Agent Monday: Novel Editing…and News!

MP900446418Agent Monday time…sending out a collective hug to everyone!

Here are some updates…I’m putting my final touches on my Writer’s Digest Webinar How to Revise Your Novel for Submission: Self-Editing Techniques that Work, which will be held live, this Thursday (11/17/16) at 2 p.m. (though you don’t have to attend it live to get the Webinar). In this class, I’ll draw on my experiences as both a novelist and a literary agent, and share with participants a solid system for making their manuscripts the best they can be. Here’s what the Webinar includes: 90 minute online class with me; all questions sent to me by participants during the Webinar answered; afterwards, send the first 5 pages of your novel, and I’ll read your pages and give you written comments about them. The price is just $89.99 (significantly less than most writer’s conferences) and registration is still open. So do you have a novel you’re working on, or one that needs revision? Definitely check this out by clicking here.

green-green-front-coverIn other news… I’m happy to report that my first picture book, GREEN GREEN (Farrar Straus Giroux), is now up for pre-orders online everywhere (its publication date is May 9th). It’s co-authored with my husband, Landscape Architect Baldev Lamba, and we are both in love with the gorgeous illustrations by accomplished artist Sonia Sanchez. This picture book is a fun celebration of community gardening. If you’d like more info, or want to pre-order, just click here.

AND I’m happy to report one more bit of joyous news… the deal for my newest picture book, A DAY SO GRAY, was announced. It will be published by Clarion Books (date yet to be set), and it’s all about finding color, and joy, within a gray winter landscape.

Have a great week, everyone. I hope you each find joy in even the bleakest of winter days. And perhaps I’ll get to chat with you on Thursday during the Webinar!

*Marie is a Literary 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.

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Agent Monday: The “Your book’s too quiet” Rejection

Childhood GirlsHappy hot and steamy Agent Monday, everyone! Ever received the following rejection and wonder what it might mean?: “I have to pass because I found your book too quiet.” Too quiet? What’s that mean? And how do you get it to make some noise? Let’s take a look… (Thanks again to client Caroline Noonan and her writer’s group for this great post idea!)

To me, too quiet means that while the book may be written in a lovely manner and the manuscript clean and the plot interesting, overall the book lacks characteristics that would make it stand out in the commercial marketplace.

Remember, an agent’s job is to sell your book to commercial publishers, and an editor’s job is to purchase books that will become stand outs on the shelf and sell.

So what can you do if your book is consistently rejected as “too quiet?” Well, first of all look hard at the type of book you are writing – what distinguishes that sort of book? Have you elevated those elements in your manuscript?

For example, if you are writing a literary novel, is your language and imagery more than adequate? Does it stand out? Are the observations and revelations unique and transforming?

If you are writing for the YA market, is your book different from what’s already out there? Can you come up with a one-liner about the book that’ll get everyone’s attention because your story has a unique approach? Is there a hook that’ll make it stand out – and if so, have you put that unique part of your story front and center in your plotting?

If you are writing for the thriller audience, is your story truly gripping, your plotting original and does your character command the page?

And if you are writing romance, does your hero truly break your heart and does the passion sizzle?

In the historical realm, are the characters riveting and are we fully caught up not only in the lovely and accurate details of the time but also the true drama and personalities and stakes you present?

What are your strengths as a writer? Characterization? Scenery? Plotting? Imagery?  Have you heightened these so they are truly stand out?

Another thing to look at is how you are labeling and targeting your manuscript submissions. If you are calling your book a thriller but it’s really a cerebral mystery, you’ll be missing the mark. If you are directing your submissions to a commercial press, when your book is really a lovely lyrical literary novel, then your piece won’t be judged within the context that you want it to.

So next time you get a “too quiet” comment in a rejection, give your manuscript a hard look. Make sure you’ve really made its most important elements unique and stand out fab, and that you are labeling it correctly.  Then send it back out there and go make some noise!

*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: Writing a First Draft

Jumbies cover small

Happy Agent Monday! Now that everyone is back to school, this is a great time for writers to get serious about tackling their muse and getting thoughts onto paper. But ugh that blank page. Are you staring at one today? Then this guest post by my client, the fabulous Tracey Baptiste, may be just what you need.

WRITING A FIRST DRAFT
guest post by Tracey Baptiste

Here’s the thing you need to know about writing a first draft: You just have to get through it. There are no other rules or tricks. A first draft is basically quarrying rocks. You go, you grab the ones that seem about right, you put them in a nice pile, and then you figure out what that pile is supposed to be later on. But being the creative types that we are, we stumble over every word, beat ourselves up over whether a plot arc or twist is working the way we want it to, and wonder—seriously wonder—why certain strings of words look as awful as they do. I’m better than THAT we think. True. We are. But not today. Today is a draft day, and you can whip that horrible string of words into shape in a little thing I like to call rewrites.

If you think I’m imparting this wisdom to help you out with your writing, or to keep you from stalling out, you would be wrong. Well, mostly wrong. Mostly, I impart this wisdom to help myself, because right now I am stalled in a first draft, wondering why everything looks so horribly bad, and seriously reconsidering my sanity for ever having considered I could write as much as a thank you note.

So this is to remind me (you too, but mostly me) to relax already and not worry so much about which words exactly get put on the page, so long as words that mostly approximate the thing that you think you’re trying to say get on the page. I mean, it’s not like you’re going to write an entire draft of the word “and” or anything. It has to make some sense.

OK, deep breaths. We can do this. We just need to remember that there is only one thing a draft needs to be: Done.

 

Tracey Baptiste - headshotTracey Baptiste is the author of the young adult novel Angel’s Grace (Simon & Schuster), and the forthcoming middle grade novel The Jumbies (Algonquin YR). You can find out more about Tracey at her website, www.traceybaptiste.com, by following her on Twitter @TraceyBaptiste, or by connecting on Facebook at TraceyBaptisteWrites.

Agent Monday: Inspiration – Follow Your Goosebumps

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

And here Harmony shares with us her insight about inspiration:

 

INSPIRATION – FOLLOW YOUR GOOSEBUMPS

Guest post by Harmony Verna

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

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

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

Truth

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

Simplicity

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

Don’t self edit…yet

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

Ban the ego

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

You got this

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

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

Follow your goosebumps.

 

Harmony Verna

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

Agent Monday: Back to School for Writers!

Colorful CrayonsHappy Agent Monday, gang!  By now all the kiddies are back to school. If your kids are young, that means back to routines, and hopefully more time for you to write and to query, etc.  If you’re newly an empty-nester (like somebody I know), that means you’ve got time to rearrange your priorities around yourself and your writing.  And if you yourself are out of school, then this is the time for those unsettling nightmares where you find yourself rushing down your old high school hallways madly searching for the right classroom because you have a test on something that you definitely didn’t know about five minutes before.  Either way you look at it, September is all about back to school, and I think this is the perfect time for back to school…for writers!

So in today’s post I want to talk about the writer’s learning curve a bit. I’m not talking about MFA programs, here, I’m talking about you developing your skills in a conscious way. As an agent, too often I see the results of an undeveloped author. That idea that wasn’t fully worked out. That writer who can’t get beyond telling their own “what I did” personal story and into a larger fictional tale. The person who hasn’t taken the time to learn how to handle dialogue or grammar. And there are those folks who show promise, but just aren’t there yet. Maybe this novel isn’t good enough for publication, but in the future, if that writer were to work harder at their craft, they could be brilliant.

So writer, teach thyself!

Not a one of us, no, not even J.K. Rowling or whoever you think of as the most successful writer in the world, ever stops learning new ways to get better.  If you just sit yourself down in a small room and write that one book and then spend the next three years marketing it before writing anything else, then YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.

There. I said it. Writing is a process and you, the writer, will continue to learn things and to change for the better. So one way you can continue to learn and improve is simply by continuing to write. The next book. The next article. The next short story or poem. Journal. Write letters to friends. Consider it all your homework! Writer’s write. And successful writers write a lot.

But of course it’s not enough to just dash words on a page. You must read them over, have others read them, open your mind to other opinions about your work, and see if you can improve. Don’t have anyone to share your work with? Time to find people. Join a local writer’s group or form your own. Meet other aspiring writers at conferences, swap emails and critique each other’s works. Or swap critiques with folks online through online writing organizations that you join.  Sometimes you can clearly see errors in another’s writing that you initially can’t see in your own stuff, but then it’s like a light bulb goes on and you notice a new way to bring your own words to a better level.

Other ways to stay in school? Read a ton of books in general. Take a writing course. Read books on the craft. Study them.  Pour over the craft magazines like Writer’s Digest and The Writer, etc. Writing is your calling, right? Why wouldn’t you want to develop your “A” game in it?

And one of the best ways to learn how to write better is on your bookshelves right now: your favorite books by beloved authors.  Open one up and read it not as a reader, but as a writer.  Analyze how the author creates the character, describes scenery, manipulates you into caring or feeling certain things, demonstrates voice. Take that work apart. How much dialogue is on a page versus narrative? How long are sentences – do they vary?  Take a chapter and physically type it out on the computer to really look closely at the words, then highlight the crap out of it and write all over it noting different elements of craft at work. Can you use any of these tricks of the trade to improve your own writing? Learn from the masters.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????So there you go. Homework assigned. Back to school you go.

Now pack your lunch in your paper bag and hustle on out there before you miss that bus!

 

*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: Much More than an Idea

Pitcher of Red BeverageHappy Agent Monday, folks!  If you’re like me, you are sitting there blinking, saying, “AUGUST? Already???”  But we are already getting slightly shorter days, cooler nights and those cicadas are buzzing as if to say “hur-ry hur-ry hur-ry.”  So now’s the time to squeeze in your summer moments, and to revisit those writerly goals. Like many writers, you may have set aside summer to finish up work on a book and get it ready for subbing to an agent. And in writer world, September seems to be the time for submission ACTION. Inboxes explode with query letters, agents quicken their steps, editors perk up in their chairs ready to find the next “one.”  Is it your book?  Truthfully, I see a lot of pretty cool ideas in my own agent inbox, but I also send out a ton of rejections.  So today, as you ready yourself for your own submission adventures, I’d like to talk a bit about how a great book is much more than an idea.

So here’s the thing.  A great idea will make me nod and read on, hoping upon hope that you can pull it off. But all too often, writers don’t pull it off. Here are some things that get in the way and quickly yield a rejection:

1. Unprofessional

Reaching out to an agent is, in fact, applying for a professional position in a business relationship.  If you label yourself as unprofessional, I’m not going to work with you no matter how cool your idea is.  Sending out mass email queries where you don’t even have the courtesy of addressing me by name? How would that go down if you were applying for a job? Not good. Query letter and manuscript riddled with poor punctuation, spelling, grammar? This is a WRITING JOB, so also not good. Acting like an a-hole in your query? (Saying things like, “You’d be lucky to have me,” or “I know all you agents aren’t going to answer me and only take on people who pay you off, but…” etc.)  I’m not going to work with you. The end.

2. Poor Writing

The greatest idea in the world can’t overcome poor writing. Clunky dialogue. Awkward word choices. Amateur mistakes such as info dumping in the beginning pages or starting the book at a point long before the real story kicks in. Going off on irrelevant tangents. And the worst crime of all: being boring. Again: the end.

3. Good Writing, But…

Sometimes the idea is great and writing is smooth and clean in those first 20 pages that come with the query letter.  Okay, I’ll bite and ask for the full manuscript.  BUT, here’s where, once again, you need to deliver more than that great idea. Much more.  More than adequate writing.  Over the course of the novel, I frequently see serious structure problems.  The story drags or veers seriously off course, leaving the reader far behind.  The book needs to get even better, more interesting, more intense as I read.  Somehow writers often drop the ball after that great start. Things get predictable, or repetitive, or the elements that drew me in at the start are forgotten. These are the manuscripts that I fail to finish. And it’s a shame. The idea and the start looked so promising…

Boy and Girl Running in Tall GrassYou need to bring your A-game if you are intent on getting an agent and cracking those top publishing markets.  So remember that a book is an investment in time, not just for you the writer, but, more importantly, for your readers. You need so much more than just a cool idea.

Give your manuscript and query letter a really close look and tight edit. Bring me your very best. Draw me in and keep me enthralled till that very last word.

And hur-ry hur-ry hur-ry. September is on its way!

 

*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.

Writer Wednesday: Just Because You Can…

*This post originally appeared on Janice Gable Bashman’s site as part of my Drawn Blog Ghost Tour.

Fiction writers can create a story out of anything, and every character they put down on paper can have their own conflict, their own story line. This is both a blessing and a curse.

When writing my new paranormal novel DRAWN, I knew I was creating what, for me, was a “big book.” Up to that point I’d been writing novels that took place within a tight one month time frame. My plots revolved around my town and were populated by people very familiar to me. “Write what you know,” they say, and I knew the worlds of my first two young adult novels WHAT I MEANT… and OVER MY HEAD very well. But DRAWN was a different sort of story.

Time is slippery in this time-travel book, involving a month-long timeframe in the present, but also an eight-month long timeframe in the past. The setting is present day AND 1460 England. I’m a bit familiar with modern England, having lived there for a semester and visited numerous times, but the past? Not so much. Intensive research was required. My characters in this new novel range from Italian-Americans, to British citizens, medieval lords and courtiers and servants. Add into this mix a plot line where the past and the future continues to be altered as our heroine travels back and forth in time and, well, you have a big book indeed.

And I struggled a bit to make sure it didn’t turn into one big mess. Which gets us to the heart of this post: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I can’t tell you how many characters I spun out into entire storylines with their own scenes and character arcs…and some of these characters don’t even appear in the book anymore. You might think the solution is an outline, but even when using an outline it can be hard to tell just how far to go with a character’s story or to know which scenes might be important.

Sometimes the only solution is to write it through and then cut cut cut! Sure, you are doing a ton of character research by writing those extra scenes. But when the character ends up being barely a minor one, it becomes a case of TMI. You don’t need all, or sometimes any of that stuff. And by heading off here and there on wild plot chases, you are wasting time, wasting your energy, and muddying your own clear view of things.

In DRAWN, I’d created this character Guncha, who quickly became one of Michelle’s friends after Michelle moved to England. Guncha was gossipy and romantic-minded, so she was the perfect person to give Michelle the scoop on things, and to nudge her in matters of romance when Michelle finds herself stalked by an unknown guy who also, by the way, mysteriously appears in Michelle’s sketches. But when it came to Guncha, I didn’t stop there. Before I knew it, Michelle was visiting Guncha’s house, sleeping over, meeting her family, learning of Guncha’s conflicts with her traditional family. And Guncha was planning an escape with a secret and unsuitable boyfriend, etc. etc. etc. Nearly one hundred pages later, I realized that my story had naturally strayed far from its central focus: Michelle and her encounters with Christopher Newman, the hot medieval ghost with a sketchy past.

So, refocus and cut cut cut! In the final book we only see Guncha at school and at a carnival. There is no secret boyfriend. No family to speak of. And Michelle wishes she felt closer to her, but realizes that she just can’t share her own secrets with Guncha. How would Guncha ever understand that Michelle’s budding new relationship just might be with a ghost? As Guncha implores Michelle to tell, but secrets continue to build, the reader is in on the gossip instead of Guncha, which is fun. So in this case, I would have saved a ton of time if I could have decided up front not only that Guncha was going to be a minor character, but also what her true function in the plot would be. This is a biggie, because if I knew this I could have smacked my own hand every time I deviated from this mission.

Sounds good, right? But what if your extra character’s story parallels and weaves into the main plot, adding intrigue and mystery? Why wouldn’t you stray into that storyline?  DRAWN involves an ancient murder, and a chilling curse that still lingers in the town’s castle. In the book, the Wallingford Papers (based on the real Paston Letters…look ‘em up if you’re curious) are a series of preserved family letters dating back to the 1400s. They detail the history of the murder, and the heroism of the Wallingford ancestors. But are all the letters actually in the public record? And are they to be believed? This plot is essential to the book, involving the fate of the ghost and pretty much everyone in the story.

Okay, so doesn’t it seem obvious that a scholar could be at the heart of rooting out this mystery? Since the Wallingford family reputation (and much of their success) hinges on their heroic background, wouldn’t you expect that family to do anything to keep their family name clean? So, is it that crazy that I created a scholar who in the ‘50s uncovered their secrets and was about to go public with it, before an untimely death? Flash forward to the present, and I also created Mr. Llywelyn, a history teacher at Wallingford Academy (Michelle’s new school) who was related to this very scholar and who is also fighting to uncover the truth of the murder, the papers and the death of the scholar, and…

Cut cut CUT!!! Jeesh. Do you see how the fiction writer’s mind can spin and weave and deviate from the main story path, even while she is following that very same path? Yikes, it’s like entrapment I tell you. In the end I had to give a long hard look at the story elements that were most essential. Yes, I wanted a scholar who was silenced, but I decided that this scholar would have absolutely nothing to do with the history teacher. The scholar now has merely a mention, just enough to add to the danger and the gravity of the treacherous ancient secrets being kept. As for Mr. Llywelyn? Well, he’s Michelle’s history teacher, instructing the class about the very era Christopher the ghost inhabits. The teacher’s role is now limited to occasionally adding in a fact about the Wallingford Papers, about the dangers of living at that time, etc., thereby ramping up the tension for Michelle when she realizes what these facts mean to a ghost she’s starting to have spooky good feelings for. I had to focus on Michelle as the hero, as the person who solves the mystery and makes things happen. No way should this be relegated to another character and, since this is a YA title, especially not to an adult.

So again, a supposed major-player was reduced to a few lines. Lines that were necessary and served the plot. And beyond that? Well, this just wasn’t his story.

Sometimes writing a book is a process, sometimes it’s an ordeal, but it’s only successful if we give our draft a hard look and decide if scenes are moving us forward, and if our deviations are truly creating the book we’d set out to write.

As I get further along in my writing career, I’m training myself to create a clearer storyline and to force myself to stick to that path. If the story is complex enough, like DRAWN is, there is no need to deviate and take elaborate side trips into other character paths. It’s enough, while plotting, to stick to the main issues and simply ask myself: And then what? And then? And then?

The answers, surprisingly, can equal a rich and complex novel.