Reading Queries Like

I was browsing new books at a shop this weekend, picking them up, reading some flap copy, flipping to the text, and putting things back on shelves (or, for the lucky few, into my bookbag). It occurred to me then, and I can’t say why not before then, that the experience was very much like reading queries.

People ask all the time what it’s like to have an inbox full of manuscripts, and how agents and editors know when something is right for them. And I tell you what, if you’ve ever been looking for the right next thing to read out of the mountains of options at the bookstore or library, you already know what that experience is like.

We picky-but-voracious readers suffer from always wanting the next excellent story, and needing to comb the stacks to find it. How many times have you found yourself not knowing what you’re in the mood for, until you finally read a jacket that gets you excited? You take the book home and dig in excitedly and either it is as wonderful as you’d hoped and you can’t wait to tell everyone, or it falls flat and you move on.

Well then, surprise! You know exactly what it’s like to read as a publishing professional. We go through queries in that same mindset we all have at bookstores or scrolling GoodReads. Where is that thing we didn’t know we wanted? What ignites and delights and intrigues? Where is that thing we can’t wait to stay up all night to finish? Keep it in mind when you’re wondering what will make an agent request your manuscript. It’s basically the same thing that makes you want to buy one.

There, now you know. And for writing effective queries, knowing is half the battle.

Why I Don’t Care About the Rule of Threes

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions on Twitter about the so-called rule of threes. And my inbox is seeing a lot more refrains used at least three times in picture books. For those of you who aren’t aware, the rule of threes is something many picture books employ. For instance, in the Three Bears, Goldilocks tries out three chairs, porridges, and beds. In the Three Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf huffs and puffs three times. It’s a story framing device that works pretty well for picture books.

But not all the time.

The rule of threes isn’t something that can be slapped into a manuscript with the expectation that it will help it stand. I think the hope is that kids will magically start chanting along with a book when it’s read out loud. And so many writers invent a phrase and just tuck it into a story willy-nilly. Many times, it isn’t necessary, and so comes across as forced.

When applied well, the rule of threes helps to provide some tension. In both the classic tales above, the story moves forward because of each thing being done. Each time G-Lox sits in a chair is a chance for her to cause trouble, which ups the ante little by little. Each time BB Wolf blows a house down, the stress level of the pigs (and reader) goes up.

A refrain is something different, but should be employed with equal choosiness. Another post, perhaps.

Not every picture book uses threes. Some are a straight narrative. Look at Stop Following Me, Moon! by Darren Farrell. Or I’m My Own Dog by David Ezra Stein. Or Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin.

It’s true that I could name a dozen picture books that DO use the rule of threes. And I have nothing against it. It’s a great tool. But I don’t want writers to think it’s absolutely necessary or to lean on it when it’s not structurally sound. I want it, like all the tools in the box, to be used thoughtfully and not just because “you’re supposed to”. And I’m certainly not going to reject something that doesn’t use this “rule” on those grounds.

You wouldn’t use a waffle iron to make pizza, would you? (On second thought…)

How to Find an Illustrator

I just got off the phone with someone who called because she had seen an image done by one of our artists, and she wanted to know how she could get him to illustrate her picture book for her. I spent some time trying to tell her that that isn’t really how it works, but she just wasn’t hearing me. And so I changed tacks, and ended up telling her it would be very, VERY expensive. That she heard. But I was left with the feeling that my point was not made.

Writers: You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. 

In nearly all cases (exceptions explained below) the publisher will hire an illustrator for you. Your job, as a writer, is to write. And you shouldn’t be spending money on an illustrator (or an agent, or making hard-copies of your work). You’re doing things out of order. Once your words have been sold to a publisher, they will work very hard to find exactly the right artist for the job. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator.

I know it seems like a smart idea to send out a full-package to potential agents or publishers. But agents, editors, and art-directors are very practiced at reading picture book texts without art. Part of the fun is imagining the pictures before they exist. By hiring an illustrator, you may be shooting yourself in the foot. Here are a few reasons why you definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator:

  1. Your vision is not the agent or publisher’s vision. Your manuscript could be brilliant, but even the best professionals have a hard time separating text from art sometimes. And sub-par art could mean turning down a perfectly decent manuscript.
  2. The friend who you hired isn’t really as great an artist as you think, which can make you both look unprofessional.
  3. You end up spending money when you don’t need to. Let the publisher pay the illustrator for you.
  4. It would be nearly impossible for a picture book hopeful to hire, say, a New York Times bestselling illustrator, but it’s pretty easy for a publishing house to do so. Don’t you want a New York Times bestselling illustrator attached to your project?

But what are the exceptions? 

  1. The friend you paired up with has a few picture books under her belt already. Or is at least more than a weekend hobbyist-artist. You and she have been working hard together and attending conferences and understand that you are doing things in an unconventional way.
  2. You plan to self-publish
  3. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator

Here’s why it’s a good idea to trust the agents and publishers to hire an illustrator for you: 

  1. It’s their job to understand the entire industry, from what stories and styles are working in the current market, to who won which awards this year. We know people’s schedules and stuff, too. 
  2. It’s common practice to pair a new writer with a “known” illustrator to bring some name recognition to a debut. 
  3. The publisher may have an “open contract” with an illustrator, and they may be looking for just the right thing to fill it.

Please, please save yourself time, money, and the headache of art-directing someone who isn’t right for the job. Trust that your words are enough, and that the person in charge of finding you an illustrator will do so with aplomb.

You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. 

Venturing Forth

Many queries tell me “this is my first attempt at writing” or “I’ve never written a word before this” or some such. And I always feel excited for people who’ve found the powerful magic of changing the world with words.

Like anything, though, one would never expect to become a professional at one’s first try. Imagine walking into an open tryout for the Brooklyn Cyclones, picking up a bat, and saying, I’ve never played this before, but I just love baseball. Or hanging a shingle on your front door advertising flu shots because you’d always wanted to be a doctor.

There are many steps between “I’d like to give this a go” and “I’m getting pretty good at this” and “a publisher might actually be interested in this”. And some of those steps can maybe be skipped, depending on circumstances, but it’s not the smart bet to walk in thinking they can ALL be skipped.

Don’t know what the steps are? That’s cool. The internet is the best place in the world* for finding things out. Like any profession, there are communities full of people who have advice for you. And like I always say, the SCBWI is a marvelous resource. So are webinars. So are blogs. And retreats. And books about writing books.

The path is a long one, but you’re on it, and you’ll find many people along the way to make sure you stay on it, show you appropriate shortcuts, and keep you from getting trampled. Your first attempt is a great start. But if you’ve never written a word before today, think about whether you’ve been at it long enough to be considered a professional. Don’t worry, books will be around a while, we can wait. And we’ll cheer you along as you go.

 

*take with a grain of salt, geez.

An Offer!

This post has been updated to clarify some points that were obviously confusing. 5/20/16

Oh my god, you got an offer of representation! Congratulations! That’s HUGE. So exciting! The very next thing you need to do is freak out. I mean, go into full on panic mode. The clock is ticking! Email all the other agents who have your manuscript and tell them they have 24 hours to decide whether they want to make an offer too.

This is a good idea, because then agents, very very busy people, will all say “Oh, crap. I don’t have that kind of time,” and drop out, making your decision very easy.

Obviously I’m being facetious. But this is something we see ALL THE TIME. Most weeks we get follow-ups to queries saying the author has an offer of representation, and the offering agent has given the author until x date (often a week or two) to claim their prize.

WTF?

I get the other agents’ motivation. Putting a time limit on these things prevents the endless stringing-along while all the other agents read and decide. Authors: You don’t have to agree to it. If the offering agent really wants to sign you, they’ll wait. They’ll wait and do battle with other offering agents. They’ll wait, and check in, and tell you again how much they love your work. If after two weeks, their interest in your work expires, well, they probably won’t be the best agent for you anyway.

Here’s the other side, and I’ll speak for myself. Other agents may have different feelings. But when I have a pile of urgent things that need to be done for my existing clients, and say this week someone has been particularly taxing, getting an email saying “you gotta read this and decide if you want to get married in the next week”, I may start to think, “Ugh. Here’s a demanding author. Do I really have time for her? Will she always be so insistent?”

Here’s a better way, in my humble agenty opinion: When you get an offer, tell the offering agent, “Hooray! Thank you! I need to get back to some people, and I will give you my response as soon as I can.”

If OA says, “You have two weeks to decide.” you can say, “Ok, I understand your time is valuable. I will try to respond in that time, but it may take a little longer to hear back from everyone. I hope that time limit is flexible.” Hopefully OA will understand. ETA: This doesn’t mean you should string them along for the next six months. But if it takes two weeks and 2 days, or three weeks, or a month, OA should be ok with that.

Then you go back to other agents, and say “I have an offer, and I’d like to be able to respond to it within two weeks. But if you need more time than that, please let me know.” Instead of “I need to know within two weeks or else.” ETA: You’re making a very big decision that will impact your career for a long time to come. Easing up on the timelines gives everyone the room to breathe. You can interview people. You can think about things. You can weigh out your options. Yes, two weeks is usually enough to decide. But sometimes it isn’t.

Also ETA: I’m not advocating for the process to take forever and ever. We all need to be respectful of each others’ time. What I’m saying is that 1. an offer of representation shouldn’t expire after a certain number of days, and 2. you can tell agents you want to hear from them by a certain time, but if they are interested and need more time, it’s in your best interest to work with that.

We’re all human, and believe it or not, we want everyone to succeed. So when we hear you have an offer, we’re happy for you. We may want in, but if you seem like a demanding diva, we may walk away on that basis alone.

ETA: Asking for what you want and need is not acting like a diva. Not being flexible to force someone to do things your way with no leeway is.

If time is money, is more time more money?

Pet Peeves! Part 1

I adore metaphors. They are the wind beneath my wings. I love descriptive writing. The sparkling dialogue reverberates through the whole history of my being like a breeze through the Redwood forest.

Know what I don’t like? Eyeballs. Specifically ones that fall on things.

You know what I mean. “My eyes fell on the hot guy in the corner.”

Eyeballs are always getting up to mischief, and it’s time we stopped them!

“His eyes slid down my dress.”

“Her eyes followed me as I backed out of the room.”

“Sharon’s eyes landed on the fruitcake behind the centerpiece.”

“Marta’s eyes glided around the dance floor.”

ETA: “Her eyes flit around until finally resting on what she was looking for.”

“Juan’s eyes lingered on Patrick’s new cleats.”

There are so many different and arguably better ways to say these things that don’t involve squishy spheres leading independent lives. Let’s try those ways and then decide which sounds better. K?

Share your favorite abuses of this one in the comments.

Beginnings Part 1

You know what’s the worst? When I read a query and it sounds AWESOME and then this happens:

“Once there was a boy named Pauline who did an extraordinary thing that you can’t wait to read about, and before I can tell you anything about that, I must explain the entire history of his life from the day he was born, plus the whole rest of his town and family. You see, there was this house. It was a gigantic Gothic thing, built by Dr. Gormless von Bandcamp, Pauline’s mother’s father’s father…” And then approximately five more pages of this before anything resembling the real story starts.

I feel like I’ve been duped. I’ve been offered a story about a kid doing something extraordinary, and what I’m getting is backstory. Which is like getting backwash when someone offers you a sip of cool, refreshing lemonade. And you know what happens if I can’t skim the bliz blaz to quickly find the real story? I stop reading.

You know how They say to start in the action? Yes, do that. It’s a very good idea. Ungrounded, random narration with nary a character to connect to is as disorienting as opening a door into zero-g. I wonder why it’s happening, and when there will be something to grab onto so I can stay upright.

Starting in the action doesn’t mean opening with your character running to catch a speeding train, but I will dedicate another post to that. I mean that a scene should open on a character doing something; delivering cookies to a homeless person via unicycle; changing the toilet paper roll, it doesn’t entirely matter. Readers are pretty smart, they’ll catch on. And when they do, you can layer in the backstory as you go along, revealing exciting things at moments that maximize the information.

Beginning at the beginning doesn’t mean the beginning of time, or of someone’s life, or even (especially?) when they wake up in the morning. It might take some thinking to figure out what the real beginning of your story is. But you’re a writer, and good portion of writing is thinking, yeah? Look for that thing that sets off a chain of events and start slightly before that. It’s the difference between a tome and a page-turner.

Don’t be dense.

 

 

Niche Job

There are lots of different kinds of publishing. Trade is the one most think of when they decide to write and publish a book. Who doesn’t want to see their book on an endcap at Barnes and Noble? Who doesn’t want to do a reading and sign copies at their local indie?

But sometimes, the books people write and submit to agents and editors are definitely not trade books. Very often, they are educational. For example, I have lost count of queries that hit my inbox beginning with “Childhood obesity is a national epidemic.” While this may be true, it does not make a trade picture book. Other examples of books that will not likely find a trade home: Explaining cancer, diabetes, or other diseases/medical conditions. Explaining adoption, alcoholism, incarceration, abuse. Basically if your main character is a doctor or social worker or adult of any kind who is explaining something, you’re writing a niche-market book.

Recently, an incredibly smart single mom I admire very much asked if I knew of any books explaining the process of artificial insemination. I said no, trying not to cringe. She said, “I guess I have to write it, then.” We don’t know each other well enough yet for me to have told her all the reasons I think that book doesn’t exist. And if she writes it, well, that’s a bridge I’ll cross later.

I’m not discouraging books on these topics. They can be very helpful to have when kids start asking questions about heavy life-stuff. They are great educational tools. But they are unlikely to be the ones pulled off the shelf for multiple reads night after night. Of course there are exceptions, but as the saying goes, they prove the rule.

There are, of course, ways to approach these subjects that are more widely accessible, one being to write a character who is dealing with said issue, without making the story about that issue. For example, I have a friend who, as a kid, found out he had diabetes and had to start taking insulin shots. But he was also a smarter-than-you Thrasher-reading skater/alter boy whose holy grail was a vinyl Space Oddity single. A story about a kid who has to take insulin shots is very niche. A story about a well-rounded character who just happens to inject himself daily as part of a larger story is going to have a wider appeal.

Niche-market books take niche-market publishers to make them successful. Do your research before submitting. Find agents and editors who know that market well, and understand that many do not.

I Like Big Buts (and Therefores)

I have a confession that may polarize my readers, but here it is nonetheless: I like South Park. Sure, it’s sometimes vulgar, but I like the social commentary, and the fact that they put out episodes in just a week, so it always feels timely. And some of the simplest and best writing advice I’ve heard comes from a talk the creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, did at Tisch School for the Arts at NYU.

It’s been around for a few years, so you may have already seen it, but if not, and if you don’t feel like watching the video, here’s the gist: If your story goes something like “A happened and then B happened and then C happened”, change all of those and thens to buts and therefores. So now your story goes “A happened, but then B happened, therefore C happened.” And that’s a much more engaging story, doncha think?

Beyond the Great Whatever

A while back, I talked about slang and how a little goes a long way. But I’d like to dig a little deeper into one of my personal pet peeves: the use/overuse of whatever.

Whatever is crucial to the teenage language, is it not? It ends sentences. “It’s this old show or whatever”.

It IS a sentence.

“Danica, do you hear me?”

“Whatever.”

And that’s how kids sound. I understand that. But it’s not the only way kids sound. And even the ones who sound like that sometimes don’t sound like that all the time. The thing I find so upsetting about it is that whatever is the end of the line. It’s the period. It’s the conversation ender. And in writing and reading, it’s hard to bounce back from.

I think as adults, that’s how we hear it. A kid whatevers us and the conversation is over. You’d have to pull pretty hard to pry that conversation back open. But that isn’t always how kids talk to each other. And as YA and middle grade writers, it’s our job to give kids a window, not a mirror, to paraphrase something I’ve heard often (and believe completely). And so we have to imagine what comes after the whatever when we’re not present. What does whatever stand for? Write that instead. It will make your characters endlessly more interesting.

Here’s an example.

“Dude, why do you always call me a Herman Munster in that singsong voice?”

“It’s from this thing my dad likes about some old election or whatever.”

Sounds like something a sullen teenager would say. Or even a kind of charming teenager. But that conversation has been shut down. There’s nothing to pick up, no thread to follow. As a writer, you could leave it there, OR you could dig deeper and find out more about your characters.

“Dude, why do you always call me a Herman Munster in that singsong voice?”

“It’s from this old song parody from the Bush-Kerry election when my dad was working as a staffer in the Senate. He sings it all the time. ‘This land is my land, this land is your land. I’m a Texas tiger, you’re a liberal wiener.’ It’s those same guys that made that stupid dancing elf video your aunt sent us all at Christmas. I think This Land was their first video. It’s pretty funny actually.”

This conversation is open. There are lots of places to go, and your characters have interests and we know what they think is funny. It might sound like whatever in real life, but most of you are writing fiction, so your characters can be as open and non-sullen as you want. And interesting characters and open conversations are more likely to make it out of my inbox than even the most realistic mirroring of teen-talk. Or whatever.

PS That video still exists and I still think it’s funny.