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Don’t Despair When Your Agent Leaves the Business

When your agent leaves the business, what do you do?

In June I wrote my friend and YA author Gordon Jack when I was in the bluest, most Anne Shirley depths of despair. “My agent is leaving the business,” I said, feeling as if I were delivering the worst and most shameful of news. Maybe it was because Gordon and I had slogged together in the querying mines many moons ago, and after many rejections, he now not only has an agent but also a two-book deal from HarperCollins. (Check out The Boomerang Effect in its awesomeness and satirical humor about high school homecomings and pre-order Your Own Worst Enemy if you need a good laugh about high school elections. Trust me: you’ll want it before midterms.)

Me, I’d worked in the last ten years with a first agent, and then worked with a second agent who was amazing, and together we had two different books on sub to editors. Two books I poured my heart and four years into, books that she edited like a goddess.

Now, the day of my writing Gordon, I had none of these things.

I expected support and empathy from him, which I definitely got, and then he said:

“You know I’m on my third agent, right?”

I’d totally forgotten this—how his first agent left the business, how another parted ways with him amicably after not being able to sell his first novel, and how today, he’s represented by a great agent. In my self-pity, fear, and worry, I’d forgotten just how tough his road was to publication. I got starry eyed when I heard “book deal” and forgot how fraught and undependable the rest of the process was and is.

I also forgot all the books I’ve published as an indie author and what readers tell me about them. Somehow, I shoved any good thing that’s ever happened, that I’ve ever done, aside to dwell on what couldn’t seem to happen now.

Best-selling authors V.E. Schwab and Stephanie Garber recently shared their powerful stories about transitions with agents and publishers on the podcast 88 Cups of Tea. Then the other day, another friend with 10+ books published told me after I shared my tale that her agent, a person she loved, just retired.

In other words, it happens. A lot.

This was one of many messages I and other authors recently shared at the North Carolina Writers’ Network publishing panel, Patience, Passion, Strategy: Choosing Your Publishing Path and Finding an Agent. Nancy Peacock related how she had to part ways with her first agent and how her current agent helps her now. Russell Johnson shared how 150 queries and querying different novels found him his current agent. Stephanie Moore, a successful screenwriter, talked about how she once had two agents—one film, one fiction–and just parted ways with her fiction agent. She and I both just applied to Pitch Wars. Tara Lynne Groth is just embarking on her query journey and has a strategy you should check out. If one clear message came through from all of us, it’s that this business is full of variables and constant change. It demands great patience and great adaptability.

I got the courage to tell my story at this same panel—courage, because so much social media, my own included, is full of self-praise and celebration, as if nothing ever goes wrong. I mentioned the journey of the last decade. I also shared this quote:

“If I stop one person from quitting by being transparent,

then I’m doing a good thing.”

– V.E. Schwab

I shared the formula I’ve found—it takes talent and perseverance and luck, AKA timing and/or connections and/or resources. When I mentioned that formula to the friend whose agent just retired, offering this formula as if required all equal-part ingredients, she laughed and said, “Oh, it’s more than 50% luck.”

So if that is indeed the case, then luck shows up for those who show up all the time, right?

I won’t stop showing up.

“Success is a thing so largely out of our control.

Overnight Success is almost always a myth.

Half of this industry is luck, and half is the refusal to quit.”

– V.E. Schwab

 

In a future post I’ll talk in more detail about my Swing Away campaign (and much thanks to Liz Gilbert for helping me come up with the right tagline). How I’m back in the querying saddle again, using Publisher’s Marketplace, Manuscript Wish List & #MSWL website, and QueryTracker. I’ve got my agent lists, my query polished to a high shine, my synopsis, and a more-than-ready manuscript for my latest book. My first book is getting another look as well, and it actually may get a lot better thanks to that second look. When we began subbing it out in 2016, #MeToo and Trump had not yet happened, and when you write a book about journalism and sexual assault, it needs to be timely and eternal. I have some ideas for some upgrades.

It’s all good, as they say around here in North Carolina (draw out “good” to a three-syllable word, if you please). I mean like my husband’s song, “It’ll Be Alright.” I’ve got ideas for what to do should none of this work out, and 50 pages of a brand-new novel I’m very excited about. A lot is happening in my life right now, and it’s all happening for very good reason.

If you’re in the middle of a deep valley of Writer’s Limbo…and if that valley is storm-cloud full of the shadows of death, here’s what Gilbert says in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear that helped me. Why must you do this writing thing? Can you ever NOT write? Try to stop. I can’t.

Look what I wrote when I already had an agent and was beginning the book that I had to discard and start over and that just got subbed out—and am now querying again. I had to find a way then to keep going with a brand-new project, even as my baby I’d spent three years on was being subbed out. The writing challenges never end.

Embrace and adore the bumps as much as the tiny bits of glory that come your way. You must find, as Gilbert says, just which “flavor of shit sandwich” you prefer.

Because trust: that person who tells you it’s all one big glory ride? Who has nothing but great news to share? They’re either extremely lucky, or they are lying.

 

Did you know there’s even a hangout spot on Twitter for those rejected? #ShareYourRejections

 

“This is an opaque industry. It’s designed to make you feel like an island. So that when something goes wrong, you feel like the only one going through it. The pressure on authors is to put forth only good news.

You must come in with the mental and psychological preparation.”

– V.E. Schwab

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins.

Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.”

– James Baldwin in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

 

All you storytellers out there? Hang tight. Stick with it. It’s all going to be okay.

 

 

 

Time to Sub

Amy Tipton, my agent, is subbing No Small Thing out to publishing houses.

Submitting to publishers means your agent, who’s formed relationships with various editors at different imprints and houses, shops out your completed manuscript in the hopes of making a deal. Your author query (that page that once got you through the portal to your agent) might be part of the pitch your agent uses.

As I wrote the query, she helped with the “formula” part of the hook, which some people know as “X meets Y” (movie meets book, book meets book) to give editors a sense of what the story is about, in a nutshell. Here’s my logline and my formula:

When a teen basketball super-fan and podcaster discovers her beloved team is rife with corruption, she becomes an investigative journalist to expose the scandal. NO SMALL THING, a contemporary YA novel, is a sports-themed ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN about those who seek and speak the truth even when the tribe demands allegiance and silence.

After a year of writing and rewriting this book, I was ready to say what it was really about.

Subbing is close kin to querying in terms of the wait and the nerves. Subbing can be short or long, depending on so many things that are truly out of your hands: time of year, the depth of the agent/editor relationship, the editor’s list and queue. For example:

  • Timing: Time of year and editors’ time. August and most of December, for example, are considered dead zones: sub not, query not. What if you finish your novel on November 30 and your agent says, “Great! Let’s begin in January!” That means you’ll need to wait. Or what if an editor is launching a big book and very occupied when your manuscript hits her desk?
  • Depth of relationship: Your agent may be pitching a book to an editor for a first time, or maybe yours is one of several successes the agent’s had with a particular editor, all of which influence the readiness with which an editor takes up your manuscript.
  • List and queue:Your work could end up in a huge pile or a small pile. Know that editors and agents are reading round the clock, outside their day jobs. Take a number.

If an editor gives a personalized rejection, you learn about all the different tastes, priorities, and plans out there in the publishing world, just as you do with agents. You must submit on a different level: to the fact that you are not in control. Sometimes the no comes from reasons like these, What Ifs you have no say over.

  • What if the editor already has something similar on her list?
  • What if the editor thought she wanted a book like yours, but yours isn’t the manifestation she dreamed of? (Aspiring, querying, and subbing authors can find out what their editor wants here at MSWL (Manuscript Wish List.) Check out #mswl on Twitter, too.
  • What if the editor’s just gotten a call that her dog died? That her partner is divorcing her? Or come back from a pub lunch where a bunch of editors declared paranormal/romance/contemporary fiction (whatever your specialty is) dead? Or picks your story up at midnight on a Friday, knowing she’s only got a few hours of sleep ahead? That could sour the read that’s about to happen…
  • What if you’re not of the moment? That you chose to write about something that should reach readers, but the market is enthralled with something else this moment?

And you can’t control any of that. Kind of like fishing, where the lay of that pond, that lake, that river belongs to far greater powers than you: the goddesses of Luck, Timing, and Market. You need to sit there, patiently waiting, with a childlike trust a fish might poke its head up, and soon.

But what you can control is the quality of your book and the quality of your pitch. You can control your writing product, your writing schedule, and your writing attitude. You can control your skill level and keep seeking greater depth of talent by working it hard as you can.

What if you write about tough stuff? What if you can create another world but it’s not the escapism of video games, of fantasy, of other realms? What if you tell it like it is and that telling isn’t what some world-weary people feel like hearing right now? What if you can’t write anything else? People might argue I can control that but to that advice I say, Forget it. I know what I am designed to do.

You can control persistence. This is a small and seemingly unrelated example, but let’s say you’re married to a wonderful musician who decided to write a protest song at this very moment. He thought it would resonate with the political pulse he’s feeling so deeply, and the anger and fear he and his like-minded family and friends are feeling. He makes an amazing song, one that captures so eloquently and honestly the problems of a certain person and political party (check out the lyrics). He and his friends make him an amazing video. They put it out there, and a few people celebrate it. After three weeks, the video has close to 500 views, but that’s it. Then his wife decides one day, to try again sharing it on Twitter (after several weeks of doing so) and the number of views doubles in two days.

 

All because she a) stumbled on a thread where two things had to be in play–lots of followers, and lots of people willing to click on a YouTube link and because she b) persisted.

When I get discouraged, I remember Tenacity is my middle name.

Trust that I’ve had to relinquish a lot of best-laid plans and expectations on this journey, and just believe. That my efforts and luck, timing, and market will all intersect one day.

In the meantime, one can write a whole other book, if not more, while one waits patiently for their moment. In fact, Amy and I are also talking about revisiting @NervesofSteel. While there wasn’t a consensus of editors’ feedback during the subbing process, one critique that did surface with a few editors was Minerva’s age. She’s a precocious 13 year-old starting high school, and that’s a hard age for publishers to sell. Since teens read up, Minerva needs to be older. I’ve stopped resisting this one (But she’s gifted! She should be 13 and 13 only!). Hard to give up something you’ve seen so clearly about a character, but now I’m at peace with it. I’m aging Minerva up to 15 while not losing her giftedness or the fact she skipped a grade. She’s still younger than her average peers who are juniors in high school.

The revision is going beautifully–truly gratifying after the journey I’ve been on with dear ol’ Minerva Mae.

I’m off to write and submit to the page. Because there’s plenty to wrangle there.

 

 

 

What Makes a Great Agent

Literary agents get a lot done that a writer just can’t. If you’re debating whether to work with one, hearing how I couldn’t do this without Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency might help you decide.

Agent Amy Tipton

Agents can be editors, advocates, negotiators, deal makers, and prognosticators. They can be career builders. Here’s what Amy has done for me.

Does Your Agent Listen?

Every time I produce a manuscript idea or a premise, she’s willing to listen. She’ll bat an idea back and forth, and she’ll offer a plot twist or turn that can make the story take a leap forward. The last scene for No Small Thing resulted from an email exchange.

Does Your Agent Educate?

She helps me think about novel premises in terms of the market of young adult fiction and helps me better understand what editors want. While my art will always come from my muse, it has to also match the moment. By that, I don’t mean “sell out to fads or trends.” Writing isn’t just for self, it’s for audience, and so you have to make a happy hybrid of your wants and the world’s.

Does Your Agent Believe?

Not everyone wants to read about the social justice issues I write about: sexual assault, academic corruption and athletics, racism, and bullying. That’s another key: meeting of the minds. Amy’s feminist values and her commitment to social justice align with my world view. I love seeing on Facebook what outrages her, because it’s often exactly what pisses me off, too.

She understands the issues I care about, and she believes in my characters. She lives in my same fictional world where I think Audrey, T, Kendyll, Minerva, Gabe, and Diana are totally real. She stands behind my work.

Is Your Agent Editorial?

Whether I’ve produced a partial or a whole manuscript, she’ll read it super close and deliver–often, in under a week!!!–the unvarnished truth about my prose. She praises what works and rips what doesn’t. That is key. There is no room for tender feelings in this process, even though they’ll crop up anytime anyone tells you what’s bad. I’d rather have my advocate tell me straight up than an editor who doesn’t want the book.

When my first draft of No Small Thing was so very far from what it could be, Amy delivered the news. I tease her that “Uh, no!” is her signature marginal comment, telling you to cease and desist, immediately, with that nonsense you just wrote. Wordsmiths sometimes get caught up in their dreams and prose and generate unsaleable prose.

Does Your Agent Hustle?

She subs out patiently to editors. She’s built relationships over these years, she’s cultivated them, she gets how editors think. How in the world with a day job and every spare moment devoted to writing I could ever develop that…? The answer is, I couldn’t and I can’t.

She responds quickly to emails. (In fact, I’m spoiled: I often get same-day service.) Don’t underestimate this last one–it’s certainly not the least for me. If your agent can’t make time to respond or manage her inbox, then you may have on your hands a weekly struggle with wondering what the hell your agent thinks of your work and whether she values your time. Trust me, I’ve been there, and I’ve seen other authors worry about this. In my day job, I require that staff respond regularly to emails. Otherwise, in virtual employment, how do I still know you’re working for us? You can’t go off the grid. I know how hard it is to manage multiple priorities and a cluttered inbox full of missives from a variety of stakeholders. And yet, I do it. Your agent can do it. You shouldn’t have to chase someone.

These are just some of the things that make a difference to me in the work Amy does, and it makes the long journey of writing and subbing so much easier. I’ve got a companion for the journey, rooting me on, and guiding me right.

Thank you, Amy.

 

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Bless the Beta Readers

What happens when you write a book about basketball, journalism, and academic fraud? You need coaches, journalists, and sensitivity readers, that’s what. I am so grateful for the wisdom of my various readers. Below is the list of those who have helped me with reading my two biggest projects since 2013. In the last five years, I’ve written (and rewritten) two novels.Beta reader

No Small Thing

It began with a lot of research, and I can’t thank two people enough on the front end of that research–Sally Starrfield, educator and basketball fan, who led me to Michele Van Gorp, former WNBA and Duke player, who led me to other great resources such as Krista Gingrich and Payton Hobbs, former Duke players and current basketball coaches. I also interviewed Dan Kane of The News and Observer, and from those inspirational and informative conversations, a manuscript was born.

Then I handed off either pages or the whole 320-page baby off to readers. Thanks to all these wonderful folks who’ve been reading and commenting.

  • Jamye Abram, author and educator
  • Dan Kane, journalist
  • Krista Gingrich, basketball coach
  • Greg Hawks, basketball fan and athlete
  • Jennifer Puryear, author and blogger of Bacon on the Bookshelf
  • Cindy Salerno, basketball coach, athlete, and teacher
  • Michael Salerno, author and filmmaker
  • Hannah-Kathryn Wall, student
  • Natasha Wall, author and educator
  • My writers’ group: Amanda Gladin-Kramer, Russell Johnson, Stephanie Moore, and Becky Moynihan.
  • My wonderful parents, authors both: Stephen and Katherine Fairchild

The English teacher in me insists on pretty detailed rubrics. Here’s an example of some questions I peppered Dan Kane with, and ones below that are for Krista and Cindy:

Journalism:

  1. Are the principles of journalism that Audrey is learning accurate?
  2. On issues such as use of recordings, or allowing an interview subject to see their quotes before they go to press—is that good practice?rubric
  3. Redd Graye is supposed to be a stand-up journalist. Is there anything he says that is inaccurate or unethical?
  4. What do you think about Redd Graye’s character and his mentoring of Audrey? Whether it’s Redd’s writing or advice—feel free to edit it if it’s unrealistic or overwrought.

Basketball:

  1. Does how I portray high school basketball coaches seem fair and accurate?
  2. How authentic are the coaches’ locker-room speeches? If they don’t ring true, what wording or topics would be preferable? Feel free to line edit.
  3. How authentic are the players’ conversations? Line edits welcome!
  4. Do the teens—like Emma (center) and Serena (point) in particular—do they sound and act like players you would coach?

@NervesofSteel

Exciting news: Amy and I are revisiting this manuscript and I’m reworking Minerva’s age. These folks have done deep reads of several different versions of the novel.

  • Ashlie Canipe, educator
  • David Frauenfelder, author
  • Gordon Jack, author
  • Maureen Keathley, author
  • Margaret Velto, student
  • Jamey Widener-Reynolds, educator
  • Tracy Yale, author
  • Randy Yale, author
  • My family: Stephen and Katherine Fairchild, authors both; and my sister, Antonia Fairchild, actress, director, and educator

Thank you all! Your feedback has been instrumental to getting through this journey.

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Make Defeat Your Fuel

More than halfway through my latest novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I keep going. Writing is a business full of few favors, lucky breaks, or sudden hits.

One thing I’ve figured out after many years in this game is that defeat is my fuel.

Wins? They’re my booster rockets.

Whatever you’re striving for now, how have you transformed defeat?

Let me know how you get past quit. Share below!

It’s a Marathon? Yes and No

We’re all charmed by the debut novelist’s story, that bestseller so swift and effortless in its rise. It’s the Very American Dream of Young Thing Makes It Big. We’re most thrilled by the young and pretty ones who finish first, and we’re much less curious about the marathoners right behind them—sweaty ones who’ve been in this game a while.

I have a writer friend who “hate reads” work by celebrity authors under 30. She’s not yet 35. I laugh and tease her about it and yet I completely understand. The nature of this game inspires envy and competition. Hard work and all the countless hours logged while your skin wrinkles and your hair grays—that’s not a sexy story that our culture tends to celebrate. And if that’s where you’re living, in Hard Work World, it’s easy to believe no one really cares about what you’re up to.

The publishing race is a very narrow path, the tightest of pipelines, and so where the marathon metaphor breaks down is the assumption that the first to finish is always the best.

Actually, all those bringing up the rear might be bearing gems—it’s just they can’t get attention. Publishers tend to look backwards when gambling on a book—what’s hot now? What’s the trend? Let’s go with what worked before.

Most of us who make it go hard and get defeated for years. Not just two or three. Decades, friends. Decades of hearing no or not now.

Like one editor said about my novel, @NervesofSteel, that’s been on submission:

Both hazing and sexual abuse in its many insidious forms are issues that are important to me to talk about, and feel especially important with the public conversations happening right now. But I want to approach the topic with care, as much as I also want to support transparency…I don’t think I’m the right one to champion it—and I fully believe a project like this deserves to have a champion.

Now I could take this feedback and tell myself to shy away from tough topics like hazing and sexual abuse. They’re a hard sell, right?

But instead I say to myself: This is not defeat. This is a chance to find a way to write about these issues so that editors want to sell it. How do I do that?

Or maybe it’s my strong genes of Italian rage that makes me throw these gesticulating hands in the air and holler

Minerva, AKA @NervesofSteel, she deserves a home!

Trust she’ll get one, one day. Getting mad revs me up and sends me back into the fray.

Believe Your Art is Meant to Be

The trick is in believing your art is meant to be. Refuse to believe you’re cursed, that you’re destined for last, or that your work has no place in the world.

There are signs to quit, and there are signs to keep going.

Maybe I should have seen the 100-some rejections back in 2009-2010 from various agents as a sign that a) I’d never get an agent and b) just go ahead and accept defeat.

Instead I paid close attention to the personalized rejections, the request for partial reads, and the requests for full reads. I took notes, asked questions, and kept querying.

In 2010, I signed with my first agent.

But maybe I should have really seen the signs back in 2011 when she missed several emails and I had to re-send them. When she tended to speak in generalities when reading my work, saying, “Where’s the story?” instead of “Try this/fix this.” I started to question my novel. Maybe my writing wasn’t worth attention if she didn’t answer my emails or couldn’t tell me exactly what to edit. Maybe I needed to take the hint and stop? (The same book we were ripping up, it was a runner-up in the 2011 James Jones First Novel Fellowship contest.) Maybe I should have packed it all in right then.

Instead I did three rounds of revision with her and when there was no sign the book was going to get subbed out, I chose to part ways, amicably. I knew in my gut the latest revision was worth something, and that it was time to tie a bow on it and go indie.

So I applied for a Elizabeth George Foundation grant and received a large one.

I used those funds to build a professional website, to fund the publishing of three books—developmental editors, copy editors, cover designers, and book formatters—and to fund a book trailer.

How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought from Lyn Fairchild Hawks on Vimeo.

And that’s just the novelist part of my journey.

Keep Submitting

Parallel to all this, I was writing literary short stories, study short stories in my own private, personalized MFA program, and querying various literary magazines. Maybe I should’ve seen the signs screaming STOP when I struck out on several magazines—sometimes waiting six months to a year to hear—or hearing nothing.

Instead I listened to the times I became a finalist in contests—like “The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future” winning first prize with AROHO and funding my first Macbook Air, which felt light as a feather and sticks with me to this day. That same story just made it last month to the quarter-finals of the Screencraft Cinematic Short Story contest.

 

I didn’t make it to the semifinals, but guess what? I’ve entered a few more contests. My short stories have won and placed before. Don’t stop believing.

Or there was a time I got a call from Stanford Magazine. That short story that didn’t win our creative writing contest, might there be a potential memoir piece buried there, one you’d be willing to try? the editor asked.

I’m in, I said. The editor saw the autobiography within. That led to “Gramma’s Day.”

 

Make Fail Your Fuel

Maybe all the stresses of the day job and step parenting—countless frustrations and fails on those landscapes—should have told me to ease up, relax, and chill on my weekends instead of scraping and scrapping after this writer’s dream.

Instead I held book signings and entered contests and applied for grants.

Maybe my indie publishing experience, which has taught me that no matter how great you think your books might be, you must have the time and resources to market and promote—maybe that realization should have shown me the door to this business. Hey, you! Woman with the day job, you don’t have time to write and hawk your wares. Try something else.

But instead of writing all my indie work off, I used it as part of my bio to query agents again with the latest novel. And after many a query, I landed my amazing agent, Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency.

Now I get not only timely critiques that made @NervesofSteel and my current project, No Small Thing, tons better, but I also get an answer to my email in under 48 hours—usually 24. Stunning. I watched her sub out a book we both believed in all last year—always its champion.

No Small Thing right now might be the next big thing. Gambling on it.

I’m still at this? Are you?

Let me know how you get past quit. Share below!

 

Or watch some athletes tell you how to make defeat your fuel. Michael Jordan and Serena Williams and Peyton Manning all get you to your feet in this video about how losing can be the biggest motivator.

What’s Behind Your Query Letter?

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

Remember that famous line from Professor Marvel while he scrambles in his hidden cubby to yank levers and work a mic that make the big and scary Wizard of Oz bellow?

 

In the world of Authors Ready to Query, Professor Marvel = author and his little cubby, the real deal of the novel. Bear with me here. You might not see it just yet.

The Scarecrow calls him a humbug. Dorothy informs him he’s a very bad man. Professor Marvel’s built a huge fantasy that’s terrorized and controlled a city for ages, never mind our four adventurers, and they’re more than mad.

But man, what a show it was, right? Dude, that took some doing! I who’s watched this film probably over 50 times has a different take: all the machinery Professor Marvel had to set up to fool so many was actually quite impressive. He took an idea and an opportunity and built a whole narrative. And all of Emerald City bought the story.

Find Your Man

When we shop out a novel to agents, we better have a man behind the curtain. I’m talking tons of levers and smoke machines and mics and amplifiers. The bones of the thing must be strong and all the buttons need to fire at just the right times.

When an agent starts reading beyond page 10, things better be more than spell checked. When someone yanks aside that curtain, there’d better be something there.

How do you know when your novel is ready to query? Share below!

 

It’s tempting to start querying before you’re done-done. By that I mean, on a third or fourth draft. Beta read and tested and reworked after that. Unless you’ve been cranking out books for years, you need to pace yourself and make sure all the wiring works and the nuts and bolts are tight. Developmental editors and beta readers are key to this endeavor, and they do cost. Either in cash or time—editors, professional ones, will need to be paid, and if you don’t offer your beta readers a token gift, you should definitely swap with your own beta reading time.

Before I signed with Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency, I worked with editor Angelle Pilkington. She saved my story from the muck and mire where it was frankly wallowing. I couldn’t see how to take it to the next level. Angelle helped me remove the first third and make the action urgent. By the time I queried Amy, I had a fourth draft of my novel truly ready for agent eyes. Now Amy gets all the fun of helping me wade and fortunately she’s got thigh-high boots for the gig.

What’s Behind the Curtain

Here are elements of substance expected in the YA world. Your genre may have different features, but good writing cuts across forms. And let me assume that when you decide to query an agent you are looking to build a career with some commercial success—i.e., some revenue for all this effort—and therefore you care what the market will bear and what the purveyors of literature think.

  • A hook: an opening scene that presents a problem for your protagonist
  • A driving need for your protagonist
  • A back story that may be hidden but erupts at just the right times to explain certain moments—without sounding like you’re explaining. Author and coach Kristen Lamb talks about The Wound and she will help you see why is matters so much. Round out your character till you know what’s hurt them!
  • A heady, healthy pace rooted in A Problem to Solve. If you’re writing a novel that’s one suited to of the commercial genres, think of your story this way.
  • A plot with a satisfying arc—catalyst and rising action, crisis, falling action, and resolution (see above)
  • Characters who intrigue—worthy companions for the reader’s journey
  • Voice—the unique tone and lilt and volume and features of the storyteller’s angle on the world
  • Just-right descriptions—not too wordy, not present to impress but present to seal an image in the brain

In It to Win It?

A career is built on substantive work. In this age of people cranking out a book a month, know the truth: unless you’ve got elves, you need time and grit and devotion to build a book. From cornerstone to roof, the thing’s gotten stand for the ages. So if it’s daunting to consider all this work, ask yourself: am I in this for the long haul? Do I want to build books forever?

No one ever gives Toto any credit, but if he hadn’t yanked aside that green silk curtain, we’d never know, would we? Know that the agent is even more dogged than a cute Cairn terrier. She will find out whether the stuff behind the show you put on in your query is for real. And if you’ve done the work, the right work, trust you will be hearing from someone real soon.

How do you know when your novel is ready to query? Share below!

 

Query Right

Are you ready to take a novel to the next level, or ready to query now? On March 24 in Chapel Hill, NC, join me and Tara Lynne Groth, experienced freelancer and journalist, for our workshop that will help get your novel and your querying process in game shape.

Query Right Workshop with Lyn Fairchild Hawks and Tara Lynne Groth

If you’re wondering how to approach literary agents and magazines with words that get a positive response, we’ll help. Learn the dos and don’ts of querying—from the pitch to the synopsis to the bio. Review queries that worked and get started outlining your own query. You’ll get useful tips to use today and a current perspective on the business of pitching your work. Includes an individualized critique of your query letter.

Saturday March 24th, 10:30 AM – 1:30 PM

Chapel Hill Library, Meeting Room C, Chapel Hill NC

$59; advance registration required.

How a Query Can Help You Write Your Novel

When I headed to the Chicago Writing Workshop to pitch agents, you can bet I brought my best boots, a big smile, and a query letter–polished to a high shine. Better than that, I had a complete manuscript. The complete manuscript came courtesy of years of hard work and several drafts of that query.

Butterfly boots by Justin. Lyn Fairchild Hawks' favorite boots.

These boots are made for pitchin’–in all kinds of weather.

A query letter forces you to figure out just what your story means and why it deserves to have a place in the market. It’s a great exercise–and a great break from the writing process–when you feel mired in the muck that is your novel and feel like pitching it over a cliff.

What have you learned about your novel while writing your query? Share below!

Story in a Nutshell

Questions you solve when writing the query:

  • Does my story have an arc that satisfies the reader?
  • Does my story have stakes?
  • Does my hero transform?

When you’re crafting the query’s brief synopsis paragraph and when you’re crafting a logline (2 sentences, max), you definitely need these answers.

Questions like these make you go back and start an outline if you have none or revisit the one you have. Because “logline” is borrowed from the screenwriting industry, I highly recommend Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat for authors who aren’t sure there are stakes or arcs or transformation. The beats of a screenplay keep me sane when I am full of scenes, characters, and words. Beats are the bones I hang everything on.

The hero’s journey, which is Snyder’s essential inspiration, may not be your cup of tea. I understand. But in this age of story when many agents and publishers you’re pitching want to know how your novel can appeal to the widest swathe of readers, understanding this classic plot trajectory won’t hurt. In fact, knowing what tugs all human heartstrings is a huge advantage when revising your novel.

Appreciate that Audience

You’ve been spending all those hours alone, you and the pages. I start to feel a little odd, myself. By the third day of straight writing, conspiracy theories make a whole lot more sense to me. Because in our fevered writer brains, everything connects, right? Themes abound and machinations, webs, and intersections are constant. Our story makes all kinds of sense–in our heads. Audience? What audience?

Writing a pitch to the remote agent, the distant grail/prince/princess you desire, makes you a better storyteller. After hanging at their bird’s eye vantage point and attempting to explain the view, you see whether there’s a mountaintop (arc) and a crisis slide down the other side–fraught with rocks that rip up your protagonist’s derriere. Is there a Catalyst? An All is Lost moment? A Dark Night of the Soul?

Then when you get back to the page, you are writing for that agent, that publisher, that person who will fall so in love with your story she will sell it to many.

I write for myself, sure. I have burning urges of self to express. But I also really really REALLY want someone to listen.

Query Right

Are you ready to take a novel to the next level, or ready to query now? On March 24 in Chapel Hill, NC, join me and Tara Lynne Groth, experienced freelancer and journalist, for our workshop that will help get your novel and your querying process in game shape.

Query Right Workshop with Lyn Fairchild Hawks and Tara Lynne Groth

If you’re wondering how to approach literary agents and magazines with words that get a positive response, we’ll help. Learn the dos and don’ts of querying—from the pitch to the synopsis to the bio. Review queries that worked and get started outlining your own query. You’ll get useful tips to use today and a current perspective on the business of pitching your work. Includes an individualized critique of your query letter.

Saturday March 24th, 10:30 AM – 1:30 PM

Chapel Hill Library, Meeting Room C, Chapel Hill NC

$59; advance registration required.

 

 

All in a Hour’s Work

 

They say teachers make over 100 decisions an hour. Writers are right up there, too.

Global vs. Local Choices

We face the big plot questions, all those arcs and growth and struggle. There are the back stories of characters that need exploration but not to the point of slowing the pace. I could keep going about the bird’s eye view stuff you always have to keep in mind: the outlines, the maps, the intricate analyses and free writes and imaginings. I’ve got hundreds of pages of notes and far more of discarded ones. These are part of the global decisions, big trends that affect many pages, once decided, like dominos tipping. Right now, as I finish the first full draft, my biggest concerns are these elements.

Then there are the local choices, the line edits. Sometimes, not always, you can attack these quickly while trying to bolster the big patterns and trends. The other day I caught myself wondering about a few. I watched how I made some small choices–yet still important ones–and then moved on. I could wait till the first draft is done, but sometimes, digging into these choices now allows me some greater understanding of who my protagonist is and what my story’s about.

How do you navigate and balance global and local choices in your writing process? Share below!

 

Decisions on the Local Level

  • For example, should my character say, “The guys watch us” or “The guys are watching us”?
  • Or how about “the journalism life” or “The Journalism Life”?

For the first example, the choice is this: present tense or present continuous? I went with the present continuous because I want to convey suspense. I want to show a girl alone at a car wash with several guys there watching her talk to another guy. The action carries immediacy and continuity. I convey the ongoing menace and suspense of the girl’s experience. Check out this Grammarly post on present continuous for more info.

For the second example, capitalization conveys importance, precision, and voice. Wendy Redbird Dancing and Minerva Mae Christopoulos, my other gifted, weird, wise girls, they love capitalization and tend toward capital abuse. This is because for Wendy, drama and deep-seated anger must be outed. There’s a lot of low-grade shouting in her head, which capitalization conveys so well (she’s not an exclamation point kinda gal). For Minerva, she often thinks as a teen journalist in headlines, and she’s also socially awkward and extremely intense, so it makes sense for her to push the rules of language.

Does Audrey, the character I’m forming now, need to work her capitals the same way? No. She’s more mainstream, and though she’s also a journalist, she’s more a hash tagger than a headliner. When referencing her mom, however, a very intense and controlling person, Audrey on occasion will label her mom’s actions in capitals. I can count these times on one hand, and hopefully the snark and sarcasm is stronger because for her its rare.

How Local Helps Global

Now I know two things about Audrey I didn’t know before:

  1. She’s facing danger, and that’s part of her gig as a teen journalist. This is not just the stuff of movies; in my interviews with journalists, they have faced some dicey situations. I need to make sure the job gets rendered right and that I add suspense for the reader.
  2. Audrey’s not dramatic like Wendy–she’s more practical and even keel–and unlike both Wendy and Minerva, much more mainstream. Audrey doesn’t fool with certain rules whereas my other characters question and mock them. Audrey’s intensity manifests with intrepid reporting and basketball fandom. And though she’ll eventually flout the rules, as she delves into the corruption of academic and athletic systems, we’ll first meet her playing much of the mainstream game. The grammar game is a nice symbol for this. There are rules there for a reason, and then there are rules (like some of the NCAA amateurism rules) that just make no damn sense.

So these moments of grammatical choice aren’t so little after all. These kinds of decisions can stop the presses if you’re not careful, distracting you, and they can tangle up the bigger process of pattern building, plot development, and character exploration. (Trust, I’m guilty of spending hours on nitpicking a manuscript rather than generating new scenes.) But the more we master language and style, the quicker we can dip in and dip out of the manuscript with these decisions and actually aid the big-picture process. A local choice can resonate up to the stratosphere of global choice.

Stop procrastinating, Lyn. Time to ascend the heights and write on the ladder of plot arc. Time to soar the upper realms of character. Eyes above, with the occasional glance down.

 

YA Wonders from This Year

I’ve read many amazing books this year! Find all the reviews at my Goodreads page.

  • A Time to Dance (YA, MG): About pursuing artistic passion (dance) and losing a limb. My review at Teachers Workshop is here.
  • A Wrinkle in Time (YA, MG): About love and hope and interstellar time travel. My review at Teachers Workshop is here.
  • Boost: (YA, MG): About tall girls, basketball, drugs, and sibling crazy
  • Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead (YA, MG): About friendship and first love
  • If You Could Be Mine: (YA) Love between two teen girls in Iran, where it’s forbidden.
  • I’ll Give You the Sun: (YA) Twins, first love, being artists, and coming out and speaking up.
  • Saints and Misfits (YA): About identity, defining your faith, first love, and assault
  • Second Impact (YA): About CTE, small-town football, and intrepid teen journalists.
  • The Hate U Give (YA): About losing a friend, police brutality, and interracial love
  • The Unraveling of Mercy Louis (YA): About basketball, small towns, sexual awakening, and getting out of Dodge
  • Trell by Dick Lehr (YA, MG): About finding the truth: a journalistic thriller led by a strong young woman who wants to free her incarcerated father.

Find even more at my guest post, “9 High Flavor Reads for Your Teen (and You)” at Jennifer Puryear’s Bacon on the Bookshelf blog.

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Why Didn’t She Say Something?

“Why didn’t she say something?” That’s what a reader asked me back in 2013, angered that Wendy suffered in silence after an assault. My YA novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, grapples with a survivor’s dilemma: speak up and risk not being believed—or worse, being destroyed by the perp and the public.

And listen to the same chorus ringing out today.

When a woman speaks out shouldn’t be the point, but watch it become the subject. Trust that Wendy’s silence is complicated, as is her eventual speaking out.

The simple truth is what Jessica Goldstein said so well recently in McSweeney’s: “As young girls, we feel like maybe now is a good time to just throw something out there. See if it sticks. A PSA to all grown men on the face of the Earth: We do not want to have sex with you.”

Let’s try this again: Why didn’t she say something?

Because what happened is too horrible to put into words.

Because reliving it might make you faint or vomit. Or kill yourself.

Because he’s older.

Because Mom is overwhelmed by her life and always upset about something.

Because he’s Mom’s boyfriend.

Because he knows a ton of people in this town.

Because you won’t be believed.

Because everyone will talk about you.

Because now you’ll be That Girl.

Because everyone else is living a simpler, happier life and your trauma will interrupt theirs.

Because you’ll be asked why–about the outfit, about the time, about the situation. About the relationship.

Because you must have done something to encourage him.

Because smart girls should know better.

Because the candy store at the mall uses girl bodies to sell sugar.

Because someone near you just made a joke about sluts.

Because you’re busy looking over your shoulder in the parking lot.

Because close to 50% of Alabama electorate just voted for a pedophile.