Danielle Smith: Agent Gone Bad

I wasn’t going to blog about this but if you aren’t on Twitter you may not have seen the news.  Agent Danielle Smith has shut down her agency, Lupine Grove, after telling her writers that they had been offered publishing contracts that never existed.  She would tell these clients that the contracts were unacceptable and that she had already turned the offers down.

If you are one of her authors, several agents have stepped forward and offered to read work from her clients.  If you are not one of her clients, please don’t claim to be.  Seriously.  That would not be good.

If you are seeking representation, this is likely to make you question the wisdom of approaching an agent.  Know that this situation is so rare.  That doesn’t make it less awful for any of those involved.

Here are some of the warning signs of learned to look for when researching agents.

  1.  Check out the web site.  If it looks unprofessional or something strikes you as off, accept it as such and move on.  This isn’t to say that a site for a kid lit agent can’t be playful and fun but it should still clearly be a business.
  2. Agents who won’t tell their clients who has seen their work.  One friend fired her big-name agent when he kept telling her he was sending out her work but wouldn’t name names.  It turned out that her work had never gone out.
  3. When an agent turns down or accepts an offer without first showing it to the author.  Apparently this is what happened with Smith. I’ve heard of agents contacting an author and immediately saying, “This is no good.  You should turn it down.”  That’s okay, because you are getting to see the offer.
  4. Agents who only send work to open houses.  This isn’t a sign of fraud but really?  Why pay someone 15% to submit to the same editors you have access to?

Never thought I’d be glad that an agent did not offer me representation. My heart goes out to Smith’s clients.  For an agents take on this, check out Janet Reid’s blog post.




No More Library Fines for Young Readers

If you are a reader today, and most writers are, you were probably a reader when you were a kid.  I’m sure my mother took me to the library but what I actually remember is going on my own.  I would ride my bike up the busy four lane (sidewalk riding).  Then I would cruise among the shelves visiting old favorites and looking for something new.  Then I’d check out an arm load of books that I would carefully wedge into my basket for the ride home.

Although there is still a bike rack in front of the library, I don’t see kids riding up there on their own.  They come instead with parents and grandparents.  But what happens when young readers can’t catch a ride?  They end up with late fees and fines.

I hate anything that discourages reading so when I saw this post on Facebook, I got excited.  Then, me being me, I thought – what if it isn’t true?  Could it be fake?  A quick Google search revealed that it is not (see article). It isn’t quite accurate, but it isn’t fake.

The LA Country library system has done away with fines on children’s material.  That didn’t exactly help kids who already had fines so another program was implemented.  Kids can check in to read away part of their fine.  The rate is $5.00/hour and young readers are given credit for fractions of hours.  What a great idea!

Not sure how you feel about this?  In a random survey of library patrons, 80% said that with this new policy they would be more willing to let their children check things out.  Apparently economically disadvantaged families limit their library use, especially use by young readers, because unpaid fines can go to a collection agency.

How much better to encourage and educate?  Way to go, LA!



When What You Write Isn’t Great, Don’t Ignore That Nagging Feeling

Honestly, you could pour me into a bucket tonight. It isn’t that I’m that relaxed.  I’m that wiped out.

As I write this on Thursday evening, I’ve just met a deadline for an outline and sample chapter.  Easy peasy mac-n-cheesy as my friend Renee says.  I write for Abdo.  I know what they want.


This series is different from their others.  So different and new that it is new even to my editor. In fact, I’m writing the first book in the series. I’m the guinea pig . . . trend setter.  Who am I kidding?  Guinea pig.

My husband read the chapter for me and pronounced it “fine.”  But something was nagging at me.  “No.  It is not.  It kind of stinks.”  I wanted to listen to my husband.  I wanted to package it up and send it in and let me editor find the problem.

So first I did a hard copy-edit on the outline.  Then I finished the bibliography.  Finally, with the deadline hard behind, I pulled up the chapter.

Yep, still stinking.  But this time I could tell what was wrong.  I’m writing about a topic that, while important, is less familiar to me than some others.  As I wrote about it, I realized that I actually knew quite a bit but I still felt insecure.  I needed to sound like I knew what I was talking about.  Heaven save us from all that is overwritten and purple.

Instead of doing the hard copy-edit I had planned on, it was back to my computer.  Three of the four sidebars only needed minor tweaks.  The feature at the end of the chapter lost only a few words.  Working with the main body of the text, I moved phrases, cut sentences and smoothed, smoothed and smoothed some more.  By the time I was done I had bumped up the reading level, which I needed to do, and crafted a much more coherent, readable piece.

When you have that nagging feeling that something stinks, don’t take the easy way out.  Go on a hunt until you find the source of the problem.



Plot and subplots

In my favorite books, plot and subplots mirror the same theme.

Now that I’ve started working on a novel, I’m finding myself paying close attention to plots and subplots in what I read.  My favorite form is when they all explore the same theme.  The main character has to find a way to accomplish a dishonorable task in an honorable way.  The main character has to get beyond the same she feels about her station in life (something she cannot control).  The main character has to learn to deal with Character X who treats her with honor – something that is, sadly, new to her.  The main character has to decide if she will dishonor another character who has dishonored her.  All of the strands are about honor.

Other books have a plot and subplots but while the same characters are involved, and the main character is always central, there is no common theme.  A murder has been committed and the main character has to catch the killer.  The main character has to reconcile her love of truth with her need to lie while undercover.  There may also be a romance subplot.

Some books feature a group of characters trying to solve a mystery with subplots that feature each individual character.  One may be trying to break away from dealing drugs.  Another is working to repair his relationship with his girlfriend.  One girl is coping with an eating disorder.

What version am I going to use?  I’m going for all of the plots and subplots mirroring the same theme. I’m exploring trust and honor.  But the book is a mystery so the strongest theme will be that crime doesn’t pay.  These are my hopes for the future.  The current draft?  If I can get my character through the mystery and the romance subplot I’ll be happy.


The One Word Story

If you haven’t seen ReFoReMo’s post today, check it out.  In it, they challenge writers to create a picture book written using only one word. Obviously the word will be used multiple times and will mean something different each time, but . . . Wow.  Just wow.  You have to pick something that can mean many things in many different contexts.

One of my favorites didn’t quite pull it off since No, David used two words.  But one?  The examples that they give are:

Dude! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Dan Santat

Moo by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Mike Rohnoutka

Ball by Mary Sullivan

Look! by Jeff Mack

I have to admit that when I first heard of this challenge I was pretty dismissive.  “Illustrators can pull it off.  But someone who only writes?  No way.”  And sure enough, there are two author/illustrators, Sullivan and Mack, on the list.  But there are two authors who needed an illustrator to fully bring the story to live as well.

So now I’m taking a close look at this list.  I don’t see anyone being able to pull it off with an animal noise since we already have MooBall is an object but Dude!, Moo, and Look! are all world of dialogue. So what else would work?

Some of the things that I’m thinking about now include:

Onomatopoeia.  Words that are sounds like Moo.  I’m thinking specifically about achoo and pitter patter.

Verbs or Actions.  Could an action verb work?  Specifically I’m considering dance.

Adjectives.  Could you write a board book exploring variations on tall or green?

Be sure to pop on over and read the original post on the ReFoReMo blog.  It includes a write-up by Shutta Crum that explains how she submitted, and sold, this type of single word book without illustrations since she is not an author/illustrator.

And, of course, I have two different ideas battling for space in my head which is totally distracting since I’m on deadline!



Cutting Characters: Are Your Characters Doing All They Need to Do?

Every now and again, I look at a character and think, “Is he doing enough or should I cut him?”  For the most part this revolves around whether the character moves the plot forward in some way.  Is this character’s contribution meager?  Than I look at whether or not I can combine this character’s role with another character. This is especially true of parents or siblings in a story.  Are two characters essential to get this job done?  If not, adios my character.  Perhaps I’ll see you in another story.

Then I saw a post by Stephanie Morrill about cutting characters.  Her rubric is very different.  To stay in the story, the character must:

Help the main character on their journey.  This is a lot like my “move the story forward.”  But for Morrill and her characters this is only the beginning.

Have a life of their own.  This character cannot be a satellite of the main character.  They must have their own problems.  Ooooo, I thought, perhaps these problems put them in conflict with the main character.

Come into conflict with the main character.  That’s right.  At some point, each and every character needs to conflict with the main character.  Otherwise the story is most likely to simple and straightforward, without enough tension.  And in real life, people really do come into conflict with friends and family members.

In a story for younger readers, this conflict doesn’t have to be huge.  In Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen, an early middle grade series, her older sister always tells Jasmine she is too young.  Her cousin teases her.  In a young adult novel, this wouldn’t be enough but for an early middle grade novel it works.

So what do you do if your characters don’t accomplish these things?  You can still cut or combine characters.  Or you can make them more complex.  The choice will depend on you and your story.



Goals and Progress: When What You Have Isn’t Working

“This week I’m going to finish outlining my mystery.”

I’m part of an accountability group and each week we set goals. Truthfully, I lost track of have often this was my weekly goal.  But week after week I made no progress whatsoever.  What to do?

Admittedly, my to-do list tends to be way too long.  No one could accomplish it.  But when one thing gets carried over for about two months, then I know I have a problem.  Step 1 in solving said problem is figuring out why it was a problem.

Yes, I’ve been busy but I’m always busy.  So that really wasn’t the answer.  I didn’t want to keep messing with the outline. I wanted to write.  Even after I figured this much out, I didn’t make progress.  I was stuck on the thought that I absolutely had to finish that outline.

Finally I realized that I was noodling over individual scenes in detail.  Those scenes revolved around one particular plotline.  What if I try writing it one plot line at a time?

  • I have the mystery plot in which a dead body is found and suspects are investigated.
  • I have the church choir subplot.  The church choir is what my main character and her sidekicks have in common.
  • I have the romance subplot.  One sidekick’s older brother is the romantic interest.  Unless of course he turns out to be the murderer.
  • Then I have a sub plot for each suspect – romantic interest, one sidekick, victim’s wife, the choir director, and a mysterious man spied arguing with the victim.

What if I try working on these one at a time?  That’s where I am now.  Ultimately, it may not work out.  But I have to say that for the first time in two months, I’ve made progress – 750 words on a new chapter.  I say new vs first because I know it is not my first chapter.  And that’s 750 words in two days.  Not too bad given 2 months of nothing.

When you have a project that you truly want to work on but you aren’t making any progress, it’s time to take a look at your goals.  Is it your approach that is wrong?  The goals themselves?  Trying the same thing week after week just isn’t a good idea if you are getting no where fast.  Try to figure out what is behind the project and see if you can find a new set of goals to get you moving.



5 Minutes a Day: Brainstorming Story Ideas

I’m at 198 and counting. I’m one of those writers who keeps a list of story ideas.

Some of them are fairly fleshed out and would function as a premise.  Others are much less so.  I may have an idea for a character.  Other times it is a title.  And then there are the “what if” questions.  What if so-and-so met so-and-so?  What if so-and-so found themself in this situation.

They don’t have to be well-developed to be classified as an idea.  And that is definitely something you can do in only five minutes when time is precious.  The good news is that story ideas can come from anywhere.


Sometimes an article that is sent to my in-box inspires a story.  I’ll read about an event in history and wonder what happened before or after.  Or I’ll misread a heading.  I’m kind of famous for that.  This week I received “How to Turn Beans into Dinner,” but bobbing along on the treadmill I saw “How to Turn BEARS into Dinner.” It all started when Baby Bear misunderstood something he read.

A Location.

When we were in the Smoky Mountains, we saw tons of signs warning us about elk and black bears.  Before we left, I had two different story ideas – one about elk and one about black bear. Two more story ideas came from the mountains themselves.  And then there are the eight inspired by various museum and visitor center displays, and one inspired  by a local pronunciations.  That’s 13 total.


Sometimes all I need for inspiration is an image.  I do a lot of photo research for various projects at Pixabay.  The front page is an un-themed display of recent images.  Sometimes someone will post something new that sparks my imagination.

A Conversation.

And don’t forget to draw inspiration from the people around you.  One of my husband’s cousins is doing genealogy and is flabbergasted that he can’t find his grandparents’ death certificates.  Yeah.  You can’t toss something like that out in front of me and not generate a few ideas.

All it takes is a few moments to jot down a story idea.  Just keep your eyes open and a notebook handy.


Research and Outlining: Which Comes First?

This week I started my next project for Red Line.  Next Thursday I have to turn in Chapter 1, an outline, and a bibliography.

One of my students wanted to know if I research or outline first.  This is one of those the chicken or the egg kinds of questions.  In most cases I work on them simultaneously.

When Redline asked me to write about the Ancient Maya, I was faced with a topic that was far too broad for a single book.  I could write about their cities, how they lived, their religion or their science.  I could write about how we have learned about them and what we don’t know.  The theories about why their civilization declined are numerous.  Mayan technology, mathematics and agriculture are all worthy topics and far to vast to squeeze into one volume.

Fortunately, Abdo had given me a list of things to include so that the book would parallel the others in the series.  I used this list as a rough outline.  With that in hand, I started my research.  I needed the topics in the outline because simply searching on the Maya was too broad. With that kind of search the material I found wouldn’t be focused or detailed enough.  But with the topics I could find what I needed to know to create a detailed outline.

So the process goes like this:

Read the spec sheet.

Do a small amount of research, looking for topics that would make good chapters.

Create a rough outline, possible just with the chapter titles.

Research and outline chapter 1.  Research and outline chapter 2.  Etc.

Is this method perfect?  Not really. Sometimes I’ll discover information that isn’t in the outline but should be so I have to combine chapters. Sometimes a topic turns out to be too narrow to carry a chapter.  But this is when I want to find these things out. Editors generally don’t consider your outline to be the final word but it does let them know what you consider important and which topics you plan to cover.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some research to do and an outline to smooth out.



Competing Titles

It is important to know which books on the market will compete with your own manuscript.  The topic should be a section in any nonfiction proposal you put together.  But it is also something you should know because it can tell you whether or not to pursue a topic.

The first step is to do a search on Amazon.  Keep it simple.  “Black bears Smoky Mountains.”  Hint #1: Remember to search only in books.  It narrowed this search from 515 results to 25.  If you don’t turn up any titles, you might have a problem on your hands — zero interest.  But here are 25 items.  Here are some of the things that I look for to narrow things down.

I write nonfiction for children and teens so I rule out fiction and titles for an adult audience.  Since I publish traditionally, I also rule out Create Space titles.  That leaves one competing title for this topic – The Moon of the Bears (The Thirteen Moon Series) by Jean Craighead George.  The publisher is HarperCollins and the publication date 1993.  It doesn’t look like this book is still in print so again I would want to poke around to try to judge interest level.

But let’s say it was a brand new titles – just a year old. If you only have one competing title and it is written by someone like Jean Craighead George, you probably do not wand to go toe-to-toe.  Does that mean you should give up?  No way.  It means that you come up with way to write your book without competing.  How can you do this?

Change the age range of your book.  George’s book is for grades 4 – 6.  You could avoid competing by:

  • Writing a picture book for grades K – 2.
  • Writing a book about a particular cub that was rehabilitated and released to the wild.
  • Focus on a ranger that works with bears.

Another thing that you can do is show that your work is superior.  Let’s say the book was written by a new nonfiction author and published by a new, unknown press.  The reviews were awful.  You can point out that your work corrects faults in other books.  Or if the information in the book is anecdotal, base yours on recent wildlife studies and tell the editor that this is what you are doing.

Be prepared to show an editor that there are books (interest) but that there is still room for your book.  If you can do this, they will know that you are a writer who does her homework.





Other books on your topic published in the last 5 years.  How does your book differ?  My book covers a greater breadth than other titles and is more scientific.  Given the interest in STEM titles, I’m going to emphasize that aspect.