Agent Monday: Title Talk

Boy reading in the libraryHey gang, happy Agent Monday!  More than half way through January.  We can do this!  The days are getting longer, right? Today I thought I’d talk a little bit about the way writers title their novels. And why it matters when going on the hunt for an agent. Sound good?

Okay, so one of the first things a reader encounters about a published book is the cover and the title.  Like a great cover, an on point memorable title can help with the sale of your book. Makes sense, right? Something vague that doesn’t position the work in a reader’s mind won’t prompt a reader to pick the book up.  Something that sounds kinda like something else, will be confusing. A title that is completely misleading will attract the wrong audience, who will quickly discard the book in most cases, once that audience sees it’s not what they were hoping for.

So, let’s face facts. A title is a marketing hook for your book. Writers, ya gotta accept that. Yes, your book is art, but it is also a product to be sold. So while you artfully create your title, remember that you want it to be sold and read. You want an agent? Then a great title that represents your book well is a solid start.

Think of it this way… Nail that title, making it memorable and just right for your novel, and that title will go into your query. I’ll see that title and think, ah, cool. That’s an awesome title. I’ve got the feel for what the book will be. And I know that’ll give my pitch to editors some punch, because when I get on the phone and talk about the book, I’ll say the title and the editor will light up, thinking, ah, cool!  Fast forward to that editor falling in love with the manuscript and pitching it to her acquisitions committee, which sometimes is made up of editors and sales folk. She says that great title, and the people on the committee are all AH, COOL! Already they can start to picture how they will position this title and sell it, how readers will sit up and take notice.

So title does matter.  Can the title change as it goes into production. Yup. But if you come up with a solid one, chances are pretty good it’ll stick.

Okay, so what are some title mistakes I see in submissions that stream into my inbox? Well, there are those vague titles. Things like: Time and Time Again, or Eternal Love, or Seasons of Change. That sort of stuff that feels like it could be any novel written in any century. Not exactly standouts. Then there are those not right for the readership titles. Like a cutesy one such as The Giggly Girls, which, okay, maybe for a chapter book, but for an edgy YA? Nope.  Or a title like Blessings in Disguise. What sort of book do you think that would be? Certainly not a gripping bloody thriller.  Another, less obvious title mistake? Choosing words that would send people to the dictionary to understand, and that most folks will get wrong spelling wise when they try to search for it on the computer. This isn’t time to elevate the general public.  You want to be found and talked about by readers.  If they can’t even type the words correctly, how the heck are they going to pull it up on their computer to purchase it?

Do I ever represent manuscripts that have not so great titles? Yup, when the query and the book itself overcome the handicap of a misleading or dull title. BUT, the first thing I talk about with that author in our phone chat is that title. It’s gotta change. Are they okay with that? And together we come up with the title that’ll make the book’s pitch really soar.

A title is a marketing hook. Right?

Some great titles by my clients?  FLIP-FLOP DAYS, MARSHMALLOW NIGHTS, by Miriam Glassman, a wonderful middle grade manuscript that takes place in sleep over camp. ELIZA BING IS (NOT) A BIG FAT QUITTER, by Carmella Van Vleet (which has just gone on sale!, Holiday House), a fab middle grade novel about a girl with ADHD who is determined to prove she can stick with something to the very end. FOLLOWING YOU, by Stephanie Winkelhake, a gorgeous YA manuscript about a dead ex-boyfriend who just can’t leave.  FROM ROOTS TO WINGS, a sweeping debut historical by Harmony Verna, about two orphans surviving in gritty late-1800s Australia in a difficult search for home and for love. And here’s my own recent novel’s title: DRAWN, which is a YA about a young artist who starts sketching a guy from another time, and is drawn into his world in the 1400s.

Not all of these titles started this way, but reading this list, can’t you start to grasp the tone and the sort of book it will be?  That’s what it’s all about.

*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: The Big Conference Question

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Here I am, hydrating at a panel talk with fellow Liars Club authors at the Princeton Public Library.

Happy Agent Monday, everyone!  As you writers set new goals for the new year, you may be stewing over whether it’s worth including writer’s conferences as part of your plan.  Why, exactly, should you go to a conference. Is it worth the money? Couldn’t you just spend that time writing and then learning what you need to know via online research? These were some of the questions writers in my own critique group were chatting about at our last Rebel Writers meeting.  So today, I thought I tackle The Big Conference Question: should you go?

I’ve been to a ton of writer’s conferences by now. First as a writer, and now as a literary agent as well.  Some have been amazing. Some have been, well, eh, in value. But I’ve always learned from them and I’ve never been sorry to attend.  In fact, I landed my own agent, the lovely Jennifer De Chiara (who still reps me, and now I also work as an agent for her firm…yeah, we talk a lot!) and secured my first book deal as an author through conferences, and you can read about all that here in my post WHY CONFERENCES.

Go ahead. Give that one a look.  I’ll wait…

Taps foot…

Done reading that? Okay. So that shows how all the stars could align through attending conferences, and how it did for me. In today’s post I want to go a little deeper into what you might look for in a conference and truly expect, and point out some of the not-so-obvious ways you can benefit beyond the “I landed an agent!” and the “I got a book deal!”, which, truthfully, does not typically happen first time out of the gate. With me, for example, those things were achieved after years of conferences, tons of learning on my part, and tons of polishing of my own writing in between…and then the contacts I made via conferences led in a lovely straight line to my goal.

So, what is YOUR goal. Yup, getting your book published, and published well.  But those who are most successful understand that takes a bunch of intermediary steps. So those who dive into a conference with the sole hungry purpose of getting published will probably blow the many opportunities offered to them at a writer’s conference.  They’ll be too focused on landing an agent to absorb what an agent, who may not be asking for their manuscript after a pitch, is offering in the way of advice on how to improve that pitch. I see that as an agent a lot.  The writer flies across the country and spends mucho bucks on hotel and conference fees to pitch face to face with agents. That writer pitches to me, and the pitch is confusing. I pass, and offer advice on how the pitch is unclear, how, perhaps the writer could focus it better.  But the writer, herself so focused on landing an agent, has shut down the moment it seems like our conversation is not going her way. She hears NO and is done with me and dashes off.

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Here I am studying opening pages at a pitch session held during the Push-to-Publish Conference in Rosemont, PA

Do you see why that level of single-mindedness is a fail when it comes to conferences? If the writer had listened to what I said, she might have discovered a way to improve her pitch, and the next agent she’d pitch to that day, might have said yes.

So, again, I ask you to think about YOUR goal. Here’s a good one: to learn.

At conferences you can figure out the best way to present yourself and your work, whether in a query or in a live pitch. You can hear agents speaking and find out if they are looking for the sort of writing that you do, or not. If not, cross them off your list of submissions, but still listen and take notes – they might offer you a tidbit of advice that’ll help you when contacting agents who are into your type of writing.  Also, it does give you the opportunity to see what a particular agent is really like. You want someone who will represent you well to editors.  Does the agent speak well? Do you like the impression they give off? If the answer is no, then do you really want them to be the face and voice of you and your career? 

You can learn so much about the business side of writing through conferences – the sort of stuff you can’t glean just through reading magazines and books and blogs. Sit in on a panel of editors, and you’ll discover how the acquisitions process works, what they like and don’t like taste-wise, what they will expect from authors they are interested in. And that will all help you.

And then there are elements of craft. Over the years, I’ve learned amazing plot techniques from picture book authors (even though I was writing YA at the time), and research ideas from non-fiction authors (which I used for my historical YA fantasy DRAWN), and gathered so much inspiration from many presenters that kept me chugging along as a writer even when chugging along was pretty tough.

But here’s the most overlooked benefit of attending a conference: the people sitting beside you there!  Talk to the folks around you, and on breaks between sessions and at meals. You’ll find your peers. Swap info on the writing life, and the sort of writing you’ve done. You’ll meet people who get you. Who are doing what you do. Some will have book deals and agents and endless wisdom to offer. Others will be up and coming and be able to offer bits of info you can use, and you can do the same for them. Collectively, all of this will propel you closer to your big goal.  Friends, critique partners, contacts, a bit of info about a writing organization you should get involved with. These are amazing stepping-stones to your success.

So, looking ahead to writer’s conferences this year, which should you choose? I say start with smaller ones closer to home if you can, for starters. Ones with several decent editors and a few agents. You’ll have a lower price tag, more face time with everyone, and a great start.  If you find one farther from home, look carefully at what you’ll get out of it. Are you one of thousands? Do you have opportunities to learn in smaller workshops and have more personal time with fellow writers as well as industry professionals? There are a ton of writer’s conferences out there, with more popping up every day.  Know your goals for attending, and keep an open mind as you go from event to event at a conference. Keep your focus on learning however you can, and you’ll find endless ways to do just that. And remember, that knowledge will help you get where you want to be in the end!

To see where I’ll be this year, check out my Appearances page, which I continuously update as needed.

*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.

DRAWN up for Book of Year – Please Vote!

Nominated BoY 2012 DrawnHi everyone!

I was so excited to learn that my YA novel DRAWN is up for BEST BOOK OF 2012 at the great review site Long and Short Reviews!!!

The poling just opened today and runs through Feb. 14th.  So here’s where I can use some help. If you could stop by their voting page and cast a vote for DRAWN, that would be all sorts of wonderful :)  You just need to select DRAWN, scroll to the bottom of the page and hit “Vote” and that’s that.  And, if you are feeling particularly wonderful, you could also spread the word, maybe?

To cast your vote, please click here.

Long and Short Reviews has already selected DRAWN as a “Best Book” and it was voted as a “Book of the Month,” plus in their review, they said, “I was drawn (pun intended) into this book from the first page and couldn’t put it down...The setting is wonderful… This story is so deftly created… It has the perfect amount of romance, and enough action and suspense to keep the most distracted reader turning the pages.”  Phew, that was cool.

Anyways, thanks so much for any support you can offer.  It’s so appreciated.

Marie

Writer Wednesday: Not All Bad

*This originally appeared as a guest post over at IB Book Blogging during my Drawn Blog Ghost Tour
MC910215955Bad guys can be seriously tough characters for an author to write.  But every story needs them.  What would Star Wars be without Darth Vadar? Or Harry Potter without He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?  But writing these characters in a way that makes them believable is tricky.

You want to create huge problems for your hero, and that requires a villain and some true evil.  But write about a person who is all bad and you have a cardboard character.  Like those villains in the silent flicks who twirled their moustaches while tying the damsel to the train tracks.

In my novel Drawn I had to create several baddies. The book is about teen artist Michelle De Freccio, who moves to England hoping for a more normal life.  Almost immediately she starts drawing a guy from the 1400’s. When she meets him (Christopher) at the town’s castle, things really get strange…and when she follows Christopher into the Middle Ages, well, stranger still.  The novel needed villains in the present AND in the past, so I had my bad-guy work cut out for me.

The secret, I found, is to show another side to your villain. Even if it’s just for a moment, you want a glimpse of someone who means well at times, or who is wounded in some way, or who truly believes they are doing the right thing.  If I can get the reader for just a moment to see this side of the bad person, then I know they’ll have a different view of things.  That they may even understand how the bad person went so wrong.

Here’s a moment from Drawn when I try to do just that… In the following scene Michelle discovers that her visits into the past have seriously begun to alter history and to wound Christopher’s fate. At this point, she’s started to really fall for him, so seeing history books that accuse him of terrible things is frightening indeed. Michelle has pulled book after book off the Academy’s shelf, searching for answers. Her modern-day nemesis Constance takes this opportunity to get Michelle into trouble with Constance’s mother who is the Academy’s Headmistress:

I blink and see Headmistress Hunter looming over me. Constance peers smugly from behind her.

“Such disorder,” the Headmistress says between tight lips, taking in the jumble of books at my feet. She’s almost trembling with anger. “Horrific. We do not treat reading material so shabbily, Miss De Freccio.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”

“The Academy expects appropriate behavior both in school and out. We pride ourselves on being the best.” She sniffs as if I clearly don’t qualify.

Constance grins.

“Clean this at once,” the Headmistress is saying. “Understand, this will go on your record. And on your father’s. This doesn’t bode well for his future here.”

Constance’s grin fades.

“But this isn’t his fault,” I say and hate the pleading tone in my voice. “Please don’t let it affect my dad, Headmistress.”

Constance whispers, “Mother, I don’t think—”

“Are you criticizing me?”

“No, of course not.” Constance looks at the floor.

In that brief scene the reader knows that Constance didn’t mean to endanger Michelle’s father’s position at the Academy. We see Constance has some sort of a soul and some limits, and that she is terrified of her own mother.

As for the villains in the medieval part of the book? This was a tough one because there is a mystery intertwined in the plot.  Who is the traitor? Who murders the Earl? And who is killing off all the courtiers? What if all signs point to Christopher, the young man (er, ghost?) Michelle has now come to love?  I had to spread doubts and clues in a way that gave info but also made the reader (and Michelle) wonder who can really be trusted. I can’t tell you who the real villains are without spoiling the book for you, but when all is revealed, you can bet the reader understands why the bad ’uns are doing what they do.

Balancing good and bad in a way that’s convincing can be a real challenge for any writer.  Put in too much good, and the villain is not a real threat. Put in too much bad, and you’ve created someone that’s ridiculous and unbelievable. I tried very hard to balance my villains for just the right feel… I hope readers will find it all works.

Actually, a review about Drawn that popped up on the site Author Chronicles says: “not a single character is one-dimensional—each one has flaws, strengths, and depths to them. Even the snotty ‘Queen Bee’ girl, Constance, who could easily have been a stereotype, has flashes of a soul at war with the front she puts up.”

Not all bad! ;)

Writer Wednesday: On Writing Magic

*This post originally appeared on my DRAWN Blog Ghost Tour earlier this year at the wonderful blog site The Cozy Reader

MP900414028We writers have the best job in the world.  We get to perform magic, to make things mysteriously appear out of nowhere.  All writers do this when they write fiction, but when we are writing actual fantasy scenes, well, that’s more magical than ever.

The trick, as with all magic, is making the audience believe. In my paranormal novel Drawn, the main character Michelle De Freccio is an artist that draws and then meets Christopher, a hot medieval ghost with a sketchy past.  Okay, so you have to suspend some disbelief when you read books like this, but my job is to make everything as credible as possible.  I didn’t want to create something goofy, but a novel that is gripping and that feels very real. A story that truly draws you in. To do this, I grounded as much as I could in a gritty reality, and only put in a few spare touches of magic.

On the reality front, it helps to have a character like Michelle who is a born skeptic, and a cynical Jersey-girl to boot. She’s hoping to start over in England and have a more normal life (back in New Jersey everyone called the De Freccio’s the De Freakos…her family has an odd background and she was labeled a freak).

Even Christopher, who is technically a ghost to Michelle, is a realist living in his own world in the 1400s. Convincing both of them that they are linked in a time traveling relationship isn’t easy. People who are skeptics need some undeniable proof…and a touch of magic, like in this scene from the book, narrated by Michelle, when she realizes she’s truly in another time and invisible, among other things:

But Thomas Haston’s vision remains barely focused on Christopher. “Yes, master.” He bows his head. “I shall grab the reins.”

He hurries toward us. Straight toward me. He must be completely blind, because he’s going to walk right into me.

“Watch it,” I say.

He doesn’t walk into me. He walks through me. Like I’m a stream to be waded through. My skin feels itchy and a nasty saltiness fills my mouth. Christopher releases me and looks at me with horror. I look at my hands, expecting them to be see-through, but they’re solid. “What the hell?” I say.

“What in hell,” he says, his voice barely a whisper.

 

So who is the ghost here, and what, exactly is going on?  Here’s the end to that scene:

Christopher takes both my hands, gingerly, as if he’s afraid they’ll burst into flames. “What are you? A sprite? A spirit? A phantom?”

“I’m a freak,” I say. And burst into tears.

 

MP900444287While much of Drawn is based in realistic scenes, whether in the present or in the distant past, there are a few times when I really get to flex my magic muscles. One of my favorite moments happens when Michelle brings a book with her into the past, a book that reveals all the battle outcomes in the 1400s.  While Christopher would be able to use this information to his advantage, this will clearly mess with destiny.  Some things are just not meant to happen, so:

I run my finger over the text to where I left off. “The Duke, misreading his opponent, brought his forces for the Christmastime to the castle of…” Suddenly the page looks different. More white space. Less words.

“The castle of?” Christopher prompts.

I try to focus on the words. “…for the Christmastime to the castle of Sandall, but…” Something seems to move across the paper. My skin crawls, as I slide my eyes downward. I watch with horror as the letters at the bottom of the page disappear one by one.

I flip the page. Letters disappear from the bottom here, too. The white of the paper grows, eating away at the words. Frantic, I flip back to the page I was just reading. Completely blank. “Oh God.”

“What is wrong?” Christopher tries to sit up.

I flip ahead a few pages. Two paragraphs are left. I quickly read, “Henry’s forces had been gathering throughout the area for some time and the land was heavily for—” The rest of that word is gone, as is the rest of the writing on that page.

“Why did you stop?” Christopher says and peers at the book. He draws in his breath as the words I’d just read vanish like a fabric unwound by a pulled thread.

 

Every novel with a fantasy element must have its own set of rules.  In Drawn, messing with destiny can be killer, literally. The history book with its unraveling writing sends up a warning to Michelle, but she disturbs destiny anyway, and winds up putting Christopher’s fate in horrific danger…  Okay, I can’t say anything more about that without spilling too much about the story.

But I can say one other thing about writing magic: If you put a very real moment right up against a magical one, the contrasts can create a seriously strong scene. In this scene from Drawn, Michelle is in her own time being attacked by a bunch of thugs from “the wrong side of Castle Road”:

Drawn-ebook cover final borderAs rough hands drag me off the sidewalk, I shriek “Christopher!”

They laugh. “Calling your posh boyfriend?” Bobby says. “Guess he can have you when we’re through.”

I close my eyes and hear a scream. It’s not me.

My eyes fly open. Bobby cradles his arm. Blood seeps through his fingers. “Who did that?” He looks around wildly.

I back away and another guy tries to grab at me. He shrieks as his thumb is sliced off, seemingly by nothing. It lands bloody beside me. I catch a glimpse of a rusty truck in the street before I close my eyes and curl up in a ball. Tears streak my face.

There’s more terrified screaming, then I hear them run away.

“Michelle. Michelle?” someone says and touches me. I whimper. “It is okay. I came. They will not hurt you now.” I feel the hand rub my arm and he says, “Shh now. Shh.”

I dare to open my eyes and there is Christopher kneeling beside me, a blood-smeared sword in his right hand. He drops the sword and gathers me into his arms.

 

For some reason, this scene always gives me the shivers.  I guess I’ve always been a sucker for a brave hero in tall boots.  Now that’s magic!

Special Free Offer (this week only…)

Quick post to let you know that my award-winning paranormal DRAWN is available FREE in ebook format through a special promo this week only (11/12-11/16) through Amazon worldwide.  You can access it for US readers here and for UK readers here.

And special thanks to all the awesome sites who are helping tell the world about this special limited promotion.  Sites like FREE KINDLE BOOKS AND TIPS and SNICKS LIST.

Happy reads!

Marie

Writer Wednesday: My Learning Novel

A number of years ago an idea took hold of me. It was actually from this really cool dream I had as a teen of a secret staircase hidden in an old house. A path to another time. So when I decided I really wanted to get serious about novel writing, that was the notion that took hold of me. First I called the novel Magic in the Fireplace.  Then I called it In and Out of Time. I worked on this novel, polishing and revising and submitting it to publishers countless times. It was never published.

Since that seemingly endless time of hard work and revision and heartache and hope, I’ve gone on to write 3 more novels with happier results. And now I can look back at In and Out of Time and see that it was my “learning novel.” My non-MFA thesis. Through writing this book I struggled and discovered better openings to books, more effective pacing and focus. I fought with and sometimes won my own battles to discover better dialogue and more vivid imagery. I found and learned to value critique groups and writers conferences. I met editors and agents and other writers. I grew a thicker skin as the file of rejections grew.

I learned. I spent 10 years on it.

But still the novel never got published.

Sometimes that path felt tortuous. I’m a determined person. When I vow that something is going to succeed, I’m not one to give up. But finally I didn’t really give up, I decided to move on.  Good decision. The next novel I wrote took only 4 months to complete. Within a year I had both an agent and a publisher.

I really had learned.

Looking back, I wished my own “personal MFA” had been quicker. More efficient. But I’ve also met some wonderful and successful novelists who had 5 or 6 learning novels sitting in a drawer at home before they wrote the one that sold.

When you think of that, you realize the deep level of commitment and determination that writers bring to the page when they create.

These days, when I talk to others about what it takes to be a successful writer, I always say something like this: If this is what you love, you can’t give up. Nothing’s for sure, but one thing’s certain – if you give up, then it will never happen for you…

Then I whip out my massive stack of rejections, along with my published works.  The message is pretty clear.

But what about that novel of mine, In and Out of Time? Its got some cool stuff in it, but maybe too much cool stuff. It was a middle reader novel, but some part of the plot was too grown up…so I actually stole the heart of that and used it in my YA novel DRAWN. And with In and Out of Time there are three different time periods that characters travel to. Hm, couldn’t each one form a separate adventure and novel?

But how to do that?  Well, I’m not sure yet.

I’m still learning.