Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Drama, the Danger, the Heartache... of Queries

I have another question about query letters. As a picture book writer, it drives me crazy when I have to submit a query for a manuscript that's well under 500 words (and I have a few in the 150-250 word range.) It seems like a tremendous waste of time for both the editor and the writer. In those cases, do you think it's appropriate, in addition to the query, to include the full manuscript, stating that I'm sending it in case they choose to look at it? Or do you think that makes it appear I'm ignoring their submission guidelines?

I doubt that what you suggest would irritate anyone enough to have an adverse effect on your submission. Just don't send the manuscript instead of a query, if a query is what the publisher is asking for.

I know the hoops of submission guidelines seem pointless sometimes. But here's what you're proving: you know there are rules, and you believe they apply to you.
People who have no idea that there are rules, or honestly can't think why the rules should have anything to do with them, are a bad bet for editors. We have to commit to a relationship with you when we offer you a contract, and that relationship involves responsibilities on both sides. If you are the slush equivalent of a third grader with a nose ring, we're going to skip the giving- you- the- benefit- of- the- doubt- before- sending- you- to- the- principal part and just expel you now.
I'm a little surprised to hear you jump straight to the text when I've heard from umpteen sources how important the letter is as part of the submission. If it's just a query letter with no submission attached, I presume the editor won't say, 'hey, good query letter. I must keep an eye out for this author in the upcoming slush.' Given that publishing houses and agents tend to post their guidelines on their websites, does a lone query letter really achieve anything these days? Whereas a letter plus submission lands on your desk, are you not seeking a hook - or at least hoping for a hook in the letter? In the end it's all about the writing. Yes, but the hook is a sales tool and the writer in today's market must be able to market themselves and their work consummately.

The letter is important. I've watched other people reject a submission based only on the cover letter. This doesn't seem fair to me, and I've seen enough cover letters with fluff for content to have decided that I'm not going to bother with them. But other editors pay very close attention to the cover letter.

It doesn't matter whether you send a complete manuscript that's fantastic in some way—much less a query letter—nobody's going to start watching the slush for you until you're published, and maybe not even then.

The publishers (and agents) who accept query letters read them. Yes, they can achieve things.

If I were one of the people who read the letters attached to submissions, yes, I'd be looking for a hook—and any reasons not to flip to the submission (bad grammar, confusing phrasing, repetition, the occasional anti-hook, etc).

It's only going to help you if you know what your hook is. But it's still possible to get published if you're an unpleasant, reclusive hick who's never had a haircut, keeps spare food in his beard, and whose sole awareness of hook is the fishing hook he still has embedded in his greenish non-typing thumb. What matters is whether the manuscript has one.
If even a partial is enclosed with the query, it's a cover letter? Then in the phrase "query with outline and sample chapters," query is a misnomer?

Well, technically 'query' just implies there's a question, so publishers can interpret what that question is as they like. In this case, I would assume the question is, "do you want the giant pile of paper that my entire manuscript would make?"
I once spoke at a conference (I'm a writer) and the editors on the panel kept saying "Don't sweat the cover letter" (they didn't, however, say not to sweat a query). I was tempted to take them aside and ask, "Is this code for 'we don't read the things'?"

Yes. Most editors care more about your ability to speak to children than your ability to speak to them. And that's as it should be. But there are some editors who, in slush mode, are as curmudgeonly as you'll ever see them. So a little care with the cover letter is a good idea, but life's too short to spend hours on it.
I can understand going straight to the ms. pages if enclosed. You want to be able to judge whether the story is engaging and clear enough to stand on its own, and explanatory stuff in the letter may skew that. After all, the reader, except for a jacket blurb, isn't going to get such help.
Yay! You get it. I love you.
But the 1-pg. query is terrifically important, right? You need your hook, you need your short summation of what the book is about, and it should be not only beautifully written but its tone should match that of the ms.

Ok, now you're overreacting. You should spend a bit more time crafting a query than a cover letter, but try not to build it up into something that causes you stress. Unless you happen to write well under stress.

Tomorrow, some of the agent questions.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Question of Query Letters

A query letter is meant to inquire whether I'm interested in seeing your manuscript. If there's all or part of your manuscript attached, it's a cover letter and I'm going to skip straight to the text. I'll only backtrack to the letter if I need your contact info or I'm really confused by the manuscript (not a good thing).

I am interested to know more about good query letters. You said recently that you can always tell from the letter whether or not the proposed book is quality stuff. Can you elaborate a bit on this?
I can't always tell it's going to be good. But the bad writers give themselves away pretty readily. Good writers express themselves clearly and are good at speaking to their audience. They vary sentence length and structure, and don't repeat themselves.

There are some simple things you can avoid to help your query letter overall:

  • Don't start with a question that your reader could conceivably answer with a "no." Ever wonder what whales dream about? Not really, no. I'll keep reading, but you've already lost some ground.
  • Don't bother with empty adjectives like 'wonderful' or 'charming' (etc). These are solely judgement-based descriptors, and tell me nothing except that you like your manuscript. (Duh.)
  • Don't try to be cute. Flowers or inkwells or colored paper says amateur. And if you talk down to me, I'm pretty certain that you'll be talking down to your readers.
I sent my MS to a professional editor (I found her on Editors and Preditors, thanks to you) for character and plot analysis. As part of the package, she writes the query letter and summary.I've never written anything other than school work before and got the impression that the steps to publication are 1) write the book 2) edit, edit, edit yourself and when you think it's done, 3) send to a professional editor then 4) incorporate those changes you agree with. Only then are you ready to submit query letters.

Numbers 1, 2, and 4 are correct. Getting someone who has no interest in being especially nice to you to look at your manuscript is a good idea. And if you want to pay someone, ok, though finding a good critique group has this benefit and others.

It sounds like you and some of your commenters, who are obviously in the same business, are saying that you should write your own query letter so that it's in your voice and not your polishing editor's.

This is correct. The editor who wrote a draft of the letter for you may still have done you a favor, though, if she's pointed out for you what the manuscript is about. She may even have drawn out the hook. See what's useful in her letter, and then rewrite it. Try to suit your voice to the manuscript's voice—when publishers write flapcopy, we try to make it a taste of what people will find inside. Do the same in your query letter.

The Purgatory from Which There Is No Hope of Release

Is there a hierarchy of agents, per se? Are there some whose submissions rise to the top simply because of who they are? Are there some that are greeted with a frown when the envelope is opened?
Absolutely. McIntosh & Otis, Writer's House, and Curtis Brown are among the heavyweights—agents who have a track record of representing talented people. Their sales often happen quite fast, too, so editors try to look at those submissions quickly lest they miss their chance at something great.

And yes, there are a couple of agents who I have on a personal blacklist (a very, very short list, that I'm not sharing with anyone) and those envelopes go into the trash without being opened. Those are agents who have shown such unprofessional behavior as to make me seriously doubt they're legitimate agents. I'm just waiting for them to show up on Preditors.

Most agents fall in between, and while they may be sending me stuff that doesn't suit my personal taste, that's not cause to think less of them. This is a subjective business, and you never know where the next great idea will come from.

What else might cause some manuscripts to get a quicker read than others when it comes to agented subs? How well the agent pitches it?
I hear all about how hard agents work to pitch well. So I suppose it must be making a dent on some editors.

Not me, though. Just as I don't care how fabulous you think your manuscript is, I don't care how fabulous your agent thinks it is. In fact, I think I care less about what the agent has to say, because reading the agent's letter won't tell me anything about your writing skills, the way your letter would. So whether I'm looking at an agent's letter or listening to a pitch over the phone, I'm tuning most of it out. I'm listening for what the manuscript is about, and if it's something we publish, sure, I'll have a quick look. The point of dealing with agents, after all, is that you trust them to be sifting the slush a bit for you.

Otherwise, I'm afraid how quickly agented submissions get read is a matter of luck. They often pile up on my desk for two or three weeks before I find the time (or the weekend) to go through the stack. And that's really fast, compared to some editors.

Picture this: An editor and her assistant are in the editor's office and are moving piles of paper around as though playing a cramped and dusty game of tetris. One of the piles is too tall to pick up all at once, and when halved, reveals a manuscript.
"Hmm," says the editor, "I should probably have replied to this."
"Didn't that get published last year at [another house]?" asks the assistant.
"Oh, really?" says the editor. "How'd it do?"
"Haven't heard anything about it since."
"Dodged that bullet, then," says the editor, tossing the manuscript at the recycling bin.
(Assistant chants to herself, "This will not be me, this will not be me, this will not be me.")

The Nauseous Side of Publishing

If you've just signed a contract with an author, and have an option on their next book, would you prefer to see how the first book does, before you see their next one, or does it not matter?


Scenario 1: If the first book is a quiet one (ie, has a subtle hook), and the editor is feeling like "I love this, but will other people? I sure hope so," then she and everyone else at the publishing company are going to be a bit nervous about signing the author up for something else before they see how the first one pans out. I mean, if it tanks, then the buyers at bookstores will look at our rep and say, "I had to return our entire stock of the first one. And you're publishing another?" That's bad.

It doesn't change the fact that the quiet books are still worth making, but they can be a gamble. And we kind of hate gambling with $60,000 worth of other people's money.

Scenario 2: What you've proposed as a second book is a sequel to the first or a companion title in some way. They're similar enough for people to predictably link them. Unless the sales force is already swooning at the idea of selling the first one, chances are the publisher will need to wait and see how the first book is received.

Scenario 3: The first book has a reliable hook. It may not be a best-seller, but everyone's confident it'll pull its weight. And the second book you propose is not a sequel or companion title and also has a reliable hook. In this case, the publisher would be comfortable signing a second up before they've tested the waters with the first one.

We spend a lot of time thinking about the industry—what works, what doesn't—and we're pretty good at guessing. But every year there are bad guesses. And when you think that you could buy a house somewhere with one of your bad guesses, you can get pretty queasy.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Yay! a Question!

I'd love to know more about the seasonality of publishing. Are most acquisitions made at certain times of the year? How short and long can the lead times be, from contract to publishing?

Acquisitions are not seasonal; only publication is. We acquire all year round for all kinds of things. (If you have a Christmas story, though, you might want to avoid sending it in December, January, or February, which is when we get all the Christmas stories. Those months also coincide with most people (and editors are no exception) being either overwhelmed with things to do for Christmas, or feeling like they've had enough of Christmas to last them till next December. I got a Christmas story last month, and I think at least part of how pleased I am with it is the fact that it arrived in June.)

The period between contract and publication can be quick (18 months), long (7 years), or even eternal (there's a contract for what? Was that what's-her-face's, who left in '04?).
The 'long' and 'eternal' scenarios are unusual, though, and at least partially the doing of the author, who ought to (a) have an idea of when the publisher means to publish her book and (b) be prodding the publisher regularly when there's no word. Normal scenarios can range from 18 months to 4 years (but only 3 to 4 years if you're waiting for a really great illustrator to have time to put your book in his schedule. The big names are always booked for a couple of years out).

More questions, please.

Hooks, Magic, and Yesterday's Comments

"I hope I don't upset anyone, because that's not my intent. I often wonder why it is I am constantly buying books that bore me to tears... Hook?.... Yeah, you hook a reader, they buy it, only to find disappointment between the covers, and this teaches them to hate reading."
Point (a):
Sales hooks are meant to grab the people who will enjoy a book. Publishers do not aim to suck the money out of people and leave them dissatisfied and irate. It's hard to get repeat business that way.

Point (b):
The fact that this is happening to you should not teach you to hate reading; it should teach you that you need more practice at this "shopping" thing that other people seem so good at.

"...why can't you find and publish books that people (kids) will LOVE."
Point (c):
Holy cow, that never occured to me! Publish books that kids will love? And here we were trying to appeal to farm animals! Seriously, what do you think we're trying to do?

Point (d):
Listen, I'm sorry if we're not succeeding with your son. Honestly. But if you think it's so easy, feel free to write something magical for him yourself. Or find an author who lives up to your expectations. I think you'll find that we're doing our best on both counts. I also have a suspicion that you'll find your expectations are very unusual among readers.

"...Roald Dahl didn't listen to publishers (adults), he listened to the children, his audience, and that genius will live forever because of it. He wasn't about hooks or plots or any other bullsh*t..."
Point (e):
Ok, now you're just pulling my leg. You noticed that Dahl is published, yes? As in, a publisher invested tens of thousands of dollars (or in his case, pounds) in making his work available to members of the fickle and snarky public, like yourself? Publishers don't do that for people who are actively not listening to us.

"He was about magic...why don't you look for magic? It's what the children love...and it's what lives forever. I've never met a kid that said the story was boring but the writing was wonderful..."

Point (f):
And I add this point only because avoiding it is avoiding the whole issue: You're a boob.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Work that Hook!

When talking about hooks aren't we talking about the one or two sentence "thing" that will get an agent, editor or reader to read the ms or book?

When you talk about a book being wonderful, or written well, or having a great story, you aren't talking about the hook, are you? Because those are the things you know about the book after you've read it, whereas the hook is the thing that gets you to read it.

I'm wondering what would be the thing in a cover letter for Speak, or Hattie Big Sky, (before they became what they became) or any other title that would prompt you to read the first three chapters? Isn't that what we're talking about when we talk about hooks -- how to pitch one's work so that the hopefully great writing will get read?

I was talking about sales hook, which is what an editor tries to think about when acquiring. You're right, the hook you use in your query letter can't be "great writing" because dammit, the editor will be the judge of that. The sales hooks that depend on someone's judgement don't work until you have the judgement of someone the reader/editor trusts. This is the thing that makes me hate pitch sessions—there's no way to judge the writing, and the writing's the main thing. But any non-judgement-based sales hook works in a query letter.

In the case of a query letter for a book that has no particular hook aside from great writing, two to three sentences of plot description is what you have to work with. But after reading thousands of pieces of slush and who knows how many pitches, editors get really good at telling good writing from bad over the course of a letter. Really.

You're only going to sabotage yourself at this if
a) you overthink it and get all nervous.
b) you don't know what your manuscript is really about.
c) you can't write.

Let's assume it's not (c), and you get a grip on yourself and avoid (a). I see a fair number of people who seem to have a pretty good idea of what their manuscript is about, and are certainly willing to give it their best guess. This is not good enough. You figure: of course I know what it's about; I wrote the thing, right? Wrong.

It's good for you to practice looking at your stuff the way a stranger would. You love all of it, but what's the coolest part? What's the shiniest, prettiest, wiggliest, most shimmering part? ;)
Take Speak and Hattie Big Sky as encouragement—clearly it is possible to get a manuscript read and published without the kind of hook you'd put in a query. But if there is one, use it!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Strong Right Hook

I've had requests for Speak, Hattie Big Sky, Fancy Nancy, Clementine, Donuthead, and Dairy Queen.

As mentioned, when this book was published Laurie Halse Anderson was not a name and so that was not a hook for this book. It got published because it's convincingly and sensitively written. Editors want to publish anything that's simply well-written, and given half a chance to get it past acquisitions, we will. But the hook that took this book from maybe-too-issue-y-for-mainstream to a grassroots hit that middle school girls passed from hand to hand to hand was the way it dealt with a danger that girls know threatens them, did it realistically, but did it in a way that didn't wring the reader for every bit of pathos in her. I appreciate this myself; I hate books that not only tell the story of someone experiencing something awful but try to make sure you experience it too. Plus the sensitivity with which it dealt with rape made it easier for parents to let their 13 and 14-year-olds get on with reading it.

Hattie Big Sky
Certainly there are some people crazy enough about historical fiction to buy anything because it's historical fiction, but there aren't a lot of them. Historical fiction is a genre, not a hook. This is a case of just plain awesome writing. As I said above, that's all you need to get an editor to want to publish your book. But editors know that awesome writing may or may not get the book the attention we feel it deserves. Which is why we thank our lucky stars when such a book gets an medal to stick on it. Medals are hooks, at least for a while. Of course, all you have to do is look at the Newbery list to see that some of the winners are now mostly forgotten.

Fancy Nancy
I know an author who thinks the reason people are buying this book in scads is because it has glitter on the cover. Christ, if it were that easy, publishers would be putting glitter on everything. (And while it may sometimes seem like in fact we are, no, we're not.) Fancy Nancy is flying off the shelves because just about everyone knows a little girl like this. Have you noticed America having a rather extended and intense princess phase? Yeah. Little girls have always liked to dress up and feel special, but there seems to be a bit more of it going around right now. Ugh. Children like Fancy Nancy too, but I think a significant part of its extreme popularity, like Olivia's, is attributable to the character coinciding with many adults' perception of little girls.

From the first page, you can tell this book has voice and humor. It's funny and it makes a great read-aloud. Clementine's character is charming. And have you searched the shelves for this reading level? There are some great books, but there aren't nearly as many choices as there are when you move up just a little in reading level. We need more fun books for these kids. We could especially use some more for boys. And don't talk to me about Junie B. I can't forgive her for her mother.

Sue Stauffacher doesn't get read enough. Period. She has an utterly winning way of talking about hard situations without a trace of self-pity and a healthy dose of humor. Just like real kids, her characters don't think too hard about what their lives should be—their lives are too big and too close to them for kids to see far around them. They just get on with living the life in front of them... lives that are not simple or easy, but that are worth it. Kids get this. Reviewers and librarians often get this. Parents may or may not. Fortunately, by this age kids are often helping with their own book selection.
And also: what kid isn't going to pick up a book called Donuthead?

Dairy Queen
I miss the cover with the cow and the tiara.
Hook 1: a girl who lives on a dairy farm decides she wants to play football, but there's no girl's team in rural, small-town America. So she goes out for the boy's team. Anyone with a shred of tomboy in them already wants to see this work; wants to see her plow through a line of football players. Hook 2: Again, good writing. 1st person can be really hard; but the main character's voice is compellingly fresh: it doesn't falter as the character cycles through ironic, self-deprecating, funny, angry, reflective, confused. She's easy to connect with, and root for.
It's also nice that the story deals with some serious issues—there's meat there—but doesn't make a bigger deal of them than the main character would, and makes only as much progress as the main character, being who she is, can. But it's enough.

Any other requests? Or do you want to play a different game?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

No, Really, I Love Board Books

I have been thinking about your comment "A funny animal sound book would also be great for (the very short kids)." and I am curious--how much harder is it really for a new writer to sell younger, board book style picture books (maybe not Click Clack Moo, but a more basic, "the cow goes Moo" style book). I have heard from other sources (I think Harold Underdown talks about it a bit) that board books are more often done with established or in house writing. I am sure that good writing and a great hook can work wonders, but is this an even more difficult proposition than normal?

Board books look cheap, don't they? They're small, they don't have a jacket, they aren't printed on any of the really nice paper (because they're going to end up in a toddler's mouth)...

So here's the thing. Thin paper is cheap—that's why they use it for newspapers. Board books are printed on cardboard, and it's not cheap. Regular paper is easy to cut at the printer—snip snip, big, one-size-fits-all blades. Cardboard must be cut with a specially made and regularly sharpened die like a cookie cutter (have you noticed those rounded corners?). Making those isn't cheap, either.

Board books are not cheap to make. Alas, they continue to look cheap, so people simply won't pay very much for them.

This means two very important things:

1. Paying somebody an advance and royalties for a board book is difficult. It makes so much more sense to convert a book you've already published in another format into a board book. Then you pay royalties, but no advance. Or you could pay the author/illustrator a flat fee. Or, best of all, you make an editor in-house knock out the text and have a designer in-house knock out some illustration. Then you don't have to pay them anything.

2. The profit margins are so small that board books only make financial sense if you can print a whole bunch of them. That means they have to have content you're sure is going to be popular. There's no gambling on content in board books. They're a gamble already.

Take my advice and don't present a manuscript as a board book just because you think it'd be cuter that way. Starting a book off as a hardcover picture book is always more profitable for the publisher, which means the acquisition pulls more weight for the editor, the book gets more attention, and it's more profitable for you.

So board books are hard, and they're not lucrative. I still wish there were more great ones.

More Practice with Hooks

How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight

a hook in terms of booksellers, who know and respect Jane. Not quite so much in terms of consumers.
2. Engaging Illustrations
correct. Yay, Mark Teague!
3. Rhyme done well.
important to getting the manuscript published, but not a hook.
5. "Bedtime Book"
correct. With the emphasis on behaving well while going to bed. If dinosaurs can go to bed like civilized prehistoric monsters, then so can your kid.

Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct
Here's what I think the hooks are. But if you bought this book for another reason, that's a hook too.
1. Mo Willems (and his signature sense of humor)
2. A subtle message that all kids can apply to their lives: sometimes it's not about being right. It's about being nice to people. (And dinosaurs.)

Any suggestions for other titles we could pull the hooks out of?

Monday, July 23, 2007

I'm on to you.

You guys are better at this hook thing than you've been letting on. Some more hooks, and some homework.

1. You enjoyed the author's other work.

Someone asked about the hook of Twisted, by Laurie Halse Anderson, and as far as I can tell its hook is: Laurie Halse Anderson. If you write two books as good and as popular as Speak and Fever 1793, you too can stop worrying too much about hook.
I'm reading The Spellbook of Listen Taylor, and so far I'm having some doubts. But I had to pick it up because The Year of Secret Assignments was fun.

2. Humor.

Now let's be clear, a book has to be really funny to survive on this hook alone. I see lots of manuscripts in slush from people who seem to think being mildly amusing is enough. It's not. Ginger by Charlotte Voake is mildly funny throughout, and has a good punchline. But it's also about dealing with a new sibling, and that's something parents actively request in bookstores.

3. Something to figure out.

People love puzzles. From The Trek to Where's Waldo, from Chasing Vermeer to The Puzzling World of Winston Breen... not to mention, of course, all the mystery novels that are presented as mysteries. I love Peter Abrahams' Echo Falls series. But Absolutely Not is an example of a book with a cool puzzle aspect that needed another hook to bolster it.

4. Audience participation

There's some overlap with the last category, of course. But aside from figure-this-out participation, there are many kinds that are so great for young kids. Whether it's a refrain they can join in on, or a word that they can guess comes next from the rhyme scheme, or even a chance to point out where the illustrations are contradicting the text, kids love to be involved. eg Bob, I Ain't Gonna Paint No More, and Do You See a Mouse.

How about some audience participation right now?: What are the hooks in Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

What's Hooked You?

A while back the disco merpeople asked me for some examples of books with hook, and I've been thinking about how best to answer that question off and on since.

It's not a problem of lack of choice—nearly all the books published have a hook of some kind (though of course sometimes it's just what someone hopes is a hook, and they turn out to be wrong). The question I've been revolving is which examples would be most helpful to you, the perhaps occasionally confused about hooks reader.

A hook is what makes people with very little information about the book want to read it. They have very little information because no average person is interested in reading a book review or blurb or plot summary long enough to give them more than that.

So here's a question for you: which books have you not yet read, only heard about, but you want to read them? That, right there, is hook.

I am personally interested in trying out 13 Reasons Why, which happens to be by the disco merman. Here are its hooks:
1. It has a great cover.
This is the kind of hook example that is no help at all to you writers. You have no control over this aspect. Even the publisher, who does have some control over this, and is going to try its damnedest to make this happen, may not be able to. Good covers are fully within their power, but a great cover involves some serendipity. If you get one, thank your publishing team, but you should mostly just feel lucky. A great cover is a hook (in case it's not obvious) because humans are very visual animals, and they get a hell of a lot more out of an image that they find interesting or compelling than mere words.
2. It's about a teenage boy who gets a set of tapes from a classmate who has just killed herself. They are labelled Reasons 1-13, and one of the reasons is about him. This is an interesting premise, and it's even more interesting to a book person because book people know it's a tough premise to use without getting maudlin, depressing, or preachy. I'll be very interested to see how it goes.
3. I've heard of the author. That kind of half-impression of the person behind the book—the impression that he's smart, nice, and has a sense of humor—is going to smooth over some of the doubts the reader has, if they have any. I'm a naturally skeptical person, and I hate to be disappointed.

I'm also looking forward to seeing the new picture book that David Small has illustrated, Dinosaurs With Everything. Its hooks are:
1. David Small is illustrating. He's brilliant. People love him; he wins awards.
Again, not the sort of example that means a damn thing to writers, because you may be consulted in the choice of illustrator, but more in the vein of "We're thinking of illustrator X or illustrator Y. Do you prefer one over the other?" If you have serious reservations about them both, you should say so, and say why. But asking for a big-money illustrator is a good way to piss your editor off bigtime.
2. But in this case, I don't care about David Small. This book has a great premise: A kid is facing a whole day of running errands with his mom—this will not be a fun day. But at the doughnut shop, the lady says (I'm paraphrasing) 'Oh, wait. With every dozen doughnuts today you get a free dinosaur,' and brings out a life size triceratops. Every shop they visit is the same: he gets a free, real dinosaur. Now, if you understand the 3-5 year olds at all, you realize that this is the pairing of two things they love: dinosaurs and free stuff. I can just see them peeing their pants in excitement already.

So what's got you hooked these days?

OTHER HOOKS and thoughts on them

Celebrity authors always seem like a great hook. But before you get too jealous of certain actors' and musicians' ability to write absolute drivel and get published, remember that many times the publisher who stooped to this is going to get pounded by their bottom line, because they paid way more money on the advance than they'll ever make back in sales. And the celebrity? Well, I hope all that advance money is some comfort to him when he considers that all the smart people now think he's an idiot.

It shouldn't be a surprise that hooks are different for different age groups. Dinosaurs are beloved of the very short kids. A funny animal sound book would also be great for them. Vampires, on the other hand, almost automatically make a book YA. If you don't know why, do me a favor and don't write about vampires.

Outstanding writing is always a hook, but it's not enough of a hook to stand on its own, because most of the reading public can tell good writing from bad, but they can't tell outstanding writing from just ok writing any more than they can tell the polar bear from the snowstorm it's standing in.

Now, stellar, genius writing can be a hook all by itself. If anybody of lesser talent than Jack Gantos had written The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs, it would never, ever have been published. Even so, I betcha the publisher takes a bath on it. Obsessive mother-love verging on the vaguely incestuous? Plus taxidermy? This is the sort of confluence of themes that is less likely to make people say, "Fascinating!" than to make them dance around the bookstore going, "Ick! Ick! Ick! Ick!" It's like using powerbait, but feeling that fishing line is too "obvious" and instead taping the bait to an oar and bludgeoning the water with it, screaming, "Here, FishyFishyFishy!!"
On the other side of this coin, though, is MT Anderson, who thinks, "I'm bored. I guess I'll write a work of lasting genius."

Friday, July 20, 2007

Shining the Teacher's Apple?

A few years ago, I read a bunch of those "advice for authors" books. They all agreed that in a good query letter one MUST mention a few books from the publisher's backlist and a GREAT query letter also mentions why those particular books are wonderful.

So fast forward to today - I've actually got writing credits now and I like to keep my query letters short. Is it all right to assume that editors KNOW what's on their backlist and KNOW they're good books? It's not like they'd publish junk!

I always CHECK the backlist to make sure my book is a good fit, but I'd really rather spend the query talking about MY book... not what they've already published.... somehow it doesn't seem like a good use of anyone's time to include a paragraph like:
Your firm has a history of publishing fabulous picture books involving meter and rhyme. I especially liked Peach at the Beach, Carrot in a Garret and Babbage the Cabbage. I think my book, Celery in Hell-ery would be an excellent addition to your luminous list!
So, what says an actual editor who has to read millions of these things?

Your pub credits are much more interesting than praise for our list (assuming they're credits at houses I'll recognize).
But for those of you reading the blog who haven't got any pub credits, don't bother including a paragraph like the one above. If you're going to show that you know what the publisher publishes, it involves more than mixing some titles with some positive adjectives. Say why the books you mention are good, or talk about something else.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Opinions Vary Widely

I recently completed a novel for junior readers. It has been read by one well-published children's author who said: "This is superb! You have nailed Tansy's voice. You've set up her wants and needs brilliantly. The reader is drawn into the story in the very first paragraph and you never let up. I also like the varied sentence structure and the richness of description so very observant."
This book has also been read by another writer whose adult books are published by an imprint I'm thinking of submitting to. She also thinks my book is "well-written, and easily publishable."
Would it be useful and/or advisable to excerpt these comments in my query to publishers? Or should I perhaps merely mention writer #1's name as someone recognizable who thinks the ms is worth considering? Or should I forget both of them and let the publisher decide whether to request the full ms based on the merit of my synopsis, sample chapters and short bio?
While I don't want to let this opportunity to have someone else blow my horn slip by, I also don't want to overload my query with testimonials that might not carry any weight (and use up valuable space on my one-page query letter).

Unless either of these people is the sort of person that editors ask for quotes, skip it. I don't care what people who I don't know think of a manuscript. Every acquisition decision reflects on my career, so guess whose advice I'll be taking? That's right.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

More Editor Speak

I have received several personal letters from editors rejecting (in a very nice way) my submission. In one case, the editor wrote me a personal rejection letter twice though I told him not to feel the need to respond to the revision if he wasn't interested. His last letter read in part as follows:
“Thank you for sending me the revised manuscript…. I do think the manuscript is much stronger. The central storyline is clearer and the characters are more defined. But I’m sorry to say that I still don’t feel that the story is distinct enough for the marketplace. It may be that another editor will respond more positively, and I would be happy if that were so.”
Do you think this editor thinks my manuscript has potential or is he just a nice guy? I've read several things that would suggest this type of rejection indicates he has an interest in my work, but I’m not convinced. I don’t mind revision or re-submissions, I just don’t want to be a pest to this guy when he’s been nice enough to personally respond. What insights can you provide?

This editor thinks you have potential, but he's done with this manuscript. And he's a nice guy. If, after I reject something, I don't specifically invite a resubmission, I'm letting the thing go. And suggesting that other editors/publishers may respond more positively is always code for "I'm washing my hands of this".

But sending you a letter with specific, constructive criticism (in this case, "your hook isn't sharp enough")—is a real sign that he thinks you've got something. Send him whatever you next write.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

An Easy One

I'm coming across several rejection letters due to the fact that many publishers simply aren't accepting unsolicitated ms. I have the 2005 Children's Writers and Illustrators Market book and have done some homework on who's accepting, etc., but they have obviously closed their doors this year. My question is, how do I get in the door?? I'm really too destitute to work with an agent, and I already know there's not much money in the biz. I know I have at least a dozen creative stories that are publishable, which I've been tweaking over the past 10 years. I have all different types, including a YA fiction novel that is halfway complete. I'm a first-year Language Arts teacher and a former reporter of a small newspaper. More so, why are there so many freaks cramming up the circuit!!!?

Um. You get in the door by being persistent and submitting to the publishers who are accepting unsolicited manuscripts currently. There are so many unrealistic people submitting to slush because people think children's books are just something you can knock off 1-2-3.
Keep working, and keep submitting.
Good luck!

An Editor, an Intern, and an Author Walk Into a Bar

So, wondering if you can help me decipher this rejection...? I sent four separate pic book manuscripts (in four separate envelopes) around the same time to a single publisher and received the following: an envelope that wasn't my SASE, with all four SASEs returned inside, addressed to me, naming (correctly) all four books, and reading:

"...several editors have considered the projects and we regret to report that we cannot see a place for them in our current publishing program. Our very best wishes to you for placing the work elsewhere. Thank you etc."

This was signed by the Vice President/Publisher (and it’s one of the big houses), although looks like it may be a computer generated sig, it's hard to tell.

Does this mean:

A. "All the editors that looked at this stuff agreed this was crap. Hang up the keyboard, sweetie."


B. "One or more of us actually considered them for a minute, we brought them all together and chatted about them over lattes, but we couldn't reach a consensus, dammit."

C. Neither of the above. (One of these manuscripts had been accepted by Penguin Australia (where I'm from) a few years ago but put on indefinite hold due to blah, blah, blah, so I know that one at least wasn't complete crap. Unusual perhaps, but not crap.)

I was interested that they were on the ball enough to put them together in a single package, and that they were thoughtful enough to return my unused SASEs to me (which I thought was kind). Why would they take the time, when they could have just sent me four form rejections at my expense?
There are really two possibilities. Take your pick:

a. The intern opening the mail noticed that four identical envelopes had identical return addresses/handwriting and clipped the four submissions together. Somebody looked briefly at the top one and passed all of them back to the intern to reject. None of your individual envelopes was big enough to send all of the manuscripts back together, so rather than personalizing four form rejections, she personalized one and stuffed them in a new envelope.

b. What you've quoted sounds very much like a form rejection, but the mention of "several editors" makes me pause. I wouldn't put that in a rejection if it weren't true... but I can't speak for other editors (and there's just no speaking for interns, ever). So it's possible that after the intern opening the mail noticed that four identical envelopes had identical return addresses/handwriting and clipped the four submissions together, your manuscripts were passed among editors. That would indicate that there was some real promise there, but that none of the manuscripts grabbed anyone enough to prompt a more personal rejection.

Maybe there's another possibility, though—you didn't say how long it took them to respond to these manuscripts. If it was a long time, then:

c. The intern opening the mail noticed that four identical envelopes had identical return addresses/handwriting and clipped the four submissions together, read them, and recommended them to the editor she was assisting. The editor put them into a pile that she thought she was going to read (in a moment of absurd optimism), and forgot about them (and the pile). Several months later the pile that had once been on her desk had moved to the floor and was gradually getting taller, dustier, and more mysterious ("What is that pile? Did someone leave it here?"). Finally she tripped on it and realized that it was made of manuscripts. In order to make some excuse for the ridiculous amount of time that had passed, she sent a form rejection referencing "several editors." Does this qualify as "evil"?

An editor, an intern, and an author walk into a bar. The editor sees several things wrong with the bar, but doesn't mention any of them. "I'm... late for an appointment," she says, and leaves. The intern doesn't see anything wrong with the bar, but has to follow where the editor leads. "Uh, me too," she says, "But great bar!" The author thinks the bar is charming and sits down and orders a drink. "This is the best drink I've ever had!" she says.
Which is the worst customer?

Answer: the author. She has no money, and is going to stiff you for the tab.

I'm Printing This, and There's Nothing Sales Can Do About It! Ha!

Didn't you forget another twig on the branching rejection tree? That is, isn't it true that most editors don't have carte blanche to publish the manuscripts they discover and adore in the slush pile? -- they have to pass the manuscript by a committee of editors, and a marketing team, and an accountant, and the janitor, who may all say "We don't like this," or "This won't sell." Well, maybe not the janitor.
Or would you have contacted the author with positive feedback by this point, so that it wouldn't count as a mysterious rejection?

This is correct. Until we've got our own imprint or are running the department, we have to get positive feedback from the team. It doesn't have to be universal, of course. One of the other editors having doubts about it is different from Sales or Marketing having doubts about it. But if I like something enough to show it to the team, and the team doesn't get behind it the way I hoped, I will send a very nice letter to the author.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

I'll See Your Random Plot Device and Raise You a Total Lack of Character Development

I would be interested in your opinion of time-travel books. I've been told that this technique for exploring history has been overdone, but I still see it used.

I'm kind of tired of it. The idea, I mean. But it's not going to suddenly become unpublishable. Time travel as a mode of transit is going to be around forever.

But more to the point: don't worry about this sort of thing. Time travel, sudden deaths, giant wombats... who cares what you get your plot going with? Smart, absorbing, entertaining writing trumps all other hands. (Christ, was Criss Cross about anything? But obviously the Newbery committee didn't mind.)

The Hunting of Blogs

Just wondering if you know of any good blogs related to revision/editing?
Some writers I know participate in http://www.critiquecircle.com/, where you have to critique others' writing in order to earn enough credits to post something of yours for critique.

But no, no blogs about revision. I don't spend an enormous amount of time trolling for new blogs, though. Anybody else know of any?

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Slush and Punishment: Piercing Unicorns

Felicia saw unicorns everywhere. She dreamt of unicorns. Every night they came to her in herds and told her about the scarcity of magical flowers, the joy of galloping through the stars, and how much they disliked Mrs. Fuchee, who lived next door to Felicia and wouldn’t let them test her lawn for hidden springs for fear they’d pierce her bulbs.
Before you submit a manuscript, ask yourself: Is your main character suffering from an undiagnosed mental disorder? Are you?

Slush and Punishment: How to Wite with a Wisp

Pwincess Wosamund was inconsowabwe. She had wost her wast name. No queen of the magicaw wand of faiwies had evew been cwowned without a wast name, and the cowonation was on Sunday. She wouwd have to find hewsewf a new wast name vewy, vewy soon.
I’d suggest ‘Shit-Fow-Bwains’ …but maybe that’s taken.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Huh, Scientists. Always Thinking All That Education Counts for Something

I was hoping to get your take on an agent's particular sentiment on a recent picture book manuscript...
Even with all the facts known about dinosaurs, their disappearance might always remain a mystery. There’s a lot of wiggle room in explaining their extinction. Every smart-aleck know-it-all has their own theories. And now kids can consider a theory that’s just for them. The dinosaurs’ demise was REALLY caused by a lack of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in their diet.
She thought it was an original idea and very well-written. She said however, that she'd be unable to sell it because "there are so many tree nut allergies that schools and parents might not buy for that silly (but potentially life threatening) reason. As you might be aware, many preschools and elementary schools are now peanut-product-free."
Are publishers that reticent to put out a book because it has peanut butter in it?

I’m not. Last time I checked, peanut butter was still selling like crazy, and it was still one of the only foods that picky eaters would touch.

I would have some hesitations about an author who thinks of scientists as smart-aleck know-it-alls.

Having fun with the way the dinosaurs became extinct is just fine. I’d just cut the first four sentences of your pitch.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Slush and Punishment: Hair on Fire

I have a fantastic retelling of Jason and the Argonauts about a pelt (here in the shape of a wig) that will grant anyone a single wish. I call it “The Wishing Mullet.”
Why is there never a hazmat shower around when you’re reading slush?

Slush and Punishment: Who Needs Valium?

I’ve co-written a manuscript called Mr. Hallway, about a hallway and his day-to-day life.
You needed help to be this boring?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

What If a Book Isn't Deep? Or Tall? What If It's More... Wide?

Does every book written for children need to be a literary work of art? What about the art of making children laugh? I mean, couldn't we all use a little more Walter the Farting Dog in our lives? My kids would much rather read something that makes them laugh over something that teaches them about their feelings.
As literary people, editors are naturally moved by literary writing.
But the answer is no—good editors are ok with books just being ok in the literary way if they’re great in another. There are a lot of different yardsticks to use when measuring books. And the big one, the one that I smack all the others with, is will children love it? Giving a kid a book he loves (for whatever reason) is a surefire way to get him to read another. And another, and another…

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Slush and Punishment: What No Words Can Express

I have a wonderful idea for a wordless book but I’m not an illustrator.

+5 points for being one of the people who realize they’re not an illustrator.
-2,000 points for thinking I’m going to pay you for an idea rather than actual work.

Your total:

Today’s honorary ‘duh’ award.

I Take It All Back, I Love Squirrels

Laughed till I cried this morning:

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Slush and Punishment: Squirrels!

A squirrel has being napped when the loud noise he acorn fallen awoke. Looking for, every in microscopic beautiful leaves, seen precipitation in conspicuous large nuts.
You got a C- in Beginning English as a Foreign Language, huh? And figured you’re now at least as literate as English-speaking children? Wrong.

(Also, ‘conspicuous large nuts’?)