Sunday, September 30, 2007

Whoops! A Query I Missed

To Whom It May Concern:
Benjamin is the youngest son of Sir Edgar the Tall. One day, while playing with his brothers and a few other boys, Benjamin becomes injured and humiliated.

Injury is natural in sports; humiliation requires a little explanation. Otherwise, your reader ends up wondering just where he was injured.

Princess Sarah finds him sobbing in the castle gardens with a bloody nose. She helps him, and soon a friendship begins to grow.
Helps him how? With the crying? The nose? The garden?
Look, you don't want to give us too many scenes to picture in the brief snapshot of your manuscript, but the ones you do offer us should have the little details that allow us to really picture it.
Years later, Benjamin goes to study with Master Gregg, the castle blacksmith.
We need more of a segue here than “years later”. Maybe you want to start this summary with him apprenticing to a blacksmith and mention as you go that he’s always been the butt of jokes and the princess has been his friend from childhood.

Unfortunately, he is so clumsy with a hammer the other boys begin teasing him and calling him “Ben the Unlikely” because it seems so unlikely he will ever become a blacksmith.
You know what I would do if people were teasing me while I was holding a hammer?

One day, Sir Andrew comes into the shop to get his armor repaired. When asked what happened to it, Sir Andrew tells them about the battle with Squashbugs the Troll who kidnapped Princess Sarah. “All the knights ran after him, but he was much faster than we were. We tried to sneak into his cave, but before we were even able to get close, all these bells started ringing. We could not even see them!” Ben wants to help her, but Master Gregg says he should leave such things to the knights. Unable to just leave his childhood friend to be eaten by a troll,Ben borrows a horse and sneaks into Squashbugs’ dark, smelly cave. Ben is able to escape the spell protecting Squashbugs’ cave because of a loop hole, frees Sarah, and traps Squashbugs. He is rewarded with knighthood.
Here we have the classic mistake of too much information. Shorten this. Also, he rescues her? I'm worried that boys are not going to enjoy this plot line because they don’t want to rescue stinky girls. And girls aren’t going to enjoy this plot line because they don’t want to be rescued. I'd suggest letting the girl help in her own rescue, or else sending this story back to the furnace.

Sorry for losing track of this one. This goes in the "needs more work" category. Like the others in that group, it might be great. I just can't tell from the query.

P.S. Are you sure about the name "Squashbugs"?

I've Changed My Snarky, Pessimistic Mind. You Have Permission to Get Your Hopes Up.

Have you ever rejected a manuscript, then changed your mind about the project and wanted it back? I've had this happen to me, where an editor will say a year or two later, "Hey, you still have that wacky manuscript available?"

Sure. It's a subjective business and we're subjective people. The thing that seems like a bad idea for today's market and today's frame of mind may strike an editor as just right in the market and frame of mind of two years from now.

Which is why you keep submitting. You should be giving a publisher the space of years before re-submitting, of course. This allows for (a) attitudes changing (b) staff changing and (c) your writing getting better.

The dark side of this healthy persistence, of course, is spamming publishers. Email spam is very obvious because many of your missives will immediately be forwarded to the department assistant. She, realizing it is spam, will delete it without reading it and possibly without replying. But the other kinds of spam are noticed and disliked as well, because, again, most of the mail is being opened by the same person.
You, Darth Manuscript. When you send in multiple copies addressed to various editors in the hope of reaching the right editor, we make sure your manuscript is not seen by any editor. I've been the editorial assistant and have trained later editorial assistants, and the force is with them. (And so is the paper shredder.)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Knowing When To Stop

I would be really grateful if you would answer my question. I have been working on a book for the past ten years or so (I'm a slow writer). I would like to finish the manuscript before another ten years of my life go flying by and I've been in the fine polishing stage for the past year. My question is, how polished should the final manuscript be before submitting to an agent? I know this is a silly question because obviously the cleaner everything is grammar, spelling, continuity wise, the better my chances of being accepted are, but at the same time, I don't trust myself to pick up on all the little mistakes that might be lurking in there. Should I hire someone to edit and proof read the manuscript for me? Or should I find guinea pigs to sit and read the book and give me feedback? If the later is the correct answer, where can I find such people?

Wow, you have been at it for a while. I'd suggest getting a critique group to read it for little grammatical / punctuation issues and big-picture problems. And then stop worrying the manuscript and get it out there.
I try to look past the little stuff that a copyeditor will end up fixing, but there are a few mistakes (eg its/it's) that, when made repeatedly, make it very, very hard for me to keep reading.

The Zen Center of the Writer's Life

I've got a 48,000 word MG/YA ms. Contemporary teen crossed with science fiction / fantasy. Not very edgy, but an imaginative, entertaining story. No swearing, sex, or drugs. I write fairly well as I'm an editor myself. I've gone the agent route, with no luck (I've sent out around 20 queries). Set it aside and start a new one, or plug away at trying to get this one published?
Both. Both, both, both.
  1. You must keep writing.
  2. You must keep submitting.
  3. Rejections mean nothing.

The two greatest things writers have on their side is Time and Work.

Very few of them realize this until they're years and years into their careers, however. Nevertheless, it is a fact that is worth meditating upon deeply or cross-stitching on a sampler. Try hard to realize the truth of this early.

TMI vs TLI / Prolix vs Laconic

Just wondering about queries for very short picture books, say 250-500 words. The "too short" comment took me by surprise. When something doesn't have a complex plot, do you deliberately make a query longer than necessary? I hate writing queries for very short PBs because it seems like a waste of time to write one that can be longer than the actual manuscript. But yes, I do it when that's what the guidelines call for.
Ok, I realize that it is hard to write a description of a manuscript that is possibly longer than the manuscript itself. You should be able to imagine doing this, however. Those studying poetry, for instance, have written about William Carlos Williams' "Red Wheelbarrow" using a great many more words than the 16 in the poem.

And I'm going to take issue with the question, "do you deliberately make a query longer than necessary?" No, of course you don't. But "longer than necessary" is any description past the description I need in order to know
  1. what your manuscript is about
  2. what happens in it (which is often not the same thing as what it's about)
  3. what makes it particularly appealing/charming

The people who wrote those two very short queries were assuming too much about what the reader can reasonably draw from those short descriptions. Every writer can answer #2. But it's #1 and #3 that are really telling—about the manuscript, and about the writer.

The Internal Critique, the External Critique, and the Vast Chasm Therebetween

I've heard of this happening a LOT, and far too often: writers who got really positive comments from editors in critiques get a scant form rejection after many months and usually a status check. What gives? Are editors overly optimistic because it's hard to reject face to face? Are they encouraging a writer as a whole who they see has talent, even if that particular project isn't there yet? Or do they just want to get these people out of their hair, no matter what they end up saying?

It is certainly true that we're always more positive face-to-face than we are in our own heads. As has been recently highlighted on this blog, we're often very critical—even of the things we honestly think have promise.

If normal people could witness the weighing of positives and negatives, the calculations and arguments with ourselves that happen in an editor's head, many of you would start to wonder if we were, in fact, schizophrenic.

We aren't. But we are aware that what goes on in our heads is hardly material for social interaction. It has to be filtered.

And that's hard. How do we offer you enough of that mix of impressions and thoughts to be useful to you, without giving you so much that you're confused, or offended? It's also hard to be sure we're communicating what we think we're communicating when dealing with the wide variety of people we meet at conferences. I once answered a question that I could swear was "do you think my manuscript is publishable?" but that subsequent events proved the author had thought was "do you want to acquire my manuscript?" These are awfully different questions, obviously. Not everything that I think is salable is something I personally (or even my publishing company particularly) wants to produce.

All of that said, I still don't understand people who agree ahead of time to do something they (knowing the state of their desks and workloads) realistically cannot promise. (Though it should be noted that more than once I've arrived at a conference to discover I'd been committed to things I had not agreed to beforehand. Grr. I have a whole rant about pitch sessions that I'll save for some other time.)

So the answer to your questions are:
1. Some editors are fantastic editors, but are terrible at keeping their desks organized or getting back to people in a timely fashion.
2. Yes, sometimes.
3. Yes, sometimes.
4. Unusual. This reaction is saved for the rare absolute nutball who makes us uncomfortable / afraid they may be concealing weapons.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Proof That It's Still Happening

Attending a SCBWI conference last spring, I had an extremely positive paid critique and response from an editor from a top publishing company. She made some excellent suggestions and invited me to resend the picture book after I made the changes, which I did. Now...tick, tock....much time has passed—and like any hopeful writer, I’m still hoping. This is a closed house. Do I assume I’ve been rejected? Or do I send a friendly reminder nudge?

It's about time for some more of this topic, isn't it?
Without knowing how much time we're talking about—as I keep reminding my readers, time passes much more quickly for editors than it does for authors—I would say, yes, nudge her. And keep nudging her, politely, pleasantly, every three months or so from now until whenever she finally gets back to you. But while you're doing that, keep submitting! Sometimes manuscripts fall into a black hole, and trying to figure out why or what you can do about it is just going to make you nuts.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Something to Watch

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JU4S2BIqoHY

Hmm. I must get that last line into some of my letters.

Whew! And the Results Are In

Worth requesting, if skeptically:
Queries 6, 7, and 12.

In need of more work:
Queries 4, 5, 8, 9, 11, 18, 19, 20.

Why are you so good at being so bad?
Queries 1, 3, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17.

Special Commendation:
Query 2.

Thank you all for braving the snark, and for sending so many goofy ones. Some of those last ones made me tear up from suppressed laughter (some people are sleeping at this hour).

Query 20: Walloped by Mutton

When I was young and couldn’t sleep, my mom suggested I count sheep. In my 830-word story titled “If You Can’t Sleep…”, Abby’s mom does, too. Abby thinks it’s a silly idea and refuses to do it. While tossing and turning, and still not sleeping, some things land on her bed. They're walking all over her legs. One of them crawls onto her tummy and she's very afraid. Monsters? No, the counting sheep have arrived!

Sounds cute.
The problem is, Abby won't count them. Woolly, the youngest counting sheep, befriends Abby in spite of the fact that he ends up smooshed into the blankets... more than once.

Funny.
Woolly eventually learns that Abby can’t count very well and that’s why she doesn’t want to count sheep. I show young children that it’s okay if you can’t count well, as long as you try.

Oh, crap, a moral. Remember what I said earlier about ducking?
Woolly admits he can’t jump fences very well either because he’s still little but that he’s getting better with practice. I also believe if young children sometimes have trouble sleeping, counting fluffy little sheep can’t hurt.
I’m a recent graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature. I’m a member of the Writer’s Guild of Alberta and SCBWI. I’ve recently received acceptances from Stories For Children for a fiction piece to be published in their January 2008 edition and from Once Upon A Time for an article, publishing date yet to be determined. If you are interested in reviewing my manuscript, I would be happy to submit it for your consideration.

Queries 18 and 19: Two That Are Too Short

I am submitting to you my picture book manuscript A Beach For All Seasons. It is a love story about a beach, a mom, and a daughter. I thought that you might appreciate this tale set on a New England beach. I am a writer of nonfiction and fiction. I am published in Appleseeds magazine, in the book Stories of Strength, and recently sold work to Hopscotch andHighlights magazine. Thank you for your time and consideration. I have include a SASE and this will be a simultaneous submission. I am a member of SCBWI.

Steven didn't actually mean to steal the egg, he just wanted to see what would happen. But when Old Mrs Hartman summoned him to her house, he knew he was in trouble. Typical teacher, she didn't believe a word of what he told her.Now he's got to keep his nosy little sister quiet and find out about dragons before Mrs Hartman accidentally hatches it. Steven's Dragon is a story of fantasy and coming of age aimed at 10 to 12 year-old boys. It is complete at 10,000 words.

Query 17: James Joyce Writes a Query (After His Lobotomy)

I am so excited about sending you my query letter. Or is this a cover letter? You are my favorite publisher in my first batch of 37 (should I spell this out...Thirty-seven) editors. I found you and every other editor in the CWIM (Children's Writers and Illustrators Market). I hope it is still up to date from 2001 (Two Thousand and One). I am so glad that I don't need an agent to sub to YOU because I have heard that it takes even longer to hear back if you have one. Plus you have to pay 15% (Fifteen percent) for that. Well, that is what they say on Verla Kay anyway. Unless, I can get a pre-empt and an auction. Is it possible to have an auction with just one house? I mean can more than one editor at your house try to outbid another at your house, or does it have to be 2 (Two) different houses? What if it is an assistant editor...can an assistant editor get a higher advance for me than a senior editor? And what about those foreign rights, huh? Do you think that MY CUTE LITTLE PUPPY PET will be popular in China? Will HOLY COW make it in India? They both rhyme. I am not sure if they are magazine pieces, pbs, mid-grades or young adults. But it really doesn't matter because I know you publish all of these. You can decide. And I'll bet if I go over to these countries they won't even care because they don't read English anyway. Thanks for you're attention to these matter. Oh BTW (By the Way), my first story is about my pet puppy and my second story is about a very special cow with a gift of making chocolate milk.

Query 16: I'll Never Eat Tuna Again

If you are looking for something to fill your fantasy void since acquiring THE SQUIRREL KNIGHTS and NANNY’S MAGIC KNICKERS, and now that HP is finally complete, perhaps I have something of interest to you. Although, it should be noted that if you are looking for more wands, wizarding schools, rodent knights or magical underwear, I am afraid I may not be the right author for you. But what I can promise you is a medieval orphanage, wretched chores, dragons, talking mushrooms, gargoyles, banshees, sylphs, kobolds, and a genderless oddity called Mimick.
Please let me elaborate further.
Perhaps you are sitting at your desk enjoying a tasty tuna fish sandwich. Might I interrupt, and ask that you imagine seven colored stones, arranged in a circle upon your desk. You put your hand in the centre of the ring, but with caution, for you do not know what this author is purporting for you. And sure enough, as soon as your fingers touch the surface of your paper-covered desk, you are whisked off to another world – a medieval realm where magic lives and thrives. You think to yourself, “Oh no! - another story with a portal to a fantasy realm.” Your finger hovers over the delete key,
Or pounds at it
but something makes you hold. You wonder, perhaps there is something more to this. And you learn, much to your surprise, that you were actually born upon this world, and that your parents transported you to Earth many years ago. They fled an evil king that usurped your mother’s throne. Your parents must now attempt to regain their stolen kingdom and are sending you and your little brother Sam off to an orphanage located in a castle. You now think to yourself, “Oh, I’m going to live in a castle!” Alas, your excitement is sadly misplaced, for the castle is not only haunted, but is in shambles. It is mired in a boot-sucking bog, and around every corner rather unexpected things await you –dark magic, Dragons, Mimicks, Gargoyles, Sylphs, Sprights, Banshees, Kobolds, and wretched chores like emptying chamber pots, serving royal snobs that treat you like a lowly peasant, and cleaning Master Cobblepot’s spittle bowl. The latter notion makes you shudder uncontrollably.
Who can tell?
You learn that you haven’t got a magical bone in your body and you covet your brother’s special abilities. Everyone around you seems able to wield some form of magic, and the best you can do is learn to use a bow and arrow – you might become a Knight one day. Wonderful. Of course, you do not really think it’s wonderful. You cannot wait to escape such a miserable existence. Your parents must be absolutely, and most undeniably crazy to have sent you to this place. To top it all off, your evil cousin, Festrel, has shown up at the orphanage and terrible things start to happen. One of the children is turned to stone and a deadly plague is spreading through the orphanage. Now, you and your friends must try to discover who is bent on destroying you with this Warlock’s Plague, and how you can survive. This is the story of Rudy Doyle, minus the tuna fish sandwich, of course. She much prefers smoked ham and mustard, thank you very much.
This enchanting middle-grade novel, which is approximately 81,000 words and contains characters from culturally diverse backgrounds, is the first of two parallel series. The first series (with three books) centers on a young girl named Rudy Doyle. The second series (also three books) revolves around a young boy named Kelvin Bo. So, imagine two intertwining series that take place in the same world, where characters and events overlap. As each series is weaved, the two main characters will look to each other for help. The two series culminate in one final tale that will bind them together, for the evil that haunts Rudy and Kelvin is a common foe. If you can hold a little longer on that tuna fish sandwich, I have endeavoured to create two fantastical web sites. There you will find additional information on this project, as well as sample chapters for both series:
http://www.rudydoyle.com and http://www.kelvinbo.com.
If you are interested, I'd be happy to forward further material to you. Thank you for your time and consideration. You may now return to your meal. Bon app├ętit!
Holy crap, I think this is serious. Who would like to comment?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Query 15: Can't Find Uranus with Both Hands and a Flashlight

Dear Agent,
This is your lucky day! Attached for your review and enjoyment is my 6,000-word picture book entitled Sparky Squirrel Finds His Nuts. Follow Sparky's adventures along with his friends Ollie Ostrich, Greta Goose, Timmy Turtle, and Spritzy Skunk. I know your submission guidelines say "no unsolicited manuscripts," but I know in this case you'll make an exception. You won't want to miss out on representing the next Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling rolled into one!!!
Children and parents everywhere will love this rhyming story, which teaches kids that we can all be friends even though we're all different.
I know that this will be a real hit with kids since my own children and the kids in my neighborhood love it. It makes a great read-aloud bedtime story-- they are always sleeping like little angels by the time I get to the end. Here's the best news: this is just the first book in a 10-part series! I'm working on the second book already, in which readers will delight in following Sparky and friends in their wacky outer-space adventures in Sparky Squirrel Explores Uranus.
My brother is really good at drawing so I've asked him to be my illustrator. I'm sure he'll give you a good deal on the pictures for the book. Please let me know as soon as possible when we can get rolling on the publication. I look forward to meeting you and working with you!

Query 14: I'll Buy the Polar Bear

Dear Agent:
I am sending electronic copies of this query to you and every agent listed in my agent guide in the hopes that someone will care about saving the planet.
It has come to my attention that my carbon footprint has grown unacceptably large since the advent of my search for an agent. By my calculations, my agent submissions thus far have consumed 4,794 sheets of high quality printer paper, approximately half a full-grown tree that would otherwise be absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. My ongoing submissions have also become a problem in terms of the consumption of non-renewable fossil fuels. Though I’m just a few miles from the post office, my trips to mail people like you a query and then a partial and then a full have required 136.8 miles on our nation’s already clogged roads. I’ve been unable to find other authors in my area sending out requested manuscripts at the same time, so my attempts to organize post office carpools have been futile. The manuscripts themselves have traveled an additional 116,478 miles in vehicles that have spewed still more carbon into our troubled atmosphere. To compound all of this, my household energy consumption has risen dramatically due to the need to keep my computer on and running email checks 24 hours a day. And one can only guess at the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere as a result of the vast quantities of chocolate that’s been shipped thousands of miles to the Northeast for my personal consumption during this stressful time.
As you can see, the earth hangs in the balance. I’m sure you’ll want to offer representation immediately, especially if you have a fondness for polar bears. I can be reached at the email address below so that we can work out the details.

Query 13: Sold!

Dear Agent/Editor/Editorial Asstant/Lowly Reader:
I want to thank you for the opportunity to query you. I’ve been striking out in the publishing game for eons, and here I am three books into it, and still no bite. It’s hard on me, as I’m sure it’s hard on you, receiving letter after letter after letter. This is probably your hundredth one today. I’m sorry! I’ll try to make it worth your while.
So. The novel. The Misadventures of Adventurous Children. It’s a 78,000 mid grade paranormal soon-to-be-classic. There’s love. There’s adventure. And there’s a purple-tailed, snarky raccoon searching for a lime flavored popsicle. What’s not to love? I can send it to you as soon as it’s finished. My work has been featured on many blogs, including: my own, my family’s, and in the comments section of many well-known authors. I’ve also sent my work into some big name publishers. No word yet. I’ll call you if I hear anything. I chose to query you because you are in the publishing business, and I’m hoping you can get me in that business, too. Please? Kidding! No, really, I could use some love. Thank you for your time and dedication. You really are a lovely person. Unless you reject me, in which case, I’LL MAKE YOU PAY! Ha! That was another joke. Kind of. Cheerio! A writer

Monday, September 24, 2007

Query 12: Tune In Next Time for "All's Fairy in Love and War," or "You Can Pick Your Friends, But You Can't Pixie Your Family"

Nine-year-old Chloe catches more than she bargains for in the Catch-'Em-Alive trap under her bed. That weird buzzing sound isn't a mouse, it's a pixie… a really, really ticked off pixie with a black t-shirt, teeny tiny work boots and a crappy attitude.
Goofy. Sounds like there's a sense of humor. Hmm. Could work.
Chloe imagines the fun of having her own pet pixie, but this one has her own agenda. In her usually snarky and often bewildering way, she cajoles Chloe, against the girl's better judgment, into a bit of sneaking, a lot of lying, and the eventual rescue of a gaggle of baby pixies that Chloe's mom had accidentally thrown away with the yard trash.
There isn’t enough snark in kids’ books. I'm ... curious.
It doesn't help, of course, that the pixie (who refuses to tell Chloe her name) sounds like a cross between Yoda and Natasha from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.
“Natasha” reference is unusual and amusing. Points.
"Chloe's Catch" is a 16,000-word story for readers making the transition from chapter books to novels: a "my first urban fantasy" for readers not yet ready for [insert title of publisher's comparable MG or YA urban fantasy]. I see that you're interested in assertive female characters [replace with appropriate phrase tailored to the particular publisher], so I hope you'll enjoy Chloe and her pixie. Chloe is more [insert comparable character from publisher's novels] than [another character], and the pixie is… well, the pixie is just pretty much herself.
Highlights, Cricket and Our Little Friend have accepted several of my short stories for publication.
I'm a bit hesitant about this query. We have enough allusion to the humor in the manuscript to know it's meant to be funny. Why, then, was none of the actual humor of the manuscript included here? If you can make me laugh, do.

Query 11: You're Not Fooling Me, Cause I Can See the Way You Shake and Shiver

I am currently seeking representation for Screw-Up Summer, a middle grade novel of 32,0000 words. Something about the agent here. Well, what would you do if your parents dumped you in some old summer camp while they went hiking in Nepal? Ginger Patterson tries to make friends, really she does, but the mean girls in her cabin won’t give her a chance.

That sounds familiar. What makes this different from all the other times we've seen "the mean girls"?

She even tries to keep her big mouth shut, but Molly and the Tee Hee Twins press her buttons too hard. Ginger burps out a string of boastful lies
Burps? You don't mean literally?

and ends up with only one friend —shy Diana, the only camper more unpopular than she is.
Again, sounds familiar. The outcast is befriended by the shy girl. Is this meant to be a send-up of the genre?

Irritated by Ginger’s antics like overturning a canoe and messing up a baseball game, Camp Sequoia kicks her out, calling her eccentric Aunt Sylvan to come get her. Sylvan takes Ginger to Hollywood. The place is a blast except Ginger keeps obsessing about her friend Diana who can’t be found.
What? Did Diana follow Ginger to Hollywood? I hope your manuscript doesn't have sentences like that last one.

Discovering that Diana is mega-rich hooks Ginger into believing someone’s kidnapped the shy girl.
Why? Oh, you mean no one could find Diana, and it’s a mystery? That was not clear. And suddenly Diana’s rich and kidnapped? Feels contrived.
She’s turning up clues when her terrible big mouth gets her into more trouble. This time Ginger’s exiled to a mobile home in Lake Elsinore with her senile grandmother and a caretaker. Bored and lonely, Ginger investigates an abandoned mansion Diana mentioned. If only she can rescue her billionaire friend, she’ll be a heroine. That will show the whole world that Ginger Patterson is not a screw-up. Through a series of zany misadventures, this sassy but good-hearted girl finally learns to value friendship more than fame.

Another change of scene, and the mystery of the billionaire camper continues to follow Ginger? My suspension of disbelief is seriously strained at this point.
I'm going to take a guess and say that at the end, the kidnappers who have been haunting the abandoned mansion with the use of phosphorescent paint turn out to be the mean girls from camp wearing werewolf masks, and as they’re led away by the police, they say: “And we would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you pesky kids and your dog!”

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Short Interlude

Some people are very nice. They become kindergarten teachers.
Some people are very snarky. They become movie critics.
Some people are very nice and very snarky. They have to work hard to balance these two sides of their personalities, and eventually become children's book editors.

Certain impressions aside, I do not actually want to hurt people's feelings, and I had hoped that I'd given enough warning about what kind of comments were to be offered in this contest.

It seems to me that there's a great deal of mystery around editors—what happens at our desks, in our meeting rooms, and in our heads. The pain and trouble of writing query letters is that you are trying to write for an audience you do not know.

Thus, this window into my actual reactions as I read these query letters. This is meant to show
  • how editors extrapolate from the writing in the query letter to the writing they may find in the manuscript.
  • how editors may react to various aspects of your plot / summary.

Most of the things I am responding to negatively (whether mildly or strongly) are things that may in fact make perfect sense (both logical and emotional) in the context of your manuscript, and I know this. What I hope to get across is when you are not offering the reader of your query letter the context they need to see your manuscript for what it is.

This is not an opportunity for me to bash strangers. I can do as much of that as I like at work (and whatever you may think, I don't do much of it. It's a waste of time). This is an opportunity to fine tune your understanding of what assumptions readers might make based on your letter, and to fiddle with your letter so that they make the right ones.

It is a fact of life that editors are both loving and judgemental—we must be able to guess what book reviewers will criticize, as well as what children will love. Your editor will try to show you her judgemental side gently, but don't make the mistake of wanting an editor without one. Your writing is worth more than that.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Query 10: Thar She Blows

A sudden gust of wind almost knocked me down as I climbed over the basket's side. It pushed my breath back into my throat then hurled itself against the ship's sails. It flew to the top of the mast and tugged at the flag then dived toward the water and danced with the waves. The ship rocked beneath my feet like a giant seesaw, and a flash of lightening blinded me.
That is some busy wind, huh? Knocked, pushed, hurled, flew, tugged, dived, danced? And one after another, as though it can’t do them all at once, and as though the main character could actually see the wind flying, diving, or dancing. And as though we care about the fricking wind. I’m done reading.

"Ahoy, mateys and shiver me timbers!" I shouted above the roar of the wind. "Thar's a storm a-brewin'! Batten down the hatches!"

Damn it, why did I read more? I’m really stopping now.
I squeezed my eyes shut as a gigantic wave crashed over the bow, splashed my face and .....
I was back.
The door at the top of the stairs was open.
Water was dripping from my hair into my eyes, and my little brother was laughing.
"Zach!" I yelled. "The water guns are supposed to stay outside!" I climbed out and stomped up the stairs to find a towel. Pests - that's what little brothers are. Nothing but pests.
Dear Editor,
What do you get when you take a laundry basket and an imaginative child then throw a pesky little brother into the mix? After the initial adventure that I shared above, the story goes on to explore just that question. The older child would say that all you get is shattered adventures and a lot of frustration – every single time. But little brother Zach would disagree. True, his water gun, rubber snake, whistle, and blanket bring the adventures to an abrupt end. But that’s not what he wants; he’s simply trying to join in the fun. Will Zach ever be successful in his quest? He’s beginning to wonder. After reading many of the picture books your company offers, I think my 950-word story about Zach and his older sibling would fit in well with your list. May I share it with you? Thanks for your time and consideration of my request.

Query 9: Misplaced Bodies, Ideas, and Punctuation

The girl of his dreams plants one on Joe Payne’s lips right in the middle of science lab, but it’s the nightmarish girl with the freakish facial piercings, Joe can’t get out of his head.

Here is what is known as a teaser sentence. This sort of beginning can be effective. But no matter what your beginning, make sure it is correctly punctuated and does not rely on adjectives. Please remove that second comma and either “nightmarish” or “freakish” (and then consider whether both of these words is really the one you want). Note that your audience may wonder why the girl he can’t get out of his head doesn’t qualify as the girl of his dreams.

With just a couple of weeks until his 15th birthday, Joe knows he should be concentrating on finals and on the fact that his very together family is falling apart, but the outrageously quirky Lucy is coming to him for help. I’d like to offer for your review: DEATH IN THE FAMILY, a 45,000 word novel for a young adult reader. With less than 72 hours notice, Joe’s dad is shipped off to Iraq, leaving Joe and his older brother to help their mom run the family’s funeral home.
OK, that’s it. Do not mistake a teaser sentence for a style of writing. Your first, second, third, and fourth sentences do not naturally link to each other. God help you if your whole manuscript is like this.
You sound like you have an interesting premise, but it would take a more cohesive writing style to get me to request the manuscript.
Well, unless you count Grandpa and crazy Clarence who keep misplacing bodies. Joe’s worried about his dad, but his best friend and his brother maintain the best way for Joe to keep his mind off his father is with a female diversion. They’re pushing hard for the pretty and popular Jillian: The obvious choice. Yet this is the beginning of a summer when not everything’s so clear to Joe. Lucy’s about to bury her mother and turning to Joe for comfort, but the girl who’s always in trouble is definitely not on older brother, Drew’s list of acceptable girlfriends. Joe needs to decide whether to follow Drew’s surefire formula for his first real relationship or follow his heart.

Query 8: Reservations

I see that _____ is seeking lively stories for ages eight through twelve and chapter books for ages six through nine.
Then are you querying two manuscripts? Or do you think that they’re the same thing? Clearly the publisher doesn’t.
In RIDERS ON THE REZ , a 5700 word character-driven chapter book, the skateboarding hero, Billy Tsosie, is meeting his Navajo relatives for the first time. Before his trip is over, he has a fight, makes a friend, and learns to ride a horse. Most importantly, he learns what it means to walk the Beauty Way.
Wow, four things that mean nothing to me. If you’re going to leave out this much description, you might as well just say “before his trip is over, stuff happens.” What makes these events meaningful?
This story compliments the third grade social studies curriculum in most Western states.
Third grade? When they do the history of the city they’re living in? Which states are you talking about? Remember that California and New England are the biggest book-buying areas, so their curriculums should be given some weight.
I have been published in academic journals, papers, and industry magazines on topics that would put the average reader to sleep.
Was one of the topics “self-deprecating admissions you shouldn’t share when introducing yourself”?
I have only recently started writing for children. In addition to this manuscript, I have completed a three-book picture story series of children’s encounters with creepy critters. In each case the MC learns some real-world facts that help them to overcome their fears.
Why are you mentioning this here? If you happened to be querying those, which of course you’re not, I sure hope you’d make it clear what “picture story” and “critters” mean in this context.
I anticipate returning to Billie Tsosie some time this year, and writing a sequel to his story for this same reader level.
Thanks for letting me know. As I haven’t any idea whether I’ll like the first one, though, I don’t know why I should care.
I hope you like his first story enough to request a full. I would be delighted to send it to you either by e-mail or snail mail.
I'm unconvinced there's anything here I want to read. More detail about the story and less about your other pursuits might help.

Query 7: Can You Spare Some Brains?

To ensure her king's throne, Gina must trust a traitor.
Good first sentence.
She faces this quandary in GOOD NIGHT, ODILE, a 65,000 word upper-YA fantasy that will appeal to fans of THE ILLUSIONIST and Tamora Pierce's early quartets.
Conceivably achievable comparisons.
Nineteen-year-old Gina is renowned as a powerful sorceress and a promising justice keeper. It falls to her to swiftly stop a rebellion.
Just a little more background here, please.
She enlists the assistance of Sam, a sorcerer destined for a traitor's execution. Bound by magic and law, Gina abhors Sam's crimes, but must see beyond his failings to work with him. Their uneasy alliance forged, the traitor and his keeper invade the rebellion's fortress.
Interesting dynamic. But overly arch phrasing.
Their assault is meeting with success until Sam betrays his word and turns on Gina,
Who would have seen that coming?
breaking her spine and rendering her body useless.
I didn’t see that coming. The main character’s now a quadriplegic? I don’t suppose this fantasy land has electric wheelchairs?
He has fought for the rebellion all along. Intent on serving justice to the traitor, Gina becomes one with her power to slip into his soul.
What? I hope this sounds less invasion-of-the-body-snatchers in your manuscript. Your heroic main character is leaving her own body to slip inside other people’s bodies? Creepy.
There she discovers her mistake in judging him: magical threads surround Sam's soul, trapping the true Sam in a web of servitude.
Oh, for f***’s sake.
If she can free his soul, Gina both rights her mistake and cripples the rebellion. She weaves her power between the binding threads and shreds them, but Sam grows weaker with every cut. Gina herself is slipping away to the immortal realm, but she must free Sam in time or his death will leave the rebellion unimpeded, and this time, she won't be alive to challenge it.
So they both die? I guess there won’t be a sequel.
I am currently working on the sequel to GOOD NIGHT, ODILE
But your main characters are dead. Do they re-inhabit their dead bodies and go on a zombie killing spree? Which side of the rebellion are zombies on?
and a YA contemporary novel. The complete manuscript of GOOD NIGHT, ODILE is available upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Query 6: Death Comes for the Pooka

Since you represent such authors as --- and ---, you might be interested in my young adult urban fantasy novel OTHER.

Sometimes being half-pooka really sucks.

Pooka? The hell’s a pooka? Is it like a tribble?
Sure, it’s incredibly cool to shapeshift into a horse, an owl, and every other animal you can think of, but seventeen-year-old Gwen has to hide her talent. Her neighbors would freak if they knew.
That seems too obvious to mention.
Others remain a persecuted minority in America, considered deviant, infected, satanic, or all of the above.
Oh, like the xmen. Introduce the idea that there’s a secretive pooka sub-class of society earlier to avoid confusion.
Gwen hasn’t even told her boyfriend yet, and she really should, especially since they’re talking about going all the way.
Why, is there some danger of her turning into an animal while in the act? Some guys are into that, you know.
She’s also trying to stop ogling this cute new guy who seems really foxy. As in fox-spirit. He’s got to be a closet Other.
I’m trying to stop picturing pooka sex.
Thinking about doing her boyfriend while she crushes on someone else is going to translate to most readers as “slut”. Not a sympathetic characteristic.
Boy problems take a backseat when the murders start. Gwen finds the bodies of a watersprite couple, a little old man nobody knew was a leprechaun, then a dryad who was her best friend.
Holy crap, it’s a fairy land cornucopia.
All the clues point toward human hatred. The police look the other way, so it’s up to Gwen to find the killer before the killer finds her. Who can she trust? Is her semi-normal life history?
You need to get to the mystery part sooner in this summary. And I hope you’re getting to it sooner in your manuscript—like, the end of chapter 1 or the beginning of chapter 2. Don’t screw with people about what genre they’re reading.
I might actually get into this manuscript if it’s done with a sense of humor—I mean, this is absurd. But it could be a jasper-fforde-for-kids kind of absurd. It doesn’t sound like that’s where you’re going, though.
Complete at about 64,000 words, OTHER is written in first person, present tense. The story contains death, sex, and profanity, but none of it is gratuitous or excessively graphic.
My articles on writing appear in --- and ---. I am studying literature and writing at the --- College. Would you like to read OTHER? Thank you for your time.

Query 5: Too Confusing

Barbaric rituals. An unintelligible language. Foreign customs. The blue diamonds engraved on the back of Eliinka's hands are a visual reminder of her promises.

Boy, those blue diamonds are sure conveying a lot. Her promises include barbaric rituals, an unintelligible language, etc?
Eliinka is torn by her desires and the demands of the queen she has sworn to serve. She must find a way to use her musical powers (that she wishes to keep hidden) to bring peace between her adopted land and the land of her birth. Can she do so without sacrificing her friends, her arranged marriage, her music?
She doesn’t want to sacrifice her arranged marriage?
Will her desire to develop her musical abilities change her into the type of person she most fears?
Here’s a question that’s hard to follow. How the hell are musical abilities likely to change anyone into anything people fear? Augh, the terror of the rogue bassoonist! Watch out! That man has a tuba!
I believe readers of Megan Whalen Turner and Shannon Hale will enjoy Eliinka's cultural struggles in this young adult fantasy. My experiences of living in Brazil, Finland and Iceland bring a unique perspective to this book and allow for realistic culture shock scenarios.
Really? Why? You haven’t provided any support for this.

Query 4: The Reader Ducks

People have been vanishing from Laura's school at an alarming rate --and once they vanish, everyone seems to forget they existed at all. Only Laura's brother seems to be immune to this effect, so when he tells her about the black doors people have been vanishing through, she just assumes he's crazy. Until, of course, she gets sucked into one herself.
So far so good.

On the other side, she finds herself trapped in a Sanctuary between two worlds, created for training people with a special gift: the ability to change reality.
Sounds weird. And I think I see a moral coming.

Supposedly she's one of them, an anchor.
A what?

But she doesn't have the powers, she doesn't have a true name,

A what?

and she does have a brother who's out to destroy the place. And what about Sharlinya, from the other world, who's anxious to break down the Sanctuary from within? If Laura can't figure out what to do, reality is going to start shattering.
This is too abstract a problem. Reality shattering? Give me some examples.

Anchors of Reality is a 30,000-word middle grade fantasy which would appeal to fans of Patricia C. Wrede, Diana Wynne Jones, and Madeline L'Engle.
Says you. As much as I like all of these authors, L’Engle is in a different league from Wrede and Jones. Comparing yourself to the greats is likely to be met with skepticism.

I've had four short stories published: two in Spellbound, one in The Leading Edge, and one in Beyond Centauri. I won second place in the Vera Hinckley Mayhew Short Story Competition for another short story in 2003. I also write and draw an online comic strip at [website], which averages around 200 hits per day and has a readership in the thousands. I've included a synopsis of Anchors of Reality here. Please let me know if you'd like to see the complete manuscript. Thank you for your time and consideration.
I'm getting a faintly funny vibe off of this letter, between "Sharlinya" and the use of what is usually an unstated, behind-the-narrative construct (ie, 'you, too, can change reality') as an overt plot device. The problem with putting your story in the same place as your moral is that people will see the moral coming and avoid it. Let's say you want to hit people with a big mallet. Do you point to the mallet and say "Look right here," and then try to whack them? No, of course not; they'll duck. You say "Look over there!" and then wallop them while their heads are turned.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

(just to let you know we're not done)

I've made some progress through the queries. (Much food for snark.) But it's been a heck of a day and I'm going to bed, so no more posting right now.

Query 3: No, Not Bad Enough

I thought I'd enter the worst query part of the contest. Unfortunately, since I've read the slush pile for a children's book publisher, I know this query is possible. Happy reading and thanks for the contest!
Dear Editor, I have a young adult fantasy novel that I’d love to be able to send you. I read your blog all the time and I think we’d get along just swell. BEWARE OF LEPRECHAUNS YOU MEET AT MIDNIGHT is about homicidal leprechauns, sex deprived trolls, and a human girl that’s out to rule the world. With the success of Artemis Fowl in the middle grade category, I figure fans of those novels will want to keep reading about fairies and leprechauns when they get older, only I’ve made it edgy for the young adult audience. If you are interested, I can send you my novel. It’s beautifully bound and printed on both sides (just like a real book) and I’ve found really neat clip art for the cover and interior art. Of course, I can send the manuscript double spaced, printed on one side only, and unbound, if you’d rather read it that way (although I’m not sure why you would want to). By the way, just like Artemis Fowl, this first book is just an introduction to the wonderful world of leprechauns at night. I’m planning twelve books total in the series and I know that they will all be bestsellers. I can’t wait to send you my book – I know you’ll love it! Sincerely … A YA writer with her hand on the pulse of the industry.
This is unrealistic enough to have come from slush, but not badly-written enough. Disqualified.

Query 2: Eeeewwwwwwww.

To Editor, Hi. I have an idea for a story. I'd like to see it published. I could then tell people and myself I am a published writer.The name of it is "Teddybears Boudoir". It will tell the story of a teddybear and a unicorn. They fall in love, in the boudoir, and end up creating the first hybrid "Teddycorn". Book two would be about baby "Teddycorn" growing up and finding out he can't reproduce. Kinda like a mule. If you want to publish my books I will write them for you. A. Moron

This, this is the horror of slush.

Query 1: Do Not Include Gifts Better Than Your Query

Dear Manuscript submissions reader: Enclosed is my 5555 word picturebook ms. I have included some samples of my sisters' scribblings that Iassure you will sparkle up the words emensely to your satisfaction. Mychildren all love this story and keep asking when it will be a realbook. I even had my cat walk over the pages to insure successs. (I'vebeen told that is lucky.)

Sincerely yours, Hopeful Writer

p.s. enclosed is Godiva chocolate and a coupon to a nearby pizza place run by my pal Patrick.

Dear Author,
We read your submission with interest. We found its variety in tone appetizing and the overall texture very palatable, but upon further consideration felt it was perhaps not as weighty as it might have been. If you’d like to resubmit, may we suggest the 36-piece assortment?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Stop Obsessing Over Your Query Letters

It's the Best/Worst Query Contest.

Enter the contest by sending me your query. I'll choose bests and worsts, so only those with thick skin, thick egos, or deliberately bad entries should submit. I'm likely to skip the truly ridiculous ones, though, unless they seem like good examples of the insanity I actually see. This is meant as a learning exercise, after all. A snarky, sarcastic learning exercise.

Contest closes by the end of the day Monday.

Because Just Getting Published Isn't Hard Enough

A new yet well-known teen author said she believes teen books should be 200 pages. I have written a teen book of one hundred pages.
Let's start here. How are you counting pages? Page count varies greatly depending on the type used, the size of the type, the size of the pages, and the width of the margins, all of which are decided upon by the publisher. This is why most people speak in terms of word count.

It is meant for early teens -- ages 10-14 -- but has all the teen themes, such as first sex, gossip, alcohol consumption, parties.
You're writing about sex, booze, and parties but at a middle school reading level? That's... gutsy.
Currently, I have a ten year old and thirteen year old reading my book, which I believe to be the "true test."
No, it's not. Whether they like it or hate it, it's not. People who use their own kids as guinea pigs (or other kids they happen to know) are forgetting that the small pool of children available to them are not amalgamations of the tastes, attitudes, and interests of the teen-book-buying public. Individuals are individual. This is a meaningless test.
I understand series type books, such as the Unfabulous series, are considered "teen."
By whom? Certainly not the publisher, who lists them as ages 9-12. Don't be fooled by these books being labelled "TEENick"—Nickelodeon knows exactly what it's doing when it packages inoffensive pap for non-teenagers as "teen": they're playing to the wannabe crowd.

Also, unless your manuscript is a derivative of a popular TV show, do not use other TV-inspired books as comparison. Those books are short and meaningless because entertainment companies don't want children to be so busy or absorbed that they forget to watch the next lobotomizing episode.
My question is: Can an early teen book like mine be considered seriously by editors / publishers / agents if it is 100 pages?
Ok, for the purposes of this discussion, let's assume you've somehow intuited the page count your book would have if a publisher decided to publish it. The answer is yes. But it's uncommon, so there ought to be something about the manuscript that really makes it shine. Like the writing, for instance.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Short Answers

I'm addressing my backlog (mea culpa!).

When a house defines themselves as being "communal," how many in the group need to like it before an acquisition is made? What if three editors love it and two hate it, or vice versa? Do they flip a coin, duke it out, or is there a "head editor" who gets the final vote? Thanks!
No idea. Which publisher is this?

One of the discussions in my critique group this morning dealt with listing magazine publication credits in a book query letter. I’ve read in certain blogs that you need to put in enough information for the editor/agent to be able to verify that these are real credits. Another member of the group felt that was unprofessional and that listing the magazine names was sufficient. How much information would you like to see in a query? If the magazine is well known, is the name enough?
I'd like to know the magazine, the name of the piece, and the year. That should enable me to check on it if I'm so inclined, but is not so much information that you'll bore me.

How do editors really feel about the Rutgers One-On-One Conference? Does it carry more weight than other conferences, since the attendees are accepted based on the strength of their writing samples?
I love this idea. I was at a conference recently and was subjected to the most awful drivel from a particular writer... so this promises less pain. But I don't know what you mean by "carry more weight". There are different reasons to attend conferences. Scenic locales, for instance. The whole "I might find something to acquire" rationale, while it's what we tell our bosses, is kind of low on the list. Realistically, while it would be great, it's not that likely.

I've got a question for your blog, one that has perplexed me for quite a while. I've been sitting on a chapter book series for 6-9 year old girls since 2003. It was snatched up by a children's acquisitions editor at a Christian writer's conference. Other editors I met there also asked me to email them the manuscripts. Within a year, I had a contract for 4 books and an advance from the first publishing house. I was excited...until a year later when my contract was canceled because the publishing house was restructured after my editor left. The letter assured me that the decision came down to the bottom line, not quality of my work. I've since sent my proposal to dozens of agents. I keep getting the same answer -- "great proposal" or "great manuscript" but "publishing houses aren't taking risks" or "I've decided to stop representing children's fiction" etc. I've been scouring the websites of publishers and agents and keep finding the dreaded words "we do not accept children's books" or "picture books only." It seems that YA fiction is welcome in many places, and so I'm wondering if I should go back to the drawing board with an older protagonist. Have you noticed this same trend of chapter books becoming less popular? Or would you know if it's only in the Christian publishing world that this is happening?
I don't know anything about Christian publishing. Obviously there are trade publishers who are still publishing for this age group. I'd suggest going to your local bookstore and asking what's cool and brand new in that age bracket. Also, don't try to write YA just because it's selling. Write YA because you remember being a teenager and really want to say something to teenagers.

If an editor loves a manuscript enough to bring it to an editorial meeting to share with colleagues, what is the usual protocol? Do most of these manuscripts move on to the acquisitions phase?
Depends on the house. At some houses, an editorial meeting is a place for decisions, and at some it's just a place for feedback. I'd say over half of the projects brought to the acquisitions meeting get acquired. Feedback is what we look for when we're not quite sure about a manuscript, so the stuff we ask for feedback about often has a higher mortality rate.

What do you think are the three most valuable things an author should do on their own for promotion?
Create a webpage. Talk your book up to independent booksellers who might nominate it for Booksense (but be very sensitive to the number of other authors who are also asking those booksellers for their time). Practise giving presentations, so that if your marketing department calls you up about an event, you're ready.

As an editor is there something you are expecting your author to do in terms of promotion that would be unprofessional of me to neglect?
Give our marketing department as much information as they ask you for. Help them whenever you can, and then leave them alone to do their jobs.

I've written a story that I've also illustrated, but I'm self-aware enough to realise that, while I'm very fond of the illustrations, a professional might think me naive for even considering suggesting them officially. How then (if it all) should I mention them in a query to a potential agent? Should I introduce the story as one that I've illustrated and add that I'd be happy to have somebody else illustrate them? Not mention the illustrations at all and, if an interest is shown in the manuscript, bring the illustrations up later? Or tell them very humbly that I've illustrated the story and ask them to specify whether they want the manuscript alone or the accompanying pictures as well?

Each of these plans is acceptable.

Friday, September 7, 2007

An Award? For Me?

Do you automatically nominate all the books you publish for the big daddy awards (Caldecott, Newbery, etc)? Or just the ones you feel have the highest chance of winning? Or does somebody else do the nominating? Like the authors themselves? Clearly, I have no clue how those gold and silver medals get stamped on those books.

Editors don't nominate; marketing departments do. The smart ones nominate absolutely everything that could reasonably meet the criteria, so (for example) ours sends every illustrated book that is (a) illustrated by someone living in the US and (b) first published in the current year to the Caldecott committee. It's not our job to decide which of our books are or aren't fit to win the award; it's the committee's job.

I do suggest you read each award's criteria and guidelines before you ask your publisher if your book is being submitted for X or Y. You might be surprised what qualifies and what doesn't for different awards.

Stick Figure Theatre

1) You have written a picture book.
2) The text of your picture book does not make complete sense without pictures (very common of course).
3) You can't draw.

What is the best way to present this as a submission so that all of your ideas are transferred? Assume that you include the complete text in a double spaced document complete with suggested page numbers.

a) Dummy book with the text in place and descriptions of potential illustrations?

Unnecessary.

b) Include an explanation or breakdown of your illustration ideas in the covering letter or separate document.

Exactly. But hold yourself back. Only include enough direction to make the text make sense. Extras are not appreciated. As I said not long ago, illustrators are half of the creative team—not a tool for the author's use. Sure, you have a vision for how your book will look. Open your mind to the idea that an actual artist will have a better one.

c) Find someone who can draw to illustrate your dummy book.

This is a bad, bad idea. Many of the people in slush send in their own illustrations in the belief that they might be in the running to illustrate their own book. Most of those people are at an artistic level so far from professional that this belief qualifies as loony-tunes. People that unrealistic give us serious pause.

I know, you're not one of them. But if you send in the best illustrations you can get done from the very small pool of illustrators you know and with the very low amount of money you can pay, those illustrations are going to look damned unprofessional. And you will run a very strong chance of being mistaken for one of the loony-tunes who think that level of illustration is acceptable.

Editors get plain old manuscript pages all the time. Here's the thing to remember: we have very good imaginations, and we do this for a living. We're good at visualizing. Give us a little credit.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Goddamn Unicorns

I've seen several agents and publishing houses say things like, "No unsolicited MSS; query first with outline, sample chapters and SASE," in their submission guidelines without any separate instructions for picture books.
In the case of short-ish picture books (400-600 words) with no illustrations, the whole text fits on one or two pages. I can replace an outline with a brief summary, but then, of course have no chapters to include. Do I send any of the short manuscript, all of it, or nothing beyond a letter?

Here is an excellent opportunity for me to say that I do not know everything. If an agent/publisher represents/acquires picture books and yet gives no hints about submitting them, what does it mean? I have no fricking clue.

Other questions of this ilk include:
If two bears walk into a bar, what flavor of paella are they serving in Madrid?
If you're afraid of the dark, what the hell is a night rainbow?
If the unicorns steal my crack pipe again, I'm going to kick the crap out of them. Well? Where is it?

Not a Frequently Asked Question contd

EA, what do you think of this business of authors spending their advance on promotion?
I think it's a little nutty. But each author should be the judge of their own promotional skill and be guided by that.
I'm not sure all editors are so quick to offer up these numbers, especially print runs. I've asked this question in the past and I've gotten a lot of hemming and hawing instead of a clear answer...
That doesn't mean they don't have a guess. They have to have a guess to calculate your advance.
I agree with the mystery around print runs. I've never heard this information volunteered as part of the initial offer.

But foreign publishers and agents always ask.
Out of curiosity...I assume that the stated print run is a measure of the publisher's expectations. As such, are those numbers generally accurate? I mean to say, if the catalogue says "print run: 500,000" and then there are a million retail orders, you could quickly print more - but if there are only only 35 retail orders and people just don't seem that into it, would you not print as many? ... and at what point is it too late to pull the plug entirely?
Print runs are usually set ahead of the orders coming in, but there are last-minute changes. Yes, sometimes we knock the print run down a few thousand. We're extremely unlikely to pull the plug on anything simply because early orders are lower than we hoped. The market's had plenty of sleeper titles. Pulling the plug is pretty much saved for titles where we're getting actual resistance (anger, outrage, etc). You can see how the abort button got pushed for If I Did It (in its first incarnation. Alas, it has risen again). But that sort of reaction is pretty unusual in kids books, not counting The Rainbow Party, which seems to have been published just to give parents aneurysms and bible thumpers something new to burn.
EA, a question about this kind of negotiation--Does the publisher generate a range of estimates for the advance (for example, $4000-$6000) and offer $4000, being prepared to go up to $6000 during negotiations, or do they just generate one estimate and say, "Take it or leave it"?
Depends on the book. Usually there's some room for negotiation, and if we're dealing with an agent, we'll make sure we leave room for negotiation, even if it means low-balling at first. Because agents won't leave us alone until we raise the advance from our initial offer, no matter how fair we feel it is.

My Manuscript Has Had Puppies. Want Them?

Is it better to sell a PB as a stand-alone and then mention to the editor that you would love to expand your book into a series after all contracts are signed? If you mention 'series' before contracts are signed, would that make an editor question if they should buy a book that has stand-alone potential?

If you send me a picture book I want to acquire, I'm going to acquire it. If you mention at that early date that you have ideas for second, third, and fourth books just like it, I'll explain why we're going to wait for some market feedback on the first one before we throw money into developing a sequel. I'll be nice about it, but I'll be rolling my eyes the whole time.

Lots and lots of authors are so enamored of what they've created that they envision it becoming a series. If the book-buying public turns out to be just as enamored, then great! If not, no dice.

Some types of books are best as a series, but as I mentioned before, they should have very solid market potential.

The Visual Query Letter

I heard one editor say that she likes to receive postcards from illustrators and that illustrators should definitely send their sample postcards not only to art directors, but also to editors even if the publisher's submission policy doesn't say that. Do you agree? Do editors help chose the illustrator or suggest an illustrator for the picture books they edit? I'm about to send out another postcard mailing to both art directors and editors and wondered how effective it will be.

Editors do help to suggest illustrators. If I like a postcard enough, I'll put it up on my wall to remind myself of the illustrator.

I do throw a heck of a lot of postcards away, though. The most successful ones are often clearly composed for the postcard. We're looking for composition skills, not just rendering skills. Don't do people if you can't do people well. Show me your sense of humor, if that's a strong point. Make sure there are no problems with perspective or proportion. Get your palette right. And if you're doing mass, don't bother sending to trade publishers.

Children Are So Precious! (a short quiz!)

This week has already come up with its quota of snooky-wookums slush, and that's it. No more! Thus, today's quiz:

Childhood is a magical time, full of: (check all that apply)

a. innocence
b. ignorance
c. daisies
d. insecurity
e. tea parties
f. fairies
g. imagination
h. unicorns
i. teddy bears
j. thoughtless cruelty

Whatever else you chose, if you didn't select ignorance, insecurity, and thoughtless cruelty, you've mistaken what childhood is like to look at for what childhood is like to live. Being a child is hard. If you don't remember what it was like to be a child, please do not write for them.

How to Write a Synopsis

Oh, thank goodness. Somebody asked me to do a post on how to write a synopsis a while back, and I got stuck on the examples part. I was awfully tempted to write a synopsis for The True Meaning of Smekday, which you should all run out and get right now. Or as soon as it's available. Whichever.

Alas, writing a synopsis for it would have ruined the book for those of you who Don't Want to Know the Ending. And writing a synopsis is a lot like writing a book—there're lots of different ways to do it right. Obviously there are even more ways to do it wrong, but if you've done a good job on your book, you can do a good job on your synopsis.

So I was thinking about how best to address this request, when, ta-dah! Nathan Bransford saved me the trouble. Thank you, Nathan.

Not a Frequently Asked Question, and Dammit, Why Not?

Taxes, calculus, string theory, the way people vote—these are among the things that will never be clear to me. Advances and royalties, however, are pretty simple, so it's a shock every time I'm reminded how many authors and illustrators don't know how it works.

So an editor calls you up and says, "I'm very excited about this manuscript, and I'd like to offer you an $11,000 advance against a 5% royalty."

What do you say?

Now, for god's sake pay attention. You say, "That's wonderful! Could you tell me what print run and price point you've got planned?"

The editor replies, "We're planning on a 12,500 copy first printing, and the book would retail for $16.99."

You say, "Thanks so much. This is very exciting, but could I have a couple hours (or days, whatever will make you comfortable) to think about it?"

The editor says, "Sure. I'll look forward to your reply."

Now you break out your calculator and use this equation: print run (12,500) x retail price (16.95) x royalty (0.05) = $10,618.75.

This dollar amount is what a 5% royalty will earn you if all of that first printing sells. This is your starting advance. As you can see, the editor has rounded up to the nearest thousand.

So that's good. Now you start negotiating.

If all of this has come as news to you, get yourself a good book like Negotiating a Book Contract and read it.

Monday, September 3, 2007

So You Want to Be an Editor

I am currently an English Major and beginning my sophomore year of college. I’m very interested in children’s literature, specifically books written for 10 to 14 year olds, and I was wondering what you could tell me about being a children’s book editor. What are the pros and cons of being an editor?

Pros:
  • You work in books.
  • People in children's books are really nice people, with very few exceptions.
  • You are in charge (this ought to appeal to you if you want to be an editor—editors have to be in charge)
  • By the power of your "no," you get to stem some of the tide of bad books getting published.
  • It is a truly challenging job. Editors need several different skill sets.

Cons:
  • Editors manage relationships with lots and lots of people: authors, illustrators, agents, other editors, designers, people from production, sales, marketing, publicity... and most editors are introverts, so this takes work.
  • You're underpaid. You have to be doing this for love, because the people multi-talented enough to be good editors could be doing lots of things that pay a hell of a lot better.
  • You're overworked. There's always more work than people to do it, and editors take work home all the time.
  • Much of it is not glamorous or fun work. The amount of time we spend reading and editing is absolutely dwarfed by the time we spend filling in forms, reporting and sharing information, attending meetings, juggling p&ls, building marketing material, etc.
  • It can be high-stress. There's a lot of work, there's a lot of responsibility, and there isn't much time.
  • Everywhere you go, when people ask you what you do, you can either lie or get drawn into another conversation that starts "Really? I've written a children's book!" Honestly, it's eerie how much this happens.
Are there specific qualities you think an editor should have?

An editor should be:
  • Friendly
  • Decisive
  • Cooperative
  • Discerning
  • Efficient
  • Hard-working
  • Well-read
  • Knowledgeable about the market
  • A smart reader
  • A talented writer
  • Good at identifying problems
  • Good at coming up with creative solutions
  • Good at predicting reader and market response
  • Good at identifying hook and at positioning books
Is this the kind of job that consumes your life, or can you have a family?

Yes, and yes. You just can't spend a lot of time with them.
Are there other jobs that, in your opinion, are better in the children’s publishing industry?
The only better job I can think of is Bestselling Author. But there are even fewer openings. Though, as you should be realizing, that's my take. Editing is not for everyone. Some people would hate it.
I’ve heard that the way people get their foot in the door is by interning.
Are there different types of intern positions available? If so, which ones would
you recommend?

You can intern in marketing, editorial, even design... it depends on the publisher. But an editorial internship is most likely to turn into a job in editorial, if that's what you want. And of course even then it's not that likely.
Are there any other tips, pieces of wisdom, or warnings you feel compelled to dish out?

There are many different ways to love books, and many different ways to work in books. An internship is a good idea simply for the chance to see whether editorial work is for you. If it isn't, try something else in books.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Customer Service for Non-Customers

Most of the editors I've worked with have been dedicated, smart, and helpful. But my current editor was assigned the project and, among other things has asked for changes that totally diverted the text from the main story, sent me poorly written (ungrammatical) flap copy, galleys studded with major typos, and a proposed book design that was completely off-the-wall (and eventually changed). I've resisted where I could, rewritten the flap copy, and corrected the typos, but I have a sinking feeling about this project, which has not yet gone to print.

At this remove, it's hard to say for sure how much of this was the editor's fault. It's possible that (1) she's enormously overworked and her attention is divided (2) someone else wrote that flapcopy (3) you were sent a galley that had not yet been to the copyeditor (which is not uncommon, fyi) (4) and she finds herself at the mercy of equally overworked designers.

Or maybe she's incompetent. (This is not common among editors. At all. But it's possible.)

Is there anything I can do before the book actually is published? Like, ask to have someone else to look at the final result? Is there anything I could have done when I first noticed the problem? Can a writer ever ask for a project to be reassigned? Under no circumstances do I want to work with this person again. We are still on
friendly terms, but I'd like to send future manuscripts to someone else.
Oh, that would be difficult. And awkward, and very probably unproductive. Editors are the head of their publishing team, and so to appeal for another set of editorial eyes, you'd have to go over her head. There are no lateral moves here.

When the editor asked you for changes you disagreed with, you should have disagreed (perhaps you did). It's your story, of course.

Have you seen the book's development recently? You could ask your editor if you could see whatever is the most recent round, mentioning that the project has had a bit of a bumpy ride, and you'd just like to be sure you're being as involved as you can be.

As far as not working with this editor again: Don't send her anything. Submit to other publishers for a year or so, and then try other editors at the publisher we're talking about. There are different working dynamics at different publishers, so I can't say how possessive this editor is likely to be about you.

If (on the very unlikely chance) you sell another manuscript to this publisher and it gets handed off to that same editor, you could then speak to her superior about your concerns. That would have to be done delicately, however. If her superior has had other hints that things are not going as they should with that editor, your concerns may be given weight. But be careful of simply coming off as high-maintenance, or a complainer (an author type we do run into sometimes). Without corroborating evidence, her superior is going to side with her.

Some authors come into the business expecting their relationship with the publisher to be like their relationship with the customer service departments of other large companies. Certainly the customer is always right. But you aren't a customer. You're a contractor, and contractors are sometimes uninformed, unreliable, and unrealistic. If you look for someone to pull rank on your editor, remember—as far as the publishing company is concerned, you personally don't have any.

I do not get the impression that you are one of these people. Your positive past experience with other editors speaks well for you. And I'm sorry you're in this position. My best wishes for the book you're working on, and for your future success. If the editor is really as incompetent as she seems, she probably won't be in the industry for much longer.