Agent Monday: I Need a Hero!

happinessHappy summery Agent Monday, everyone! Just when things should feel especially lovely and relaxed season-wise, suddenly the world feels uncertain and topsy-turvy. Cough cough *Brexit* cough cough. We are also mourning terrible violence and ignorant hatred. It can make you feel truly helpless. So this is a call to action from a literary agent. Are you listening, writers? It’s time to use your super power: Power of the Pen. (Cue music: “I Need a Hero.”)

A writer’s super power truly is the ability to enter the minds and hearts of readers and influence them in a positive way. So, now more than ever, I’m looking to represent manuscripts that will do just that. Give us a hero we can really root for, show us the world how it should be, the person we can aspire to emulate, or scare the crap out of us with how it might be if we are careless with our choices.

Inspire us to act, and inspire us to hope. But be artful about it, too.  The story’s the thing (sorry for the paraphrasing, Shakespeare…). A novel is not a lesson, but it could convey one.

So think about the books that have inspired you. Think of the change you’d like to see. Realize your own power of the pen. And create as if the world’s future depends upon it, because it just might… We all need a hero, and it could be your main character, and by extension, it could be YOU.  BTW, my submission guidelines for queries can be found here .

 

*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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Webinar for Young Adult Writers

Young Boy at School Raising His Hand to Answer in ClassHi fellow writers! Just a heads up that there’s still time to register for the online webinar I’m teaching next week through Writer’s Digest titled Focus on Young Adult Fiction: Writing a Strong Young Adult Novel and Crafting the Query Letter. This may be a good fit if you are currently working on a YA novel and/or trying to get an agent for it.

The 90 minute webinar covers a lot of stuff, including trends in YA, plus what is and is NOT YA material in terms of age, point of view, length, story arc, etc. (as a Literary Agent at Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency I see submitting writers trip up on these things all the time). I’ll also cover how to write your best query letter, some insider tips on querying do’s and don’ts, plus I’ll critique your YA query letter afterwards. The webinar also includes a Q&A.
 
It runs live next Thursday, June 23rd (but can be viewed later, if you can’t catch it live), and the cost is $89.99. For more info and to register, you can go here.

As both an agent of YA fiction, and an author of a few young adult novels myself, I’m especially looking forward to helping aspiring YA writers through this webinar. Hope to *see* some of you there next week!

Marie

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Agent Monday: Focus on YA

Chihuahua Wearing EyeglassesHappy Agent Monday, everyone! A few weeks ago, I wrote about how focused writing can help land an agent.  Today, I’d like to zero in on young adult novels, since I find a lot of folks losing their focus when writing for the YA crowd. And that can get in the way of a writer landing an agent.

Yes, YA lit covers a broad span of topics. Unlike middle grade novels, which are geared toward the 8-12 year old crowd,  with YA you can deal with a wide range of controversial issues, and sexuality, and you can even drop an F-bomb. But there ARE limits. For example, this still isn’t the place for erotica. And there are certain expectations that must be met within the YA realm, expectations that are often missed by writers.

Things as simple as the actual age of the hero, and as complex as the point of view or the way any possible “lesson” behind the story is discovered by the reader.

Also, there are certain expectations within the sub-genres of YA. Do you know what readers (and agents and editors) expect from a YA romance? Or a YA thriller, for example? Well you really MUST know these things as a writer.

As a YA author myself, as well as a literary agent, I get really excited when I find a manuscript with the makings of an incredible YA novel. But more often than not, that manuscript falls apart. The writer is all over the place, writing themselves right out of the YA market…and ending up with a book that doesn’t fit anywhere. Too old a theme with too young a voice is just one of the mistakes I see.

So study up, writers, and really figure out what makes a YA novel.  Dig deep into current YA novels out there and dissect how these differ from middle grade and adult novels. What makes them stand out?  Check out craft books on the subject, too. Also, you might consider signing up for the live webinar I’ll be presenting online through Writer’s Digest titled Focus on Young Adult Fiction: Writing a Strong Young Adult Novel and Crafting the Query Letter.

This webinar runs June 23rd (note even if you can’t attend live on that date, you’ll still be able to access the full recording after), and the registration includes my webinar, which will help you sharpen your YA knowledge and skills, followed by a Q&A with me, plus each participant will then submit a query letter for their YA for me to personally critique…I’ll respond directly to you with comments and tips on how to make that query even stronger.  Registration for this webinar is now open…for more info, and to register, you can click here.

If you write YA, be sure you are getting it right. Take that time to focus on your genre, to really learn its parameters in whatever way you can, and to hone your YA voice and point of view. Then, once your story is on target, you’ll be truly ready to send it out into the world to land just where it should…in the hands of readers!

 

*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: Your Assignment – Learn from Bookstore Shelves

Boy reading in the libraryHappy Agent Monday, everyone! Yes, it’s January and bleak and cold. BUT it’s also a shiny new year, and the days are growing LONGER. Yes! Time to get energized and kick your writing career into higher gear. If you are seeking a literary agent, that means you are writing something you hope will be commercially successful. Something that will land on the bookstore shelves all across the country. So here is a task you must all do without delay: Visit bookstores and see what is actually on their shelves right now. Why? There are vital lessons you can learn from a bookstore!

Visiting a bookstore and browsing for books is a vital part of being a writer, for sure. But I want you to actually go there now as a student of the commercial book market. Bring a small notebook, and keep in your mind where you think your own work in progress will fit on the shelf.

Now go to that shelf — first of all, does that shelf exist? If it’s a category that doesn’t exist, you’ve got a problem right there. As an agent, I can’t sell books that are so different or such a mash up that they don’t fit into a particular category when it comes to sales. Why? Because an editor can’t make an offer on such a book. Why? Because an editor can’t convince his or her publisher and sales team that a book without a category will sell. And why does that matter?

Because a book that won’t sell, will be a book that will fail to make any money. The publishing business is a business. And a successful book is one that sells. Yes, writing is an art. But once you are approaching an agent, you are approaching the commercial market. So step one in your bookstore bookshelf class is to figure out what shelf your book will belong on.

This is why saying your book is for all ages is a fail for you when you pitch. There is no shelf for that. What you CAN say is that your book is a YA with cross-over appeal. That means it’ll sit on the YA shelf, but that adults will also go to that shelf to find it. This is why saying there is no other book like yours is a fail when you pitch. It is like SOMETHING, it has SOME MAIN READER. You need to find these somethings and someones, so you can say it is, say, a romance, but unique because it features…  See the difference? Now you have a category, plus a unique sales hook that will help your title be found by readers.

Okay, so once you find your shelf, the next thing you need to do is to see what is already on it.

What’s on the end caps, what titles are face out, which ones have multiple copies on the shelf? Those are likely the “hits.” Good to be aware of these.

Look closely at the type of books elsewhere on your shelf. At the titles. At the covers. Which are the most effective and the most interesting to you? How does your own novel’s title compare? Can you imagine what the cover might be?

Which other books might the reader of your own novel also be drawn to? Have YOU read these? You should. Why? Because then you can have a current take on the market yourself. You can then honestly say in your query something like: Readers who love the high stakes and honest characterization of THIS POPULAR BOOK, will be drawn to WHAT’S IN YOUR BOOK.

Now, before you leave the bookstore, buy some books. Help your bookstore succeed. You want them to be thriving, don’t you? Someday they will be selling your books!

Visiting the bookstore, notebook in hand, gets you seeing the big picture. Where your book fits. Who your audience really is. What market an agent/editor/publisher can sell it to. Buying books is also an important part of the commercial cycle. A cycle that you want to fully involve you and your work.

Your homework will pay off in numerous ways:
– Now you’ll know without a doubt what your book’s category is.
– You’ll have a list of current competing titles (and of authors – who were THEIR agents?…not a bad list of agents to consider approaching, right?).
– You’ll have a more focused outlook overall about your novel, a more realistic idea of your market. This will all result in a better targeted query letter, and a commercial view of your book’s potential that agents and editors will appreciate.

*NB: Be grounded and realistic, too. Trust me, saying that this is the next HARRY POTTER will only make eyes roll. But saying that your work offers a twist on the middle grade fantasy, with an unusual magical theme that fans of Rowling should enjoy… well, you see the difference in the two statements, right?

Understanding all of this is an important step for you. Publishing is a business. YOUR business. So head on out there and study up.

 

*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: Query Letter Crit Time

Holding Blank Score CardsHi everyone!  Those dreaded query letters. Writers need ’em to approach agents, but sometimes they feel harder to write than an entire novel. They are so SHORT. They are so IMPORTANT. Ugh, right? So today I thought I’d give you a peek at my own writer’s group’s challenges as we spent a meeting going over our own query letters about our own works. Yes, it’s officially query letter crit time!  Woot!

First some background: I’m both a literary agent and a novelist. My novelist writing group, The Rebel Writers, has been meeting for over a decade. The group includes published writers in a variety of genres including YA, memoir, horror, literary, short story, historical. It’s an awesome group. So awesome and unique in structure that they inspired me to do a Writer’s Digest article on ’em called Plotting a Novel Group.

But just because we’ve been doing this for a while, doesn’t mean that queries come easy. Here are some issues that popped up in last week’s meeting…issues that I often see in queries sent to my agent inbox. (Keep in mind that these points refer to works of fiction – non-fiction proposals are a whole other ball of wax.) See if you recognize any of these query quagmires in your own query letters…

1. Missing the hook
What’s the selling point of this novel plot-wise? It should be within your one-line description of your book, and that should be at the top of your query.  Hook us, then give us the details.

2. Burying the book’s vital details
Like the hook/one-liner, the book’s vital details should be given asap – not buried in the last paragraph of your query. I want to know the title, its genre, that it’s complete, and the total word count (not page count). You could blend this with your one liner and really set things up. Something like this: TITLE (75,000 words) is a ITS GENRE about CLEVER ONE-LINER THAT CONTAINS HOOK.

3. Lack of focus or wrong focus
There is so much that goes on in a novel. But by trying to cover it all, the main plot and hook get buried and there is just too much to take in.  A query letter isn’t a synopsis – it’s more like a pitch.

4. Including background about why you’ve written the novel
In most cases, this isn’t needed. Sure, if there is a lack in the marketplace, or you have special knowledge that you bring to the table, it can support your book’s appeal. But stuff about why you’ve always wanted to write this is just dragging your own backstory into the picture in a distracting way.

5. Technical details about how the book is executed
You may have a clever use of point of view characters, and shift tenses in an artful way, and set up chapters in a method that harkens back to novels in the 18th century, but a query letter is not the place to share this. Hook the agent with your plot, convey your tone, and they’ll ask to see the book – then they’ll see all these details themselves.

6. Saying it’s been workshopped by your writer’s group and thoroughly edited
Of course it has. That should go without say. Cut this.

7. Comparing it to other books out there without saying why
Example: saying “This compares to the works of Carl Hiaasen.” Instead, say something like, “With the twisted humor of a Carl Hiaasen novel…”  And make sure that if you make that comparison, that your work really measures up to it.

8. Bios that veer too far off of what an agent needs to know
Tell us writing-related stuff, or stuff that points to experiences you’ve had that’d make you uniquely suited to write on this subject. Like if you are writing a crime novel, I’d want to know you were a detective for a number of years.  I wouldn’t care that you were a golfer or an addict of the Home Shopping Network.  And when it comes to writing credentials, go easy on the details. It’s enough to say you’ve been published in a certain magazine. I don’t need to know that you didn’t get paid for that gig, or that the magazine went out of business, etc.

9. Not asking for what you want in the end
…or asking for the wrong thing, like “I can send you a chapter if you want,” or “I can email you my synopsis.”  Or just saying: Thank you, Sincerely… Say what you really mean: “I’m happy to send you the complete manuscript on request.”

Queries aren’t that long, so they must be focused and to the point. So take the time to get it right – your novel is relying on you.

 

*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.

Agent Monday: The Putdown – Are you Guilty?

photo (2)Happy Agent Monday to all!  Feeling low? Feeling less than confident in your writing?  Not sure you have what it takes?  Sending out queries?  Hm, time to check your query closely, because all too often I’m seeing ones that contain “the putdown.”  Writer’s putting themselves or their writing down in the query letter.  Are you doing this and shooting yourself in the foot?

So what’s the putdown look like?  When it’s about the work, it goes something like this: I know this sort of book isn’t very popular right now…  My book is like The Hunger Games, only not as good…  This is my first stab at this writing thing, so it’s not very good…  I can change anything you want, just say so… I know you’ve seen this before…

Think I’m exaggerating? Oh I wish.  These are all taken from real queries, and they are just a small sampling of the endless putdowns writers include when they should be hooking me with their idea. Folks, present a strong front when you send out a query.  Believe in your book, or work on it until it is something you can believe in.

The other part of the putdown is when the writer does this whole Eeyore type of thing about themselves.  It usually turns up in their bio paragraph, and it goes something like this: I haven’t done anything…  I don’t read at all… I know I’m not very interesting… My work has only appeared in insignificant journals…  Even my cat thinks I stink.

Again, all from real queries (okay, not the cat one…not yet anyways). Jeez folks, present your very best in your query and believe in yourself. Think happy thoughts. It’s okay to be positive and confident. You don’t need to undermine yourself every step of the way as if you’ll be jinxed or something.

And then sometimes there is the agent putdown.  It goes something like this: I know you only care about money… I know you won’t even bother to answer my query letter… I know you only help people who are famous… I know you agents think you are above us all…

*Wrinkles nose*  The only thing you’ll know if you put that in a query letter to me is that I will not be calling you to offer representation.

Ella up close!So keep it positive in your query and in all your professional dealings.  Best foot forward, people. Believe in your work and in yourself. And then I will too!

 

*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.