Should An Unpublished Author Maintain a Writer Blog?

Should an unpublished author maintain a writer blog? This is a fraught topic for many writers. Some seem forced into blogging. Others love it.  If you’re happy to blog, please do it. This post is geared mostly to people who are on the fence and who are feeling pressure to start a writer blog because they hear that’s what they’re supposed to do. The tone of this question is usually, “Do I have to blog?”

writer blog, unpublished author, blogging before publication, should unpublished writers blog, do i need to start a blog to get a literary agent
If you’re not already maintaining a writer blog, should you start?

The Unpublished Author Quest for a Platform

This is a question that comes up a lot at conferences and from people who email me. It’s the familiar scenario: You’re an unpublished author chasing publication. You don’t have a book or a deal to blog about yet, but you’ve heard that you need an author platform and Internet presence, and you’ve heard that writer blogs get you friends and traffic and riches and unicorns, and you’ve also heard about this Twitter thing. Yet it sounds overwhelming. And you wonder if you have enough to blog about. You wonder if you have the time to keep up with all these things.

But the online writing community you see other unpublished writers enjoying keeps bugging you — You have to blog! You have to Tweet! You have to Facebook!

What’s an unpublished author to do?

Your Time Is Better Invested Writing

I’m going to say, probably, the exact opposite of what you’d expect. See, I’m a person who blogs. And I have a Twitter. And I’m on Facebook. I also grew up in the Silicon Valley and worked for a bunch of Internet start-ups before I got involved in publishing. You think I’d be totally into unpublished authors blogging, Tweeting, flickring, Buzzing, Facebooking, and all that. Right?

Wrong.

I never look at the writer blogs of people who query me unless they can give me some kind of impressive fact, like “30,000 people visit this blog per month” or “I draw a daily web cartoon and have a following” or “I’ve created an interactive game that you can play” or whatever.

The Worst Thing You Can Do Is Blog Halfheartedly

If you’re iffy on blogging and worry, already, that you’ll run out of material, I say don’t do it. There are too many bad blogs, blogs about people’s cats (I swore I would never blog about my cat…then she got sick and I freaked out and I blogged…at every conference I attend, people still ask me about my cat!), blogs about their word count for the day and what book they’re reading, blogs by people who think they need a blog. Don’t add one more to the pile. Blogs without good, useful information or blogs by a clearly reluctant author are the worst.

The thing about blogs is that they’re a living thing. Blogs take your most recent entry and post it first. For the savvy, content-rich blog, that’s great. For the reluctant blog, that’s bad. Readers can log on and see the exact date when you lost your zest for blogging or ran out of content. And I’d say that a blog last updated in September 2009 is worse than no blog at all. It makes you seem out-of-date, irrelevant…maybe even dead. (Old blogs frozen in time are almost creepy.)

Being Practical About Platform

Fiction writers don’t need to pay attention to that whole “You have to have a platform” myth as much as nonfiction writers do. If you’re writing a novel or a picture book…what is your platform? That you like writing and you’re writing a novel or a picture book. Just like all the other writers out there. Unless you happen to be an expert in a subject matter that plays into your fiction, or you’re some other kind of professional writer who is crossing over, you’re not going to have any more platform than that.

The reason why I’m so negative about unpublished authors blogging and Tweeting is that it’s usually not good content. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Internet from actually working for it for all those years, it’s that users come to the Internet to see, “What’s in it for me?” They want valuable content that speaks to them. They Google: “How do I get this stain out of my white carpet?” “Is it okay that my baby is turning sort of purple?” (It’s probably not.) “How do I stop the hiccups?” “What’s a great summer BBQ recipe?”

A Writer Blog Works Best When The Content Helps Others…Not You

Most writer blogs — and most blogs in general — are about the writer of the blog, not about the user. I have a blog, but you’ll notice that I try to keep myself and my life out of it (and I was doing a dang good job until my cat got sick!). I want to use this space to give you valuable content, because I know that’s what people want from me. At the end of the day, they have their own cats to worry about, but they would like some writing and publishing advice.

The Benefit of Blogging Before Publication

Unpublished author blogs do one positive thing, usually: they foster community among other unpublished writers. You can come gripe about rejections, brag about word count, share your successes and frustrations and make friends.

While that’s nice for you, it has little value to an agent or editor (and not all of us feel this way, so please take this as my opinion) who comes to visit. Unpublished authors also write about writing in their blog, and that may attract other unpublished writers, but it does have a limited reach. Published writers who write about writing usually attract a wider audience, as they have perceived authority.

If you have a writer blog where you can give people really valuable content, tips, and things to make their lives better (or at least to give them good cocktail party conversation), do it. If you are just thinking of blogging because everyone else does it or you heard that agents won’t consider you unless you have a writer blog, don’t.

Spend Your Time Writing

Plus, Web 2.0 (social networking) is a time suck. You can go pretty far down the rabbit hole with Tweets and Facebook updates. Then you lose sight of the thing that’s really going to get you published: writing.

Focus on your writing. And if you feel the need to be online, which you should, at least in some small way, put up a simple three page site: main landing page with info about your work, about you page, contact page. That’s it, and it should be cheap to make a page that actually looks good and professional.

Once you’re under contract with a publisher, of course, everything changes. You’ll have stuff to say. You’ll have a book to sell. You’ll have events to publicize. You’ll have readers who want to know more about you. For now, though, don’t bow to the peer pressure if you really don’t feel comfortable blogging or Tweeting or Facebooking.

Do you have strategy questions about how to best use your valuable time? Need writing career advice? I’m happy to be your writing and publishing consultant, and we can come up with a road map together.

Writing Children’s Short Stories for MG or YA

I had reader Dave write in and ask about writing children’s short stories and the market for this type of work. This is a popular form of writing, whether you want to do a short story collection that features a lot of disparate work or a linked short story collection that tells one cohesive narrative over the scope of the manuscript.

writing children's short stories, short story for teens
Before you sink a ton of work into writing children’s short stories, or a short story for teens, do some research first. Is there market appetite for your idea? Would it work better in another format?

Writing Children’s Short Stories: A Hard Sell

It is arduous to break into publishing with a traditional novel as your debut. It would be exponentially more difficult when you’re writing children’s short stories or a short story for teens. When we go to meetings with editors to discuss their tastes and acquisition needs, short story collections have almost never come up, except for in the sense of, “Please don’t send me any.”

An Exception

There is an interesting new series coming out from Balzer + Bray and Walden Pond…the GUYS READ anthologies, edited by Jon Scieszka. I’ve read the first one, the humor anthology, that comes out this fall, and it does indeed feature a handful of short stories meant to be consumed in 20 minutes each and to encourage reluctant readers. I’m very curious to see how this line of anthologies does since, yes, short stories are more accessible to some readers, and they do have a place in the school curriculum.

Not My Speciality, But Your Work May Still Find a Home

But for someone who wants to sell to a wider market, for the trade, I would say that placing a debut manuscript that’s a short story collection would be extremely difficult. And, you know what? I’m perfectly fine with saying that something isn’t my specialty and that I wouldn’t be a good advocate for people who are writing children’s short stories or a short story for teens. This is definitely the case here.

I can’t dissuade any writer, obviously, and certain writers may find a home with a more curriculum-oriented publisher, but I wouldn’t represent a short story collection unless it was just the most brilliant thing I’d ever read, and then I’d probably ask if the author could turn it into a novel.

There are lots of other market options for people who are writing children’s short stories or a short story for teens, though, from curriculum-based publishers to magazines. A lot of the time, the novel premises or picture book ideas I receive read more like short stories than stories that deserve a longer execution. I know that’s not what any short story writer wants to hear, but there are lots of avenues that might not be trade publishers.

When you hire me as your developmental editor, I can help you decide if a story idea works best as a novel, short story, or picture book.

Tennessee Auction Update

Hey all, here’s my post from Tuesday, edited with today’s information:

My query critique sold over the weekend (to fabulous blog reader Marybk, who got it for herself as a Mother’s Day present! Yay!). I’m so thrilled to be able to help (with your help, of course) the flood victims in Tennessee.

Next up from me is a full manuscript critique that you can bid on until midnight, central time today: Do the Write Thing for Nashville. (Direct link to the item here.)

This opportunity includes:

  • One full manuscript (up to 100,000 words, please) critique of a YA or MG novel
  • A 30-minute post-critique phone call for the winner to talk about the notes and answer any publishing or career-related questions

My critiques are in-depth and thorough, as many readers would know from the workshop series I did on the blog a few months ago. Now imagine that for your whole manuscript! Plus, I don’t know you personally and have no other goal beside making your manuscript the strongest it can be, so you’ll get honest, professional, constructive, helpful feedback that’s not sugarcoated. I want you to grow as a writer and really get to that next level.

So head on over to the blog and bid on my full manuscript critique. You have until midnight Central time today to bid. I’m so grateful to all the people who are bidding over there and changing lives with their generous donations!

Check in with the blog tomorrow for the promised BIG NEWS!

Do the Write Thing for Nashville

My favorite thing about children’s publishing is that it’s really a community, above all. I don’t know of a more supportive, loving and nourishing group of people, and I’m so happy to be a part of it.

Every now and then, members of our community, friends, and colleagues come together to mount a truly heroic effort in the face of disaster. My client, Amanda Morgan, and a group of other writers (including the fabulous Victoria Schwab) have witnessed the flood devastation in central Tennessee firsthand…and they’re doing something about it.

These wonderful ladies — with donations from many people — are putting on an auction over the next few days. You can check it out here:

Blog: Do the Write Thing for Nashville
Facebook: Do the Write Thing for Nashville

How it works:

Exciting book/publishing/writing-related items are posted every day and interested parties have exactly three days to bid in the blog comments to win the item they want. The highest amount bid by someone in comments wins the auction item. The winner pays by PayPal, gets a receipt for their taxes and receives the critique, book, phone call, or whatever, that they bid on. All auction proceeds go to the Community Foundation of Central Tennessee to provide disaster relief.

Here’s where I’m hoping you come in.

I have donated the following items and they will become available over the course of the auction:

  • one query critique
  • one PB manuscript critique
  • one YA or MG manuscript critique (of one manuscript of 100,000 words or less, please. This one is really special, guys. I have never offered a full manuscript critique before because they are so in-depth and time-consuming. You won’t get another opportunity like this unless you become a client!)

My auction items will become available over the next several days. If you love Kidlit, if you’ve ever wanted to be critiqued by me, if you want a really in-depth look at your manuscript, if you’ve got some spare tax refund cash lying around, even if you’ve never heard of me but love to help people in need…please bid generously to support the writing community and the greater community of central Tennessee.

So check out the Do the Write Thing for Nashville Facebook page and blog to see if you can bid on a critique from me or any of the other fantastic items generously donated by my colleagues in publishing. I can’t wait to see all the good we can do together. Now go and bid on something, the first items have just been listed. None of my items have popped up yet, but keep checking back, and bid on some other goodies in the meantime.

To all the writers who blog and Tweet and Facebook and post on Verla Kay and Absolute Write: please get the word out about this auction and about the items I’m offering (not in an annoying, spammy way, though, please). Even if you can’t bid on an item, lend a helping hand by spreading the word!

Any Love Connections?

I am using up a valuable Monday post to make sure you all are reading and checking the Critique Connection post. There are about 90 people on there who are looking to find a good critique partner. It’s overwhelming, I know, but read through them. And let me know if anything you find through that venue works out!

Speaking of overwhelming, my schedule has been INSANE. I’ve loved meeting all of the blog readers (and welcoming any new ones!) I met these last two weeks. However, three consecutive weekends of travel (NYC, Dallas and Reno/Tahoe) have really taken their toll. I’ll be back with a new post on Wednesday.

Workshop Submission #8

Here’s a submission from Tricia. Here’s what she had to say:

Does too much happen too soon? Is there enough detail or too much? What (if possible) turns you off and would stop you from reading more?

Let’s take a look at the material. First, without my notes, then, with.

***

The voice invading Jeremiah’s head must be Darrah, the woman who called herself messenger of the gods. Jeremiah tried not to listen to the voice or obey; it was useless. She’d put something in his arm when she scratched him. It throbbed, the pain spreading through the rest of his body. Darrah had control over him for as long as she wished.

Jeremiah took one of the torches that framed the crude doorway. The door needed no lock. A cold breeze smelling of decay greeted him. He hid his mouth and nose in his red cloak. The smell remained. Darkness swallowed the stone staircase. It wound down into the mountain under the castle to the dungeons.

Bloodthirsty monsters found the mountain’s caves a most agreeable home. Some came out of the shadows. Jeremiah spun in a superstitious dance, touching the torch from hand to hand, foot to foot, then over his head. Hot embers spilled down his scrawny neck. He brushed them off. As long as he swung the torch the creatures kept their distance. Sweat covered Jeremiah’s goose-pimpled flesh.

Even if Jeremiah didn’t get caught freeing Lord Dennison’s prisoner, he’d probably be thrown out of the scribe guild.

***

The voice invading Jeremiah’s head must be Darrah, the woman who called herself messenger of the gods. Jeremiah tried not to listen to the voice or obey; it was useless. She’d put something in his arm when she scratched him. It throbbed, the pain spreading through the rest of his body. Darrah had control over him for as long as she wished.

The first line here is distracting. We get a fact that sort of grounds us in the story — there’s a voice in Jeremiah’s head — but then we’re whisked off to a character introduction and some facts. Starting with the voice also raises a lot of questions. What does the voice sound like? Is it normal to hear voices in this world? If she was a messenger, why didn’t she just TELL him things instead of scratching him and gaining control? Or is this how messengers and the gods operate? Also, instead of hearing about a voice and hearing about the commands its giving (telling), I’d love to see some actual dialogue.

Jeremiah took one of the torches that framed the crude doorway. The door needed no lock. A cold breeze smelling of decay greeted him. He hid his mouth and nose in his red cloak. The smell remained. Darkness swallowed the stone staircase. It wound down into the mountain under the castle to the dungeons.

The transition here is a bit jarring. And we still don’t quite hear the voice ourselves, even though it seems like it’s pretty insistent. I’m not quite grounded here. If there’s a door to dungeons, why wouldn’t it have a lock? Or is he standing at some other door? I seem to think that underground air is stagnant, not breezy. I’m also losing Jeremiah’s interiority a bit with these descriptions. Instead of saying the remote, “Darkness swallowed the stone staircase,” try something like (and I’m not trying to be prescriptive, I’m just trying to provide an example to illustrate a point) something like, “Darkness swallowed the stone staircase directly in front of him.” This a) grounds the reader (he is standing in front of a staircase), b) puts the focus on Jeremiah, c) implies action (that he is about to go down this staircase).

Bloodthirsty monsters found the mountain’s caves a most agreeable home. Some came out of the shadows. Jeremiah spun in a superstitious dance, touching the torch from hand to hand, foot to foot, then over his head. Hot embers spilled down his scrawny neck. He brushed them off. As long as he swung the torch the creatures kept their distance. Sweat covered Jeremiah’s goose-pimpled flesh.

Be careful of narrating around your action instead of narrating your action. What do I mean here? As with above, you said, “Darkness swallowed the stone staircase.” What was really going on, however, was that Jeremiah was either about to go down the staircase or actually going down the staircase. But the description of the staircase only vaguely implied the action going on there. Here, again, we have, “Some came out of the shadows.” But it isn’t until the sentence after that we find out that Jeremiah is in the dungeons and getting spooked by the monsters. Don’t be afraid to give us pieces of simple narrative, like, “Jeremiah descended to the first level of the dungeons” to keep us apprised of what’s going on. When you say something like, “Bloodthirsty monsters found the mountain’s caves a most agreeable home. Some came out of the shadows,” you could be talking vaguely, theoretically, in general about these dungeons. Instead, you’re trying to say that Jeremiah is already in the dungeons. Transitions us through the action more directly. I do like the physical detail of “Hot embers spilled down his scrawny neck.” We get into his body a little bit. You might want a comma between “torch” and “the” in the penultimate sentence here.

Even if Jeremiah didn’t get caught freeing Lord Dennison’s prisoner, he’d probably be thrown out of the scribe guild.

This comes out of nowhere. We have no idea he’s even in the scribe guild or what it means to him, so we can’t really feel the high stakes of him possibly getting thrown out. Don’t tack it on like this or it won’t seem significant. Also, my biggest overall issue with this is we get all action and no motivation. A great place to say, “He was going to the dungeons to free Lord Dennison’s prisoner” would be with a command from the messenger in the first paragraph or so. We need to know WHY he’s going down into the dungeon. It’s more important than the fact that he is. Otherwise, we don’t care about it. Or we think he’s an idiot for putting himself in danger when we can’t figure out a good reason for him to be there. Motivate your character so that every time we see them in action, we know why. BEFORE we see them actually in action. That will give you maximum opportunity for stakes and tension. If we know what they want and why they want it, we start to actually get invested in whether or not they’ll get it.

***

My advice here would be to really narrate the story. Don’t hop from image to image and moment to moment. A big part of storytelling is knowing when to guide the reader. Give us a motivation, then show us a bunch of action. Tell us what the character is doing, then show him doing it. There’s a huge balance between actually giving us information we need to know and letting the story unfold. Here, tip it back a little more to the informational side. The reader will thank you because they’ll know what’s going on from moment to moment.

And that wraps us up for workshops. It seems like a lot of you found this a very useful exercise. Like I’ve said many times, it helps to see pieces that are in process, not just polished pieces that win contests. I think a lot of you have also come around to realizations about your own work from critiquing the work of others. That’s a very valuable skill and one of the reasons that critique groups are so valuable. You really hone your editorial eye that way and, one day, after a lot of work, that’ll translate to seeing your own stuff as objectively as possible.

I know some of you who submitted didn’t get chosen for critique. I wanted a diverse sample so that I could make a variety of points. My decisions weren’t based on the quality of the samples but on what I could say about each one. For some, I had more to say, so those are the ones I chose.

Because of the time this took, I don’t know when I’ll be able to offer another critique scenario, but it will be sometime this year, so do stay tuned. Now, I’ll be posting questions and answers, articles, and otherwise going back to normal on the blog.

Workshop Submission #7

Today’s workshop comes from Beth. Here’s what she had to say about her submission:

Wondering if it is too vague? Also transitions to new paragraphs seem rough? Blurts of information then off to another idea… too many thought streams without fully delving into the ideas presented?

And here’s the material! Once again, I’ll put the submission without commentary first, then post it again with comments.

***

I never expected my twin sister Lily to become my arch nemesis. The spring we were forced to move into my late Great Uncle’s abandoned estate, our roles shifted. Not just Lily’s. Mother’s did. Divinia’s. Father’s. Zeda’s. All but mine. Lilia Cotton was a born princess and Uncle Red’s estate would prove it.

The forest seemed to beckon me, that first trip up the winding gravel drive to our new residence. The wind blowing limbs towards me and the back skyward, like a hand saying come here, come closer.

Mother saw it too, and heard me dreaming up adventures.

“You never go into the forest alone.”

“None of you,” she added post-script, making sure all four of us girls were listening. The leash was for me, she dangled the handle so my sisters would know to grab hold if I tried to run free. It was understood that I would try, I couldn’t help it. Divinia, the eldest masterfully anticipated my insatiable curiosities and foiled me every time, keeping us at constant odds with each other.

When Mother was the age I am now she was just like me. That’s why she says we bicker like we do, we’re too much alike, but I just think that’s what Mothers and daughters do. If she ever was like me, something killed that part of her.

Trips to Uncle Red’s were regular for her, revolving around school breaks, weekends, time-off. Her uncle was alive back then, and the house, once full of life was now scattered with bones, a skeleton itself, anything good having long decayed.

***

I never expected my twin sister Lily to become my arch nemesis. The spring we were forced to move into my late Great Uncle’s abandoned estate, our roles shifted. Not just Lily’s. Mother’s did. Divinia’s. Father’s. Zeda’s. All but mine. Lilia Cotton was a born princess and Uncle Red’s estate would prove it.

There’s a lot of telling here. I’d much rather SEE how these twins became enemies (and I’m not quite sure what KIND of enemies. Are they psychologically cruel to each other in a realistic sense or will one of them be wearing a mask and a cape?) than being told about it. That takes the impact of this shift in relationship away. “Our roles shifted” is dry. Then we’re introduced to a lot of people and it’s disorienting. Again, the focus in this paragraph, the first one your reader sees, isn’t on the main character but the sister. That’s fine, but that establishes some distance from the main character right off the bat.

The forest seemed to beckon me, that first trip up the winding gravel drive to our new residence. The wind blowing limbs towards me and the back skyward, like a hand saying come here, come closer.

Mother saw it too, and heard me dreaming up adventures.

Reverse the order of the first sentence so we know we’re driving and where we’re driving to before we see the forest, otherwise we’re disoriented. I don’t know if I’m reading something wrong but I have no idea what “The wind blowing limbs toward me and the back skyward” means… “And THEN back skyward”? Typo? Also, I don’t know how someone can “hear” someone’s thoughts. Maybe another verb here. Good characterization of the mother/daughter relationship, though.

“You never go into the forest alone.”

“None of you,” she added post-script, making sure all four of us girls were listening. The leash was for me, she dangled the handle so my sisters would know to grab hold if I tried to run free. It was understood that I would try, I couldn’t help it. Divinia, the eldest masterfully anticipated my insatiable curiosities and foiled me every time, keeping us at constant odds with each other.

Lots of info here. I’m not really sure that the leash sentence is the clearest. “Masterfully anticipated my insatiable curiosities” is a little bit of elevated diction and caught the eye as not fitting in. Again, “keeping us at constant odds with each other” is telling. We don’t see it in their relationship yet, we’re just told about it. You could try and convey this with dialogue.

When Mother was the age I am now she was just like me. That’s why she says we bicker like we do, we’re too much alike, but I just think that’s what Mothers and daughters do. If she ever was like me, something killed that part of her.

Good tension of “something killed that part of her,” I hope we see this element at play again, but it’s also telling. What we do get pretty clearly so far is what “like me” means and the beckoning of the forest, so that’s good, but we’re not getting a lot of sense of the character, other than her curiosity and how alone she feels within her family sometimes. More thoughts, feelings, physical experience could really put us closer into her head. The transition between Divinia in the last paragraph and Mother in this one is the most jarring yet, so smooth it out a bit. Also, a nitpick: “Mother” is capitalized when used like a proper noun, ie: “Mother called me in to dinner.” When it is used as a noun, it is lowercase, ie: “My mother called me in to dinner.” or “That’s what mothers and daughters do.” I see this little error A LOT A LOT A LOT.

Trips to Uncle Red’s were regular for her, revolving around school breaks, weekends, time-off. Her uncle was alive back then, and the house, once full of life was now scattered with bones, a skeleton itself, anything good having long decayed.

This is a little bit all-over-the-place. I’d rather move the story forward in the present moment than hear about mom’s childhood at Uncle Red’s. And, again, this is telling. When you TELL us about danger and misery, the stakes are lower than when you show it to us. This is good writing, technically, but it feels like the tension you’re creating here is forced. Show us images that let us see the tragedy for ourselves. A happy family portrait hung in cobwebs, a frayed tear cutting the canvas in half. Dry vines snaking across a child’s playroom. Whatever. Let us make up our own minds, through what images you give us, that something is wrong here. If we just hear about it in such a distant, summarizing style, it won’t impact us as much. I hope the story actually starts and they get to the house soon.

***

I hope this workshop was useful for you. I think there’s some good, atmospheric writing here, but I’m curious to see what you all think about the tension and distance and summary we’re given.

When running a workshop in person or online, you always get a feel for the group and how they interact with each other. Sometimes there are problems. Other times, the workshop is fruitful and helpful and kind. I have to say that you all have impressed me so much. Not only does the writer get comments from me in the entry, but each submission has garnered over 20 comments from readers that provide additional perspective, questions, advice and support.

This has been working out better than I could’ve hoped! Thank you all for that.

Workshop Submission #6

This is a submission from Livia Blackburne, for her YA fantasy.

Here’s what she has to say:

I’ve had this project reviewed by several agents/editors, and the feedback has mostly been positive. I still think though, that it’s missing something. While nobody found anything glaringly wrong with it, I don’t think it would stand out in a crowd. I’ve thought about adding more sensory detail, although I worry about seeming artificial or overdoing it.

Ah, the familiar situation of “I know it’s good but people still aren’t nibbling.” Somebody asked me to print the material in its entirety at the top, then dissect, so here’s that format. Let me know if it works better for you. Here’s the material!

***

Maybe James wanted her dead. The thought didn’t occur to Kyra until she was already coiled into a crouch, ready to spring off the narrow sixth floor ledge. She supposed it was a distant possibility, but she did not let the thought interrupt her jump. She was in no danger here.

Silently, she launched herself off the ledge, clearing a gap of three strides before softening her body for the landing. She alighted on the ledge of the next building and touched a hand to the rough stone for balance. For a second, she froze, her senses alert, looking to see if her movement had caused any disturbance. Her amber eyes scanned the buildings, but the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago. Six stories below her, the pathways were empty. Kyra relaxed. Tucking away a stray brown hair that had escaped its ponytail, she allowed herself the luxury of stopping to ponder her new theory.

She had already spent the last two days trying to figure out the aloof stranger’s motives. It was not surprising that James had come to the Drunken Dog. Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of. It was his request that made him unusual. He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay. The amount he offered was carefully chosen – high enough to be tempting, but low enough that only someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt . . .

***

Maybe James wanted her dead. The thought didn’t occur to Kyra until she was already coiled into a crouch, ready to spring off the narrow sixth floor ledge. She supposed it was a distant possibility, but she did not let the thought interrupt her jump. She was in no danger here.

Good first line. Lots of tension. Then it gets disorienting. Kyra is crouching somewhere… on a ledge. Is it night? Is it a city? Why is she crouching? I wish I’d been more grounded. The tension dies with “She supposed it was a distant possibility.” Why open with something really dramatic like “Maybe James wanted her dead” only to deflate it and admit that it’s a “distant possibility” only? That takes all the drama out of it. The tension drains further with “She was in no danger here.” So now there’s no danger, she’s just jumping. That’s not nearly as exciting.

Silently, she launched herself off the ledge, clearing a gap of three strides before softening her body for the landing. She alighted on the ledge of the next building and touched a hand to the rough stone for balance. For a second, she froze, her senses alert, looking to see if her movement had caused any disturbance. Her amber eyes scanned the buildings, but the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago. Six stories below her, the pathways were empty. Kyra relaxed. Tucking away a stray brown hair that had escaped its ponytail, she allowed herself the luxury of stopping to ponder her new theory.

The voice in this section is an issue for me. Also an issue is the lack of motivation. Why is she jumping? Jumping for jumping’s sake is nowhere near as exciting as… jumping to save someone from a burning building… jumping to save YOURSELF from a burning building… jumping on the last car of the last train out of the station for the night… whatever. So, voice. “Alighted” doesn’t seem to fit the tone here, though it’s a great word. “Her senses alert,” “had caused any disturbance,” “allowed herself the luxury” “ponder her new theory” all feel dry to me, voiceless, like something from a police blotter, a scientific journal or a women’s magazine. “Ponder” especially. You use “building” and “buildings” in this paragraph. Is there anything else you could use for word variety? “But the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago” is clunky with the two instances of “as” and doesn’t roll naturally off the tongue.

There’s still no tension because a) we already know she’s in no danger, b) there’s still no danger, so I don’t know why she “allowed herself the luxury,” since it doesn’t seem like anything is threatening her thinking time here. In the first paragraph, you also said “she did not let the thought interrupt her jump” but now you have her pause and think. So one minute she can’t think, the next minute she settles in for a think? That seems a bit contradictory.

Finally, a total nitpick: why would you be “softening” your body for landing? Don’t you want your muscles tense and ready? Softening your body in mid-jump just makes me picture her landing like a wet bag of sand and totally collapsing.

She had already spent the last two days trying to figure out the aloof stranger’s motives. It was not surprising that James had come to the Drunken Dog. Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of. It was his request that made him unusual. He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay. The amount he offered was carefully chosen – high enough to be tempting, but low enough that only someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt . . .

“The aloof stranger” doesn’t fit the tone and is dry. It’d be much easier to say “… figure out James’ motives…” and then tag him as aloof later, rather than this, because I had no idea who you were talking about at first. “Not surprising” is dry voice again. “No surprise,” for example, sounds more colloquial. “Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of” is dry again, and vague. “Request” is a dry, business-y word. I like the voice on “He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay.” That’s good tension there! Then we lose it again with “amount” and “offered,” which are dry, so is “someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt.” A lot of your sentences are a bit wordy, to the point where the reader loses steam while reading them.

By this point in the sample, I also would want to know how Kyra fits into this whole thing. Is she the thief? Seems like it.

***

Livia’s experience is very common. As an agent, some of what I see is downright bad. Some of what I see is very, very good, and then I reach out to the writer. Most of what I see is… meh. It’s not glaringly bad, nor is it amazing. How do you, as a writer, get out of this “technically fine but not mind-blowing” zone?

Voice. Here, we get a lot of dry language. It doesn’t have style to it, or attitude. It doesn’t have emotion running like a current through it. Lots of these words lack energy. They seem like they’d belong in a periodical or in a business memo. How can this story be told with more style and careful word choice? I’d also tell the author to work on her wordiness and the clutter in her sentences. A lot of what she says can be said more simply and more cleanly, for much better overall effect. In short: loosen up. Read the manuscript aloud. Where does the voice start to drone on? Where does it pick up? Where does it lack emotion?

Speaking of emotion, we could have more of Kyra’s interiority here. We get some of her thoughts, but what about her emotions? Her experiences, both sensory and otherwise? The description of the setting seems rather drab… it doesn’t seem to be colored through the lenses of a character’s eyes. Think… how would Kyra see this cityscape? What would SHE, in this moment, notice about it?

The number one reason some writers make it and others don’t is voice. The scenario here is intriguing enough, even though you could definitely amp up the tension and remove those phrases about no danger that undercut your stakes, but it’ll be the voice that really makes or breaks the execution of this idea.

Workshop Submission #5

This is a submission from Brian Higginson, for his work, KARL.

Here’s what Brian has to say:

I’m trying to inject some tension and sense of unease about what will happen. Is it too heavy handed? Also, the boy Karl is 8 at this point – does it need to be stated earlier? And what about the dialogue? Does it work? It’s set in England. Is this a problem?

And here’s the material!

***

Afterwards, everyone kept telling Karl it wasn’t his fault, what happened to his dad. But who do you blame if it’s not your fault? Couldn’t blame his dad.

I feel like I’m coming upon something in the middle of it. Like I’m walking into a conversation. It’s sort of jarring, which I think is helped along by the fragmented sentence. Also, it’s “afterward,” not the colloquial “afterwards.” But we do get something that happened and some tension right away.

The day before the soccer game, they were all at the train station in Manchester. Karl’s mum was going to Wales for a conference. She bent down and zipped his coat right to the top. She held his face in both hands and kissed him.

He liked that.

Now we’re getting grounded in a time and place. As the writer mentions, Karl is 8 years old here, so the details of the mother zipping his coat up seem age-appropriate. Since this is a third person narrator and somewhat removed, you could also mention what kind of conference so we get more context for the mom.

Months and years later when he woke sweating in the night, from the fear and loneliness of it all, that’s what he cried out for more than anything. Her hands on his cheeks; her kiss on his brow. His mother. Mein mutter.

Red flag! This has gone from an early middle grade (because of the very young protagonist) to a work of adult fiction. Why? In children’s books, the action is confined to a relatively small space of time (a school year) and the character is experiencing the story very immediately. In adult books about childhood, the adult narrator is telling a story that happens during childhood but they’re looking back on it from a place of experience. True kidlit that’s on shelves today lacks that kind of “looking back on it” feeling, since a lot of kids don’t have that perspective of life experience. You never see a 16 year-old reflecting on their 15th year with nostalgia and thinking “if only I knew then what I know now,” etc. Kids don’t have those self-reflective tendencies that crop up as we age. I’m starting to wonder a) how old the Karl narrator is in “real life” and b) how many years of childhood this manuscript is planning to cover.

“I’ll bring you back something nice for your birthday,” she said.

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

Now she was hugging Hans, Karl’s dad.

Auf weidershen,” she said, then: “Enjoy the game.”

Nothing about the dialogue pops out at me. It seems pretty pedestrian. While that’s not bad for a beginning, it’s not ideal, either. This is the equivalent of small talk with a little backstory (re: the birthday) worked in. That doesn’t make for riveting reading.

She turned back to Karl, with a look of mock seriousness on her face.

“Look after Daddy won’t you?” she said. “And make sure he behaves himself. Promise?”

“I promise,” said Karl.

It was a joke, he knew that.

But later it wasn’t the joke he remembered, only the broken promise.

There’s a bit of dry language here that wouldn’t come naturally to a true 8 year-old perspective (“mock seriousness”) but there’s also some melodrama (“only the broken promise”). Still, this returns us to the tension of the story as we know it so far — what happens to the dad.

The tinny, garbled sound of the tannoy on the station platform announced Cara’s train – at least it must have been her train because she picked up her suitcase. Karl couldn’t understand a word: though he remembered the harsh, metallic sound of it in the dreams and nightmares that were to come.

Again, this faraway perspective of Karl (however old he is “now”) looking back on this scene distances us incredibly from the kid Karl who we’re supposed to be bonding with. It gives this scene an echoy, dreamy feeling, as intended, but that also makes it more difficult to grasp on to something in this scene and emote. I also don’t know why the writer called special attention to the fact that Karl isn’t sure it’s her train. Isn’t it? Or will this detail become important later? If it’s not, don’t mention it… it raises unnecessary questions.

Suddenly Karl’s mother seemed to be vanishing before his eyes. As he looked at her smiling down at him with her suitcase in her hand, it was as if she was at the end of a long tunnel. Karl was convinced at that moment that he would never see her again.

This mixes the tension and, as a result, dilutes it. We’re supposed to be focusing on Karl’s dad in this ominous bit of scene, but now he’s worrying about his mom. Which is it? Be careful of ruining the effect by dividing our focus. (This is a note for the whole beginning actually. He starts talking about his dad, then he’s talking about how much he loves his mom. Then there are danger signals for dad again, then back to mom. Focus.) And we do still feel distant. If you use the same analogy of the long tunnel, that’s actually how the reader feels when we’re looking at the character of Karl. We’ve gotten little interiority (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations that happen in the moment or as a reaction to the moment) from him so far.

***

The thing I want to ask the author here is — what perspective is this story told from? From Karl, the kid’s? Or from an adult Karl, looking back on his childhood? The thoughts and feelings an adult has about their childhood will be interesting to one group of people and one group of people only: adults. That’s where these types of stories are shelved in the bookstore. They are not kidlit.

If you want to write a children’s books, first, raise Karl’s age. This seems like a heavy story. Readers want main characters who are one or two years older than they are, so right now, you’d be targeting 6 to 8 year olds. That doens’t seem appropriate. Make Karl 12 or 13 to get the middle grade audience, or 15-17 for the YA audience. And tell the story through his experience of it IN THE MOMENT, not looking back from adulthood. Really get into Karl’s head then and there.

Even if Karl “right now” is 16 and looking back on when he’s 8, that’s still splitting your audience. You’ll always be alienating half of them. Eight year-olds won’t want to read about 16 y.o. Karl because that’s far outside their experience. Sixteen year-olds will think 8 y.o. Karl’s experience is babyish. That’s why you don’t see books with a wide age gap between characters in kidlit, because kids like to read about characters who are close to their own age. Where would booksellers shelve a book with both an 8 y.o. and a 16 y.o. version of your character? MG? Then you lose YA readers. YA? Then you lose MG. Bookstores won’t build a special shelf just for you.

So pick one age, bring the reader close to it and really delve into that person — at that age — and their experience of the story.

If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, you’re writing an adult book with a retrospective on childhood instead of a children’s book.