments is important.
However, if your character is always acting like someone died, you are at risk of purple prose. You are also blunting readers to what’s important and potentially abusing the Law of Diminishing Returns.
Here’s an example of melodramatic writing:
Katie fumed at the top of the stairs, having overheard the monstrous, devilish, life-shattering news. They were moving?!??!?!?! How could her parents do this? It felt like her soul had been rent from her body and dashed against the cliffs of despair. She could die. Maybe she had? Maybe this was hell itself? One thing was clear: life as she knew it was utterly and completely over.
Now, let’s consider how to take this dramatic situation and give it a bit more finesse. After all, we want to make sure it lands as serious in Katie’s world, but maybe without quite so much flailing and rending and dashing. For example:
Katie froze at the top of the stairs, her hand gripping the banister. But Rochester was hundreds of miles away—from her school, her friends, the only house she’d ever know. If she left behind all of the things she considered hers, that had gone into the last thirteen years of her life, who would she be, even? Would she still be Katie Higgins in Rochester? Or someone else, new and strange? The familiar design of the wallpaper swam in front of her eyes. Soon this would be someone else’s house. And soon she’d have to answer all of these strange new questions for herself.
What’s interesting is that I took a very subdued approach here. Yes, there are BIG questions and ideas, but the thoughtfulness helps to bring a lot of the main issues to light. She stops to consider the ramifications of this—or the stakes. That, to me, establishes the impact more than purple prose ever could. It gives me a portrait of a character thrown into a real identity crisis. It wins the melodramatic vs dramatic face-off because it considers the practical effects of this news. That carries a lot of weight that, to me, is truly heavy and dramatic, rather than being excessively bloated and melodramatic. It captures the stakes, not the freak-out.
Struggling with tone and description? Hire me as your novel editor and we will find your unique writing voice together.
It has been a while since I’ve gone question-fishing, but as we get into the fall, I want to make sure that I’m covering topics you’re interested in. This blog is about you, after all, and not just my blah blah blah. (Though there’s a lot of that, too! 😂)
Please leave your most pressing children’s writing and publishing questions in the comments, below, and I will pick some to answer in the coming months on the blog!
(If you’ve never commented before, your comment will go into my moderation queue. Don’t worry—it has been received and will be posted, even if you don’t see it right away.)
A simile is a comparison that uses “like” or “as” to draw a connection between two things. Sometimes, images illuminate our understanding of what a writer is saying and bring us to a new level of awareness or appreciation. Other times, the simile is overkill. Are you guilty of this writing faux pas?
The Point of Imagery
Imagery, including simile, is best when used to evoke a feeling or idea that isn’t clear from the text itself. For example, if you want to say that “she looked as comfortable as a cat on a hot tin roof,” you’d mean that your character is awkward or uncomfortable or, worse, pained by the scene in question.
Imagery in writing is best used when it can bring additional dimension or meaning to a moment or scene that wasn’t there before. Whether or not to use an image, like a simile, should boil down to whether you want to evoke something specific in the mind of the reader. Ideally, something emotional.
However, many well-meaning writers end up with more imagery than they need by overusing the simile in particular. For example:
Grandma Lois had a collection of cactuses. Like a little desert in her living room.
He’d never felt so empty before, as if someone had scooped out his insides with a serving spoon.
The porch sizzled in the sun, like it was an oven turned on “low”. She fanned herself with her magazine.
If you take a look at all of these descriptions, one thing might hit you … like a baseball bat. They’re obvious. And not only that, but they’re redundant.
The use of simile writerly flair to these sentences, but is this something we need in the first place? Or will readers understand what you’re saying perfectly well without the additional explanation that the imagery brings to the table?
Paying Special Attention to Simile
Why have I singled out simile for this article, in particular, as being potentially redundant? Well, the trick is in the comparison. Sometimes, an image will stand alone without explanation. This is called a metaphor if it doesn’t use “like” or “as” and can refer to any use of imagery in your writing. But once you invite a direct comparison with “like” or “as,” it becomes a simile.
In order to make the comparison complete, you are naming at least two things that you then tie together. By naming the first thing and the second thing, you may be inviting redundancy … even unintentionally.
When you think of using simile in your own writing, ask yourself: Would this image best be served as a metaphor instead? Can you trust the reader to get your meaning without indulging in the temptation to explain?
Your use of imagery is a key part of voice. Hire me as your novel editor and learn whether your writing is as effective and evocative as possible.
The unique thing about kidlit is that there are many children’s book genres and categories to choose from, and the divisions in children’s books are much more segmented than, say, the adult fiction world. (The reason for this is simple—your audience is changing drastically in regards to their ability to read independently, they are also changing according to age, maturity, and a ability to process and understand information. These same kinds of changes simply don’t happen as rapidly to readers from other demographics.)
Many children’s book writers are interested in writing for more than one age group. Read on if you want to learn about writing in several children’s book genres and categories.
The Difference Between a Genre and a Category
First, one nit I like to pick: there’s a difference between a “genre” and a “category.” A lot of people call picture books a “genre.” Nope. But this line of thinking is so prevalent that I’m using the keyword “children’s book genres” to talk about categories so that more people find this post now and in the future.
A “genre” is a stylistic description. You immediately know that a romance is going to be a different style of book than high fantasy or hard sci-fi. That’s “genre” at work.
In children’s books, we have different “categories” or “audiences”. Books that fit into these are each written for readers at different ages, of different reading abilities, and in various stages of mental and emotional development. That’s simply because kids from age zero to eighteen make a ton of leaps.
Now that you know the lay of the land of children’s book genres and categories, let’s say you want to write for multiple audiences. This is totally worthwhile, and there’s more commonality between, say, a chapter book and middle grade than a business nonfiction book and a memoir for adult readers. The characters are similar in age, the language is similar, and the intended kid readers are going to be only several years apart from one another.
The first thing to know is that you must be very comfortable with multiple age categories before you attempt to write, say, a picture book on the one hand, and a YA romance, on the other. Understand the differences in your reading audiences in a holistic way first—what will each age of kid want to read about?—and then bolster that understanding by using appropriate language, word count, and character age. These differentiators are the bare minimums when it comes to writing across children’s book genres and categories.
It’s also crucial to understand that these category guidelines and requirements are going to be somewhat inflexible. You can always write a 300-page picture book full of words at a college reading level, yes. But your odds of publishing one successfully in the tradition or indie setting are going to be very low, because such a project is unlikely to speak to your target audience.
It takes many writers a while to learn and deeply understand the needs, requirements, quirks, and sensibilities of one children’s book category. If you can bring this keen understanding to two or more children’s book genres or categories, you may be a good fit to “double dip” or more.
Building a Career in Multiple Children’s Book Genres or Categories
Because of the intended audience in kidlit—children—we face unique considerations when we want to build a career writing across children’s book categories or genres. In my consulting practice, I hear variations of the following question all the time: I write racy erotica, but also board books. How do I market myself without scandalizing children or confusing the BDSM crowd?
This is obviously an extreme example, but the conflict remains. It’s also compounded by the fact that, through about middle grade, your readers are technically and legally unreachable online and you’re marketing to parents, educators, and librarians instead. It isn’t until upper MG and YA where you are actually reaching your intended target audience.
My advice goes back to what I learned as an agent when doing career counseling: You are welcome to switch children’s book genres or categories, if you can pull more than one off well, but only after you’ve established yourself. Write three really strong picture books, then attempt to publish and market a middle grade.
If your audiences are two different, consider setting up multiple areas of your website and social media, or multiple accounts altogether (in the example of your erotica presence vs. your board book marketing). I would discourage aspiring career-makers from hopping around, first to picture book, then young adult, then middle grade, then chapter book.
You can write all of these children’s book genres and categories at one time, if it keeps your creative fires burning, but I wouldn’t attempt to publish them in such a sporadic pattern. Make a name in one arena, then branch out. Otherwise, you may confuse your audience and waste precious energy and marketing resources duplicating your brand-building early on.
Looking for custom career advice? Hire me as your publishing consultant and we can draft your way forward together.
It’s that time again to grow my amazing group of talented writers, designers, editors, and marketers! Right now, I am looking for one or more editorial assistants as my existing editors step up to work on their own lists.
As an editorial assistant, you will work alongside me on projects that come into my editing business, Mary Kole Editorial, as well as Quick Crits that come into the Good Story Company. I will continue to be the primary editor on every project, but I am looking for someone to do proofreading work, research comparative titles, and otherwise support me and my clients. I will train you in my editorial approach, including the concept of interiority, so that you may become proficient in applying my principles to manuscripts down the road, perhaps even with your own list under the Good Story Company umbrella.
Familiarity with my work is a big plus. Ideally, I am looking for a long-term relationship with the right individual or individuals.
The ideal candidate must be well-read in the current marketplace, with a focus on picture books, middle grade, and young adult, but, ideally, with wide interests elsewhere as well. I work on genre and literary fiction outside of the kidlit space, including a lot of narrative nonfiction, for example. For this opportunity, I am especially interested in at least one candidate with a passion for picture books, early readers, and chapter books. The ability to reference contemporary published titles in an informed way is key. (The ability to read quickly while retaining information is also a huge bonus!)
Proofreading is a large component of the job, so the ideal candidate will be proficient in grammar, usage, and formatting. English training at the college level (or above) will be given top consideration. Also key is the ability to summarize what you’re reading so that we can discuss projects. Providing micro- and macro-level feedback will be a big part of your role. In terms of editorial work, you must already have some affinity for giving constructive response to writing in progress, and this skill will be developed according to my editorial philosophy.
From a logistical standpoint, I’m looking for someone with good time management skills, who is very communicative, can set and then meet (or exceed!) expectations, and is otherwise honest, punctual, and responsible.
It will help if you’re already comfortable with, proficient in, or (at least) very driven to learn:
Google Suite: Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides and Forms
Trello: a project management interface
Dropbox: a file management system
Fluent and engaging written communication skills are a must, as you’ll be representing a company that is for writers, by writers. From a personality perspective, excellent accountability is my top priority. You need to be driven enough to motivate yourself and communicate about any potential problems (like missing a deadline) way ahead of time.
I don’t have the bandwidth or energy to chase someone around and constantly check in, nor do I want to set up that kind of overbearing dynamic. I want you to be very excited to kick butt independently!
Pay is hourly, and you can expect to work up to 20 hours per week, but the ideal candidate would have bandwidth for more hours, if needed. Training is paid, and there is a 30-day probation period before the official hire. The pay is $16 per hour with room to grow, paid monthly. You are a 1099 contractor responsible for filing your own taxes. You will receive a 1099 instead of a W2 each year.
I love entrepreneurial, self-starting personalities, but I ask that you not engage in any other freelance editorial work during your tenure. It’s perfectly fine with me if you have another job, even in a related field, but you will be contractually excluded from acting as direct competition.
Since we do not provide benefits like health care or a 401k, I make it a point to provide learning, growth, personal, and professional development opportunities. I’ve enrolled members of my team in about $10,000+ worth of online classes. Before the COVID pandemic, I hosted an all expense paid four-day retreat in Arizona for my entire team.
I am looking for US-based candidates at this time, who are able to legally work in the US. Within that parameter, the job can be performed remotely from anywhere, though I will ask that you be available for check-ins with me during my business hours. I am on Central time. The only necessary tools are a computer with Microsoft Word and Internet access … as well as your passion, knowledge, willingness to learn, and creativity, of course!
I’m Mary and I have been in the publishing business for over a decade. I started the Kidlit blog in 2009, published my book Writing Irresistible Kidlit in 2012, founded Mary Kole Editorial in 2013, and Good Story Company in 2019.
At Mary Kole Editorial and Good Story Company, we believe in helping all writers unlock their potential. We’re also passionate about doing good. In 2020, I launched the Good Story Grant and gave away an award of $2,000 to one writer to enable them to make an amazing dream come true for her project, and $500 so a runner up could take a very important trip. Starting in 2021, I’m making a commitment to increase the grant and earmark one award for a writer of color. I can’t wait to see what kind of creativity the Good Story Grant facilitates in the future!
I’m a female founder working my way up in the business world and building a company that makes a difference. My team is a fun and motivated crew of writers, creatives, nerds (said with love!) and more. Our work, from the editorial team to the marketing team, is highly creative. But we’re successful, too, and only striving to become more so.
More than anything, I want to inspire my future editorial assistant and give you the tools and firsthand experience of what it means to run an amazing independent business. My dream for you is that you stay with me for a long time, but then maybe go on to build something yourself, using what you’ve learned!
How to Apply
If this sounds like a good fit for you, I’d love to hear from you with a resumé and cover letter sent via email to:
The deadline for applications is midnight Central time on July 10th, 2020.
The next step of the interview process is a phone interview, followed by a written editorial test. I am looking for candidates available to start training and working ASAP.
Please note: If I have considered your application for another opportunity within the last twenty-four months, please refrain from applying again unless you have relevant new experience that you’ve added to your resumé since the last time you submitted your information or were interviewed.
I welcome the opportunity to hear from diverse applicants! Thanks so much for your interest!
The query letter hook is the “grabby” part of the query letter, where you include a logline, or one-sentence description of your story. If you’ve heard me talk about self-editing and revision, you may have seen me call this your book’s “mission statement” as well. What is it about? Who is the main character? What is their main struggle? And what is the theme or bigger picture idea behind it?
Query Letter Hook
To write an effective query letter hook, think about the number one most important thing you want the query letter reviewer to know about your story, as they pertain to:
An example for a picture book like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown might be:
When Mr. Tiger tires of being proper and reclaims his wild side, surprising things happen all around him.
An example for a YA novel like The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon might be:
Two teens from very different cultures and with very different priorities collide as one of them is about to be deported, and have to decide whether to give love a chance.
Now, one thing you might notice is that both of these loglines are open-ended. What happens to Mr. Tiger’s friends? What effect does going wild have on everyone? Do the teens give love a chance? Does the character get deported?
For a query letter hook, this can be desirable. It creates some tension and invites the agent or publisher to keep reading. Normally, the hook or logline belongs at the very top of the query letter. But then what? Do you fill in the blanks with the rest of the letter? Here, my opinion flies in the face of some other thought leaders on the topic, like the wonderful Jane Friedman.
She says that you should tease and avoid revealing your ending in the query. I say, if you’ve engineered an amazing plot, let’s see it. An agent wants to know if you can tell a story, and whether it’s a story that has enough substance and excitement behind it.
Rhetorical Questions and Revealing the Ending
The rest of the query letter will expand on your story. Who are the characters? What is the main thrust of the plot, including the biggest three or four plot points? Even a picture book query letter could go into more detail than what I’ve mentioned above.
How do you land the query, then?
I argue that your query letter hook involves more information, not less. If you leave agents and publishers hanging with a rhetorical question, for example, by ending your Mr. Tiger Goes Wild and The Sun Is Also a Star query letters this way:
Will Mr. Tiger be true to himself?
Will Daniel and Natasha give in to their hearts, after all?
… is your query letter really doing the full breadth of your story justice? I will tell you one thing right now that I know to be 100% true:
No agent will be so maddeningly compelled by your open-ended query letter hook or rhetorical question that they will read an entire novel to find out how your tease plays out.
There is simply not enough time in the day. If your query letter is open-ended or teasing or doesn’t clearly portray the story you’ve written, an agent may lose interest and move along because it’s too vague. There’s not enough substance. They are most certainly not going to breathlessly request and read 300 pages to scratch a small itch created by a coy query letter.
Instead, you can end your query letter strongly by revealing the ending to bring the query letter hook full circle, like this:
Only by going extremely wild—at the risk of alienating everyone—does Mr. Tiger bring more self-expression to himself and his whole community.
The deportation goes through, and Natasha and Daniel don’t get their happily ever after. Lest readers think all is lost, they meet again years later, opening a surprising opportunity for the universe to continue to work in its mysterious ways.
By doing so, you may actually get more interest because agents and publishers will see that you have plot chops and will want to see how you get the story from Point A (the set-up) to Point B (the ending that you’ve revealed).
A picture book about extreme self-expression? Let’s see how far this goes! A YA romance where the leads don’t end up together? What the heck? I want to read that and see how the writer pulls it off!
I hope you can at least entertain my point that this reveal generates interest that is much more compelling than some teasing rhetorical question.
I can be your query letter editor, and bring over five years of experience as a literary agent (and over a decade in publishing) to the project.