Agent Monday: Dig Deeper for Ideas

Red Lightbulb in Fixture

Happy Agent Monday, everyone! Last day of February – WOOT!  I’m all about springtime and being outdoors and longer days and digging in the garden – and I can’t wait for all of that. I’m also eager to dig through the submissions in my agent inbox to find  the next engrossing read. However, what I’m often finding are manuscripts that, while well written, are just all too familiar. That’s a real shame. The writers have skill, but the idea behind their book is one I’ve seen too many times before. I wish that these writers could dig deeper so that more original plotting can grow.

What do some of those all too familiar plots look like? Here are a few examples:

For middle grade or YA: A child or a teen must spend the summer with a grandparent or other relative they hardly know – and it’s always in the middle of nowhere or on some waterfront setting. There the kid uncovers some sort of mystery they must solve, whether magical or spooky or historical, and an unlikely person ends up helping and becoming a close friend. In the end, the kid learns about themselves, and also sees that unknown relative in a new light.

For women’s fiction: A young woman has tried to make a go of her career and love life, but finds embarrassing failures and is forced to go back to her home town with its small town ways. There, she eats humble pie, sees that simple life as not so simple and even sophisticated and enviable and heartfelt, and that old flame of hers is there to rekindle a different life path.

For women’s fiction or memoir: A person’s life falls completely apart, and they go on a journey to leave it all behind and are challenged in new and surprising ways that change everything.  For a memoir, this can be a trek or a world tour or some other adventurous trip. For fiction, it is often spurred by a death in the woman’s family, or a divorce by a cheating spouse, and the heroine either inherits or buys some rundown home in some isolated place and is challenged to make a go of things – of course the attractive but surly and mysterious handyman is there to help.

There are many other too familiar plots I could site. Just conjure up ideas of dystopian fiction, fantasy middle grade, silly picture books, and you will likely come up with a number of familiar story lines yourself. Call them tropes if you like, and they could be entertaining, and well done. But I say talented writers can go deeper in their ideas and plotting. As an agent, I’m looking for originality and fresh journeys to go on. In a weird way, it’s a lot like trying to find something on NETFLIX to binge watch. You want something engrossing and interesting and wonderful. Something worth investing your time in, and you want to be surprised and delighted in the adventures that enfold. You don’t want to watch a few minutes and have many things figured out, and to feel like you’ve seen something just like this before.

Pile of LightbulbsSo what’s a writer to do? I say dig deeper. Find what you most love about your idea, and then as you plot, don’t go to the first or second idea of what could happen next. One technique that I really like to use when plotting my own novels is from Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (a craft book I highly recommend). Think of what could happen next in your story. Then write, say, 5 more ideas. Then 5 more.  Take that last idea on your list and use THAT. You’ll be using something on a much less obvious train of thought.

And you’ll be creating something that may just surprise and delight you, and please agents and readers too.

 

*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: Know What you Write

DebbieHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  One thing I’m always on the hunt for in submissions is convincing writing. Make me believe that fictional world is real, and you’ll have me hooked. We’ve all heard that saying, “Write what you know.” But that’s limiting. I think the truth is you should “know what you write.” Do your homework, research things, and really put yourself in your character’s shoes. Lots of writers scour the internet, and hit the books to do this, but some writers go quite a bit further. Like our client, author Debbie Dadey. Debbie’s approach to writing might just have you looking at research in a whole new light.

Writer’s DO
by Debbie Dadey

I’ve always heard, write what you know. Perhaps it should be write what you DO. I’ve always wanted to experience what I write about if it is at all possible. So, unless it’s dangerous I do it. Ooops, wait a minute that isn’t true, because some people would say sliding into a shark tank or sky diving is dangerous and I’ve done both to help me write stories.

I guess this ‘doing’ thing all began when I was writing an Adventures of the Bailey School Kids book with my friend Marcia Thornton Jones. When we first started writing the series, we actually sat side by side and worked out the story together. We were stuck on a scene when the kids were in a classroom. We wanted Eddie to do something a bit wild, but what? So we were ‘doers’. We went into a third grade classroom and sat down at a desk. Scraps of paper were spilling out, which we included in our story, but that wasn’t wild. It wasn’t the pencil stubs, but the scissors poking their blunt points out of the mess that gave us the idea. Eddie was sitting behind Liza and her long blond hair was swinging. Can you guess what Eddie was going to do? (Or try to do?)

So when we were writing the story, Hercules Doesn’t Pull Teeth, it made perfect sense for us to go to the dentist to do research. Sure, I’ve been to the dentist more times that I can remember, but I’d never really paid attention. So, going to the dentist and taking a few notes really helped bring the dentist’s office to life. The same was true for bringing karate practice alive in the book, Angels Don’t Know Karate. What better way to write about karate than to actually do it? It was a bit embarrassing though since my son was a higher belt and I had to bow to him. (He loved it!)

I think the key to being a ‘doer’ is to put a limited number of details into the natural flow of the story. I didn’t want Mrs. Jeepers in Outer Space to become a non-fiction book about space camp, but I did want kids to feel like they were really there. So I hustled myself off to Huntsville, Alabama to experience what it was really like. Spinning around to the point of nausea on the multi-axis trainer was worth it because I could write about it with a bit of authority.

For Whistler’s Hollow, I drove eight hours so I could sit on a coal train. I took notes so I could write one paragraph about what it felt like. It must have worked because when that book came out, the publisher of Bloomsbury USA told me, “It felt like I was really on that train.”

I also slid into a shark tank for Danger in the Deep Blue Sea, book number four in my Mermaid Tales series with Simon and Schuster. But probably the craziest thing I have done for writing was to fall out of a plane! I wrote a story, that I’ve never sold, where a grandmother wanted to go sky-diving. So, I figured to be able to write about it I should experience it. Big mistake!! You can see me scream on my website, www.debbiedadey.com.

MT14smSome folks might think being a ‘doer’ is an unnecessary extra step and perhaps it is. Probably researching or watching videos will suffice in most instances. And I’m sure going to see a real live reindeer for Reindeers Don’t Wear Striped Underwear, getting a scooter of my own for Pirates Do Ride Scooters, and creating a mess making cookies for Slime Wars wasn’t totally necessary. But for me, it’s hard to pass up the ch,ance to be a kid again. And if it can help me write better, then I’m all for it.

I recently finished writing Mermaid Tales #14 about a mermaid who is injured and can’t swim. All I can say is good thing I had some crutches in the garage!

 

Debbie Dadey (debbiedadey.com) is the author of 142 books, her titles have sold more than 42 million copies worldwide, and her The Adventures of the Bailey School Kids series has been listed by Forbes.com as one of Scholastic’s top three best-selling series of all time. Dadey’s most recent series, Mermaid Tales (Simon and Schuster), continues to delight readers with its magical blend of ocean ecology and engaging fantasy.

 

*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: 3 Things I’m Searching for in Fiction

Businesswoman standing on a ladder looking through binocularsHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  With last week’s blizzard a distant icy memory, it’s time to dig into my submission inbox – hoping for some hot fiction I can represent. Often, though, submissions look so promising on one front, but don’t deliver on another. So I thought I’d share what I’m looking for in that “total package,” in case it’ll help you amp up your own fiction into that coveted must read for agents and readers alike. So here are the 3 things I’m searching for in submissions…

1. An Intriguing Idea

I know, duh, right? But this is essential. When I read what the book is about, I want to think: Oooo, that’s interesting! Not: Oh, THAT again? Or: And? I care because? If your idea is ho-hum, this presents a huge challenge for you the writer. Also, your idea should be handled in a fresh way that only you will show me.

2. Skill

Double duh. BUT, so very often I find that intriguing idea and think, “Yes!  This is something I’d love to read. So excited!” Then I start to read the manuscript and find the writer’s craft is lacking. They have a great idea, but can’t carry it off.

3. Follow Through

Writer’s that have an intriguing idea, and demonstrate skillful craft, must still be able to take that idea, and, with skill, develop it into a satisfying read to the very end. Too often, manuscripts start off well, and then plateau and disappoint. A great manuscript must promise something great to the reader, show skill, and then, and here’s the real key, deliver even more than what the reader had anticipated.

So a great manuscript grows that intriguing idea. The writer’s style and personality works perfectly with that idea to truly create a world and show us something even more insightful, moving, and or unique than we’d ever anticipated. That writer has truly taken us on a journey. We end the read more than satisfied. We are amazed.

What I’m often seeing are manuscripts that give me #1, but not #2. Or #2 but not #1. And when #1 and #2 are in place, #3 is missing. As an agent and a reader, I need all three elements in place. And when I find them, it’s reading magic.

Need some examples of projects that snagged my attention on all three fronts? Here are just a few from our client list:

Adult fiction:
DAUGHTER OF AUSTRALIA by Harmony Verna (releasing through Kensington this March)

Young adult fiction:
MENDING HORSES by M.P. Barker (Holiday House)

Middle grade fiction:
ELIZA BING IS (NOT) A BIG FAT QUITTER by Carmella Van Vleet (Holiday House)
THE JUMBIES by Tracey Baptiste (Algonquin Books for Young Readers)
THE FRIENDSHIP EXPERIMENT by Erin Teagan (releasing through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Fall 2016)

Picture book:
TO THE STARS! by Carmella Van Vleet and Dr. Kathy Sullivan (Charlesbridge)

As a writer myself, I strive for those 3 elements in my own fiction, and work hard to hold myself to those standards whenever I dive into my own fictional worlds. If you want to check out my YA novels, here are the links:

DRAWN by Marie Lamba
OVER MY HEAD by Marie Lamba
WHAT I MEANT… by Marie Lamba (Random House)

And coming in 2017, is my picture book:

GREEN GREEN (Farrar Straus Giroux) by Marie Lamba and Baldev Lamba, illustrated by Sonia Sanchez

 

*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: Oh the Horror!

MP900309567Happy Agent Monday everyone!  I know – it’s been a while…  I’ve been traveling a ton for conferences and been on so many planes and through so many time zones it’s a wonder  my eyesballs aren’t spinning in my head. Which leads me to today’s subject: HORROR! Hey, it’s Halloween week, right? And Halloween is one of my very favorite times of the year. I love a good fright. But I don’t represent horror, and yet…in some ways I do.  Let me explain..

Drawn-ebook cover final Jan 12Here’s the thing – I LOVE a good ghost story. Truly. The kind that make you shiver and wonder or perhaps feel heartsick, the kind that are steeped in a sense of history or folklore. My own YA novel DRAWN taps into that, adding a dimension of timeless longing and injustice. I also adore well-drawn characters – so important to me.

What I don’t want to see? Gratuitous violence or gore. No thank you. Yeah, I love Halloween, but for me the shivers has nothing to do with psychos wielding chainsaws. God I hate when they wreck a good haunted house with blood-soaked rooms. #notforme

So that’s how I say “no horror” yet I represent awesome author Gregory Frost who is working on a novel about a haunted White House in the 1800s. Yup, there are some touches of horror in that novel for sure, but the book is all about the characters and the time, plus the writing is beyond gorgeous. And that’s how I represent Jim Kristofic, whose short story horror collection is beyond creepy, BUT is steeped in Native American lore and awesome writing and NOT all about blood and guts. There’s more of a psychological thing going on. And it’s how I fell for my client Tracey Baptiste’s THE JUMBIES, which is a middle grade horror set in the Caribbean, and features monsters that snatch children. That one is elegant and heartfelt and folkloric, and very much set in a time and place.

So bloody horror? Nope. If your book were made into a movie, would it be a slasher film? Then please don’t send it my way. But spooky and even terrifying lit that is elegantly written and has strong characterization? Yup. Ghosts. Meaning. Not just cheap scares. That’s the distinction. That will get me interested.

And now, for your Halloween reading pleasure, here are three client books now available that are perfect for a spooky evening read:

TTTCoverTURKEY TRICK OR TREAT, a fun new picture book written by Wendy Silvano and illustrated by Lee Harper (Two Lions). This one is hilarious and the illustrations will draw you in! Check it out by clicking here. (Also, a Scholastic Book Club title.)

jumbies500_THE JUMBIES, highly praised spooky middle grade novel by Tracey Baptiste (Algonquin Books for Young Readers). This creepy Caribbean tale will have you looking over your shoulder and snuggling deeper under the covers. Full of fun and feisty kids that best the beasts! Find out more here. (And available now through Scholastic Book Clubs.)

Harvest Party cover 300 B dpi 9-14-15HARVEST PARTY! This fun picture book is written by Jennifer O’Connell and illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka (Scholastic Cartwheel). It’s a perfect fall read for the little ones in your family who love to laugh. (Can be purchased now through Scholastic Book Clubs.)

Happy Halloween! And send me some treats…

*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: Top 5 Must-Knows for Writers Sending Queries

Little Girl Drawing in ClassHappy Agent Monday, everyone! Remember me? Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve posted here simply because I’ve been SO VERY BUSY. With only so many hours afforded us, we agents have to use our time very wisely. That’s why, if you are a writer querying agents, you’ll want your query to be ultra effective. So, in the spirit of being succinct, I offer up The Top 5 Things Every Writer Must Know BEFORE Querying… (Thanks to client Caroline Noonan’s writer’s group for this blog post idea!)

1. Pay Attention to Submission Guidelines!

If an agent says they don’t represent category romance and that’s what you write, cross them off your list. If they ask you to start your email message line with QUERY – do so. It’ll help them spot your query, plus keep you out of their spam file. My submission guidelines allow you to paste in (NOT ATTACH!…See #2) the first 20 pages of your manuscript below your query. Folks that haven’t seen my guidelines and just send me a query letter really miss an opportunity when they submit. Follow specifications and it’ll improve your chances all around!

2. Attachments are a No No

Unless an agent specifically says send an attachment, just don’t! Attachments bring along a host of possible viruses, and won’t be opened. My own submission guidelines are very clear (find them here), yet I get entire manuscripts attached to queries. Or even the query letter only in the form of an attachment. Do this, and chances are high your query letters to agents will be deleted and you’ll never get a response.

3. Research is Your Friend

Back in the day, there was little info available on what agents wanted and who represented which author, etc. But today? You can spend just a bit of time researching and end up with a truly targeted list of agents. There is no reason to waste your time sending to zillions of agents at once. Get your list right, and spend that extra time working on your craft and on your next book instead! Find your list of agents using resources like the market listings put out annually through Writer’s Digest. DEFINITELY subscribe to publishersmarketplace.com to take your research to the next level…it’s $25 per month, but you can sign up for a month, research all you want, and then drop the subscription if you like. In this site you can quickly find out who represents which authors, which agents have done deals involving your sort of book, and then when you query those agents, you can really let them know why you’ve chosen to approach them. Smart, right?

4. Be Specific

Because agents have so little time to linger over query letters, get right to it! Quickly let us know the title of your work, the genre/age group it’s for, and the word (not page) count. Then give us, ideally in one line, an engaging description of its plot. I can quickly tell from this if it’s the type of project I’m interested in and if I want to read more. Hit this right (you’ve targeted the submission to me, so you’ll know I’m interested in this type of book, true?), and I’ll settle in happily to see what else you’ve got to say. Include a brief paragraph about your book, then a brief bio…keep on topic!

5. This is NOT a Drill

A query is your one shot to connect with an agent, so be sure you’ve got everything right. That means not only have you followed guidelines, but your letter is grammatically correct and interesting. If not, you’ll rack up those rejections quickly. Your novel must be complete, and completely polished. Don’t start querying agents until this is true. When it comes to fiction, we aren’t interested in merely an idea, and we don’t want to see a rough draft. You can’t come back to us and be all like, hey, remember when I sent that to you two weeks ago? Yeah, well, here’s a different version of it – do you like THIS ONE?  Nope. You are querying because your book is as ready as you can make it. If it’s not? Then wait until it is.

Okay, I know I said there would be 5 on this list, but I’d like to add just one more item…

6. Agents really DO want to find great talent

This is a biggie to keep in mind. We are busy. We do have our clients. But we accept queries for one reason only: we are looking for the next great talent to add to our list of authors. Follow these “must knows” and we just might find you!

*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.

April 20th Webinar for PB, MG and YA authors!

yes - notepad & penHi all!  Just a quick heads up that I and my fellow agents of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency are offering an online webinar through Writer’s Digest. It’s called Sell Your Children’s Book: How to Write Amazing Novels & Picture Books for Kids Boot Camp. This online boot camp starts on next Monday, April 20th, so if you are a picture book, middle grade or YA author and are interested, definitely look into it now and register by clicking here.

This might be just the thing you need before the next writer’s conference or before you submit to agents. Here’s a bit of info from Writer’s Digest on how it’ll work:

On April 20, you will gain access to two special 60-minute online tutorials presented by literary agents from Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. Jennifer De Chiara will present a tutorial on writing picture books, and Roseanne Wells will present a tutorial on writing and selling Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction.

After listening to your choice of presentations, attendees will spend the next two days revising materials as necessary. Also following the tutorial, writers will have two days in which to log onto the Writer’s Digest University boot camp message boards and ask your assigned agent critiquers questions related to revising your materials. The agents will be available on the message boards from 1-3 p.m. (ET) on both Tuesday, April 21 and Wednesday, April 22. No later than Thursday, April 23, attendees will submit either their completed picture book text (1,000 words or fewer) or the first 10 double-spaced pages of their middle grade / young adult manuscript. The submissions will receive feedback directly from the boot camp literary agents.

The agents will spend up to 15 days reviewing all assigned critiques and provide feedback to help attendees. No later than May 9, agents will send their feedback to writer attendees.

Only registered students can access the Writer’s Digest University boot camp message boards. You’ll also be able to ask questions of your fellow students. Feel free to share your work and gain support from your peers

Please note that any one of the agents may ask for additional pages if the initial submission shows serious promise.

In addition to feedback from agents, attendees will also receive:

  1. Download of “An Agent’s Tips on Story Structures that Sell,” an on-demand webinar by literary agent Andrea Hurst
  2. 1-year subscription to the WritersMarket.com Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market database

PLEASE NOTE: Agents Stephen Fraser and Marie Lamba will be critiquing picture book and working together on the discussion boards for picture books. Agents Vicki Selvaggio and Linda Epstein will be critiquing YA and MG, and manning the message boards for those categories.

So that’s the news!  Maybe I’ll see some of you online there.

Kid-lit Writers! Sign-up Now for Online Boot Camp with Agents…

yes - notepad & penAttention writers of picture books, middle grade and YA fiction! Writer’s Digest has just opened up an online Boot Camp taught by agents of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency… The Boot Camp includes an online tutorial, a dedicated message board where agents will answer your questions, plus a critique by an agent.

Literary agents participating include Jennifer De Chiara, Roseanne Wells, Linda P. Epstein, Stephen Fraser, and me – Marie Lamba.

The boot camp runs December 5th – 8th, so sign up is NOW. Details can be found by clicking here.