Ask the Agent: Things to ask before you sign…

Question Mark, Question, Response, Search EngineWhen I read blog posts and articles about what to discuss with an agent before you sign on the dotted line, I frequently find myself shaking my head.  Wouldn’t you want to know that before you contacted the agent?  I think this when I read questions like:

Are you an editorial agent?  I want an editorial agent.  So I look for agents who state this outright.

Who do you represent?  I look for agents/agencies that list this right on their site.  If they don’t post this information, I get suspicious.  I understand that a new agency won’t have a long list of sales but I want to see what types of clients they represent.

How many clients do you represent?  Again, if there is a list on the site, I should be able to come up with a rough estimate. Given the fact that I can’t decide if a low number or a high numer is best, I’m not sure how much help the exact number would be.

If these are questions you should answer before contact the agent, what should you ask?  Here are a few suggestions.

What publishers are you considering for my project?  Yes, I can look at their clients and see who publishes their work, and I do.  But who among all of these publishers are you considering for my manuscript.  A specific answer tells me that they are truly enthusiastic and ready to run with it.

How frequently do you update authors on the status of their work?  Some agents get in touch with their clients every time there is a rejection or a “send us more.”  Other agents update the author once a month.  There isn’t really a right answer but it does help if you know what to expect.

How do you prefer that your authors communicate with you?  If this agent is e-mail phobic, you may not want to sign with her if you have a day job.  You also need to know if they only/never want phone calls.  You aren’t trying to find a new BFF, but you want to know how best to make contact.

What questions are on your list?



Friday Fun: I Wish I Had Thought of This…

Friday FunAbout a week ago, my son was home on a sick day.  That means that instead of listening to an audio book while I eat lunch, he picks out something for us to watch.  His choice?  The Deadliest Warrior.

I was less than thrilled until I sat down and watched it.  By the time it was over, all I could think was “I wish I had though of this.”  First, we watched William the Conqueror vs. Joan of Arc.  Then we watched Poncho Villa vs Crazy Horse and Jesse James vs Al Capone.  By now we’ve also seen Pol Pot vs Saddam Hussein and Hannibal vs Genghis Khan.  I’ve included a link to one of the episodes below.

The Deadliest Warrior is a series of documentaries produced by 44 Blue.  They scientifically analyze the effectiveness of each group’s weapons and tactics.  They bring in historians and other experts. Their staff includes elite military as well as an emergency room doctor (he’d be able to fight for up to 20 minutes more with that injury).

They also take into account various “x-factors” such as health (Poncho Villa had arthritis but Crazy Horse was starving), mental state, relative size (William the Conqueror was bigger and stronger than Joan of Arc), age, and the like.

They feed everything into a computer program which runs thousands of mock battles.  Then they stage the results.

What do I mean by stage the results?  Let’s face it.  Watching a group of guys stand around and watch a computer run a simulation would be dull, dull, dull.  They stage it and bring in a group of appropriately dressed and equipped re-enactors to “do battle.”  Each group has five warriors and they fight until only one “man” is left standing.

Mysteriously and miraculously (ha ha), it always ends up being a one-on-one fight between the two headliners — Poncho Villa vs Crazy Horse, William the Conqueror vs Joan of Arc, etc.  You know which side won the simulations by which person emerges as the ultimate victor.

This is history gone geek. Instead of arguing who would win Spider Man or Bat Man, you are arguing about history.  I mean argue in the nicest sense but we do hold lengthy discussions about who would win if they had change where the battle was set, the opening move, etc.

Half the fun of watching it is watching the reactions of the experts like when Susie the War Elephant stood on a ballistics gel mannequin. Suffice it to say, Susie is a total bad ass.  At heart, I am a most likely a twelve year-old boy.  I so wish I had come up with this idea although I concede they make better videos than books (squish goes the mannequin!) but there has to be some kind of possibility for a book series.  Think, think, think . . .


Mentor Texts: A Right Way and a Wrong Way

Flapper, Purple, Vintage, Retro, Female, NostalgiaI have to admit.  I’ve been struggling to get going with my latest fiction idea.  Granted, it is an adult novel so it will be longer than anything I’ve written to date but that isn’t what’s been slowing me down.

I’ve been working from a mentor text.  Several agents have tweeted that they would love to see a character ala Miss Fisher.  I love Phryne Fisher.  Love.  LOVE.  Seriously.  She’s a favorite and I suspect that therein lies my problem.  I know this character well.

I’ve been playing with my character and I know her name (Frankie).  I know where she lives (St. Louis, North County).  I know when the story takes place (1975).  The problem is that I find myself waffling on some of the details.

No, no.  She can’t be married.  Miss Fisher isn’t married.

She can’t work full-time.  Miss Fisher doesn’t work full-time.  Other than detecting, she doesn’t have a job period.

Miss Fisher isn’t in college.

Miss Fisher doesn’t live in an apartment.

And it goes on and on and on.  It finally hit me last night while I was taking a shower (I do a lot of my best thinking in the shower).  When I do this, I’m not using Phryne Fisher as a mentor character.  I’m trying to use her as a template, to create a more-or-less exact copy.  And that’s well and good if I want an agent or editor to say “Wow.  Is this time-travel fan fic? Why is Miss Fisher in Missouri?”

Of course, that isn’t what I want so I need to spend some time getting to know my character as MY character.  She’ll be like Miss Fisher in that she’s sassy and independent.  She’s smart and she’s driven to see that justice is done.  She doesn’t have hang ups about what side of the tracks someone is from.  The word NO is more of a challenge than a dictate.

But if I am going to make her my own that will probably be where the similarities end.

Like Dottie, Frankie sews.  She’s from outstate Missouri and has a real can-do attitude.  At least in book 1, she lives in an apartment over a storefront.  I think she may be a church goer.

The only reason that she’s coming into focus is because I’ve quit trying to recreate Miss Fisher in bell bottoms.  Using a book or character as a mentor doesn’t mean duplicating it.  Instead, use if for pacing or tone.  Extract just a bit of flavor.  And then make it your own.


Agents: Still Searching

Agent HuntLet’s get this out-of-the-way.  I’m not delusional.  I never thought this would be easy, but seriously.

Recently, I stumbled across an agent’s blog.  As I read, I found myself linking to various posts, printing a few out to guide rewrites and just generally fan girling all over the place.  Fan-girl is a strange state for me.  Even if I meet someone whose books I adore, I do not fan girl.  It just isn’t me.  But maybe that explains it all.  I just wasn’t in my right mind.

Clearly, I had found the agent for me.  It couldn’t have been more obvious.

Fortunately, the voice of reason managed to get a word in edge-wise.  “Request some of her books.  Be sure.”

Pfft.  Sure, schmure.  We’re soul mates I tell you.

But the voice of reason one and I requested four of her books.  I read book one and thought . . . I don’t get it.  I read book two and thought . . . cute.  Cute is a huge warning sign for me.  I’m not a cute kind of person.  Unless you count calavera as cute.  And not Hello Kitty.  Real south of the border calavera.  If you think they’re cute, then I’m adorable.  But I soldiered on.  Last night I read book four.  The book Kirkus called hilarious.  I nearly cried.  No, I wasn’t laughing that hard.  It just wasn’t my somewhat off beat, gross, 12-year-old boy type of humor.

I’ve met this agent.  We laugh at many of the same things and get along well.  I suspect we’d make descent friends.  But we don’t like the same books.  She likes cute.  I like calavera, but at least I figured it out for myself.



Ready to Read?

litworldWRAD16logo-web.jpgTomorrow (2/24/2016) is world read aloud day.

Sponsored by, the goal of tis day is to help develop a community of readers and celebrate the fact that literacy belongs to everyone.

This is one of those things that should be really important to you as a children’s writer, especially if you write picture books.  Why picture books?  Because they are meant to be read out loud.

Celebrate tomorrow by reading aloud to the young reader in your life.  If your young read, like mine, is now a teen, don’t give up on reading aloud.  Welcome it when it happens but accept that it might not be a regular occurence.  How do I encourage it with my teen?

As a family, we share news stories that we found worrisome, we read bits of fascinating articles, and then there are the jokes.  We’ve always been big on sharing the funny moment with each other.

Personally, it is hard for me to imagine not being able to read.  Not everyone in my family is well-educated, but we are still a family of readers.  I know this although I don’t remember an overwhelming number of bookcases in my grandparent’s homes.  My paternal grandparents had one in the main house and one in the garage converted to a bedroom.  (Main house sounds oh so dramatic.  It was tiny and adobe.)  My maternal grandparents had two big bookcases that are now in my home.  They also had a basket in the family room full of magazines. You don’t have to have a limitless number of books to read.  You just need to do it.

Read.  Read quietly.  Read aloud.  Read to yourself.  Read to others.  Just read.


Research: How much is enough?

Free stock photo of books, magazines, building, schoolRecently I read a blog post about how much research you need to do before you start writing a piece of historic fiction.  The author of the post had been researching the year in which her story was set (1939) for a full year. She wondered when she would have enough research to start writing.  The advice that she was given was to research until she had a sense of place and time.  She was told to research until she had a feel for the world and then start writing.  She could, after all, do additional research as she wrote the story.

This advice is solid but it doesn’t just apply to historical fiction.  Whether you are writing research-based fiction or nonfiction, at some point you have to make the decision to quit reading and start writing.  The trick is to find enough information to inform your writing without using research as an excuse not to write.  I say this because it is so easy to do.  “No, no.  I’m not done doing my research.  I can’t start writing yet.”

Even with 7 nonfiction books under my belt, I found myself doing this with Duchess and my most recent project.  Fortunately, I’m accountable to Duchess who gently nudged and pushed and prodded.  I finished the outline Saturday.  I have to incorporate her tweaks but I’m going to start writing today.

My personal preference is to read until I am finding nothing new and information is repeating itself.  I want to know the information so well that I recognize incorrect data for what it is.  “No, that can’t be right.  It contradicts this and this and that.” I’ve reached the point that I can question the accuracy of my sources.  If I was working on this book alone, I’d do a bit more reading before I got started. Fortunately, Duchess is a subject matter expert on black feminism.  In spite of Duchess’s expertise, I know that I will be doing more reading.  That’s just a part of writing based on research.



Remember: Writing for Children is FUN!

Friday FunBaby grootWhen you write for a living, sometimes you have to remind yourself that writing for children is fun.  No really.  It is.  Or at least it had better be.  If you don’t have fun, your readers won’t have fun either.

So how do you remind yourself to have fun?  Some people manage to do it by writing fun, silly things.  I take that kind of work when I can but I’m a nonfiction writer.  When I write about history, I can’t always manage to make it fun.  Did you hear the one about Pearl Harbor?  See.  It just doesn’t work.

Even when I’m working on something heavy, the fun props in my office can remind me about the lighter side of writing for a young audience. I’ve had my John Adams bobblehead for years.  Yes, I have a John Adams bobblehead.  He came with a review copy of John, Paul, George and Ben by Lane Smith and probably reveals a bit too much about what a history geek I am.

There’s an okapi figurine just because they are one of my favorite mysterious beasties.

My most recent acquisiting was a Christmas gift from my husband — dancing baby Groot.  Touch a button and he dances to “I Want You Back.”  He also dances to any music that I play.  Or when I sneeze.  Or laugh too loud.  Groot is definitely my most outgoing office mate.  He must have known I was writing about it because he just gave a little wiggle for no good reason at all.

Find a way to remind yourself about the fun side of writing.  Engage your sense of play.  It’s vital when you write, even about serious topics, for a younger audience.




Opening Scenes: How to Start Your Book

stairs, people, sittingHow you choose to open your book sets up an expectation in your reader.  Open with a chase scene and the reader expects high adventure, speed and excitement.  Open with something that goes bump in the night and your reader expects tension and continued spooks and scares. That’s well and good for fiction but how do you open your nonfiction?

As with fiction, the answer depends on the book.

Duchess Harris and I are working on another project together.  This one is about a group of black women who worked for NASA.  These women were mathematicians who performed the calculations that helped engineers analyze the data from wind tunnel tests.  They wrote the book on how to calculate reentry, orbit and more. In short, they scienced the hell out of it. (Yes, I altered the quote.)

We could open with a scene of these women hard at work, spying through magnifying glasses to read blurry photos, punching numbers into calculating machines.  They also pulled levers and filled out spread sheets by hand. This scene would certainly set up what these women do.

But we are also telling about how they were made invisible.  The black women worked in their own pool.  Although they were assigned to work on projects with white engineers, many members of the white pool were unaware that the black pool existed.

Yeah, I don’t get it.  How can you be more observant than a grape and not notice they are working right over there?  Until recently no one had even researched the black women, focusing on the white.  Because of that, I am opening with a scene in which one of these women was, in her own time, made invisible by quite literally removing her from the picture.  We want readers to understand how intentionally this was accomplished so that they can fully grasp the story told in the larger book.

But, don’t worry.  Unlike a lot written on the topic, Duchess and I still plan to science the hell out of it.


Stretching it Out: Scenes that Matter Need to Last

weightIf the scene that you are writing carries great weight in your book, it needs to last.  Whether it is a battle scene, a character’s death or a moment of brutal realization, it needs to take up space.

Unfortunately, these scenes are hard to write, because this is where we literally torture our darlings.  These are the scenes during which we torment our characters.

I just read The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow.  It is a postapocalyptic novel set in a world that has exhausted its resources.  Access to resources, specifically water, is why most wars are fought in this particular version of future Earth.  The problem with this is that in order to rule, a king, queen or president must surrender a child.  If their country is involved in a war, this child will be put to death.  It is the rule of Talis, an artificial intelligence that used to be human and sees this as the only way to save humanity.


If you are still reading this, I’m going to assume that you don’t mind a bit of a spoiler.  Our main character, Greta, knows that her mother loves her and firmly believes that her mother will avoid war at all costs to keep Greta alive and well.  When the school where she is held is taken by a hostile force, a television feed is set up.  Greta will be tortured on live television to force her mother gives up water rights to a neighboring country.

Greta realizes that her mother saw this moment coming.  Okay, maybe not televised torture but definitely the war.  She saw the war coming but refused to give up the water rights.  Yes, war will mean Greta’s death, but losing the water will mean her people’s death. She will not give it up no matter how dreadful the torture is.

Greta’s hands and arms will be crushed in a stone apple press.  It takes over 10 pages to happen.

That’s right.  Ten pages.

Bow takes the reader through Greta being tied in place.  We feel each shift and shudder of the press as the stone drops bit by bit.  We feel her throw back her head when it brushes her hair.  We follow the thoughts and emotions as she realizes that her mother cannot/will not save her.  And then the press finally makes contact with her hands.

Bow draws out the tension and the horror because this is, disgustingly enough, a turning point.  This is when Greta begins to realize what it is to be queen.  It is brutal but it is also powerful.

Check out your own novel in progress.  How long is your turning point scene?  How many pages does it take to put your character through hell?  It won’t be an easy scene to write, but give it the weight it needs to bring your reader, as well as your character, to her knees.


Have You Written Your Two Throw Away Books?

office, working, mailThe first book manuscript that you finish may very well not be the first one that you sell.  Why?  As an unknown author, you need a book that is going to pack a powerful push to help you gain readers.  Once you’ve done that, a book with a little less market appeal may be possible.  That was how I had always rationalized that so few writers sell their first book.

A writer friend just shared another reason with me.  He was told by an agent that most writers don’t write anything publishable until they get at least two books out of their system.  Which two are these?  The one that is derivative and the one that is autobiographical.

A book doesn’t have to be fan fiction to feel derivative.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, fan fiction is writing a story using another writer’s characters.  It should be obvious though that I’m not suggesting that most writers actually use another writers characters or even setting.  A piece can feel derivative without  actually doing either of these things.

Writer a rhyming picture books full of silly, made up words and you may be told that your work is too like Dr. Seuss.  Write a middle grade novel set in a school for wizards and someone will compare it to Harry Potter.  In truth it may not be nearly that obvious.  And it generally isn’t intentional. Sometimes a writer will pen something only to have it compared to a book he or she has never read.  I once critiqued a manuscript that felt like a combination of Magic Treehouse and Droon, right down to specific details.  The eery part?  The author had read neither.  Nonetheless, the story felt derivative.

The other throw away is the piece of autobiographical fiction.  Why is this a problem?  Often when we write fiction based on our lives, we don’t have the distance from the topic to do it justice.  We want to keep certain details, chains of events or results the same as they were in real life even when reality doesn’t work within the story.  We fight making the changes that make for a better story.

I understand what my friend was telling me but I have to admit that it worries me.  I can’t pin point which of my stories is derivative and which is autobiographical.  I seriously have no clue.  And I have to wonder if this means that I simply haven’t written them yet.