Writing Great Openings for YA or MG novels

On Thursday, October 3 at 1 PM Eastern/10 AM Pacific, I’ll be teaching another class for Writers Digest. Last time, I had the opportunity to talk about what goes into a great YA novel, and this time, I’ll talk about writing great openings for YA or MG novels.

All registrants for the class get a 500-word critique of their opening pages from me, even if you can’t attend the webinar for the live broadcast. Writers Digest understands that sometimes, life and work get in the way of having the time to sit for a 90-minute webinar, so they’re very flexible about the ways you can attend. Once registered, you’ll receive a link to attend live, but you’ll also get a link to the archived webinar to watch on your own time. The 500-word critique is an exclusive perk for webinar registrants, too.

I’ve always said that I need 50 pages to know if a book is good but only 1 to know if it’s not. Come to the webinar and I’ll explain why I have this philosophy, and how to create first pages that will get me (and other readers) to read to page 50 and beyond.

Queries post for WriteOnCon

WriteOnCon is an annual online conference aimed at writers of children’s and YA books. There’s a little something for everyone: live blogs and panels, critique forums where you can post your work and possibly get it read by an agent, and discussion threads. Last year, I participated in a pitch discussion thread, and this year I wrote a blog post: 60 Queries in 60 Minutes

For this post, I did a live blogging of my slush pile reading. It takes about a minute for me to read a query letter and decide whether I’d like to look at the sample pages, so I chose 60 queries at random from my slush pile and posted my reactions to each one. Even though the conference is aimed at children’s and YA writers, I included some adult books in there as well, because a great query can happen in any genre. Also, some elements of what makes a great query (clear picture of what the characters are like, showing me what they have at stake, etc.) are universal across genres.

You can see all the blog posts from agents, editors, and authors for this year’s WriteOnCon here: WOC Program.

My interview at Literary Rejections

Recently, I had the opportunity to do an interview with James of Literary Rejections, and he asked me some terrific questions, including “During your career as a librarian what aspects of that community did you find invaluable and fear might be lost to future generations?” and “How important was the branding of CK Webber Associates in an industry of ever-increasing competitors?”

Check out my answers here: Literary Rejections interview with Carlie Webber, to see some of my thoughts, including the web design wisdom I learned from Google.

99 problems (in my submission pile)

  1. Query is for a book in a genre I don’t represent.
  2. Query is for a vampire book. Come back in 3-5 years.
  3. Query letter is addressed to “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern.”
  4. Query letter is addressed to “Dear Agent.” My name is not Agent.
  5. Query letter is not addressed at all. It just begins, “Hi!”
  6. Query letter is addressed to Kristin Nelson. (This is not a problem if you’re actually sending your query letter to Kristin Nelson.)
  7. Query letter is 2 pages long.
  8. Query opens with a rhetorical question.
  9. Query opens with a tagline.
  10. Author has spent too much time constructing a one-sentence hook and not enough building the rest of the query.
  11. By the end of the query, I’ve learned more about the author than I have about the book. (Does not apply to nonfiction.)
  12. I can see that you’ve copied 100 other agents on your query letter.
  13. Emotional development is not plot.
  14. Query letter is in first person POV.
  15. Query letter never tells me the name of the main character (unless your book is Fight Club).
  16. Synopsis is 5 pages long.
  17. Synopsis doesn’t tell me how the book ends.
  18. Author insults me in the query letter.
  19. Author insults her/himself in the query letter.
  20. Author outright lies to me in the query letter.
  21. Author wants me to buy a copy of the manuscript before I decide whether I want to represent it.
  22. Author asks that I tell him/her how to make his/her novel better if I decline to see material beyond the query.
  23. Author asked me on Twitter if I wanted to read his/her book.
  24. Author sends me a link to a Google doc or Kindle download instead of an attached or c&p’ed query.
  25. I’ve already read and declined this query.
  26. It’s a query for five books.
  27. Query letter tells me that the book is going to be a bestseller and make millions of dollars.
  28. Query letter turns out to be hate mail from an author whose book I’ve already passed on.
  29. Author says his/her book is the next Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games/Da Vinci Code/Gone Girl. It isn’t.
  30. Author has decided that the book has a job to do (like teaching kids that bullying is bad, m’kay?), and it’s not even published yet.
  31. Author hasn’t bothered to read through my submission guidelines.
  32. Author says, “I’m submitting to you because of your interest in [area in which I have no interest at all]…”
  33. Author seems to think I can sell Harry Potter fanfiction.
  34. Submission guidelines ask for the first 30 pages, but author has sent me pages 50-80. (Or worse, pages 1-10, 50-60, and 100-110)
  35. Query letter is just a rehash of the opening pages
  36. Query letter is mostly a direct quote of the opening pages.
  37. Author tells me in query letter exactly where/to whom I should submit the book.
  38. Author tells me s/he doesn’t have the time, talent, or inclination to write an actual query letter, so here’s the manuscript.
  39. Author thinks I run a publishing house, not a literary agency.
  40. Author tells me the book doesn’t get really good until page 100.
  41. Author has sent me the opening pages of Pride and Prejudice, thinking I wouldn’t notice.
  42. Author is writing to a trend, and I can tell.
  43. Author tells me s/he’s writing this book to fill a gap in the marketplace. The gap in the marketplace doesn’t exist. The author just thinks it does because s/he doesn’t read in the genre in which s/he writes.
  44. Author tells me that the book is for everybody, of all ages and reading interests.
  45. Query letter contains the line, “There is no other book like this one out there.”
  46. Sixteen characters are introduced in the query letter.
  47. Query letter doesn’t leave me wanting more of the book
  48. Book is about a subject I know quite well, and the author didn’t do his/her research.
  49. Author spends more time on developing the marketing plan for a fiction work than writing a good query.
  50. Author tried calling the agency to pitch his book.
  51. Author became belligerent when told we don’t take pitches via phone.
  52. Author tried coming to the agency’s front door to pitch his book.
  53. Query letter included with a box of cat treats, chocolate, original drawings, and needlepoint. I accept only pens with a tip .5 mm or smaller, pink or emerald green Moleskine notebooks, and Sephora gift cards.
  54. Author tells me the book is perfect as is and s/he’s not willing to do any editing.
  55. Book is already self-published and it’s sold 5 copies in 3 months.
  56. Author comes to me with an offer from a brand-new publisher with no track record, telling me s/he wants me to negotiate the contract with this publisher.
  57. I respond to a query, asking for more pages, and the author tells me s/he’s already self-published it “just to get it out there.”
  58. I respond to a query, asking for more pages, and the author tells me s/he’s already signed with an agent or publisher and not given me the chance to throw my hat in the ring.
  59. The word count doesn’t even come in the appropriate genre/age range ballpark.
  60. The spelling and grammar make me cry.
  61. Lots of new places and beings are introduced in the opening pages with no background or world building.
  62. Plot resembles the plot of 17 other queries I’ve read that day.
  63. The main character doesn’t show up within the first three pages.
  64. The main character’s BFF has no personality of his/her own.
  65. The main character has no personality of his/her own.
  66. Things happen to the main character, rather than the MC directing his/her own life.
  67. Main character breaks the fourth wall for no good reason.
  68. The main character, a woman, only gets to have an adventure/interesting plot because she is sexually assaulted.
  69. There’s a dead prostitute or stripper on page 1.
  70. There’s a prologue that belongs somewhere else in the book.
  71. There’s an action-packed prologue that tries to hide the fact that there’s no action for the first 10 chapters.
  72. The opening pages are infodump through dialogue. (I think the Smart Bitches call this “As You Know, Bob.”)
  73. The opening pages don’t make me feel anything.
  74. We get a description of the main character from him/her looking at him/herself in the bathroom mirror.
  75. The voice doesn’t sound authentic.
  76. The book starts in the wrong place.
  77. The ratio of world building to character building is wrong.
  78. There’s no discernible plot.
  79. Plot is: Normal human character travels through a portal to a fantasy/alternate world. These are nigh on impossible to sell.
  80. Every single adult in a MG or YA novel is an antagonist.
  81. Every single adult in a MG or YA novel is completely awesome, supportive, and fascinating.
  82. Book breaks all the same rules that Harry Potter breaks. Book is not Harry Potter.
  83. So much effort is put into the first ten pages that the next 40 pages are a disappointment.
  84. It’s December 2nd and this is your November NaNoWriMo effort.
  85. The author doesn’t know his/her audience.
  86. It’s a humor book, but it’s not funny.
  87. The setting is more interesting than the characters.
  88. The concept isn’t original.
  89. The concept is original but the voice falls flat.
  90. Protagonist is involved in a mystery because he/she did something really stupid.
  91. I don’t know what the main character has at stake.
  92. The peripheral characters have more at stake than the main character does.
  93. By the end of page 5 I know a lot more about the peripheral characters than I do about the main character.
  94. Book opens with the main character waking up in the morning. I know The Hunger Games begins this way. This book is not The Hunger Games.
  95. I have to read three or four quotes from other writers/singers/poets before I get to the author’s actual work.
  96. Main character is a Mary Sue/Gary Stu.
  97. Author’s voice overshadows the main character’s voice.
  98. Author includes a character named Carly, Carley, Carleigh, Karli, or Karlee, because obviously this is wrong. (I’m kidding!)
  99. Even though there’s nothing really wrong with the query letter, synopsis, or opening pages, I’m just not that into it.

The girl power litmus test

This is not a post about what does or doesn’t make a strong female character. This is not a post about what exactly “girl power” is, or if you can have it if you wear makeup/don’t wear makeup/like boys/don’t like boys, etc. This is only about my one highly personal test of whether or not I want to read a book with a female protagonist.

Even though I have a submissions wishlist, like all agents, I am happy to see anything that even remotely fits my submission guidelines. Within these guidelines, I have certain genre likes and dislikes, but I give just about everything that comes in the submission pile a read. Given that there’s only one of me and I read everything that comes in the pile, I’ve developed some quick and dirty rules for what I want to pursue further.

When reading a book with a female protagonist of any age, I want to have one of two reactions:

  1. I want to go to the mall with her!
  2. I want her on my side in a fight!

That’s it. We can debate all day about what it means for a female character to be strong and likeable, but I don’t really focus a lot on either of those two definitions. I just go with how the protagonist fits into one or more of my above categories. If she fits one definition, that’s great. If she fits two, even better. If she doesn’t fit either, the book is not for me.

Examples of female characters I want to go to the mall with, but don’t want on my side in a fight:

Examples of female characters I want on my side in a fight, but don’t want to go to the mall with:

Examples of characters I want on my side in a fight and then go to the mall with when the fight is over:

Submissions wishlist: Upmarket women’s fiction

Upmarket women’s fiction, to me, means books with female protagonists where the primary plot doesn’t focus on men, marriage, or babies. I am looking to acquire romance, but I don’t consider romance and women’s fiction to be the same thing. When I think about the kind of women’s fiction I like to read and want to represent, the best I can explain is that I want books about women, married or not, with children or not, who go through any number of life’s regular dramas. I want books told from women’s points of view that are about love, adventure, family, work, and personal goals. I want books that pass the Bechdel test, but I won’t automatically reject a book that doesn’t. At the end of the book, I want to see that the main character has achieved something that doesn’t involve acquiring a boyfriend, husband, or baby. If your book’s central plot revolves around a woman’s struggle with infertility, for example, I am probably not the right agent for you. Within this realm I especially love stories about sisters and changes within women’s friendships.

Books that fit the description of “upmarket women’s fiction” are usually standalones, though sequels are not unheard of. They’re a balance of literary and commercial and make for great book club selections. They’re often, but not always, set in the real world. They can incorporate elements of mystery, romance, history, pretty much any genre.

Some recent examples of upmarket women’s fiction include:

and some “classic” examples of upmarket women’s fiction include:

I’ve enjoyed these women’s fiction titles, some more upmarket than others:

With upmarket women’s fiction, as with all genres, I like distinctive voices, a clear vision of what’s at stake for the main character, commercial viability, and literary style.

Important information on What All Agents Want in a Great YA Novel

Not only is there still time to register for my Writers Digest workshop, What All Agents Want in a Great YA Novel, but as long as you register, you don’t need to attend in person.

So if you have to be somewhere else at 1PM Eastern on Thursday, June 13, or can’t spare the 90 minutes for the webinar but want the information and the 500-word critique, don’t worry. If you sign up for the workshop now, you’ll have access to the presentation (slides plus audio; not everything I say is going to appear on the slides) and the chance to get your work reviewed by me. Even if you sign up with the intention of attending live and it ends up that you can’t, don’t worry. I’m still happy to read your work and answer your questions.

 

FIRST FIVE FRENZY with Carlie Webber of CK Webber Associates

Carlie Webber:

Today, I did an interview with Chasing the Crazies about what works for me (and doesn’t) in the first pages of a manuscript. Check it out for my last words on first lines.

Originally posted on chasingthecrazies:

FFF SideWords

 

 

 

If you’re like me, you toil for hours editing and fine-tuning the first pages of your manuscript.  You look at the first lines to make sure they are compelling and tight.  You examine the next few paragraphs, hoping your MC’s voice is already taking hold of the reader.

 

The First Five Frenzy is all about getting an agent’s perspective on what works, and what fails, in those first pages of a manuscript.  By reading each agent’s comments, I hope you’ll learn how to make your manuscript a shining gem that will be requested time and time again.

 

Today, I am proud to share Literary Agent, Carlie Webber’s perspective on what’s important in those critical first pages.

 

 

Amy: Many writers have the impression that a great first line is imperative to drawing in the reader. How important is a first line to you as an…

View original 597 more words

What all agents want in a great YA novel

If you want to know the answers, come to my class!

On Thursday, June 13 at 1 PM EDT, I’m teaching a class through Writers Digest: What all agents want in a great YA novel. Information on pricing, registration, and what you’ll get out of the class is available at the link.

While anyone is invited to take the class, you’ll benefit from it most if you’re working on a YA novel, are interested in writing one, or are sort of on the fence as to whether your YA novel is YA versus adult or MG. All attendees can send me the first 500 words of their novel and receive a written critique from me.
Questions? I’m happy to answer them here, if they’re not answered in the workshop description.

Blood, bones, butter, books

Earlier this week, I finished Blood, Bones, and Butter: The inadvertent education of a reluctant chef by Gabrielle Hamilton. I was taken with it from page one. To say that I’m not the target audience for this book is an understatement. I’m one of those people who eats to live, rather than lives to eat. I despise cooking and prefer not to enter my kitchen at all save for washing the dishes. I’ve never been to Italy and it’s not #1 on my choice of travel destinations. I have a healthy, awesomely boring relationship with my husband. None of this mattered. I was with Chef Hamilton in every scene. I admired her bravery as she pursued foreign countries in search of learning not just about food, but what it means to give people an excellent food experience. I admired how tough and exacting she was in her cooking and the business of restaurant ownership. Things that would have sent me running screaming in the opposite direction, she faced head on.

As I read, though, I didn’t quite understand what the title meant by “reluctant chef.” Food is the primary focus of the book. It seemed to me that being a chef was all she was ever meant to do. Wasn’t she fascinated with food and hospitality from the time she was a child? It wasn’t until I watched this video shortly after reading the book that I really got what she meant, where she talked about wanting to be a writer but knowing she had to have a job that enabled her to make some sort of living:

http://www.makers.com/gabrielle-hamilton (direct link because I can’t embed the video)

(starts around 1:45)

“I’m not convinced that it’s important to make a living at the thing you aspire to. I have a skill set in a kitchen. That’s where I had my first job as a dishwasher and I’ve been in a kitchen ever since. I’m glad that I have a life to write about.”

Regardless of my dislike of cooking, that sentence spoke to me. Skill set can be something completely opposite from passion, and those who can combine both are lucky. I possess at least one skill set that I have zero passion for. I also possess passion for things at which I have zero skill. And after my many years of training in music, I can tell you that sometimes, no amount of passion will ever give you the skills to succeed. I know, not inspiring, but true.

It’s about being honest regarding your skill set versus your passion. Sometimes the two line up. Sometimes they don’t, and that’s a big part of why I pass on a lot manuscripts. I’ve read fiction by authors who were experts in a nonfiction field but couldn’t craft relatable, interesting fictional characters. The skill couldn’t meet the passion of the moment.

Chef Hamilton improved her kitchen skills by traveling and experiencing new and different parts of the world. Her experiences taught her what it meant to be hungry, to be vigilant, to be hospitable, and to make great food. Just as she expanded her skill set, so can writers. There’s no one right way to do it, but if you want to make a living as a writer you have to have skills. It’s not enough to have passion. Grammar matters. Voice matters. Pacing and setting and a great hook matter.  Mix passion and skill, serve, and I’ll come back for more.