Welcome! Please sit down, make yourself comfortable, and have a brownie or three...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Editor and the Muse

Which side of your brain do you use in writing? All of us are dominate in one side of our brains, but which side is the best to use for your latest manuscript? Let’s take a look at the traits of both (see links to the right for a thorough list of characteristics). To sum it up briefly:

Left side = logical/methodical/organized
Right side = creative/spontaneous/artsy

Kirt Hickman (http://kirthickman.com/) led a lovely workshop on revising fiction during the RMFW conference, and he called these brain sections the Editor and the Muse. When you’re in the trenches of revisions, the Editor is the way to go, but Kirt encourages first drafts to be given in large part to the Muse.

Now this may seem like an easy path to take (who wouldn't want to be given free reign with their pages?), but what if you are a left-brained person by nature (guilty)? How can you encourage your Muse to take over and reap the benefits of her creativity? Mr. Hickman had a few suggestions for nurturing the Muse:

1) Get up very early to write, especially if you are not a morning person. Your Editor needs sleep, but your Muse does not. Your Muse is a late-night, party on, anytime-is-good-for-dreaming type of gal. Go ahead and force yourself to scribble down words and later look at the text to see if anything is salvageable. If you're a morning person, do it late at night, when your Editor has turned in for the evening.

2) Write by hand on unlined paper. Typing is a Left-Brained-Editor activity, but writing cursive is a Right-Brained-Muse activity. Your Editor likes boundaries and lines, your Muse does not.

3) Don’t stop to revise mid-sentence/paragraph or your Editor will wake up and take over, with no promise of handing the page back to the Muse anytime soon (Editors will tell you to go make coffee and take a shower and check the weather before deciding on an outfit and then maybe go back to writing when your properly organized for the day).

4) Don’t stop to research. Do your really know what Spain looks like in the Springtime? Maybe not, but go ahead and make it up. Corrections and additions can come later.

Now, those of you who are right-brained, you probably have your share of problems too. Maybe you create more subplots than necessary or spend five paragraphs describing a blade of grass in your character’s hand, then drift into how he played soccer as a youth and loved the smell of grass, and then spend five more paragraphs comparing the smell to different things. For all I know, you Righties may need tips on nurturing your Editor. Sorry, those didn't come up during the presentation (but maybe I'll do a post on that later).

I often wish I could let go more with my writing, but my Editor interrupts me too much (“Hey! You used that adjective last page, change it!” or “Wait a minute, watch the backstory…and is that your third character whose name starts with the letter B?”). After listening to Kirt’s talk, I’m convinced that I should find the time for some free-writing, sans keyboard and outline. Now I just need to logically plan out the time to do it (tee-hee).

Are you right-brained or left, and how does that affect your writing?

Do you find that your Editor and Muse work well together or do they clash noggins occasionally, like mine do?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Layer Up (the tension) for Autumn!

Autumn has arrived and the weather is turning crisp. SO, this is a FABULOUS time to dress your scenes well by layering up the tension. Take an average scene and make it pop.

Where to start? Try dialogue scenes. A speaker at the RMFW conference gave a wonderful example. Say your two characters are having a heated discussion in the house. Good dialogue, good information, but a little stagnant. Why not move them out to the garden?

Suddenly, the possibilities are endless. Your middle grade protagonist is mad and arguing with his parent while doing requisite weeding. He stabs the trowel into the dirt hard and deep to show it. Maybe a nosy neighbor sticks her head over the fence and annoys the crud out of the kid. He’s even more worked up now. Maybe it starts to rain and lightning strikes close by. All these things add layers to a simple scene of dialogue, and the reader will be more engaged by the pages.

How about a hospital scene in a YA novel? Maybe your love interests are chatting from the beds, having a talk that divulges important information and hidden passion. That’s fantastic, but how can you bring something more to the situation? Hmmm, what if the guy gets up and hobbles over for a glass of water? Okay, there’s some action. MORE. What if, he happens to have a hospital gown on that’s split up to his bum and your blushing protagonist sneaks a glance at his bottom while they chat? Boom, giggles galore. That scene just got more interesting to some readers.

One of the biggest things I learned is that your manuscript, whether fantasy or contemporary, needs to have a realistic tone. That said, the readers want to see your character challenged, so don’t be afraid to pour on the conflict. Think outside the box and add a phone ringing at an unexpected moment, a traffic accident when someone’s already late, a full bladder during test time—you get the idea.

Don’t go overboard (inserting gardens and bottoms where they just don’t belong), but check out your scenes and see if there’s a way that you can make them even better. Make any changes deliberately and with purpose (and because they will truly improve your scene), not just because some random lady like me gave you a suggestion :)

Have a wonderful weekend! I'll be hiking in some higher altitudes with the family to see Fall foliage (leaves change early in the mountains...our Fall season is too short in my mind), and will definitely be layering up (clothes this time, not tension).

See you on Tuesday!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Nailing The Important Part Of Your Query Letter

Throughout the RMFW Conference in Denver last week, there were sessions/panels that touched on query letters and pitches. During an excellent workshop led by super-agent Kristin Nelson (who, by the way, is a fantastic speaker--the room was PACKED and I sat on the floor), conference-goers learned a big secret about the agenting world…


Ha, ha. All joking aside, we can’t possibly expect them to read every word of a query letter when they get stacks-upon-virtual-stacks of the things. The pitch paragraph/paragraphs are key. If those are good, the agent may peruse your intro paragraph and credentials, but without a solid plot communicated in a compelling manner…it’s not promising.

SO, what should be in a good pitch paragraph?

-Plot catalyst/inciting incident (this is the reason there IS a story—a phone conversation where Nancy finds out her boyfriend is royalty, Mrs. Hendrix gives Danny a bad grade and he’s going to have to mow lawns all summer, etc.—this should be in the first 30 pages of your manuscript or you need to seriously think about revising your beginning).

But back to the core of your pitch paragraph. You only need the first 30 pages of your novel because all cover copy is shaped around the main event (also called the inciting incident or in my terminology, the plot catalyst) that begins the novel and without it, the story could not move forward. In other words, the event must happen or you have no story to tell.” (K.Nelson, guest blog on The Lit Coach)

-Backstory elements (these are generally shunned if they’re too prevalent in a manuscript, but we were told it’s okay to put them in your pitch to give a little perspective)

-Supporting plot elements

-Character insights

-7 to 10 sentences total (includes plot catalyst, back story elements, other related plot elements, character insights)

Feel free to separate into two paragraphs for the pitch—three/four might be a stretch. If possible, insert some voice.

That's it. If you're only getting rejections, take a look at your pitch paragraph and see if it follows these guidelines. If not, you might want to think about revising.

*Interesting tidbit—it’s not necessary to start with your plot catalyst, it just needs to be in there somewhere. I kind of assumed it should start with the catalyst, but nope. Feel free to play around with the format, just keep it full of relevant information told in a way that’s easy to follow.

Last of all, to keep things in perspective, on Friday I posted about how a fantastic title can override a weak query. Also, some agents skip the query altogether and go straight for your sample pages (which is understandable), so go figure...gotta love this roller coaster ride. Hands up, everyone~ big ups and downs are a given, you might as well keep smiling and remember that you were the one who got in line. Be glad you were tall enough to make it on the ride. Weeeee! (okay, enough silliness, have a lovely week and I’ll see you on Friday).

Friday, September 17, 2010

Title, Schmitle, Who Really Cares? Um, Some Agents Do…

Perhaps you think the title of your manuscript doesn’t matter too much—you’re a writer after all, and you concentrate on things like plot and character development before focusing on something so petty, so superficial as a measly title.

Or maybe you’re the opposite—you can’t really get into your novel until you have the perfect title, and you spend hours of time (that might have been spent writing) coming up with it.

I go back and forth on the title issue. If I'm looking to procrastinate, I'll play around with ideas and have fun with it, but I never thought twice about submitting a query letter with a title that I knew was lackluster. The title, I assumed, was the last thing on an agent’s mind, and a good query letter trumps all. Well, maybe, but…

Here’s a mindbender for you: titles can make a difference. A big one.

At the conference I recently attended, an agent let us know that if the query wasn’t super strong, but the TITLE was particularly intriguing, she would ask to see pages anyway. Keep in mind that this is one agent at one conference. Still, I think it’s a fair assumption that THIS SHOULD MAKE YOU THINK ABOUT THE TITLE OF YOUR MANUSCRIPT!

If it’s something vague like REACHING FOR GREATNESS or FLOATING TOWARD ACCEPTANCE, it’s gonna come off as a nonfiction self-help book. Which title is better for a whitewater rafting adventure story— AND THE RIVER CALLED ME HOME, BREATHING WATER, or DEATH BY PADDLE (maybe they all stink, but I just made them up, so no teasing)?

We write fiction guys, so use your imagination. I’m not suggesting you go crazy or make something up purely for shock value, but think about your titles.

Right now. Go on…

Evaulate them. Are they evocative? Do they immediately conjure up an image or feeling?

The example given by the agent was BLOOD MAGIC. There you go. Like it or not, those two words are a powerful combination.

So think about your title in terms of your genre—if it’s a silly middle grade, consider a very silly title that stands out. If it’s an adventure story, make it gripping. A young adult paranormal love story—give us passionate, thought-provoking words like PERSONAL DEMONS or SHIVER.

There are tons of exceptions—of course there are—and when it comes down to it, your pages matter most. But if an intriguing title can dip you out of the slush pile and get your manuscript a look see, I say it’s worth consideration.


A few quick statistics I learned from the conference (based on a sample of 250 authors):

Once they started seriously writing (and I’m not sure what constitutes being “serious”), it took the sample of authors an average of 11.2 years to get a contract (or an agent, can’t remember which). Make that 11.8 years if they had a Masters of Fine Arts (that was purely coincidence, but interesting nonetheless).

The average age of a debut author was 36.

A decent percentage of folks started writing after retirement.

A downer statistic:
Super-Agent Kristin Nelson and her crew read 36,000 queries in 2009. Of those, she took on 2 clients and her colleague, Sara Megibow, took on 7.

A happy fact:
I love to write/read, and I’m guessing you do too. This is my hobby-with-potential, and I take it seriously—just like my hubby takes golf seriously. Sure, he knows it’s a game, but he’s constantly trying to improve his swing, his putting, his clothing choices (tee-hee). We’ve set the goal that he’ll get his handicap down to 2 and go to the local, amateur try-out for the US Open Qualifier by 2020. Were you aware that anyone can play in the US Open Golf Tournament? You just have to want it, work your butt off, take advice here, leave advice there, develop your own swing, believe in yourself, and practice, practice, practice. It might be a longshot, but you might as well live life to the fullest and give it your all. If you’re going to be a writer, BE A WRITER. Statistics aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Ask any debut author you meet.

Have a wonderful weekend!

PS-Don't forget about Miss Snark's September Secret Agent Contest on the 20th.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Agent and Presenter Advice: Key Elements of MG/YA fiction

*I don't know why my post day says Monday, but I'm still doing Tuesdays and Fridays*

An amazing agent, Laura Rennert of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, was in charge of the MG/YA Elements session at the RMFW conference last weekend and there were several other sessions that touched on the topic of writing for a younger audience, so I’m going to combine what I learned and give you few tidbits that hit home for me. You’ll note that many of these are things that we’ve heard about before, but they are SO important to keep in mind. Also, Ms. Rennert has a great website with resources like a fiction checklist, so feel free to check that out (link list at top right).

During the sessions, we were told about elements that are present in all successful MG/YA manuscripts. Here are a few of the big ones—nail these and you’ll be ahead of many incoming manuscripts. If they aren’t there, then consider doing a little more revising before you submit.

Authentic Voice: There’s no perfect formula—the more you read/write and the better you know your character, the easier this will get. How you’re accessing the voice will have an impact. First person gives you an immediate, intimate attachment to the character, but third person has its advantages as well. The point is, if you don’t have a voice, it’s hard to make your narrative compelling, even with the most outrageous, action-packed plots. Whether writing MG or YA, develop your own cadence and style and keep word choices in mind during dialogue—would your character really use the phrase, “He’s such a weirdo,” or are they more likely to say “He’s such a creeper”? (FYI, I got “creeper” from my teenage stepdaughter—I’d never heard the term)

Memorable/Dynamic Characters: Character Arcs, people! Check out your manuscript—if your protagonist hasn’t changed by the end, that’s a problem. Also, give your characters quirks and passions—make them unique, but with a purpose (aka, don’t say to yourself, “crap, she needs to be unique, I’m going to make her addicted to purple kool-aid, yeah, that’s the ticket!”)

Narrative Structure: The thing that stuck out most to me about this element is the metaphor of a pressure cooker. Keep the tension on your characters, guys, and remember that the goal is a vicious cycle (until the resolution, I assume). External pressure on your characters should lead to internal pressure, which leads to action, which leads to more external pressure.

Two more tips:
1) Let your reader arrive fashionably late to the party. Don’t start your novel when it’s only the party host and a big bowl of tortilla chips at 8:00 PM. That’s boring. Start when the action has already built up and escalated. Start your novel with the fight that happened at 1:00 AM, so that the action is there already. Start with an attention-grabber. By the way, this is metaphorical—if you’re writing a story about a cute, ten-year-old baseball team, do NOT switch your plot and send them to a kegger.

2) Look at every single chapter in your manuscript and identify the goal. Yes, that’s right, each chapter needs to feature a character wanting/needing to accomplish something, whether it’s a twelve-year-old spying on Old Man Higgins to catch him dumping poison on the neighbor’s roses, or a sixteen-year-old making a shaky-handed phone call to a crush.

That’s it for today’s conference info.


Miss Snark’s First Victim’s September Secret Agent Contest is coming up on the 20th. It includes MG/YA genres, so if you have a finished manuscript, get your butt over there to check it out and prepare. If you get in (tough to do, you have to have a trigger finger over the send button), you are guaranteed a short critique by peers and an actual agent! Reminder: this is for the first 250 words of your project.

YA Novel Contest (also see my link under contests/giveaways) Delacorte will be opening a contest for a first YA novel and the prize is a CONTRACT—check it out if you’ve got a finished manuscript.

For those of us still confused about conflicting opinions of word counts, please head over HERE, to Casey McCormick’s recent post on that very subject.

Be sure to check out the WriteOnCon site today and tomorrow for some amazing prizes from some Elevensies authors! That action is happening over on the WOC site, so go go go!! (thanks to Elana Johnson for the tip)

Lastly, Christine Whitthohn of Book Cents Literary DOES take YA, but she only takes submissions from referrals or conference attendees…so if she was on your list to cold-query, cross her off for now unless you get a chance to meet her in person (she’s totally sweet and awesome, so I hope you do!)

See you Friday for more conference tips!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Conference time...care to join me?

I’m driving to Denver this morning, and will be attending Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers annual conference. The tagline on the conference brochure is “Pan Your Own Nuggets of Writing Knowledge at the 2010 Colorado Gold Conference!” While those words make me feel like I should bring a miner’s helmet along, they also get me darn excited.

I haven’t made a final selection, but here are some of the SESSIONS you can expect to hear about:

“Say Goodbye to the Slush Pile”

“Pitch Appointments 101”

“Avoiding Pet Peeves in Romance (& other) Novels”

“Searching for Harry Potter: Key Elements of Middle Grade & Young Adult Fiction”

“High-Concept: Titillate Me, But Do It Fast”

and two Agent Panels

GULP! I’m honestly wondering if I’ll make it through the day without my lunchtime nap (when the baby kiddo goes to sleep, I sleep too…it’s a survival mechanism), but I’m guessing adrenaline and all the creativity buzzing around in the air will help.

TIP FOR THE WEEKEND: Plan ahead and check out a writing conference for next year NOW!

At the upper right of this blog, I’ve posted some links to writing conference resources. If you only have time to click on one, try Writing Conferences By State or Writing Conferences and Centers. See if there are any conferences/workshops in your area. If you like the sound of one, why not commit to going? Even if the date isn't concrete, put the event on your mental calendar anyway. Planning ahead gives you:

A) Time to save up the money
B) Something to look forward to that will fuel your writer’s fire

Anyway, I better take off, but enjoy your weekend. I know I’ll enjoy mine!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Blogger Awards and Upcoming Conference

Thanks so much to Catherine Winn over at The Writing Room
for giving me two blogger awards!

I gratefully accept them and would like to pass on these bad boys to some fine folks I’ve recently discovered that everyone should check out:

1. Brittany- Hills & Corkscrews
2. Terry Lynn Johnson-Terry Lynn Johnson
3. Debbie Maxwell Allen- Writing While the Rice Boils
4. Ruth Donnelly- Readatouille
5. Thomas Taylor- That Elusive Line
6. Amparo Ortiz and the Gang at Operation Awesome
7. Jackee- Winded Words

The rules for these are somewhat flexible, hence my modifications, but here are the original rules:
One Lovely Blog Award-Accept the award, post it on your blog with the person who gave it to you with a link to them, pass to up to fifteen other blogs that are new to you, contact the people you’ve picked.
Versatile Blogger-Link back to person that gave you the award, share seven things about yourself (*at the bottom of this post for me*), pass the award to up to fifteen bloggers that you think deserve it, contact the people you’ve picked.


This Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, I’ll be attending the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s annual conference in Denver (it was recently given a shout-out by the Shark Herself, Ms. Janet Reid). My plan is to take plenty of notes, and then use the sessions as blog posts, so you’ll get the same information I do.

In no particular order, here are the agents I’ll get to share the buffet line with (whether I’ll manage to squeak a “Hi, you’re so awesome!” or “No REALLY, take the next free bathroom stall—you totally deserve it more” remains to be seen):

Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency
Laura Rennert, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
Christine Whitthohn, Book Cents Literary Agency
Kate Schafer Testerman, kt Literary
Michelle Brower, Folio Literary Management
Cheryl Pientka, Jill Grinberg Literary Management
Sandra Bond, Bond Literary Agency
Eddie Schneider, JABberwocky

SO excited. Whatever I post on Friday might be short, but my posts for the rest of the month (and maybe beyond) will probably include the information I glean from this conference, as well as highlighting any social gaffes I make (oh boy). I’m already starting to wean myself off large amounts of coffee, because I know that getting up three to four time an hour to use the bathroom doesn’t exactly scream, “professional.”

I look forward to attending and to sharing any/all nuggets of knowledge with you all!

***INSERTING RANDOM BIT OF ADVICE--Keep entering giveaway contests (there are links to a few of them in my sidebar)--I won an Adventures in Children's Publishing giveaway last week, and they're shipping me a copy of MOCKINGJAY! And I never win anything***

Okay, seven things about me:

1) I've worked in a toolbox factory (spot-welding and assembly line), building trail for the National Forest Service, in the kitchen of a Colorado dude ranch, at a nonprofit foundation, at a government grantmaking office, and as a phonics/math/Spanish teacher for four-year-olds (they have surprisingly high-retention for foreign-language vocabulary).

2) The only television I watch these days is Jeopardy, Top Chef, and select Travel Channel shows to compensate for the lack of a travel budget in my family.

3) As a rule, I'm against mayonnaise (I know, I'm sorry). I don't HATE it with a fiery passion, but I have a strong dislike for it and don't understand its purpose in life. Don't try to convince me--my husband has tried many a time, and now I'm at the point where I won't eat it on principle...I actually don't remember what it tastes like.

4) Bears try to get in our wooden trash bin every summer, and deer frequent our front yard (you would think the bears would go after the deer, but no, it's rotten banana peels that tempt them most).

5) My husband is a coffee-snob and I get him the good beans, but sometimes if he ticks me off, I keep his bag of Starbucks when it's finished and refill it with a generic kind...so far, he's never noticed.

6) I played Division I soccer in college. I briefly joined an adult league last year and...it wasn't pretty. It's amazing the difference ten years makes.

7) I have three kids--two teenagers and a toddler. The mix keeps me on my toes!

Friday, September 3, 2010


*Once again, thank you to Hilary Wagner and PROJECT MAYHEM for the interview on Tuesday*

Fall is notoriously busy for agents (then again, every season is busy for agents). Often, they’re catching up from summer vacations or preparing stellar submissions for editors, and slush pile query letters can get pushed to the back of the pile. That said, this is also a great time to submit! Agents are on the lookout for their next clients, and that includes you.

What does this jumble of semi-contradictory information mean? Basically, it means to get energized about your writing, but remember to be patient (right now, I’m picturing the old witch from the movie Princess Bride taunting me…”Boo! Boo! Rubbish! Filth!”). Lots of folks are going to be submitting, so just concentrate on sending out your best work.

A few things to keep in mind this month:

The Frankfurt Book Fair is next month (October 6-10), and attending agents will probably be ├╝ber busy the weeks before and after. It’s not like the Bologna Book Fair (which is specific to children’s lit), but some agents who represent MG/YA also work with adult fiction/nonfiction (I know Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency has been to this Fair before). Just something to keep in mind—if your targeted agent is going, get that query in if you’re hoping to hear back in September. Otherwise, be aware that you may encounter delays. **FBF, the world's largest annual trade show for the book publishing industry, is held annually for five days in Frankfurt, Germany. It attracts exhibitors from about 110 countries and is attended by more than 250,000 people, of whom about 7,000 are publishers, editors, and exhibitors.

Also, several agents have been closed for some part of the summer. Here are a few who will be ready to receive queries and submissions next week:

Upstart Crow-open to submissions September 8

Waxman Agency- Holly Root open to submissions September 7

BookEnds- Jessica Faust open to submissions September 7 (not MG/YA, but their blog has good query tips, and I thought I’d mention it in case any of you dabble in adult)

Book Cents Literary- still closed (Christine Whitthohn rocks though)—keep an eye on the website

PS—can’t believe I missed this, but Michelle Andelman (totally awesome children’s agent- she used to be at Lynn C. Franklin) has moved to Regal Literary, so if she was on your list of agents to query and you weren’t aware of it, make note of the change. NO EMAIL QUERIES- they are snail mail only.

Finally, here are some tips from Irene Goodman Literary Agency agent Barbara Poelle on how to make your September rock (click HERE for full article from Guide to Literary Agents, post from September 1):

1. Let agents who have your work know if other agents also now have it. If you have requests for partials or fulls of your manuscript within the first 2-3 weeks of submission, that is a great time to nudge the agents who have it: “Barbara, I just wanted to keep you in the loop that the partial/full for my novel Thunder Vampires has now been requested by three other additional agents. Looking forward to hearing from you.”

2. Be patient. If you are not getting quick responses on your submission, NO WORRIES!!! Simply mark your calendar for 8-12 weeks out from the date you e-mailed your submission. On that date, send a simple “Barbara, I am circling back to check the status of my requested submission, Thunder Vampires. I look forward to hearing from you.”

3. Use a little shame. If you are following up, send your one-line nudge e-mail as a response to the initial request from materials that the agent sent, so that when I scroll down I can see it. This accomplishes two things: it refreshes my memory on the material, and it shames me when I see the date of request

4. Be patient, again. Generally I send a “Thanks for the nudge! It is working its way up the queue!” e-mail, but don’t panic if I don’t. It really is working its way up the queue.

5. Resist the urge to call. Never call the office and ask to speak to an agent who is reviewing your requested submission. If you get an offer from an agent and want to communicate your next steps, e-mail. Don’t call.

6. Keep working. You should be working on your next novel/proposal while you are nudging on the first, this way you have further materials to offer should someone ask, and it will prevent you from barking and eating hair while you wait to hear on your masterpiece.

Okay September … bring it!