Why your book is like a house

“What do you look for in a book?” is something I get asked a fair amount. I have answers, too: a memorable main character, a setting that fits well with the person the main character is, a well-paced plot, and other characteristics of a book that will keep me reading to the end. But I’m also one of those people who learns by touching and having concrete, real-world examples, so I want to share my favorite analogy regarding what I look for when I consider a manuscript for possible representation. (This applies to all works, for any age.)

When it comes to houses, there are some things that aren’t really negotiable in terms of making it livable. The foundation can’t be cracked. The walls should be straight. The roof should not leak. The plumbing needs to work. It can’t be infested with anything that has more legs than I do. To me, a manuscript is very much like a house. It also needs a solid foundation and structure. It can’t have giant holes in the plot or unexplained character actions. Bad dialogue, to me, is as bad as a leaky roof, because it’s pretty hard to put a book together and not have two characters talk to each other. Even though books get edited, I need to see some effort and polish in a submission. Good fundamentals aren’t negotiable.

I can and do edit client manuscripts before sending them to publishers, and I look at this like working on the interior of a house. I take on a manuscript when I see that it’s the equivalent of a house in generally good working order. My idea of editing is sort of like interior decorating. I can work with the author and we can give their “house” a new paint job, or rearrange the furniture, or do some landscaping, or even knock out a wall. We can take something that’s good and give it a wow factor. But none of these changes can be made to a work that doesn’t have an unshakeable structure.


Comp titles: With great power comes great responsibility

“My book has all the excitement of The Hunger Games, the romance of Twilight, and the magic of Harry Potter.”

I’ve seen lines like this more than once at the end of a query letter. While I appreciate what the author is trying to do, this is an ineffective way to show an agent how your book compares to what else is in the market.

Before I became an agent, I was a full-time librarian, a job I still do and love part time. My favorite part of librarianship has always been, and probably always will be, reader’s advisory, the art of matching books to readers. It’s one of the things I like about agenting, too, finding that book that I hope will be a perfect match for an editor. When doing reader’s advisory, it’s not enough to just recommend whatever’s on top of the NYT list. Good reader’s advisory requires interviewing a reader, finding their specific likes and dislikes, and doing your best to put a book in their hands that will have them come back to you for more recommendations.

As a writer, you have a responsibility to fairly compare your book to others in the marketplace just as I have the responsibility to listen to a reader and get them the book they want, not just the book everyone else happens to be reading. I know that when I see a YA author only compare their books to the mega-bestsellers, especially when the books don’t have that much in common, it’s a sign that the author probably doesn’t read much YA. This applies to authors of all genres for all audiences. Not all thrillers compare well to Gone Girl. If you choose to put comparative titles, titles that you believe share a readership with your book, in your query letter, choose them wisely.

At writers’ conferences I’ll often ask during a pitch session, “Whom do you write like?” or “If you picture your book on a bookstore shelf, all last names being equal alphabetically, who is next to you?” I’m wary of two answers: if an author only names huge authors whose books really aren’t like theirs, or if they say their book is like nothing else currently for sale (because if there’s nothing else like your book on the shelf, there probably isn’t much of a demand). I know every author wants a career as big as Suzanne Collins’s, and as an agent I’d love for all my clients to have careers like hers. But it’s more important, if you choose to put comp titles in your query letter, to choose authors whose books fairly compare to yours. It helps the agent get a clearer idea of the type of book you’ve written and it’s your chance to show an agent that you’ve done some research on starting your writing career.

Small update to manuscript wish list

With all the pitch contests happening on Twitter at the moment, I just wanted to do a quick update of what I’m really wanting to see in my submission pile these days. As always, if you write in any of the genres listed on my website, don’t hesitate to query. Outside of the more general list, I’m especially hoping to see:

  • Upmarket, yet more commercial, women’s fiction (think Sarah Addison Allen, Liane Moriarty, or Jodi Picoult)
  • Literary YA
  • Fantasy and science fiction for people like me who aren’t big readers of fantasy and science fiction (think The Night Circus, Ready Player One, The Ocean at the End of the Lane)
  • Mysteries and thrillers that can stand alone
  • Books about modern-day Jewish people, for any audience

And as always, I have a special place in my heart for body image books, women’s fiction about sisters, domestic thrillers, and anything involving beauty pageants or cheerleading.

Deal announcement: J. Todd Scott

From Publishers Weekly, Book Deals, Week of November 17, 2014:

Putnam Gets ‘Bad’ with Scott
Former lawyer and DEA agent J. Todd Scott sold his novel Bad Land, in a two-book preempt, to Nita Taublib at Putnam… (read the rest at PW’s site).

J. Todd Scott, DEA ASAC (he’s a real-life Hank Schrader), writes fiction inspired by his work, and he’s got some great stories. Bad Land deals with corruption in a Texas border town, where the line between criminals and law enforcement is often blurry. I’m thrilled to have brokered this deal and I hope all of you get the chance to read Bad Land when Putnam publishes it in 2016.

Visit Todd online at http://jtoddscott.com.

Register for my Writers Digest webinar

If you’re writing a YA novel, or just thinking about writing one, I encourage you to come to my Writers Digest webinar, What All Agents Want in a Great YA Novel.

The webinar will be live on Tuesday, July 29 at 1 PM Eastern/10 Pacific. The great thing about these Writers Digest webinars is that even if you can’t attend in person, you can still get all the benefits of attending as long as you register. All registrants will receive a link to a recording of the session, answers to any of the questions not covered in the live Q&A at the end of the webinar, and a 500-word critique of their YA novel.

More details are available at the registration link. I hope to see you there!

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.