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: Tips from My Writer’s Digest Articles

Marie's WD ArticlesHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  And a lazy August Agent Monday it is indeed. Well, not lazy for ME, but the world of publishing definitely slows down at this time of year. Few emails, fewer phone calls, and that means it’s a great time to catch up on reading client work and queries, etc. So, while I do that, I thought I’d point you to some reading you might want to do… like my two articles in the recent issues of Writer’s Digest magazine!

In the September issue, my piece titled “Reader is My Co-Pilot” is all about how to bring a deeper level of reality to your fiction. The trick is to fully draw in the reader by engaging them as the co-creator of your world. The more you invite them to fill in pieces in their own imagination, the more vivid and real your fictional world will become. In the article I include techniques I’ve figured out as an author of my own fiction, and I offer up concrete tips you can use for setting, imagery, emotions, plotting…stuff like that!

In the October issue (which, believe it or not, is now on the stands), my article “I’ve Got an Agent! Now What?” gives readers an inside peek at what you can realistically expect from an agent, what the submission process will be like, how to be a great client, and what are and are not signs of trouble in the agent/author relationship. It’s what I wished I knew when I was starting out as an author seeking an agent.

So check these out if you can. I’d love to know what you think of them.

*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: In Good Company…with Character

RetirementHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  No matter what sort of fiction you write, it’ll really soar if you include believable characters…people we care about, people we love, or people we love to hate. Without compelling characters, a story can really feel flat, and a story engine can chug to a full stop. Today I’m excited to welcome to the blog Richard Uhlig, who is a terrific author, and who I’m proud to call my client. Richard definitely knows a thing or two about creating compelling characters. Here’s his take on it…

In Good Company
by Richard Uhlig

“This is hell!” my fiction-writing students say. “How can you do this year after year? It’s drudgery sitting at my desk for hours trying to come up with a story someone will want to read.” One writer I know calls his den The Torture Chamber. Norman Mailer said writing was the Spooky Art, “… where there is no routine of an office to keep you going, only the blank page each morning, and you never know where the words are coming from, those divine words.”

Yes, writing an original book, play or screenplay can feel like you’re shoving Noah’s Ark up Pike’s Peak by hand. Then, over your shoulder you hear Cassandra whispering, “All this work is adding up to nothing.”

You know you shouldn’t, but you can’t help comparing your writing to Vonnegut’s, Fitzgerald’s and Munro’s, always coming up short. What you thought was a solid idea when you sat down to write it can default faster than the Greek banking system.
There is, however, an opium for this kind of creative pain. I know it’s helped me. It’s easy and close at hand: masturbation.

Kidding aside, write about people who you find entertaining.

Unconventional people. People who stand up to seemingly insurmountable problems. People burning with dreams. People who are their own worst enemy. Exceedingly bad people, exceedingly good people, but most of all exceedingly interesting people who shake up your sense of decorum and expectation.

Ideally, these people should want something desperately, even if, in the case of Shrek, that something is just to be left alone.

Beginning writers often waste months ironing out a concept, or trying to figure out the intricacies of a plot, without having given much thought as to who the yarn is about. Writing a story where the characters are secondary to a plot is like dancing without music. It’s okay for cookbooks and instruction manuals, I suppose, but you’ll never come up an Auntie Mame, Humbert Humbert or Willie Loman.

Tip: Put your characters in drastic, hilarious or god-awful situations right away. Follow their reactions. They should lead the way. If they don’t, search for a new character who does.

Keep in mind, this is creative writing we’re talking about. Not journalism, not biography. To write a facsimile of your church-going third grade teacher, Mrs. Carter, can lead to narrative paralysis. The real Mrs. Carter would never allow Miss Barkley, the p.e. teacher, to kiss her. But what if the fictitious Mrs. Carter lets Miss Barkley kiss her? That would buck your reader’s expectations. In other words, allow the Mrs. Carters in your life to inspire you, but free them to do their own thing. Reveal their hidden desires.

And don’t freak out about writing stereotypes. No offense, female p.e. teachers. The fun, like with Mrs. Carter, is to add contradictions to stock characters. Take the hit 1980s situation comedy “The Golden Girls.” Blanche is the slutty southern belle, Dorothy the tough Brooklyn Italian, and Rose the naive farm girl — clichés all. But the writers artfully forced these stereotypes to reconsider what they believe, constantly pushing them out of their comfort zones while maintaining a core consistency. The result? Some of the most memorable characters ever created for TV. Sinclair Lewis, the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote chiefly about “types.”

Writing can be a lonely game, for sure, but if your characters consistently surprise you by what they do and say, you’ll soon find them great company. Who knows, you may even find them more interesting than a lot of people in your non-fictional life.

So, the next time your novel stalls like a New York taxi at rush hour, get out of the driver’s seat. Let your characters take the wheel. It’s easier for you, and it’s a hell of a lot more fun for the reader.

 

Rick UhligRichard Uhlig is author of the YA novels LAST DANCE AT THE FROSTY QUEEN and BOY MINUS GIRL (both published by Knopf) as well as the e-book MYSTERY AT SNAKE RIVER BRIDGE.  He’s also penned the feature films DEAD SIMPLE, starring James Caan and winner of the Seattle International Film Festival’s Critic’s Choice Award, and KEPT, starring Ice-T.  Richard wrote and directed the award-winning short films CAN’T DANCE and MY KANSAS.  He lives in New York City with his wife and two children, and 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.

Agent Monday: First Impressions

MP900438811Hey gang!  Happy Agent Monday, once again.  This upcoming weekend I’ll be taking pitches at The Liberty States Fiction Writers Conference. Taking pitches allows the writer to set up the purpose of their book, and for me to ask questions to fill in holes that remain in just what the book is about and why it stands out. This past weekend, however, I was doing something entirely different: critiquing first pages.  It was at a special Writer’s Tea hosted by the Bucks County Romance Writers group at my fab local indie bookstore Doylestown Bookshop. In many ways it was the exact opposite of a pitch: I didn’t know the writer, or the genre, or the overall arc of the story. There were just words on the page. And they pointed out one thing loud and clear: the importance of first impressions!

By looking at the first page alone, the words really had to do the job. Is your first page working for your manuscript? Reading a book is an investment in time, so that first page needed to answer this question: Why do I want to take this long journey with you?

Often, when the writer came to hear the critique (which was delivered one on one), they said to me, “It really gets going on page two,” or “the book takes off in chapter three.” Hm. Now I don’t need to have the full action or plot poured out into the very first page, but what I do want to see is something that makes me think: “Turn the page. I have to see where this is going!” Now that can be a wide range of things from an interesting point of view, or an intriguing voice, or a question I care about that I’d like to see answered.  All sorts of things can draw me in, so don’t feel you need to squeeze in that life changing moment into the first two paragraphs!

Sometimes writers use their first few pages, or even chapters, as a sort of throat-clearing warming up getting into things exercise. I say that’s fine for your draft, but then ask yourself: When do things really begin? And start the final polished draft there!

Here’s why a great start matters: If an agent is not drawn in by your opening pages, they will probably stop reading. If the agent sends a manuscript like this to an editor, the editor may stop reading. Why does this all happen? It’s up to the writer at the get-go to nail the structure and pacing of their novel. Agents and editors see a ton of books by writers who DO get this right, so they must ask themselves: Do I really want to spend time fixing all of this for the writer, or do I move on? Remember, in books that are tightly paced and structurally sound, there is often still plenty of editing that will be needed. It’s WORK and TIME and we folks must ask ourselves where to invest our limited time and resources. It is a business, right?  In the end, we all think about the consumer, the reader of the published novel. Think about it. How do YOU buy books? Don’t you often read the first page or few pages to see if it’s worth purchasing?

But wait wait wait, Marie! (some of you may be thinking right about now)… Don’t agents and editors KNOW that writers sometimes take a while to get started and skip ahead to see if the story picks up? As a writer, I remember hearing that bit of wisdom once upon a time. And maybe it was true once upon a time when an agent or editor actually had a paper manuscript land on their desk. Today? We get things via email. Electronic files we load onto our computers or ereaders. We read from page one on. If I find myself skimming ahead because I’m bored, that’s a serious red flag to me, and zooming ahead 25 or 50 pages? Honestly, I just don’t.  I won’t stick with your book unless YOU make me want to stick around. That’s all about the power of your words.

So back to those first page crits I just did… Some of the things that I saw that didn’t make me anxious to see page two included:

1. A ton of dialogue or first person thoughts that didn’t have a voice to them or point of view. Is this a woman? A kid? Who is talking or thinking and why do I care? Some hint would certainly help!

2. A ton of info. Blocks of prose that gave all sorts of info about the backstory. Do I need backstory when I still don’t know what the story is? Again, what draws me in?

3. Repetition. Saying the same thing in several different ways right on page one hints to me that this is a work that needs tightening, plus it doesn’t move the story along.

What worked in those first pages?

1. Voice! When I had an immediate grasp of the writer’s/character’s voice, and I liked it for some reason, I was willing to continue on the journey (and even forgive some rough spots).

2. Originality! Okay, so maybe that first page wasn’t perfect, but what an interesting situation! Yeah, I’ll turn that page.

3. Elegance! Show me some sign that you are a skilled writer, whether beauty in the prose or sharp wit or something that makes me nod and think, yup, I get that, or wow, the writer’s right about that and I never saw it that way… And I’ll turn that page.

4. Well-targeted writing! If it’s a middle grade novel, I should be able to tell without it being labeled as such. Ditto for women’s fiction, or thriller, or literary. If I’m embarking on a reading journey, I want to feel I’m in capable hands and going on a charted course in the direction the book wants to take me. (I hope that makes sense.)

So you can see that you, as the writer, can actually do a lot with your first page. You can reel me in and pull me deeper into your world. Do that, and I’ll want to read page 2, and page 3 and so on.

Take a hard look at your opening pages. First impressions definitely matter.

*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.

Is it true?

“Is this book a true story?”

Yikes!  Why don’t you just strip off all my clothes and parade me through the mall on Christmas Eve?  A true story? What’s in my book? My NOVEL? Did these things happen to me? Do I honestly think that way?  Do I know someone as evil as the antagonist?

Gulp. It’s fiction. FICTION!

Oh, why am I shouting in print?  Not because I’m angry, but because I’m UNCOMFORTABLE. Want a fun sport? Ask any non-memoir author about the truth in their book just to see them squirm.

See, we writers are an odd mix of “hey, look at me!” and “I’m so private, I hide in my room all day writing down stuff I pretend only I will see.”  We want to be read, we long for our words to be understood and meaningful, but we also like hiding behind those words.

We fill our books with all sorts of truths, but call them fiction.  I’ve just completed an YA paranormal called DRAWN about an artist who channels a very hot ghost through her drawings.  This is, of course, a completely TRUE story.

The real truth is (and, remember, this is coming from someone who belongs to the Liars Club) that if you read any book, you are, in fact entering the writer’s mind. You’ll hear her voice, you’ll understand her attitudes, you’ll glimpse bits and pieces of experiences and people she has encountered. But it’s a mash up. Cut and paste, mix and twirl, spin and zing.  We have tremendous fun with all this.

We expose ourselves. And our lives. But not really.

So is this book a true story?

No!