“Are You Ignoring Me on Purpose?” and Other Burning Questions for a Literary Agent (ft. Amelia Appel)

Spine & Page is back from the dead! For its comeback post, we’re having a fireside chat with the lovely Amelia Appel, assistant literary agent at Triada US. Do you have burning questions you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent but felt weird about? And everyone else conveniently ignores these questions in their Q&As?  Luckily, I have no shame and I am willing to ask them for you! Also, Amelia is a friend of mine and I am forcing her to answer! Let’s begin 🙂

Amelia Appel, assistant literary agent at Triada US. Photo by me! 🙂

Ok seriously, why do you guys take so long to respond to queries? Are you ignoring me on purpose?
We’re not ignoring you, I promise!  (And in the rare event that we are, it’s because you queried incorrectly – more on that later.)  I can’t speak for every agent out there, but I’d argue that for most, queries tend to fall more towards the bottom of our to-do list.  We spend a ton of time emailing, editing, on the phone, reviewing contracts, honing pitches, compiling submission lists, and reading for our clients.  So with all that going on, reading queries is something we slip in where we can.  And when you can get upwards of 50 queries in a single day, it takes a while to get through them all.

Everyone says not to write for trends, but then you guys turn around and say my decidedly off-trend manuscript isn’t marketable right now. WHAT IS UP WITH THAT? (AKA how do I balance writing what I’m excited about vs. what will sell?)
I firmly do not believe in writing for trends – by the time you think you’ve got a handle on it, it’s over.  Always always ALWAYS write what you’re excited about – if you’re not excited about it, why would anyone else be?  That comes through in your writing.  Publishing is an extremely subjective business, but if you write something that you’re excited about and that your beta readers are excited about, you have a shot at getting an agent, then editor, then publisher excited.  Not everything sells, but if you’re not writing what you love, you should reconsider why you’re doing it.

What’s the best way to win over an agent in a submission?
For a submission to win me over to where I ask for more pages, it all has to work – your query, synopsis, and first ten pages have to all be appealing to me.  The trick that gets me to pay extra attention, though, is to start your query with personalized reasons why you think I’d like your manuscript and be the best agent for it. When queriers know and cite the specific reasons why they queried me in particular, it shows me that they’ve been paying attention, done their homework, and value the author/agent relationship enough to not send form letters out blindly. I notice that, and those queries are the most successful for me.

What’s the best way to get an agent to hate you?
Don’t follow directions.  Be rude.  Email me constantly after I already said I was reviewing and would get back to you when I was done.  Hit on me.  Butcher my name.  Send me a query clearly meant for another agent.  I’ll usually only ignore you, though, if you blatantly don’t follow my query guidelines; I don’t have time to tell you how to query properly, especially when the instructions are right on our website.

What’s the most important part of a submission – query, synopsis, or the sample chapters?
I might be alone in this, but they’re all equally important to me, which is why I ask for all of them in a submission.  If you have a great pitch but your writing’s not there?  Pass.  Writing’s good but your story is all over the place?  Pass.  It all has to work for me.

What do you think is the most common reason an author might never get their manuscript taken on by an agent and/or published?
I think most near-misses happen because something’s missing.  The best way to take care of that is to have beta readers and become a member of a writing group.  You need that outside feedback to make your manuscript better, and it has to be great for an agent to want to work with you on it, and then it has to be excellent to get published.  You can’t be shy with your manuscript before querying; it’s not to your benefit.

If I query an agent and they pass on my project, can I query them again with another one I think they’ll like better?
Absolutely!  We encourage this.  But send a separate query and mention that they’d passed on your other project; don’t just continue that thread.

If the tables were turned and you were submitting a manuscript to agents, what would be your approach to the process?
I’d do my research so I was sure to query only agents I thought would be a good fit (meaning they’re actively looking for the kind of project I’m querying), then I’d tailor each query to each agent by following their specific guidelines and including reasons for why I queried them in particular.  Then I’d be patient, see what they said, and (as the case may be), revise accordingly.

I know it’s important to research agents and agencies before submitting. How extensive should this research be? Everyone else seems to know everyone and be best friends with agents on Twitter and I feel left out 🙁
You don’t have to completely stalk them (actually, please don’t), but a solid amount of research will help – review their profile on their company website, peruse their Twitter, familiarize yourself with their MSWL.  That’s it.  But don’t be afraid to engage with them on Twitter!  Just use your best judgment on how to go about that.

How do I know if my manuscript counts as #OwnVoices?
The #OwnVoices hashtag was created as a way to identify books about diverse characters written by authors of that same diverse group.  We Need Diverse Books has an excellent, detailed definition of what counts as #OwnVoices:

“We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.

*We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.”

If your manuscript aligns with this definition, you’re not appropriating anything, and you’ve gotten feedback from others to confirm, I’d say you can call it that.

What’s your ideal author/agent relationship?
One grounded in respect and transparency.  There’s a lot of trust built between an agent and their client; everyone needs to be on the same page and both parties have to work hard for each other independently, otherwise it won’t work.  I’ve found the most successful relationships are when clients trust their agents to do their jobs, and agents in turn trust their clients to do theirs.

What’s the most underrated piece of advice you wish more people looking to work in publishing took to heart?
Stick with it.  This can be a really tough industry to break into for a plethora of reasons, and it can be frustrating at times.  I’ve seen lots of people become disheartened and quit and wish they hadn’t.  If you truly believe this industry is your calling, work hard and don’t give up.  You’ll get there.

What’s one thing you think all literary agents have in common?
Apart from the obvious love of books, I’d say we’re all really passionate people.  We want to be moved, and we have to love what we’re working on to work as hard for our clients and their projects as we do, because we can never guarantee a sale.

What are the three books I should read to understand what you’re looking for?
I want practically all of the things (check out the link below to see exactly what I’m looking for), so here are three books I love and why:

Okay, so this is actually four books instead of one, but this YA fantasy series is one of my all-time favorites for so many reasons.  It’s fast-paced, the world-building is so top-notch that you’re unquestionably sucked in from the first page, and it highlights the trials and tribulations of not only being a female in a male-dominated field, but of growing up in a realistic way, albeit in a fantastic setting.  The character arcs are believable and endearing, and while the protagonist develops romantic relationships, they are neither gratuitous nor the focus.  I LOVE that Kel develops these strong relationships with the boys she grows up with, and that she’s single when the series closes.

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders
The format of this novel helps make it a quick read (once you figure it out), but the voices are what make it a page-turner.  And I am an absolute sucker for stories that blend creepy elements with humor.  Really, anything set in a graveyard will grab my interest.  But the combination of the unique format, the hilarious characters, and the fascinating, historical fiction premise quickly brought this one into my top faves.

INFINITE JEST by David Foster Wallace
I’m willing to bet Shannon’s rolling her eyes over this one (Editor’s note: Yup.) because I hardly ever shut up about it, but I’ll argue I have excellent reason.  I first read this in college for a “Study of the Novel” class, and my professor told us before we started that this book would change our lives.  We all laughed at the time, and were no longer laughing by the time we finished.  This book elicits an impressively broad range of emotions.  I laughed, I cried, I cringed, and I was horribly frustrated to the point of wanting to punch someone, but by the time I was done, I felt like a different person.  I love this book for how it makes me feel, how it makes me think, and how it makes me observe the world around me in a different light.  It’s funny, for such a verbose novel (it’s over a thousand pages long and has hundreds of endnotes), my favorite parts of it were subtext.  I love when a book makes me do some actual work to get the bigger picture.  “Show, don’t tell” is great advice for writers, but when I have everything in front of me and still have to connect the dots on my own, that’s my favorite kind of writing.

Thanks for joining us! For more about Amelia, her interests, and how to query her, see guidelines here. Also, follow her on twitter @AmeliaLAppel.

What Is Going on With You?!

Hi everyone! It’s been a while.

As some of you may know, things have been somewhat transitional for me over the past several months in terms of my professional life, which is why I have been closed to queries and not actively taking on new clients. This post is to give an update and explain what’s going on to the few (but appreciated) who have been asking!

While there’s a long and boring story here, the short version is this: I am stepping away from agenting. As of this post officially, I will not be taking on clients or handling a list. My email for submissions will no longer be active. And I’m no longer affiliated with McIntosh and Otis.

I feel I have to say this decision didn’t happen because I don’t love books or publishing or didn’t like agenting. Not the case! It was such a privilege to be an agent for a time and have people share their work with me. Books and reading and stories have always been my passions and always will be. However, to keep it brief, being an agent turned out to not be the right path for me, at least at this point in my career/life. That said, while I have a new day job, I’ll be staying involved in the book & publishing world in other ways, probably through some freelance editorial work and consulting (coming soon) and maybe even doing some writing of my own 🙂

I’m not totally sure what’s around the bend, but my blog Spine & Page and my new pretty website (a work in progress, but designed beautifully by the talented Rich & Hated Grafixx – check him out!) will remain active and reflect the new things I’ll be doing, whatever those may be. I hope you’ll stick around for that as it’s been so nice to connect with the people reading. I really appreciate everyone who has taken the time to read my posts – I hope they’ve been helpful.

Anyway, that’s it for now! On to the next chapter.

Update: Currently CLOSED for queries

Hi all. Happy new year!

Just an update that I am currently closed for queries as of 1/6/2017. Any queries received after 2pm on this date will not be considered.

Please refer to this space as well as my twitter for updates re: when queries will reopen.

This does not apply to requested material, just unsolicited queries.

If you receive an offer of represenation or publication on a query you submitted BEFORE 1/6/2017, please notify as normal (in the same email chain in your original query with OFFER OF REP in the subj line).


Surprise! Not Everyone in Publishing Was an English Major

One of my favorite things to do here on Spine & Page is to lift the curtain on the publishing world, as I know there are many misconceptions (many of which I have held myself at one point or another) about it out there. The misconception that is my favorite to SMASH WITH A HAMMER is that to work in or be good at publishing you have to major in English.

Now, I shall preface by saying that a good many of the lovely people who work in publishing studied English in college. HOWEVER. There is a small but vibrant minority out there of people who work in this glorious industry who did no such thing.

And I am one of them!


I’d like to share a little bit about my own academic background to show that a) not every publishing person was an English major and b) that’s ok! Agents and editors come to their jobs from different perspectives. Some of those variations are academic. So this post is mostly meant to explain one different perspective (mine) and perhaps be an example to any young aspiring professionals out there for an alternative path to how I wound up doing the book thing. Here’s a little Q&A:

So, you got to college. You liked books. Why not just do the English major?
Well, friend. That is a long story that mostly involves adolescent indecision. However, I knew that though I LOVED books and reading, I didn’t really love the idea of reading literary criticism all day long (which, surprise, is apparently a thing for English majors).

The thing I liked about books was the stories and thinking about them as processes. Also I was a major nerd for history. (Like, I learned how to write basic Egyptian hieroglyphics when I was a kid). So I tumbled into History as my major and found that it actually fit very well.

History. Gotcha. How on earth is that helpful?
Well, in terms of content, it isn’t. Really. At one point, I took a class on pirates. Like, the swashbuckling kind. Seriously.


However, what a History major does is teach you how to read critically and recognize structure and patterns. It also teaches you how to take ridiculous amounts of information and present them clearly. It gives you research abilities that borderline on terrifying. It also teaches you how to write like a badass. All of these are crucial publishing skills. I found History to be the best way to get them without having to read a Marxist critique of LITTLE WOMEN, or something absurd like that. No offense, guys, but when I saw the stuff my English major friends were reading I was like


Majoring in history is also nice in this field because I have reading/editorial interests that set me apart a bit from the many English majors who work in publishing, and have a slightly different perspective. For example, I feel that history has taught me to be more concerned with plot and the underlying reasons behind events, or even character decisions, in stories. (Not that English majors aren’t, but my brain was academically wired to think about those questions – of process, cause and effect – first).

I also have a theory that being a History major is what solidified my love of working on mysteries because I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED AND WHY.

Also I love historical writing/fiction MORE THAN ENGLISH MAJORS AND I HAVE A DEGREE TO PROVE IT. Jk. Sorta. Love you, guys!


So they let you into publishing without an English Major Card. How?
Here’s the trick! So, truthfully, this is the big secret to getting into publishing at all. You can major in literally anything and work in publishing. What matters more is your work experience.

So while I was learning about pirates and American deindustrialization other weird stuff from long ago that I nerd out about, I was also interning in a wide variety of book and non-book related places, beefing up my resume. All of my internships involved writing or communications in some form. So when it came to apply for Publishing Job X, I talked about that, and was able to create a narrative out of the mess of weird academic and job experiences I had in school (another History-learned skill!).

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I also hate reading literary criticism and over analyzing things I originally enjoyed reading. What other majors work in publishing?
Again, there is no specific publishing-friendly major. English lends itself well, of course, but so do many others. (Side note: I am personally not a big proponent of studying publishing as a major or in a school setting. That’s a different issue that perhaps I will write about another time). As I said, your experience is really more crucial, but some of the majors that have typically led folks to publishing are: Communications, Mass Media, Journalism, Writing, Comp Lit (sort of English but no), Liberal Studies. Basically, you have to prove that you can write well, read critically, give good feedback, have an amazing attention to detail, and be good with people. So whatever you think will get you there is fine!


Hopefully this helped you gain a little broader perspective about potential agents, editors, etc! We are all unique and some of us spent good tuition money to learn about pirates in class. Remember that. 😉

Halloweekend Reading! 5 Under-the-Radar Books to Make You Shiver

Halloween is my favorite holiday. Fun fact: Halloween originated in Ireland as the festival of Samhain, where the line between the world of the living and the dead is thinnest.

As a lover of all things dark, spooky, gothic, mysterious, and eerie, you can get why this hoilday is my scene. Especially when it comes to books. If you don’t have a creepy reading list for this weekend, never fear. I am here to help with books you may not have thought of. And give you nightmares. Let’s begin.

1. HANGSAMAN by Shirley Jackson

Now, you know Shirley. She wrote The Lottery” and a lot of other books that probably freaked you out. This title is one of her lesser known works, but is so FOR SHAME. First of all, it’s based on real experiences of Jackson herself AND the real-life disappearance of a college student in the 1940s. The main character, Natalie, goes to college to escape the pressures of her controlling family and winds up involved in some dark stuff. It’s not a book that’s very committed to reality, so you’ll have to judge for yourself which of the unsettling events are real. You’ll also be deeply unsettled. Enjoy.



This was my favorite book of 2014. THE FALL is smart, dark retelling of “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe, told from the perspective of the ill-fated Madeline Usher. If you’re anything like me that’s all you need to know and you’re already on your way out the door to procure a copy.



Joyce Carol Oates is a legend, but sometimes I feel her horror writing doesn’t get enough credit. This collection is amazing. First of all, anything involving children and corn is creepy. I read this a few years ago and still vividly remember specific lines from these stories, which range from one about children conducting a strange ritual to one about trepanning to one about seriously messed up twins. Lots of good stuff to creep you out and have you fliching as you turn the page. Perfect for those nights you want to light some candles and read creepy stories out loud in the dark to your roommates and family to freak them out. Wait, no one else does that? Just me?

4. SERVANTS OF THE STORM by Delilah S. Dawson


FIRST OF ALL THE COVER OF THIS IS FREAKY AS HELL. The longer you look the worse it gets. This is some Samara level creepy. This is the kind of book I recommend if you love spooky atmosphere. It’s set in Savannah after the city has been devastated by a hurricane, leaving the city prey to rot, disease, and demons. The main plot is about a girl trying to determine if her best friend (thought drowned in the storm) is still alive. There were some things about this book I didn’t love, but a grimy, haunted Savannah, already the most haunted city in the US in real life, is totally worth the ride.

 5. BLACK CHALK by Christopher J. Yates


This is an under the radar read for those of you who like to get your chills from the psychological. Six best friends at Oxford University play “The Game” – a silly competition of childish dares. Slowly, however, The Game escalates into something horrible. Fourteen years later, the consequences of The Game rear their head, and the players must meet again for a final round. “Who knows better than your best friends what would break you?”

Enjoy the terror, folks! And have a safe and happy Halloween!





“I Just Sit and Read All Day!” Said No Literary Agent Ever

Working at a literary agency is great. For someone like me whose life is basically run by books, it’s the dream. However, I do get a lot of assumptions about my job, which are basically this: “Don’t you just sit and read all day?”

Sadly, my friends, no.

(I also got this question when working as a bookseller. Even though you can go into any bookstore and see employees doing lots of things other than reading, but people have their ideas…)


There is a lot of reading involved in a literary agent’s job. But, there are a lot of other things involved as well. I wanted to write a bit about them to shed some light on what exactly we do all day. And for those of you waiting for responses on submissions, now instead of picturing the agent just ignoring your email (they are most likely not!), you can picture them wanting to get back to you but doing one of these things instead 😉

Of course, every agent’s approach to work and every agency is different. I am a junior agent at an agency that has been around for a long time, so my responsibilities are different from others. This is just a general idea of what a literary agent COULD be doing, not everyone’s job description.

Here we go:

I constantly say that working in publishing is basically training to be a detective (mostly because being a detective is my dream job and it sounds exciting). At the agency I work with, there is a lot of history to dig through as we’ve been around a long time. Someone may come calling about an old title we handled and we need to figure out if it’s still in print, if the proprietor (author or their descendants, usually) is around, if the rights are with the author or with the publisher, and what that publisher is today vs. 50 years ago when the book was published. This involves a lot of searching through records, reading old contracts, and doing online research. I have landed in many a Wikipedia-spiral because of these searches, reading lists of things like “50 Forgotten Science Fiction Magazines from the 1950s ” Fun!

Research can also involve things that are more “frontlist” oriented (frontlist meaning for current, active clients), like researching publishers for a project, reading up on potential editors, or reading up on current books being published to be familiar with the market. All of this goes in the agent’s knowledge bank so that when they take on a project, they have a great idea of where it fits in the market and what editor/publisher might be interested in it.

The nature of publishing these days is that editors expect (and require) much more polished work than maybe ever before. This means that agenting has taken on more of an editorial role, so agents do a LOT of editorial feedback for their  clients. Some agents are more hands on than others, but it’s an essential part of the job no matter what.

Agents typically edit for the “big picture” questions and issues of the manuscript (ex: the pacing is slow in this section, this character needs more development, etc) rather than nitty gritty editorial things like grammar and punctuation. In most cases, they will do the bulk of content editing on the project. It’s totally normal to do several (what seem like endless) rounds of revision with an agent before they say it’s ready to submit. That means a lot of time spent working on editorial feedback as an agent in a day, especially if they have many clients.

Publishing is a relationship-based business. A huge part of an agent’s work life is networking with editors that they may want to submit a project to one day, knowing their interests, and establishing a relationship with them. This can start from something like an industry event (we have mixers – they are just as awkward as they sound, but still great), or from something like Twitter (in which I read an editor’s twitter, develop a professional crush* on them, and then reach out to introduce myself).

*Professional Crush: The feeling of finding a fellow publishing professional whose interests align with yours, has worked on projects you like, seems like they’d be great to work with, and who also seems like an all-around cool person that you want to get to know. (E.g. “I stalked Sally Editor’s #MSWL feed on Twitter and now I have such a professional crush on her.”)

It’s great to meet in person with editors as much as possible. Luckily, most people who work in publishing are downright lovely and totally fun to grab a cup of coffee or lunch with to talk about books and industry happenings. And agents do that a lot to build up their network and keep current on what editors are looking for, hoping one day to play matchmaker to an editor and your project!

This is a huge part of an agent’s day, at least an older, smaller agency like the one I work with. If you’re an author and you sell a book to a publisher, you and the publisher will have an agreement to outline the terms of how they are going to publish, how much you’re getting paid, etc. An agent’s job is to get the author the best deal possible. You all probably know that! But you may not know what that process actually looks like – whether it’s a back and forth with an editor/contracts associate, phone calls, redlining of the agreement, getting approval on changes, on and on to eliminate any doubt about what everyone’s responsible for in this arrangment.

Some larger agencies have their own contracts departments that will handle agreements, while in other cases, agents draft their own contracts. Being an agent actually gets you a pretty decent primer in legal language 🙂 Contracts can be a lot of fun (if you’re a nerd and enjoy them like me), but they also take up a lot of time. Agents want to be thorough and make sure everyone is happy!

Another aspect of contracts you might not think about is that there are many different uses for a literary work. There are translation rights, audio rights, film/TV rights, performance rights, the list goes on. If someone wants to use just a selection from a book, they need to approach the rightsholder (often the author) to do so, which requires – you guessed it – a written agreement. As I’m sure you can imagine, written agreements are really the backbone of publishing and ensure that everything runs smoothly by letting everyone know to expect. So, they are definitely a huge part of an agent’s day to day.

There are TONS of other things an agent might do in a given day – corresponding with authors, managing social media, exploring new writing opportunities, managing/organizing things like files and sumbmissions, attending conferences and author events, etc. The exciting part about working at a literary agency is that every day can be different! And yes, we do get to read a lot which is also exciting. Hopefully this post gave you just a slightly more in-depth glimpse at what an agent might be up to inbetween manuscripts 🙂

8 Useful Things to Do While Waiting to Hear Back on Your Query

Ah, the waiting game. Truly publishing’s favorite pasttime. For authors, agents, and editors alike, it’s a huge part of the process and unfortunately unavoidable.

Authors just starting to query their work are most likely in for a long wait  before things start to move along. (So sorry about this, guys.) Agents run behind on their queries all the time, and it unfortunately in some cases can take months to get a response, depending on a variety of things. Even then, it’s not guaranteed, but that uncertainty is part of the territory of being a writer, I’m afraid.

That said, for those of you really going after landing an agent, there is good news – while the waiting game can be frustrating for new authors, there are a lot of ways to be productive during the time between when you’ve sent out your queries and when you might hear back from an agent or editor about your submission. In fact, this time can be very useful and just as productive as writing. Here are some things you can/should do during this time, both to put your best foot forward and to keep yourself from going crazy!

  1. Set up a system to keep track of your submissions and manage it. Whether it’s a spreadsheet, list, whatever, make sure you know just who/where has your query and what the details of their submission policy are (i.e.: how much time before this should be considered a pass?) Most agents update where they are with queries via Twitter or a blog, so keep tabs on who is where in their reading pile, if that info is available. For example, I periodically tweet something like “All unsolicited queries through 7/10/16 have been reviwed”, meaning if you haven’t heard from me by then on an unrequested query, it’s a pass. Otherwise, most agency websites will have a general timeframe for you to go by, as most agents are unable to respond to things that aren’t right for them. If agents request your manuscript, you’ll want to keep track of that, too, of course.
  2. Resist the urge to check in. I know this is really hard. But unless otherwise stated in submission guidelines, the only reason you need to follow up on an unsolicited query is if you’ve received an offer of representation. In that case, notify the agent as soon as possible. Otherwise, let it be, and the agent will reach out if they’re interested. Exceptions here might be requested material (such as a full or partial) that the agent has had for a while.
  3. Find your next WIP. Your old WIP is done and out in the world, so what’s your new one? Channel the energy you’re tempted to spend obsessing over the project on sub into a new project. Aside from the time when you’re keeping tabs on that submission (see #1), pretend it doesn’t exist and work on your other ideas. In the event an agent is interested in you, they’ll want to hear about your other projects. In the event you wind up tabling what you’ve submitted, you’ll have your next project lined up. Remember few authors make it on their very first book, even if it feels like your baby. Instead of dwelling, give yourself options and get better as you go.
  4. Write a piece for a blog, website, or news outlet. There are a lot of writers out there trying to get published online. Getting published online is also a completely different animal than querying a book, so be prepared to research. But, if you have the chops or a particular area of expertise, it’s is a great way to spend your “off-time” while your book is on sub. See if your favorite blogs are looking for contributors. If there’s something you’re good at or savvy about, find a site about that and ask if you can do a guest post, even if something as simple as your recipe for lemon bars on a baking blog. It will take a little time to figure out what’s out there, but it could be the start of a great opportunity or connection for you.
  5. Read some current books in your genre/market. If you’re not ready to write something new, try reading. Secret: many authors don’t read enough. It’s great when an author knows their market like the back of their hand, and it shows in the writing. If your primary WIP is out, you probably have some more free time. Use this to catch up on reading, which is a great way to arm yourself with amazing and relevant comp titles for your future use. Pro tip: buy these books from a local bookseller if you’re able, or get them at the library. Make friends as you go and you’ll have some word-of-mouth champions for your book if it gets published, and maybe an in for an author event. But don’t be sleezy about this – you should get to know your booksellers and librarians just because they’re awesome people, tbh.
  6. Work on your platform. Now is a great time to beef up your social media presence. Instead of stressing about submissions, spend a little time each day interacting with fellow authors online, or working on a website or blog. Social media is a huge component of authorship these days, and it can only work to your advantage to join the literary community online, or whatever community might be relevant to your book (ex: historians if you’re writing history, etc). Keep tabs on what relevant agencies and publishers are up to as well. Being savvy is a huge advantage in finding opportunities, and you may come across another agent/editor who could be a match for your WIP (make sure they get put on the spreadsheet if you submit!). Another thing, if you do get published, your online friends can be your greatest cheerleaders. Be sure to return the favor – it’s what makes Twitter, etc, for authors so great.
  7. Attend an event/conference. Obviously, interacting in the real world is great as well. Or so I hear 🙂 Anyway, whatever you’re writing, there’s a group out there for it. If you’re writing kids’ stuff, your local SCBWI chapter is a good place to start (many have yearly conferences). Romance writers should check out RWA. Agents are familiar with these organizations and while being involved with them doesn’t guarantee representation, they are an incredible resource and can make you seem just a little more legit. If these aren’t the right option for you, consider finding a writer’s group in your area, or starting your own. If you live somewhere where these groups don’t meet in person, look into an online chapter.  Remember that the point of these groups is to engage with others and learn, not just to promote yourself. So give back by offering to be a beta reader for others while you’re between projects, or even volunteer at an event yourself. Basically, get involved.
  8. Launch a new non-writing related hobby. Interesting people tell interesting stories, and interesting people usually have a wide range of interests. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your creativity (and sanity, tbh) is step away from the computer screen and do something else, as hard as it may be to do that. I know authors who teach yoga, draw, hike, train show dogs, teach community classes, play music, run, swim, knit, dance – the list goes on. They often turn to these things when the waiting game strikes, and often get great ideas from them for when they’re ready to start writing again. There are a ton of advantages as a writer to broadening your horizons this way (getting fresh air, meeting new people, seeing new places, etc) so don’t guilt yourself into feeling you’re not working hard if you decide to start playing pickup soccer or take a pottery class instead of refreshing your email. It’s all about balance!

There you have it folks! Some tips on keeping your sanity while waiting to hear back. Patience is a virtue 🙂

Let’s Talk About Middle Grade! Content, Voice, Issues, and More

If you’re a middle grade author, you’re in luck! Lots of agents and editors are on the hunt for middle grade in this YA-dominated writing world, myself included. Anytime I get a middle grade query I’m excited to take a peek. It really is a wonderful age to write for, and there’s a reason that we remember all the books we read at that age so fondly.

With that I wanted to talk a bit about this age range, which is an age range not a genre (a mistake I see often), and the common challenges that come along with writing for it. While there is a bit of a higher demand for middle grade projects from agents right now, you still hear many saying that they just aren’t seeing the kinds of projects they want to see. In my opinion MG is one of the toughest areas to nail. If you can do it, agents will be after you. Promise!

Age Range
So first, let’s talk about what middle grade is. Middle grade is the step between chapter books and YA, for ages roughly 8-12. Within that you’ll have lower middle grade (for the younger end of the spectrum – think things like THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX or FRINDLE) and upper middle grade (more mature, complex books for the older kids – think THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE or HOOT). Of course, there can be some variation, but generally lower means shorter and less complex, suitable for a kid in 2nd – 4th grade. Upper is for older kids as they bridge to YA and allows for more serious subject matter, more sophisticated writing and humor, etc. That’s not to say that lower MG books (or books in lower age ranges) are not sophisticated (because, lord, they can be), so think of the difference as both reading level and emotional accessibility.

A good rule of thumb is to take a look at what age the protagonist of the story is and remember that it’s normal for kids to read about kids who are either their age or a little older than them. The cutoff for a MG protagonist is generally 12 – any older and we’re getting into YA territory. Writing difficulty plays a part as well. If you’re writing middle grade, it’s important to think about how your manuscript fits for readers. The leap from 2nd grade to 5th or 6th grade is pretty big! Which kids do you imagine picking your book off the shelf?

Content pt. 1 – Stories to Tell

Bearing in mind that MG is not a genre unto itself, remember that you can basically write anything here. I, for example, want to see all kinds of genres in MG – mystery, fantasy, contemporary, historical, and more. MG is an area where agents and editors are loving to see some outside-the-box thinking at the moment. Your story doesn’t have to be about school, doesn’t have to have dragons, doesn’t have to have anything you might think of when you think “kids book.” It certainly can, of course! But there is so much more room for different kinds of stories than ever before. Explore them all!

One note of course is that while there may be adult characters in your story, your story should definitely focus on your children characters and be told from their perspective. For example, don’t write a chapter from mom’s perspective about getting your character ready for school, lamenting about kids misbehaving, etc. If you’re telling a father-daughter story (side note: can someone please tell a father-daughter story), we want the daughter’s perspective, not dad’s. Know your audience!

As long as your story is oriented around your kid characters, one of the beautiful things about MG is that it’s significantly less trend-driven than YA. For example, it’s really really hard to sell a dystopian YA novel right now, because we just had the whole HUNGER GAMES thing. MG doesn’t quite operate this way, with huge trends that rise and fall so dramatically. There are some, and you should definitely know what’s out there, what’s working in the market, what will stand out, etc. But there is much more freedom in this age range. I most commonly hear editors say they will jump at any MG that has a good story and really nails the MG voice. That’s a very broad window to shoot for, and it gives you a lot of opportunity to tell the kind of story you want to tell. That said, you’ve gotta know what kind of stories are flourishing in the market as well as what readers are connecting to.  This involves reading what’s been published. Consider this your official excuse to go read a ton of kids’ books. For *research.*

Content pt. 2 – How Much Is Too Much? 

No matter what kind of story you wind up writing, you want to do it justice, of course. Here is the biggest mistake I see in MG queries that I pass on – underestimating the reader. Kids are so smart and perceptive. They have a wide, complex range of emotions. They can understand a lot more than you think if you just gently guide them to the water. I see many submissions that lack subtlety and depth because the author is afraid that kids won’t get what they’re saying. Show them the story.  Kids will get it. Let them make the leap.

Middle grade books have dealt with all sorts of serious topics – war, death, illness, divorce, friendship, first love, class issues, peer pressure, politics, loss – the list goes on and on. You may worry about whether or not these things are MG-friendly as you’re writing. My rule of thumb is that what is more important is a mindful presentation of these elements rather than the thing itself. Death is a part of life. Violence can be scary. Illness is sad. Sometimes your friends turn out to be not so friendly. Sometimes your parents don’t get along. Kids really do get all this stuff. You can definitely present it to them (if that’s the kind of story you’re writing). Just be mindful of the presentation – don’t be overly detailed, gory, or gruesome. Use common sense and trust your readers to handle the story. They will do so beautifully.

Two exceptions here are sex and swearing. Those typically age a story up into the YA range. If there’s an f-bomb in your book, it’s definitely not MG. Otherwise, though, don’t shy away from the hard stuff, if you’re writing a hard story. (You can also write a fun, light story with none of this, that’s okay, too!). Just remember that all kids deal with hard stuff and fun stuff. It might be nice for them to have a book alongside them to know they’re not alone.

Voice and Characters
On that note, apply the same logic to your writing and characters. MG writing should not be dumbed down (another sadly common issue I see). Don’t be afraid to use big words! In fact, many published MG books have writing that is just as complex as a YA novel. The only difference is presentation, like I said above.

Here is 100% serious advice, to nail both voice and characters in MG: if you’re writing for kids and have kids in your life, use them as a resource. Talk to them. If you’re basing your writing on what you imagine kids at the MG reading age to think or be, or what you remember from many moons ago, it will not feel genuine, and will likely do this gross but often well-intentioned thing of turning your kid characters into flat, one-dimensional beings that say things like “Gee whiz!” or complain all the time. Seriously! I honestly don’t know exactly how this happens, because I don’t think anyone knows kids like this in real life. But for whatever reason when writing for this age group, many authors struggle to make reality appear on the page.

The reality is that kids are people, which we sometimes forget as adults who generally have to do a lot of things to keep them alive. If in your real life you take care of kids as a parent or otherwise, it might be even harder to separate yourself from that role and see kids as characters with the autonomy and agency that will drive your story forward. But you have to, or the story won’t work! It’s honestly one of the hardest things about working in this age range. However you overcome that obstacle, it’s one of the most important things to get right. (Hint: if you aren’t sure if you have this problem, have a kid read your work.)

Writing for middle grade when you’re an adult involves taking a step outside yourself and seeing the world, a challenge, a relationship, again through the eyes of a child, remembering that “young” is not a personality trait or a worldview. Every kid in your story should have their own. So, talk to some kids in your life. If you don’t have any children in your life to chat with, time to go to your local independent bookseller and pick up that big stack of middle grade books.

I wanted to write this post to address some of the issues I see with new authors who are writing MG, and I hope it helped! Like any writing, MG comes with practice and research – it being for kids doesn’t get you off the hook. I, for one, am very excited for this time in MG – there are many talented folks out there writing it and it’s a great time for it in publishing. I’m looking forward to seeing many fabulous MG queries in my inbox!

10 Books on My Summer TBR

Memorial Day weekend is upon us, officially kicking off the start of summer. The internet is flooded with summer reading lists at the moment and I’ve got a pretty hefty one myself, with a mix of old and new. I know I’m always curious what other people are planning to throw in their beach bags or lay out with by the pool, so I thought I’d share ten books that I’m planning to crack open in the sunshine – and maybe get some recommendations from you guys!

summer tbr girls

1. THE GIRLS by Emma Cline (Random House, June 2016) – Surprising no one, this is on my list (and everyone else’s). Coming of age loosely inspired by followers of Charles Manson with a dash of California desolation. All that heat getting to a young girl’s head. Who doesn’t like a nice, dark summer read? It’s definitely one of the hottest releases of the season, and something I’ll be snagging up as soon as it pubs.

summer prime

2. THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE by (Perennial Classics, 2009 re-issue, original pub 1933) – I’m planning to dip into some lesser known classics this summer, and this slim little number is at the top of the list. First of all, the cover (a re-issue from Harper superbly done) is awesome. The novel is about a progressive female teacher at a girls’ school in Scotland who endeavors to groom her female students into her ideal, while the girls clamor for her favor. I’d actually never heard of this book until I found it on a list of books under 200 pages worth reading, and now I can’t wait to check it out.

summer sun

3. I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson (Dial, 2014) – I still haven’t gotten around to this 2014 big release from the author of The Sky is Everywhere about a a pair of fraternal twins dealing with love and growing up, so I’m planning to read it this summer. I tend to take a bunch of YA books with me on vacations and trips, rather than adult books, so perhaps I’ll bust this baby out for a long weekend read. Nelson is known to be a contemporary YA powerhouse, and this book is supposed to require a lot of tissues. Can’t wait to be sniffling into my pool towel. Side note: the paperback cover (the version I own) is gorgeous, though the hardcover one above is also eye catching.

summer you will.jpg

4. YOU WILL KNOW ME by Megan Abbott (Little Brown, June 2016) – One day, I will probably be banned from singing the praises of Megan Abbott on the internet, but today is not that day. Anyone who knows me knows she’s among my favorite authors and I gobble up everything she writes with relish. Her latest is about a gymnastics prodigy whose world is rocked by a violent death. Girls playing sports + noir vibes + maybe murder? Abbott took on a similar formula with DARE ME and nailed it for me, and she’s only become a better writer since then, so I can’t wait to see her take a stab at this new world. It’s a given that this will land on my shelf and then in my hand when I go to the park to lay in the grass and read it, eating popsicles, probably.

summer modern

5. MODERN ROMANCE by Aziz Ansari (Penguin Press, 2015) – Embarrassingly I borrowed this from a friend LAST summer and keep getting sidetracked from it, so I still have it in my TBR pile. I was much more interested in this topic when the book came out, but I love Aziz so I’ll be reading for his humor (and to give my friend her book back!). I also studied some sociology work of Eric Klinenberg (who is vaguely credited here as a co-author? maybe wrote the intro?) in college a lot, so I’ll be interested to see how he factors in. Seems like a good summer nonfiction pick, even if I’m a little late to the party on this one.

summer inland.jpg

6. INLAND by Kat Rosenfield (Dutton, 2014) – Rosenfield wrote one of my all time fave YA mysteries, AMELIA ANNE IS DEAD AND GONE. I was super excited for this sophomore novel from her, about a girl who has a somewhat sinister connection to the ocean (think: drowning death of her mother, an unexplained illness involving water in the lungs). It’s a dark kind of story that I think has a touch or two of magical realism. It’s another one that kind of slipped through the cracks for me after I bought it, so I’m excited to pick it up in the next couple of months when hopefully I might be close enough to the ocean to really set the scene. Gotta demand reading atmosphere, people!

summer dept

7. DEPT. OF SPECULATION by Jenny Offill (Knopf, 2014) – This is a book I remember seeing everwhere when it pubbed and it never really caught my eye. About a month ago I was browsing a bookshop and found the paperback edition. I picked it up and flicked through. It seems to play with structure and form which is always something that pique my interest. The story is an emotional portrait of a marriage on the path to ruin. I love paths to ruin! I’m thinking this will be a devour in one sitting kind of book for me. Just goes to show how my reading interests change over the years, and things I wasn’t intrigued by before can all of a sudden become interesting. Also how bookshops are great at encouraging you to pick up things you may have never thought of. Go browse.

summer serafina

8. SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK (Disney/Hyperion, 2015) – I’m looking forward to representing some middle grade titles as I build my list, so this summer I’m planning to read a bunch of recent releases to broaden my horizons within the age group a bit. This adventure/mystery about a young girl who secretly lives in the basement of a wealthy estate with her maintenance man father definitely sounds up my alley. When children on the estate start disappearing, Serafina and her dad get tangled up in the mystery. I’ve mentioned several times I’m on the look out for MG and YA projects with a father/daughter narrative, so this will be good pick for me, I’m sure!

summer sonnets

9. THE SONNETS AND A LOVER’S COMPLAINT by William Shakespeare (Penguin Classics, 2000 reprint) – I’ve been dipping in and out of this collection of the Bard’s sonnets for a while now, and I’m determined to finish it this summer. Like most I studied some of these in school, but I feel like I was dumb then and not good at reading poetry. Now’s a chance to read them as an adult. I will probably read a couple of them a day all summer rather than rushing through. As for a Lover’s Complaint, I honestly don’t know much about it so will be interesting to see what that is!

summer unexpected

10. THE UNEXPECTED EVERYTHING by Morgan Matson (Simon & Schuster, May 2016) – This was a huge May release just in time for summer from one of my favorite YA authors.  Matson is a funny, smart, contemporary queen and her books always have the best premises. I’m very excited for this one about a politician’s daughter whose perfect plans are changed by a scandal. Like Matson’s other books, this seems like a great poolside read that hits that YA sweet spot of readable and well-written. The cover screams summer and also makes me want ice cream and dog friends.

So that’s my summer starting list! I hope to read a lot more than these as well. If you’ve read any let me know in comments or on Twitter what your thoughts were. Also if you have any summer must-reads on your list (old or new), I’d love to hear them 🙂 Feed the TBR pile, people. Happy Memorial Day!