Pitching Agents

I love that title although it reminds me that after sweltering in the 90-something heat yesterday, the Orioles pitching was less than adept. Actually, I’m procrastinating as usual about my preparation for a meeting with an agent in about two weeks. Since we’re going to the beach next week, I should be working on my pitch today. Blah, blah, blah, my anti-writer self says. Either you hit it off or you don’t! But my logical, pro-self is saying you have to put some effort into it unless you want to rely on sheer luck.

I previously did do a little research before I choose her for the SCBWI conference because I wanted to make sure she might be interested in my tween fantasy novel. Some agents who represent children’s books only do YA or middlegrade and some of them dislike fantasy for some reason. I suppose that’s a result of too many neck-biters. Okay, so somewhere between talking to a friend about a make-over for my postage stamp front yard (evergreens are growing over the windows) and deciding if Earl Weaver (you need to be a baseball fan here) is worth cooking in 100+ degree heat, I googled Molly Jaffa.

The few times I’ve queried agents since I dumped my bad one (that was for a mystery I wrote pre-Hopkins), I always take a look at their literary agency’s internet site. If they don’t have one or have a minimalistic approach to a website, I think that’s a good sign that they aren’t looking for clients or if they are, I should probably look for another agent. Ms. Jaffa has a good bit of information on her page – yeah, that probably means she’s looking for clients! Take a look!


Now I remember. She says she likes “fantastical” but no werewolves or vampires which leaves my book in the “okay” territory. And she also likes books that introduce the reader to a new world and “Stories featuring characters with strong passions, talents, or smarts – or characters in search of theirs – resonate with me.” All this is to the good because I already know that she’s a member of ARA -Association of Authors’ Representatives – which is a must.  Also, I’ve heard plenty about the Folio Literary Agency which I take as a very good sign, of course that’s a risk too since this would will be my first published book and I might be too inexperienced for them. I’ve already signed up for the session so I decided I’ll just have to do my best.

From her agency’s website I’m jotting down, no typical fantasy creatures or animal characters, social issues, historical fantasy, main character’s unrealized talents. Her favorite all-time books includes a childhood favorite of mine, A Wrinkle in Time. That’s a good talking point and I’ve been meaning to read, The Astonishing World of Octavia Nothing which might give me a good reference point for my book(s). I put the “s” on there since I’ve unfortunately or fortunately written the draft of book number two  in the series since the idea germinated during Nanowrimo the year after I drafted the first book.

I also look at interviews that show up when I google an agent and keep track of how current those interviews are. There’s an excellent one by O’Neale dated February 2012. I’ve revised enough so I don’t have her typical turnoffs in my manuscript but it sounds like she wants the writing to be “pristine” so I’ll plan on telling her I can’t send the manuscript until I’m done with another revision “scrub.” She sounds very professional which once again is good and bad. Still I like her style and I need to be more professional in my approach too if I’m going to get this book published. She also says she likes to edit a book several times which is fine with me.

At this point, I have a little more background and I’ve decided to take a break and read my most recent Poets & Writers mag and there’s Molly Jaffa again with a great new hair style. The article is about Folio and how the agency works. Once again, the professionalism of the agency impresses me. I’ll need to add something to the pitch to sweeten the idea of working with me if I’m going to have a chance. And I’ve got it! A short conversation I had last November with Lin Oliver at the end of a breakout session at another SCBWI conference. An editor from Scholastic who was listening in certainly did seem like she was interested so that might be a good lead for an agent. I know Scholastic published Harry Potter but I’ll need to check out some of their other titles to see how my book might fit into their list. “My book is a cross between Harry Potter (My main character is also male and has had a rough start in life) and…” Well, maybe not Harry Potter, that does sound presumptuous on my part and the first Harry book is sort of fairy-tale like while mine is more rooted in a contemporary world or somewhere inbetween. 

I have fifteen minutes at this conference but I think that I should be able to do my initial pitch in a one-liner, or at least that’s what I’ve heard. That’s where I’ll start. I have a lot to think about!  Later…

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Do You Outline?

I think I said in one of my early posts that I did do an outline for my first book. I carried around a stack of note cards and wrote down scenes as I thought of them. I figured about three scenes per chapter, twenty chapters for a compact mystery. I suppose if you were going for 75,000 pages that would be about 22 chapters. I organized them into a plot line that had a murder at the beginning, and then two climaxes after. If I was missing a logical link between different scenes, I added those in as I put the cards in order and pinned them up on the wall so I could keep thinking about whether or not the plot made sense.

I haven’t done an outline since then because I wanted to keep the spark in my writing but I think that I always end up working on my plot before I’m done. Organic translates into chaos for me. In my classes, I ask my students to write a short bio for their main character, too. This is a great way to keep track of  your characters so they don’t end up with a different hometown or even a different name!  Eventually, maybe I’ll come up with a way of putting a book together that works on every book.  Right now that doesn’t seem to be the right answer for me.  Each book seems to have its own way of growing from those first couple of ideas that I put together.  Until then, I’ll keep trying all of those great ideas that seem to pop up! 

Here’s a link from Martina Boone that has some interesting tools.


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What I Write About

Yes, I did write yesterday, all day. I was only revising ten pages for a critique at a SCBWI conference but I was transposing old verbiage into my current style. Probably would have been easier to rewrite from scratch but then I would have had to do the scrub down again. I thank the muse that I do keep improving every year except in 2008 when I drafted my tween novel during NANWRIMO (national novel writing month), I was scrambling for my 50,000 words and still very inexperienced even with a writing degree. The book is an alternate world reality story which I originally brainstormed with my son Peter – giving me the name for that genre of M. P. Stojak. That works for me. 

My literary (adult) novel came back recently and I’m anxious to get back to it for revisions that will take the quality of the book up a notch.  I had an idea this weekend about how to handle the point of view which was long over due! Still, for revision sake, immersion in the genre I’m working on at the time helps keep me on track. I’ve been reading YA and middle grade. The best so far is the Hunger Games. I was completely overwhelmed by how Collins pulls the reader through the story and glad to see that a best seller was so well written. It’s been a while since I’ve been so impressed. I was even thankful for the Kindle app which allowed me to pull down the last two books when I couldn’t get to a book store. Last summer I did read George R.R. Martin’s books (fantasy) since I remembered when he won the Omni short story contest so well. That’s been some time ago when I was single and living in Chicago. My sister’s first husband let me borrow his copy of Omni. (I was very poor!) He was (is?) a voracious reader but was more interested because George was his Northwestern roommate. With his success on HBO, I was curious about the books.  Quite a wonderful, complex world he’s created but honestly, those thousand page books should be edited down, don’t you think? 

The first two dreadful books that I wrote before I went to Hopkins were mysteries. My mom liked them but others thought they needed a lot of work but I did come close to getting one accepted by a small publisher and had a read-thru by a larger publisher. Some day, I may revise them and put them out into the electronic world for those voracious mystery readers. I was hoping that I would be done with the tween book and have early fall for my revisions to Infidelity because I want to work on a mystery during NANOWRIMO. I started one last year and just couldn’t focus because of my mom. May not be able to drag myself away from Infidelity (first drafted in 2007). We’ll see.

This is a very me-me-me post! Just remembered that I still haven’t responded to one of my students about her story and that is well over a month ago- ouch! I’ll do that tomorrow. (Today, I’m off to play with one of my musical groups at Fort McHenry for the 1812 celebration)  I had two reasons for this post – first, one of my new followers commented that he would like to know what I write. (My published works are short stories and poetry in literary mags and anthologies.)

The second reason was because of an article I read in the Guardian this morning. It’s an article about economics and made me think very Margaret Atwood-ish. Infidelity does gently question the American Dream. I have thought for some time that I would like to write a sharper-edged story – not so far in the future as some of Ms Atwood’s books and not about technology. More about how much is enough. That will be an epic I imagine so best not to work on until I’m retired and also not subject to rules about writing about the government!   http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jun/15/how-much-skidelsky-money-sandel?CMP=twt_gu   Take a look!

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So we read, but do we write?

I woke up early (whoops not supposed to start with waking up!), I made coffee and looked out the window at the woods – birds making their racket or cheerful songs depending on your mood, I turned on my computer.

This is where I’m supposed to say that I’ve already put in three hours of writing. But no, I didn’t write even though I’m late sending my sample for a critique session in July. I read email, I read Twitter, I read Facebook and focused on Jay Gatsby and my niece’s wedding pictures. And I can’t say that I don’t have any ideas, I’m full of them. So, what am I doing updating my blog?????  Talk to you later…

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What’s the one thing that makes everybody a better writer?

It’s not a trick question!  The first book I remember reading had stories about Little Red Hen and the later boycotted Little Black Sambo. Grimm’s fairy tales gave me nightmares for many years.  The first book I checked out of the library was one of the Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy tales. I remember reading everything in the children’s library (my librarian wouldn’t give me the okay to check books out of the adult library until I did). Because of her rules, I read a lot of biographies which were my favorites for a while and I also read nonfiction including the very dry History of Mankind. I also read comic books and all of the Nancy Drew mysteries. The books that I read over and over again, included Shakespeare’s plays, Great Expectations, Kidnapped, and later, Mahabharata and Herodotus’ Histories.

I’m not sure how much any of these books influenced me but I am glad that at least part of the time I read “good literature”.  My plots might be stronger if Nancy Drew books had influenced my writing the most, but I don’t think I could say the same for my prose. The other day while I was reading twitter posts, I ran across an article, I think it was in The Guardian, where once again an author was reminding writers to read. The advice is so obvious that I think we sometimes forget how important it is. Here’s a list that I like from a few years ago that includes many of my “postmodern” favorites.  Enjoy!  http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2009/07/the-mostly-complete-annotated-and-essential-postmodern-reading-list.html

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Teaching Basics of Creative Writing – #2

By the way, I ended up not liking that Gardner book.  Just not my thing, is it too weird to say that it was too down? Even if we’re hearing about something terrible which wasn’t really the case with his book, I think that an author’s (uh-oh) voice influences us a lot. Margot Livesey’s The House on Fortune Street has disturbing things in the book but it is readable. If you’ve ever met her you would know that there is a certain sparkle in her eye that can always put you in a good mood. I imagine the author’s outlook on life probably has a lot to do with how they handle such topics. Choice of point of view is probably critical. If someone is committing a heinous crime and the story is told in first person, I don’t think I would be able to finish the book. Third person might provide the necessary distance to let us read about something very disturbing like child abuse without totally turning us off.

Quite a while ago, I went to a reading by some mystery authors at Johns Hopkins where one of the presenters had written a book with child abuse in it. Having children of my own, I couldn’t even begin to read his book after his talk. Not surprisingly, many “how-to” books discourage writing about such topics even if the actual acts appear off stage.

I guess that this little discussion is a reminder for my class notes that when you’re trying to talk about creative writing topics, it’s very hard to separate them.  I usually do tell my little classes that everything works together, so feel free to go back and change your character, plot, whatever, when you see that it doesn’t all fit together. I’ve written a number of draft novels and I can tell you that when it becomes “whole” you can tell. That’s when I have been known to do my Dr. Frankenstein act!

More tomorrow when I talk about what I intended to talk about today – how to teach characterization.

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Teaching Basics of Creative Writing

Once again it’s time for my little winter/spring writing classes. I have a basic writing course and an editing course. I have a few people who repeat the courses so I always try to vary my examples and how I present the information. Lately, I’ve been reading about voice in preparation for those classes.

Years ago someone at a course in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival said that it sounded like I had discovered my voice. I didn’t respond because I liked the person. The fact is, I don’t like the idea of voice which is what I later told my teacher. I wanted to be able to write different types of stories that deserve to be written in different ways. I remember that then he didn’t say anything to me which might have meant that he thought I was wrong. I don’t really know for sure except when I think about his published novels, they do sound like they are by the same author which is, I’m sure,  an example of his personal style or voice. These days, I do understand this kind of style but I’m not sure this is good topic for beginning or intermediate writers.

Other examples of voice are. My early experimentation with voice included a large number of different characters in different locales. Writing dialogue is an obvious way that we can change our “voice” by acting out how we think a particular character would speak. Even when I’m writing from a third person limited point of view, I tend to write in what I would assume to be a proper voice for my chosen character and their background and setting. This kind of voice is a form of characterization and description. Although I’m not one of those writers that always starts with a character, there’s no denying (at least in my opinion!) that characters are the core around which any book revolves. Many have said that plot is primary for genres such as mysteries and thrillers but even these rely on their characters’ motivations to propel their plots forward and the point of view chosesn will rely in great part on our characters as well. 

So far we have writing style which can be somewhat described as choices consistently made regarding sentence structure, vocabulary, etc. Then, we have voice associated with specific characters which can be in the way a character speaks and how they see the world in which they live. The slant or prejudice of the narrator is another way that voice is used in a novel. The ironic or humorous novels will rely a great deal on their narrator whether it is actually the voice of  a character or an observing party. If we’re writing a humorous piece, we’ll probably going to use exaggeration, simile, and other tools of the trade to create a different type of style.

Now these are all very intellectual ways of looking at how we should write and I am far too inexperienced to not think about how I write. Maybe none of us are ever beyond evaluating and calculating how our writing works. But I do know that you have to relate emotionally to your writing. If you don’t think something you’ve written is funny, then it won’t be to other people. If you don’t feel sad when your character is sad, then that emotion won’t be passed on to your readers. So, I imagine that when I talk about voice with my next class, I’ll be asking them to remember when they felt sad, happy, or afraid and to use the memory of their emotions when they work on a character’s voice or the overall tone of a book or story. Their personal writing style will develop over time.  


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