Getting Into a Pattern

Back in college, I did a few freelance articles for a photography trade magazine. Mostly wedding photographer profiles. A woman I’d become close friends with in a creative writing course happened to be an editor for this publication, and she gave me some assignments for fun. By about the third piece I turned in, she sent me a very friendly email that haunts me to this day. She basically said, “Hey Mary, I’m noticing that all of your articles follow the same pattern. You start with the photographer’s youth and then the event that made them fall in love with photography, then you cover their education and development as a photographer, and their you end with their current work. Maybe you could, yanno, mix it up a little bit.”

She was right. Of course she was. I’m no journalist and I had no idea what I was doing or how to organize a compelling non-fiction article, so I picked the easiest possible organizational strategy when talking about a person: the resume, or, in other words, “Started from the bottom, now we here.” And by golly, I was going to drive it into the ground until somebody stopped me because I didn’t know what else to do. And, to my *ahem* credit, I thanked her profusely for the feedback…and was so mortified that I stopped writing for the photography magazine shortly thereafter. A writer’s ego is a strange creature.

But I figured out the lesson in her wise words eventually. Yes, a decade, give or take, counts as “eventually,” guys. There are patterns in writing. Some are good patterns, some are individual patterns that maybe keep us from growing in the craft.

An example of a good pattern is a larger organizing principle or story theory, for example, Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle. While this is an oldie, it’s very much a goodie, since its wisdom applies to any number of stories, in any number of ways. Chronological order is also an old standard that can’t be beat when writing a novel. Sure, you want to jump back in time to fill in some backstory and context every once in a while, but moving from point A to point B as the character grows and time marches forward is an idea that will never go away.

The reason I like these two is that they’ve vague and versatile. They dictate a general idea and then it’s up to you to apply it in your own style. You’ll notice that I talk about story theory in my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit. But I try to leave much of it up to the writer. I recently ordered a slipcover for my sectional because the upholstery we originally got clings to pet hair like it’s pirate treasure. The slipcover fabric is so stretchy that it was able to fit my couch and look custom-made without any measurement. I was dubious until it arrived, since it purported to fit couches from 66″ to 96″ and that seems like a pretty big spread. But it’s really quite amazing, fits perfectly, and now the dogs can drool and shed on it with abandon. All this is to say that I try to give writing guidelines as if I were that slipcover (stay with me here, folks, this is getting weird…). Your story is the couch. You pick its overall shape and dimensions. The organizing principle’s job is to cover it and mold to what you want to do, all while giving it a cohesive look and function.

Now, there are writing teachers out there who like to dictate patterns in much more specific terms. I’ve had many writers, believe it or not, come to me and ask, “Well, in So and So’s Story Theory, he says I have to include the inciting incident by the 5% mark, then the first conflict by 10%, then the first major loss by 25%. The cousin dies, but it’s at 27% and I don’t know what to do.” This kind of teaching-writing-with-an-iron-fist always baffles me. I like the broader, sweeping guidelines, not micromanaging a manuscript down to the nth percentile. In my world, a rigid story theory is great for people who have never written a novel before. It gives them valuable scaffolding to cling to. But once you’ve written one, and internalized some basic principles, I think most guidelines can take a backseat to how you want to tell the story.

So, basically, I like the big writing patterns. Like chronological order for a novel. Or the pattern of emotional development that I outline in my book.

But every writer has other patterns. And before you know what you should do about your patterns, if they’re helpful or hampering, you should at least become aware of them. (Hopefully without becoming mortified and quitting.) This post was inspired by a client of mine who starts many chapters in exactly the same way: scene-setting and talk of the weather. I applaud the scene-setting. Many writers who simply leap into a scene with dialogue or a plot point fail to ground the reader in time and place. But this pattern for this writer was almost formulaic. Weather. Scene. Then the chapter starts. Over and over.

What happens when a reader detects an underlying pattern in your work is they become less engaged. By the fifth weather/scene/start chapter, I’m going to check out at the beginning a little bit. Unless the descriptions of the weather are building up to something massive (it’s a book about a big storm, or a person with weather-related superpowers), there needs to be variety. The pattern cannot take over the narrative.

This reminds me of picture book writers who are working in rhyme. Sometimes I see writers twisting their syntax into crazy sentence pretzels just so they can make a line rhyme. This begs the question: Is the story in the service of the rhyme, or the other way around? You always want to be putting the story first. If you find that writing in rhyme warps your natural voice, makes you write like a Victorian schoolmarm, and leads to all sorts of other problems, then it’s the pattern that needs to go, and you need to free yourself up to tell the story the best way you can. Patterns. They’re all around. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re hindrances.

What are your specific writing patterns? Are you trying to break them or are you working with them? Discuss.

Hello, World!

Coming back to a blog after an unexplained absence is like opening up the doors to your childhood home after a few decades. It’s so familiar, and yet a little eerie, since it’s oddly unmarked by the passage of time. So instead of some big comeback post, I just wanted to say the following:

  • I’m not dead! (Thank goodness!)
  • I have taken the last six months or so to help my husband open up a restaurant in my adopted hometown of Minneapolis, MN.
  • There are new editorial services on my freelance website, namely the option for a synopsis overhaul (feedback on your idea before you sit down to write it all out) and a reader report (my eyes on your entire manuscript, but more condensed feedback, which renders the service more budget-friendly).
  • Look for more writing and publishing posts here soon.

Maybe it’s the leaves turning golden outside my window, but I feel like change and progress are in the air. I’m excited to think more deeply about craft, as I’m always inspired to when composing posts for the blog. The publishing world has changed since I left agenting in 2013, but really, it hasn’t. There have been trends that come and go, and the usual mergers/acquisitions, and whispers about the viability of this genre or that, but the soul is still intact, no matter how much everyone cried “Doomsday” about ebooks and the recession and shrinking advances and dwindling attention spans.

The reality remains that there’s always room for good stories, and there is an entire industry of people who are hungry to acquire them and bring them to readers.

The world at large has changed, there’s more conflict and suffering, more joy and hope, and I think that our stories are reflecting a more authentic reality that’s compelling to young readers. More now than ever, it’s important to honor our collective humanity and reality, even as we’re wrapping it in a blanket of fiction.

What does it mean to write children’s and young adult books in 2015? 2016? Beyond? Let’s figure it out together. I was gone for a while, and now I’m back.

Happy 2015!

As you’re all celebrating with friends and family this holiday season, I want to thank you for being a part of my life and reading the blog. It will be six years of writing on Kidlit.com for me this February. Wow! This year I have had a lot to be thankful for. I’ve doubled my editorial business and am working with some truly amazingly talented writers to help their dreams come true. Several writers have gotten agents this year, and one is on the way to a publishing deal, fingers crossed.

I’m looking for ways to grow and change in 2015 as a small business owner and freelance editor. We’ll see what new ideas I might have to provide even better services to my clients. I’m also going to be updating my pricing structure in January, so if you’ve been on the fence for a while about hiring me or your project is near completion, now is the time!

In fact, to help you get a jump on your 2015 resolutions, I’m extending an offer of 15% off all of my services on my freelance editorial website (marykole.com). Mention this blog post when you email me through January 5th (midnight Central time) and let’s get you on the calendar!

Just for Fun: “Word Crimes”

Because my very favorite recording artist in middle school was Weird Al (yes, I was that hip in middle school), I give you a video on his take on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” It’s all about the crimes perpetrated by, oh, texting and the Internet and general numbskullery, on the English language. Of course, I’ve never encountered any linguistic butchery from any of my esteemed agenting or editorial clients, but this one is certainly good for a laugh. 😉

Happy Holidays!

I’m adding a thing to the already long list of stuff I do, and I’ll tell you all about it on Wednesday, January 2nd. In the meantime, here’s a sweet review of WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KIDLIT from superstar MG author Danette Haworth, whose book VIOLET RAINES ALMOST GOT STRUCK BY LIGHTNING is excerpted (though she swears her praise isn’t biased!).

In other news, I don’t know if you’ve unfriended me on Facebook yet, but you should. Why? Because my feed is about to turn into one big infomercial about Gertrude, our 10-week-old pug puppy. Loyal blog readers know of my love for animals, and probably remember my two furry loves Smokey and Sushi, who passed in 2009 and 2011. It is so wonderful to have a pet again. I’ve never had a dog before, either, so this pup is a dream come true. I feel so blessed and grateful. (And I should really buy stock in pet deodorizer spray…)

Now for the vital stats: She’s a rare silver gray color and–maybe I’m biased but–I don’t personally think that she could get any freaking cuter. Her favorite activity is chewing on everything. Her favorite food is treats. Her favorite way to sleep is upside down. Her favorite place to go to the bathroom is everywhere but her puppy pad. (Hence, her nickname is “Dirty Gertie.”) Her murder weapon is lots and lots of kisses until her victims succumb. It’s disgusting how smitten we are with her. Here’s a glamor shot:

silver gray silver black pug puppy

Happy Holidays to you and yours, and an energizing New Year that sees you many steps closer to your dreams!

Hurricane Sandy and WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KIDLIT

After a great weekend at the Kansas SCBWI conference with Jay Asher, Arthur Levine, and many more talented faculty and writers, I’m back in NYC for Hurricane Sandy. Some people with flights out yesterday were stranded, so I made sure to take one at 6:30 a.m. just to get back home. Now, despite being very close to the evacuation zone here in Brooklyn, both me and my boyfriend are hunkering down for a cozy day.

Just an update on WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KIDLIT, it seems like it is shipping from Amazon now, in addition to being available from the Writer’s Digest Shop. If you see the book “out in the wild” at a brick and mortar bookstore, I would love it if you could take a picture and send it to me via email or on Facebook. If you have read the book and loved it, please tell your writing friends, and (if you are feeling really ambitious) leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads to help spread the word.

I’m thinking of getting some labels printed for “bookplates” to sign and mail around to people who want a signed copy of the book but aren’t nearby. Would any of you take advantage of that?

Back to our regular programming on Wednesday…

Update and Congratulations to Karsten Knight!

A few housekeeping mentions and a huge congratulations to m client Karsten Knight on the blog. Let’s lead with the congratulations. Karsten Knight’s second book in the WILDEFIRE trilogy, EMBERS AND ECHOES hits shelves tomorrow! Here is the gorgeous cover:

Go out and get your copy today, er, tomorrow. If you haven’t read the series yet, you’re in luck! The paperback of WILDEFIRE, the first book, is also out.

This is a multicultural romp that features a group of powerful teen gods and goddesses. If you’ve been looking for a good definition of voice, you should definitely be reading Karsten’s work. Good thing you can start tomorrow.

Other than that, I am teaching my very popular Picture Book Craft Intensive webinar on Thursday, September 6th at 1 p.m. Eastern. As with all of my other webinars, you don’t have to be available on the time and date. You will get a recording of the lecture after the fact. The webinar comes with a critique for every student, and this is a great opportunity if you’ve been craving some professional eyes on your picture book manuscript. Register here.

I’ve got a few conferences coming up. The weekend of September 15th I’m in San Antonio for the SCBWI conference, and the weekend of the 28th, I’m visiting with the Idaho Writer’s League. If I’m meeting you at either of those, I’m looking forward to it! If not and you’re nearby, please register.

ETA: Just realized the link to the webinar was broken. I’ve found it for you. Sorry about that! (Even as I posted, I had this nagging feeling that I was missing…something…)

Big Announcement

As of today, I am officially a Senior Literary Manager and the head of Picture Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult at Movable Type Management! This is a wonderful new opportunity for me and I’m leaving with the full support of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, which has been my foundation and professional home for the past three and a half years. A huge thank you to my family of former colleagues: Andrea, Laura, Caryn, Jen, Jenn, Kelly, Jennifer, Taryn, and Lara. I’ve learned so much from this amazing team of women–truly among the best in the children’s book business. I have been blessed and am so grateful to have had my start at such an amazing place.

Being in such an enviable position, however, raises its own set of questions: Where can I go from here? What’s the future of publishing and agenting? Where do I fit into the brave new world of books and content and digital? As many of you know, I spent the first six years of my professional life working at a start-up that went on to sell to Google. I grew up in the Silicon Valley. There’s a rebellious and entrepreneurial streak in my blood.

Even though I’d found a wonderful place to work, I caught myself yearning to learn more about some other elements of publishing–namely digital books and packaging–because I believe they will become more and more important in the future. I wanted to amass new skills and explore what another agency is doing–both for my future as an agent and to provide new opportunities for my clients. I wanted my years of experience as a dot.com-er to dovetail with my passion for children’s books. I wanted more of that start-up feeling in my life.

It has been an absolute joy to learn from the very best, but I know that there is no reward without risk. Now it’s time for me to evolve and join a new and like-minded team at Movable Type, a small, nimble, and entrepreneurial agency. So here’s to my new colleagues: Jason Allen Ashlock, Adam Chromy, Jamie Brenner, and Michele Matrichiani. There are so many possibilities out there in today’s publishing world, and I want to learn about them and make them happen for my clients. Plus, I want to grow! I can’t describe to you the thrill of starting a department, enriching my relationships with the children’s publishing business, finding new clients, and truly being responsible for my own enterprise within an agency. This is the kind of leadership role that I’ve been dreaming about and I couldn’t be more excited to get started.

This transition may come as a surprise to some of you. It certainly did to me when I found myself seriously considering walking away from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. But this is the right choice, and I’m thrilled to also have the full support of my client list! That vote of confidence means the world. These last few weeks have been extremely fraught and bittersweet. There were lots of tears, but they’ve all been tears of gratitude. I am completely indebted to my colleagues, past and present, my friends, my family, my clients, my blog readers, and everyone else who has stood by me and decided to go along for the ride. As I wrote in the acknowledgments for my book: “Y’all know me–and you love me anyway!”

Now. Nitty gritty. The blog and my work for Writer’s Digest will not change. Neither will my availability for conferences and events. I’ll still write posts here every Monday and Wednesday. I’ll still teach webinars (including a children’s market overview this Thursday at 1 p.m. Eastern, click here for more information). I’ll still hang out on Twitter and Facebook. If I still owe you a Writer’s Digest critique or a response to a manuscript or query, you will still get it as soon as possible. I still have all of your submissions and correspondence.

Now, though, you can query me at Movable Type! At Andrea Brown, you had to choose from one of nine wonderful agents. In my new role, I’ll be the only one seeing the children’s queries, focusing on picture books, middle grade, and young adult. We are still tweaking the MTM website, but my new email is up and running. It’s MKole@MovableTM.com! My submission guidelines remain the same as they were at ABLA: I want to see your query letter and the first 10 pages of your novel submission or full picture book text copied and pasted into the body of your email. The word “Query” should appear somewhere in your subject line. No attachments please (illustrators send a link to an online portfolio) and no snail mail.

Thank you all for your support and I can’t wait to see what I can do over at Movable Type. I hope to see your submissions pouring in soon so that I can start my new job off with a bang!

10 Questions to Ask When Offered Representation by a Literary Agent

This is a list that I’d written a while ago to help a friend who had just been offered representation by a literary agent.

questions to ask a literary agent, how to get a literary agent, children's book literary agent
Your list of questions to ask a literary agent might look a little different… Either way, I would recommend coffee.

When you’re offered representation by a literary agent, you should have the opportunity to talk to them about potentially working together. This is an exciting and nerve-wracking phone call for a writer (and sometimes for an agent if we want to work with you really, really badly!), but it’s important that you really take the time, ask the right questions, get full answers, and give yourself as much information as possible.

Getting an Offer of Representation from a Literary Agent

The following are 10 questions that I would ask if I were signing with an agent. They’re questions I answer about myself when speaking to writers all the time. If you get an agent who is unwilling to answer questions or seems to balk at these basic ones, that would be a red flag for me, personally. Communication problems and transparency are big issues in a writer-agent relationship, and if there are issues from the word “go,” the situation is unlikely to get better.

List of Questions to Ask a Literary Agent

So do your due diligence. Here’s the list I would use to get started:

1. What is your communication style? Do you prefer phone or email? Do you check in often even when we’re not on active submission?
2. Tell me more about how your agency works and handles clients. Is there an agency agreement for new clients? (There usually will be, it’s okay to ask to see it beforehand.) What are steps for termination? (You hope it doesn’t happen, but you need to know that you have an out if you need it.)
3. Are you a member of AAR? (The Association of Author Representatives. Member agencies agree to abide by a code of ethics. Their website is www.aaronline.org.)
4. What books have you sold and what publishers do you work with?
5. What is your submission strategy? Do you go on a big round to editors or do you do smaller rounds that let us hear feedback and make changes, should we need to?
6. How would you position this book to editors? Where do you see this fitting in to publishers’ lists?
7. What editorial changes do you think I should make to this manuscript?
8. What happens if we don’t sell this book?
9. How do you work on revisions with clients?
10. How do you work with clients as they’re generating new ideas? (For example, I ask clients for idea pitches and then help them hone in on what’s strongest to pursue.)

How to Find the Right Liteary Agent

Before you put these questions to an agent, of course, figure out what you feel like you want the answers to be. Some of these issues may not matter to you, but you may have strong opinions about others. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, per se, but right and wrong answers for you. (“If we don’t see this book, I will burn down your house and run around your backyard naked,” would probably be a wrong answer for everyone, though…)

Different agents have different styles. Part of this feeling-each-other-out process after an offer of representation is made is to see if you like their answers and strategies and if you can see working well with them.

My editorial services aren’t just for manuscripts. I also offer confidential and discrete consulting services for authors who have questions about literary agents and career trajectory.

Big News and Big Sur!

We still have space available at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency’s Big Sur workshop that’s happening March 2nd to the 4th in beautiful Monterey, CA. Guest editors this time around include the fabulous Lisa Yoskowitz of Disney-Hyperion, Sharyn November of Viking/Penguin, and Julie Romeis from Chronicle Books. We’ve also got film agent Brandi Rivers from Magnet Management in Los Angeles if you’re writing a screenplay or are otherwise interested in Hollywood. If you’re writing anything from picture books to young adult, come on down and hone your craft with four intensive hands-on workshops throughout the weekend. Learn more about the weekend and register here.

As for me, I’m up to something hands-on and intensive before Big Sur weekend. I’m not quite ready to make the big announcement yet, but you should be able to guess my news from these pictures. Here’s the first clue that I posted to my Twitter back in October. It’s me mailing something very important:

Hmm. What could it be? Here’s a new clue. This is what’s my desk looks like these days:

Actually, that’s a lie. My desk is nowhere near this orderly. I cleaned it up a little for the photo. Either way, I’m getting away from the point. I’ll do a proper reveal of my news in a few weeks, but I think you can figure out what I’m working on. Just for the hell of it, the first person to guess correctly in the comments will win…whatever this project might be…whenever it’s available! 😉