Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference

If you’re in California (or feel like traveling) and want to learn pretty much everything there is to learn about how to improve your novel, come to the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference from August 15-17. There will be some very talented teachers and authors there, including Jonathan Maberry, Deborah Halverson, and Philip Athans, whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with at other WD online events.

I’ll be participating on the Ask the Agent panel, taking pitches, and leading a workshop called “Crafting the Bulletproof Query Letter,” where I’ll share all the secrets of what elements of a query letter get you noticed (in a good way).

Journalist Porter Anderson is offering a discount on registration with code “PORTER.”

Find me there in a green-and-pink print dress.

Agenting explained, part one: An overview

Today is #AgentsDay on Twitter. In honor of the occasion (and in honor of the fact that a lot of writers have asked me this question lately), I wanted to write my What I Do All Day post.

When I tell people I’m a literary agent, the ones who know what I do immediately start telling me about the novel they’re working on. The ones who don’t ask me what I do all day, and here’s how I explain it: I work in book futures. Agents are not salaried; we live on money paid out from the 15% our agencies take from our clients’ earnings. When we sign a client, we do so because we believe that we will make a return (money) on our initial investment (time and energy and phone calls to editors) in their property (their book). We believe that our investment will pay off because our clients have a product we love. We invest because we believe their product has a bright future. Sometimes we’re right and an editor buys a book. Sometimes we’re crazy right and the editor buys the book that turns out to be The Next Big Thing. Sometimes we’re wrong and we can’t sell a book.

Being wrong is the reason I tell people I represent authors, not books. Maybe I can’t sell a client’s first book, but the second one hits big. When I sign a client, I do so with the intent of representing them as they pursue a long career as a writer. I am not interested in representing one-hit wonders, unless maybe those one-hit wonders are Harper Lee or Margaret Mitchell. I have faith in the talents of all my clients, even though they write across a huge range of genres, for all different ages. When I interview a potential client, I always ask what they’re working on right now. A potential client who hasn’t started a second book after finishing the first book isn’t a good fit for me.

I was at a writers conference recently, and during a lecture by an author, an audience member asked, “How do I get an agent?” My response was, “Write a great book.” It sounds like a joke, but writing a great book is really ninety-seven percent of the battle. The other three percent is composed of things like a good social media presence, your vision of your career as an author, how you handle yourself as a writing professional, and whether you’ve queried the agents who are right for your book. (You could send me the best cookbook on the planet, but I’d still pass on it because I don’t represent cookbooks. I don’t even know where my kitchen is; you don’t want me representing your cookbook.)

Agents are in the business of long-term career management and adding value to writers’ careers. In addition to selling books, we can add that value by advising authors on their brands, editing, selling rights, and managing finances. Future posts on these subjects to come.

 

Writing the Breakout Middle Grade Novel

On May 29 at 1PM EDT, I’ll be teaching a Writers Digest workshop called Writing the Breakout Middle Grade Novel. Anyone is welcome to register. If you’re writing middle grade, or maybe think you are but aren’t sure, or want to learn more about what makes a great MG novel, I’d love to have you attend.

 

The webinar will consist of a lecture followed by a Q&A session, where I’ll answer questions from attendees live. Can’t make the live webinar? You’re still welcome to register. After the webinar, all who register will receive a link to a recording of the full webinar and Q&A session. All attendees (in real time or not) are invited to submit 500 words of the opening of their middle grade novel, which I will critique after the webinar. Instructions for sending in the critique will be emailed to you after you register.

 

Some topics I’ll touch on in the webinar include the elements of a great MG voice, why middle grade and middle school are not the same thing, and how to know whether the novel you’re working on is MG or YA.

 

Learn more about the webinar and register here. Hope to see you there!

Pitching in person

I love going to writers conferences. I get to see new places, meet editors and other agents, and help writers put their best foot forward. At just about every conference, there’s a live pitch session, where writers get the chance to pitch their book to an agent. A lot of writers come to me and they’re nervous. I understand why; they’ve worked hard on their book and this is a chance for it to get the attention of a larger audience.

I say no to a lot of pitches. Most of the time, it’s not because the pitch is bad, but because the book is just not something that pushes my YES I HAVE TO HAVE THIS BOOK button. If there’s still time in the pitch session after I turn a book down, I often ask the writer if they have a question I can answer. The question I get asked the most is How can I improve my pitch? Here is some of the advice I give.

 

  • Loglines. I hate them. I know I’m not the only agent who does. To me, they’re completely meaningless as the opening to a pitch. They might be nice to have once we sign a client and put together pitches for editors, but I believe too many writers waste time writing loglines that don’t help them catch an agent’s attention. Spend about one minute working on a logline for every thirty minutes spent working on your pitch.
  • Remember the point of a pitch: It’s not to tell your life story or how the book came to exist. It’s to get the agent to want to read the book. Everything else is secondary, especially if you write fiction. With nonfiction it’s different, because your life story and how the book came to exist are part of your book’s platform. But since I represent fiction, that’s what I’m focusing on.
  • The overall structure of a good pitch: Introduce your main character and tell me something about him or her that makes me want to know more about their story. Then introduce your setting, as all characters are a product of their settings. Next, tell me what’s at stake for your main character. (AKA: What’s their biggest point of conflict?) Then stop. The end of your pitch should leave me wanting more.
  • Pitching is like getting to Carnegie Hall: You gotta practice man, practice. Practice reading your pitch aloud in front of a mirror. Hearing it can sometimes help you fix syntax or other errors. Practice reading your pitch to your friends, your significant other, your pet, your critique group, your webcam, whomever. The more you read it, the more comfortable you’ll become with it. You don’t need to memorize it word for word, but know how you want to lay out the characters and plot. That way, if you get in front of an agent and nerves hit, you’ll still know what you want to talk about.
  • Know that agents are human, and we’re generally nice people who want to hear about your book because it might just be exactly what we’re looking for. We will not bite. We will not tell you that you are a terrible person. We will not reach across the table and steal your wallet.
  • “No” is not an invitation for you to justify why we should read your book. Every agent has different reasons for saying yes or no to a pitch. Sometimes I say yes. A majority of the time, I say no. I feel it’s important for writers to understand that when an agent says that your book is not right for him or her, they mean it. That’s the end of the discussion. The more a writer argues with me about why I’m saying no, the less I want to say yes, because if this person is going to argue with me and I haven’t even read their book, how am I going to manage their career?
  • The best place to look at a good pitch is your local bookstore. Pick up some novels that are in a similar vein to yours and read the jacket copy. Jacket copy, like your pitch, is meant to entice readers. It introduces the main character(s), presents the problem, and leaves you at a point where you (hopefully) want to pick up the book and find out what happens.
  • Be able to pitch your entire book in 60 seconds, but have more information on hand if the agent wants to hear more.

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.