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Monthly Archives: May 2013

One Smart Thing I Did To Sell ANOTHER LITTLE PIECE

ANOTHER LITTLE PIECE was the third full-length novel I’d written. The first two books are buried deep in a documents folder on my computer, but ANOTHER LITTLE PIECE will be hitting the shelves of bookstores in less than 2 weeks. Why did the first two books fail, while ALP got me an agent and a two-book deal?

Well, there are lots of reasons, but in the end – for me – it boils down to the Goldilocks Syndrome.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, the Goldilocks Syndrome sounds like something you just made up right now for the purposes of this blog post.”

Wow, you are perceptive.

Yes, I did just make it up, but that doesn’t make it any less true, so *please* just stick with me here.

My first book was the bowl of porridge that was too cold. It was a romance novel that was too much like other contemporary romances that I’d read and loved. It was a paint by numbers book and the end result wasn’t exactly ugly, but was actually something even worse – DUN DUN DUN!! It was unoriginal. Yuck.

My second book was the bowl of porridge that was too hot. I wrote an urban fantasy and threw everything I had into it. There were chases, all kinds of crazy creatures, and a cast of characters that numbered into the double digits. It was wildly original and also a hot mess. Yuck.

My third book was the bowl of porridge that was juuuuust right. I’d learned to color inside the lines and also waaaay outside the lines. Now, I put both of them together.

This is why in some ways ANOTHER LITTLE PIECE is little bit different and maybe even weird. Some things are small – like I didn’t number the chapters. Other things are bigger, like throughout the book there are jumps back and forth in time, but the reader is never explicitly told where or when they are. Readers, along with my main character, have to put together the pieces of what happened to Annaliese Rose Gordon. I also pushed the envelope a bit on mature content (ie: violence, language, and sex. You can read more about that here.). There are also little bits of poetry that intertwine with the narrative.

Of course, in other ways, ANOTHER LITTLE PIECE is not that different from other young adult books. There’s a teenage girl. A romantic interest. A best friend. Parents. Mean kids at school. Pretty much all the usual teenage trappings are present and accounted for… only they’re twisted a tiny bit.

Anyone who cooks knows that the best way to make sure your porridge turns out just right, is to taste it while you are still cooking. The problem with applying this theory to writing is that you aren’t cooking one meal over the course of several months. This long stretch of time makes it much harder to tell when something tastes off. So to keep myself on track and make sure I was staying in that ‘juuust right’ porridge spot, I read.

Jellicoe Road, Bleeding Violet, The Sky is Everywhere, When You Reach Me, and many other wonderful and original books where all on my reading list. I used them as palate cleansers, sign posts (yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors, and I apologize but it can’t be helped), and inspiration. These books, all wildly original in their own ways, helped me make sure I was making my own path without going too far off into the wilderness.

Now I can only hope that when readers take a bite of my porridge (yes! back to the food metaphor) they will also find it to be: juuuuust right.

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One Smart Thing I Did to Sell 45 POUNDS (MORE OR LESS): Focus on Craft

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This month we’re talking about what smart things we did to sell our manuscripts. For me, the best thing I ever did for my writing career was to focus on the writing more than the career. I started out going to SCBWI conferences. While there is a wealth of information there, I found myself submitting to editors and agents way before I should have, and that caused a lot of stress. The advice is to send your very best work. I did that! At the time, it was my best work.

However, my best wasn’t good enough.

After I accumulated a pile of rejections, I gave up. Not on writing, though—I couldn’t do that—but on submitting. Instead I focused on becoming a better writer. While there are lots of ways to do that, I started attending Highlights Foundation workshops, about two per year for about four years. They were low-commitment—between two days to a week—and very affordable for the quality. The faculty is accomplished and smart and extremely supportive. The setting is idyllic and inspirational. I learned so much and met lots of wonderful people.

Some of those wonderful people were affiliated with another great place to immerse in craft: Vermont College of Fine Arts, which offers several low-residency master’s programs. This was a much higher commitment, of both time and money, and even though I was in my late thirties, I decided to go for it. I have not regretted it for a minute. For two years, I fully immersed myself in writing, reading, and critically analyzing works for children and teens, and I did it among top industry professionals. I didn’t pay attention to trends or who was accepting queries or who wasn’t. I loved the freedom to let go of the submission stress. As a result, the quality of my work significantly improved, as did my confidence.

I still get rejected sometimes—it’s an unavoidable part of the publishing process—but now if I get stumped and need to regroup, I have a vast toolbox at my disposal. I love knowing that I can always go to a Highlights or a VCFA workshop, or even an SCBWI conference, and brush up on some skills, get some valuable feedback, or simply jumpstart the creative juices. Learning to write isn’t something I did; it’s something I will always do.


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One Smart Thing I Did To Sell My Manuscript: Hold Back.

One smart thing I did to sell my manuscript is I didn’t try to sell my first manuscript. Nor my second. I sold my third. You’ll find that many authors do the same, whether by choice or not. This is not to say that the first book a person writes can’t be great and sell and do really well. There are numerous examples of successful authors who sold their first novel they wrote, but most likely they have spent a lot of time developing their writing craft in various ways BEFORE they wrote that first novel.

“But, but…” you stutter, “what if I have the best idea ever!” 

I can appreciate a great idea. I fancy I get them every now and again. But here’s the truth: Everyone has great ideas. Your neighbor has them, your mother has them, your worst enemy has them, my toddler has them. Even your dog has them. Some of them might have the same idea as you. Some of their ideas might be better. (Impossible!) In any case, it is erroneous thinking to think that because you have the greatest idea since Nutella (Impossible again!) that your book will be the greatest book since…(choose the book you find most amazing.)

Great ideas don’t always translate into great books. It’s all about the execution of your incredible ideas, and that takes time and effort. So a smart thing you can do to sell your manuscript is perhaps write more than one and see how your craft, style, and voice develop over time. If you have writing skills to match your incredible ideas, you will find it infinitely easier to sell your work.



Interview With THE NEPTUNE PROJECT Author Polly Holyoke

Polly Holyoke’s debut novel, THE NEPTUNE PROJECT, Disney Hyperion, releases tomorrow, May 21, 2013! Congratulations, Polly! I had a chance to read an advance copy of Polly’s book and I greatly admire the skill and thought that she put into creating this futuristic world and all the details she used to make it seem so realistic. (I’m hoping for a movie so that I can see these amazing details come to life on the big screen!) Of THE NEPTUNE PROJECT, Kirkus Reviews recently said: Holyoke keeps her prose well-pitched to her audience…She creates an interesting and diverse set of characters, including the dolphins. (Oh, the dolphins! Read below for more on the dolphins, and then read the book to see how Polly engagingly includes these wonderful creatures in her story.) It is my honor to now interview Polly Holyoke, a fellow member of The Class of 2k13.

Interview With THE NEPTUNE PROJECT Author Polly Holyoke:

I find the premise of THE NEPTUNE PROJECT – “genetic altering to successfully live in the ocean” – fascinating. Can you talk about how the idea came to you and how it evolved as you developed your story?

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of people living in the sea, and I’ve been equally fascinated by our rapid and rather terrifying progress in gene manipulation. I’m not sure everyone realizes that we are already to the point we can clone our pets and design our children to be smarter and stronger. It just seemed logical to me that someday we may try to give humans the ability to breathe sea water. After all, 7/10ths of our planet is covered by oceans!

One of my favorite aspects of your book is the authenticity and richness of details in your story. Can you share how you were able to achieve that high level of realism in THE NEPTUNE PROJECT?

It helped that I’ve done quite a bit of scuba diving over the years. They say write what you know. I’ve certainly never lived in the sea, but I have spent enough time under the waves to be able to describe some of the basics—like light, visibility and currents. The terrain of ocean floor, especially near the Channel Islands, can be quite rugged and beautiful. I also spent hours and hours reading books on oceanography and articles by avid divers. I was delighted when a young beta reader recently said to me, “I had no idea all that cool stuff was down there!”

I also love the dolphins in your story – how they have names, distinct personalities, and how they are partnered with the human children, some almost acting as family. How did the dolphins become a part of THE NEPTUNE PROJECT?

I knew from the start that dolphins would play crucial roles in this book. I’ve always been intrigued by stories of dolphins helping sailors in distress. So many of these stories exist, it’s hard to believe there isn’t some kernel of truth there. But I wanted to make sure my dolphins, for all their incredible ability to communicate with humans, behaved like real dolphins. So I talked with the staff at dolphin centers and read tons of research on wild dolphins. On a recent trip to Hawaii I went snorkeling with wild spinner dolphins, and I truly could have given a much more thorough and interesting talk on dolphins than our guide did!

I was so happy when my dolphins became vivid characters in their own right. Just like well-developed human characters in a story, occasionally Sokya and Densil would say and do things that surprised me!

Although set in the future, the catalyst for THE NEPTUNE PROJECT raises intriguing questions about how we are treating our world now. How did you decide to weave environmental concerns into your science fiction story?

I tried not to preach, and I’m grateful that my editor helped me when my prose veered in that direction. Instead I hope we matter-of-factly present my heroine trying to cope in a world devastated by environmental and human disasters. Whatever your beliefs on the causes of climate change, certain things are absolute fact. The world IS getting hotter, and the oceans ARE rising. If we can’t find ways to reverse these trends, the costs in terms of human misery and suffering are going to be staggering.

The ocean is a tough environment and there are several scenes where your main characters are in danger. Sometimes it’s a little scary, and sometimes the characters even have to face death. I admire how you found a way to deliver these scenes so that they are not too edgy for a middle grade reader. Can you describe how you were able to find that balance in those more anxious scenes?

I tried not to be too graphic, and so much happens in this first book that my characters just don’t have much time to mourn the friends they’ve lost. I think in real life, kids would have thought about those deaths more. At the same time, my characters grew up in a bleak and dangerous world, and they are already more accustomed to death and loss than kids are today. I often think about “the good old days” just a century ago. Kids back then would have lost many brothers, sisters and friends to childhood illness and accidents. Our children grow up knowing remarkably few peers who have died.

What was both frustrating and kind of funny for me as a writer was trying to come up with visceral ways to depict the fear my characters feel in their dangerous new environment. My heroine Nere is scared A LOT, but her mouth can’t go dry and her palms can’t sweat because she doesn’t sweat any more. I had to fall back on the typical fear reactions of a tightened stomach and pumping heart again and again, so poor Nere has indigestion and heart palpitations on and off for 350 pages!

What advice or tips would you give to authors who might be interested in writing science fiction or fantasy?

World building is all in the details. If you throw in too many or invent too many exotic new terms, you risk overwhelming the reader. Remember kids are the same, and they react the same, no matter how strange or different their surroundings. One carefully chosen detail can convey so much. I’m proud of a scene in The Neptune Project in which one of my characters misses fresh-baked bread. I hope that detail helps to convey just how much her life has changed and the personal cost she is paying for being a part of the Neptune Project.

Can you talk about what you’re working on now or what’s next for you?

I’ve already written a second Neptune book, and I hope that Disney Hyperion and Puffin UK will want me to finish the trilogy. I’m also working on a MG fantasy/time travel story I LOVE about an enchanted carousel.

Here are links to Polly online: WebsiteFacebookTwitterPinterestGoodreadsAmazon

One smart thing I did to help sell BRIANNA ON THE BRINK

This month, we’re talking about smart things we did to sell our debut books.

Of course, my agent was the one who actually sold BRIANNA ON THE BRINK, but when I look back at my own role in that process, I can see now what helped and what didn’t.

But first, a little background. Fresh out of graduate school, I was certain of my genre as a writer. That genre was literary fiction. It was what I read, and it I was what I loved. One look at a bookshelf in my house (documented here) will tell you I still do love it. Back then, though, I was determined to not just read, but to write and sell literary fiction. And I even got partway there, since the manuscript that landed me a fantastic agent was, technically, literary and written for adults.

The thing is, once that manuscript went out on submission to publishers, we kept hearing back from editors who commented on how “young adult” the voice sounded. Some wanted to know if I’d ever considered writing a YA novel. I hadn’t, but that quickly changed.

Listening to the feedback from readers who were also publishing pros was, hands down, THE smartest thing I did to contribute to the eventual sale of BRIANNA. I rewrote that first manuscript in an attempt to morph it from one genre to another. It didn’t sell, but I had dipped my toe into the YA pool, and the water was lovely. When I started drafting BRIANNA, I wrote for my new target genre (YA) and for my new age group (older teens) from day one. The eventual result was my debut novel, which was released this spring and, thankfully, has received some great reviews so far.

So, the lesson? Listen to what your readers are saying about your drafts. Pay attention when one of them begins a sentence with, “Have you ever thought about…” It might just be the thing that makes you dip your toe into a lovely new pool.

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Thinking Outside the Box: One Smart Thing I Did To Sell GOLDEN BOY

One smart thing I did to sell GOLDEN BOY was to dance just a little bit around the edges of the traditional lock-step route to publishing… and it’s what got me my agent!

uuw3btb1m6deb9dm3xs6A few years ago, a member of my writer’s group had the fantastic idea of submitting for a writers group development from our local New England chapter of SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators). For a while we debated what to do with it, but we finally agreed: the agent query process terrified and mystified us. We were a group of six, all with YA & MG manuscripts at different stages. So, I went to work researching agents that listed all of our genres. When I found one, I approached her and asked if she would be willing to accept the grant money to do an informational Skype interview about the agenting process. She agreed and offered, in addition, to critique each of our query letters. A few weeks later we had the session and learned a lot… and she ended up extending an offer to two of us (one third of the group!) to formally query her when we finished our manuscripts. Two years later, we’re both represented by her.

So, as you try to shop your baby out in the big bad world, try to think outside the traditional lock-step for ways to actively develop yourself and gain the skills you need for whatever step of the process you’re on… you never know what unintended awesomeness might come of it!

(Disclaimer: My story in this post is intended to be illustrative only. Please do not use it as a launching-off point to bother my agent. I like her. I like that she likes me. Please don’t make her dislike me. It might make me dislike you.)

One Smart Thing I Did to Sell NOT A DROP TO DRINK

You’re going to not like me a whole lot after you read this. The answer to one smart thing I did that helped sell my debut novel is that I re-routed my entire life.

I don’t necessarily recommend this approach.

Immediately after college I realized that I was overeducated and unemployable. Well, not quite unemployable. I spent the first two years post-college continuing to work in the job that had eaten my weekends during college… a retail job at Hallmark. Now, retail kind of sucks regardless of where you are, but me selling highly fragile things in a Kindness+10 environment was about to melt my cerebellum.

Let me place you in the timeline – Harry Potter had recently exploded. The Goblet of Fire was hitting shelves- no, wait. It wasn’t hitting the shelves because it was never making it to any. The fourth in the Potter series was going from backroom boxes to customer hands without a rest in between for it’s 3″ thick spine.

The rest of the retail world had figured out pretty quick that this was a goldmine deeper than Gringotts, and everybody wanted to stick their finger it, Hallmark included. We had some pretty fun stuff, Hogwarts mugs, Gryffindor banners and the like – but the coolest thing we had was our own whopping two copies of Goblet of Fire. Now, I hadn’t bought into the magic yet (you can read the story of my resistance here), but I was about to experience something even cooler than a quidditch match at high noon.

My Hallmark was next to a Kroger, and we had people pop in every now and then after grocery shopping just to sniff candles. More often, couples or families split the shopping to get done more quickly so that they could go home and burn the candles there instead. One day a worn out grandma who had finished her grocery shopping didn’t feel she had the energy after unloading them to come into the store and pick out some cards. So she sent her grandson instead.

There has never in the history of Hallmark been a 4th grade boy absolutely thrilled to be in that store at that moment.

The little guy literally grew roots and stood in front of the display for a moment with his mouth hanging open, then turned to the counter. “You… have… the… fourth… book,” he said. And we ignorant store workers just kind of stood there staring back at him to which he tried again, a little louder. “You. Have. The. Fourth. Harry. Potter.”

I affirmed that we did and grabbed it like he was afraid it was going to apparate out of sight, ran up to the counter and jammed it into my hands.

“Please, please, please can you put this under the counter for me until I get back?? I have to run out to the car and ask my Grandma if she’ll buy it for me and I don’t want anyone to get it while I’m out there. Please!”

I looked around the store (absolutely empty, by the way, not a lot of book-grabbers in the neighborhood) and said of course I would, and the little dude sprinted out to Grandma. It was as good thing there were no cars coming because he was so intent on getting there and back again that he didn’t check first. Grandma was happy to buy it for him, and he was so happy to have found it that he totally forgot to buy her sympathy card and had to come back inside five minutes later to do so.

But I don’t think he minded.

After he’d left I turned to the lady I was working with and said,

“If she hadn’t been able to buy that for him, I was going to.”

Co-worker: “Really? That’s like a $25.00 book.”

Me: “I don’t care. I can’t stand to see a kid wanting a book and not able to have one.”

Co-worker: “Hmmm…. have you ever thought about  being a librarian?”

Oddly enough – I hadn’t. But it seemed like a pretty good fit, right? So shortly after that when a position in a 7-12 public school opened up I applied, and got the job. And that pesky little paragraph at the bottom of your query letter where your author bio is supposed to go? Instead of saying, “I work at a Hallmark selling cards and breaking stuff,” it said –

“I’m a YA librarian, which means I spend 40 hours a week with my target audience and am immersed in the market.”

Yeah… which one sounds better to you?

1 Smart Thing I Did to Sell My Manuscript: NO Clones Allowed

An early Goodreads contributor recently quipped “If there were a party of good YA books about serial killers, Project Cain would be the creepy one standing outside the window, wanting to join them.” A good line. But only half right.

I’ve been a high school English teacher for ten years and have worked with literally thousands of teen readers. In that time, I’ve developed specific ideas on the best literary devices, voice and structure to entice, particularly, reluctant boy readers. Devices, voice and structure I simply didn’t see being used in most other current YA novels (as good as many of these books are).

While my upcoming adult book (Cain’s Blood) employs mostly traditional devices, structure, etc. for the adult techno thriller it is, I always wanted something very different for the teen novel Project Cain.

Examples: My students really enjoy the fact-filled Krakauer books we teach (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air.) I’m not a fan, but I also recognize male readers of all ages statistically (and significantly) prefer nonfiction over fiction. So I wrote a straight-forward book which weaves in facts and history throughout. My students gobble up both the free-verse novels of Ellen Hopkins and manga comics. “Quick reads,” they explain. So I wrote a book that reads fast, real fast. Adjectives are for 500 page books I know my own two teenage sons don’t want to read yet. My students, jaded millennials that they are, still respond to and welcome direct/open questions. Our best class conversations often come from a simple query like: Have you ever wanted to kill someone?

This Goodreads member read about 40 pages of Project Cain before giving two thumbs way down, specifically targeting the dry style, “info dumping,” and a couple direct addresses to the reader. Things I put in the book deliberately so Project Cain would not be exactly like all those other YA books — which clearly failed for this reader.

But I also sold this novel on proposal alone, submitting only the first 40 pages as a sample of what I had in mind. The exact same 40 pages so hated by this reader for not being the book she thought it was going to be. The same 40 that got me a major agent, a major publisher and a major deal in less than two months. Because the writing stood out from all the other three thousand books that came in that month. My 40 pages were different.

This isn’t some thumb-to-nose moment. My sale doesn’t discount this reader’s reaction. “Good” or “bad” is always up to each individual, and I’ve collected (and expect to collect) strong votes on both sides with this book.

And so, the smart thing I did to sell my manuscript was stick to my objective: To not just imitate the other good YA books out there. But to write the kind of YA book that I thought my own students and two sons would want to read. Whatever else may come, I’ve done that. Write the book YOU want to. The right publisher and audience WILL find you.

If there were a party of good YA books about serial killers, Project Cain would indeed be the creepy one standing outside the window. But it’s not to join them.

It’s to douse their house in gasoline, and just maybe strike a match…

Want To Sell Your Manuscript? Do Your Homework!

One smart thing I did to sell IN THE AFTER was research everything that applied to my book/genre/industry. It may sound completely counter to a creative process, but if you want to sell your manuscript you have to do your homework. Research the market, the publishers, and the agents.

Now I’m not saying write for the market, unless of course, you were already writing in a high-demand genre, but know what’s selling and know who’s buying your type of work.

For IN THE AFTER, I knew that YA dystopian was selling like crazy, and while IN THE AFTER is post-apocalyptic it has enough of a dystopian feel to fit that market. But it’s also different enough that I hoped it would stand out.

So I started researching agents. I looked at the acknowledgements page in books that I thought were similar to mine. I also went to the website for the Association of Author’s Representatives, and searched by which agents represented YA authors. You don’t want to waste your time approaching agents that don’t even represent your genre. If an agent has sold books of your genre in the past, they have connections and know who in the publishing world will be interested in your manuscript.

I researched the hell out of agents and got not one, but five offers of representation. That’s how I knew my hard work paid off. And since I’d already done a ton of research on each agent, I felt really good choosing one who I knew could sell my manuscript to a publisher.

Take it from me, if you want to sell your manuscript, you have to do your homework!


One Smart Thing I Did to Sell CONTROL

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When I wrote CONTROL, my YA sci-fi/medical thriller/romance novel that sold to Dial Books For Young Readers (Penguin), I did one thing that made a huge difference.

I never assumed another person would come along and make it perfect. 

This was before I had an agent. I knew that many agents would work with their clients to polish up a manuscript. And I knew that books often went through lots of changes at the editorial level, once it had found a publisher.

I could have convinced myself that “I just need to make it good enough, not perfect. An agent and editor will help me whip it into perfection.”

But I didn’t do that. I put my heart and soul in the story, lost countless hours of sleep, and asked my crit partners to be brutal. The revision process happened several times, and each time it was really difficult, but really necessary. I never took the easy route in telling the story. I was super hard on my protagonist and put her through hell. I worked hard to keep the pacing strong and made every chapter count and every scene a revelation in some way.

When I finally got nibbles from agents, I was told that my book was “shelf ready” by several agents. Of course, it still went through a thorough editorial process, but I really do think that it helped me get a publishing deal.

So in other words? Be very, very, VERY hard on yourself when you write your book. No one will ever care as much as you, the author, will. Your story deserves it, and your future readers deserve it too.

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