Agent Monday: Fix Your Middle Grade Novel

Rear view of class raising handsHi everyone!  Happy Agent Monday!  Okay, YES, it’s Tuesday, but it’s never too late to learn about how to fix your novel. Today’s focus?: the middle grade novel. As an agent, I see so many submissions that are instant rejections because they don’t fit into that middle grade category in a fundamental way.  That’s a book I can’t sell. So is your middle grade missing the mark, and how can you make it really shine?

This Thursday, Agent Cari Lamba and I will be teaching a live webinar through Writer’s Digest called WRITING AND SELLING THE MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL: MUST-KNOW INFORMATION FOR GETTING PUBLISHED. It starts at 1 p.m., includes a Q&A with us, as well a personal critique of your query letter and the first 5 pages of your middle grade novel. There is still time to sign up! For more info, and to register click here. (Note that even if you can’t attend this webinar live, you can still register and get the recorded webinar, as well as get your personal critique.)

In this webinar, Cari and I cover the many ways that writers unwittingly ruin their chances at publication. We realized that there is a lot of need-to-know stuff – A LOT! So if you are writing in the middle grade category, DEFINITELY do your homework before submitting to any agents, whether by attending our webinar, or through extensive research. It’s simply a must.

For example, middle grade novels are geared at 8-12 year old readers, yet, because kids “read up” they are typically about characters aged 10-13 or so. So if your main character is only 8 years old, that’s too young! Also note that middle grade is not synonymous with middle school readers. Those readers are typically reading young adult novels, which is a whole other ball of wax.

Middle grade novels are of a certain length. Go too long or too short on the word count range and you’ll be hurting your story’s chances of acceptance.  Another vital thing to keep in mind?: subject matter and how it’s handled. Can you handle tough stuff? Sure. But the way it is handled in a picture book, vs. a middle grade novel, vs. a young adult novel is vastly different. In the webinar, we’ll cover how to handle tough subjects for this market in an age-appropriate way.

Young Boy at School Raising His Hand to Answer in Class

Study up, writers! The webinar includes a Q&A

There is a lot of ground we’ll be covering, but one important tip to keep in mind is that you must understand where kids are developmentally at these ages. Look that info up, and you’ll find a range of great themes and concerns that can help appropriately shape your story and your character’s point of view.

Also – are you up to date on current middle grade novels? If you are only reading classics, or ones you remember from your childhood, then your own novel may not be up-to-date enough when it comes to pacing and themes and voice.  We’ll cover what elements are essential in great middle grade fiction today, as well as share the top 10 things top editors have personally told us they are seeking in middle grade right now. We’ll also cover how to put together a strong query letter for your novel, and we’ll include examples of queries that actually led to representation and then to book deals.

So is your middle grade novel a good fit for its audience? Or are you creating a manuscript that won’t fit on any shelf because you are mixing up elements, subject matter and point of view? I often have to reject MG novel submissions because of this, so please do your homework, and make sure you understand what a middle grade novel is, and what it isn’t. This will help your novel become one that will make agents and readers alike take notice.

Maybe I’ll *see* you at the Webinar!

Happy writing!
Marie

*Marie is a Literary Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her 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: About Those Form Rejections

Office Worker with Mountain of PaperworkHappy Agent Monday, everyone! It’s been a VERY busy time for me, filled with deadlines and travel and pitching and meetings. Yet I have been able to weigh in on plenty of queries that have pinged into my inbox. And I couldn’t have done that without the help of my form rejection letter. Writers don’t exactly love these, of course, but I thought I’d share a bit of perspective on why these aren’t SUCH a bad thing.

First of all, here’s my form rejection letter:

Thanks so much for sending me your query. I’m going to pass on this one because I found it didn’t spark my interest.

I wish you the best in finding a home for your work.

Sincerely,
Marie

Here’s the good thing about an agent using a form rejection letter: it enables her to respond more quickly to queries. By using this, I can zoom through a number of queries at a time and let writers know as quickly as I can that I am not the right agent for them. That way the writer can move on.

I’m a writer myself, and have received more than my fair share of rejection letters. I know rejection can sting, but I also know that it is part of this business. There is nothing I as an agent can say in a rejection letter that will truly take away that sting. All I can do is let you know that I’ve seen your piece, that it’s not for me, and to wish you well. I do make the effort to address the writer personally in my reply, and take care that I spell the name correctly, but beyond that I generally don’t personalize the letter.

Why the “didn’t spark my interest” line? Because that’s what it’s all about. And if my interest isn’t sparked by your query and pasted-in pages, that means I don’t feel intrigued enough to see more of this work.

That’s the function of such a note. Okay, now I’m saying this next part as not only an agent but as a writer: A rejection letter’s purpose doesn’t also involve making a writer feel better and inspired. That’s not to say it is meant to tear a writer down, BUT this is a business, and agents that you query are not there to hold hands and whisper encouraging words and inspire you to continue to scale great heights and pursue your dreams.

You need to get that inspiration elsewhere. From your writing, from you own community of supporters. Most of all, from yourself. That’s the stuff that will keep you going.

I’m saying this because sometimes (more than you might think) writers respond to my form rejection asking me for more. Much more. Can I give them an example of what would spark my interest? Can I point out what, specifically, made me pass? If they changed such and such, would that work? Do they have what it takes? Should they keep going? Are they wasting their time?

Responding to these questions? Not my job. If I did that sort of hand holding and career counseling and soul searching for every one of the hundreds of queries I receive, I would never have sold a single book for any one of my clients. Instead I would be too busy trying to help every writer who has ever pressed SEND toward my inbox. Something to think about…

So I’m hoping this post is a bit of a reality check for folks who are querying. A form rejection letter isn’t the end of your career. It isn’t a statement about every effort you’ve ever made to become a better writer. It is simply a response to your query, sent in as timely a way as possible. And it lets you know that you need to seek a different agent, because I’m not the one for you.

Yes, I’ve rejected queries for books I’ve later seen as sold projects on Publishers Marketplace. And I’m happy for those authors. They didn’t give up. The query I’d received presented a book that wasn’t my cup of tea, and perhaps never would have been right for my taste. Or perhaps they polished their query and opening pages after too many form rejections, and therefore did spark the right agent’s interest.

Remember, this IS a subjective business. A project that isn’t right for me, could be just the right thing for another agent.

Like I said, it’s been a VERY busy season for me here, with tons of hours spent every day working with my clients and with editors at publishing houses. Yet I’m currently up to March 1st in my query responses (trust me, that’s pretty good). And I’ve also been able to respond to other more recent queries too, if I see immediately that they aren’t right for me. (Please look at my guidelines here, so you’ll know what I am looking for and what I definitely don’t want…)

Thanks to the form rejection letter, those writers aren’t left hanging longer than needed. See? Glass half full!

*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: Why Some Queries Work

MP900439510Happy Agent Monday, everyone. And dare I say, Happy Spring? Okay, I’m putting away my snow shovel. That’s that. This weekend, as I plowed through queries in my inbox, I started thinking  about why some queries work, and why some just fail to grab my interest. I’m talking about queries that are fairly well-written and professional looking. The answer, for me rests in what makes me buy a book at the bookstore.

1. The Subject is of Interest to Me

Seems simple enough. When I enter my local bookshop, I go directly to the sections that I’m interested in. These could include general fiction, memoir, YA and the children’s section. I do not go to the strictly non-fiction reference section, or the category romance shelf, or the science fiction section. That’s just not my interest.

Likewise, if you query me about topics that I’m not interested in, I’m going to pass you by.

2. The Title Draws Me In

If a book is something generic like: A Breeze Blows, or Time, or whatever, then it’s not going to prompt me to think, Hm, now THAT sounds interesting, and to pick it off the shelf.

Likewise, I think writers querying me often forget that a title is the first thing that can spark interest in an agent. It should give some flavor of what’s to come and make me think, yeah, I’d pick that one up to find out more.

3. The Jacket Copy Sounds Interesting

When I pick a book off the shelf, the very first thing I do, after noticing how long or short it is, is to read the back jacket copy, and the flap copy. Does it build on the promise of the title? Do I want to find out more? If not, I place it back on the shelf and move on.

With queries, this is an important moment for the author. You need to describe the book in a way that will make me want to read those sample pages. If you can’t do that, I won’t bother to read those pasted in opening words, and a rejection will be sent.

Too often, the writer will tell me about how the book was written…like alternate points of view, or in three parts, or in short chapters. I don’t care. I want the story to draw me in. WHAT’S THE STORY? Make me want to read it.

Or they’ll wax on about why their book is important and the message that the writer wants to convey. Honestly, I have to say that’s secondary to THE STORY. If it’s not a non-fiction proposal, that info doesn’t matter much at the outset.

I also mention length here, because, truthfully, if a fun escapist women’s fiction novel is 1,000 pages long, then, nope, I’m not lugging that thing home. Also, if a book is really really slim, as a book buyer I gotta think, hm, is this worth even spending money on?  As a querier, know the proper length for your genre, and try to keep your manuscript within an acceptable length.

4. Opening Pages Make Me Have to Know What’s Next

Me at the bookstore again: Next thing I do? I flip open the book and begin to read the opening pages. Not too many of them, mind you. Just enough to know that the book is not for me at all. Or that I’m loving what I see. That I have to read what happens next. Mind you, I don’t flip to a later chapter to see if things pick up. I don’t let a reader bore me or waste my time. This book is for my entertainment.

Likewise for a query. My guidelines allow for the first 20 pages to be pasted into your query email.  Even if you have been able to pull me in with the subject and the title, and I see the length is right, and the premise sounds really interesting, if those opening pages fall flat for me, there is no way I’ll ask to see the full manuscript.

BUT, if you deliver on all those aspects and have 20 rocking opening pages, I’ll ask for that full manuscript. Just like I’ll buy that book off the bookshelf.

Hey, it’s that simple!

 

*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: Some Quick Answers to Your Questions

SnowflakeHappy Agent Monday, gang! Storm’s coming, Harry!!! Lots of snow on the way here. So, while I still have electricity and hot coffee in hand, let’s tackle some of your questions — quickly!

Last week, I’d asked readers for  questions they’d like to see me answer in future posts. Thanks to everyone who chimed in!  Some responses are worthy of their own posts (keep your eyes peeled for these in the near future), while others can be quickly answered in a short and sweet manner. So here goes…

Q.: How important would you say it is for a person to read their manuscript out loud before calling it finished?

A.: I’d say it’s critical. OF COURSE it’s critical for picture books, which are designed to be read aloud. But for any level of writing, the author simply must read their prose aloud. And listen to themselves. As an author myself, I always read my writing aloud as part of my revision process. It helps me to pick out when phrases are overused, or punctuation needs to be changed, or when pacing is off. And it helps to listen to dialogue – is it ringing true?

Q.: Does a historical setting automatically categorize a manuscript as being historical fiction? Is it acceptable to have a historical setting even if that history is not integral to the plot?

A.: Historical setting in a novel DOES make it historical fiction. If the setting doesn’t influence the thought of the characters, their actions and their challenges/life in some way, then why not set it in present day? It doesn’t need to be a moment for the history books, but it does need to belong in its time period. The exception? A time travel piece, which would make it fantasy or science fiction vs. historical. Even then, though your main character isn’t of that time, the time period would influence that character’s adventures, and the people surrounding him would be of that time.

Q. When an agent asks to see more manuscripts (picture book), is it advantageous to send in manuscripts that are consistent style-wise vs. showing a breadth of style?

A. First of all, it’s great that you have so many manuscripts completed that you have choices! Speaking from my own point of view, what I’d most want to see is your very best work – whatever the style. Unless the agent asked for more of a “type” of book from you, that would be your best rule of thumb.

Q. Have you ever rejected a manuscript because you were not “connecting” to the material, narrative arc, and/or the main character? What did that mean to you personally?

A. That happens often. What this means to me is that I’m just not personally excited by what the author is trying to do for some reason, or that I’m not finding myself feeling drawn in. This can be for many reasons, such as I like the idea of the plot, but find I’m not liking the main character. Or I like the character, but I find the plotting too obvious or too hard to believe. Or I don’t “get” why the main character is so upset or reacting the way she is. In short, something is stopping me from relating to things or feeling invested in the story. I have to really want to root for my authors and their writings – and you really want an agent who will do that. So keep querying and writing and polishing until you DO find someone who “gets” you.

So that’s it! Some quick answers to quick questions. Now it’s time for me to quickly use all the electricity I can while I still have it (makes mega-pot of coffee). Stay safe and warm, everyone!

 

*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: Big Girl Panties

brave little diverHappy Agent Monday, everyone! Summer time is a great time to catch up on stuff, to try new things, and to sip that early morning coffee outdoors while deep in thought. I’m hoping you’re taking some time to have deep thoughts about your writing as well as your career. And so while you sit and sip and think, I want to toss something out there for you to ponder: Do you have your big girl panties on?

What do I mean by THAT??? I mean, are you being brave in your writing? Brave with your writing career? Not reckless, mind you, but BRAVE.

Here’s what’s set me circling around this topic: A writer friend I know has spent the past two years or so polishing up his manuscript and wants to now get an agent. When I asked him how that was going, he said he’s sent out 4 queries over the past few months. He seemed to be done with it.

I congratulated him for taking that step (let’s face it, it can be a tough step for some), but then, of course, I cocked an eyebrow at him. Four? He immediately said he hates querying. The potential rejection. But he says he wants an agent. I immediately issued him a pair of big girl panties to don, because, let’s face it, 4 queries ain’t much and he’s standing in his own way of his success. His fear is blocking him from is goal. Four agents… How long will it take those agents to read his query? Sometimes that can take months. How likely will it be that one of those 4 agents will fall in love with the query and request the full and then fall in love with the full enough to offer representation? Tastes are very individual. The odds are decidedly small. Wouldn’t it be better to have at least, say, 10-15 queries in play at all times? Or even more, if the writer can find a good number of agents that might be a fit?

And what is this author afraid of? Failure? Success? Isn’t the more frightening aspect spending several years on a novel that you then refuse to show anyone, even though it’s really good?

We writers (I’m a writer too, remember) self-sabotage our writing careers in so many ways. Yes, it’s a tough world out there and success is never guaranteed. But it would be so much more likely if we writers would stop blocking our own success.

So I say sip that early morning coffee and think deeply about your own writing goals. List them on paper. And the steps to attain them. And star just where you are stuck. Have you written anything? Have you finished that novel? Have you polished it and let others read it and suggest edits through a crit group, say? Have you taken the steps you need to learn about publishing, about how to query? Have you polished your query? Researched the right agents for your work? Sent out queries? Learned from the responses you’ve received and refined your query letter? Then sent out more queries? And while this goes on, have you then starting your next work?

Are you holding yourself back from your dreams in any way? If so, look hard at how and why. You may just need to go big girl panty shopping. Be brave!

 

*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: Everyone’s Different

SnowflakeHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  Hopefully you are making it through the winter okay.  Not letting the relentless snow get to you… Washing your hands and not letting the germs get to you…  And feeling hopeful all around. Days are getting longer and longer. March isn’t too far off (do NOT tell me about big snowstorms that tend to happen in March, please). And nothing can stop you from writing, not even a power outage. Ha!  Take THAT, winter. But sometimes we writers can fall into the doldrums. It can happen at any time of year. We feel this way when we don’t get validation. Our critique group gives us some harsh advice. Our agent isn’t 100% on board with our newest manuscript. Our efforts to get an agent isn’t met with the roaring praise and success we’d hoped for. Our manuscript on submission to editors isn’t an instant sell. They like it, but… And WHAM! Just like that we doubt ourselves. We see others having success. What’s wrong with our writing? What’s wrong with us? So, today I’d like to just remind everyone that writing and publishing (and agenting) isn’t an exact science. EVERYONE’S DIFFERENT.

A few weekends ago I spent an awesome weekend as a guest agent at the SCBWI conference at Asilomar, CA. Hey, it was in California, so I’m allowed to say awesome.  Not only was it a blessed escape from the hell-hole snow and ice storms that have fallen upon the Northeast every other day, but it was also yet another reminder of just how different every person truly is in this business.  And how important it is to remember that as a writer, no matter what stage you are at in the biz.

Nowhere was this more obvious than at the agent pitching roundtable that we held.  I was the agent sitting at one table, and Jennifer Unter, who is lovely, was at the other. Jennifer and I met and clicked earlier that day. We seemed to have the same sense of humor and passion for great books, so you’d think we’d like the same sort of things, right? Nope. The writers got to pitch to the agent at their table and the other writers there got to listen in and take in our reactions. What did we respond to? Were we interested? What did we think about the pitch style and how could it be improved? What did we say about the market potential for a work?  Then I switched tables with Jennifer and I did this with the group she’d just heard from, and she took my group and did the same. The result? Interesting, for sure.  We each shared some opinions, sure. But we each also had very different interests too. I liked some things she didn’t. And vice versa. I liked or didn’t like certain things in the pitches, and that sometimes varied too. The big takeaway? Everyone’s different.

This isn’t an exact science. Yes, it certainly helps that I know lots of things about the editors that I pitch to.  But there is always that “I’ll know when I see it” factor in play. They can tell me they are looking for such and such, but there are tons of intangibles. That idea they didn’t know they were looking for until they saw it. That type of book they’d never thought they’d buy…until they saw such an unusual take on the subject and were completely blown away. And readers are fickle too. That book that was supposed to be a mega-hit, but fizzled. That sleeper that wasn’t supposed to go too far, and then broke all the records.

It’s not an exact science. It’s about your gut and your instinct and your unique point of view.  It’s about connecting with others, too. So listen to what the world says about your work. Take it in and think about it. Take what will make you a better writer and use that. But keep being yourself and believing in your voice and writing.

Everyone’s different, every book’s different. Every agent and editor is different, too. So work hard, keep improving your craft, love what you do, and have faith that you’ll find your audience.

*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.