Agent Monday: So what’s the story?

Lee Harper - snowHappy Agent Monday!  Ready to dive into work after a long lazy holiday weekend? I’ll be meeting today with my client, fab author/illustrator Lee Harper. Lee is a master storyteller and artist. So today I thought I’d talk a little more about picture books. What I’m seeing – and NOT seeing in submissions from picture book authors who are sending me queries.  In one word: story. So what’s the story?

Here’s the thing about picture books: they’re short. I know. Duh, right? And that means two things. One – people might think they are easy to dash off. And, two – they are NOT easy to dash off because every single word really really really does matter. This is why I only take submissions from established picture book authors and illustrators, or on referral. Because otherwise I’ll be wading through a ton of manuscripts that lack craft because picture books are easy to write, right?

Trust me, picture books are complex entities. So complex, that even among the published folks who are sending me manuscripts now, I’m still surprised to find myself scratching my head and thinking, “Yeah, but what’s this book’s story?”

I’ll tell you what isn’t a story. A funny character. A cute observation. A lovely setting. Pretty turns of phrases. A rhythm. Silly language.

Ella up close!What is a story? Character plus conflict leading to some resolution. That means you can’t have an entire book based on, say, my dog Ella.  Ella is so silly. She barks at everything. She runs up and down the stairs. Her ears are really fuzzy…  But then?

So many picture book manuscripts I get have no “but then.” Like a: Ella always… But then… (uh oh, problem).  Now she must… (what?)

Picture books are stories. With arcs. A beginning, a middle and an end. A character meets a challenge and either changes or doesn’t, but something happens.

So your book can’t just be all: Ballet is pretty. Ballerinas are so graceful.  Pink tutus twirl. Toe shoes are silky.

Nope.

And it can’t be all: Mr. Pickle swims in pickle juice and is a pickle puss and sleeps on a hot dog bun at night. Silly Mr. Pickle!

Nope.

What’s the STORY????

Look at your favorite picture books (include recent ones, please). Sit in the library with a huge stack and see if you can answer these questions: What’s this book about? Who are the characters? What do they want? What is the problem? What happens as the character faces this challenge? What is the resolution?  Is there any tension?

Will you find exceptions? Sure. Somethings might be pure nonsense – and that requires a certain level of brilliance. But even those will have a rhythm, an arc, a building of layers and silliness with a payoff. And that’s a story arc too.

Picture books are story books. If you can’t find the answers to the above questions in your picture book manuscripts, then you might just find the key to how you can bring your ideas to a more complete level.

 

*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: Toss Me a Hook!

??????????????????????Happy Agent Monday, folks!  I’m back from a sun-soaked weekend filled with overdoing it in the yard work department. I’m a touch sun fried and sore, but what a great switch from those mounds of Northeast snow we had to dig out of… I also spent some time this weekend digging through queries filling my inbox, and some of them made me want to cry out: Writer, PLEASE toss me a hook!

Yup, today we are talking about hooks. See, sometimes I get queries with opening pages that are written beautifully, truly. But I find myself wondering what the story is about. Who is the audience? How the heck would I pitch it? These questions, if unanswered, make me worry that this book won’t fit into the marketplace. I’m a literary agent, and my job is to fit your work into the marketplace. So you see the problem.

It’s not just an agent issue, either. Just last week, I was chatting with an editor at one of the traditional publishing houses, asking her about what she’s looking for in a submission. After she shared what sort of genres she likes and her personal tastes, she added: “And I need a hook so I can pitch it.”

You might be scratching your head right about now wondering why an editor needs to pitch your book too. It’s because the editor, once he or she falls in love with a book, must then convince folks in that publishing company that it should be acquired. The editor in a smaller press might go right to the publisher and have a chat, or, as is the case in many of the bigger houses, may have to present the title at an acquisitions meeting. That meeting could have fellow editors, sales people, the publisher, all sitting there wondering what this book is about and where it’ll fit on their list and in the marketplace.

So, please, help yourself and formulate a great hook for your book.  A one-liner… Something along the lines of: TITLE is a READERSHIP/GENRE about THE UNIQUE INTRIGUING PROBLEM. Here’s one for one of my recent client sales: ELIZA BING (IS NOT) A BIG, FAT QUITTER is a contemporary middle grade novel about a girl with ADHD who must prove to others (and herself) that she can stick with something to the very end.

From this hook, we know the title, the demographic it’s pointed toward (middle grade), that it’s a contemporary novel (vs. sci-fi, thriller, etc. etc.), and we see the unique hook. A book about a girl with ADHD. Cool!  And we also see that there is a problem, a plot attached to it: proving to others and herself that she has stick-to-it-ness.

Eliza Bing jktI used this hook when pitching it to the editor. I’ll bet the editor used a version of this while pitching it to the publisher (it just came out through Holiday House). And the author, Carmella Van Vleet, uses a version of this all the time, I’m sure, when a reader comes up to her at a signing and asks, “What’s your book about?” Heck, our foreign rights rep even uses this hook when talking to publishers around the world.

So YOU should figure out your own book’s hook. Include it in your query. Toss us a hook, and hopefully it’ll help your novel catch on.

 

*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: Updating Your Image

????????Happy Agent Monday, everyone!  I don’t know about you, but I feel renewed after a weekend when there FINALLY was some sunshine and warmth. Just being able to clear debris off the planting beds and pull some weeds and plan what new plants to put in felt so invigorating and forward-moving.  And readers of this blog may notice something fresh and new here as well – a new blog format!  So today’s post is all about how writers need to update themselves!

Got a pokey online image that isn’t you? What about that ancient author photo (are those SHOULDER PADS I see)? And, most importantly, what about the writing you are currently promoting?  Is it, well, current?

As an agent I often see submissions that feel dated. One form of a dated submission is the novel that feels like it would have fit in well in the 1960s or 70s, or in an Early British History Fiction class, or in a study of classic children’s literature. But today? Not so much.

I think this comes from the writer reading and falling in love with books from their childhood, or from when they were forming their passion for writing, and THAT is what they hold up as the model of great fiction. But here’s the truth: really great fiction of our time reflects today’s sensibilities and your experiences as who you are right now. Even if it is a historical novel. So that means that you can’t write Jane Eyre today and expect today’s publishers and readers to respond the way the original audience did. Writing from a place that only takes in what fiction once was like too often just feels pokey.

You need to evolve and update your sensibilities. That’s why, when I advise writers to be familiar with the books in their genre, I tell them they MUST read successful CURRENT books. Not just the classics.

Another sort of dated submission is caused by the writer who hasn’t evolved. I see this with authors who had some success say 20 or 30 years ago with their fiction, and are still trying to write in that exact same style to that exact same audience. But reading styles have changed a bit. Pacing, language, plotting has morphed into something fresher and more of our time. There will always be room for excellent writing and characterization on the shelves, but if the book feels like it’s been done before, whether in style or plot, chances are good that if your audience has left you behind, you need to rethink your approach.

Another thing that I see in submissions that feel dated in a way, is the author who has written that ONE MANUSCRIPT, and they have been trying to sell it for years and years and years. Okay, I know that we writers need to be stubborn, and there are those wonderful tales of success about authors who did stick it out and then were finally rewarded with a publishing deal and rave reviews. Excellent! But, if your one manuscript hasn’t evolved over the years of submissions – meaning you haven’t changed a word even as you’ve improved your skills as a writer, or you haven’t responded to valid criticism about your work with sharp revisions, well, you aren’t evolving.

So, to those writers, I say – be persistent, never give up, but evolve as you move forward. Keep improving your existing work and submitting, but most of all, work on the next book in the meantime. I’ve been this writer myself and made the mistake of perhaps being a bit too determined about my first novel. And guess what? When I finally resolved that it wasn’t giving up (after 10 years of determined slogging to sell it) to move on to another project, I wrote a new novel and within a year landed an agent and a book deal with Random House. That first novel? It’s hiding in the drawer, and, really, it’s not that bad. I could just do better once I gave myself the chance.

So it’s springtime. Evolve and grow. Look at who you are as a writer. Your image. Your voice. Do your words you are sending out reflect the person you are today? Are they the best you can write TODAY? If so, they will reach today’s readers and connect.

Dare to plant new seeds of inspiration and let them grow!

 

*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: Wait, You Rep What?

Red TulipsHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  And HAPPY SPRING. Phew. Somehow this feels hard-won this year.  I honestly can’t remember when seeing snow bells and crocuses in bloom has made me more giddy or brought more relief. Change is in the air, folks!  And something else has made me a bit giddy… so I’m “putting out there” a shift in my agent submission guidelines.  Hence today’s post title of: Wait, You Rep What?

First a wonderful announcement!  I’m delighted and thrilled to now represent picture book author/illustrator Lee Harper. Lee is well-known for creating books which are hilarious as well as breathtakingly beautiful.  He is the author/illustrator of SNOW! SNOW! SNOW! (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books) and THE EMPEROR’S COOL CLOTHES (Two Lions) and his most recent book is the lyrical and lovely COYOTE. Lee illustrated WOOLBUR by Leslie Helakoski (HarperCollins), TURKEY TROUBLE and TURKEY CLAUS, both by Wendi Silvano (Two Lions), and LOOKING FOR THE EASY LIFE by Walter Dean Myers (HarperCollins). Lee equally enjoys illustrating the works of others and writing and illustrating his own stories, and he currently has a number of his own picture book ideas in the works. Yeah!

Okay, I know.  My guidelines say I’m NOT interested in picture books and make NO mention of repping illustrators.  So what gives? Hey, things do change. But before you hit that send button, I want everyone to know that I’m not open to picture books and illustrations from everyone. I’m actually only open to submissions from established illustrators and picture book authors, and to those sent to me on referral, or to folks who I meet at conferences and request submissions from.  If you’d like to see where I’ll be when, my up-to-date appearance schedule can be found here.  Sorry I can’t take submissions from everyone, but if you saw my inbox and my workload for current clients as represented on my very scary spreadsheet, you’d truly understand.

I’m really excited to enter the world of representing picture book authors and illustrators!  I bring to this not only my background as a writer and editor, but also my fine art background (I have a dual degree from U. of Penn in English and in Literary Art – a major I created there which combined creative writing and all the fine arts classes I could take).  Plus I’ve already sold one of my client’s very cool non-fiction picture books: TO THE STARS! by Carmella Van Vleet and astronaut Kathy Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space (Charlesbridge).

So there are a lot of new things popping up everywhere…crocuses and snow bells included.  I’m also still looking for great middle grade and YA fiction, adult and women’s fiction and memoir, and my guidelines for those can always be found here.

Happy Spring, everyone!

 

*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 “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: On Luck

Green CloversTop ‘o the mornin’ to you all!  Happy Agent Monday AND St. Patrick’s Day.  With the luck of the Irish and pots of gold being much talked about, today I thought it’d be a fine time for me to talk about luck and the writer. Getting an agent, getting a book deal, getting a good review, getting great sales, even getting that perfect idea for a book at the perfect moment.  Some people are just lucky, and some people never get any breaks, right? Well…

As someone who is an author and an agent, I’ve had my share of good and bad luck. Looking back, the most significant bad luck I ever had as a writer was completely out of my control.  Debuting as an author (after MANY years of struggling to break in) just as the recession was starting? Beyond my control. Being one of the very first Random House titles to not be automatically picked up by Barnes & Noble and Borders (remember Borders?!!!)? Also out of my hands. And, because of being one of those very first titles, my already written and approved sequel was immediately canceled. This bomb was dropped on me just 3 weeks before my debut title came out.  My editor (and champion) left the business at that moment. Seriously horribly rotten luck, right? Terrible. Tragic. WHY ME AFTER ALL MY HARD WORK rotten luck. And all out of my hands.

I’m sharing this with you so you’ll know I get it. I get that sometimes not only do the stars not align, but the planets crash down on your head and whomp your dreams to pieces. But still, luck is in your control. That’s because it’s what you do from that moment on that makes all the difference.

Do you quit? Do you wallow in self-pity and misery? Or do you make your own luck?

For me, I was determined to make sure that my debut didn’t fail and that my sequel saw the light of day. So I took charge of marketing in every way that I could. I pursued every out-of-the-box idea I could think of and worked non-stop. And because of this, my debut YA novel WHAT I MEANT… didn’t disappear, and neither did I. It was embraced by readers, it went into reprint multiple times, this title earned out its advance, and it is still in print as an ebook to this day. That was all hard won. Also, I took charge of my standalone sequel OVER MY HEAD, which seemed to be doomed. And I put it out myself. It’s earned great reviews and reader praise, and it’s available now in print and in ebook.

And while I would never have chosen this hard route for myself, it shaped me and I’ve taken away so much from these experiences. While I started out with some P.R. and book promo experience in publishing, this twist of luck transformed me into a truly informed book publicity machine (and now I pass this knowledge on to my clients), and it taught me where indie publishing really fits into a writer’s life, and it showed me just how awesome my own agent Jennifer De Chiara is when it comes to supporting a client through thick and thin (something I strive to emulate with my own clients now).

You can take your luck into your own hands, and it’s important to, as a writer, see where the control rests. Sure, you can’t make an agent represent you, but you CAN strive to write the very best most polished manuscript you can and to research to find the right agent, and to follow that agent’s guidelines, and to write the most skilled of query letters.  None of that is luck – but it improves your luck, doesn’t it? It leads you to that pot of gold.

And if that path to the gold is strewn with land mines, it is up to you to chart a new path, a better one. To take control wherever you can and to make your own great luck. To write beautiful stories that will inspire people.

MP900314154The real truth about good luck, I think, is that it is not some passive thing that just happens to people. We have a hand in it. Making sure we say yes to opportunity wherever it rests, and that we work hard to make the most of it. (Haven’t we all seen people, even ourselves, screw up something or run away from something wonderful that has been practically tossed into our laps?) Making sure that when something diverts our good fortune, we learn from that and reroute ourselves back to our own good fortune, making an even better path.

That’s what I think dreams are really made of.

Good luck!

 

*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 “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

 

 

 

Agent Monday: Finding the Time to Write

MP900302970Happy Agent Monday to you all! Today, as we enjoy an extra hour of sunlight (you did turn your clock forward, right?), it’s a perfect time to talk about, well, time!  Specifically, finding the time to write. I’m thrilled today to have a guest post by my client and wonderful author Erin Teagan. Erin, though busy over the years with work and raising a family, has managed to write a number of manuscripts and to work hard at perfecting her craft. She got my attention and offer of representation with a sharp and touching middle grade novel called STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES about Madeline Little, genius scientist in the making, who keeps her life in control by creating SOP’s like “How to Fake a Bubonic Plague to get out of a Party.” But when her life flip-flops at the start of middle school, and the SOPs no longer do the trick, it’s up to Madeline to discover a new cure for her newly messed up life.

Here’s a look into how Erin finds the time…

 

FINDING TIME TO WRITE

Guest post by Erin Teagan

 

Finding the time to write is a universal struggle for writers. Day jobs, kids, pets, snowmageddons, to-do lists, books to read…there are a million things that require our time and attention before we can give anything to writing.

When I was in college I wrote a terrible YA novel. I worked on it during holiday breaks and in the summer. I pictured what writing would look like when I graduated, churning out book after book with all the time I’d have. A 9 to 5 job? No studying? What else did adults do with their time? Ha!

It took that first year of working to realize that if I wanted to be a writer I had to make it a priority. Because even though I chose a career that rarely required take-home work, it sometimes meant working late. And sometimes it meant traveling and giving up my weekends. It also meant going back to school for a graduate degree. I fantasized about my old college days. What did I do with those huge chunks of time between classes? Why hadn’t I worked on my novel more?

I researched how other writers fit it all in (I’m a scientist. I research EVERYTHING). Lots of articles talked about the time suck of the Internet and TV. But I loved those kind of time-sucks! After working nine or ten hours, sometimes it was all I could do to just sit on a couch with my roommate or husband or 90 lb lap dog and stare at the TV like a zombie. And if you didn’t surf the Internet for at least a little bit, imagine how far behind you’d get on surprise attack kitten videos or dogs romping in the snow? Sometimes you just had to be part of society, you know?

Other articles talked about writing in the wee hours of the morning or into the dark of night. Some of the most successful authors wrote while the rest of the world was sleeping. And I thought, I should give it a try. I was a night person. I used to study into the midnights, I should surely be able to churn out a book or two that way. Except I found that I just couldn’t turn off my to-do list. Those unchecked boxes that remained from my day haunted me, my brain chatter too loud. Was I even meant to be a writer if I couldn’t find any time to write?

I pictured myself fifteen years older, with kids, a mortgage, real-life problems and complications. If I was going to get writing into my schedule, it had to be now. So I tallied my excuses. Why I couldn’t write at night. Why I couldn’t give up my time-sucks. Why I couldn’t possibly write in the early morning. And what I found was I had far less excuses (though they were good ones, I tell you) about writing in the morning.

I remember the first time I tried it. I set my alarm fifteen minutes early. I was on a business trip which meant long, tiring hours. But there were no more excuses. I knew my brain would resist this new schedule so I treated myself to some new books. Plot workbooks. Writing exercises. Books on writing. The first day was a struggle, but I made myself do one writing exercise. I was groggy, the hotel coffee was pretty terrible, but once I got the writer juices flowing, it wasn’t as horrific as I had feared.

This was a big change for me so it took me months. Each week I set my alarm fifteen minutes earlier. By the end of it, I was waking up at 4:45 in the morning and my brain was forgetting that I was a night-person. I felt so successful! At the end of that first year I had revised my terrible young adult novel (and then put it in a locked drawer) and managed to write a somewhat decent draft of a new middle grade. I felt so accomplished! I had managed to trick my night-person brain to be something that could function and focus in the wee hours of the day.

Nearly fifteen years later, with real-life complications, kids and a mortgage, I’m so thankful I took the plunge and made writing a priority in my schedule. It took some trial and error and brain training to figure out what worked best for me, but now I can be sure to check off that one ‘writing’ box on my to-do list every day.

Now if I could just apply that to the rest of my life like going through my overstuffed filing cabinet, resolving that toll violation, or exercising. But really, who runs on a snow day? And is that filing cabinet really hurting anyone? So I’ll leave those tasks unchecked on my list for today. At least I got some writing in.

 

Erin TeaganErin Teagan has a master’s degree in science and worked in biochemistry labs for more than ten years where she wrote endless Standard Operating Procedures.  She’s an avid reader and has reviewed middle grade and young adult books for Children’s Literature Database and Washington Independent Review of Books.  She’s active in SCBWI and this will be her eighth year co-chairing the Mid-Atlantic fall conference. STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES will be her debut middle grade novel. Erin is represented by Marie Lamba of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency.

Agent Monday: Digging for Buried Treasure

Happy Agent Monday, everyone!  I don’t know about you, but I’m so relieved that it’s March. A definite sense of “phew we made it-ness” has pervaded my mind.  A huge snow storm was predicted for today, so imagine my glee when I flipped up the shades this morning and discovered we’d gotten not 12 inches but barely an inch! HA! Take that winter. So instead of wasting time digging out mounds of white stuff I can devote a little extra time to digging for buried treasure. That’s right! It’s time to hunt through my inbox for that query that’ll tempt me to request a full manuscript. Wanna come along for the adventure? Pack your treasure map and your spy glass and follow me. Arrrrrr….

First query – science fiction. My guidelines say I don’t represent science fiction. Rejection sent.

Second query – non-fiction. My guidelines say I don’t represent non-fiction (aside from memoir). Rejection sent.

(Are you noticing a trend here? If so, here’s the link to my own treasure map, er, I mean submission guidelines.)

Third query – memoir. Something I actually represent. Yeah! Unfortunately, I found this one to not be unique enough, and the sample chapter was stilted. Rejection sent. (For what I think makes a memoir stand out, check out this post.)

Fourth query – YA, something else I actually represent. But this one is not at all ready for prime time. The writer needs to learn a lot more about the market and about writing before being at a professional level and ready to submit to agents. Rejection sent.

Fifth query – Women’s fiction, something I’m looking for. Length of the manuscript is right and the query follows my guidelines, but I’m not drawn in by the premise. I read a little of the sample pages pasted in below the query (something my guidelines allow for) and I’m not crazy about the voice or the writing. Rejection sent.

Sixth query – Category romance. My guidelines state I do not represent category romance. Rejection sent.

Seventh query – Women’s fiction. I found the query letter to be flat and it didn’t evoke anything for me. Rejection sent.

Eighth query – YA. The themes were cliché and the language used didn’t feel like it belonged to a teen. Rejection sent.

Ninth query – Middle grade fiction. Definitely looking for these. But this one didn’t sound unique, and the writing wasn’t up to snuff to me. Rejection sent.

Tenth query – YA. Strong query, except for a cliché tossed in. Opening pages have a nice voice.  I’m still worried about the cliché, though. Hm…  No rejection, but no request for more yet either.  I’m setting this one aside to look at again later, maybe after another cup of coffee.

Eleventh query – YA. I like the query and the plot hangs on an interesting hook. Encouraged, I read the opening pages, but quickly find myself skimming. Lots of back story. Pacing is way off. Rejection sent.

Query twelve – Fantasy. While I like fantasy elements, full-on fantasy is not my thing (as I say in my guidelines). Rejection sent.

Feeling a bit discouraged here.  Will there be any treasure in them-thar hills or not? Shall we shoot for lucky thirteen? Okay pirates, take a swig of rum (or coffee) and let’s journey on to one final spot.

Query thirteen – Horror. Guess what? I’m not at all into genre horror. Plus, I’ve seen this plot before in a very famous novel. Rejection sent.

MP900341872Ah well, fellow treasure hunters. Be not discouraged. The majority of my clients have been found through the query process, so treasure hunting does pay off.  And for you writers, know that crafting an interesting query plus a fascinating manuscript is what it’s all about. And here’s a takeaway that is simple, yet pure gold: read an agent’s guidelines and follow them!

Until next time, me mateys, Arrrr!

*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 “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: It’s all about Priorities

conceptHappy Agent Monday, people! This weekend was all about stepping outside while the sun was finally shining and the snow was starting to finally recede. Plus there were all those weekend-ish priorities intruding from vacuuming, to food shopping, to doing taxes, and reading queries (I do like to do that with my first cuppa Joe first thing on weekend mornings). But Monday’s priorities are entirely different. Ah, where to start? It’s all about being organized even as things are being tossed at me left and right. At the end of the day, and especially at the end of the week, I want to have moved forward on goals I’ve set for myself.  So in today’s post, I thought I’d shed a little light on just what this agent might be doing in a typical week. And for this agent, it’s all about priorities.

What are my priorities?  Let’s start with my email inbox. My inbox pings dozens of times. So many emails. How to keep it straight? My eye zooms over the list and if there is an email from a client, I open it immediately. Makes sense, right? And I respond as quickly as possible, even if it’s just to say, hey, I got this and I’ll get back to you later today. In most cases, I follow up on that email as soon as I see it. They are my clients, after all. Next to be opened? Any emails from my fellow agents within our agency, and from editors. They are top priorities, too. This is the core of my business, true?

Okay, then there are dozens of queries. They continue to spill into my box. When I’m taking breaks throughout the day, I may zoom through a bunch of them just to preview them. Preview? Yeah, I’m just seeing if this is a query I need to read immediately, or if it can wait till another day. What’s a need to read immediately query? Something that I’ve been particularly waiting on. Something from an established author. Something that grabs me by the throat and I just have to read RIGHT NOW. But most can wait till I have more time. I do want to take time to consider them, so I set them aside to do that, probably over a weekend.

One kinda surprising thing to note is that if I get a query that I’d requested from a pitch at a conference, or through some other personal connection I’ve had with the writer, it might actually take me a little longer to read and respond. Um, huh? Wouldn’t that person be in the VIP track and get a faster answer? Well, yes and no. This is a query that I know I need to take even more time with. Even if I’m not interested as soon as I start reading it, I’ll need to offer a more personal response. So I slot those reads into when I can spend that sort of time on them. But, mind you, all queries take time. That’s why you might get a form response from me if I’m not interested. Try not to be hating on the form replies from agents. Think about it this way: If I didn’t use this form letter, most writers would never get a response because there simply isn’t enough time to read and personally respond to every single query. As a writer myself, I know how important it is to get any answer. You want to know your status, you want to find your agent. If I’m not the agent for you, then you want to know and move on. That’s your priority, and I try to respect that and be as quick as I can.

Okay, so that’s just my inbox, which, let’s face it, also has a ton of other things popping into it. Like follow-ups for conferences I’ll be participating in. And questions from our film agent that need answers. And interactions with our foreign rights rep. These are all top priorities, too.

What else do I have cooking in a typical week? Well, let’s pull out my client spread sheet and take a look. My clients are productive and they are keeping me BUSY! Let’s see…I have two new manuscripts I’ve never read to look at and respond to. I’ve got six manuscripts that have been revised based on my notes and that I need to read through for final edits. I’ve got two manuscripts that I’ll be pitching this week, which means I need to tweak my pitch and finalize my list of perfect editors, and get on the phone to call those perfect editors…plus, then I’ll have to follow up by sending out the manuscripts to the editors, and updating my files and my clients related to those submissions. Phew, right?

AND, I’ve got a phone appointment later today, a meeting with an author tomorrow. An interview to do for a publication… Oh, and I also have some requested full manuscripts awaiting response. Not such a bad week, actually. It’s tougher when you have to leave the office for a length of time for a conference or a number of meetings.

That’s why I try to be smart about how I use my time. And this is all why you the writer should be careful with time when it comes to agents. If you are subbing queries, don’t waste time sending to agents who don’t rep your sort of work. Don’t waste time sending out queries for work that isn’t polished to perfection. Don’t waste time within your query talking about irrelevant stuff – get to the point and convey your idea quickly, and agents will be appreciative and responsive. If you have an agent, be mindful of his time. You want your agent tending to your career, so don’t waste time chattering on the phone, for example, when you can send him a quick email instead. I’m not telling you all of this just to make an agent’s life easier (but, hey, that’s a nice perk), but to make your writing life more productive and fruitful. It’s your time and your career – important priorities for you!

So, onto my priorities for the week. Agent Monday Post? Done. Desk organized with pens, my reading glasses, notepad, sticky notes and highlighters. Client spreadsheet open. Client files I’m tending to today, stacked to my left. List of my top priorities for the week – front and center.

Ready? Set? And go!

*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 “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

 

 

Agent Monday: Everyone’s Different

SnowflakeHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  Hopefully you are making it through the winter okay.  Not letting the relentless snow get to you… Washing your hands and not letting the germs get to you…  And feeling hopeful all around. Days are getting longer and longer. March isn’t too far off (do NOT tell me about big snowstorms that tend to happen in March, please). And nothing can stop you from writing, not even a power outage. Ha!  Take THAT, winter. But sometimes we writers can fall into the doldrums. It can happen at any time of year. We feel this way when we don’t get validation. Our critique group gives us some harsh advice. Our agent isn’t 100% on board with our newest manuscript. Our efforts to get an agent isn’t met with the roaring praise and success we’d hoped for. Our manuscript on submission to editors isn’t an instant sell. They like it, but… And WHAM! Just like that we doubt ourselves. We see others having success. What’s wrong with our writing? What’s wrong with us? So, today I’d like to just remind everyone that writing and publishing (and agenting) isn’t an exact science. EVERYONE’S DIFFERENT.

A few weekends ago I spent an awesome weekend as a guest agent at the SCBWI conference at Asilomar, CA. Hey, it was in California, so I’m allowed to say awesome.  Not only was it a blessed escape from the hell-hole snow and ice storms that have fallen upon the Northeast every other day, but it was also yet another reminder of just how different every person truly is in this business.  And how important it is to remember that as a writer, no matter what stage you are at in the biz.

Nowhere was this more obvious than at the agent pitching roundtable that we held.  I was the agent sitting at one table, and Jennifer Unter, who is lovely, was at the other. Jennifer and I met and clicked earlier that day. We seemed to have the same sense of humor and passion for great books, so you’d think we’d like the same sort of things, right? Nope. The writers got to pitch to the agent at their table and the other writers there got to listen in and take in our reactions. What did we respond to? Were we interested? What did we think about the pitch style and how could it be improved? What did we say about the market potential for a work?  Then I switched tables with Jennifer and I did this with the group she’d just heard from, and she took my group and did the same. The result? Interesting, for sure.  We each shared some opinions, sure. But we each also had very different interests too. I liked some things she didn’t. And vice versa. I liked or didn’t like certain things in the pitches, and that sometimes varied too. The big takeaway? Everyone’s different.

This isn’t an exact science. Yes, it certainly helps that I know lots of things about the editors that I pitch to.  But there is always that “I’ll know when I see it” factor in play. They can tell me they are looking for such and such, but there are tons of intangibles. That idea they didn’t know they were looking for until they saw it. That type of book they’d never thought they’d buy…until they saw such an unusual take on the subject and were completely blown away. And readers are fickle too. That book that was supposed to be a mega-hit, but fizzled. That sleeper that wasn’t supposed to go too far, and then broke all the records.

It’s not an exact science. It’s about your gut and your instinct and your unique point of view.  It’s about connecting with others, too. So listen to what the world says about your work. Take it in and think about it. Take what will make you a better writer and use that. But keep being yourself and believing in your voice and writing.

Everyone’s different, every book’s different. Every agent and editor is different, too. So work hard, keep improving your craft, love what you do, and have faith that you’ll find your audience.

*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 “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: Inspiration – Follow Your Goosebumps

Flying birdsHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  Today, as we move from bleak January through chilly February, it’s a perfect time for some inspiration.  I’m so pleased to feature here a guest post by my client, the extremely talented Harmony Verna.  Harmony’s manuscript FROM ROOTS TO WINGS caught my eye the moment I started reading it.  Her writing is luminescent. So vivid. And her characters grab you with their reality and their longing and heart.  FROM ROOTS TO WINGS is a sweeping and passionate adult historical novel set in turn-of-the-century Australia and America. It’s about a boy and girl orphaned in the harsh Australian desert. They form a young innocent love, but must take separate harrowing journeys in their own search for home and for each other. This manuscript was a final round selection for the James Jones First Novel Contest.

And here Harmony shares with us her insight about inspiration:

 

INSPIRATION – FOLLOW YOUR GOOSEBUMPS

Guest post by Harmony Verna

As writers, we sift through an infinite jumble of words, sorting and arranging them like puzzle pieces until they sit just right and tell our story. At times, these words will soar, fly to the moon, and at others, fall flat to Earth with a thud. So what makes the difference? Inspiration.

For me, goosebumps have always been a barometer of inspiration. When I can FEEL a character’s surprise or pain or elation to the point that it raises the hairs on my arms, I know I’ve nailed it. It’s the same way a certain song can enter your very pores, or a soft, scented breeze can warm from the inside out, or an act of kindness can break your heart with its purity – it becomes a visceral experience. Your body becomes like an incandescent bulb cranked up from a dimmer switch, bright and open to creative energy. Anytime you can transfer that level of feeling through the written word, that is inspiration.

But let’s face facts, it’s easy to be open to the flow of inspiration when a sunset branches across a quiet evening sky or when we have time to stare at ripples dancing upon a lake. That’s all great until reality smashes in and wrecks that lovely scene – an unexpected bill comes in the mailbox, the kids are home sick for a week, the laundry is piling up and gosh darn it, we’re out of coffee! But c’est la vie, writers. It’s up to us to pull inspiration into life even when life seems to be kicking and screaming against it.

Truth

Earnest Hemingway once said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” What makes a sentence true? When you can feel the words radiate from under your skin, down to the marrow. When dialogue becomes so real that it enters and converses in your dreams until you ask the voices politely to stop; when you enter a landscape or time or place so fully that when the phone rings, it takes a moment to remember that you are here, writing, sitting at home; when you write words that squeeze your throat or make you giggle like a naughty child or wipe your streaming tears on your sweater. And when your story finally ends, you grieve your characters as passing friends. This is truth.

Simplicity

As wordsmiths we cling to vocabulary, espousing our bag of fancy words when in fact, sometimes the simplest words pack the most punch. Look up the word “old” in the thesaurus and you’ll have a ball field of synonyms to use. But like a sundae piled with too many toppings, it might look appetizing but you can’t taste the ice cream anymore. There can be a certain power to simple sentences, simple thoughts – “He was an old man. A man with old teeth, old breath and lingering old smells.” Say what it IS first. You can always elaborate later.

Don’t self edit…yet

It’s easy to judge the words that get put down first. Are they perfect? Are they smart?  Maybe or maybe not. All that matters is that they’re REAL. We all have an urge to self-edit, but tell that voice to hush. Let the words come out easily, accept them without criticism. And don’t worry, the day for editing will come. Let me rephrase that, the days and months and sometimes years of editing will come. Enjoy those first words, the freshness of them. Then later, you can plant around them, knowing that your first seedlings are pure.

Ban the ego

Daisies on whiteNothing kills inspiration like a pesky beast called the ego, a creative leech that attaches itself to your writing and sucks the life out of it, leaving the words hollow and depleted of soul. How do you know if the ego has snuck into your creation? When your focus is on how good and smart and lush the words are rather than the smell, taste and feel of the words; when you’re more concerned about getting on Oprah than getting behind the computer keyboard. Anytime you feel the need to stand out or to impress – that is ego.  And how do you know if your writing is free of ego? You KNOW! It sits right in the gut. There’s an internal sigh and half-smile that’s calm and says…that’s it. I got it. You know.

You got this

Your story wants to be born into this world. It’s all there, already written, already changing lives and inspiring people. You are the vehicle for this story, open yourself and ALLOW the story to unfold. When we put aside deadlines, the need for approval and the stress of writing something “perfect,” resistance is lifted and inspiration has room to enter and flourish. Then it’s just your job to ride the wave and hope your pen can keep up.

So, before you start writing, take a moment. Be still. Silence the mind chatter and focus your attention on that warm, quiet place in your chest with the calming beat. Look at the fine lines of your hands. Feel the threads of the pillow. Listen to the tick tock of the clock down the hall. Smell the subtle spice of your tea. And now…slowly…let the words of your story come into existence. Welcome them as you would a child, with open arms, with unconditional love and gratitude, and then…

Follow your goosebumps.

 

Harmony Verna

Harmony Verna has worked with all media facets: radio, television, magazines, newspapers, public relations, advertising and marketing, and has been involved in articles that appeared in top-tier publications across the country and guest segments on news programs including Today, CBS This Morning and Good Morning America. As a freelance writer, she has written scripts for the Food Network and articles for Modern Bride Magazine, Connecticut Woman Magazine and more. Harmony is a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and she is represented by Marie Lamba of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency.