Posts Tagged ‘Writing Tips’

I’ve been meaning to post about this gem of a blog I’ve discovered for a while, and decided what better day than today?  Author George Shannon blogs about the craft of writing picture books in such detail that reading his blog is like taking an MFA in picture book writing.  Every post is excellent, but my favorites are in his Writing to be Heard series.  The series includes instruction on rhyme, rhythm, narrative, sound and content – all aspects of writing books that are meant to be read-aloud.  All of his posts include a reading list for further study on whatever issue/technique his addresses in the post.  Picture book writers should take themselves there as soon as possible.  You’re welcome.




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Agent Elena Mechlin, from Pippin Properties, gave a talk at the Rocky Mountain SCBWI fall conference on writing a winning query letter.  Of all the advice she gave, the one point that struck me the most was her statement, “You have 30 seconds to get my attention.”  That may seem harsh, but it’s probably the reality everywhere.  With that as a backdrop, she made these key points:

  • Open with an intriguing line.
  • Don’t be boring.  Start with the hook of the book.
  • Don’t use the full synopsis for a hook.  Give teaser/hook to create suspense.
  • Keep it short, and get to the point.
  • Talk about the book first, then about yourself (best to give bio at the end of the query).
  • Make sure your research shows.  Address the letter to a specific person and say why you think your book is a good fit for him/her.  By all means, mention if you met her at a conference or some other event.
  • Keep marketing ideas out of the query letter; it’s premature.
  • Try to avoid sending attachments if possible.  A picture book manuscript can be sent in its entirety in the body of an email.  Likewise with a three-page sample.  Don’t attach more unless the material is requested.
  • Focus on only one project in the query (your best manuscript), but it’s okay to mention that you have multiple projects underway.
  • Have fun with the query!  Don’t take it all so seriously.  (If anyone has any ideas on how to execute on that suggestion, please let me know :-))

Elena also said if she rejects one project, it is okay to query again with a different manuscript.  She described reading queries as “a treasure hunt.”  Hopefully if you query her, you will strike gold.

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Drumroll please… Thank you!

The winners of my extra 2 copies of WRITING MAGIC by Gail Carson Levine are…

Dana Carey

Julie Musil

Congratulations Dana and Julie (pls DM me on Twitter with your addresses), and thanks to everyone who participated!  Running this giveaway was a blast.  See you next time.

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How about a giveaway to get the week off to a great start?  Now, I wish I had writing magic for real – as in the kind that makes the words flow perfectly onto the page.  However, I have what is probably the next best thing.  Not one, but TWO copies of Gail Carson Levine’s book of the same name.

Here’s the description:

“In Writing Magic, Newbery Honor author Gail Carson Levine shares her secrets of great writing.  She shows you how you, too, can get terrific ideas for stories, invent great beginnings and endings, write sparkling dialogue, develop memorable characters — and much, much more… Best of all, she offers writing exercises that will set your imagination on fire.”

I ordered a copy for myself and must have gotten trigger-happy, because three arrived in the mail.  So I thought, what a better way to show appreciation for my bloggy friends than to give those two away.

I’ll run the giveaway until 9:00 p.m. Mountain time Wednesday, Oct. 13.  I’ll announce the winners on Thursday morning on the blog.  To enter, just leave a comment on this post any time between now and 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday.  If you tweet about the contest, I’ll give you another entry.  Just be sure to let me know you tweeted.  I’ll choose a winner using Random.org.

That’s it!  Good luck everyone.


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My brother was a boxer as a kid.  One of the first things his coaches taught him was how to take punch.  If you’re going to take one in the gut, you have to harden your belly to reduce the impact.  It might still hurt, but probably not enough to bring you to your knees.  Hopefully you can work through the pain to make your next move and stay in the fight.

Critiques are like that.  As writers, getting feedback on our work can be like taking that punch – it hurts sometimes.  But if we’re not willing to take it, we can’t even enter the ring.  Nobody – and I do mean nobody – is so gifted a writer that s/he can birth a masterpiece with no input from others.  Yet, many writers are so in love with and so protective of their “babies” that they can’t even hear feedback, much less incorporate it into their work.

At the Big Sur in the Rockies workshop, author Alane Ferguson said it best.  Sometimes she comes across writers who are so unwilling to consider revisions “it’s as if they think they are channeling God’s words.”  To which she said she always wants to respond, “Honey, God is not that bad of a writer.”

Because critiques are so critical to the writing process, we spent most of our time at the workshop in small critique groups, each led by a professional author, editor or agent.  The experience was invaluable because the only way we can see our words as others see them is to share those words.  We need to hear from people whose very selves are not stitched to the paper with those words.  All of the faculty at Big Sur stressed that the best way to improve your writing is to: 1) write; 2) get feedback; 3) revise; and, 4) repeat the whole process multiple times.  They urged us all to be more flexible with our words.  Add some, cut some, change some.  They are not set on a stone tablet.

So, how can we “get over ourselves” enough to use the golden nuggets of feedback we get from critique groups?  Here are the top things I took away from the Big Sur workshop, both in the comments from the faculty and from my own experience in the critique groups.

  1. Mind your defensiveness.  Watching others in the critique groups, I noticed that when someone got very defensive, it was usually over an issue that was very important to the direction of the work, and one that almost all of the other critiquers agreed upon.  That person would then sometimes spend the rest of their valuable critique time defending her choices (words).  It made me wonder if I did that too.  Upon reflection, I realized I did.  So take note: the points that make you feel the most defensive are probably also the ones you most need to hear.  Force yourself to shut up and listen, or you’ll miss the good stuff.  Nobody is holding a gun to your head forcing you to make changes, but upon reflection you might find some serious kernels of truth to the suggestions you receive.  When you start thinking, “They just don’t ‘get’ it,” or “So and so doesn’t recognize my genius,” or “S/he doesn’t know what s/he’s talking about,” that is precisely when you need to stop talking and start taking better notes.  You’ll decide later after you have more distance whether the feedback makes sense, but if you tune out or talk over it, you’ll miss a huge opportunity to evaluate your work.
  2. Pretend everything is true.  Nancy Mercado, editor at Roaring Brook Press, said she had one author that used to get riled up every time he received her edits.  They always spent lots of time wrestling over them.  Then one day he called her and said, “For two weeks, I decided to pretend everything you said was true.”  He revised the manuscript according to her suggestions and found that the vast majority of them made his work better.  I’ve tried this myself, and in the process I discovered another benefit.  Because I only “pretended” the comments were true, it gave me the emotional distance I needed to give them a fair chance.  That distance gave me the ability to evaluate whether they genuinely worked for my manuscript or not.
  3. Give it time.  Everyone on faculty warned us against racing home to make revisions based on feedback received over the weekend.  You need a bit of a “waiting period” while your brain comes to grips with the suggestions.  Waiting gives you that all-important distance you need to decide what is true for your work.

Writers can be tender, sensitive souls.  Squeezing our hearts onto the page makes us a bit touchy when it comes to taking even the most constructive of criticism.  Yet, we can also be egomaniacs.  Let’s face it: one of the thrills of writing is the omnipotence that comes with pulling the puppet strings on our characters’ lives and worlds.  Taking feedback doesn’t take that power away.  If anything, it strengthens that power.  Even if we decide not to use the feedback, the simple act of considering it will make our work stronger and more true because it gets us closer to what we really want to say.

Believe me, because I know how to take a punch.  My brother was 4 years older than me, and he had to practice on somebody. 🙂

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Reposted on October 25, 2010 to include lots of new information and links

So you’ve finally written your masterpiece and you’re ready to submit.  How are you going to find the perfect editor or agent for your paranormal, dystopian, steampunk, urban fantasy novel?

If I learned one thing at the Big Sur in the Rockies conference, it’s that a large part of the acquisitions process for both editors and agents is a “gut feel.”  They not only think your story will sell, but they love it themselves.  That’s why you do yourself a big disservice by submitting it to an editor/agent that can’t stand paranormal, dystopian, steampunk, urban fantasy novels.  Tastes can vary widely even among editors and agents within the same publishing house/agency.  But how do we find out whose taste is whose?

Research.  All of the editors and agents at the Big Sur workshop agreed that writers hurt everyone – including other aspiring writers – when they blindly send manuscripts to editors and agents without regard to their guidelines and preferences.  Sorting through hundreds of submissions takes away valuable time and often causes them to close the doors on unsolicited manuscripts.  So let’s do the research and take the time to submit only to editors/agents we think will be truly interested in our work.  With all of the information available online, there is really no excuse to skip this all-important step.  Here are six ways to research publishers, editors and agents.

1.    Company websites – Start by searching the websites of the publishers and/or agents you think might be a fit for your book.  Publishers put their booklists, submission guidelines (if they take unsolicited submissions), and sometimes a list of their editors on their sites.  Most agency websites state very clearly what types of books they represent and how to submit, often down to specific agents.  Take the Andrea Brown Literary Agency as an example.  Their website includes a list of their nine agents, the types of manuscripts each agent is looking for and her representative deals.  Why send a picture book to one of the agents that only represents MG or YA when just a few clicks will point you to one of their agents who does?  They are trying to help us target our submissions. Think Jerry Maguire and help them help us!

2.    Social Media – This includes everything from Facebook, Twitter, (see #3), MySpace, blogs, industry networking sites, etc.  Most big publishing houses and literary agencies have a presence on these sites, as do individual editors and agents. You can pick up a great deal of insider information by following them.  I’m continually amazed, too, by the number of editors and agents who give of their time by providing tips and feedback to writers via their blogs.  Some even host contests where you can “win” a critique or a chance to submit to a house that’s otherwise closed to unsolicited submissions.  Besides the biggies like Facebook and Twitter, here are a few social networking sites that connect readers, authors, illustrators, editors and agents, plus a couple of agent/editor blogs that are very helpful (see my blogroll for more).

•    JacketFlap
•    Children’s Book Insider
•    LibraryThing
•    Goodreads
•    Kidlit.com
•    Nathan Bransford

3.    Twitter – If you commit to participating in just one social media site, make it Twitter, which is an absolute gold mine of information.  Many agents and

Comic courtesy of http://www.inkygirl.com

editors and TONS of writers utilize Twitter.  Following key people in your genre will lead you to other websites, blogs and industry announcements, including who is editing which books and why.  Even better, you’ll make “friends.”  I am in awe of how much information I’ve gleaned and how many awesome people I’ve “met” since I joined Twitter.  Are you a Twitter newbie?  Check out this Twitter Guide for Writers from Inkygirl and this post from Elizabeth Craig on how writers can use Twitter. Here are a few other reasons to love Twitter:
•    Tweetchats – live chats where the tweets are focused on a particular topic.  Good ones for children’s writers are #pblitchat (picture books), #kidlitchat (all kidlit genres) and #yalitchat (for young adult writers)
•    Tweetups – Real life, in-person gathering of people who follow each other on Twitter.  I went to my first one at the SCBWI conference in New York.  It’s a great way to meet people and make contacts.
•    Lists – You can create lists on Twitter to categorize people you follow.  I have a kidlit list, and agent list, and editor list and so on.  This way, you can quickly filter tweets by topic.  Even better, most “tweeps” make their own lists public so you can follow their lists too.

4.    Join industry organizations and attend events – Writing is a mostly solitary pursuit, so joining writing associations and groups can help get you out there networking and meeting other people in the business, including editors and agents.  Since joining SCBWI, for example, I’ve attended regional and national conferences, writing workshops, and “schmoozes.”  I’ve had the chance to get my work critiqued by some big-name agents and editors at these events.  Meeting them in person helps me remember what kind of books they like.  I also read their monthly newsletters and the annual “Edited by…” list they make available to members.  All of these events, tools and resources have accelerated my growth as a writer.

5.    Use Market Guides – Even with the Internet, having a few good old-fashioned market guidebooks at your fingertips is essential.  Here are a few to consider:
•    Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market
•    Guide to Literary Agents
•    The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books
•    Writer’s Market (includes all publishing, not just children’s)

6.    Find out who edits or represents books that you like or that are like yours – This one is a little trickier, but it is often possible to find out who edits which books by Googling, “Who edited X by So and So?”  Sometimes, too, you can find this information on the author’s website.  Often they thank their agent and/or editor.  If you think that editor or agent would like your manuscript, you can now say why in a query letter.  Here are a few great sources for this information, although some, like Publisher’s Marketplace, charge a monthly fee.

  • Literary Rambles — Casey McCormick’s blog has a MUST READ Agent Spotlight series.  Always check to see if she’s covered the agent(s) you are submitting to.  Casey combs the web to find as much material on each agent as she can, and it’s FREE.
  • Publisher’s Marketplace — For $20/month you can find out who agents represent, which editors have published certain books, who represents specific authors, etc.  They also have daily e-newsletters that you can sign up for covering recent deals in all genres.
  • QueryTracker.net — Here you can look up agents and editors, see how many queries they have gotten and what their responses look like (assuming the agent/editor reports them).  You can also find out what genres they represent, submission guidelines and client information.  You can also track queries sent at the site.  The basic service is free.
  • AgentQuery.com — Comprehensive searchable database of literary agents in all genres.  You can search by agent, genre, or by agency.  The site also has great resources on writing query letters.  Best of all, it’s free!
  • AbsoluteWrite.com — Besides providing a treasure trove of resources for all types of writers, the AR Forums provide lots of scoop on agents and editors based on writers’ experiences.  There is a whole “Beware” forum to help authors identify and avoid pitfalls in their searches and relationships.
  • Publisher’s Weekly — They have a section completely devoted to children’s publishing.

So let us go forth and first do the research, then submit to a targeted list.  Good luck and happy submitting!

Done your research and now you’re ready to query?  Go visit Angela Ackerman at The Bookshelf Muse for tips on “Personalizing” Queries using the info you’ve gleaned from your research.

Any other resources you can’t live without?  Leave them in the comments!

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Nancy Mercado, executive editor at Roaring Brook Press and a faculty member at Big Sur in the Rockies, said she sometimes receives submissions where the writing is great, the hook is good but the “voiciness” isn’t quite right – at least for her.  I like that – voiciness.  Kind of the writer’s answer to Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness.”  People can sense when it’s off, but they can’t always say why.  Kind of like listening to a recording of your own voice I guess.  Mine always seems to sound like the grownups in the Charlie Brown T.V. specials.  But I digress…

Voice.  We all have one in real life.  As writers, we must find a way to translate that voice to the page.  That voice is the one thing that makes us unique from all other writers.  Polished writing, strong characters, compelling plot, good pacing, satisfying ending – all of those things are important, but without a unique voice to take the reader on that journey, editors and agents are likely to take a pass on that piece.  Furthermore, they want to “hear” your voice from the first line on the first page.  Andrea Brown, president of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, said there are only so many universal themes in literature.  They’ve all been used – over and over again.  She stressed that there is no such thing as a fresh idea, only a fresh voice.  Elana Roth of the Caren Johnson Literary Agency, tweeted this on #kidlitchat last night: “Hook gets me to request [the manuscript]. Voice gets me to sign it.”

It can be difficult for pre-published writers to project voice because it requires confidence, authority and authenticity, three things that are hard to come by while you’re piling up the rejections.  Trust and patience are also factors, however.  After a while (so I’m told), your voice will make its appearance on the page if you keep writing.

If there is a “dark side” to voice, it is that by its very nature, voice is personal.  Some people will love your voice; some people will hate it.  I think of writers like Cormac McCarthy.  He has a definite, unique, and compelling voice.  Just don’t ask me to read any of his books.  His voice doesn’t “speak” to me.  Does that make him a bad writer?  Uh – obviously not.  It just means that much of success in publishing comes from getting your work to an agent or editor that hears your voice, loves it and wants to share it with the world.  Researching agents’ and editors’ tastes before submitting is essential (that will be the subject of my next post).  However, we must avoid writing in a voice we think editors and agents are looking for because it will lack authenticy and they will recognize that right away.  The best we can do is to find our own voices and be as true to them as possible.  The rest will follow.

So how do we cultivate voice as writers? Writing, writing and more writing.  In the meantime, all writers of every genre should read agent Nathan Bransford‘s brilliant post on voice from last week.  It’s certainly the best I’ve ever read on the subject.  There is great insight in the comments too.

Writing voices are, to put it in Julia Roberts’ words from Pretty Woman, “slippery little suckers.”  Once you find yours, hold on tight!

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