Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Beating Pre-Conference nerves

As I'm preparing myself for the SCBWI Carolinas writers conference this weekend (Sept. 19-21) I have been thinking about any tips I could give to writers who are attending this conference, who attend conferences in general, or who are looking to attend conferences but haven't made the plunge.

Many writers worry about how they'll battle their nerves and impress that agent or editor. It can be intimidating to approach someone you don't know and pitch your book or have a critique with them. I think agents and editors often get put on these pedestals. I guess we're seen as gatekeepers of sorts and getting through to us can lead you to the promised land of the published author. And you might worry you won't be able to impress us or get your pitch just right.  I'm not going to tell you to imagine the agent or editor you're approaching in their underwear (as that might make things a little weird and personally has never helped me with public speaking and nerves) but try to imagine them as a regular old human being (we are, we promise!). I personally get nervous before speeches, and most people do (even the best public speakers), and sometimes I get nervous meeting authors who I really admire. But, 9/10 times nerves are what happens before you actually start speaking, and once you start going they flit away.

If you tend to get nervous, practice can really help when it comes to pitching. Practice in front of a mirror; practice for friends or other writers. When you feel good about your pitch you likely won't be nearly as nervous about delivering it.  But, be careful not to practice it to the point where you repeat it word for word kind of robotically. Try to be natural. If you have a decent amount of time with that agent or editor start off with a friendly, "Hello. How are you? It's nice to meet you! I hope you're having a nice conference." Starting off friendly and open will break the ice a bit with the person you're talking to. Generally if someone is nice and warm to you, you return that sentiment. It's much easier to speak with someone who you warmed up a little. Make sense?

Remember: Getting nervous is part of being human, and my point is that we aren't scary and are generally friendly, understanding people. As an agent or editor we work with a lot of people and if we were unapproachable and cold, we probably wouldn't get too far in the field. As agents and editors we want nothing more than to find more great voices to work with and publish, and often times we find them at writers conferences. I appreciate the courage it takes to talk to us and I respect it immensely.

You've already made that first step and have finished a book! If you ask me that in itself is a huge accomplishment. Be proud of that and use that confidence to move to the next level. Getting published generally takes a lot of hard work and the more you work to get it, the more you read and practice your craft, the more you stay on top of what is working for your genre or age group, and the more you stay true to yourself as a writer the higher your chances of success. You have to be willing to work for it and it may be a tough journey and take time.

As an agent looking for new talent I really enjoy getting to help writers with their craft (and I think most editors and agents who attend conferences share this joy). We're not there to criticize or judge or turn you away--we attend conferences to help writers. So don't be afraid for that critique session. See it as an opportunity to learn and network and hopefully make it to that next level. Think of the possibility of meeting that perfect agent or editor for you. One often has to put themselves out there to get positive results, and remember we're there to help you!

I hope this was reassuring and helpful in some way!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What I look for in a protagonist

I hope everyone is having a fabulous September so far! I thought it might be helpful to those querying or looking to query me to give you a better sense of some of the types of protagonists I am drawn to...and not drawn to as much.

Female protagonists:

I admit I am generally drawn more to female protagonists than male, which probably is in part to me being a female :) (but I'd love to find some more boy-centric books too! See below.) and there are certain characters I find myself more interested in reading about than others. But, bottom line: if the story has an engaging voice, I could find myself reading almost anything.

I love to read about strong, independent female characters. I tend to shy away from stories about girls who depend on their boyfriends or significant others to be happy and don't have a life of their own apart from them. While, I love a good romance, I like to see who a character is apart from that.

I have a harder time relating to main characters who are fashion obsessed, too into their looks and social status. I wouldn't mind reading about a popular girl or budding fashionista in the least, but I want it to go deeper than the surface stuff. And I enjoy some scandal and fashion (i.e. Gossip Girl), but I want to relate to the characters in some way. So perhaps your main character is rich and seemingly has it all, but she longs to go to a public school and be seen  for herself not her background or wealth. That I can definitely get behind. Or she realizes being popular and all these things isn't so important. I love the Serena/Dan story line in Gossip Girl. Serena is not always the most likable and she makes mistakes, but there's more to her and I am a sucker for the star-crossed lovers story line. Dan is not part of her social group, he's seen as an outsider, yet they fall in love.

I would love to see something with a dancer (ballet, contemporary, hip hop etc.) or a budding filmmaker.

Give me a band geek (I was one myself) a kid into any of the arts, a kid who doesn't fit in, or an underdog and you've got my interest. I would love to see a girl who loves fantasy and sci-fi movies/TV and isn't ashamed of it. To add to this I've been loving novels like Eleanor and Park and Guy in Real Life. Give me a love story about two outsiders finding each other. There are so many love stories where even if the girl is a bit of a outsider she falls for the chiseled, tan star athlete and they end up together. I certainly can get into these types of romances, but two underdogs/outsiders getting together speaks to me on a deeper level.  Or a popular girl who falls for a "geek."

While I generally don't want a straight up romance (meaning the entire story is driven by boy meets girl, boy meets boy or girl meets girl and it doesn't go beyond that), I love when it's a part of the story in some way, but perhaps the main plot is a bit bigger than that.  One of my fave YA contemporaries is Perfect Chemistry. You have your starcrossed lovers and the romance is definitely central to the story, but it goes beyond that.  Alex is stuck in a gang and having trouble getting out which is another big part of the story. Brittany on the other hand seems like her life is perfect, but actually has a tough home life. So as you can see it goes deeper than just a romance.  Ok, I went a bit off topic here...back to protagonists!

I'd also like to see: a main character from another country now living in the US, characters of color, characters who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, characters struggling with their identity in any way, characters who perhaps are seen as outsiders by some because of their religion or beliefs etc.  Let's better represent all the wonderful cultures and backgrounds of the world!

Male protagonists:

I have a soft spot for "bad boys;" the misunderstood type, not the downright messing up on purpose all the time bad boys. So if your protagonist has committed 5 crimes, went to juvie and doesn't feel remorse or change it's probably not for me. But, if he was on the wrong side of the law and wants to change and works towards that, send it on over! It could even be the popular guy who is a bit of a womanizer but has changed his ways. I like some kind of edge, some kind of tough past that is turned around in some way.

Give me a guy who is a young Bill Gates (meaning he's really smart and perhaps fixes things or creates apps in his spare time or works on computers, a budding inventor) and is really sweet! Or maybe a guy who gets great grades and spends his spare time playing World of Warcraft with a heart of gold. I feel that some times really smart, sweet guys can be overlooked in YA for the tough, broody, guy.

The artsy guy: This guy has a passion for the arts. He's a musician, a painter, a sculptor, a writer, but whatever art it is he is all-in. It drives him. Think Adam from If I Stay.

I'm pretty open as long as this main character isn't overly shallow, a bad guy or a bully.

In the end, any character should be made up of many different parts. There won't be just one thing that drives them, or one part of their personality or one thing they're overcoming. It's how you combine those pieces that make the character. And it's how that character changes and grows throughout your novel that's also important.

I hope this helps some! This article is meant as a way to give you an inside look into what I'm drawn to. It's definitely not a call for anyone to write something using all the things I like above. You have to write what comes naturally to you! Feel free to ask questions in the comments section and I'll answer what I can.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Querying Tip: The Subject line

I wanted to write a brief article on that all important subject line of an email query. I think a lot of people don't realize how important it really is. A good subject line can get your query read faster! So... what makes a good subject line? *Note:*This is personal to me, other agents likely have different submission policies and preferences.

First off, I generally read queries from oldest to newest, but I skim daily to look out for anything that needs my attention such as offers of representation/publication, check-ins, and other requests. So to look out for these things that need my attention, I am scanning subject lines. Most subject lines say something like "Query" or "Submission" or "Looking for Agent." These are all very general. While you can't write much in a subject line I think it's best to make it clear what I'll be seeing when I open the email.

Here are some examples:

YA contemp. TITLE

MG fantasy TITLE

I want to know what genre and age group the query is for as well as the title. Don't try to pitch me in a subject line. I open all emails and read them. There's just not enough space in a subject line to pitch. So no Gossip Girl meets Hannibal in the subject (hmm...that intrigues me. I wonder if that could even work? :)

You don't need to say "Query from a Published Author" or anything about you in the subject line. That can be explained in the query itself.  But, if it's a referral or a conference submission or requested material you should note that:

Requested Material: TITLE
SCBWI NY submission: TITLE

I look at requested materials, conference submissions and referrals before other queries. I keep a list of what I'm participating in on my blog so if you want your query read faster try to get involved!

And if you have an offer of rep note that very prominently in the subject line:

OFFER OF REP: TITLE

As you're likely noticing, I keep mentioning to put the TITLE in the subject of your query email. While titles often change from query to published work, never underestimate the power of a good title. A good title can grab my interest in a subject line. Put the title after the genre and age group.

Don't waste space writing "query" or "submission" anywhere in your subject line. I have a query email that is separate from my main email. So I assume anything coming to that email is a query.

I have always been a genre girl, but right now I am looking primarily for YA and MG contemporary. I'm tough when it comes to taking on fantasy of any kind as it's an area I know well...so, it has to be that much better for me to take it on. My list is pretty full of dark projects at the moment. I have dark contemporary and horror, so I am very selective in these areas as well currently. But, of course, what I'm looking for at any given time will shift somewhat as I fill spaces on my list or the industry changes so check out my blog occasionally for updates!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Revision Tips from Authors for Authors Post 2

Hi everyone! I hope you're enjoying these great revisions tips from some of my clients so far. Today I will be posting tips from two more authors. I hope you enjoy them and find them helpful!  

Look out for Post 3 next week!

Erica Chapman, YA contemporary:


I've heard from several sources that good writing comes in the revision stage of building a book and I have to agree. I do love the idea of getting words down in a first draft, but when I can manipulate those same words to really mean something--really make someone FEEL something, that's when a revision is working for me. There are a few questions I have to answer in each revision, here are a few...
  • Continuity errors - If you have flashbacks, do they make sense? Is the timeline right?
  • Transitions - Are the ends/beginnings of the chapters and scenes smooth? Does the reader always know where they stand?
  • Are the words in my story being used correctly - Like, "Microscope for Telescope"
  • Does each character have goals? Are there enough conflicts keeping them from them?
  • Does your MC have a choice of what to do to get to their goal? Can they leave and go back to regular life (life before the inciting incident) and be fine? If the answer is yes, then add in some type of conflict that changes that. If the answer is no, then you're on the right track.
  • Is everything authentic? - Do the actions of each character make sense? Does the plot make sense with how you've shaped your characters to be?
  • Do the sentences sound like they should? - I agree with Annie from an earlier blog post, reading out-loud helps find those words and sentences that are awkward.
  • Are the characters' actions physically possible? - Act them out and see.
After my CP's or readers send their feedback, I like to let it sink in for a little while. Maybe a week, two weeks, or so. Then I read through their notes all at once and see if I answer "Oh yeah! or Wow, how did I not see that?" those are edits I make right away. If they've brought something up that makes me think but that I may not have an answer for at the time, then I keep those on the back burner and when I read through my MS again and revise I think about what the reader noticed and see if I notice it too. Usually, they're onto something. I always weigh each comment the same whether I agree or not because there's a reason they noted it, and maybe I can address it in a way that fixes the issue the reader had but also keeps the integrity of the story the same.

For revision, the best thing I've learned is to take step back and read the story as I believe a reader would. It's not easy, but when I do, I find the most errors that way. Happy revising!

Suzanne Warr, Middle Grade:


Lord of the Rings cake: The Eye of Sauron!
When I get revision notes, whether from myself, my CPs, or my lovely agent, I like to take a step back and look at the book as a whole.  Think of this as envisioning the cake you want to set out before your party guests.  There are lots of delicious kinds of cake in the world, from Angel Food cake to Chunky Apple Oatmeal, to Triple Chocolate Lava, to Maple Pecan.  No one cake can be all of these—if it tried, it would wind up a disgusting mess!  So, what kind of cake are you making, or what kind of story are you telling?

Once you’ve got your eye firmly fixed on that deliciousness and can see the big picture for your story, look at the notes and organize them by type.  Are they integral to the plot, indicating a fundamental flaw in its development?  Did you drop out of character, or forget to detail a scene?  Think of plot issues and other big ticket items as the stage where you take a sample taste of your cake, to see if you forgot the salt or didn’t mix in the baking powder properly.  Thankfully you can rework your story more easily than you can bake a cake from scratch under deadline, but it can still seem a daunting task.  However, at the end of the day, these are fundamental issues you want to fix before ‘serving’ your cake!


Other issues may be more superficial, and can be thought of as the icing and decorations.  Impatient writers may see these as less necessary, but where would a wedding cake be without white frosting and gorgeous wedding trim?  And what about a Triple Chocolate Lava cake if the last layer is the shaved chocolate curls?  You don’t want to leave that off, right?  So, when reading through the feedback, picture your book as you most want it to be—something that fills the heart with delight, and wows the socks off your readers.  Then figure out how the notes you’ve received can strengthen and complete your story, helping it to take the cake amongst novels!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"Dear Lucky Agent" Contest

I'm pleased to announce that I am judging the Writer's Digest 14th "Dear Lucky Agent" Contest! If you have a contemporary middle grade, all the details on how to enter can be found here

Basically you have until March 18th to send the first 150-200 words of your middle grade contemporary novel. I will then look over all the entries and pick the top three. The top 3 will win a 10 page critique from me and a free one-year subscription to WritersMarket.com

Winners will be notified within three weeks from the end of the contest.

Again, all the details can be found at the Writer's Digest Site at the link above. Good luck and I look forward to reading! 

Here is what's at the top of my contemporary middle grade wishlist: 

  • A good, light contemporary coming of age, sister or friendship story, a fun MG mystery or humorous contemporary. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Revision Tips from Authors for Authors

Revising a manuscript is a process...a process that everyone does differently. I thought it might be helpful to aspiring writers out there to get some tips from other authors so this post was born! I have asked several of my wonderful clients to help me with this post and answer questions such as: what is your revision style? How do you use feedback you receive when working on a revision? Are there differences when it comes to revising different types of  projects for different genres or age groups etc.? 


I've decided to do this as a blog series. There will be a post a week, each post will include two author's advice. I will announce when the next post is up on twitter. About 8 authors of mine are contributing so the series should last about 4 weeks. The advice below could be for any genre or age group really, I just specified what each writer writes. 
At the end  of the series, I'm thinking of having a Q&A post where the authors who posted their advice will answer a question or two you have specific to them. 



Annie Sullivan, YA fantasy: 

1.)    Give yourself as much time as you reasonably can between revisions. This way you can return to a piece with fresh eyes.
2.)    If you don’t agree with a criticism, try and at least explore why a critique partner would have felt this way. You may discover that the tone was off or that it was due to a character inconsistency.
3.)    If you find revising overwhelming, try revising in layers. For example, on one read through, focus solely on character development. On another, look only at dialogue. If you focus on something specific each time, you won’t be overwhelmed.
4.)    Print out a copy of your story to edit. I’m all for saving the environment, but there’s something different about editing a hardcopy.  Sometimes it’s easier to spot repetitions, scenes that go on too long, and structure issues this way.
5.)    Read your work aloud. This will also help you spot repetitions and awkward phrases.
6.)    Always do a final read through, especially if you’ve added or deleted a lot of scenes. It’s easy to delete a superfluous scene while forgetting that it’s referenced later on.
7.)    With every major revision, try and have someone new read it to make sure everything still makes sense. 

I study the revision notes from my critique partners before I even open the story document on my computer. I go through big issues they saw and outline locations where I can make improvements based on their feedback. For example, if I’m adding backstory, then I like to know where that will go and what other scenes it might effect before I delve into the document. This way, I’m not constantly having to double back and correct a scene effected by something I changed later on. This method is especially helpful since I like to start from the beginning and work my way through the entire story so I can monitor how it all flows together.  

Jamie Gehin, YA contemporary

How do I go about revisions?

Well, after I get feedback from Christa (always insightful, by the way!) I don’t touch the manuscript at first, but read over the notes a few times. Then, I write down the questions by hand and mull them over. I add questions of my own, and ask myself: Are the issues Christa had because I didn’t develop a particular chapter/scene well enough or is something lacking because another scene altogether needs to be created? I try to give myself a deadline on revisions, but a big thing for me is not to rush this process… some epiphanies come through when I’m just relaxed and allowing myself to dream with a cup of coffee in hand, others, when I’m on a long walk.

I’m currently trying to work on making sure everything in my timeline is consistent – it’s easy to have tunnel vision with certain scenes. Christa catches little inconstancies that I might overlook. Something that’s helping is developing an actual one-page, yearlong calendar so I can see all the events of the story without having to scan through the manuscript. It also gives me a great feel for how the plot is moving along without getting wrapped up in the emotions of the story.


So, there it is. On a side note… working with Christa has been amazing! I feel very lucky!

Friday, February 28, 2014

MD/DE/WV SCBWI!

I'm excited to say I will be participating in the MD/DE/WV SCBWI conference on March 29th in Maryland. SCBWI conferences are such great opportunities for writers to meet editors and agents face to face and get personal feedback and to network with other authors...perhaps find a new critique partner!

Are you an SCBWI member of the Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia chapter? Registration is live so check it out here, see who is presenting and take a look at the schedule! If you're not a member of SCBWI I'd really recommend it. Check out your local SCBWI chapter's webpage. Most chapters have one. Find yours here

For those who aren't familiar with SCBWI, it stands for Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators. Most chapters have annual or even semi-annual conferences where writers can connect with industry professionals. They often also have group sessions and things like that just for writers throughout the year. 

Anyway back the the MD/DE/WV conference....I am leading a workshop on Fantasy Writing. Here's my blurb for the conference and showcases what I will be discussing. I also will be doing a panel and critiques. My critique slots, however, are already full. 

Fantasy Writing: From World-Building to Querying
How do you come up with unique ideas for a fantasy project and create compelling characters in today’s competitive market? Christa offers her ideas along with tips on world-building and writing within the genre for middle grade and YA audiences.  The difference between writing for adult and middle-grade/teen audiences within fantasy, and suggestions on querying, word count etc will also be addressed.

I plan on posting key points from my workshop on my blog afterward so that even if you can't make it you can learn more about fantasy writing, if that's your genre of choice! 

Hope to see some of you at the conference!