Agent Monday: On Sticking to Things

Soccer Goalie Blocking BallHappy Agent Monday, everyone! I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two weeks with a variety of writer friends. Some already published, some working hard to get there. And we started chatting inevitably about careers. An unpublished writer said she was worried about what to write next because it has to get an agent. She has to get an agent or what’s the point? So today I thought I’d chat a bit about setting goals – the good and the bad, and on the goodness of sticking to things with that long view of your career.

Remember, I’m not only a literary agent, I’m an author, too. So I understand how it’s hard to justify in a practical way taking time away from your family, and from a “sensible” income to write as much as you can. Why? Do you have a book deal? Do you have an agent? Do you have a decent income? Many writers do not. And many writers can have an agent but no book deal for a length of time. Or a book deal, or several, and still need another source of income. You should definitely work hard toward goals. You deserve to give your creativity your best efforts. But if you are a writer, you are one no matter what. And you don’t know what is around the next corner. Ups and downs alike.

That’s why I cringe a little when I hear aspiring writers saying things like, I have to get an agent this year. This book has to sell. I’m going to write in this genre because it’s hot now and it’s going to sell.

Hey, it’s smart to know the market. It’s smart to work hard and strive. But I think it’s cruel to your muse to set up goals in a way that will send you the signal to stop. That if you don’t achieve this goal at this time, it’s never going to happen and you should quit.

How well I remember sitting in an accountant’s office with my husband as the accountant frowned over my income and looked over our books. He sat back in his big leather chair, pressed his fingertips together and said, “Okay, let’s do this. Let’s give your little writing thing, oh, another year. And if nothing comes of it, then you can get a real job.”

My husband’s eyes met mine. I knew he was on my side and believed in me. Even though, despite national magazine article gigs and yes, even a book contract, I still made less than a McDonald’s worker. Far less. I found myself spluttering to the accountant that I wasn’t some hack. That I was a writer. Period. And I could see in his eyes he didn’t get it. And I didn’t care.

Thank goodness I didn’t care. I cared about my craft and my voice and I kept writing. And my income wouldn’t impress an accountant. Maybe my writing income never would. But I love what I do. And that matters.

So don’t quit. You don’t know when the next great thing will come from your efforts. The only thing you know for sure is that if you give up, your dreams will never come true.

I wonder if that practical accountant tossed his dreams aside along the way. Hm…and now he tries to quash the dreams of every creative that comes into his office. A possible plot!

Boy Playing SoccerI just want to say hang in there, writers. Dream big. Plot your own career with a long and positive trajectory. And enjoy the ride. That is a gift in itself.

*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: 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: Too Soon?

9781585421466Happy sunny Agent Monday, gang! It’s too soon for shorts and bathing suits here in the Northeast, but the signs are there. Birds singing. Days starting to grow mild. The promise of hot sunny days ahead. But you can’t rush it. Likewise, in my agent inbox, I often see queries of books that are promising, but not there yet. So in today’s post, let’s talk about that important question writers should be asking themselves before submitting: Is it too soon?

To kick off this post, I have to tip my hat to a wonderful book: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Are you an artist of any sort (musician, fine artist, writer, etc.) who isn’t producing work the way you’d like? Or are you enjoying it less and less? Or feeling angry or stressed in some way that is impairing your true creative spirit? Dude, buy The Artist’s Way, follow the chapters and do every single exercise in there that feels right to you. It will change you and free you. I’ve been using this book myself for the past 8 months, and I am definitely different. I am better for it. It’s a gift you can give to yourself. Take it!

Okay, back to the Too Soon point. In Cameron’s book, she states something so simple and elegantly true: “An act of art needs time to mature. Judged early, it may be judged incorrectly. Never, ever, judge a fledgling piece of work too quickly.” She points out that many hits are sure things only in retrospect. “Until we know better, we call a great many creative swans ugly ducklings….We forget that not all babies are born beautiful…”

Some of these judgements come into our writerly minds before we set a word on paper. We think, eh, that’ll never sell. That’s been done. That is crap. And we never write that idea down, follow it to completion. Some of these judgement we inflict on our work after it is written. We say to ourselves, this sucks. No one will give a damn. We tell ourselves that we will never break in or break out. In all of these cases, we are the block between the idea and the possible future reader of our work.

And sometimes we are caught up in the rush of competition. I’ve written it. I’ve made my agent list. BAM! I’ve sent it out. Done!  But wait…no responses. Form rejections. The answer the writer can take away from this? My writing sucks. I suck. I’m done. I have another idea, but what’s the point?

Okay, so nothing promises success when you take your idea from inception and trot it out into the world. That’s the artist’s life. But, as I’ve said, I often see things that are half-formed. That have a good voice and style, but a half-baked idea. Or I see works that need more focus. Or people who are just starting out in their fiction writing and who have created their very first novel. Obvious ideas, mimicking other writers, stories that are really just their own lives told back. All the things that a new writer must work through before creating something more original and unique. In sum, I often see writers who show promise, but don’t have something they are showing me that is in a state of readiness that’ll make me sit up and think – yes! This is ready.

I’m talking far beyond spell checking and formatting something correctly. I’m talking about a writer not rushing. Taking the time to let a work sit and stew. And to then revisit it with revisions, and have others read and react to it, then let THOSE comments sit and stew, then revise again, tweaking what feels right. Only when you feel your work is fully developed, fully realized, only then should you be sending it out to an agent. And THEN you should move on to create something else. This may be a young novel for you. Maybe your next one will be more developed, maybe the one after that. But you’ll never know if you don’t give yourself the chance to grow.

I’ve said it before in this blog: you must take a long view of your career. That means that you should take the time you need to develop, produce, grow as a writer. — that’s something that never stops for the true artist, no matter how many books you write or even how many get published. You should look at setbacks as something to learn from and move beyond. Thinking that you will write X many books and stories and send out to X many agents and publications and that should definitely lead you to your shiny goal of publishing success is all well and good. BUT you will hit walls and you cannot control what’s on the other side.

Hey, if you as a writer are looking for reasons to stop writing, you will find them. TONS of them. But if you want to write, then don’t look for reasons to stop. Ever. Your ideas are valuable. Your voice is valuable. As Cameron says, “The need to win — now! — is a need to win approval from others. As an antidote, we must learn to approve of ourselves. Showing up for the work is the win that matters.”

So I guess what I’m saying is don’t be in such a hurry. Enjoy your creative process and see it thoroughly to the end. That fulfilling creative world will give you endless joy and rewards. And then send it out into the commercial world. And move on to create something new and well and thoroughly despite the outcome.

Slow and steady can win the race. And if that race is artistic fulfillment vs. success, that is a race you can definitely win. And I would argue that artistic fulfillment will open up all sorts of success.

So what’s the hurry?

 

*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: So What DO you Want?

Women Window ShoppingHappy Agent Monday! Just spent the last three weeks pitching out a ton of great client manuscripts. It’s a thrill to see these projects, which began as queries, at last sent out into the world for editors to consider. And now I’m able to turn more attention to my query inbox, which is pretty full. So today I thought I’d talk a little more about the types of things I do and don’t want.

Every editor and every agent, just like every reader, has personal things she’s interested in and things that are just never ever right for her. It’s a lot like shopping – there’s no one size or style that fits all. It’s hard for writers to know everything about an agent before subbing, but knowing some things may help you zero in on the right person to send to. That’s why the first stop should always be the agent’s submission guidelines. These can sometimes be a little general, but do pay attention to what an agent definitely does not want so you can put your efforts in the right direction when you query.

I also really recommend that you at least Google that agent to see if there are any recent interviews or write ups that may clue you in on their interests and how those might have changed. Not all agency sites are up-to-the-minute up-to-date, so that’ll help you fill in any gaps.

Now, as for me? I definitely am NOT the person for you to sub to if: you write category romance, your book is loaded with violence/gore/gag-inducing stuff, you write non-fiction, poetry, short stories. I am also not interested right now in straight up paranormal romance, dystopian, steam-punk, zombies, werewolves, that sort of thing. Just not for me. Also not at all interested in erotica.  I’ve put this info out there before, yet my inbox is loaded up with this stuff anyways. No matter how you dress it up, I promise you I will not be requesting to see the full of your paranormal romance featuring a hot erotic werewolf who slices the heads off his beloveds. PLEASE don’t send me that one!

What am I looking for? Novels: middle grade, YA, adult. Memoir that is important and moving and eloquently written. I like contemporary novels, historical, character-driven and voice driven. I love to laugh like crazy, and bawl my eyes out too, but first I have to care about the characters. I’m not the right agent for genre-based page turners that are all action and plot. I’m also not right for novels in verse.

What about fantasy? Don’t send me high fantasy. Do I like magic? Yes, IF original. Anything with a whiff of fan-fiction or that’s derivative is just not right for me. Across the board, if I can say oh, this is just like HUNGER GAMES (or any other book or movie out there) only the main character is (fill in the blank with something slightly different) – then your project is not going to be original enough to hold my interest.

Ghosts? I do like a ghost story – the sort that is full of longing and atmosphere (check out my novel DRAWN and you’ll see what I mean), but I HATE ghost stories that are all about gore and blood and slasher-like stuff. I hope you see the difference.

I don’t rep romance, but what about plots with a romantic bent? Yup. Love as part of a character-driven non-genre plot, whether it is YA or adult, is great – but it shouldn’t be all there is in the book. Something you should know about me? I love chick-flicks, but Nicolas Sparks makes me barf.  When it comes to women’s fiction, I’d LOVE to find the next great funny and wise woman’s novel that can spin into the next hilarious yet moving chick-flick film. SEND ME THAT! But what I get instead are imitations of what’s already out there. It’s all Bridget Jones and Shopaholic, etc. No been there done that stuff, please.

And I’ve gone on record as saying that I do not rep science fiction. Yet I rep the science fiction/fantasy master Gregory Frost. What??? Greg writes character driven exceptional fiction that crosses boundaries between a number of speculative genres, and he’s masterful (did I mention that?). So, unless you are masterful and transcend that genre, please do not send me your space odyssey. I will glaze over.

Finally, there has been a big shift in my recent guidelines (our agency website is undergoing a change, so it’s not quite up-to-date yet on this).  I now DO represent picture books, BUT (and it’s a big but, I cannot lie) only from established picture book authors with a track record in picture books at traditional houses. I will also take submissions from folks I personally request pbs from at conferences, or on reference from either a publisher or a client. Other than that, it’s a no go. I can’t open my inbox for pbs beyond this.  What sort of picture books do I like and not like? They must be fresh and original. Hilarious or lovely. Important in some way. Non-fiction picture books are a possibility if they are story-based vs. all facts.  What don’t I like? Books that seem to go nowhere, feel forced or too familiar, and rhyming texts are usually not successful.

I’m also now taking on illustrators. Not as an artist’s agent (meaning I’m not the one to get you into galleries, etc.), but as an agent who will rep you to publishers. For this, also, I’m only open to established book illustrators or those who I either meet and request from at a conference, or who are referred to me from a publisher or a client.

Cheerful Young Woman with Shopping BagsI hope this gives you an idea of whether or not a manuscript you have is right to send my way or not. And, just because it’s not right for me, doesn’t mean there won’t be another agent who is all about that gory page turning novel in verse.

Happy manuscript shopping!

 

*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: 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.

Award Nominations!

Author_Profile_pic_WinkelhakeSo excited to announce that my client, awesome author Stephanie Winkelhake has just again been selected as a finalist in the prestigious RWA Golden Hearts competition! Her manuscript CARMA ALWAYS is a riveting YA thriller with a scifi twist – about a girl who is cloned and brought back to solve her original’s murder and save the life of the boy she loves, no matter what version she is. A futuristic Romeo and Juliet.

Gregory Frost 1In other great awards news, my client, amazing author Gregory Frost has recently been nominated as a finalist for the esteemed HWA’s 2013 Stoker Award for his excellent story “No Others Are Genuine,” which appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

Congrats to them both!