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Confabulating with Alice Speilburg

Literary agent Alice Speilburg and I met at a writing conference. She was very pregnant and spent many long hours in an uncomfortable chair listening to pitches. That evening, she drove back to Kentucky. As someone who has been pregnant five times (but who’s counting), I was amazed by her enduring good humor and the gentle smile that lasted through out the day. I am very fortunate to have met her.

Me: I am seriously in awe of you and I’d be honored if you’d confabulate with me on my blog.

Alice: This kind of interview looks like a lot of fun, and I’d love to participate!

Me: You live in Kentucky so tell us, how do you honestly feel about mint juleps?

Alice: If you make it right, a mint julep is mostly bourbon, with just a splash of mint flavored simple syrup. When I lived in Hoboken, NJ, I threw a Kentucky Derby party every year and I would drink these all day long. But the sugary versions that come in a bottle? Yuck. I’ll take a Four Roses on the rocks, please.

Alice Speilburg literary agent

Me: How will your husband feel if your baby is a Michigan fan?

Alice: Blue and Maize is not an option for the little Speilburg boy. I’ve even had to avoid mixing blue and yellow in the nursery! It’s Go Green for Michigan State or, well, pretty much anything but Michigan. He will definitely have some UK blue and white in the closet (to support my alma mater).

Me: Where’s your favorite spot to read?

Alice: Since I was little, I’ve been known to read just about anywhere, under any circumstance. I’ve read books at concerts, bustling coffee shops, holiday parties, and of course, on the subway. I love being able to escape the crowds around me by tuning into the world within a book.

Me: How did you come up with the name Chomsky for your dog? Is he related to Noam by any chance?

Alice: Clearly my dog has amazing linguistic abilities (he really does sound quite human at times), but yes, he is named after Noam Chomsky. I love to watch people’s reactions when they ask me his name as we’re walking down the street. They either say, “Ah, Noam,” very sagely, or they tilt their head, “Chomps..?”

Me: What’s the biggest misconception about your career as an agent?

Alice: Because authors can’t submit to a large traditional publisher without an agent, they often think that “getting the deal” is the biggest part of what I could do for them. In fact, getting to the deal is the just opening act of the agent-author relationship. By the time we receive an offer, the author and I have worked through four drafts of the manuscript, received terrible rejections and exciting offers, so we’ve built up a strong layer of trust and understanding, but the word “represent” takes on a fuller meaning as we move forward. I’m constantly making sure that my published clients are paid on time, that the editor is doing everything they should be doing to support the book in-house, that the publisher is fulfilling their end of the agreement, and if they’re not, explaining to the author what kind of alternative options we’re looking at. Beyond the book, the agent also handles all the subsidiary rights that the author retained in her contract. Just as being an author doesn’t stop once you get a book deal, neither does being an agent. The deal is just the beginning.

Quickies

 

 

Favorite:
Season Fall
Music Kate Nash
Holiday Christmas
Time of day Dusk
Ice cream flavor Coffee

Least Favorite:
Subject in school Chemistry
Candy Dots
Chore Vacuuming

Thanks so much for stopping by Alice. Congratulations on Baby Boy Speilburg, who is due to make an appearance in a few short weeks.

Alice Speilburg literary agentAlice Speilburg founded Speilburg Literary Agency in 2012, bringing with her the editorial and business expertise she had developed in previous publishing positions at John Wiley & Sons and Howard Morhaim Literary Agency.

She is currently building her client list and represents a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. In nonfiction, she’s looking for authors with established platforms who are writing books in the following categories: biography, food, gender issues, health, history, literary journalism, music, pop culture, relationships, science, and travel. 

In fiction, she’s currently looking for character-driven novels that fall under the following genres: historical fiction, mainstream literary, mystery/suspense, science fiction/fantasy, middle grade, and young adult.

You can find Alice on Pintrest and Twitter.

 

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A Visit to Writer’s Digest

You know that first draft? The one you really, really want to share with someone. The one your critique group has been clamoring to read because you haven’t submitted anything in months? Think twice before letting others read it.

If you want to know why, check out my guest post, Draft Dodging, at Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents blog.

WD logo

Write better

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Beyond the Book-Submissions and Tracking

So you’ve completed the book, written a brilliant query letter and researched a list of agents/editors who will love your book-baby. Now it’s time to get a submission packet together and dive into the query trenches.

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Submission Packet

A submission packet for fiction consists of:

  • Query letter—Refer to Beyond the Book: Queries
  • Synopsis—A one or two page synopsis is standard. If more material is requested after your query is read, longer synopsis is sometimes included. To craft a perfect synopsis, read Beth Anderson’s post here.
  • First pages—Many submission guidelines require some number of pages (also called sample pages) from the manuscript. Always send pages from the beginning of the book.
  • It’s a good idea to paste the first five pages at the end of the query if the agent/editor guidelines don’t specifically state not to send pages.

A submission packet for picture books consists of:

  • Short query letter—Just present the main characters, the main problem, and the resolution, then work in a hook (Ex: “great friendship hook,”), and sign off like you normally would with a novel query. From Kidlit.com
  • Complete manuscript pasted in the body of the email.
  • A link to an online portfolio if you are an author/illustrator.
  • For questions about illustration notes in PB submissions click here
  • Do not include attachments unless the agent requests to see more illustrations or to see a dummy.

Some Do’s and Don’ts

  1. DO re-read the submission guidelines directly from the agent’s website before hitting the send button.
  2. DO copy and paste the text of the query, synopsis and sample pages into the body of the email. Agents will not open attachments
  3. DO flag your query as such in the subject line of your email: QUERY: GRAPES OF WRATH. Otherwise, agents will miss it, skip over it, or simply disregard it as spam.
  4. DO use a personal but professional sounding email address. JSmith@gmail.com as opposed to sparklyunicorn@gmail.com
  5. DON’T use your work email address unless it’s related to your writing.
  6. DON’T send a mass email to a list of agents.
  7. DON’T send illustrations unless you’re an author/illustrator.
  8. DON’T use a generic salutation (Dear Mr./Ms. Agent). Make sure it’s personalized.
  9. DON’T send email queries with attachments. They will be unread and deleted every time—guaranteed. Agent Query

Formatting

Formatting snail-mail packets is very straight forward. Agent Query spells it out here.

The preferred format for electronic submissions is Times New Roman, left justified, single-spaced with double space between paragraphs. All material should be included within the body of the email. Make sure to indicate the transition from the query itself to other elements, such as the synopsis or sample pages, and title these elements accordingly.

Tracking

You may prefer to keep track of and organization submissions using a spreadsheet, index cards or file. The Internet Writing Journal gives tips and how-to’s here.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I prefer Query Tracker. Let me explain why. Recently our dishwasher died and I had to do dishes by hand. Six people eating three meals per day. That adds up to LOTS of dishes, and many hours spent washing, drying, and putting them away. Not impossible, but certainly not efficient. A dishwasher makes cleaning dishes much easier and less time consuming.

Query Tracker is like a dishwasher for writers/illustrators. It’s a tool used to explore agent data and find literary agents, as well as organize and track queries and agent responses. Basic membership is free.

Good luck on your journey to publication wherever it may take you.

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Chicago or BUST!

The SCBWI Wild, Wild Mid-West Conference

Calling all writers of children’s books. Plans are underway for this incredible, colossal, unforgettable event!!!!!! This year’s theme is The Roaring Twenties. It’s going to be the bees knees, baby!!!!! Mark your calendars and let’s get  going!!!!
SCBWI, Writers' Conference 2016

Chicago Marriott-Naperville, IL

Program & Faculty:

  •  40 faculty members!
  •  8 different intensives(three hour in-depth sessions on Friday afternoon)!
  •  Newcomers to the Industry Session for Beginners
  •  35-40 different sessions — Picture Books, Novels, Nonfiction, All-Genres, Business, Illustration, and Publishing Independently
  •  First Pages Panels and First Looks Panels
  •  Art Show— winner receives an onsite face-to-face portfolio review by the two art directors from the conference
  •  Written critiques and onsite portfolio reviews
  • Manuscript contest (with four categories)Prize being a full manuscript submission
  •  Book signing party

Cost:

Members:
Registration opens February 1

Early bird- February 1-March 24 $295
Regular-
March 25 $310

​Member only add-ons, if selected, are: manuscript critiques ($45), manuscript contest ($12), 3 hour intensives ($40), portfolio reviews ($45)

 

Non-members:
Registration opens Februaru 8
Early bird- February 1-March 24 $335
Regular-
March 25 $350
​Become a member

Registration: Online by credit card only

Bookstore:  Sponsored by Andersons Books. Registered attendees who are either traditionally or independently published will be able to sell one title. Faculty’s books will be available, too.
 
Plus! a costume party with a prize for best costume!
 
 Can you tell I’m excited?

REGISTER HERE!

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Beyond the Book-Agents

Now we get to the fun part of querying—hunting for agents. And it’s something you can do before your book is complete. Searching for agents before you’re ready to query has its perks:

  • Need a pick-me-up or a little break from writing or revisions? Spend a few minutes hunting for agents. WARNING: Sometimes you forget it was supposed to be a little break.
  • It moves you toward your goal of getting published. When you’re feeling like you’ll never finish writing the darn book, researching agents makes the goal of publishing real and reachable.
  • Each agent you add to your list is special because you realize This might be THE ONE!
  • When you decide your book is ready for the big leagues and you can’t wait to get the ball rolling, you have a list of agents ready to query.

What to look for in an agent:

The most important factor in agent hunting is focusing on agents that represent your genre. A pet peeve of agents and editors is getting queries for things they don’t represent. “Oh,” you say, “I want Diana Gabaldon’s agent. I know he doesn’t represent YA, but he’ll love my novel.”

No, he won’t. Stick to agents who represent your genre.

Before jumping into the agent pool, you need to weigh the pros and cons of the following and decide what qualities you want in your agent:

  • Editorial agent vs. non-editorial
  • Big list of author clients vs. small list
  • Large agency vs. boutique agency (smaller, specialized)
  • One book representation vs. career representation
  • New agent vs. established agent
Courtesy Sharon L. Cook

Courtesy Sharon L. Cook

Hunting for agents:

  • Literary Rambles, a blog written by Casey McCormick and Natalie Aguirre, spotlights agents and has tons of information about them. It was an invaluable tool in my agent hunt.
  • Search the internet for literary agents in your genre.
  • Find a book similar to yours and look for the agent’s name in the acknowledgements.
  • Find articles on agent stats, such as lists of top-selling agents. You can find lists like this for YA, PB and MG at Darcy Pattinson.
  • #MSWL—Manuscript Wish List. Agents and editors post what they’re looking for in submissions. Searching #MSWL will generate hundreds of results, but here are a few sites dedicated to it: MS Wish List, and Manuscript Wish List.

Look at more than stats and agent profiles. Find interviews with agents. Read what their authors say about them. On Google Books, you can search the name of the agent that interests you. If he/she was mentioned on an author’s acknowledgement page, it’s usually in the search results. You can learn a lot about an agent by the acknowledgement (or lack of acknowledgement) in their clients’ books.

Query Tracker:

On Query Tracker (which I’ll be covering more in my next post) you can search for agents using a wide array of search filters, including genre. A search generates a list of agents meeting your criteria. You then click on an agent to get their profile. An agent’s profile has multiple parts. Here’s a list of some of the more pertinent information you can find:

  • Contact info including links to agency websites, agent blogs, social media accounts
  • Reputable links where you can find more information, such as Literary Rambles, Predators and Editors, and Google Books
  • There is a page for member comments concerning that particular agent. It’s very helpful.

A few things to keep in mind:

Legitimate agents will never charge a fee or try to sell you something. Also remember, information changes and becomes outdated. Always check the agency site and the agent’s profile one last time before submitting a query. And never, ever, ever, ever query an unfinished novel.

More resources:

Writer’s Digest: Guide to Literary Agents

Predators and Editors

Agent Query

Please feel free to share any resources you’d like to recommend.

The Beyond the Book series was first posted in the SCBWI newsletter, The Mitten.

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Beyond the Book-Query Comps

In my previous article, I promised to post the evolution of the query that ultimately resulted in an offer from an agent. I’ve only posted the hook paragraphs because the hook is the most important part of the query, and it’s the only part of the query I revised. The word count stated is for the excerpt, not the entire query. I hope comparing the examples that follow will help you as you write your own query.

Query 1

Word count-259
Sent to15 agents 1 editor (on a whim)
Requests-Agents 0   Editor 1 full

 

Seventeen-year-old Jersey Alexa (Jax) Mason is allergic to drama. Unfortunately, from the moment her boyfriend dumps her on a crowded dance floor, drama follows Jax around like an unwanted stray. Amanda Rosenbaum’s reappearance and rumors of her time in the “looney bin” provide a welcome distraction. Jax doesn’t get that the real drama is just beginning.

Amanda ran away when she was seventeen and Jax was four. Thirteen years later, Amanda returns to their sleepy town of Rudds Mill to live with her mother. Jax escapes to Amanda’s moss-covered patio when things get tense at home. She’s drawn to the fragile, unstable Amanda despite the fact that they spar over everything. Amanda has one foot in this world; the rest of her lives in a dark place inside her mind. But she’s aware of things that Jax has never considered. Important things about hope and life. And she knows all about the secrets Jax hides. How can someone so lost in her own world see inside of Jax’s?  

Ethan, the new guy in town, starts hanging out on Amanda’s patio too. Chemistry sparks between him and Jax, but Amanda cryptically predicts they’re not meant to be. They try to blow her off. Amanda’s crazy after all. And she can’t always be right. As summer marches towards autumn, Amanda slips deeper inside herself, battling her mysterious past. Jax and Ethan need to save her before she disappears altogether.

 Query 2

Word count-232
Sent to12 agents 
Requests-0

Seventeen-year-old Jersey Alexa (Jax) Mason is allergic to drama. But that’s what she gets when her boyfriend dumps her on a crowded dance floor. She would have preferred a text message. Amanda Rosenbaum’s reappearance and rumors of her time in the “looney bin” help take Jax’s mind off the break-up drama.
Amanda ran away when she was seventeen and Jax was four. Thirteen years later, Amanda returns to their sleepy town of Rudds Mill to live with her mother. Jax escapes to Amanda’s moss-covered patio when things get tense at home. She’s drawn to the fragile, unstable Amanda despite the fact that they spar over everything. Amanda has one foot in this world; the rest of her lives in a dark place inside her mind. But she’s aware of things that Jax has never considered. Important things about hope and life. And she knows all about the secrets Jax hides. How can someone so lost in her own world see inside of Jax’s?
Ethan, the new guy in town, starts hanging out on Amanda’s patio too. Chemistry sparks between him and Jax, but Amanda cryptically predicts they’re not meant to be. They try to blow her off. Amanda’s crazy after all. And she can’t always be right. As summer marches towards autumn, Amanda slips deeper inside herself, battling her mysterious past. Jax and Ethan need to save her before she disappears altogether.

Query 3

Word count-232
Sent to2 agents 
Requests-1

This query was the same as Query 2 but with the added line: A YA editor at St. Martin’s Press recently requested the full manuscript.

Query 4

Word count-233
Sent to-9 agents 
Requests-1

Seventeen-year-old Jersey Alexa (Jax) Mason is allergic to drama. But from the moment her boyfriend dumps her on a crowded dance floor, drama follows Jax around like an unwanted stray.
Distraction arrives in the form of Amanda Rosenbaum. She ran away when she was seventeen. Her reappearance thirteen years later wakes the sleepy town of Rudds Mill where rumors whisper of time spent in the “looney bin.” Jax is drawn to the fragile, unstable Amanda despite the fact that they spar over everything. Amanda has one foot in this world; the rest of her lives in a dark place inside her mind. But she’s aware of things that Jax has never considered. Important things about hope and life. And she knows the secrets Jax hides. How can someone so lost in her own world see inside of Jax’s?

Jax escapes to the Rosenbaum’s moss-covered patio when things get tense at home. Ethan, the new guy in town, starts hanging out there too. Chemistry sparks between him and Jax, but Amanda cryptically predicts they’re not meant to be. They try to blow her off. She’s crazy after all. As summer marches towards autumn, Jax uncovers a terrible secret Amanda hides, and Amanda withdraws inside of herself, battling her mysterious past. Jax and Ethan need to save her before she disappears from reality altogether and ends up back in the dreaded looney bin. Or worse.

Query 5

Word count-205
Sent to-4 agents 
Requests-1

Seventeen-year-old Jersey Alexa “Jax” Mason is allergic to drama. But from the moment her boyfriend dumps her on a crowded dance floor, drama follows Jax around like an unwanted stray.
Distraction arrives in the form of Amanda Rosenbaum. She ran away when she was seventeen. Her reappearance thirteen years later wakes the sleepy town of Rudds Mill and rumors whisper of her time spent in the “looney bin.” Jax is drawn to the fragile, unstable Amanda despite the fact that they spar over everything. Amanda has one foot in this world, the rest of her lives in a dark place. But she’s aware of things that Jax has never considered. Important things about hope and life. And she knows all about Jax’s secrets. How can someone so lost in her own world see inside of Jax’s?

Jax’s dreams of a peaceful summer vanish after she overhears her parents fighting; they’re hiding something that may rip the family apart and destroy Jax’s beloved home. She escapes to the Rosenbaum’s moss-covered patio when things get tense.  As summer marches towards autumn, Amanda withdraws from reality, battling her mysterious past. Jax is the only one she trusts to help her. But can Jax save Amanda without losing herself?

Query 6

Word count-264
Sent to-3 agents 
Requests-0

Seventeen-year-old Jersey Alexa “Jax” Mason is allergic to drama. But from the moment Amanda Rosenbaum returns to the sleepy town of Rudds Mill, drama follows Jax around like an unwanted stray.
That’s about the time Jax’s life takes a header into a dumpster. Her parents are going to split if they don’t kill each other first. Jax’s sister makes her swear not to tell anyone she’s pregnant. And instead of professing his undying love, Jax’s boyfriend breaks up with her on a crowded dance floor.

Jax escapes to the Rosenbaum’s moss-covered patio where Amanda spends most of her time. Amanda ran away thirteen years ago, but she’s back and living with her mother. Rumor has it that she spent some time in the loony bin. She is a little off—she never leaves her yard, she’s fascinated by daisies and poetry, and her conversations remind Jax of a Picasso painting: chaotically deep. That’s okay though. Amanda’s idiosyncrasies are easier to deal with than family Armageddon. The fact that she and Jax spar over everything drives Jax crazy, but not enough to stay away.
Jax doesn’t get that Amanda’s battling her past until she finds Amanda with a bruised and bloodied forehead trying to bash out the memories. Amanda begins to slide deeper into her own world. She imagines visits in the night from the mysterious Daisy, and claims to hear the voice of Eddie, her lost love.
Jax needs to save Amanda from a trip back to the dreaded psych ward. Or worse. But while she’s trying to save Amanda’s life, hers falls apart.

After the confusing response to Query 1 (a request from editor but none from agents), I sent Query 1 to Query Drill for a critique. Three months later and after I’d sent out Query 6 to three agents, I received this response from Query Drill—I need something that stands out to love a query: the writer’s voice, a great plot or (preferably) both. Your voice is the standard I’m-a-querying-author voice, which doesn’t automatically mean a rejection–at least, it wouldn’t for me, if I were an agent. What *does* result in a rejection is nothing for me to sink my teeth into. Don’t be coy! It prompted me to write Query 7. 

 Query 7

Word count-282
Sent to-24 agents 
Requests-4 full
Offers of representation-1
Seventeen-year-old Jersey Alexa “Jax” Mason is allergic to drama. But from the first day of summer vacation, drama follows Jax around like an unwanted stray.
 
That’s the day she meets Amanda Rosenbaum. Amanda ran away thirteen years ago. She’s returned to the sleepy town of Rudds Mill to live with her mother. Rumor has it she spent some time in the psych ward. Fragile Amanda is a little off—she’s afraid to leave her yard, she’s fascinated by daisies and poetry, and her conversations remind Jax of a Picasso painting: chaotically deep.
 
Soon after vacation begins, Jax’s boyfriend Bryan breaks up with her. He needs to get his head together and doesn’t want his shit to affect her. The noble intention is wasted; his shit’s affecting her anyway.
 
When Bryan stalks her thoughts, Jax escapes to the Rosenbaum’s moss-covered patio to spar with Amanda over literature, music and life. Enter Ethan, Amanda’s new neighbor, who starts hanging around on Amanda’s patio too. He’s just the guy to take Jax’s heart off Bryan. Ethan’s the future, but he has a few secrets of his own. Bryan’s the past, but he still manages to tangle up Jax’s life.
 
Jax is so busy dealing with male-induced Armageddon, she doesn’t pay much attention to Amanda’s talk of a little girl appearing to her, and of visits in the night from her lost love. It’s not until she finds Amanda with a bruised and bloodied forehead trying to bash out her past that she realizes Amanda’s headed back to the psych ward. Or worse. Jax is the only one Amanda trusts to help her. But sometimes things that are broken can’t be fixed, no matter how hard you try.
 
I sent seventy queries. It would have been easy to give up after the first ten rejections. Believe me, there were times I considered it. But I knew the rejections were easier to bear than giving up on my dream would be. 
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Beyond the Book-Queries

Query Letter. Two unassuming words that those of us who have fought in the query trenches regard with awe and dread. The query letter is the tool necessary to introduce your novel to an agent or editor. Nonfiction has different submission protocol. Click here for nonfiction basics.

Back to fiction. Literary agents receive almost 200 unsolicited (meaning the agent didn’t request them) queries per week. Welcome to the slush pile. To escape the dreaded slush, your query needs to stand out. In a good way.

What a successful query letter does:

  • Sets up the stakes of the novel.
  • Makes the reader (i.e., agents and editors) care about the characters.
  • And most importantly, entices an agent or editor to read more.

What a query letter is not:

  • A synopsis of your book.
  • A sales pitch detailing why your novel is guaranteed to be a million seller.
  • An entreaty begging for representation/publication.

query letter, literary agent, novel

Basically, you have a standard query format to follow and 250-350 words to sell your novel.

  • Hook: A very interesting 100-200 word paragraph showing what your main character wants most in the world, and what’s standing in the way of achieving it.
  • Brief Bio: This is not a personal bio. It’s a writing bio. And if you haven’t been published or won major awards or prizes, writing a bio can be intimidating. For help, click here.
  • Conclusion: Information about your book, including genre/category, word count, title/subtitle, and a brief thank you for their time and consideration.
  • Picture books should have a brief hook and include the book’s complete text. If you’re an author/illustrator you’ll need to include a dummy, which is a mock-up of the book.

Although that’s the standard format with the necessary information, you can ask ten different agents how they want it organized and you’ll get six different answers. For example, many agents prefer the above format, but just as many like a query to open with word count and genre. In the end, you’ll decide which format is right for you.

Some things I discovered trekking along the learning curve:

Guidelines: This is the most important aspect of querying. Each literary agency has its own submission guidelines. These are not suggestions. They are rules to follow if you want your query to survive the delete button. Individual agents may also have submission preferences that go hand-in-hand with agency guidelines. We’ll get more into this in the next post.

Comps: Comps are published books you cite in your query that compare to yours. I suggest not including comps unless the agent specifically asks for them. Your choices might come across as arrogant—My novel is The Fault in Our Stars meets The Hunger Games. Also, an agent may dislike an author or book you compare to your own, giving that agent a less than positive impression.

Personalizing the query: I’ve spent hours researching agents, uncovering personal tidbits to work into my query. It didn’t seem to get me anymore requests than the queries I didn’t personalize. Unless an agent specifically mentions they like personalized queries, I suggest not wasting valuable word count on too much schmoozing. The exception is in the salutation which should be addressed to a specific agent.

Show, don’t tell: Duh. As a writers, we can chant that in our sleep. I was positive all six revisions of my query SHOWED. Unfortunately, they just weren’t generating much interest from agents. So I sent the query to Query Drill (a query critique site) and got a reply that opened my eyes:

I need something that stands out to love a query: the writer’s voice, a great plot or (preferably) both. Your voice is the standard I’m-a-querying-author voice, which doesn’t automatically mean a rejection–at least, it wouldn’t for me, if I were an agent. What *does* result in a rejection is nothing for me to sink my teeth into. Don’t be coy!

Meaning— you’re telling me. I want you to show me. Ouch. That’s exactly what I thought I’d been doing. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and muttered, “It’s worth it. It’s worth it. It’s worth it.” Then I rewrote it. Query #7 as I fondly call it, enticed my agent to want to read more and eventually sign me. I’ll post excerpts of queries 1-7 Thursday so you can observe the difference. Check back then.

If you have any questions or advice to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comment section.

General query resources:

Query Shark

Agent Query

The Truth About the Slush Pile

Writers’ Digest-The Ten Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query

Query critiquing resources:

Query Drill

Query Shark

Thoughts From The Agent Desk

The Beyond the Book series was originally published in the SCBWI newsletter, The Mitten. 

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Beyond the Book-Part One

We writers love the new year. It’s like a clean sheet of paper, ripe with possibilities. Resolutions, with their promises of finally making it over the rainbow, fill us with anticipation. For those of you who’ve resolved to get that book published, this post is a good place to start. Because getting that book published isn’t the piece of cake it seems to be.

Getting published isn't a piece of cake.

Getting published isn’t a piece of cake.

When I finished writing my first novel, I found myself at the self-publish or traditional publish fork in the road. I decided the traditional publishing route was best for me. The hard part was over! Now, I had only to get my manuscript into the hands of editors. I knew I had to write a query letter, but that was all I knew. I went to the bookstore and from the myriad of books about querying, chose one to be my query bible. I crafted the perfect query and sent it to thirteen editors a la Stephenie Meyer. Who needed an agent? If she could do it without one, so could I.

Rejections trickled in, and my confidence was shaken. I’d heard about Query Shark, the query critiquing blog of literary agent Janet Reid. I’d send her my query. She’d love it and affirm its perfection. After all, I’d faithfully followed all the steps in my query bible. Then, with confidence restored, I’d continue querying.

Unfortunately, the pre-requisite to submitting to Query Shark was to read through the entire archives. So, I rolled my eyes and began to read. I soon realized that my query nailed it, but not in the way I’d hoped. My query was a perfect example of how not to write a query.

There was much more to this publishing thing than I’d ever imagined, and I have quite an imagination. I’m a writer, after all. I was back where I’d started, queryless and unsure. So I stepped back from querying and began my education on the submission process.

The Submission Process

Getting a book into the hands of a reader is, in fact, a daunting task. As a writer, you need to:

  1. Prepare a submission package.
  2. Research literary agents or editors.
  3. Decide on a system that will keep a list of agents/editors you’d like to query and track your submissions. The reality is you are going to send out too many queries to keep track of in your head.
  4. Dive into the query trenches!

 Literary Agent vs. Editor

Before tackling anything, you have to decide if you wanted to submit to literary agents or to acquisitions editors at publishing houses. The consensus is that a writer benefits from signing with an agent first, but ultimately it’s a personal choice. As with the decision to go the traditional route or self-publish, each author needs to consider their needs, goals, and aspirations for the future.

  • Literary agent: As your representative in the literary market, your agent may offer editorial guidance, establish contacts for you with editors and publishers, explain the language of contracts and negotiate contract terms, sell the rights to your work, and help you find new opportunities for publishing. From Poets & Writers.
  • Acquisitions editor: Finds new authors and promotes writers he thinks will be profitable for the publisher. Writers and agents typically submit manuscripts to the acquisitions editor.* The acquisitions editor, especially for fiction, may follow a manuscript from submission to publication, suggesting plot-level changes to bring the story in line with the publisher’s vision for the product line. From The Editor’s Blog

*Most publishers and editors only accept submissions from agents, although there are a few that accept queries from un-agented authors.

The learning curve for the submission process for traditional publishing was huge. At times, I felt I was barreling along it on a tricycle. I persevered and eventually signed with an agent and we are now seeking publication. In the hope of helping others along the learning curve, over the next four weeks, I’ll post about a different aspect of the submission process. The road to getting that novel published can be long and difficult, but persevere. It is absolutely worth the journey.

Book with fireworks

 

Additional resources:

This post was first published in the SCBWI newsletter, The Mitten.

9 Comments

Beating Your Dialogue Senseless

The older I get, the more I learn (that’s a positive spin on the older I get the less I know), especially when it comes to writing. At the risk of shocking you with my ignorance and shaming myself, I’m going to share something I recently learned about writing.

Beats.

I’d heard of these things called beats but I was too busy worrying about adverbs, and commas, and voice, and point of view, and pacing, and arcs to concern myself with beats.

Then I came upon Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. An entire chapter was dedicated to beats because, it turns out, they are very important.

Beats are the bits of action interspersed through a scene, such as a character walking to a window or removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes—the literary equivalent of what is know in the theater as “stage business.”

Why are beats important?

  • They make dialogue more interesting.
  • They allow the reader to better imagine the scene.
  • They vary the pace of the dialogue.
  • They tie the dialogue to the setting and characters.
  • They convey they character.

FYI-Beats are different from dialogue tags (also referred to as attributions). A dialogue tag is a small phrase either before, after, or in between the actual dialogue itself—”I love you,” he said.

Although I didn’t know the term for it, I used beats in my writing. Lots of them. I assumed (you know what they say about assuming) that the more description I used in a conversation between characters, the easier it would be to visualize it. But I had trouble coming up with variety in the beats. My characters did a lot of grinning, glancing, and sighing. Consequently, I spent much time coming up with different ways to describe grins, glances, and sighs. Then I came across this gem: Too many meaningful glances, or smiles, or nods can make the descriptions feel repetitive and unoriginal. Had Melanie Card actually written this for me?

It’s an eye opener to read a passage that has too many beats and compare it to one that is just right. Take the conversation below, a modified excerpt from Jojo Moyes’s After You:

“Mum’s entire life has been family time. Why can’t you let her have some time to herself?” Treena asked.

Dad pointed his folded up newspaper at Treena. “You did this. Your mammy and I were perfectly happy before you started telling her she wasn’t,” he said accusingly.

Granddad nodded in agreement.

As Dad continued, his voice grew angrier. “It’s gone all pear-shaped around here. I can’t watch television without her muttering, ‘Sexist’ at the yogurt ads. This is sexist. That’s sexist.”

“One two hour class,” said Treena mildly, not looking up from her books. “On a Sunday.”

“I’m not being funny, Dad,” I said, “but what about those things on the end of your arms?”

“What?” Dad looked down then back at me.”What?”

“Your hands,” I said, pointing. “They’re not painted on.”

He frowned at me then threw a hapless look at Granddad.

“I’m guessing you could make lunch,” I told him. “Give Mom a surprise when she gets back from her poetry class.”

Treena and I glanced at each other as Dad jumped from his chair and began to shout. “Me make Sunday lunch! Me! We’ve been married thirty years, Louisa. I don’t do bloody lunch. I do the earning and your mother does lunch. That’s the deal. That’s what I signed up for!  What’s the world coming to if I’m there with a pinny on peeling spuds on a Sunday? How is that fair?”

“It’s called modern life, Dad.” He’d come into the twenty-first century kicking and screaming.

Compare that with the actual passage from the novel:

“Mum’s entire life has been family time. Why can’t you let her have some time to herself?”

Dad pointed his folded up newspaper at Treena. “You did this. Your mammy and I were perfectly happy before you started telling her she wasn’t.”

Granddad nodded in agreement.

“It’s gone all pear-shaped around here. I can’t watch television without her muttering, ‘Sexist’ at the yogurt ads. This is sexist. That’s sexist.”

“One two hour class,” said Treena mildly, not looking up from her books. “On a Sunday.”

“I’m not being funny, Dad,” I said, “but what about those things on the end of your arms?”

“What?” Dad looked down. “What?”

“Your hands,” I said. “They’re not painted on.”

He frowned at me.

“I’m guessing you could make lunch. Give Mom a surprise when she gets back from her poetry class.”

Dad’s eyes widened. “Me make Sunday lunch! Me! We’ve been married thirty years, Louisa. I don’t do bloody lunch. I do the earning and your mother does lunch. That’s the deal. That’s what I signed up for!  What’s the world coming to if I’m there with a pinny on peeling spuds on a Sunday? How is that fair?”

“It’s called modern life, Dad.”

The first is an example of the overuse of dialogue beats, and as Janalyn Voigt points out, “It’s enough to wear out a self-respecting character, not to mention any hapless reader who might wander into such a hyperactive story world.”

Even though the second example has less description, it’s more vivid and interesting than the first example. And there isn’t one grin, glance or sigh to be found.

It’s the job of the writer to orchestrate the beats to their particular scene. High tension scenes should have fewer beats. Dialogue in quieter scenes where the writer is letting the reader catch a breath, can be interspersed with pauses or beats. The trick is to read aloud, listen to the rhythm and fine tune it. I’m learning to fine tune the melody of my beats and trust the reader’s imagination to add the harmony. No more beating them over the head with a timpani mallet of grins, sighs, and glances.

Additional resources:
Scribblers Tips-Beats in Dialogue
Writer’s Digest-How to Amp up Dialogue with Emotional Beats

5 Comments

Confabulating with Katherine Jacobs

I met Katherine Jacobs on an unseasonably cold night in October. Well, here in Michigan, there is no such thing as unseasonable, but Katherine is a native Michgander, so she’s used to the seasonably unseasonable weather. Anyway, we both attended a lovely gathering the night before an SCBWI-MI conference. Katherine is a senior editor at Roaring Book Press, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. She edited When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill and illustrated by Theodore Taylor III. It won an ALA award for new talent. 

Me: I was so excited to meet you in October!

Kate: It was good to meet you, too.

Me: I start each interview with this question because you can learn a lot about a person by their answer. What was your favorite Halloween costume as a kid?

Kate: My grandmother made a Winnie-the-Pooh costume that my cousins, siblings, and I all took turns wearing.

Me: What’s your most memorable moment as an editor?

Kate: When a book I edited won an ALA award. It was so amazing to see the cover up on the screen behind the announcer and hear the whole room cheer for it.

Me: What’s the biggest difference between New Yorkers and Michiganders?

Kate: The accent. At least, this is what really gets me. A really thick New York accent is always a little shocking, but when I come home and encounter a strong Michigan accent it’s almost just as shocking. I don’t even know how I talk anymore!

Emily Feinberg, Connie Hsu, and Kate Jacobs

Emily Feinberg, Connie Hsu, and Kate Jacobs

Me: In which genre would you categorize your life?

Kate: Coming-of-age. I feel like I’m constantly learning about myself and refining who I am to be more true and authentic and confident and generous. I’m more like a teenager than I care to admit.

Me: Where’s your favorite spot to read?

Kate: On the couch, by the window on a sunny day. Or a rainy day. Really any time as long as I can look up and have some scope for the imagination.

Me: What’s the biggest misconception about your career as an editor?

Kate: That I read all day. My day is mostly filled with emails, paperwork, meetings—all the usual office stuff. Reading is something that I have to carve out time for.

Me: If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

Kate: Living in New York has been my dream since I visited it for the first time when I was 16! But now I do fantasize about living in London. And I long for a life as an international nomad, living in a new country for a while and then moving on to the next spot (the less developed the better).

Me: Favorite way to let your hair down (figuratively speaking).

Kate: Hiking. Any kind of a walk that gives me just a little bit of a workout and provides a nice view. It resets my brain.

Me: What do you want for your birthday?

Kate: Books! Or bookshelves. I’m a bit of a book hoarder.

Quickies
Favorites:
Color: Purple
Season: Fall
Book: Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
Movie: Bridget Jones’s Diary
Animal: Elephant
Holiday: Christmas
Time of day: Dusk
Ice cream flavor: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough
Beverage: Milky black tea

Least favorite:
Subject in school: Calculus
Food: Carrots
Season: The hottest day in the summer (ugh!)
Candy: Black licorice
Chore: Cleaning the bathroom

Me: Thanks for stopping by for the interview, Kate. Loved learning more about you.

Kate: Thanks for asking!

Kate Jacobs, editorKatherine Jacobs is a senior editor at Roaring Book Press, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. She is looking for smart, character-driven books, from picture books to young adult, fiction and nonfiction, with an emphasis on middle grade and teen novels.

Some of her recent titles are: The picture books I See Kitty by Yasmine Surovec and When the Beat Was Born by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III, middle grade novel The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas, and teen novels The Truth About Alice and Devoted both by Jennifer Mathieu, and SEKRET by Lindsay Smith.

You can find Kate at @kjacobsedits on Twitter and at Katherine Jacobs on Tumblr

 

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