Agent Monday: Some Words on Writing Contests

file000331550356Happy Agent Monday, everyone!  Writing contests are a great way to garner attention. Nab a notable award and it’ll be a feather in your writing bonnet. And even if you don’t win, you might gain the attention of important people. Sometimes, in fact, editors and agents are serving as contest judges — win, win!

Today I’m so excited to welcome to the blog wonderful author Stephanie Winkelhake. In her guest post, Steph is sharing some tips she’s gathered about entering writing contests. Listen to this woman — she knows what she’s talking about! Stephanie has finaled not once, but TWICE in the national Golden Hearts competition sponsored by RWA. For the 2014 GH competition (winners announced in July) she’s a finalist for her awesome YA thriller CARMA ALWAYS, which is about a clone who is brought to life to solve her original’s murder before the boy she loves in both incarnations is destroyed. Take it away, Steph!

Some Words on Writing Contests
by Stephanie Winkelhake

Once upon a time, I was terrified to show my writing to anyone. I mean, it’s still a nerve-wracking thing today, but years ago, it was something nightmares were made of. What if my writing was horrible and I only thought it was decent? What if I had no business writing at all? Those doubts prevented me from handing over my manuscript to people I actually knew (you know, besides my mom).

So, baby steps. I entered contests. Since my manuscript at the time had romance in it, I opted for RWA (Romance Writers of America) chapter contests. Imagine my surprise when I actually became a finalist in one! I nearly cried because someone—and not someone related to me—thought my words had merit. And besides that, the judges returned my manuscript with constructive feedback that helped shape me into a better writer.

I entered more contests. I did well in some, and didn’t score high enough in others. In late 2011, I entered the RWA Golden Heart® Awards—the most prestigious RWA contest for unpublished writers. That following January, I signed with my agent (hi, Marie!), and that March, I got another important call—my manuscript was a finalist in the GH! Talk about a nice surprise. Gradually, I gained enough confidence in my writing to find a critique partner and some wonderful readers.

This year, I’m a GH nominee again with my YA thriller CARMA ALWAYS. Getting that phone call a second time was just as exciting as the first. I owe a lot to RWA and those amazing judges I had along the way. (Also, a special shout-out to my agent and my CP/readers!) They all gave me that spark of confidence I needed in my writing to push forward.

Is there a secret formula to wowing the judges? If so, I’d really like to find out what it is. But I do have a list of items I follow before submitting an entry, and in case anyone is curious, I’ve added them below:

1. Always read the formatting directions. Some contests have their own formatting requirements, like what to put in the headers and what font to use. Pay attention, because you don’t want to be penalized right off the bat for not following directions.

2. Decide what happens on page zero, and determine what to include on page one. Okay, so I wish I did have a secret formula for this one. But there are things you can avoid, like spending three pages having a character waking up and describing their breakfast. Dedicating the majority of chapter one to tell the reader about your character’s entire life before now? Also probably a bad idea. Besides, you only have so many pages to show off your characters to the judges, right? So make them count.

3. Determine whether scenes in the entry pages are truly needed. You’ll want to make sure every scene in the entry moves the story along. And here’s something I do: I cut any unnecessary sections. Does this scene only contain stuff the reader only needs to know in pages after the entry ends? If so, CUT. And hey, sometimes I find that this helps pinpoint things I don’t need at all in my manuscript. Sometimes this helps me find a paragraph or scene that takes the reader out of the story. CUT. In this year’s GH entry, I ended up trimming a scene I originally thought I had to have, but turns out, it didn’t add much to the overall story. Say it with me now: CUT!

4. Leave the judges with a nice memory. Contests usually have a word count or page restriction for entries. But I never end an entry mid-sentence or paragraph. In fact, I try to conclude an entry with a finished scene. Sometimes this involves revisiting #2 and cutting more words to squeeze it all in. Sometimes I’ll switch scenes around to leave the entry on something that highlights what I think the judges are looking for. For example, romance is important in RWA contests, so I try to end the entry on a romantic scene between my characters. It can’t hurt to leave the judges with a nice memory before they turn their attention to the score sheet.

5. Proofread, proofread, proofread. Judges won’t give you high marks for your writing mechanics and grammar if your entry is littered with mistakes. I find it helps to go over the entry on an e-reader, which forces me to look at manuscript in a fresh way. I’m always amazed at how many mistakes or misspelled words I discover on my e-reader versus my computer screen.

And…that’s it. Easy, right? Sprinkle in some hard work and a healthy dose of revisions, and you’ll be cooking.

Oh, one last (very important) thing: Don’t get discouraged if you don’t final or win. That doesn’t mean your writing or story isn’t great. Not at all! Remember that writing is a subjective business. (Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good thing to remember outside of contests, too.)

Happy writing!

 

GH_2014_thumbnailStephanie Winkelhake is the author of CARMA ALWAYS, a YA thriller recently nominated for the 2014 RWA Golden Heart® Award. Her young adult paranormal FOLLOWING YOU (previously titled THE MATTER OF SOULS) was a finalist manuscript in the 2012 Golden Heart® contest and the winner of the Best-of-the-Best round in the IRWA 2011 Indiana Golden Opportunity contest. Her story DO NOT MACHINE WASH appears in CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL: I CAN’T BELIEVE MY DOG DID THAT! (Chicken Soup for the Soul, Sept 2012). When not writing, Stephanie is most likely reading, burning something on the stove, or plotting a return to Comic-Con. Her website can be found here. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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.

 

 

 

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!

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 an Investment

Happy Agent Monday, everyone!  Okay, it is so cold in the Northeast that folks coming to the ALA Midwinter Conference in Philly had to contend with cancelled trains. Why? Because the train doors were frozen shut. That’s what I heard. Not kidding!  Fortunately, my trains had working doors and I braved the cold on Friday and Saturday to attend the conference. Was it worth it?  Definitely. I got to meet with a ton of editors, talk to publishers from all over the country and from Canada, and see a number of writers that I know as well. But what really warmed my soul was seeing the products of my first two book deals being launched! Publishing takes time, and agenting takes patience and persistence and lots of work, just like writing does. It’s an investment.

All that time I put into finding the right authors to represent, working with that author to get the manuscript ready for submission, making up the perfect pitch, learning about who the right editors may be for a work, contacting editors, following up, taking deal offers, negotiating contracts… Phew.  I love what I do, but it does take time.  And that time is all worth it when I see this:

ALA Midwinter 2014 - 1

Here are two of my very first deals, published and on display side-by-side at The Holiday House publisher’s booth at the convention. And they are both on sale now. Eliza Bing is (Not) a Big Fat Quitter by Carmella Van Vleet is a fabulous 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.  This is Carmella’s debut novel, and it has already been honored as a Junior Library Guild Selection.  I’m not surprised.  Eliza’s an unforgettable character!  Mending Horses, a YA historical by award-winning author M.P. Barker, is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever encountered. Michele (the M. in M.P.) writes with such confidence and skill that you are completely absorbed in this tale about Daniel, a young indentured servant in 1800s New England, who is suddenly set free and must find his way alone. He finds a family of sorts in an old peddler, a young runaway and a traveling circus, but all is not well. The performing horses are mistreated, and a dangerous secret puts everyone at risk. Daniel fights to protect the horses, but can he save them all?

To view the cool trailer for this book, click here and then click on trailer video.

It was a great moment for me as an agent to hold these two books in my hands. To have a part in bringing these wonderful books to readers. But it took time. And not just for me, of course. The authors spent so much time perfecting their writing, creating their novels, revising them, finding an agent, then revising again, then working on revisions with the publisher. It’s an investment.

But it pays off – over time.

I look at my career as an agent thus far as a start-up business. I put in my own time to learn the ropes, to scout out clients, to build my list, and now, two years into it, things are chugging along. My authors are working on second and third manuscripts for me. I have a number of projects out on submission. New books are slotted for publication in 2015. It’s a process.

I guess that’s what I hope writers will take away from this post. It’s a process. An investment. It takes time. It’s worth it.

I always tell my authors to take a loooong view of their careers. That means don’t just write one book and wait for it to sell. Work on something new while the other is on submission.

Writers, don’t let past discouragements in your career stop you from writing and moving ahead. Learn from it and keep going. I’m a writer, too, and there are many times that I could have stopped and said, enough! But I didn’t, and I’m so glad I gave myself that time. When things derail your writing career, it can be hard to have that sort of perspective. But keep working and you will look back after 20 years of writing and producing work and see that stumbling block as something small in perspective. If writing is your passion, keep going. It’s an investment.

And expect an agent that will invest in you. A good agent will be viewing you over the long career you have ahead of you. Not dropping you if a project doesn’t immediately sell. You will continue to write, to grow and to get better and better. Writers with talent are worth investing in.

Now back to work, everyone!  Put in that time.

*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: 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: What I’m Looking for – Part 1

MP900178930

Waiting for good stuff in my inbox…

Happy Agent Monday, and happy July everyone!  It is absolutely pouring here right now and my road looks like a gushing river.  So I’m sitting here and sipping my first coffee of the day thinking that I wish my agent inbox was flooded with amazing queries right about now….  This past week over at Twitter, there was a #mswl event going on…  Manuscript wish lists were posted there by agents and editors, and I jumped on the bandwagon, posting a few of my own wishes.  Immediately I started to get some submissions into my inbox referencing #mswl – but a bunch weren’t even close to what I was asking for.  So I thought I take the next few agent Mondays to spell my own #mswl a bit more.  Here’s what I’m looking for…

#MSWL numero uno: Strong beautiful YA contemporary – character driven w/ 1 main prob, not dozens

Okay, so it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of novels by Sarah Dessen and John Green and that also I might just have written a YA contemporary novel or two of my own.  So of course I have a deep abiding interest in contemporary YA.

Contemporary = realistic.  No paranormal elements. Based in reality.  So if you query me with a contemporary novel that features elves, then you have mislabeled your manuscript.  That’s a fantasy.  If there are ghosts, that’s a paranormal.  So what I mean is real kids in real situations that happen right now. Contemporary.  Clear enough.

I find that many people still are confused about what makes a book a young adult novel.  You need to have the main character be a teen – and an older teen at that.  Too often a 13 year old character is really the star of an upper middle grade novel (kids like to read about characters older than they are).  Or the main character is in their mid-twenties or older- that’s adult fiction, not YA.  There is also a “new adult” category emerging where the character is in college or in their early 20′s.  If the novel has a teen character, but the story is all about the parents in the story, then that is also not YA – that’s adult.  Lately I’ve also gotten manuscripts that feature points of view of both a teen and an adult with the focus being on both the stories – but the teen story doesn’t appeal to an adult audience, and the adult story is definitely not for the teen readers – that sort of book is all messed up genre wise and impossible to place. Trust me, no teen wants to read about a character’s parents’ sex life in alternating chapters with the teen’s story. Zowie.

Anyways… Character driven should be pretty self-explanatory: the characters are well developed, grow throughout the book, and they are the focus of the story rather than a high concept hook.  Like if it’s a book about a murder investigation that focuses on the whodunnit rather than the who in the story, that’s plot driven, not character driven.  If the book’s all about scandal and salacious details instead of the impact that something has on a character, that is also not character driven.

I’m hoping to get into the character’s head and soul and to walk in their shoes as they deal with a conflict that forces them to change in some way.

Which brings us to the last part of my #mswl: 1 main prob, not dozens.

I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I get where the plot starts off promising, but then veers into the ridiculous with the number of problems piled onto the character’s life.

Let’s say the character is stuck in a foster home and doesn’t feel she belongs anywhere…until she starts working at the quirky music shop and discovers a new dysfunctional but loving “family” that she can call home.  I’m making this up for this piece, but that, right there is a novel all laid out. One main problem with tons of opportunities for characters and conflict and twists and revelations and in the end, growth.

What I’m getting in my inbox instead is something that runs like this… Take that same one heartfelt problem as above, BUT also…the character’s mother was murdered, the murderer is still out there, the character is sexually abused by a teacher she had begun to trust, she’s also a drug addict, and the job she gets at the music store is run by a heroin addict and staffed by people she gets close to only they are all illegal aliens and get deported, so she develops bulimia, and…

You see what I’m saying? Not one main problem but dozens. Piled on. Where’s the confidence, people? You don’t need sensationalism or tons of issues. Give me one issue with some minor ones if needed added on. Give me heart and elegance and a character I care about. Look at the books by Dessen and Green and other beautiful contemporary writers.  Bulimia = one book. Abuse = one book. No family love = one book. Etc.  So look at how few issues characters in these great novels are really dealing with at once.  I think you’ll be surprised at the simple central premise that rests at the bottom of each one.  People/characters are complex enough, right?

Anyways, that’s my #mswl #1.  Put that in my agent inbox right now, please.  But PLEASE follow my guidelines so you do it the right way.  For my guidelines, click here.

And stay tuned for another #mswl next week!

*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!