Agent Monday: What this Agent Does and Does Not Want

pumpkinsHappy Agent Monday everyone!  Here in the Northeast it’s a crisp glittering fall morning, the kind of weather that makes you feel you can really take on the world. If you writers are feeling the same, you may feel that extra zing of energy to send out some queries to agents for your latest work. Good for you!  For some help in this department, I thought I’d bring you up to speed on what I do and do not want…

susan-coventry-200But first of all, I want to send out a huge welcome to my newest client, author Susan Coventry!  Susan’s debut was the historical YA The Queen’s Daughter (Holt), which nabbed the 2011 Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year honor. She caught my attention with an unusual manuscript that’s a retelling of the little known Arthurian courtly love story about Enide and Erec. It’s vivid, sharp, witty and fresh. Basically, it’s a cross between The Princess Bride and The Once and Future King (which, if you don’t know, is one of my favorite books EVER).  So I lift a mug of mead (okay, it’s coffee) to Susan in welcome. I’m so thrilled to represent her.

So, back to the land of queries… I spent several hours this weekend reading through my inbox. For those of you waiting on responses, I’m up to queries received on August 1st. (Yeah, there are still a lot more after that, but I DO read them all and answer them all.)

*If you sent a query before this date and never got a response, that means you broke a cardinal rule and were therefore deleted without a reply. Deletable offenses include: mass-mailed queries that aren’t addressed to me, titled things like Dear Sir or Madam, or with no greeting at all…Attaching your query (I won’t open query attachments from people I don’t know)… Openly offensive or rude statements in your query…

*Also, if you see on something like Query Tracker that I have a response time for some folk of like a day or a week, and yours has been sitting around for a month or two, don’t despair. I do like to breeze through queries as they spill in for a quick look – and if something is clearly a no – I’ll zap back a form rejection. If something is a zowie-gotta-look-at-that-immediately query, I’ll request the full right away…otherwise it goes into the queue for later.  And, yes, I have acquired clients from that “later” queue…

Okay, then… What I do and do not want.  Please read my guidelines, people.  You can find them here and also on the agency website.

MP900308953Some things I do NOT want:
- Genre fiction. I’m not a fan at all, so please do not send me your sci fi, romance, high fantasy, or horror novels.
- Extreme violence and gore. HATE that. Please do not send me violent serial killer novels, or slasher books, or blood-soaked stories whether fiction or memoir.
- Horsey books. Confession? I’ve always been afraid of horses – I’m pretty sure they were put on this earth to bite my face off. Needless to say, I never “got” the girl obsession with horses, so if your book is about that? You’re neighing at the wrong agent. ;)
- Things I’ve seen way too many times before. I’m over paranormal romance, dystopian, I never “got” zombies (bite off my face thing again?), or werewolves or stuff like that.
- Things that feel too much like something else. I get a lot of almost fan-fiction-like novels. They aren’t in the same world as the original, but change a few names and it’s the same story.
- Memoirs that are mainly a sad retelling of something that happened in your life. Divorce. A cheating husband. A common illness. The death of a loved one. While I can feel compassion for these writers, I’m looking for something a bit different in a memoir.
- Memoirs that are mere nostalgia, or a telling of a fairly common experience. I get a lot of memoirs that feel like an older person who has decided to chronicle their life for posterity — this may be a lovely gift to pass on to your family, but it’s not a commercial product in my eyes. I also get a lot of “wow, I went on this trip,” or “wow, I went to college,” or “wow, I worked a lot of strange jobs” memoirs — to me, this is just life, and not remarkable enough for others to buy and read.
- What they are now calling “sick-lit,” inspired by The Fault in Our Stars success. I’m not interested in “someone is dying” as the theme driving a YA or women’s novel. It feels a bit too overwrought to me, and there needs to be a lot more to the plot for my taste.

Young Girl ReadingOkay, so what DO I want?
- Something fresh and original with a recognizable voice.
- Something that moves me to laugh or cry or both without being sappy or stupid.
- Something that takes me somewhere I’ve never been before, or shows me something in a brand new light.
- Something with a hook, meaning it has an understandable and unique theme and conflict, and a clear audience.
- While I don’t DO romance, I’m open to romantic themes in YA and women’s fiction — just please don’t make it predictable or the heroine shallow and all about the guy! Also, what IS it with guys who have green eyes and a crooked smile? Jeesh! Is this every girl’s fantasy or something? (To those guys out there with green eyes and a crooked smile, be on your guard for rampaging women…You have been warned.)
- SMART women’s fiction that can become the next great chick flick — and that is NOT just a rehashing of Bridget Jones, Stephanie Plum, Shopaholic, Sex in the City.
- A YA that is smart and real ala Sarah Dessen.
- Brilliant writing that is accessible. I’m not one for literary fiction with a meandering plot, but I adore gorgeous writing.
- Strong characterization. I’m not one for merely plot driven fiction. I need to care.
- Hilarious and moving middle grade.
- I’m open to elements of fantasy, a fun or moving ghost story, I love the shivers (without blood, please). But DON’T give me genre writing.
- Diversity, but only if it is genuine and intrinsic to your story.
- Memoirs that bring more to the table. Incredible voice, unusual humor, revelations for readers, a takeaway for readers, real heart, a truly unique inside peek at something…
- Books that leave a lasting impression. 

Take a look at my client list here. You’ll see a range of people who are very serious about their craft. You’ll see that their ideas are unique, and that their books stand out on the shelf as something fresh. Read their work and you’ll see their voices jumping off the page.

And if you have these qualities, I definitely want to see your query!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: Twenty Turn Offs

Farmers Asleep in the HayHappy Labor Day everyone! Hope you do something restful today. We all work so hard – a break is definitely in order. Today, as we honor work, I thought I’d offer up a post on things that are not working for me in many of the queries and manuscripts I’ve received. The hope is that this will help you all be more productive and efficient in the future. Because queries to me include the first 20 pages of a manuscript pasted in, thought I’d list 20, count ‘em, 20 turn offs. Here goes:

1. Misspellings, poor grammar, and misused punctuation.
2. Purple prose. Manuscripts that wax poetic about the fingers of dawn caressing the horizon, blah blah blah.
3. Mundane memoirs filled with “I took a trip,” “I have a weird family,” “I’m so cool and witty” stuff.
4. Manuscripts loaded with too much telling.
5. Queries that are full of unprofessional details – I have two cats. My husband is wonderful. I love shoes.
6. Dystopian stories – they all have this wall, and this underground society, and *cough cough* HUNGER GAMES *cough cough.*
7. Religious agendas or moral agendas.
8. Stories for children that talk down to kids.
9. Manuscripts for children written as if they were penned 100 years ago – as if the author has read only the classics and didn’t notice that kids and readers may have changed.
10. Manuscripts way over 100,000 words – especially children’s books!
11. Gore and extreme violence.  NOT FOR ME.
12. Manuscripts that are just like a popular book already out there, only with a twist. Please be original.
13. Predictable plot lines. If I can read the first two pages and know exactly what’s going to happen, then it’s not for me.
14. Romance novels. While I like a touch of romance in fiction, I do not represent genre romance.
15. Hate-filled points of view, whether in fiction or memoir.
16. I’m weary of vampires, werewolves, zombies, fairies. Not my thing.
17. Weary of the “teen finds out on her birthday that she has special powers and is central to fighting an otherworldly war” thing.
18. Writers who aren’t serious about being pros. The business of getting published is a business – not a hobby.
19. Boring writing. Some writing is just a slog to read.
20. Queries that are simply unclear.  If I read the query and find myself thinking, “Huh? This manuscript is about what???” – then I’m not going to even bother reading those 20 pages.

So that’s it! Twenty turn offs. So what DO I want? Well, you can read between the lines here. And look at my many past posts on this blog. Plus check out my guidelines here.

Wishing you all a very productive writerly fall.

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: Looking for Memorable Memoirs

Businesswoman standing on a ladder looking through binocularsHappy Agent Monday!  I know. I’ve been “away” for a while. That’s what the holidays plus a family round of the flu (wash your hands, people!), in addition to a heavy work load can do. Anyways…today I thought I’d chat about memoirs. And about why, though I’m interested in representing memoirs, I haven’t yet found one I want to champion.  The reason? I’m looking for memorable memoirs. And it seems they are a bit hard to find.

There are definitely different types of memoirs. There’s the famous person memoir, and plenty of war-hero memoirs. I group that as one sort. The interest in the market is high for this sort of project, for obvious reasons. Still, they need some meat to them. Something revealing or scandalous or whatever…

Then there’s the “gone through something extreme” memoir. Drug abuse, debilitating illness, horrific accidents, true tragedy. It’s heartbreaking some of the things I read about, and sometimes it’s plain old heartbreaking to tell that writer “no thanks.” But this isn’t the same thing as saying that the writer isn’t an amazing human being for overcoming terrible stuff. What the “no thanks” does mean is that the writing skills aren’t strong, or that the memoir isn’t laid out in an interesting way, or that the voice doesn’t draw the reader in. It means that, basically, I don’t feel it is at the level where I can sell it to a publisher. As tough as it sounds, an agent must view the memoir as a product to be sold.

Lastly, there’s the slice of life sort of memoir. This is the type that I get all the time. Too often I see people trying to sell me their memoirs about common things such as having a baby, or studying abroad, or going through a divorce, or parenting a surly child. These may have been monumental for the writer, but not exceptional for the average reader, and if nothing unusual is brought out in the book, the memoir isn’t of interest to the public. It needs something to distinguish itself from common experiences.

So what can make this slice of life sort of memoir soar? Incredible voice, amazing humor, sharp writing, gripping page turning pacing, unusual settings if possible, things like that…  How ’bout a memoir about a boy and his dog? Yawn, right?  Oh yeah? Perhaps you haven’t read Marley & Me. Here’s a slice of life memoir that could have been a serious yawn, but the writing and voice and pacing and emotions are spot on - something to keep in mind as you progress with your own memoir.

It’s important when plotting it out (yes, I said plotting :) ) to give the memoir a tight structure and to keep away from the trap that telling a real story presents – that of plodding along chronologically without regard to what’s most interesting. Keep a strong narrative thread throughout, even if it’s with interlocking essays. And in the process, if I learn something – bonus! Make the reader wonder “will she ever be able to finally xyz?” Like in the memoir Season to Taste, where an aspiring chef gets in an accident and loses her ability to smell and taste…will she ever get it back? Will she ever be able to realize her dream of being a chef? This question keeps you turning the pages.

So what am I looking for, exactly?  Something compelling. Something GREAT.  An example of a great memoir?: Angela’s Ashes. It has incredible voice, gripping hardship, unusual setting, heartbreak – the whole enchilada. Send me something on that level, and I’ll be VERY interested.

My inbox awaits…

 

Book Review: Navajos Wear Nikes

I just finished Navajos Wear Nikes  by Jim Kistofic (University of New Mexico Press) and I have the urge to start it again, it was that good. This is a memoir of a young boy who is transplanted from an ordinary life in Pittsburgh to an extraordinary life in the heart of a Navajo reservation.

You know a book is something special when you think about getting back to reading the next chapter during most of your busy day, and when you stay up late into the night to read just one more word. Kristofic takes you into a world that feels unvarnished.

He’s an outsider, a newcomer to the reservation as a young child, as are we who know nothing of this world. With the author, we are initiated into the foreign and the familiar. We wince with the pain of brutality, ache with his sorrows, and always throughout it all there is laughter. This is a place where the land shapes life, where bullying is all a part of making you a “Tough Noodle” and where an ancient culture blends in surprising ways with the modern world.  It’s revealing, enlightening and at times downright hysterical.

As we laugh at the narrator’s keen observations and at the original pranks that only kids on the reservation could possibly think of, we feel ourselves starting to fit in and understand.

Kristofic is a wise and witty narrator and I recommend this amazing memoir to anyone who is looking for a great read, for entertainment, and for words that will take them where they have never gone before. Read it for fun, include it in classrooms and libraries, and share it like a gift with others.

Truly an outstanding experience!

The Plot Sickens

Plot. Ugh! We writers need it to make our great ideas flow. Readers crave it…it’s what makes them turn pages, what creates tension, what makes them CARE about a book. But here’s a dirty little secret: many writers have a love-hate relationship with plotting. Mostly hate, really.

The Rebel Writers are (left to right) Damian McNicholl, Russ Allen, C.G. Bauer, Jeanne Denault, John Wirebach, David Jarret and Marie Lamba

I belong to an amazing novel critique group called The Rebel Writers.  (If you want to learn more about this group and our unique methods of critiquing long manuscripts, you can check out my article Plotting a Novel Group in Writer’s Digest Magazine by clicking here.) This month, our meeting was devoted to discussing plot. Our personal struggles with it, how it tends to bite us in the ass mid-way through our novels, how uncomfortable we are with artificially manufacturing it, and what the hell we can do to make sure our novels are tightly written starting right at the first draft. We came up with some interesting thoughts that I’d like to share…

All 6 of us were on hand for this meeting, offering a variety of perspectives. I’m a young adult author; Damian McNicholl is author of the critically acclaimed literary novel A Son Called Gabriel; C.G. (Chris) Bauer is author of the stunning debut horror novel Scars on the Face of God; Jeanne Denault is author of an amazing memoir about raising a son with Aspergers titled Sucking up Yellow Jackets – soon to be published by the UK publisher O Books; David Jarret writes historical novels and hysterical short stories, John Wirebach writes gritty crime and mystery novels, and Russ Allen writes literary novels.

C.G. Bauer's debut horror novel is "hotter than the flames of hell," says horror master Scott Nicholson

One thing we all acknowledged: we are uncomfortable with following plotting formulas and using step-by-step advice to plot novels. Here’s the thing: writing is an art. At least we writers hope so.  Art should flow, should be organic and original. Should be something new and exciting and enlightening.  We authors want to get to that spot of artistic originality in our completed works with every single bit of fiction that we create.

So imagine how a bunch of artists (put your nose in the air when you say that word) feel when they consider planning out their work of art on 3×5 cards or with post-its. When they think about following formulas in designing their novels… It feels so, so…artificial.

And herein lies the problem. Novels ARE artificial. And, as cheesy as it sounds, writers are manipulators. We use technique to create suspense, tricks to make cliff-hangers, melodrama to induce tears…if we are doing it well, then no one will even notice we are pulling the strings. And we need to be aware of these plotting techniques and embrace them on some level, don’t we?

So we Rebel Writers decided to take our noses out of the air and look around.  Pulp fiction writers use formulas. Soap opera writers use formulas. Many romance authors use formulas. So do television script writers. So do film writers. So, in fact, do many novelists. Maybe its time we face the facts: we can learn something from these folks!

Damian McNicholl's celebrated novel was a Book Sense Pick of the Year

Okay, so once we packed away our collective artistic snobbery, the info sharing really began to flow.  It was like a confessional of sorts, with each of us sharing our own secret plotting cheats.

Russ introduced us to a text called Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D., which outlines just over 50 plots, and argues that every story ever told was one of these plots.  We Rebels quickly found our own novels’ plots in the listings.  Humbling. Forget originality, right? All we have to do is pick one of these plots, and write a story…

We discussed our discomfort with this, but soon admitted that, yeah, it would be convenient to know the sort of story we were writing before we embarked on months to years worth of actually writing it and uncovering our direction. And we all reassured ourselves that whatever we wrote would be distinct if we were true to our own voice and our own view of the world.  That’s the clincher, isn’t it?

Many of us swore by Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, which has exercises that ensure your novel has a sound structure, a strong subplot, tension on every page, etc. etc. etc.  John pointed out how focused movie script writers are in plotting, and how most scripts have a climactic moment on a certain page according to an understood formula. He recommended we look at books about treatments, including a book I have on my own shelf: Writing Treatments that Sell by Kenneth Atchity and Chi-Li Wong. Another favorite of the group is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. It follows myth and archetypes culled by folklorist Joseph Campbell in his incredible The Power of Myth, and applies the hero’s journey to plotting and structure. It’s phenomenal, and I used parts of this while plotting my newest young adult novel, Drawn. Jeanne shared how she used index cards to decipher the plot of one of her murder mysteries and to reorganize the plotting to fix a problem in its pacing.

I know, right about now you’re thinking: So if everyone has been secretly using all of these plot theories, what’s the big deal? What did the Rebel Writers actually learn here?  Well, every one of us have used these tools AFTER we wrote our novels. First we spent forever writing our monster works, then we sat down with our drafts and thought, hm, the middle is really slow, or huh, the ending just doesn’t do it, and we spent forever dissecting our works and fixing them by applying all of these plotting theories.

Jeanne Denault's stunning memoir about Aspergers

But wouldn’t it be nice to start out with a better sense of the structure and plot at the start? Wouldn’t that cut down on the length of time it would take to write a novel? Imagine how wonderful it would be to be able to create two novels a year vs. one every two years. And wouldn’t we enjoy our writing more if we didn’t have to agonize over our edits, going over the plotting and structure again and again and again? Wouldn’t our final work benefit?

We are all nodding now.  But still scepticism rears its ugly head. Can you really sit down and plan out a novel, plotting its structure, its twists, its climax and conclusion, and still come out with a work of art?  I’m about to find out. See, I’m also a member of the Bucks County Romance Writers, and will soon attend my very first plot party with them. They ask that each member bring a brand new novel idea not worked on yet, a pen, and a stack of stickees. At the end of the 6 (!) hour event, each person is supposed to leave with a completely plotted out novel, and all we’ll have to do is simply write it. Easy, right?

Can this possibly work? Can I come up with something fresh and original, yet plotted, with only stickee notes, my imagination and some strong plotting traditions? Can I then save time writing my novel, with my first draft being close to a final draft? Will I end up writing more novels and being more productive because of this? God, I hope so. Stay tuned…

I’m not complaining, but…

Right after I got my advance for my first novel What I Meant…, I wrote the following essay, and thought I’d post it here. You’ve heard of the Haves and the Have Nots, but are you a Have Barely Enougher? This essay is for all of us currently suffering in these tough economic times. We’re getting by, and grateful, but…

I am NOT Complaining, But…
by Marie Lamba
(copyright 2007 M. Lamba)

I am soaking in money from my book advance.

I know what you are thinking. That gloating skank. And I know what you are imagining. Me, naked, rolling around in a room full of $100 bills. You hate me, right?

Well, don’t be hating. I am naked. But that’s because I’m in a tub in a brand new bathroom funded by my book advance. And the new bathroom wasn’t some luxury. It was a necessity.

See, I am a living breathing example of “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” The very day I signed my contract for my first novel (giveth), I went to nuke some tea and found the microwave mysteriously full of water (taketh). The plumber ripped up the wall in the bathroom above the kitchen, but couldn’t find the leak (taketh, taketh). He ripped up the floor around the toilet and found it all rotted away, and later decided that the leak might be beneath the tile floor, involving the tub line. But he wasn’t sure. One thing was for sure, I needed a competely new bathroom, and my check for my book was just about the right amount (supreme taketh, combined with evil laughter).

My whole life has been like this. And, I know, I should be grateful.  Whenever something major has come up, there has been a freelance job or timely tax return that pays just the right amount. I suppose I should view the bathtub (or the microwave) as half full.

And I should be used to this. See, there are the Haves and the Have Nots, and then there’s my family, the “Have Barely Enoughers.” I come from a long exhausted line of them, starting with my grandmother who went from riches to rags during the Depression, then my parents, who dealt with unemployment during my father’s middle age.

In elementary school, I became a Have Barely Enougher in training. When the Lion’s Club delivered a Thanksgiving dinner to our door, there was turkey and rolls, but no pie. At Christmas they brought me wrapped presents, including a sweater that was too big, and pants that were too small. But they also gave me the game Payday (which, I’m sure, was someone’s good-natured way of teaching fiscal responsibility). By junior high, I was surviving the daily embarrassment of handing over state-provided meal tickets to the sneering cafeteria lady for hot lunches featuring gray mystery meat. I’d like to say I was grateful.

I couldn’t help but wonder, why me? Why my family? None of us were lazy. None of us were fiscally irresponsible. We just had bad luck. Medical and employment catastrophes dogged us. Yet through it all we never lost our house, or our sense of humor.

By the time I reached my 20′s, I was an accomplished Have Barely Enougher. My expectations were low, my skin thick. Therefore, it was no huge surprise when, after I got my first real job and put down money on an apartment, the company I was working for abruptly closed. Also not a shocker: the day after my insurance from that job ran out, I broke my leg.

Sure, there was a lot of taketh, but how could I complain? The Lord provide the the unemployment office, where I could collect money that almost covered basic bills. He gaveth me all the TV I could ever watch (until my apartment was broken into and my TV, along with most of my clothes, were stolen).

I’m in my 40s now, and I’ve gotten by. My whole family has. KNOCK ON TONS OF WOOD. Why ask for more? Just think of all those Have Nots.

And yet I can’t help but think, what if God skipped a few takeths just once in a while? Imagine if money actually got to stick around long enough to accumulate interest. The amount my husband and I earned and had to immediately spend over the past 25 years is staggering. What if there had never been a leaking roof (and rotted rafters), or zapped out electrical panel from a freak storm, or totaled car (not my fault), or emergency double root canal?

I sometimes fantasize I’m like those people, the Haves, whose cars are bigger than my living room, and who never have to limit shopping to end-of-season clearance racks. But if I were literally rolling in dough, wouldn’t I still drive a little car and be scandalized by overpriced jeans? Penny pinching is in my blood. Still, it would be nice to have money for my children’s college, or to take a vacation without fear of bankruptcy. I guess my luck could get worse (God forbid), but couldn’t it also get better?

Soon my novel will be out. Will it sell well enough to change things? Will it undo the generations of struggle and transform my family from Have Barely Enoughers to the best sort of Haves? The kind of Haves that wisely use money to improve the environment and find a cure for cancer? (Are you listening, God?)

Actually, I KNOW the book will sell. How can I be so sure? Well, let me put it this way…there are some wet spots blooming on my ceiling, the heater is acting up, there is a strange mold in my closet, and my tooth is just beginning to throb.