If you are a YA, MG or picturebook writer, please think of me when you put together your query list.
As a result of my new position, I’ll be making changes to the blog, vetting some old posts and generally getting everything into brand new shape. Please pardon the dust while I revamp some of my old content and look for more content geared to aspiring writers in the future!
One of my favorite parts of SCBWI (where I took no pictures, because I am made of #epicfail, by the way) was Krista Marino’s voice workshop, where we dissected and discussed what an authentic teen voice is. One of the keenest insights came when she invited her author Frank Portman (mastermind behind KING DORK and the forthcoming ANDROMEDA KLEIN) to talk about his songwriting for his band, The Mr. T Experience (better known as MTX).
Now, full disclosure time: Frank Portman didn’t land on my radar with his brilliant YA debut novel, far from it. I was a fan long, long ago. When I was 14-15-16-17, I’d pile into a friend’s ride or drive my junker Ford Taurus up and down the San Francisco Bay Area and go to MTX shows. (There’s a fangirl picture of me with Dr. Frank, in fact, that I tried to find for you guys, where I’m wearing a leopard print coat, a rockabilly dress, an Avril tie, knee socks… all the trappings of good teenage fashion sense, believe you me… It’s probably best that I seem to have misplaced it, on second thought…)
Dr. Frank and Krista made a very good point during the workshop. Writers, remember:
Teens aren’t stupider versions of adults. They’re just as smart, just as emotional, just as perceptive… they’re simply lacking the experience and perspective that most adults get in the process of living more years on the planet.
And, since your character will change over the course of your story, your narrative is just one way they’ll get some different perspective and evolve as people, right? Excellent. In the meantime, as you’re fleshing your characters out, MTX songs make an excellent primer in teen voice and angst.
Have you forgotten how desperate guys are to find a girl, any girl who likes them/wants to talk to them/can stand looking at them? Do you remember the sting of feeling completely alone and invisible to the opposite sex? Listen to the hilarious “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” off of Our Bodies Our Selves.
Have you forgotten the tremendous roller coaster of first love? The ups and downs and the dizzy compulsion to make it work despite any and all common sense? Try “Who Needs Happiness (I’d Rather Have You)” from Revenge Is Sweet, And So Are You on for size.
Do you remember the ecstasy of finding the one person who understands you? The relief of discovering an oasis amidst the torture of high school? Listen to “Thank You (For Not Being One of Them)” off of Love is Dead.
If you think your voice is lacking authenticity, if your teen emotions aren’t ringing true, do yourself a favor and pick up a couple of Mr. T Experience albums. And yes, this is extremely, extremely gratifying for my 16 year-old inner fangirl. Who knew my nerdy MTX fandom would pay off career-wise? You can check out their record label’s minisite by clicking here. You can also check out Dr. Frank’s website.
There are a lot of “how to write a query letter” articles out there about what not to do. A lot. And I’m going to write some here in short order. But this is a different article. An article on how to do a query right, just so you can see my philosophy on queries.
How to Start a Query Letter
It’s simple, really:
Make me care.
Cut out the cutesy jokes, the rhetorical questions, the extraneous subplots, the superfluous biographical details and get to the heart of your story.
Start simply, without a lot of throat-clearing, and get to the point:
I’m writing to you because you represented BOOK/because I saw you at CONFERENCE/because I like your philosophy of WHATEVER. I’ve got a complete manuscript I want to tell you about: MY BOOK, a WORD COUNT – length novel for AGE GROUP.
So far, so good. Personalize the query to the agent and then give them the bare bones details of what your project is.
The Key to Writing a Fiction Query Letter
Now we get the meat. The meat is a longer paragraph (or two shorter paragraphs) that creatively presents the answers to the following questions:
WHO is your character?
WHAT is the strange thing going on in their life that throws them off their equilibrium and launches the story?
WHAT (or who) do they want most in the world?
WHO (or what) is the main character’s ally?
WHO (or what) is in the way of them getting what they want most in the world (their obstacle)?
WHAT is at stake if they don’t get what they want?
The above questions are essential to a complete story. They are, in effect, designed to get you thinking about the most important elements of your book. The funny thing is, when I read the answers to these questions, I start to care about the character! I start wishing I could read the whole story!
Unfortunately, you can’t just present the above information in Q&A format. These are the questions you’ll have to answer in prose, in a maximum of two paragraphs, in a style that tells the agent something about you, your book and your voice. Yes. It is moderately difficult to do. But now you’ve got tons of ideas for how to pull it off and what the meat of your query should include.
How to Finish a Query Letter
Then, you’ll finish your query with:
Some brief biographical information. Things that are relevant: if your life has somehow inspired something in your novel, like you’re writing about a kid who’s obsessed with physics and you happen to be a physicist, also mention previous publication credits, advanced degrees like an MFA or anything else that is applicable to writing, etc. Things that are not relevant: how many cats you have, that your kids loved this book when they read it, how great the weather/food/backpacking is in your neck of the woods.
A cordial invitation to request the full manuscript.
Your signature and contact information.
Voila! Now you have a query letter that hits the very heart of your story, doesn’t waste any space and makes the agent or editor reading it care about the character and the character’s journey.
This is by no means the only way to write a query letter, but it does cut to the chase rather simply and brilliantly, doesn’t it?
Need a query letter editor? I’ve seen tens of thousands of queries, and I can help yours stand out in the slush pile.
Some writers are just a blast to read, they master exciting writing at the sentence level, from paragraph to paragraph. It almost seems like magic. Your eyes just can’t stop hopping along from one page to the next.
How to Create Exciting Writing at the Sentence Level
How do they do it?
Let me wager a guess: sentences. Among other things, of course. But that’s right: sentences. The building blocks of prose, sentences are crucial to good, flowing, engaging writing.
A lot of beginning writers — caught up in plot and dialogue and characterization and description — sometimes lose sight of craft at the sentence level. Here are three things to watch out for in revision that will make your prose sing.
How to Begin a Sentence
Beware of structuring most of your sentences in the same way. The most common one I see, by far, is the “I verb” (first person) or “Subject verb” (third person) sentence beginning.
Take a look at these two short example paragraphs:
I looked down the street, first left, then right. I didn’t see anybody so I ran left. I picked wrong, of course. I had no idea that the bad guys were just around the corner.
He grabs the book and scans the lettering etched into the leather cover: The Volume of Secrets. He sighs with wonder. It is his at last. He slips it into his pocket just as Professor Detritus appears in the doorway.
If the above paragraphs inspire a vague sense of boredom, it’s because almost every sentence starts the same: “I verb” or “Subject verb.” Let me repeat: I see this a lot. If you’re not sure how often you fall into this trap, start underlining all of your “I verb” or “Subject verb” sentence beginnings. Seeing a lot of lines? Spice up your sentence structure so they don’t all start the same way.
How Long Should Sentence Be
Sentence length is another thing you want to take into consideration when you write. I know this might sound like a no-brainer to some of you, but varying sentence length in every paragraph is a great way to keep the reader engaged. Take a look at one example:
The river drifted slowly through the countryside. Lila stood on its banks and watched the water. Anthony hitched up his horse somewhere behind her. She could almost hear his impatience.
Now compare to this one:
The river drifted slowly through the countryside. Home. Lila stood on its banks, watching familiar water burble at her feet. Behind her, Anthony hitched up his horse, the saddle hitting Lightning’s muscled back with a hard packing sound. She could almost hear his impatience.
I’ve mixed it up a bit, varying the “Subject verb” sentence beginnings, but also sentence length. We go from the very short “Home.” to a pretty long one about the horse. This keeps the reader engaged because, otherwise, their eyes and brain get lulled to sleep by sentences that look alike. Keep your reader on their toes, right down to the varied length of your sentences.
Exciting Writing Is Mimetic Writing
Sentence length is also very useful in setting tone. Make your sentence length match the mood of what you’re saying. Take a look:
Her heels hit the pavement in staccato bursts. They were after her. Five of them. Guns drawn.
Short, choppy sentences heighten tension. Alternately, long, loopy sentences have their uses:
Edward’s pale marble skin erupted in a shimmering display as soon as he stepped into the lazy beam of afternoon sunshine. A light seemed to leak from his very soul and out of his pores, like a million twinkling stars dotting the nighttime firmament, each fleck of glitter as dazzling as the next.
Martha and Whitney, that was for you! You get my drift. 🙂 So be aware of the length of your sentences.
How to Use Punctuation
There’s not much to say about this one, really, except that sentence structure is closely tied to punctuation. Do a sentence without a comma. Then slip in a more complex sentence with a comma, several commas or (gasp!) maybe even a semi-colon.
Harnessing Your Writing Tics
Also, be aware that you might have some pet structures that you use over and over again. This doesn’t just apply on a sentence level, or a paragraph level, but on a manuscript level. Every writer has tics: pet expressions, favorite words, redundant descriptions. This applies to how you craft sentences, too.
One of my tics is this type of sentence structure, for example:
“The air tasted briny and salty and cool. As far as sunsets went, this one lit up the sky in orange, pink, and lavender.”
Using “word and word and word” and “word, word, and word” is one of my challenges as a writer. I like to describe things in threes. While using “and” sometimes instead of commas and vice versa mixes up the sentence structure, these shenanigans still litter my manuscripts.
I’m not saying get rid of your favorite way of crafting a sentence, I’m saying: be aware of it and make each choice, even on the sentence level, an intentional one.
Sentence Craft Is an Intentional Choice
Repeat after me, folks:
Every sentence in my manuscript is an intentional choice!
Feels good, right? Playing with sentence structure is just one way to make your manuscript that much stronger. It is essential to the craft and these are just three small things to take into consideration. Have fun!
An exciting novel begins at the sentence level. Hire me as your novel editor and we will engineer great fiction together from the ground up.
Is everyone clear on what the 2nd person is? It’s the “you” in a narrative. Many narrators, usually first person, use the “you” occasionally. Here are a few examples:
“My heart pounded with the kind of beat you only get after running for your life.”
“I’m telling you straight, man, she was so hot you could fry an egg on her.”
There’s also the implied 2nd person, which is sort of like the second example only the “you” is never explicitly stated. This implied 2nd person is usually used with a storytelling sort of voice:
“It rained so hard, honest to God, I never thought it’d stop.”
In all of these examples, there is either a “you” addressed or hinted at. The narrator is always talking to someone (usually interpreted as “the reader”) and breaking the fourth wall. (Theatre geek here, remember? “Breaking the fourth wall” is a theatre term, meaning the actors break the barrier between the stage and the house and address the audience directly.)
There’s also a less widespread use of the 2nd person… that’s when the “you” is another character in the story and the narrating character is talking directly to them. An excellent recent example of this is WHEN YOU REACH ME.
Finally, there are books that are written entirely in the 2nd person, where “You” is the main character. These do not work for me, at all, as the direct address feels like it’s pulling me out of the story the entire time. A book that I have recently been unable to get into, despite knowing how brilliant it is and having deep respect for its writer and editor, is (the aptly titled) YOU by Charles Benoit.
Now that we’re all clear on what the 2nd person is, I want to make a point about it. A lot of writers are very careless with the occasional 2nd person because it has become very common in our way of talking. Everyday speech is studded with expressions like “you know?” and they translate into our manuscripts. Sometimes a narrator will go on a 2nd person jag, and every simile has a “you” embedded in it. Other times, the “you” will be absent for hundreds of pages at a time only to show up randomly.
Be very careful with the 2nd person. It is confrontational. It breaks out of the 1st or 3rd person and crosses the line between story and reader, fiction and the real life of the person reading it. It makes the reader part of the story and, when used intentionally, can have a really cool effect (which I still probably won’t appreciate, as is the case with YOU, because I don’t personally enjoy 2nd person).
But I’m seeing a lot of sloppy, careless 2nd person outbursts in narratives that don’t necessarily demand the 2nd person. My tip, while you’re just feeling out a story and getting the hang of writing it, is to leave the 2nd person out, if you can. If used correctly and consistently, it rocks. Otherwise, it just seems spotty and annoying. From me, it gets the reaction of: “Leave ME out of it and get on with the story!”
So that’s what I’d say. Either you use 2nd person consistently in a manuscript (and I’m talking narrative here, not dialogue) or write a draft without the 2nd person and see if you miss it. All I’m saying, folks, is make it intentional.
Bonus Tip: If there’s one thing that bugs the jeebus out of me, it’s the use of a 2nd person rhetorical question to launch a query letter:
“What would YOU do if a flesh-eating virus was descending on YOUR town and only YOU had the antidote… locked in a small capsule in the base of YOUR spine?”
Um… are you honestly asking me? Because I’d probably mess my pants, eat a pint of ice cream and go hide in the basement with my back to the wall.
See, when you get the 2nd person involved, it automatically elicits a reaction from your reader. By starting a query with a rhetorical question, you’ll get on your reader’s nerves and most likely elicit the reaction of: “I don’t want to hear about ME, I’d rather hear about YOUR book, dingus!”
Not that any serious publishing professionals have ever been known to use the word “dingus.” (Okay, that might be a lie.)
So, quick moment of disclosure: I am a pretty hardcore musical theatre geek. This is a side of myself I have been rediscovering recently. And when I say “musical theatre,” I’m aware that the initial connotations are the likes of Wicked and 42nd Street. No, I like my musical theatre dark. I wrote my college thesis on Stephen Sondheim and, more importantly, on his show Company.
Last night, I was watching the DVD of Company, the John Doyle production with Raul Esparza, a show that I saw in New York last year. And, like the rabid fan I am, I was making my way through the special features when I came across an interview with Sondheim and a quote that I think is an inspiration to all writers.
The interviewer asks Stephen if it is difficult to be “a living legend” and to feel the pressure of such an impressive Tony-and-Pulitzer-winning back catalog whenever he sits down to write. This might not be a situation familiar to the likes of us (just yet), but his answer applies to you (yes, you!) this very second:
“I try to pick something that frightens me. I think a writer should frighten himself, otherwise you tend to write the same thing again.”
This is your writing reminder of the day (from a freaking genius, no less!) to take risks, make bold choices and write from that vulnerable, raw place in your heart that you swore you’d never show to anyone. Only then will you emerge with a piece of vibrant, breathing, authentic fiction that’s worth reading.
Here are some very simple benchmarks for when to cut something out of your manuscript. If you are agonizing over revisions and trying to decide whether to keep a paragraph, scene, phrase, character, line of dialogue, etc., run it through this checklist.
(Hint: if people are telling you that your pacing is slowing down or if a scene is running long and boring to re-read during revisions… Pay attention!)
You should probably cut it from your manuscript if:
It does not advance our understanding of the character. Does this piece of writing show us something new about or a deeper layer of your character? Everything you write serves a purpose (and no, that purpose is not to boost your word count). If nothing new is revealed as a result of this being in the manuscript, cut it. If no new nuance emerges, give it the axe.
It is just so darn clever. Find the part you love so much because it is witty. Cut it. That’s you showing off as a writer and I’m willing to bet that it does not advance our understanding of the character (see above) or advance the plot and tension (see below).
It does not advance plot or raise tension. Every piece of fiction needs plot and tension to keep the reader going. Some things have very little happen in them but they’re readable. That’s okay, I guess. In the same way that elevator muzak technically counts as a composition. “Readability” is not what we’re striving for, though. So make sure you are turning out plot points and upping the tension with every scene you write.
It does not reveal anything new. In terms of plot, or backstory, or foreshadowing or our immersion in the world of the book. If something doesn’t give us more meat to chew on, it’s just fat and gristle.
This is a very reductive view of revision. But honestly? I’ve been reading some manuscripts this week where I’ve wondered long and hard: Why is this in here? Whether it’s been a particular bon mot that the writer couldn’t cut (KILL YOUR BABIES!) or a scene where the same wrinkle in a friendship dynamic is replayed over and over (“I just need to know I can trust you, man!”/”You can trust me, broseph!” for like five scenes straight…), I have developed a wicked itchy delete button finger.
And what happens after you trim all the unnecessary fat from your manuscript?
You’ve freed up some room in your word count and it gives you anxiety?
Go forth and fill it with important, varied, nuanced and truthful stuff! Because if what you’re writing isn’t any of that–if it is just taking up space in your manuscript–then those are dead words anyway. It’s better if you cut them when you see them, as they’re placeholders for something more awesome.
At some point in every aspiring writer’s life, they will ask themselves: should I invest in a conference? That’s how you should phrase it, anyway. It is an investment: of time, of money. A lot of people report feeling more committed and professional after an event.
Here is an easy list of pros and cons of conferences, in case you’re on the fence about going to your first or going again. Use this list to keep your expectations in check (very important).
Cons: Why You Might Not Want to Go To A Conference
Expense: Conferences are expensive. The conference fee (usually between $100 and $500 dollars). Hotel. Airfare. You’re usually looking at about $1,000 bucks if you go to one of the larger conferences outside of your home state. Some conferences, though, do offer scholarships. It’s always a good idea to ask. Smaller conferences and regional SCBWI days are a good alternative if cost is a huge factor.
Intimidation: This might be one of the first times in your life you’ll be meeting real, walking, talking agents and book editors. This makes some people more nervous than excited. My advice: try as hard as you can to get used to the idea. We’re the people you want to work with. And we’re just people who love good books. Look! We already have something in common!
Other writers and workshops: For some more advanced users, conferences are frustrating because some of the other writers operate on a really basic level. For some complete newbies, the advanced level of other attendees might be really scary. Workshops at conferences are also a mixed bag. One time, I was at a conference where someone raised their hand (totally unrelated to the discussion at hand, mind you) and asked what the difference was between fiction and non-fiction. Color me underwhelmed! It’s best to go into it eager to make new friends and expecting to learn something (but not have your mind blown) from the workshops.
Crazy opportunists: Conferences are rife with crazy opportunists, or people who hawk their projects to anyone who will listen. These are the people you hear about, sliding their manuscripts under the bathroom stall to a terrified agent. You’d be wise to avoid these folks. If you ARE one of these folks, don’t waste your breath/time/money. These tactics are much more “cautionary tale” than “success story.”
Unrealistic expectations: It is very, very rare that you will spot an agent from across the room, leap all over each other like Romeo and Juliet, and ink an agency contract by the end of the weekend. Writers connect with agents and editors all the time. But don’t expect it to happen. You will most likely get your heart broken if that’s the only reason you’re going. And don’t, whatever you do, show up with 10 copies of your full manuscript, all nice and printed out, and try handing them out. Nobody will take them. It’s ALWAYS best to query after a conference or, if you make a connection with an agent or editor, to send them a follow-up e-mail. I repeat: nobody will take the 300-page brick of paper off your hands right in the middle of the hotel ballroom. Don’t try it.
Now for the good news! There are tons of reasons to go to a writers conference.
Pros: Why You Should Go To A Conference
Agents and editors: Most people, people really serious about launching their careers, go to conferences to network. Forming bonds with other writers is great but…at a conference you can meet (and impress) some agents and editors. Saying “I met you at so and so” really does catch my busy eyes when I’m combing the slush.
Motivation: A near-guaranteed aftereffect of a writers conference is that you will get new ideas and get really pumped to write them. Don’t take your meanest writing block to a conference and expect it magically fixed, but you’ll be impressed with how motivated you feel.
Other writers: Yes, you’ll probably make some friends! Friends are good!
Critiques: Conferences are great for getting your first critique or pitch session in with a real, live publishing professional. Yes, they cost money. But the way I figure it, you’re already spending a lot of cash. What’s an extra $50-$100 for a critique? Skip lunch and dinner and opt for sandwiches from the corner store, if you have to. You’ll get to sit down with an agent or editor one-on-one and talk about your work. You might even get a request for more material, if your work is really polished.
A change of pace/scenery: Sometimes, a conference is great just because it doesn’t feel like your real life. You feel like you’ve just vacationed in Writerland and that’s a nice way to recharge your batteries.
Self-confidence: Every little bit helps, right? Well, after a conference, a lot of people get much more comfortable with the idea of writing, the logistics of becoming more committed to their work. It can work psychological wonders and, if you haven’t figured it out already, writing is a mental and emotional challenge for the ego.
So there you go! Literally! Go, if you feel compelled to.
For kidlit writers, I highly recommend making it out to a national SCBWI conference at least once. More info here: SCBWI. I prefer the summer one in LA over the NYC winter conference, though maybe I’m biased because the shorter flight has lured me. Seriously, though, it is the longer-running one and, puzzlingly, seems to attract more New York agents and editors. If you can’t make it to one of the national conferences, do go to your regional SCBWI chapter’s events. Some excellent chapters throw amazing conferences, like the Nevada SCBWI chapter run by Ellen Hopkins. Why I like SCBWI events: all the people you meet are into kid’s books. Every single one of them. So you’re not sitting next to a cozy mystery/romance thriller writer at lunch.
With most other conferences, you have to watch the list of participants and speakers like a hawk. Seriously. Do your research. Google everybody. Figure out where in publishing they are. The last thing you want to do is spend all that time and money and show up at a conference populated by non-fiction or adult fiction agents and editors. Make sure at least a handful of children’s book professionals will be there. The benefit of zeroing in on the kidlit people at an adult conference, though, is that you’ll likely have more face time with them as one of the few children’s writers in attendance.
So no matter which conference you choose, take this list to heart and take the plunge. It’s worth it at least once in every writer’s life.
And, of course, I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t point you all to the Big Sur Fiction Writing Workshop, put on by the Andrea Brown agency, that’s coming up December 3rd through the 5th! It’s an amazing weekend of small groups, in-depth workshops, close attention from faculty and, of course, lots of chances to network and meet writers, agents and editors. Click here for the website!
So I hear you’re considering sending a revision to a literary agent while they’re still considering your work. Should you be in this situation? No. Because ideally, you would’ve queried only your strongest work. Because Mary told you to send query only your strongest work. But you didn’t believe me or didn’t know any better and then you decided to revise and here we are. It’ll be okay.
This is a question writers ask a lot. Here’s the situation: you polish a manuscript draft (so you think) and then you send it out to agents. Then, since publishing is notoriously slow, you sit around and have some time to think about what you’ve done. And think. And think. You realize things about your manuscript that you should’ve done differently. You begin to revise and realize there’s a LOT you could’ve done differently.
Will Sending a Revision to a Literary Agent Make you Look Bad?
Now you can’t even begin to fathom how awful your last draft is and you can’t believe that it is sitting in Dream Agent’s inbox in that deplorable, horrid, unfinished condition. An anxiety flares up and makes your pinkie toes tingle. You have to send them the new version. You have to. Right. Now.
But there are lots of questions involved. Will the agent take it? Will it make you look bad? Will even asking guarantee a speedy rejection?
Here’s the thing, and I can’t say it enough: there are only a finite number of agents in the world (or, only a finite number worth working with… The point, remember, is to get a good agent, not just any agent…). You’ve spent all this time writing a book and you can only show it to those agents once, unless they ask to see a revision down the line. Why wouldn’t you take the absolute maximum time you can to make sure this book is polished and perfect?
Because you’re human and you’re impatient and you want to get feedback from publishing professionals on it now now now. It’s okay. I understand this urge. I’ve sent out manuscripts to agents only to do a huge revision. I’ve sent that dreaded “Actually, can you look at this instead?” e-mail.
Making Your Request to the Literary Agent
So if you find yourself in this situation — having rushed out a manuscript that wasn’t ready — you are in the same boat as many, many other writers. It happens. Agents know it happens. So when you e-mail us and ask to submit another draft, it is likely we’ll say “Sure, send it in,” unless we’re already reading your manuscript. If we are, we still might still say “Sure, send it in,” but only if we like what we’re reading so far. Or we might reject you, because some agents have no tolerance for this. At this point, it’s up to you whether you want the risk.
The fact that writers pull the trigger too early is no secret in agenting circles. Besides, there are precious few debut manuscripts (if any) that go out on submission to editors without some revision. Whether you do that revision for an agent before or after signing their contract, you will do some revision. So, agents know that a manuscript is a malleable thing.
If You’re Going to Send a Revision to a Literary Agent…
It doesn’t exactly impress us that you submit a manuscript and have a brand new draft the next week, but it happens. Just make sure the second draft you submit is really, really, really good. Otherwise, you will lose points in the competence and professionalism departments. I repeat: if you plan on re-submitting something, take your time, for the sake of all that is holy. Don’t just rush through this draft, too! Someone once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results…
I will say it once, I will say it a thousand times: patience is a virtue, my dears. You’ve got a list of agents. You’ve got a manuscript that represents your tears, blood and late-night tiramisu binges. That stack of words and paper better be your damn best piece of work before ever the twain shall meet. Dig?
Are you revising and revising only to figure out that you don’t know what you’re doing? It’s okay. Make your next revision your best revision yet with me as your manuscript editor. I’ll give you feedback to not only inform your next revision, but your entire approach to fiction writing.