Writing Young Adult Romance: Crushes and Chemistry

On Monday, I talked about passion vs commercial fiction, and we’re going to continue the “love” theme today with a discussion about writing young adult romance. There’s one crush/love/relationship-related pet peeve I have, and I think I share it with everyone that’s read contemporary YA romance or characters like Bella Swan (or the related Anastasia Steele from 50 Shades of Grey). It’s this: a total lack of chemistry and genuine attraction.

writing young adult romance, ya romance
You’re writing young adult romance and love is in the air. But are you creating genuine chemistry between your characters?

YA romance is ridiculously popular. If you’ve ever heard me speak or listened to a webinar of mine, you know it’s because I think that teens lack the real life experience of true romance (the daring, self-sacrificing, all-consuming kind) and so they strive to live vicariously. Fiction and movies often provide teens with much bigger love fantasies than their daily prospects do–that guy asking you over to play Xbox, that girl texting all through dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. So good news if you’re writing YA romance: a big, romantic read is incredibly attractive.

Writing Young Adult Romance: Find the Chemistry

Speaking of which, most YA romance books are all about attraction. In other words, completely superficial. I can’t tell you the number of manuscripts (and, to a lesser extent, published books) that put two characters together whose only real reason for being in a “relationship” is that they find one another extremely hot. Hot is fine for an instant connection. Physical attraction makes us notice other people. But then the relationship has to evolve into something with a bit more substance. To make a believable love story, you need the initial spark, but also the moment when it turns into real emotions. You need those scenes where characters make true connections, where they dream up a future, where they live in the present. And those become part of a relationship’s shared history as the story progresses.

Many people who are writing young adult romance stop at the initial attraction. Every time a girl looks at her newly minted boyfriend, she thinks about how utterly hot he is. Not about an inside joke. Not about the way his feet smell kinda funny but she manages to find it charming. Not about how he always picks out the green M&Ms and gives them to her because he knows she likes it. She instead goes on and on about his sculpted cheekbones and soulful eyes and all manner of other such drivel.

Relationships are Like Characters

Writing YA romance that’s complex and conveys chemistry that’s NOT about physical characteristics is extremely difficult. But if you do it well, you have a vast and hungry audience waiting for you, as demonstrated by the Twilight success and now the more mainstream adult presence of 50 Shades of Grey. (Which, yes, I did hear a lot about at Bologna and finally managed to read…I won’t write anything more about it than that because my grandmother once told me, “If you don’t have anything nice to say…”)

Go back to every scene where your romantic leads interact. For every physical description, insert a thought about the present or future or a characterizing detail for the other character. Give us a bit of playful dialogue that shows us, rather than tells us, how the characters get along as people who are creating a bond. Don’t settle for attraction in the physical sense. Give us the moment when they fall in love–truly in love–on the page. We all know this instant, when our entire thinking shifts and things become magic. The impossible seems possible. Those stinky feet suddenly don’t matter.

Include Actions and Reactions

Love and attraction are also about action (er, not that kind quite yet). We behave differently toward our beloveds than we do toward anyone else. Love makes us selfless, crazy, impulsive, brave, vulnerable. How do your character’s actions toward their crushes change as the relationship progresses? How do those actions change the characters? The relationship? Make sure that every plot point and action between your lovers resonates emotionally to either build or break down (the course of true love never did run smooth) your Romeo and Juliet as people. This is all part of building that common relationship history.

When you’re writing young adult romance, here are some points to keep in mind: What plot point touches off the chemical reaction of love in your novel? What happens during? After? What does your character think about when they’re anywhere near their beloved? What do they do? This is the stuff you should be thinking about…not his sculpted cheekbones*.

* Though I just saw the Hunger Games movie** and…yeehaw! Check out the jawline on that Josh Hutcherson! (I feel a little old and cougar-y saying that about a 19-year-old.)

** With my mom, whose birthday is today. Happy Birthday, Mom!

Working on a young adult novel? YA is my favorite category and I’d love to be your young adult editor.

For Crying Out Loud: Writing Emotion Effectively

It’s my belief that the chief goal of writing fiction is to make a reader care — and writing emotion effectively is key to achieving that goal. Without that emotional investment, you’d be wasting even the most kick-butt plot and the most ingenious characters. Without an emotional connection, the rest of your hard work will never take off.

writing emotion, writing drama
If you want me to rise to serious emotions with your characters, I need a good reason to go there with them.

Give Me A Reason

That’s why I get frustrated with writers who expect me to rise to serious emotions without giving me a reason. A great example is writing emotion — intense emotion — in the first chapter, before I’ve had a chance to bond with the character. Let’s say the book opens with a funeral for the character’s father. They are a wreck, weeping all over the place, inconsolable. You’d think that a funeral scene would automatically elicit strong emotions in the reader, but you’d be wrong.

Simply writing drama doesn’t make a reader care. If I’m just meeting your character, I don’t know anything about them. And while funerals are sad, yes, and crying is sad, sure, I will not automatically match emotions just because they are presented on the page.

Writing Emotion Effectively Requires Interiority

Similarly, I don’t much like to see crying for crying’s sake. There are manuscripts I’ve read where the author seems to have lost all restraint when it comes to writing drama. Characters are screaming, raging, crying, laughing, and every other powerful emotion in between. But they fail to strike a chord. Why? Because rather than seeing those external displays of emotion, I’d rather know the exact thoughts that bring those tears about. Instead of saying, “She wept bitterly as they lowered the casket into the ground,” I’d prefer to read something like, “Of all things to think in this moment, she remembered the stupid joke birthday card she was planning on giving him next week, and how she’d never hear him laugh about it.” The thought that triggers the tears, whether it’s rational or completely random, like the above, is always much more powerful when you’re writing emotion. I know more about the character and her relationship to her now-dead father from the specific second example, and that makes me more invested. It helps me to form that emotional bond.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Another thing to think about, and this I borrow from Robert McKee and his scriptwriting Bible, STORY: The Law of Diminishing Returns. The first time you see something, it’s powerful and it gets your attention. Like a rip-roaring action sequence in a summer blockbuster. “Awesome,” you think, “that semi just totally just clipped that low-flying police helicopter,” or whatever. But if the movie keeps throwing insane chase sequences at you, they’re going to have less and less of an effect. This principle makes many things in life possible. Think about doctors. They may feel queasy digging into their first cadaver, but by the end of medical school, they’re mucking around in bodies like champs.

When you’re writing emotion, don’t hit your reader with intense feelings over and over again because you mistake this for making your audience care. If people aren’t attaching to your characters or their struggles, the answer isn’t to make them cry or rage more or more often, it’s to carefully choose your moments of high emotion, motivate them well, and really let us into the character’s experience.

Be Thoughtful And Intentional When Writing Emotion

Again, I’ve read many manuscripts (especially YA), where a vexed and emotional teen cries all the time, constantly flying off the handle. Instead of bringing me into that character’s world, the author’s attempt at writing drama turns me off, and keeps pushing me away the longer the tantrums continue.

We all are hard-wired to respond to emotions, but it’s the way in which you present those moments in your fiction that will make all the difference.

My manuscript critique services will help you write authentic emotion that prioritizes quality over quantity.

Immortality in Fiction and Writing Immortal Characters

“The Problem With Immortality in Fiction” doesn’t seem like a very real headline. The problem with immortality? What problem with immortality? I know that I, for one, would love to be immortal. *bares neck for any vampires that might happen by* But writing immortal characters has a few pitfalls. Read on.

immortality in fiction, writing immortal characters, writing immortality, novels about immortal characters
Calling all vampires: This neck is available. Kthnx.

But in fiction, immortality is a huge problem for stakes. If your characters are immortal, they can’t die, and therefore one of the worst things that could befall someone is out of the question. When your characters are immortal, stakes plummet.

High Stakes Situations are Difficult to Write

The same goes for scenarios that are larger than life. It’s very hard to wrap one’s mind around a global apocalypse, when you really think about it. Think about those charity ads for starving children. If we hear the same mind-numbing statistic of “XX million children are starving in the world,” it’s almost too much to process. And it doesn’t stir our hearts for long. But those ad campaigns that highlight a particular child in a particular place and tell us their story, those are the ones that engage us into putting a specific face on world poverty and hunger.

So if you have an immortal character running around screaming, “The world’s going to end! Gaaah!”…I don’t know if you’re going to get the kind of reader-hooking reaction you want. The stakes you say are present (death/end of the world) are too big, and therefore they start to mean nothing, after all.

How to Make High Stakes Believable, Even With Immortality in Fiction

Let’s say you are writing a story about an immortal character or the end of the world. Should you put down the quill and sulk because it’s hopeless? No. The trick is to build in a framework of things (probably people) that your character cares about more than life itself, and put them in very real and immediate danger that is much smaller, more menacing, and more specific than some malformed looming apocalypse.

Through your character’s relationships to these people and their willingness to risk all for what they really care about, we will start to get invested in their story. After all, immortality is one thing, and it’s pretty boring, turns out. But the event that threatens to make immortality shallow and meaningless for your character? That’s what I’m interested in. And an apocalypse isn’t scary to me because it’s too huge. But the thing your character can’t bear to leave undone before the world grinds to a halt? That’s what I want to see.

Writers keep hearing advice to up the stakes, but it is possible to make your stakes too high and impossible to care about. If that’s the problem you’re battling, give your characters other more immediate things to despair over.

Struggling with building believable stakes and tension. Hire me as your fiction editor and we can make sure your novel hits the right emotional notes to pull readers in.

New Adult and College-Aged YA Protagonists

If you’re interested in writing new adult or fiction with college-aged young adult protagonists, read on. This question comes from Christina Marie:

Should YA only be centered on high school aged characters or can a novel expand into the college years, mainly the freshman year, and still be considered a YA novel? Is it hard to sell a book that has the setting on a college campus instead of a private or high school setting? Personally, do you stray away from novels set for that age group and setting or do you wish you could see more of it in your inbox?

new adult, college aged young adult, young adult market, pitching young adult, how to write and publish young adult
Thinking of writing new adult or YA with a college-aged protagonist?

The whole “New Adult” “trend” that we all heard about on Twitter a year ago is the work of one imprint (St. Martin’s) at one publishing house (Macmillan). It has failed to take off. A few other publishers have tried to publish books with college-age protagonists, THE IVY out from Greenwillow comes to mind, but they’ve failed, in my opinion, to get traction.

Is New Adult a Real Category?

Just because we heard a lot about New Adult, it’s wishful thinking. There is a Middle Grade (sometimes called Independent Reader) shelf and a Young Adult shelf at most bookstores. There is no New Adult shelf, and they’re not sharpening their saws to build one anytime soon.

Imagine the difference between going to middle school and going to high school. Your world completely changes once you cross this threshold. Now imagine what a huge shift it is to go from high school to college. In high school, you’re worried about taking SATs or passing your driver’s test or making out with your girlfriend or boyfriend. If you fail a class, you are going to get grounded, because you still live at home.

The Problem With College-Aged Young Adult Protagonists

In college, you are on your own for likely the first time. The stakes are much higher, you don’t care about the SATs anymore, and you can drop a class without telling anyone. The choices you make don’t determine which college you’ll get into, they determine your career and the rest of your life as a real adult.

If I’m sixteen, I’m not going to be able to relate to the problems of a college-age kid, just because the frame of reference is so drastically different. It’s all about relatability. And that’s why I don’t think New Adult holds any water in this marketplace. I’m open to changing my mind but so far the evidence isn’t convincing. If I had my druthers, nobody would ever mention New Adult to me again until it was a real phenomenon, and I’m almost always skeptical of writers who simply have to set their YA novel during the college years.

Wondering where your novel idea fits in the marketplace? Market analysis is part of many of my editorial services.

Young Adult Fiction for Boys and the Male Protagonist Issue

Here is a question about young adult fiction for boys and the male protagonist in YA from Royce:

Is there any niche demand for stories for young adult male readers? Most of the agent profiles and marketplace news indicate demand for Distopian, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, etc., and most of the published books seems to appeal to teen girls.

young adult fiction for boys, male protagonist, boy YA, teen boy book, teen boy young adult, teen boy YA
Thinking of writing young adult fiction for boys? Here’s how the male protagonist factored into this market, and it may not be great.

Is There Really a Young Adult Fiction for Boys Market?

I don’t want to open a can of worms. So before I begin, let me say that there is The Way I Wish It Was, and The Way It Really Is, and What People Are Willing to Do to Bridge the Gap with the male protagonist issue in YA.

The Way I Wish It Was: Boys reading voraciously into their later teens, publishers publishing robust lists for these readers, teachers, booksellers, librarians, agents, and editors really excited about the market segment.

The Way It Really Is: There is not a robust market for YA contemporary realism, per se, compared to fantasy genres, and the market for a YA boy audience is dreadful because most boys in that age group have either stopped reading altogether in middle school or they’re up in adult fiction that they discovered around age 12 or 13.

Books marketed directly to teen boys don’t tend to do well and the YA section of the bookstore is so thoroughly steeped in paranormal romance and purple faces with female faces on them that I’d avoid it, too, if I was a self-respecting dude with money to burn from my first pizza delivery job. (More considerations of teen boy books here.)

How to Make the Male Protagonist Work in YA

While we all want to work hard to change that, that’s the reality right now, as I see it from many discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues. Unless yours is a boy character who appeals first and foremost to girl readers (John Green’s work), you will have a tougher time, as girls are the overwhelming audience in this age group. Through to You by Emily Hainsworth, features Cam, a boy protagonist who goes across parallel universes in the hopes of getting his girlfriend back. He’s a dude, and he’s the narrator, but the premise is thoroughly romantic and so will attract a lot of girl readers.

Other recent examples of boy characters tend to strongly feature female protagonists as well. So this puts the lie to the idea of “young adult fiction for boys,” because the closest we’re getting is “young adult fiction for both … but mostly girls.” Here, I’m thinking of The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon and All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.

If he was on a quest for, say, a cache of lost movies by a legendary horror movie director or a really awesome video game, I don’t think it would’ve sold because its market share with female YA readers would’ve evaporated. Though books like Ready Player One by Ernest Cline prove me wrong, but notice that it wasn’t published as YA.

What People Are Willing to Do to Bridge the Gap: Not terribly much in terms of actual action. There’s a lot of talking and blogging on the subject, though. But publishing is a business and, unless the YA boy-book-intended-primarily-for-boy-readers segment of the market starts taking off like, say, fallen angel romances, I don’t know how many editors will be able to put their houses’ money where their mouths are. (Or, if they do publish a good boy YA list, how often they will be able to add to it.)

There are great, great, great books that deserve boy reader attention. Feed by M.T. Anderson. The work of Steve Brezenoff, Barry Lyga, A.S. King, Ilsa J. Bick, Andrew Smith, and more. But either we’ve lost some faith in attracting these readers or the market really isn’t there. All I know is that a boy-targeted YA feels like a really tough sell.

If you’re writing a male protagonist, maybe your work can be slotted elsewhere. I can help you with market considerations as well as craft ideas as your developmental editor.

How to Create a Story Opening Line

Your story opening line is what pulls the reader in. Here are some of my favorite first lines from PB, MG and YA books. Some of these you’ve heard me read live. Others are recent releases or old favorites. Without any further ado, here’s an analysis of novel opening lines from published works and why they work so well.

story opening line, novel opening lines
Your story opening line has the power to draw your reader in. Are you making the most of it?

Story Opening Line: Picture Book

On the outside Bernadette was mostly monsterly.

This super cute beginning to MOSTLY MONSTERLY by Tammi Sauer, illo. Scott Magoon (Paula Wiseman Books, 2010) sets up the expectation that Bernadette (a monster) doesn’t quite fit in. There’s the old internal conflict established: I don’t match people’s expectations for me.

Little Mabel blew a bubble, and it caused a lot of trouble.

So begins BUBBLE TROUBLE by Margaret Mahy, illo. Polly Dunbar (Clarion Books, 2008). And, no, you don’t have to work the book’s title into your first line, though both of these examples have. This is a very simple statement of conflict that, in picture books, at least, works very, very well to launch us into the story.

On her birthday, Eva was given a very special present.

This is from MAGIC BOX by Katie Cleminson (Hyperion, 2009). It’s a whimsical PB tale and the first line isn’t a statement of conflict as much as it is a call to adventure (see my choice from FROM THE MIXED UP FILES… below for a MG example). The question raised here, of course, is: What was in the box?

Story Opening Line: Middle Grade

Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.

From A TALE DARK AND GRIMM by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton, 2010). This is a book of twisted fairy tales where the author basically runs amok with the story of Hansel and Gretel. The whole thesis of the book is expressed in the opening line: “They were awesome, sure, but then they got lame, so here’s a truly awesome retelling.” It also plays with the familiar “once upon a time” and introduces the voice (“awesome” is a certain term spoken by a certain type of person…me, for example).

I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.

Since you were probably expecting me to quote from the M.T. Anderson canon with FEED (the first line of which most of us children’s publishing professionals have memorized), I decided to change it up a bit with THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME 1 (Candlewick, 2006). There’s some lovely writing here, and a ghostly image of lights in the trees that recurs. We can also sense, right away, Octavian’s loneliness. The house is “gaunt,” which doesn’t seem very nourishing to a child, and his first memories aren’t people, they’re faraway twinkles in the treetops. A haunting first line.

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.

This is from the old favorite, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg (Aladdin, 1967). It plunges us into a) action and b) the narrator’s matter-of fact voice right away. We know that Claudia is running away, but also that she’s craving an adventure that’s much more epic than just, say, what I used to do when I mock ran away as a kid (went down the street to Kepler’s bookstore). Lots of action and momentum here. (And boy does Claudia ever pull off her goal of adventure!)

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.

Louis Sachar and his Newbery-winning HOLES (Random House, 1998) hit us with trademark humor right away. No matter what happens from here, we know that we’re in for a zany ride. But rather than just being funny, this first line introduces us to the kind of contrarian narrator who would point out such a delicious detail, too.

Ms. McMartin was definitely dead.

This is from THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE by Jacqueline West (Dial, 2010) and it plunges us into action right away, too. Who is this woman? How did she die? Did the characters have anything to do with it? It doesn’t really hint at the fantasy nature of the novel and doesn’t really pass the vague test (follow the link for more tips on what makes a good novel first line), but I like this book and it starts with a bang!

Story Opening Line: Young Adult

In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.

This is, of course, from GRACELING by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt, 2008). What is Katsa doing in prison? What did she do to get there? Better yet, it seems like she has a plan to get out. And how come she knows the dungeon layout so well? This plunges us into action and raises stakes immediately. Pay attention to all the questions each of these novel opening lines have been raising. They’re intense and urgent.

They took me in my nightgown.

This is from the beautiful BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel, 2011), about a girl deported with her family to Siberia during WWII. Not only does it give us action, but it also conveys a crucial mood for the events: helplessness. By emphasizing that it was night, that she was in her nightgown and vulnerable, we really lock in on an emotional connection right away.

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.

Ha! I love this first line from THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness (Candlewick, 2008). And Manchee (the dog) is one of my favorite characters in anything I’ve read in the past ten years. This line introduces the core relationship of the story, the dialect, and the odd fact that, in this world, at least, dogs talk (in terms of world-building, this lets us know there’s a fantasy element). The humor can’t be beat, either.

There you have it: an analysis of novel opening lines, grabbed at random from my shelves. Enjoy and discuss! Tell me some of your published favorites in the comments.

When you hire me as your children’s book editor, I’ll give you feedback on all aspects of your story: from the overall plot to the nitty-gritty of your story opening line.

Writing Young Adult Fiction: the High School Hierarchy

A very interesting conversation about writing young adult fiction happened in one of my workshop groups during this past weekend’s Big Sur conference. One participant had painted a character very vividly in his particular high school environment, to the point where everyone in the group knew exactly where this character belonged on the social ladder. But that wasn’t the unique part.

writing young adult fiction, writing about high school
Writing about high school: are you conveying the social climate without the usual telling?

Writing Young Adult Fiction: Show, Don’t Tell

The refreshing thing was that this character never lamented his nerd status, he never described his clothes in a way that hinted to us that he was (let’s face it) a loser, he didn’t go into any detail about how out-of-reach the popular kids were. He just went about his business, thought his thoughts, and through the author’s scenework and his interactions with others, we got perfect context for where he lived in the high school hierarchy. But never once (in my recollection) did he come out and tell us exactly where he did or didn’t fit in.

Some of you reading are like: Yeah. We get it. Show, don’t tell. Right. But writing young adult fiction that touches on the teenage social order is a particular issue where “show, don’t tell” is even more relevant. The pecking order is present in every school, in every group of kids or teens, and, as one person from our group said quite well, everyone always knows, at a glance, what the deal is. Kids know their place and the place of everyone around them. It’s as innate to teens, as instant and unconscious as breathing. Now, this isn’t a blog post about whether that’s right or wrong or how damaging it is to the development of our social mores. The fact is: it’s true. So if we’re writing about high school, how do we reflect it in a way that’s believable?

The Tired Run-Down of the Social Scene

Most people who are writing young adult fiction include a run-down of the social scene. This usually happens in the first chapter for stories set primarily in school and within the first 30 pages for stories that don’t immediately need to put us in a popularity context with the character’s peers. The character will be walking down the hall and commenting on

the Goths, with their black eyeliner, the emo kids sulking into their genderless thrift store cardigans, the cheerleaders puffing out their push-up bra-enhanced chests at the jocks, who are crushing soda cans on their foreheads and emitting caveman grunts…

Etc. Etc. Etc. I have read this list in probably every well-meaning YA manuscript and many published books. The thing is, most YA readers will know the high school archetypes. They don’t need some thirtysomething (and, lest anyone get offended, let me repeat, again, well-meaning) writing about high school in such detail. Most writers include this obligatory run-down for their own sake, to get the lay of their land and to put themselves back into the high school mindset as they write.

Sublimate the Atmosphere

So when we’re writing young adult fiction, how do we convey this atmosphere more organically? How do we sublimate it without the usual telling, without the list of the school’s cliques? I’d love to hear some examples in the comments of books that you think paint a social picture without being too obvious about it. One great exception to the tried-and-true high school hierarchy descriptions, fresh in my mind because I recently reread it, is BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver.

The main character, Sam Kingston, is a popular girl, and a bitchy one, at that, but Oliver describes Sam’s unique take on the social hierarchy in a fresh and very voice-driven way. There’s also a lot of tension inherent in the story premise, so whenever Sam describes her peer group, there’s something working beneath the surface, also. So Oliver doesn’t necessarily get away without any telling, but this is one instance where it worked for me.

Examples, Anyone?

However, I’m also looking for your thoughts on writing about high school that avoids talking about the social structure altogether. And here’s the kicker — it still manages to convey the character’s rightful place and all the longing and disappointments and hopes that the high school caste system inevitably inspires. Any thoughts on the subject, readers? Bueller?

Working on a young adult novel? YA is my favorite category and I’d love to be your young adult editor.

Beta Reader Opinions: Do They Matter to Agents?

This question about beta reader opinions comes from my Writers Digest webinar. The reader asks:

I recently conducted a focus group made up of 68 teenagers (male & female between the ages of 13-18). I had them read my manuscript and complete an anonymous survey at the end. I received many wonderful comments and scored an 8.5 on a scale of 1-10. Should I mention this in my query to agents or not?

beta reader, focus group
The average child or teen who reads maybe a few dozen books a year will see something and think it’s pretty good because, well, why not? They don’t really have to be all that picky and entertainment is entertainment.

An Agent’s First Customer Isn’t A Beta Reader

The writer has done a lot of work to gather beta reader opinions, which is always admirable. But does it matter? Will it sway my decision? Not really. Why? Because an agent’s first customers in publishing aren’t teenagers. In the trade process, my customers are publishers: the editors bringing my manuscripts to acquisitions, the sales and marketing people evaluating the work’s sales potential, the finance guys upstairs crunching numbers (in the form of a P&L, a “profit and loss” statement) to determine whether the project makes good business sense to bring to market.

While teens are the “end user” in the YA publishing business, they’re not my first buyer. They’re not even a publisher’s first buyer. After a house buys one of my manuscripts, they will edit it and then pitch it to booksellers and librarians. Those are my customer’s customers. And it’s booksellers and librarians who will then reach out to the teens: my customer’s customers’ customers. So before an actual reader gets their hands on a book, it will have gone through several layers of gatekeepers and decision-makers.

The Trade Publishing Landscape is Business to Business

Is a B2B system that ignores its end-user in favor of a customer with more capital a good one? There are people who say that this is one of the things wrong with the publishing business model. Most publishers simply don’t collect beta reader feedback like this writer did for their manuscript. But while these questions and issues are definitely valid, this post isn’t an attempt to address them. And for now, that’s the way things are in the trade publishing landscape.

With the above in mind, I say that I don’t really care what a focus group of teenagers said about a manuscript. Because I’m going to be pitching this project to editors, not teenagers. And most readers who don’t work in publishing and don’t read as much as the people who work in publishing may not have the discerning taste of those who work in publishing, so they’ll usually rate random things pretty highly.

It’s All A Matter of Context

Agents and editors, who read thousands of manuscripts a year, can be picky and choose the best of the best because they’ve also read the worst of the worst and the meh-est of the mediocre. An average focus group is comprised of teens or kids who read maybe a few dozen books a year, and will see something and think it’s pretty good because, well, why not? They don’t really have to be all that picky and entertainment is entertainment.

This is also why I’m not a fan of sites like Inkpop and Authonomy. Sure, they’re sponsored by HarperCollins, and, sure, highly rated manuscripts posted there get some official Harper eyeballs on them (having spoken to a few of the people who are on duty to vet these manuscripts, I can tell you it’s less glamorous than described), but your chances of getting a book deal out of posting there are still about the same as your chances of going through the slush or self-publishing something that becomes an international bestseller.

Writers often come to me with beta reader praise or high ratings on these online writing communities. But since most kid readers and most online community participants don’t have the kind of context and standards that I have — and since they’re not my immediate customers, publishers are — I don’t really weigh their opinions heavily when making my decision. I know that I have to impress publishers first, then impress the reading public with the products that publishers create on my client’s behalf.

When It Comes To What I Represent, My Opinion Gets Top Billing

I’m an agent. A tastemaker. A gatekeeper. My unique opinion and judgement, after all, is why people come to me in the first place. (And if they don’t like my judgment, they can go to another agent.) My personal list is what I shop around to editors. Who I rep and what projects I attach my name to are a matter of my opinion. When I’m considering a project, that’s the only opinion that matters to me; not the opinion of a beta reader.

The best thing you can present to an agent is a polished manuscript. My editing services will help you make your project the best it can be before you go out on submission.

Story of a Sale: THROUGH TO YOU by Emily Hainsworth

These last few weeks have been very hectic for me for a wonderful reason! I just sold a really exciting deal for my debut author client Emily Hainsworth. As announced in Publisher’s Weekly a week ago, and in PM this week, THROUGH TO YOU and a second, untitled book, sold to Alessandra Balzer of Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, in a good deal, at auction.

(Photo credit: Matthew Lowery Photography)

Emily and I first made contact last summer, when she queried me with a YA. I read it twice, really loved her voice, but it wasn’t quite there yet. It had some issues and I didn’t know if I wanted to take Emily on without seeing some revision skills first. So I told her to go back into her writerly hidey-hole and return with her next project. She did. It was THROUGH TO YOU. A brilliant, high-concept premise paired perfectly with her strong, literary writing voice. Dreamboat! I fell out of my chair, read it the same day (a busy November Saturday in Chicago when I kept sneaking away from an event to read my Kindle in a locked bathroom stall…true story!), offered representation, and won the opportunity to work on this awesome book.

I gave Emily revision notes, she worked on it for about a month, sent it back, and then we were ready to go out in January. I drummed up some excitement by pitching to editors in person at ALA, then sent it out on Friday, January 14th. Here’s an excerpt from my pitch letter, where I positioned THROUGH TO YOU as a cross between BEFORE I FALL and THIRTEEN REASONS WHY:

The day grief-stricken high school senior Camden Pike sees a ghost is the day he assumes he’s finally lost it. For the last two months, he’s been torturing himself after walking away from the car accident that killed his girlfriend, Viv. She was the last good thing in his life: helping him rebuild his identity after an injury ended his football career, picking up the pieces when his home life shattered, healing his pain long after the drugs wore off. He’d give anything for one glimpse of her again. But now there’s a ghost at the accident site…and it isn’t Viv.

Cam quickly realizes the apparition, Nina, isn’t a ghost at all. She’s a girl from a parallel world, and in this world, Cam is the one who died, and Viv is alive and well. Cam’s wildest prayers have been answered and now all he can focus on is getting his girlfriend back, no matter the cost. But the accident isn’t the only new thing about this other world: Viv and Cam both made very different choices here that changed things between them. For all Cam’s love and longing, Viv isn’t exactly the same girl he remembers. Nina is keeping some dangerous secrets, too, and the window between the worlds is shrinking every day. As Cam comes to terms with who this Viv has become, and the part Nina played in his parallel story, he’s forced to choose–stay with Viv, or let her go–before the window closes between them once and for all.

I still get chills reading this synopsis, because the story really is that good. Luckily, I’m not the only one who thought so. One week after submission, we had our first offer. The next week, we went to auction. The same day I sent out auction rules, my hard-working foreign rights co-agent Taryn Fagerness closed a huge pre-empt from German publisher Goldmann. She sold Italy later that week. The next week we closed the auction and THROUGH TO YOU officially went to its home at Balzer + Bray.

There have been even more top secret developments for this book since then, but I figure this is great news for now. Emily (website, Twitter) has her own write-up of the experience here. And here’s what Alessandra Balzer, Emily’s new editor, has to say about reading THROUGH TO YOU for the first time:

When I read Mary’s description of THROUGH TO YOU, I thought — OK, this sounds very intriguing. A parallel reality is a hard thing to pull off in a convincing way, though, so I stayed a little wary. I started the manuscript and from the first page I immediately liked Cam’s voice and felt drawn in. But still, I wondered — how will this play out? Then, when Cam sees the girl by the site of the accident — I expected it to be his dead girlfriend. When it wasn’t — when it was actually a new character with secrets to reveal to Cam about his own life — that’s when I knew I was hooked. Emily has created so many great and unexpected twists and turns in this plot — you really don’t see what’s coming next. I also love the idea of choices in this novel — and how one bad turn can lead you down a path that you were never meant to be on.

We’re all thrilled with the success of THROUGH TO YOU so far, and hope you will pick it up and discover the twists, turns, thrills, and secrets for yourselves when the novel hits stores in Fall 2012!

WILDEFIRE Teaser: NYC Shenanigans

Yesterday was a wonderful day spent in NYC with my debut YA client Karsten Knight, whose novel, WILDEFIRE comes out on July 26th from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. We started the day off early with a breakfast sales and marketing meeting at S&S, walked around, introduced Karsten to the editorial and design staff, did a really cool promotion thing, went to lunch with Karsten’s editor and her fabulous assistant, then caught a movie (True Grit…awesome) to wrap-up the perfect day, before Karsten went off on yet another exciting meeting. I can’t share too much more about it, but here are some pictures to tide you over:

Karsten looking stoic in front of the S&S building.

Deep inside the S&S offices lurks a green, hand-eating tiger. Watch out!

What a truly satisfying day in the life of a literary agent, getting to accompany a client to a publisher that is doing such great things for a truly phenomenal book. Are there enough biased adjectives in that last sentence or what?