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Having More Than One Literary Agent for Different Books

At conferences, I used to get frequent questions about having more than one literary agent. This version of that question comes from Wendy:

I am looking for an agent for my YA fantasy novel. While researching, I cross the names off my list of those agents who state that they are not looking for picture books. I do this because I also write smaller stories that would make great picture books. My question is: If and when I find an agent and he/she does not want to take on my other stories or does not believe in them as strongly as I do, do I find another agent for these works? Do authors usually have multiple agents?

having more than one literary agent, multiple literary agents
While it probably won’t come to fisticuffs, having multiple literary agents in children’s publishing could get real hairy, real fast.

It Depends on the Agency

A lot of agencies who represent you for the children’s market will want to represent ALL of your work in those categories. (Eternal point of clarification: “middle grade” is not a “genre,” it is an “audience” or “category,” same with “picture book” and “young adult.” “Fantasy” or “contemporary” are genres. This is a vital distinction to make.) When I worked at Andrea Brown, this was definitely our MO. Since we all specialized in ALL children’s categories, from picture book to young adult, we took on clients writing for multiple audiences with the full confidence that we would be able to pitch their picture books as well as their gritty YA (as long as all were done very well, of course, per this previous post about writing in different genres). When I worked at Movable Type, I also expected to be a writer’s only children’s agent because I was the only person at the agency doing children’s books.

It Boils Down to Ownership

Suppose you have multiple literary agents for a picture book, a chapter book, and a middle grade book. (This is a pie in the sky scenario that assumes you write well in all three categories, used only as an example, and extremely unlikely.) What if you are working on a picture book property with an agent and they’ve invested a lot of revision and time. You go out on submission. All the editors say, “Wow, this is great, but it should really be longer and a chapter book.” Or you’ve written a middle grade and worked on it with your MG agent, and all the editors say, “Gee, this rocks, but your voice is a bit young. Can you age it down and make it a chapter book? We’d love to see it again!” This is when having more than one literary agent can get hairy.

Who Gets Compensated?

Your picture book or middle grade agent did a lot of work on the project and therefore they have a lot invested in selling the property and earning commission on it. But if you also have a chapter book agent, they would be the agreed-upon choice for selling the chapter book side of your portfolio. Again, this is a silly example, but you can see how easily you’d slip into a gray area and pit your multiple literary agents against one another if you had separate representatives for each category.

If you write for multiple audiences, rather than having more than one literary agent, you need to seek a representative who is confident in their abilities to submit to editors in all your desired categories, and, most importantly, who LOVES YOUR WORK in each category. If they are crazy about the YA and not the PBs, but you have your heart set on writing both, it might be very difficult to walk away but it might save you some heartbreak down the line (them saying, “I just took you on for this YA and, really, I don’t know if these PBs will go anywhere.”) They might be totally correct in their assessment, but you had your heart set on being a PB author as well as a YA author, so that might leave you in a tight spot.

Having More Than One Literary Agent is Okay When…

For example, you also write adult (and you can have an adult book agent either at the same agency or a different one) or screenplays (another agent or manager there). Those divisions are much clearer than the divisions between kidlit categories. As long as all agents know about one another and each agency contract is written in such a way that permits having more than one literary agent, I don’t see that being a problem. But within children’s books–a very tiny world where all the editors usually acquire for multiple audiences and everyone knows one another–it could get really hairy, fast.

Are you ready to submit your work to agents? Hire me as your query letter editor and I’ll help you develop a strong pitch.

Selecting Your Picture Book Title

Just a quick post for my picture book readers: take care when selecting your picture book title. Of course, most children’s book titles change on the path to publication, so what you pick may or may not be set in stone. However, there are a few things I often see in slush that you’d do best to avoid.

picture book title, children's book titles
Choose your picture book title carefully.

Don’t Give Away the Ending in Your Picture Book Title

A picture book title like Josie Finds Her Cat is not great because I’m guessing that the main action of the plot is that Josie loses her cat and looks for it. While that’s a relatable conflict for a picture book and might keep reader attention, the ending is revealed in the title–she finds the cat!–and the manuscript loses all power because the reader never feels the tension of the conflict. Imagine a movie where someone has spoiled the ending–how much do you really care about all the stakes rising throughout if you know they’re going to be overcome? Sure, as adults, we can suspend our disbelief and follow a story, even if we know how it turns out, but picture book-age kids are a little less skillful at this.

Don’t Give Away the Lesson in Your Picture Book Title

A picture book title like Josie Learns to Share is poisonous on two counts. First, it suffers from the malaise I discussed above. The lesson is usually learned at the end, so this kind of title is a variation on a theme. Second, it makes me think that I’m going to have to suffer through some picture book lessons. As we know, that’s one of the biggest no-nos for today’s writers. If the entire point of your book is to bludgeon a kid over the head with the message that THEY MUST SHARE, then you don’t have a picture book for today’s market. If the story and the message are so entwined together that removing one kills the other, your idea is a nonstarter. A good picture book must be a wonderful story with a message carefully and subtly imparted as a result of the character’s growth. There cannot be a wise adult swooping in to deliver a last-page message, or a kid staring at the reader and saying, hollowly, like a Sunday school manners robot, “And so I learned that sharing is caring!” Picture books have evolved past that. If I get a sense that your book is going to be didactic from the title, I will be that much less excited to read it, and so will your audience.

Browse some of the children’s book titles being published today to see what’s on the shelves, then think outside the box of what you remember picture book titles being when you were growing up.

Are you worried that your picture book isn’t hitting the right note? Hire me as your picture book editor and I will help you stay on message while telling a great story.

Writing a Literary Adaptation

A quick question with a quick answer about writing a literary adaptation, whether you’re doing a PB or a YA novel inspired by a classic tale (folklore, Shakespeare, etc.). This comes from Randi:

Do you think the re-writing of a classic picture book with a different protagonist and different word choice, but with the same setting could be marketable or are the classics hands-off?

literary adaptation, writing an adaptation
If you’re writing an adaptation of a classic story, you need to add your own twist to it.

Add Value to Your Literary Adaptation

Every time you do a literary adaptation, you have to add value to it. Changing a few details around (this includes wording, names, location, time period) but keeping the story premise intact is just you letting the original do most of the work, so I don’t see the benefit. Anybody could do that, and publishers are looking to publish a creator and a voice that are unique. The best adaptations are INSPIRED by a classic but then go off in their own completely fresh directions.

A Twist on Cinderella

My favorite curve-ball example to give when people are talking about adapting classics is CINDER by Marissa Meyer. The original tale is, obviously, Cinderella, but this is a futuristic book where Cinderella is a cyborg working in a scrap heap in New Beijing and there’s an entire civilization of Lunar people. At least that’s what it was back when I read it as a manuscript. That is certainly much more impressive and imaginative than changing a few names and locations.

Let’s put it this way: If Marissa Meyer had not brought the core concept of CINDER to the Cinderella story, there would be no book. She didn’t just tinker with the original, she took the entire thing apart, repainted it, and put it back together her own way. A literary adaptation in today’s market takes nothing less.

Are you thinking of writing an adaptation? I’d love to be your developmental editor and help you workshop ideas for putting your own twist on a classic tale.

ZOE Takes NYC!

A few days ago, I posted about the amazing ZOE GETS READY by Bethanie Deeney Murguia, out now from the Arthur A. Levine imprint of Scholastic. Well, in some very exciting news, Scholastic has chosen Zoe to decorate the window of the Scholastic headquarters flagship store in SoHo for the next month, right on Broadway in New York City.

This was something that Bethanie Murguia simply had to see for herself, so we got together to take some pictures yesterday. She also signed stock at Books of Wonder on W 18th Street, and at the Scholastic Store itself, so if you are in the area and want a signed copy of ZOE, head on down before they’re gone. We were joined for a delightful series of meetings and for dinner by Cheryl Klein, ZOE’s editor. Scholastic even made stickers that let kids dress and redress Zoe in various outfits! Those have been sent to booksellers, so I hope you see some in the wild.

The first picture is Bethanie and me in front of the window, the second is all three of us proudly showing off a copy of ZOE. What an amazing opportunity! I’m very grateful for the support of the Scholastic team, and so happy that Bethanie was able to see her work displayed with such style. A fun bit of trivia: Zoe’s closet in the window features real clothes from Stella McCartney Kids!

Happy Release: ZOE GETS READY and Bethanie Murguia!

How completely inappropriate…I am late in announcing the release day for the amazing picture book ZOE GETS READY by Bethanie Deeney Murguia, out on May 1st from Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. It’s the story of a girl with big hopes for a day when she gets to choose her own outfit. But how can she make up her mind with so many possibilities in her closet? And just what kind of day will it be?

You can also watch the YouTube trailer for the book here:

I’m going to bring you another super cool picture of the team behind ZOE this week, but for now, get on over to your local independent bookstore and pick up your copy! If you are an online shopper, find it on Amazon or Indiebound. You can check out Bethanie’s website here. And don’t worry about falling in love with this spunky heroine and being left hanging…Scholastic will publish a follow-up ZOE book next year!

Juicing Your Story Turning Point

The story turning point for your main character is one of the most important elements in your fiction. If you can create that on your page, your audience’s involvement and investment cements forever. A lot of the time, climactic plot moments should rub up against these instances of deep personal change. When your character’s heart hardens, or softens. When one of their core defining values is broken down, or reinforced. When they make the most difficult decision of their lives. These instances are what great storytelling is made of.

story turning point, the turning point of a story
From the smallest changes of heart to the most important, I need to be able to point to the very instant on the page where your character turns a corner.

Exploit Your Story Turning Point

Sometimes, though, a change of heart just happens to a character. They don’t like someone and then, well, they wake up one day and feel differently and then the writer continues the plot from that new perspective. The only problem is, any story turning point is an Event-with-an-E. Or it deserves to be, because it has great power potential with readers. Just like you should put great care into approaching how to start a book, the turning point of a story is a hot spot that you absolutely must exploit.

The Turning Point Of A Story Should Be An Intentional Moment

From the smallest changes of heart to the most important, I need to be able to point to the very instant on the page where your character turns a corner. It will usually happen in reaction to something in your plot and be expressed mostly in Interiority (your character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions). After that, their new attitude or feeling about a person or situation will filter down and express itself in how they behave in scene and during the plot. But that moment when they see something differently has to be present.

I talk a lot more about the turning point of a story in my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit. For now, though, do go back and examine your character’s story turning point and make sure that you’re juicing every last bit of resonance from that moment. This goes double for picture books, where you have a lot less text to work with. Sure, real kids change their minds all the time, but fictional ones need to be very strongly motivated in order for their emotional logic to make sense to the youngest readers.

Hire my developmental editing services and I’ll help you make sure that those emotional turning points are present and intentional throughout your story.

SCBWI Central California Illustrator’s Day

On May 19th, I’m speaking to the wonderful group at the SCBWI Central California. This day of fun and learning is for picture book illustrators and authors, and it’s the first of its kind for this region. My talk will address both illustrators and writers and, even though it’s called Illustrators’ Day, I know that almost every picture book writer I’ve ever read could learn a lot by thinking like an illustrator, so come one, come all!

Here’s the official information from the SCBWI:

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SCBWI California North/Central’s 1st Illustrators’ Day (for picture book authors, too!)
DATE: May 19, 2012
LOCATION/TIME: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Rancho Cordova City Hall, 2729 Prospect Park Drive, Sacramento 95670

Join us for an exciting day with inspiring presentations, a first look panel discussion, a promo card contest, and an optional oral portfolio critique (extra charge). Our featured speakers include:

Rotem Moscovich, the brilliant editor/art director with Disney/Hyperion
Ashley Wolff, the talented author/illustrator of Miss Bindergarten and Stella and Roy fame
Mary Kole, the wonderful Andrea Brown Literary Agent based in New York

Member: $85
Non-Member: $90

The day includes:

Promo Postcard Contest (entries due May 1st)
First Look Panel Discussion (entries due May 1st)
Portfolio Display (bring your portfolio on conference day)
Nurturing Portfolio Critiques (an additional $35)

The talks at the conference will be the following:

Gestalt, or 1+1= More: Words and Pictures in Picturebooks
Rotem Moscovich, Disney/Hyperion
We’ll take apart the elements of a picture book, including pacing, page turns, and structure. Looking at examples together, we’ll discuss how the two main components—illustrations and text—work together to create more than a whole.

Creating in Words and Pictures: How to Craft Successful Picture Books
Mary Kole, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
A talk for picture book writers and illustrators that focuses on hook, story, character, voice, thinking like an illustrator for writers, thinking like a writer for illustrators, and how to write picture books that prevail in this challenging market.

Author, editor, illustrator, art director–A Book Has Many Parents
Ashley Wolff, author/illustrator
The only names on the jacket are the author and illustrator, but It takes a (small) village to make a book. I’ll look back at memorable collaborations over a 30 year career.

REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN, so click here to sign up.

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If you’re a picture book writer and anywhere near Sacramento on May 19th, I hope to see you there!

Writing a Fantasy Picture Book

I’ve been seeing a lot of fantasy picture book manuscripts that are what I’ll call Flight of Imagination. A kid is either dreaming or out playing and the plot of the book deals with them having an adventure based largely in their imagination.

fantasy picture book, books about imagination
Books about imagination should include more substance than simply the fruits of a child’s fantasy playtime.

An Example of an Ineffective Fantasy Picture Book Premise

Johnny headed out into his backyard…

…only it turned into a swamp full of menacing alligators!

And this continues for the duration of the fantasy picture book, until Johnny is safe and snug at last, back in the real world.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this type of story. In fact, my brilliant client Bethanie Murguia makes great use of a child’s active imagination in her upcoming picture book ZOE GETS READY, out from Scholastic in a few weeks. But books about imagination should include more substance than simply the fruits of a child’s fantasy playtime. Imagination is a sales hook and a universal element for picture books, but it shouldn’t be the only one.

Most of the stories I see have great whimsy–Johnny’s backyard may turn first into a swamp, then into an ancient Egyptian tomb, then into a spaceship–but that’s almost a problem. They tend to be too specific. One kid’s imagination played out. A character who, other than his big imagination, is not well-defined. And they tend to invite clichés in terms of illustration because you’re practically forcing your art talent to illustrate the imagined scenes as if they were illustrating the contents of thought bubbles, which is a tired old trope.

Other People’s Dreams Are Not Interesting

This is basically how I like to explain my problem with these stories: Other people’s dreams are not interesting. Imagine your best friend calling you up one morning and telling you about this crazy, whimsical dream she had. It’s full of crazy adventures and really specific fantastical creatures and it is a thrill ride…for her. I find my own dreams interesting, but that’s because they’re specific to me. I am not nearly as captivated by a purely imaginative thrill ride through another person’s subconscious. If that’s all there is, then I’m less likely to be interested.

Now, it’s not like you can’t have books about imagination that center around flights of fancy. We’d lose brilliant books like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE if that were the case. But there need to be other layers in play, and an actual story within the imagined landscape, not just an episodic barrage of images or crazy adventures. Characters need to be fleshed out. A plot needs to be in motion, with sequential events that go from conflict to climax. Other themes and universal childhood experiences need to be embedded within the fantasy picture book. (If you’re just starting out, follow the link for a primer on how to write a picture book.)

For this reason, books about imagination are a tougher row to hoe than most. Just like A Day in the Life picture books, that follow a kid from morning to bedtime and showcase the family, pets, and favorite toys. Neither has an inherent plot and, in this market, that’s a losing proposition. Look at your fantasy picture book objectively and see if it suffers from this colorful–but nonetheless problematic–issue.

ETA: Wendy’s comment, below, is particularly astute. And a lot more succinct than this blog post. Go read that instead! 🙂

Let’s dig into your own fantasy picture book project. Hire me as your picture book editor and get advice customized to your manuscript.

Picture Book Alliteration

Picture book alliteration always annoys. Just kidding! Well, not always, but it’s getting there. Why? Because this is such a common technique that amateur writers use, so the overall quality is lacking. I’ve been thinking a lot about alliteration picture books recently, after working with a lot of picture book clients. Here are some more nuanced thoughts on the topic.

alliteration in picture books, alliteration writing, alliterative writing, alliteration, alliteration children's books, alliteration kid's books
The best picture books are fresh and vibrant, and alliteration dates a manuscript.

Picture Book Alliteration Is Overdone

This post isn’t inspired by any one picture book manuscript from that batch (so don’t worry, students, I’m not talking about one of you in particular)…and that’s the problem. One of my growing pet peeves about picture book writers (and their imaginations) is alliteration. You’ll often find alliteration in rhyming picture books.

Gosh, I have a lot of pet peeves, I know. But I sit here and read manuscripts all day. That’s what I do. Tens of thousands of them. And so I see a lot of common trends and writer mistakes that I know you don’t because you don’t read nearly as many different potential books as I do. It’s an issue of context.

A lot of people seem to think that the bulk of their characterizing work or word choice craft in picture books comes down to alliterating. And that’s it. Just name him Sammy Skunk and kick up your feet because your work here is done! Right? Not quite. And “Sammy Skunk skips smilingly down the springtime sage-speckled slope” is all you have to do in order to nail that pesky concept of voice! Right? Again…not really.

Alliteration Doesn’t Add As Much As You Think to a Picture Book Manuscript

But more and more, I get alliteration picture book submissions that lean way too heavily on alliteration in order to “accomplish” (so thinks their author) both character and voice. It’s a lot like rhyme. A lot of writers remember rhyme in picture books, so they think they have to write in rhyme. A lot of writers see picture book alliteration on the shelves, so they alliterate. Both cause scribes to contort themselves into a type of sentence pretzel of unnatural language.

In rhyme, writers adopt an almost Victorian syntax in order to make sure they end on the right word. In alliteration picture books, word order also tends to sound unnatural because you’re letting the first letter dictate your word choice. This blog post has a terrible opening line. “Alliteration always annoys.” Nobody talks like that! It doesn’t sound organic! But I had to in order to shoehorn some alliteration in there, and the writers in my slush perpetrate a lot worse in order to stay consistent at the expense of meaning.

So instead of lending you a coveted voice, picture book alliteration makes you sound contrived in most cases. And if I see another cutesy alliterative character name, I will scream. Aim for more sophistication in your writing, especially for the picture book audience. That will set you way, way, way above and beyond the rest of the slush.

Picture books are some of my favorite manuscripts to work on. If you’re using alliteration (or other cliché techniques) but suspect you could do better, hire me as your picture book editor. We’ll figure out your unique writing voice.

Wise Words About Picture Books and Contest!

One of my very favorite picture book writers, Amy Krouse Rosenthal (LITTLE HOOT, DUCK! RABBIT!, and many more) gave an interview in the 2012 CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET book that I would love to excerpt here the day before my picture book webinar at 1 p.m. Eastern tomorrow, January 12th, which is still open for registration. As a reminder, you will get a 90-minute craft intensive talk on picture books, the opportunity to ask all the questions you have (every question gets answered, either live during the presentation or in an email afterward), and a critique of one picture book manuscript (up to 1,000 words in length).

During the webinar, I’ll talk about how to find the right hooks and universality to really make your picture books marketable on today’s shelves. I’ll also talk about the writer and illustrator relationship in publishing, as well as how writers need to think more like illustrators (and vice versa) in order to come up with truly successful picture book projects.

This excerpt features Rosenthal’s thoughts on finding just the right book idea, as well as working together with an illustrator and how that creative collaboration takes her work to new heights. Read on:

“When my kids were small, there were countless stories told. Often for the boys, I’d tell them stories about dinosaurs, monsters or something in a cape—all these nonsense stories they loved. Ninety-nine percent of the stories I made up for my kids were nonsensical things. But once in a while there was some kind of cool stuff. You have to tell one thousand bad ones to get to the one good one.”

Rosenthal says finding that one good one amidst all the others is a little bit like dating. “When a relationship isn’t right, even if you think I know this is going to work out, he’s really cute, it always has some convoluted glitch—this non-fluid, non-seamless barrage of obstacles. But true love is this flawless, shiny, perfectly smooth thing, at least in the beginning. When I’m writing something, I’m coming at it from a number of different angles. With the ones that end up working, everything falls into place more fluidly.”

That feeling of fluidity can also come from working well with an illustrator. For one of her most recent books, Plant a Kiss (which explores what might grow if you, quite literally, planted a kiss), Rosenthal worked closely with illustrator Peter Reynolds to develop the vision and feel of the book—a process she says has “been a dream.” Not only was it a chance for her to work with one of her favorite artists, but she was thrilled with the vision he brought to the book.

“When I started, I had mocked up the book with stick-figure illustrations. It was tidy, executed visually 100 percent. There was a moment of talk when we thought maybe the book should look like this. It was kind of cute. But thank goodness we reached out to Peter and he said yes. During the first conference call he said he’d send us some sketches. Later, I opened the document, and he had illustrated the entire book. And it was just this moment of ‘Oh my god, he nailed it.’ The characters are beautiful.”

With all of her picture books, Rosenthal has strived for this type of creative partnership. “I really value the collaboration. Oftentimes the writers are kept apart from the illustrator, but that paradigm never made sense to me. From the first ‘yes’ [for Little Pea and Cookies] I made the plea to be involved. I couldn’t imagine not doing it. The books gain so much by the writer and illustrator interacting.”

Interview excerpt of Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Meg Leder from 2012 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market (c) 2011 Writer’s Digest Books. All materials used by permission of F+W Media. All rights reserved

Now that you’ve heard one picture book creator’s thoughts, you can hear even more thoughts on the craft of PBs during the webinar. To sweeten the pot just a little bit, I am going to give away one more copy of CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET, edited by Chuck Sambuchino, but this contest is a quickie. You can enter in the comments below through 1 p.m. Eastern tomorrow (Thursday, January 12th). I will announce the winner during the webinar (and on the blog next week). If you are taking the webinar, do mention that in your entry. US residents only, please.

Forward this post around and let’s give away another copy of CWIM. Those picture writers out there registered for the webinar will hear more from me tomorrow afternoon!

For those blog readers wondering when I’ll get back to the craft posts here, those are coming up next week. It’s just that 2012 has so many exciting things going on right out of the gate that I have to spread the word. I’ll resume my regular programming once the Writer’s Digest Conference excitement dies down. I seriously can’t wait for this year’s conference. You can check out more details here, and be sure to email me if you still need a special $115 discount code!

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com