Thursday, March 24, 2016

The In-Between: What's It Like Working With An Agent?

Queries! Pitch contests! Form rejections!

Wherever you go as a writer, whether you're online or attending a conference, there's a wealth of information about how to get an agent.

But what happens when you get to that next level? What comes after getting The Call and signing your name on that elusive contract?

There isn't a whole lot out there about the In-Between. Agented writers aren't supposed to talk about being on submission, and some aren't even allowed to announce when they sign with an agent. There's a lot of mystery surrounding the people in limbo between "unpublished" and "published."

So, to shed a tiny bit of light for those of you who are on your way, I've polled some of the Lucky 13s, my posse of newly-agented authors. They've shared some excellent insight into working with an agent and climbing the next mountain of publishing, so special thanks to all of them!

Here are some of their testimonials:

  • "The surprising thing to me about being agented is how little has changed. My agent's an amazing person to have in my corner. Our partnership is valuable and validating. But I've reached the top of the mountain and realized there are much bigger mountains ahead. When I sit down to write, it's nice to know an industry professional who trusts me will read it, but it's still the same. It's still me, alone in front of a word processor. The process of working with my agent has been a firsthand lesson in the fact that this is a long journey that can be very much out of your control. If you want to be published, having an agent's eyes on the market is a huge help, but if your first priority is not writing something you love and making it as good as you can make it, you're in for a lot of frustration." - Mara Fitzgerald

  • "For me, it's been what I expected: like working with a critique partner who's also your business partner, just a lot more intimidating. Once the shine of being newly agented wears off, it can actually get mundane... with the ever-present fear of failure to keep things interesting. More than anything else, I'd advise always being open and honest with your agent, and to not be afraid to discuss things with them. But also remember that they have other clients and lots going on, so be patient with them :) Find other people in your situation because you gotta talk to somebody who's going through what you're going through, else you'll lose your mind. And keep writing. That one's hard, with all the self-doubt you'll be building up, but it's also the best cure for it, in my experience." - Heather

  • "Write write write, it's all you can do. But now you have someone to tell you which ideas might sell and which are sinking ships. An agent knows what's selling and what's not, which saves you from falling in love with a story that might not work. Both you and your agent are working toward a book deal at the end of the day, so that's a huge amazing thing. I must say that my personal experience has been amazing, but the doubt and the fear still lingers. It's sort of like querying, but on steroids. Every rejection from an editor is a bruise, but this time you have your agent holding the band-aids, telling you, "It'll be all right. We'll get them next time." Newly agented writers should be aware that each agent experience is different, so don't fall into the pit of doubt that you've made a mistake because your relationship is different from person A or B. You've chosen to be represented by your agent, so trust that." - Kevin van Whye

  • "Realizing that a flesh-and-blood professional was willing to stake their time and professional reputation on me was kind of revelatory. Having spent years with a number of manuscripts with only my perspective, working with an agent everything feel more real. I became more serious about writing in general, ramping up productivity and becoming less sentimental about weaknesses in my prose and other bad writing habits. My confidence also grew immensely. I took narrative risks and experimented with voice, cadence, structure. I finally worked up the nerve to call myself a writer. While becoming agented is not the panacea it appears from the query trenches, it's a truly amazing accomplishment that should be recognized as such and celebrated accordingly... especially when one considers the number of people who imagine writing a book but never even make the leap to put words on a page." - Jordan Villegas

  • "The great thing about having an agent is you don't have to query anymore. Not only do you now have an agent, but they usually do the heavy lifting of creating submission lists and letters to editors. After your revisions are done, all you have to do is sit back, relax, and be gnawed ceaselessly by relentless paranoia, fear, and self-doubt. But it is really wonderful having a professional in your corner, and in the darker moments you can remind yourself, "Hey, someone believes enough in my book and my career that they are willing to put in hours and hours of labor with the hope of an eventual payday." But if I can impart one piece of advice to writers, it's: DON'T RUSH IT. I know the drive of wanting to just be done with your book and get an agent and get a deal. But publishing is a slow industry. You'll wait months to hear back about queries. You'll hear months to hear back about full MS requests. You'll wait months to hear back about submissions. There's a lot of waiting ahead, so make sure your book is as good as you can get it. Don't rush it. Nobody else is." - Austin Gilkeson

  • "Getting an agent was affirming to me. It meant I wasn’t just spinning my wheels or playing at being a writer. I come from a  theater background, so I need that type of validation from people. My relationship with my agent is full of him assuring me constantly that I am good at this. That I write stories that are worth being told. My agent totally understands that he’s going to get random emails from me that mostly mean I just need some reassurance. And he gives me that. But, other than having like the most invested critique partner ever, not much changed. No one magically thought of me as some amazing writer. I didn’t even post about it on my Facebook page until recently because if you’re not in the industry, people just don’t get what it means when you say you have an agent." - Kati Gardner

Aren't they so wise and brilliant? I'm lucky to be in their group!

Here's my testimonial:

Although nothing really changes, the stakes are higher. With an agent, anything you write could now potentially sell. No pressure, right? *breathes into paper bag* This is why you MUST surround yourself with people who know what you're going through. You should not do this alone. Find your writer friends and hang on tight.

The first rule of Submission Club is you do not publicly talk about Submission Club. Don't slyly hint about it on Twitter. Don't complain about it on your blog. And don't rant about it in "private" Facebook groups. You never know who could be reading, and all it takes is a screenshot to blow your cover. Some people are no holds barred, and I admit it helps to know different situations, but keep quiet if you can. If you must vent, do it privately with trusted CPs and writer friends only.

Don't be afraid to talk to your agent. Everyone is different, and some writers have more anxiety about contacting their agents. This is why it's so important to find someone you're comfortable with and to carefully assess your chemistry during The Call. Your agent is your champion and advocate, and you should never feel like you are bothering them. I've been lucky in this regard because my agent is so open and available to me whenever I need her, and I always feel better after talking to her. I bounce ideas off her, get her expert opinion on different paths for my career, and more!

However, you should be professional and independent wherever possible. Remember that your agent is neither your parent nor your therapist, and they are juggling dozens of clients and projects all at once. If what you need is a quick shot of reassurance that no, you in fact do not suck at this, that's where writer friends come in handy. So make use of your posse!

Also, you should always have been professional online, but it's even more important now that you're on a different level. I noticed after I got agented that editors, publicists, published authors, and other pros began following me on Twitter and other social media. Don't whine or complain publicly and don't overshare, because there are more eyes on you now and publishing is a VERY small world.

And that's pretty much it! I hope this post gives you a little bit more of an idea of what the In-Between is like! If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them.

Thanks for reading this, and good luck with your writing journey, whatever stage you're at!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Writing Unique Stories

There are a lot of great books out there. There are also a lot of great unpublished manuscripts. The thing is, there is so much information on the web, in books, and in conferences that helps writers take their writing to the next level. But if everyone is improving their writing from okay to good, good to great, then what does that mean?

It means the agent slush pile is even more competitive than it was before. That’s not to discourage you. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s to inspire you. Writing a great book is admirable and a glorious achievement. However, getting it snagged by an agent or editor is making your book go from great to exceptional. This in itself is an amazing creative challenge and one people should never be afraid of. It allows you to stretch your skills, learn how to tell your story in the best possible way, and to stamp your uniqueness over every page of your book. In short, it will make you better.

As you’re probably wondering, how does one go about making exceptional work that can raise its head over the sea of other great writing in the slush pile? I believe it is one simple thing. Yes, just one. But okay, the concept is simple but putting it into practice might be a little harder. So what is it?


This is actually synonymous with be yourself. A lot of writers fall into a default when they write. They use not just story tropes, but technical writing defaults, too. What I’d recommend is to literally go through your manuscript from top to bottom and check off these points:

      Is the character someone you can really visualize in real life? How are they different from the 100s of other characters out there? Dig deep. No generalities, no watery allusions, no skimming.

      Same goes for setting.
      And world building.

      And dialogue.
      And…well, you get the jist.

And for good measure, to reference Alexandra Alessandri’s post, look at your sentences. Yup, right down to the nitty gritty. Does every single sentence have your unique stamp on it?
As they say, no one can tell your story like you do, so why use general techniques? Push yourself to create every single element in your story to be uniquely yours. It might be grueling work but the concept is simple: be yourself starting from word choice all the way up to big macro level stuff. You won’t regret it.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Write MG right!

It's March, and at the mentor blog this means Middle Grade (MG) Month. And to build upon the lovely Jessica Vitalis' blog last week, I'm continuing a rough overview of MG.

I love to read YA and adult novels, oh and picture books too, and I love Enid Blyton ... so maybe I'm not ALL about MG, but I absolutely, hands down love it; I'd go as far as to say it's my favourite age group too. Probably because it was definitely during this time I think I became aware of my deep and passionate book love. When reading answered my questions; when library times at school weren't long enough; when having to put a book down to eat dinner was a trauma; when fighting sleep was essential just to get one last chapter in; when buying a new book with my pocket money competed with Christmas morning feels. And I think it's often during this time when children rely on books more than ever.  

There's an ocean of difference between YA, CB and MG. And I'm going to take a little bash at surfing those waves with two recommendations of, in my opinion of course, books that have hit that MG voice with one heck of a POW.


I'm absolutely sure you know, MG books appeal to a much much wider audience than simply 8-12 year olds, often including adults. Think Harry Potter. But this is where things start to get tricky. And we venture into two topics: Content and Voice. As an MG writer, you've a lot of responsibility to get these right. Don't lose your way; always remember your key audience: kids aged between 8 and 12. You get this wrong, or start trying to appeal to everyone, it just won't work. The innocence of MG books is what lures older readers in. There's little pressure, gentle complexity, and a naivety we all wish we still had.

Some book recommendations to read and study...

One of my ALL TIME favourite MG books is A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Genius. Classic. Perfect.
Now, I'm all about escapism when I write my own stories, which most kids of this age at some point need, but to complement this, mid-grade readers also want answers, or to understand the deeper elements of life. Well, there is no better book than this to show all aspiring (and accomplished) MG writers how it's done. I won't spoil the book, in case you want to read it – and you should right now – but it's basically the story of a young lad coming to terms with the pending death of his mum. Heartbreaking. But it's done so well, so subtly. It's not all about the boo-hoos. Good gracious no. The whole death side of things is touched upon and most importantly the details aren't exploited, and the tone is mature but still for the ears and mind of a child. We know Mum's ill, that's obvious, and we know she's suffering, but this is woven in so carefully, considerately, and every word so precious, that the young reader won't go away overwhelmed with what's involved with dying. Kids can only take in so much, remember. Truly, this book is perfect and an ideal MG example for writers to analyse.


Another perfect example of subtle, careful and respectful is There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis (Holes) Sachar. This is all about Bradley. And Bradley's behaviour pretty much lives up to what his peers – and teachers – have come to expect. But the narrative is so freaking clever that details of Bradley's behavioural concerns aren't delved into in ridiculous detail; language and information isn't loaded up and piled on the reader. We can see his struggles and we care, but the unnecessaries – only adults love to discuss – are spared. Kids still get the concept, the story, the character's journey, and they're introduced to the politics of school life and the influence parents can have on matters within school walls, but they aren't bogged down with technicalities. It's a superb book to study language, showing, and voice.  


And actually Holes is another book that's definitely worth a read.

If you want to know how the perfect MG can be achieved read these books, learn from them. Study them. The language, the style, the content. The voice. Find out what else is selling and work on understanding why and how. Read other MG books; as many as you can. Lap them up, absorb, scoff and munch (all technical writer words). And when you come to write your own MG story, enjoy yourself and, again, always remember who your key audience is. 

So respect these kids. They're smart, they're growing up, they're learning. So don't talk down to them, don't dictate, don't educate them, don't preach. You do that, and they won't listen. Don't try to speak what you think is 'kid' either, or what 'kid' was when you were that age; and don't treat them like babies. Respect them. This age is full of wonder. They're realising life isn't quite as rosy as they once thought; that grown-ups often get it wrong; that there's a whole lot of crazy stuff going on in the world that makes no sense to them. (It makes no sense to a lot of adults too, and it's perfectly OK for kids to know this.) But at the same time, you have to balance out treating them as mini adults with the fact that they are still kids, they do still need a hand to hold, and they're just not ready for all the graphic details. Yeah, it's not easy. You must tread with care.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

What’s In a Sentence?

This sentence is too long. This one’s too short. You have too many sentences starting in the same manner. It’s a fight scene, for crying out loud! Make it sound like one.

What’s in a sentence? That by any other…

Not all sentences are created equal, and not all sentences serve the same function. The basics are (for the most part) the same: you’ve got a subject, a verb, and a complete thought. But there are many ways of ordering the parts to create meaning and music, to craft words that sing to your reader. In addition to simple sentences, you can use a subordinatingconjunction (e.g. while, although, when, etc.), coordinatingconjunction (e.g. and, but, for, so, etc.) or conjunctive adverb (e.g. however, nevertheless, indeed, instead, etc.) to build complex sentences.


Before you run screaming for the hills with these grammar lessons, let me explain why paying attention to your sentences is important.

Your Sentences Contribute to Voice

Okay, so here’s a little grammar lesson: In simplest terms, syntax is the order in which words are placed in a sentence. The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables creates rhythm, which in turn influences your characters’ style and your manuscript’s tone.

In other words: the way we order our words and sentences contributes to voice.

Notice the difference in the following examples:

Chase’s cell phone vibrates on his dresser. It sounds like a swarm of mosquitoes. THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE by Sarah Lynn Scheerger

The fruits and vegetables for sale were rejects from nearby supermarkets—basically, they were cheap and somewhat edible. THE THIEF OF LIES by Brenda Drake

Back then, the outskirts of Boston were still farmland, and in the summer I spent the long days out of doors with friends, coming home only when the sun set. THE GLASS SENTENCE by S.E. Grove

When I open my eyes, all I can see is darkness. Can’t move… can’t speak…can’t think through this jaw-grinding headache. RIDERS by Veronica Rossi

Each of the above has a different arrangement of words, each resulting in a different voice and tone. Sarah Lynn Scheeger’s example makes use of simple sentences. Brenda Drake’s has a compound subject and uses an em-dash to link a dependent clause. S.E. Grove’s is a longer, more complex sentence. And Veronica Rossi’s uses both dependent/independent clauses along with ellipses to simulate longer pauses.

And with each different style, we get a glimpse into the character’s voice and the story’s tone.

Often, our characters’ voices come to us with their unique quirks. They might have a habit of avoiding contractions, or maybe they skip the final “n” in some words. Perhaps they use slang. Or maybe English is their second language, and they skip some prepositions.  

As writers, we try to faithfully record the nuances of our characters, though it’s very easy to muddle the space between their voices and our own. While there is no one preferred order for words, other than it needs to make sense to the reader, it’s important to note that our entire manuscript will not be written using only one pattern or structure. The examples above? Just one of many these authors used.

Which leads me to…

Vary your sentences

Characters will speak a certain way (which contributes to their voice) and you will write a certain way (which contributes to your voice), but to achieve the perfect harmony, there has to be variety. I know what you’re thinking. But my protagonist always talks like this! Maybe…

While it’s important to be faithful to our characters, we need to remember we’re writing fiction. At the 2014 SCBWI FL Conference, Chris Crutcher said, “You don’t need to use the same words (curse, like, etc.) all the time. Just a couple mentions go a long way [to] place your reader there.” The same is true for sentence lengths. Just because a character tends to speak in short, simple sentences doesn’t mean she always should!

Consider the following:

Amazing what sentence variety can achieve, right?

When sentences follow the same structure too many times in a row (or when they repeat “like” every other line), we have monotony. And monotony is not good. It’s boring. A bored reader is one who might not finish the story. That’s the last thing we want!

The good news is that sentence length is an easy fix. As you re-read your sentence, make note when you have three or more sentences in a row that have the same structure. The key here is in a row. Ask yourself:
  • Do they start with the same subject? (e.g. He sat... He ran... He kicked...) If they do, change at least one.
  • Do they start with the same kind of dependent phrase? (e.g. Running to the door, he kicked the dirt. Shoving him hard, she dashed outside.)
  • Do they have the same syntax? (e.g. She didn’t know what was worse, losing or losing to him. She thought it was over, except there he was. She was wrong, as she always seemed to be.) 

A great source for identifying repetition and sentence variety, among other sentence/word choice errors, is ProWritingAid

Use sentence lengths to create (or reduce) tension

Aside from creating music, sentence lengths can create or reduce tension. How’s that, you ask? Consider a sword fight scene. If you’re in the middle of a fight, you’re not likely to recount it with long, flowery sentences. Your adrenaline’s pumping. You’re jabbing and ducking. Side-stepping. Another jab, two, three. And your opponent falls.

However, if you’re lying languidly against the hot sand, staring at the cotton candy clouds dotting the sky, you might be more in tune with nature, and as such, your words will take on a longer, dreamier quality.

Short lengths are abrupt. Harsh. Longer ones can be poetic. Use this knowledge to your advantage. Wield that mighty pen—er keyboard—to create sentences that grip your reader.  The combo of complex characters, compelling story and stakes, and flawless sentences will increase the chance of capturing an agent’s (and editor’s) attention!

Happy writing (& revising!)

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Birds and the Bees: How to Define Middle Grade Stories

Ask a room full of publishing professionals what makes a novel middle grade, and you’ll get as many different answers as there are people in the room. So how can an author determine whether their manuscript (or shiny new story idea) is suited for middle grade shelves? One might be tempted to examine the audience in an effort to answer this question, but readers of MG range from young advanced readers (think six and seven year olds) all the way up through adults. In order to get to the bottom of this dilemma, we need to turn to the material itself. Let’s start by examining some of the parameters commonly associated with middle grade books.

Some claim a novel can be defined as middle grade if the protagonist is roughly eight to twelve years old. This is a terrific jumping off point, but the reality of writing novels is seldom that straightforward and it doesn’t address the murky middle ground of thirteen and fourteen year olds, who often don’t fit neatly into MG or YA. In a blog post, author Diane K. Salerni reveals that the publisher of The Eighth Day asked her to lower her protagonist’s age from 14 to 13 to better suit the middle grade market. Another example of the problematic nature of relying strictly on age comes from Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter. The twelve-year-old protagonist should, in theory, anchor the story firmly in middle grade territory. However, another main character is a fourteen-year-old eighth grader, who is already a father. In an author interview posted on the publisher's website, the book is labeled young adult.

Clearly, we need to look beyond age––we also need to consider subject matter and themes. For example, does including the birds and the bees automatically mean the story can’t be MG? Including explicitly sexual material is definitely a sign that the novel isn’t destined for middle grade shelves, but this is not to say that romance can’t appear in middle grade stories or that edgy material (or the lack thereof) defines MG novels. Books such as Nest, Bridge to Terabithia, Wish Girl, and Paper Cowboy all demonstrate that topics such as suicide, death, terminal illness and depression/mental illness are fair game.

Sometimes writers are tempted to look at point of view and language/writing style to help determine the audience for their novels. Many middle grade novels are written from a single point of view and contain relatively straightforward language. But by now it won’t surprise you to hear that this isn’t always the case. Wonder has six separate POVs. Echo is another great example of multiple POVs within one novel. And one must only compare The One and Only Ivan to The Thing About Jellyfish to see that it’s neither language nor writing style that defines middle grade novels. Nor can one point to factors such as external (versus internal) plots, genre, or word count. Although these are all important considerations, a few moments in a bookstore demonstrates that middle grade novels are every bit as complex and versatile as the audience that reads them.

If you’ve made it this far and still aren’t exactly sure whether your story is middle grade or not, let me leave you with this final bit of advice: the only way to truly understand the middle grade market is to read middle grade books. Although every story is different, if you read enough of them, you’ll develop an intuition that, together with a close examination of the elements discussed above, will help you determine exactly whether or not your story fits into the ambiguous yet beloved category known as middle grade.

Happy reading!

P.S. What are your favorite MG novels? Please share in the comments below!
P.P.S. Want more information on this topic? Here are a few links to check out: