Agent Monday: Focused Writing Can Help Land an Agent

MP900178092Happy Agent Monday, everyone!  Spring is in full bloom here, and as a Literary Agent, I’m here to help writers’ careers blossom and grow. To that end, I’ve been scouring my query inbox hoping for the next great writer to grab my attention and inspire me to offer representation. Too often, though, queries lack focus, or the writing does. So today, I thought I’d spend a few moments pointing out how focus can help you land an agent.

Focus on your genre… What is it? Your book should fit into one genre, and meet (and exceed) the expectations of those readers.

Focus on the agents that represent your genre… If I say I do not rep high fantasy, then don’t send me a high fantasy query (or pretend that your high fantasy is really something different). Spend your time and energy querying a receptive audience.

Focus your query… Make it clear what your book’s genre is, what it is about, why you have picked this particular agent to query (see points 1 and 2 above!).

Focus your writing… Make every word count, every scene vital to the story, and every action important to advancing your plot. Whatever you promise the reader in the beginning pages, be sure that you deliver exactly that!

Scattershot queries, writing that doesn’t fit anywhere in particular on a book store shelf or that crosses disparate genres (like a middle grade novel with a serious romance, or a picture book with adult themes, or a supposed thriller with a slow literary pacing), or books that disappoint because they promise something that they then don’t deliver — will hurt your chances of getting an agent, and finding an audience.

So think it through. What is YOUR focus? Zero in on that, and others will soon be focusing on YOU.

 

*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.

 

 

Agent Monday: Writers Should Learn from Liars

 

Gregory Frost 1Happy Agent Monday, everyone! Writers are liars! And I mean that in the nicest way possible. Writers are pretenders, and are in the business of making things up for a living. Not coincidentally, I met today’s poster, our client Gregory Frost, through a group we both belong to called The Liars Club. Greg is not only a phenomenal author, but also a top fiction professor at Swarthmore. So he’s obviously one heck of a liar himself.  Now he’s sharing with us what we writers can gain by studying the art of the lie.

 

Good Writers are Consummate Liars

by Gregory Frost

Lately, I’ve been thinking and reading a lot in preparation for leading the upcoming spring semester Fiction Workshop at Swarthmore College. I almost always spend the months leading up to it reading a new crop of short stories across the spectrum, and thinking about how I might approach the Workshop this time that would be different from the last time I led it. Such questions have made me, among other things, a collector of books on writing, which includes everything from Stephen King’s down-to-earth and often-cited On Writing to Samuel R. Delany’s terrific and sometimes head-spinning essays collected in his About Writing.

One thing the plethora of “how to” books reveals is that you can pretty much unpack the act of writing any way you like, teach the elements in whatever order you prefer, and still at the end have delivered a comprehensive overview of writing fiction. Because nobody writes the way fiction writing is broken out for a series of successive lectures or for chapters in most writing texts. We don’t write once through focused solely on Character, and then once focused Narrative Structure, and then once focused on Voice. (Okay, we’re all different in our approaches, so maybe there is someone who does that, but I can’t imagine it working.) What I do find, and believe, is that those “how to” books are most useful to us at the point of revising and editing our work. We do potentially read through our 2nd or 3rd draft just for voice, just for character portrayal, and so on. We read it once out loud to ensure we don’t have any hidden rhyme schemes that have inadvertently turned us into Dr. Seuss. In effect, then, the rules and recommendations laid out in many writing books are helpful to you once you have written a draft, but less so during the first-time-through conjuring.

There’s one out-of-print book by Michael Kardos, called The Art and Craft of Fiction, that I like in particular for his approach to tackling this very issue. Kardos’s emphasis on fiction writing (before you get to all those rules and observations of the modular aspects) is on detail. He says “When we lie, we know instinctively to supply details because the details lend credibility to our story.” Right. Good liars, con artists, and teenagers caught sneaking in late from the party they definitely did not go to, know that detail is everything.

The first day of class, Kardos tells his students that if they are to learn “just one thing” about writing during the semester, it should be “Relevant Detail.” If they learn only two things, the second thing should be “Relevant Detail.” The third thing . . . and down the line.

As he puts it, if he says “animal,” you might think “giraffe” while he meant “dog.” And while “dog is better than “animal,” it’s not half as good as “golden retriever” for lighting an image in the reader’s head, which he pushes further with a “golden retriever with a dry nose and a meek bark like it was asking for a raise it knew it didn’t deserve.” (Yes, you can get carried away with this.)

However, the more specific and solid the details in most instances, the better.

33590_2694Good writers have taught themselves this because they want you to believe their lies. We are after all liars. We lie for a living.

The late John O’Hara is quoted as saying: “Detail has to be handled with care. For instance when you are describing a man’s clothing, you must get everything right, especially the wrong thing.”

If, as can be said, the beginning of every story is in effect that “Things are not as they seem,” then that piece of advice seems to me absolutely critical. The wrong thing can tell you volumes about a character while simultaneously eliminating a full page of cold expository oatmeal.

So if there’s one thing you should learn from this post, it’s . . . yeah, you already know.

***

Gregory Frost’s latest books are TAIN and REMSCELA, comprising a retelling of the Ulster Cycle of Irish Mythology. And his newly completed gothic historical, Dark House, is an engrossing tale about a cursed and haunted White House, and about the brave slaves who risk all to battle a mysterious evil. Frost’s many titles have received starred reviews, and he has been nominated for top prizes including the Stoker, the World Fantasy Award, the International Horror Guild Award, and the Nebula. His duology Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet (Ballantine-Del Rey) was a finalist for the James Tiptree Award, was named one of the four best fantasies of the year by the American Library Association, and received starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly, the latter dubbing Shadowbridge “… a sparkling gem of mythic invention and wonder.” Currently, Frost is director of the Fiction Writing Workshop at Swarthmore College.

*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: Introverts Unite! Networking for Writers

Caroline Noonan Head Shot

Caroline Noonan

Happy Agent Monday, everyone!  Writers are often introverts. People who enjoy sitting alone and writing far more than being at the center of attention. Yet these days writers MUST get out into the world for their writing and for their careers. Today I’m pleased to welcome our client Caroline Noonan, who is here to give us all some painless tips on how we writers can connect…and on why it’s vital that we do.

The Importance of Networking for Writers
By Caroline Noonan

Definition: noun net·work·ing: Connecting with other people to exchange information and develop contacts; the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.

Hmmm, you say. Doesn’t apply to writers. Writing is about me, my laptop and my awesome manuscript. Well you’re right. To a point. But nowadays we are expected to self-promote, self-market and be our own editors. We are asked to speak, maintain websites and have a presence on social media. And if that’s not bad enough, a great many of us are introverts. Introverts prefer to listen and observe. We are reflective and focused and speak through our art. Networking goes against our very nature and can feel disingenuous.

But consider the potential benefits of a little networking:

• Are you looking for feedback on your manuscript before querying?
• Would you like to find critique partners whose opinion you trust?
• Would you like support and encouragement from like-minded individuals?
• Are you actively seeking an agent or an editor?
• Do you want to make writing your career?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you should seriously consider networking. Okay, so maybe I’ve piqued your interest. The next step is How? Here are a four practical ways that have helped me personally:

1. Meetup. Meetup.com is the world’s largest network of local groups, making it easy to organize or find an existing group in your area. I found my local writer’s group and my regular critique partners through Meetup. Yes, I was biting my nails and psyching myself out before that first meeting, but it was smooth sailing after that. Remember, give the same courtesy and consideration in critiquing other’s work that you would like given to yours.

2. Join a Professional Writer’s Organization. There are many organizations who connect you with other writers and organize local events, such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). These organizations have strong on-line communities, as well as terrific regional and national conferences that are well attended by other writers, agents and editors (some of whom give preferential consideration to organization members).

3. Go to a Writer’s Conference. I suggest starting with a local or regional conference. Get there early and introduce yourself to the folks sitting around you. Ask them what genre they write and what they are working on. Ask them for a business card. Maybe even follow them on Twitter. (Follow Caroline @carolinehnoonan)

4. Social Media. There is a huge on-line community of writers, especially on Twitter. Many literary agents run contests on Twitter, and I know individuals who have found their critique partners there. Social Media is a great place to share ideas, connect with others and give someone a nod of encouragement when they need it. Next time, it might be you needing the nod!

I hope you find these ideas as helpful and practical as I did. Just remember, writers are basically all nice people, and nearly everyone is in the same boat as you!

 

Caroline Noonan’s debut YA novel Till Someday is a riveting contemporary about a girl eager to turn 18 and finally take charge of her life beyond foster care, but life keeps getting in her way. Caroline writes with authority — she grew up in foster care from the ages of 4-18, and got on with her own life, becoming an aerospace engineer for NASA, and a technical writer/editor for the space industry.

 

*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: 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: 7 Steps to Writing Success

MP900314154

Happy Agent Monday, everyone! As you can imagine, every day I’m in touch with many many writers. Some are trying to break in and get their first book deal. Others are seasoned pros who have been published multiple times. As a literary agent, and as an author myself, I’ve come to recognize the steps toward writing success, and I’m gonna share them with you right now:

 

 

  1. Write
  2. Polish
  3. Sit on it for a while
  4. Polish even more
  5. Submit your work
  6. While on submission, write something else
  7. Go back to #1… rinse, repeat, and never ever give up

Simple? Not if you are doing it right.

Let’s look at #1-#4:
Successful writers take their craft very seriously. They write and refine and refine some more. Every successful writer does this, even the multi-published ones. And they don’t rush their work out before giving it the time needed to make it better. Often I talk to new writers who say they’ve worked on this manuscript for 5 whole drafts! They’ve spent 4 months on it! Hm. In my experience, successful writers can’t even count the number of drafts they’ve done, and will probably never admit to how many years a particular manuscript has taken them. (I spent 10 years on my first novel, and it never got published. Shhh. Don’t tell! But I’d worked so hard on my craft that my next novel was picked up by Random House.) Craft is the most important part of becoming successful. It doesn’t matter who you meet, or how zippy do your query letter is, if your actual manuscript isn’t strong. And that take time and skill.

Now for #5:
When it comes to submitting, successful writers get their work out there. I often meet talented writers who send out 4 queries, don’t land an agent, and then just give up. Talk about setting yourself up for failure. Successful writers don’t give up after sending out 1 or 10 or even 50 queries. But first they research how to submit properly, and who the right people are to send their work to, whether to an agent, or a publisher, a contest, or a journal. (Scroll through my past Agent Monday posts on this site and you’ll find lots of tips about pitching and querying.) They follow guidelines (mine are found here), and they continue to send the work out as much as is needed till they meet their goal. Successful writers also refine their submissions along the way, based on feedback that feels useful. If query letters are getting no response, they will strengthen their query letter and try some more. If editors or agents pass but offer suggestions, they consider these ideas and refine even further, and then send the work back out on submission.

Onto #6:
This an often overlooked step! While that manuscript is circulating out on submission, do not stop your own work. Why stop everything and wait for that one completed work to find a home? Lot’s of writers get mired down in the cycle of submitting, and obsessing about rejections. Instead, let that submission process go on, but focus on that new work. It’ll take time for your first work to find its home, chances are your next book may be even stronger than the first one, and, guess what? Agents love to hear that you have more than one project in the works, since they want to manage a writer’s career, not just one book.

Also, avoid continually rewriting that one book that’s on submission. Let it go for now and write something new. Really new. Hopefully not a sequel to that first book. Why not? Because if that first book doesn’t fly, or does but ends up very changed once it goes through editorial, then you have just wasted a ton of time. The best thing to do is to write up a one paragraph or one page synopsis of where you see each future book in that series going, and set it aside till a deal is at hand. Once a book is commissioned as a series, THEN you write that sequel.

Now for #7:
Keep going through those steps, and never ever give up. NEVER! You do not know when success will come. The only thing you know for sure is that if you give up, it will never happen. So go for it. Work hard. Keep focused on improving your craft.

Simple? Well, in a way it is. Yes, it’s work and will take time, but if you keep these 7 steps in front of you and bring your focus back to them over and over – you’ll be doing everything you can to make success happen.

So keep writing. Keep believing.

You can do this.

 

*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: Finding the Time to Write

MP900302970Happy Agent Monday to you all! Today, as we enjoy an extra hour of sunlight (you did turn your clock forward, right?), it’s a perfect time to talk about, well, time!  Specifically, finding the time to write. I’m thrilled today to have a guest post by my client and wonderful author Erin Teagan. Erin, though busy over the years with work and raising a family, has managed to write a number of manuscripts and to work hard at perfecting her craft. She got my attention and offer of representation with a sharp and touching middle grade novel called STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES about Madeline Little, genius scientist in the making, who keeps her life in control by creating SOP’s like “How to Fake a Bubonic Plague to get out of a Party.” But when her life flip-flops at the start of middle school, and the SOPs no longer do the trick, it’s up to Madeline to discover a new cure for her newly messed up life.

Here’s a look into how Erin finds the time…

 

FINDING TIME TO WRITE

Guest post by Erin Teagan

 

Finding the time to write is a universal struggle for writers. Day jobs, kids, pets, snowmageddons, to-do lists, books to read…there are a million things that require our time and attention before we can give anything to writing.

When I was in college I wrote a terrible YA novel. I worked on it during holiday breaks and in the summer. I pictured what writing would look like when I graduated, churning out book after book with all the time I’d have. A 9 to 5 job? No studying? What else did adults do with their time? Ha!

It took that first year of working to realize that if I wanted to be a writer I had to make it a priority. Because even though I chose a career that rarely required take-home work, it sometimes meant working late. And sometimes it meant traveling and giving up my weekends. It also meant going back to school for a graduate degree. I fantasized about my old college days. What did I do with those huge chunks of time between classes? Why hadn’t I worked on my novel more?

I researched how other writers fit it all in (I’m a scientist. I research EVERYTHING). Lots of articles talked about the time suck of the Internet and TV. But I loved those kind of time-sucks! After working nine or ten hours, sometimes it was all I could do to just sit on a couch with my roommate or husband or 90 lb lap dog and stare at the TV like a zombie. And if you didn’t surf the Internet for at least a little bit, imagine how far behind you’d get on surprise attack kitten videos or dogs romping in the snow? Sometimes you just had to be part of society, you know?

Other articles talked about writing in the wee hours of the morning or into the dark of night. Some of the most successful authors wrote while the rest of the world was sleeping. And I thought, I should give it a try. I was a night person. I used to study into the midnights, I should surely be able to churn out a book or two that way. Except I found that I just couldn’t turn off my to-do list. Those unchecked boxes that remained from my day haunted me, my brain chatter too loud. Was I even meant to be a writer if I couldn’t find any time to write?

I pictured myself fifteen years older, with kids, a mortgage, real-life problems and complications. If I was going to get writing into my schedule, it had to be now. So I tallied my excuses. Why I couldn’t write at night. Why I couldn’t give up my time-sucks. Why I couldn’t possibly write in the early morning. And what I found was I had far less excuses (though they were good ones, I tell you) about writing in the morning.

I remember the first time I tried it. I set my alarm fifteen minutes early. I was on a business trip which meant long, tiring hours. But there were no more excuses. I knew my brain would resist this new schedule so I treated myself to some new books. Plot workbooks. Writing exercises. Books on writing. The first day was a struggle, but I made myself do one writing exercise. I was groggy, the hotel coffee was pretty terrible, but once I got the writer juices flowing, it wasn’t as horrific as I had feared.

This was a big change for me so it took me months. Each week I set my alarm fifteen minutes earlier. By the end of it, I was waking up at 4:45 in the morning and my brain was forgetting that I was a night-person. I felt so successful! At the end of that first year I had revised my terrible young adult novel (and then put it in a locked drawer) and managed to write a somewhat decent draft of a new middle grade. I felt so accomplished! I had managed to trick my night-person brain to be something that could function and focus in the wee hours of the day.

Nearly fifteen years later, with real-life complications, kids and a mortgage, I’m so thankful I took the plunge and made writing a priority in my schedule. It took some trial and error and brain training to figure out what worked best for me, but now I can be sure to check off that one ‘writing’ box on my to-do list every day.

Now if I could just apply that to the rest of my life like going through my overstuffed filing cabinet, resolving that toll violation, or exercising. But really, who runs on a snow day? And is that filing cabinet really hurting anyone? So I’ll leave those tasks unchecked on my list for today. At least I got some writing in.

 

Erin TeaganErin Teagan has a master’s degree in science and worked in biochemistry labs for more than ten years where she wrote endless Standard Operating Procedures.  She’s an avid reader and has reviewed middle grade and young adult books for Children’s Literature Database and Washington Independent Review of Books.  She’s active in SCBWI and this will be her eighth year co-chairing the Mid-Atlantic fall conference. STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES will be her debut middle grade novel. Erin is represented by Marie Lamba of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency.