Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Jury duty + jazz = writing research

Writing sure seems to involve a whole lot of stuff that isn't writing.

At the SCBWI Western Washington Fall Retreat in 2008, I started a story that includes a feline who is all about jazz, as the protagonist's best friend. And what do I know about jazz?

Very, very little.

After receiving positive feedback from multiple sources on the work, I owe the story some quality time. This cat's voice won't be ignored--he keeps talking in my head (what? you didn't know that writing is the only profession where people are actually encouraged to adopt multiple personalities and hear voices in their heads?) and the idea of finding oneself through music is taking over the story, so I need to know what I'm writing about.

In fact, I REALLY have no excuse to not work on it, because when fate drops the founder of one of the top independent jazz labels, Origin Records, right into your lap (well, next to me - in a jury box at a criminal trial) you have no right to ignore the story that begs for the help sitting right next to you. The universe has spoken in a big way.

And that means more research. But research leads to writing, yes? Yes! And I can think of a lot more painful ways to spend my writing-less writing time.

So, recommendations in hand from my new favorite source, I embark on the jazz journey. If you are a jazz newbie, come along with me, and together, we can admire new musical territory with my main character. If you are a jazz...oldie?, you can laugh and shake your head at my pathetic stumbles through the genre. Either way, enjoy yourself! I intend to.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Thirty-One Flavors - Agent Week - End, and how to find literary agent info on your own

Song playing on brain (I'm too cheap to own an i-pod, yet): Lawrence Welk Show end song- "Good night, (ba-da, dada), sleep tight, (ba-da, dada), and may your dreams come true..."

So we've reached the end of Thirty-One Flavors- Agent Week, and hopefully, you found some of it interesting and useful. And if not, maybe you found it diversionary, giving you an excuse to read something "work-related" and as my best writer pal, A , says, "something to do besides organize my sock drawer".

Tips and resources for finding info on agents:

Read the agent's own agent blogs, websites, and agency websites. This should be obvious, but I figured my list would be incomplete if I did not start with it. And how to find those things if you do not already have a URL, agency name or web address? Do a little searching, but

...work smarter, not harder. Save yourself the effort of using multiple search engines, or worse, only getting results from one search source-do a Metacrawler search. Metacrawler aggregates info from Google, Yahoo! Search, MSN Search, Ask Jeeves, About, MIVA, LookSmart and more, and is one of my faves- I've been using it since the mid-nineties when it was first created at the UW (Go Huskies!) and have not looked back. Use Metacrawler to find lots of hits on your agent name, and start reading.

Agentquery.com A free source that lists agents, their AAR (Association of Author's Representatives) membership status, what fiction and nonfiction genres they do, what their current submission status is and how to submit to them, any special interests- VERY KEY! - And if you are lucky, some facts and tidbits on them, as well clients lists, previous agencies they've worked at, and links to info about them- i.e., interviews posted on blogs, etc. There are also partial listings of new deals from Publisher's Marketplace (a paid database, see below) on the agent's profiles, but not as many or as recent as available from Publisher's Marketplace itself. Of course, the info is only as current as the agent keeps it, but it appeared that the agents I looked at were editing their profiles regularly. This site also has a nice lists of agent and other writing blogs. Agent Query is geared to help nonfiction and fiction authors of books as well as writers of short-story collections and children’s book authors. They don’t have much information that will help writers of poetry collections, screenwriters, playwrights, or freelance magazine writers.

Publisher's Marketplace.com Although it is $20 a month, it does give very recent deals information and a contact database that provide "inside" information. As a member, there are other bennies, too. See the website for more info. Deals info shows you what works and agent has sold sell, who they sell it to (i.e., what editors are receptive to their offerings), and what sort of deals they cut. Sometimes you can find deals info. on the agency website for a larger agency, but that's hit and miss. This source makes that search easy.

Litmatch.net Another free source that lists agent info., but less than Agentquery. What this site has though, is submissions tracking tools and submission history from users, so you can see what other responses other writers get from the agents, and response times, etc. The submission info is only as good as the data entered by other writers, and how often the agents update their profiles, so again, it is hit and miss.

Check with other writers, editors, etc. Of course, ask your peers and critique group members what they know, and beyond that, some of the info. I liked the best about agents was found in interviews with agents posted on other writer's or writing-related people's blogs and websites. There are some great blogs/sites out there for initial source info. on agents. A few favorites specifically for that:

Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog
Verla Kay's agent workshop transcripts
Alma Fullerton's website
Alice Pope's CWIM blog
Alan Rinzler's blog

Guide to Literary Agents website and blog. Electronic (paid subscription) source. But, the blog contains some free info, as well.

Check forums, chat rooms, bulletin boards
and newsgroups for threads that relate to the agent of interest- like those on AbsoluteWrite.com.

And the resources that you should check when you come upon an agent you know nothing about- i.e., NOT from an SCBWI resource. Sad, but true, there are literary predators out there, you need to protect yourself and do your homework to make sure you don't become prey.

Last- when it comes to submitting to an agent, take your submission guidance from the source closest to the agent- the agent's own blog, agency website, etc. Do not take it from one of the free databases just in case the database has not been updated. In a couple of cases, I found conflicting submission process info., or info. that had not been updated in one place or another, so make sure you get it from the most authoritative source - the agent or his or her agency.

I may add more to each agent profile after the conference if I learn of any additional or different material. Keep your eyes out for it.

But wait, there's more! I did not serve-up thirty-one flavors. Yet.

I still have the Queen of England living in my house for the bulk of the day, and when she starts a full day of practicing her monarchical skills this fall, I will be free to post more frequently. In the meantime, I will be continually adding agent info and editor info as I come upon it, and I will post it in the thirty-one flavors format in the future, just not all back to back in one week.

In fact, I may go beyond thirty-one...check back regularly to see what's new!

Thirty-One Flavors - Agent Week - Nathan Bransford

Before I dive into info. on arguably the agent with the most coverage on the web, here's a link to the Turkey City Lexicon provided by Ojvind Bernander to utilize when you are eyeballing that draft for "turkeys". It's meant for Sci-Fi writers, but most of it is applicable to any work of fiction. I found it amusing (watch out, though, if you are the sensitive sort, there's a certain amount of...ribaldry) useful, and horrifying. Horrifying as in, "mmmm...did I do that?" (RIP, Steven Urkel and Curly of the Three Stooges).

Where Nathan Bransford fits in my flavor spectrum: Chocolate raspberry truffle with brownie bits and pralines. Sigh...no bubblegum.

Nathan Bransford is a literary agent with the San Francisco office of Curtis Brown, Ltd. He is best known among web-savvy authors as the bloggiest agent around, with nearly 7,000 "BranFans" checking his blog every day. Nathan's blog really is a complete treasure-trove of witty writing, great advice and information, and has garnered him somewhere in the range of 7,000 to 10,000 queries a year!

He says that just about all his clients come through his blog, and he only takes two or three new clients per year. Do the math (or ask your nearest math-competent person to do it for you). It all adds up to smokin' hot.

Hold that cone steady, 'cause here comes the scoop!

(Note to readers who write in multiple markets: There's a lot of info. out there from Nathan, and to keep this post from taking over my blog, I have not added some of the specific info. on his adult markets interests. It's out there- just check his blog or do the google thing).

Nathan is particularly interested in literary fiction, mysteries and suspense, historical fiction, narrative nonfiction, business, history, sports, politics, current events, young adult fiction, science fiction and anything else he happens to like. He does not represent poetry or screenplays, and he does not work with author/illustrators or illustrators.

He's really a sucker for: historical fiction, very well-written literary fiction and memoir, sports, fiction that takes place in other countries, philosophical science fiction, narrative nonfiction, and international affairs. Much of his knowledge about kid lit comes from the couple of years he spent in the New York office of Curtis Brown, working with Ginger Knowlton and Laura Blake Peterson and their clients.

He is always looking for an original idea with polished writing, a stellar plot, and fresh original voices.

He only takes on clients with projects he thinks he can sell, and who are as professional as they are talented. He's looking for a long-haul relationship with his clients. Nathan thinks of himself as a editorial agent, helping clients hone their own vision for a project and getting it submission ready for editors. He wants to help build careers. And once you are one of those clients, know that one of the many reasons he started his blog was to build an audience and hopefully give his clients "a boost by the publicity it affords."

Series people- perk up your ears! Nathan really, really advises against trying to start with a series when you are an unpublished writer. He says unpublished authors should focus on one book. And then a reader pointed out to him that some editors prefer series and see them as a selling point, particularly in the fantasy genres.

In response, he stated this: "I think it's very important to focus on telling one story in a query, because attracting an agent (and later an editor) to the first book is the very most important thing. That said, you might suggest in the query that while the book you are writing about can stand alone, you do have some ideas about expanding them into a series if that opportunity arises. That, to me, represents the best of both worlds -- if the agent thinks the idea is great for a single title but not a series it's OK, and if the agent thinks the idea is great for a series you've planted that idea as well. Also this is a good time to point out how much opinions vary within the industry -- please take everything I say with a grain of salt. Another agent might come on and tell you something completely different -- these are just one agent's opinions. There are lots of differing opinions on series -- some think they're a great way of building an audience, some people worry that sequels and series can trap an author into one world that can eventually be more difficult to break out of. So this is definitely one subject where you're going to hear a lot of different opinions."

On YA, he thinks a YA novel should be between 40,000 and 60,000 words, and he talks about the line between YA and adult fiction here. A recent YA debut novel from one of his clients is The Secret Year by Jennifer Hubbard that will come out in early 2010.

Nathan thinks e-books are the future, and since there will be a huge flood of content, branding and marketing will become even more important, and large scale publishers may respond by digging deeper into the bestseller and established authors arena, sadly, making it even harder to get them to take risks on new authors. It may be that smaller presses and publishers become more of the avenue for debut authors.

Dislikes: starting a query letter to him with a rhetorical question, lengthy queries -he thinks 85% of query letters are too long. Word counts over 175,000 words unless there's a darn good reason for it. Aspiring authors who do not research agents they are querying (but that's not you, since you are here, right?). Lakers fans.

Likes: 49ers, basketball (Sacramento Kings), The Hills, sports on high def TV.

He grew up on a rice farm in Colusa, California, and attended school from kindergarten through high school with pretty much the exact same people the whole time, which meant that they all knew each other too well, and did not really segregate into type. He'd classify himself as "the nerd who didn't get stuffed in the trash can", played some sports, and got along with everyone.

In terms of a character from a teen movie, he says "Hmmm… I’d probably go with that kid from Can’t Hardly Wait who goes from a nerd to being cool at the party back to being a nerd again."


If you really want to read all that stuff from Nathan yourself:


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pause That Refreshes and Class of ??

My bad- I do not have my post done tonight on Nathan Bransford, due to having a grand ol' time bonding with a new group of writers, scarfing free cookies and debating the merits of literary versus commercial fiction.

Okay, I'm lying, it was more like giant octopus versus giant snakes. Titanoboa, anyone?

So, tomorrow I will try to wrangle all those interviews and other resources into a handy-dandy ice-cream analogy, but in the meantime, I have a question:

Why are so many of the children's writers I've met lately high school graduates of the class of 19??

As of the last two weeks, I've counted five, yes FIVE. What are the odds? Are there more in our local SCBWI that I just have not met yet? OH MY GOD! Is this our version of a midlife crisis? And if so, which is worse? Buying a totally expensive midlife crisis car that goes way too fast, guzzles gas and does not have enough of a backseat for a child, or becoming a children's writer who makes no money, guzzles caffeine, writes too fast (NaNoWriMo) and has too much of a back seat because of having children (baby got back!) ?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Thirty-One Flavors - Agent Week - Kelly Sonnack

Where she fits in my flavor spectrum: Bubblegum milk chocolate raspberry truffle with brownie bits.

Kelly Sonnack recently became an agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc. after three years with powerhouse Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. Before her life as an agent, she worked for publisher Reed Elsevier as an Acquisitions editor under their Academic Press imprint. At this time, Kelly is not accepting unsolicited submissions in adult fiction or adult non-fiction. Some of the titles Kelly has represented include: Steve Watkins' DOWN SAND MOUNTAIN (Candlewick) and GOAT GIRL (Candlewick); Merrily Kutner's ALPHABET MAGIC (Roaring Brook); Jin Pyn Lee's THE ELEPHANT AND THE TREE (Running Press); Candace Ryan's ANIMAL HOUSE (Walker); Heather Leigh's HEY LITTLE BABY (S&S/Beach Lane Books); Neil Johnson & Joel Chin's THE FALLING RAINDROP (Tricycle Press); and James Burks' graphic novel GABBY AND GATOR (Yen Press). Kelly is a frequent speaker at conferences.

Ok, let's bring out the tasting spoons:

Her interests as an agent include all types of children's literature-(picture books, middle grade, young adult, and graphic novels). She has a soft spot for picture books, but can only handle so many. In picture books and middle grade fiction, Kelly looks for a good sense of humor, stories that stretch a young reader's imagination, and an authentic voice. She would love to see more clever, quirky, smart and well-written middle grade fiction in her slush pile right now, as she sees a need for it in the market. In young adult, she really likes literary and coming of age stories, and appreciates literary voices and character-driven stories with heart. In non-fiction for children, she enjoys projects that inspire and stimulate the minds of our younger generations. She'd also like to see more growing-up memoir for kids- growing up in different countries, identity, living across cultures, and she likes graphic novels, as she thinks the time is ripe for them.

In general, she's looking for a narrative voice that authentically captures the feelings of the age group for whom it is targeted. Beyond voice, she's always looking for good stories told in fresh and interesting new ways. She loves manuscripts that have a clever, or witty sense of humor. With picture books, she tends to go for the silly and zany. With middle grade and YA, it’s important to be subtle and not force humor on the reader. Also, re: MG and YA, she's rarely attracted to overly dramatic. She believes a character does not need to be slamming doors, screaming, or sobbing hysterically for the reader to be affected.

She rejects manuscripts that aren't the type of material her agency accepts, do not have an original idea, or have been overdone, like bedtime picture books, or Da Vinci Code type thrillers. Also heading for the rejection pile are works that just aren't "there" yet. She strongly suggests working with writing groups, professional editors or other writers, and really polishing a work before sending it off.

In picture books, she sees way too many manuscripts that rhyme, and "there are some editors who won’t even look at books in rhyme, and a lot more who are extremely wary of them, so it limits an agent on where it can go and the likelihood of it selling. It’s also particularly hard to execute perfectly." Aside from rhyming, she also sees way too many picture books about a family pet or bedtime.

In juvenile fiction, first chapter, she hates to see a whiny character who’s in the middle of a fight with one of their parents, slamming doors, rolling eyes, and displaying all sorts of other stereotypical behavior. She hates seeing character “stats” (“Hi, I’m Brian, I’m 10 years and 35 days old with brown hair and green eyes”). And she also tends to have a hard time bonding with characters who talk to the reader (“Let me tell you about the summer when I...”).

From an interview: "Write something that I simply can’t ignore. Come up with an original idea that you know could work in the market. Understand what is working today, and read the books that you’ll be competing with. What about YOUR book is going to make a potential book buyer take it to the checkout counter? That is what we’re going to be asking ourselves when we evaluate your book. "

Some of her words re: cover letters: "You should be able to create a 1-liner to describe your book, and then explain what makes your book unique or interesting. Look at the back covers of books to see how publishers pitch their releases. And please don’t tell us that your book is going to be the next Harry Potter, will sell a million copies, or that it will be the next blockbuster starring Leonardo DeCaprio. No matter how you try to word it, this just sounds unrealistic and unprofessional."

"3rd paragraph should list any relevant writing credentials, or experience that relates to the writing of this book. And when I say relevant, “writing copy for technical programming manuals” is not relevant unless you’re submitting a book on programming manuals."

Mmmm-mmm! Tomorrow's flavor: Nathan Bransford

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Thirty-One Flavors - Agent Week - Michael Stearns

Where he fits in my personal flavor spectrum: chocolate raspberry truffle.

Michael Stearns has his own blog, and I suggest a visit there if you want to get to know him and his particular flavor of wit. No time? Want more than that? Here's my summary from a few interviews, his blog, agentquery.com, and other free resources on the web.

Michael Stearns is at Firebrand Literary, as of April 2008. Firebrand Literary is a subdivision of Auden Media Corporation, which is owned by Michael Stearns and Nadia Cornier. The agency's main focus is on teen and middle-grade lit. They are also starting a separate book-packaging company called Tinderbox, but Tinderbox will not employ Firebrand authors, so it is a one or the other choice for authors.

From the Firebrand website:
"Michael Stearns brings nearly twenty years’ publishing experience to Firebrand Literary. Formerly editorial director and foreign acquisitions manager for HarperCollins Children's Books, and Senior Editor, Director of Paperback Publishing for Harcourt Children’s Books, he has worked on hundreds of books for children and adults.Among the many bestselling and award-winning books he’s published are A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly; Tangerine by Edward Bloor, The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls by Elise Primavera, Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson, Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge, the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane, and the Chet Gecko Mysteries by Bruce Hale. He has taught a dozen classes on writing, edited three anthologies of original stories, and published a half dozen pieces of his own fiction for both adults and children. He received his B.A. from the USC School of Cinema-Television, and his M.A. from Hollins University, where he also won the Andrew James Purdy Short Fiction Prize. "

Yep, he's kind of big deal in children's publishing. Now for some tasty licks:

He wants his list to be 75-80% novels, 20% picture books, but don't get too excited, PB people, as he is only doing PB's from referrals and writers whose work he knows and trusts. This 80/20 split is the make-up of his lists as an editor at Harcourt and Harper. He wants a story that he just can't put down. He is "keenest" for both teen and middle-grade fiction, and in terms of genre books, he's much more interested in non-Tolkienesque fantasy, paranormal romance, comic coming-of-age, and thrillers (all with some literary spin). He responds well to wit; not dorky funny but genuine wit. Nothing makes him happier than commercial novels with literary chops- ie, the writer has skill and voice, and recognizes character as a key to all good storytelling.

He flees far and fast from issue novels. It's okay if the issue comes wrapped up in a compelling plot, but the plot and character and the writer's control of voice always have to come first. He abhors pitches for children's books. He does not do non-fiction, chapter books, nor emerging readers. His ten commandments for writing for children: Thou shalt not: talk down to your readers, sermonize, strain to rhyme, use cutesy names (his example: Marilyn Mouse, Clarabelle Cow, Leon Lion), waste words, indulge in self-consciously "poetic" writing, be afraid to cut your favorite lines, not love language, send first or rough drafts, obey ANY rule to the detriment of good writing. For his explanation of each of these, see the posts on his blog.

He wants to work closely with clients to develop projects and guide their careers, and does not waste time making nice. He is interested in a career over the long haul-working with a writer over many books and years. The three books he's probably most proud of as an editor are the books where he had a great relationship with the author that grew over the course of the book.

He knows foreign rights from his corporate work, and knows the UK market very well. As an editor, he was impressed with the work Stephen Malk (and Barry Goldblatt and Gail Hochman)did to bring him manuscripts that totally fit his interests at the time, and he hopes to be that kind of agent himself.

He's a Mets fan, claims he has no "poker face", is unmarried, child-less and debt-free (Egads, NO! I did not go looking for that info, it was in a tongue-in-cheek response to an interview!). As a child reader he liked Roald Dahl, Edward Eager and Beverly Cleary, then discovered sci-fi /fantasy at age ten or eleven. At twelve, he mapped-out Heinlein's juvenile titles by their writing formula, showing events in a single plot structure.

That's it for now, tomorrow: Kelly Sonnack

Monday, March 23, 2009

Thirty-One Flavors - Agent Week - Up first: Stephen Malk

With the onset of spring comes a great boon to weary winter minds: The Annual SCBWI Western Washington Spring Conference. One of the many amazing opportunities that this conference affords writers is the chance to have work reviewed by professionals. But who to pick? It's like going into the ice cream store and being tempted by all thirty-one flavors, every single one a scoop of creamy cool deliciousness just waiting to be plopped into paper cup and smothered in hot fudge sauce...

I would like to eventually meet the agent and/or editor of my dreams (something along the lines of bubble gum chocolate raspberry truffle with those little brownie bits topped with pralines), but the reality is that none of the conference choices quite fit my particular interests in terms of a whole career package. This is not a judgement call on them as professionals (because there are some serious heavy -hitters in the line-up this year ), just a realization that you have to know who will fit what you are looking for, and what I am looking for just doesn't happen to be offered. I see bubble gum, and I see chocolate raspberry truffle- some without nuts, some without the brownie bits. Only a few pralines in sight.

How did I know this, when the information available in the conference materials is a menu of appropriately tightly written brief sound-bites?

Research. (How many calories are in that bubble gum flavor?)

In this business of opinion and subjectivity, researching your possibilities is of utmost importance. No sense wasting your time and theirs, by trying to offer bubble gum to an editor who really likes, knows and wants rum raisin. Authors are relatively easy to find, and agents are, too, if you have the time and motivation. Editors preferences are surprisingly hard to find via the web, but some can be found. But it really does take time spent. No secrets to agent info, just time and persistence.

I thought I'd share the research I did on some of the talent coming to our conference. Nothing new here, and you can find this stuff for yourself, but here it is. I tried to capture info from free resources like Agentquery.com, and a few interviews on various websites, beginning with

Stephen Malk.

Where he fits in my personal flavor spectrum: bubble gum chocolate raspberry truffle with those little brownie bits

Locals in our organization know him as "that guy that sold Justina Chen Headley's debut YA novel at auction resulting in a two-book contract in just a few days". The rest of the world knows him as "that guy who opened the San Diego office of Writer's House Literary Agency in 1998 http://www.writershouse.com/". Do I need to say it? Stephen Malk is a big name in our world. Being the West Coast rep for the venerable Writer's House (and that he also spent four years at powerhouse Djikstra Literary Agency http://www.dijkstraagency.com/) is no small thing, and his client list proves it: John Scieszka, Lane Smith, Adam Rex, Elise Primavera, Karma Wilson, Sonya Sones, Gris Grimly, Jennifer Donnelly, etc. It figures that his background is all children's books, books, books all the time. His grandparents and parents both have owned children's bookstores, and he even worked in his parents' store for six years beginning at age sixteen.

He states in one interview that he's not interested in whatever is "hot" right now, and that he sees a lot of manuscripts that are trying to jump on the latest trend bandwagon. He'd like to see more manuscripts with unique voices, unique well-developed characters and good writing, and believes that writers should take their time to really polish a work before submitting.

He believes writers should read as much as possible beyond the classics and popular titles- educating themselves about their field, and he recommends every writer to read Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. If he requests revisions before signing a client, it shows interest, and he is curious to see how the writer handles it, as revisions are a part of his process.

He likes music, has a fantasy baseball team, likes Orangina, Cadbury Fruit and Nut Bars, sour patch candies, collects bobbleheads, had at least two cats in 2005, (Dinah and Henry), and figured the writing world wants him reading submissions and doing deals rather than blogging. He does not watch much tv, aside from Sportscenter, Curb Your Enthusiasm, VH1 classic, Alton Brown and the Food Network, and prefers coconut over chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookies. He gives a long list of books he likes in this transcript of an interview at Verla Kay's website: http://www.verlakay.com/34malk_8-05.html .

No, I did not quite find this amount of detail on everyone, but stay tuned tomorrow for the equally riveting Michael Stearns.