Tuesday, February 16, 2010

To Query Or Not To Query

Am I ready to Query?

It might be the hardest question any aspiring writer faces, because let's face it--querying is scary!
Querying is when we take the project we've poured our heart and souls into, sacrificed our time and sleep and sanity, and ship it off to the scariest place ever: the slush pile. 

It will be stressful
We will get rejected (I have yet to meet an author who didn't get rejected at least once)

And it's our one shot to impress our dream agent. If we query our draft before it's ready, we could be setting ourselves up for disaster.

Which is why some writers (*cough* me *cough*) can linger endlessly in "revision mode" and always fall back on some excuse not to query:

"I need a few more CPs"
"I need some Beta Readers"
"I need to let the draft breathe"
"I need to write my query letter"
"I'm finishing my newest revisions"
"I'm still figuring out who to query"
"I'm waiting until after the Conference"

And well...certain people in my life (who know what an obsessive, perfectionist I can be) have decided enough is enough. 

Thus why my Sunday began with an epic phone call--an intervention if you will--from my family, who wanted me to answer the unanswerable question: WHEN AM I GOING TO QUERY????--and they would not take "I don't know" for an answer.

In my head my draft is never quite shiny enough, no matter how many times I've polished it. 
They tried to convince me to jump in--but I prefer a safer approach.
So--after MUCH discussion--we agreed on a compromise.

I was up all night on Sunday finishing a last run through of my MS. 
It has since been sent to all of my CPs, with the specific instruction to read it with one thought in mind: if this were your draft, would you query it?

And if they say yes...well...Query Wars here I come!

I've set no time limit on when my CPs must get back to me 
(secretly hoping they'll take their sweet time so I won't have to hold up my end of the deal) 
but two of them have already started reading, and another has already cast her vote. So it's looking like my stalling time might be running out. 
*bites nails*

In the meantime, I've been trying to calm my panic by thinking about what Maureen Johnson said about the importance of sucking as a writer, and trying to figure out if I've sucked enough yet (if you missed it you can watch the vlog here

And well...it's highly possible I have sucked enough.
Here's some interesting numbers/statistics

5: The number of scripts I've written (one of which was about BOY BANDS!)
6: The number of books I half wrote or outlined before my current MS
1.5: The number of years I researched the story before I began writing
5: The number of journals I filled with notes during the research process
13: The number of months I've been writing/revising my current MS
14: The number of drafts I've gone through since beginning my MS
147: The number of scenes I rejected when I created Master Draft 1
55, 614: The number of words cut from Master Drafts 11 and 12
46,095: The number of words cut from Master Draft 13

So...yeah--that's a WHOLE lot of sucking. But maybe that means I've squeezed almost all the suck out of my MS, because do you know how many words I cut on Sunday from Master Draft 14?

2422--that's it!
So maybe it's finally getting close

Which would be awesome--but also terrifying, because I'm totally afraid of querying!!!

And on that note, I beg your advice: how did you know you were ready to query? (or how do you *think* you will know, if you're not quite there yet?)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Conference Lesson #3: Writing advice from Laura Rennert

In case you missed it yesterday, I'm giving away a signed copy of Laura Joy Rennert'sBuying, Training, and Caring for your Dinosaur. So if you haven't entered yet you might want to get on that. Contest goes through Sunday and the winner will be announced Monday.

And as promised, today I'm going to share my notes from the wonderful session Laura taught at the conference called, It's Bunny Eat Bunny Out There (Heh. That title makes me laugh every time!) In case you don't know, Laura isn't just a fabulous picture book author. She's also a Senior Agent at Andrea Brown Literary--so she knows that of which she speaks.  I'm going to *try* to do her lecture justice, but if you ever have a chance to hear her deliver it live, I highly recommend attending.

Okay, so, she started out by satisfying our curiosity about what she looks for as an agent in any kind of book--and I thought I'd share with you guys since some of you may be thinking about querying her someday. She said she loves ambitious, voice driven work with emotional resonance, and she described herself as a "bathtub reader"--meaning that your story is a winner if it keeps her in the bath a few extra hours. Characterization is important. She also loves you to show her the ordinary in an extraordinary way. So if you think your MS fits that criteria I'm sure she'd love you to query her.

After that she talked about the art of writing picture books (though honestly, a lot of this advice can be applied to any type of book--you'll see as we go).

At a first glance a picture book may appear deceptively simple--but every word HAS to count and invoke visuals, which actually makes them quite a challenge to write. She stressed that we need to remember that a picture book is a child's first introduction to language, and that they are unique in two primary ways: they include illustrations, and they're designed to be read out loud--both of which should affect the way you write them. It's important to leave room in the words for the illustrator to tell information for you. And you definitely need to read your words out loud, and see how they work on an auditory level.

While there are exceptions to every rule, she said that the ideal age range is ages 4, 5, and 6 and that the "magic" length is about 32 pages, 600-1000 words (that number makes me cringe every time I read it. I sometimes write EMAILS longer than that!!!) And she highly recommended taking the time to make a dummy of the book--not for querying purposes--but so you can see not only the way the words work on each page, but the way they work on the full spreads and the way the plot moves as you turn the pages. And you absolutely must have a beginning, middle, and end (no matter what you write this is pretty important!) As a general rule, each double spread should cover one action, and each spread should move to resolve the problem you presented at the beginning.

As far as beginnings, again, something that applies to all books: start in the right place, which is usually in the middle of an action (we've all heard of in media res, well, it's even MORE important when you don't have a lot of words. No time for backstory here. Get right to the action!) You want to catch their attention, if not from the first sentence, then certainly from the first page, otherwise what's the motivation to turn the page?

And when it comes to picture books, here some methods that are generally very successful: repetition, humor, building on nature, verbal and visual clues, mini-cliff hangers, and a fresh POV. Also, the human characters should be children, or childlike adults, to make it easier for kids to relate to them. Children also want something that relates to their world, and they want something that is emotionally immediate. And for parents, make sure it's something that holds up to multiple readings, since we all know kids love to hear their favorite stories over and over and over.

That pretty much covers the main points, (she left a lot of time for Q & A, but most of the questions were awfully specific) but she has some wonderful checklists on her author website if you'd like some more information. She has one for picture book writers and one for fiction writers, and if you have a minute I suggest you hop over there. Not only are there more gems I didn't cover, but she explains things way better than I do.

Now, yesterday I hinted that there might be a chance for extra contest entries if you checked back today--and here it is: everyone entering the contest who leaves me a comment today will get one extra entry. I'd love to know what you think of this post, and I'd love you to tell me about a picture book you or your kids love, so please, leave a comment if you have a second. Just make sure you provide the name you entered the contest under so I can track you down and add your entry. Can't wait to hear what you have to say!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Were-Platypus Cupcake...Sorta

Brace yourselves for the biggest #shannonfail ever

Some of you may remember my campaign to force C.J. Redwine to make Wally the Were-Platypus into a cupcake--which was a HUGE success BTW. We stomped the other cupcake designs into the ground! 

But C.J. is not one to be trifled with.
And so, I just spent my Friday night--you guessed it--making a Were-Platypus cupcake. 
And--as if that weren't pathetic enough--it might just be the ugliest, most deformed, most ridiculous thing ever. I will definitely NOT be pursuing any careers in cake decorating.

Here's what I ended up with...

Gah--I can't do it--it's TOO embarrassing!

But...I have to...

But it's SO lame!

*Deep Breath*

Okay, I'm posting it.

I am! I am! I am!

Here goes...



Have I stalled enough yet?

Nope...I think I can drag it out a little more...




Okay, I'm really doing it this time--and be prepared. My husband laughed so hard when he saw it he could barely breathe. It is the #epicfail of all cupcakes.

And so, without further ado...I humbly present Wally the Were-Platypus Cupcake:


He appears to be part muppet, part penguin, part gibbon...

But I'm calling him a Were-Platypus--and my one defense is that I have yet to find a photo of a Were-Platypus, so how do you know that's not what they look like? Hm? Hmmm?

Oh, who am I kidding? It's total crap. 
But if it's any consolation, he tastes delicious--and I would know. I ate several of the failed attempts. 

So...there you go. The first Were-Platypus cupcake. 

Now I can't WAIT to see how C.J. does it--because I'm sure it's going to stomp my little blob guy into the ground. 

Were-Platypus FTW!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Conference Lesson #2: Polish Your Online Presence

In case you missed it, yesterday we talked about overcoming agent phobia, and today we're going to take that one step further and talk about something even more important: how to impress agents! (since that's the ultimate goal, right?)

And, of course, the number one way to do that is to have an awesome idea that's awesomely written and wows the agent with the sheer awesomeness of it. But even good manuscripts can sometimes get lost in the slush pile. So how do you stand out?

Amazingly enough--one major way is what I'm doing right now: Rambling! Blogging!

Every agent panel I attended and every agent I met had the same message: have as big of an online presence as you can. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook--whatever means you choose to accomplish your end--doesn't matter to them. But make sure you have something they can find when they google you.


Well, because once you're published--no matter how great your book is, or how amazing your agent is--at the end of the day, 75-85% of your marketing will be up to you. And before you call shenanigans about the injustice of that, stop and think about it. Who could possibly be MORE excited about your book than you? So really, who better to promote it to the masses?

So agents are looking at potential clients hoping to see some sense of marketing savvy. They are hugely--no, really--HUGELY impressed by writers with successful blogs. And when I say successful, that doesn't mean thousands of followers--though I'm sure that does impress them. Honestly, they were pretty impressed when I told them I had a little over 300 (thanks again guys--you made me look good!) and many of them said they were impressed by blogs with 100 followers. So you don't have to get down on yourself if you're not one of the big bloggers with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of followers. A modest following counts for way more than you realize.

But, sadly, there is more to it than just having a blog with little pictures in your sidebar. There is a way to blog badly--and blogging badly can be worse for your career than not blogging at all. So here's what they said they don't want to see:

-shameless self promotion
-huge excerpts from your WIPs

They gave detailed reasons for why they don't want to see those things...but I think it's fairly self explanatory, so I'll leave it at that and if you have any questions or want more information let me know in the comments or drop me an email. I'd rather use the rest of this post to focus on what's much more important: what they DO want to see!

They want to see enthusiasm--not just for your own project, but for writing, books, authors--anything that helps build up the publishing industry. Because, let's face it, we're all fighting to keep this industry alive. So if our blog posts get people to want to read books (or, even better, to want to BUY books)--well, everyone wins. Plus, what better way can you show them that you know how to market your own book than by marketing someone else's book?

They also want to see a sense of networking. Author interviews are a great way to do that, but if you're not quite sure how to arrange those, they also said they love guest blogs. Can you connect with another blogger and have them write a guest post? Can you provide a guest post for someone else? Remember, the blogosphere is a HUGE place, filled with tons of people fighting the same battle to get published as you are. Why not take advantage of that and find ways to team up? Shoot, even a blog war is a way of networking--though it's not for the faint of heart. (*shudders at the thought of Frankie's next dare*)

Basically, their biggest suggestion was to have fun with it. This is all part of our dream--so none of it should be torture (well...outlining will ALWAYS be torture for me--but that's beside the point.) And the more fun you have, the more interesting you'll seem, and the more interesting you seem, the more agents want to know about you. Trust me, if you have a great book and a fun, exciting web presence send them your query--they want to meet you.

And in case you don't believe me, I can give you a real life example. Of course Shiver is an amazing book and Maggie Stiefvater is an incredibly talented writer and I doubt she would've had any trouble finding an agent to rep her. But Laura Rennert told me at the conference that one of the big things that impressed her about Maggie's query was this sentence 

"My humorous art and writing blog is pretty well-read -- it had about 60,000 hits in 2007."
(And, in case you're curious, Maggie has her entire query posted on her blog if you want to check it out)

So it does work. They do pay attention. And the best part is--this is something we have complete control over. Nothing can stop us from building up our blogs as big as we want them to be. So with that in mind, I have a question: Is there anything--within reason--that you wish I did more of on my blog? Since I know some of you are evil (*coughs* Frankie *coughs* Simon *coughs*) I make no promises that I will oblige your requests. But I'm open to suggestions. And if nothing else, I'd love some feedback on how you think I'm doing. So if you have a second please, leave me a comment. I would love to read them.

Hope you enjoyed and have a great weekend everyone!
And stop by on Monday, for my next contest--an awesome signed picture book this time!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Conference Lesson #1: Overcoming Agent Phobia

Okay, I'll admit it. I was TERRIFIED of agents. In fact, I don't think using all caps even begins to convey the level of fear I used to feel. In my mind they were basically these creepy, evil Fates holding the cord to my dreams in their crooked little hands looking for any excuse to destroy it. (It's cute if you think I'm exaggerating...and yes, I realize this might mean I have issues.)

But think about it! 

Agents have power. Finding one who believes in you is the first step to world domination becoming a published writer--which isn't just a dream--it's THE DREAM!!!!!!!!!! And whenever someone has that kind of power over your dreams it's easy to feel like they're the gatekeepers of some mystical world only the strongest and smartest and bravest are allowed to enter--and you'll never be good enough to get through.

Here's the reality:

Agents need good writers as much as good writers need them.  

Think of it as a symbiotic relationship. Yes--we need an agent to help us sell our book. But agents need to sell books to make money, and if ours is good--they want to represent it. It's a simple business relationship. No evil conspiracies to kill your dreams or keep you down or ruin your life. In fact all the agents I met were...nice. Really nice. Friendly. Funny. And as far as I know, they didn't have glowing red eyes or claws or fangs--and believe me, I checked. 

Now...does that mean we never have to worry about rejection? Sadly no. Every agent panel I attended talked about the inevitability of rejection. I think Anne Hawkins of John Hawkins and Associates put it best when she said she's definitely passed on projects and writers who went on to make a lot of money. But she's also made a lot of money off projects and authors that other agents passed on. It's the nature of the business--and there's dozens of reasons why an agent might pass on something, so we can't take it personally and we can't let it discourage us. If the writing and the story are great we WILL find an agent to sell it, and we will go on to be a success.

But does that mean there's nothing we can do to help ourselves?

Of course not.

I've already told you the first step: have an amazing book to sell. Don't query your project just because you love it, or because you're proud of yourself for finishing. Query it because it is the best thing you have ever written, and make sure you have some unbiased people--like brutal CPs--to back you up on that. And if your current project doesn't fit that criteria, you can still love it--but put it away and wait until you really have your best work to put out there. You only get one chance to make a good first impression, so make sure that the work you're presenting is the best it can be. 

But there's more to it than just good writing. Remember--this is the publishing BUSINESS--and the agents couldn't stress enough the importance of being professional. What does that mean?

Well, it means following procedures. Have a strong, professional query letter--and conform to the agent's preferred querying guidelines. Don't call them to ask if they got your query (actually, most of them said pretty much don't call--ever. Maybe if you're a client, but not before). It means not sending them bitter, snippy emails when they reject you, or trying to convince them to change their minds. And here was another big one: it means not putting anything negative out there on the internet, because they can find it.

Now, a lot of us are savvy enough to know about Google Alerts, so we may not use an agent's name in our venting. But agents do google clients before they sign them most of the time, and if your blog/twitter/facebook page is filled with complaints about nameless agents, or "wrongs" that have been done to you during the querying process, or anything negative, it is a HUGE turn off to them. And that includes negative book reviews. Their advice: stay positive at all times. They talked a lot about "getting a feeling" about clients--that they're looking for any red flags that might warn them they're taking on a liability instead of an asset. Don't let your online presence work against you. 

They also talked a lot about what they look for in an online presence--but that's a WHOLE other subject--which I will get to another day, I promise. But today I just wanted to leave you with what was the single biggest revelation of the conference--for me at least:

Agents aren't scary.

Don't let the fact that they stand between you and publication intimidate you. They aren't trying to block you--they're there to help you. But you need to be ready for their help. So do yourself a favor and polish your draft as much as you can now, and learn as much as you can about publishing. And if you're patient and professional, you WILL find an agent who believes in you and your project, and you'll look back on your days as an unagented underling and laugh about how silly you were for being afraid of agents. Because then you'll be facing an even bigger threat: submissions!

Ugh! Why are we doing this to ourselves?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Writer's Conference in a Nutshell

A lot of you asked for more details about what the Conference was like, so here's a brief (Ha! I'll try...) rundown of what the three days were like and what I did:


Check-In: I finally got my schedule and found out which agents I was meeting with and when (and yes, there was a LOT of panicking and OMG-ing and calling/texting/tweeting/emailing my friends, family, and CP's to say "AHHHH!!!!! I have to pitch to X, Y, and Z amazing agents and what if they hate me?") I also got the list of speakers and topics to choose from, and my handy dandy Conference ID badge--which I totally kept as a memento even thought they tried to get everyone to recycle them (so sue me!). 

Mixer: Okay, the mixer was actually most terrifying part of the conference. I didn't know ANYONE, and no one said "hi." No one even noticed me. And just when I'd finally found two women who weren't too scary to sit with, they came around and decreed the table a "Mystery Writers" table, so I had to move to the "Middle Grade" table. (Why they didn't have the signs out in the first place still escapes me.) So I got to start all over again with a whole new set of strangers and just when I'd gotten used to them the woman in charge of the Conference came up to the stage and said, "Excuse me, will Shannon Messenger please come to the front--we need to talk to you." (I swear, these are the kind of things that only happen to me.)

So once my brain finally connected the fact that they were calling my name, that no, there was no other Shannon Messenger coming forward to rescue me, and that yes, they expected me to come up there in front of everyone, the lady had probably said "Is Shannon Messenger here? We need to talk to you" like 5 more times. Then I finally made my way up there and she probably noticed the look of panic on my face because she said, "don't worry--she's not in trouble" into the mic and everyone laughed.

And do you know what they needed me for?

They wanted to let me know they had to change the time of one of my appointments because they double booked it!

They couldn't have found a less humiliating way of doing that????????????

And for those of you who think it was no big deal, let me tell you, there were QUITE a few people who said, "Oh, you were the one they called forward, what was wrong?" when I introduced myself after that. Including an agent. *facepalm*


Keynote Speaker: Very good, very inspirational--but WAY too early. (8:30 on a Saturday? Really?)

Break-out Sessions: There were tons of interesting sessions to choose from, but I chose Laura Rennert's picture book session because I've always wanted to write a picture book and because I was meeting with her later that day and I wanted to see how scary she was (for the record, she's not scary at all, but I'll talk more about that in another post). 

First Consult:  My first meeting with an agent and oh boy was I nervous. Fastest ten minutes of my life. Again--the agent wasn't scary at all, but I still talked a bit too fast and too much. At the end she said she liked the idea and would be happy to read my query whenever I'm ready. So, not a slam dunk, but not bad for my first try.

Networking Lunch: Rubber chicken. Mystery cream sauce with way too much salt. Pasta that was so overcooked I barely had to chew it. But that was okay--I was WAY too nervous to eat because Laura Rennert and Caryn Wiseman were sitting at the table answering questions!!!!!!!!!!!! It turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the conference--they were SO nice, and I really learned a lot. But wow--eating lunch with two agents from Andrea Brown. My brain still doesn't want to believe it (and yes, I think of agents as celebrities. Come on, these people can change your life!)

Breakout Sessions: The next few sessions I attended were agent panels. I was determined to get over my fear of agents at this Conference, so I surrounded myself with them as much as possible--and it worked. I am no longer afraid of them. I still dread their rejections, but I'm not scared to send off my queries--whenever my WIP is shiny enough to enter Query Wars.

Advance Reading Appointment: Okay, this is the one I was the most terrified about. I mean, this time the agent had read some of my pages, and OMG what if she hated them? Not gonna lie--I spent about fifteen minutes before the appointment preparing for the worst--but it went really well. Even better than I realized at the time. 

Second Consult: This pitch went a lot smoother. I didn't ramble as much. I had pretty good answers to all her questions. And she was extremely nice and asked to see some pages, so it was a much better success.

Wine and Cheeser: I was pretty terrified about this after what happened the night before, but this time I actually knew a few people to sit with, so it wasn't so bad. And Barry Lyga--a writer I've been dying to meet for months--was there hanging out. He even let me sit at his table and told me about some of the projects he's working on (which are genius, btw. I can't believe I'm going to have to wait 2 years to read them!!!) so it turned out to be the best. night. ever! And the weirdest part was that he was telling me how he met his agent at this Conference a few years ago and won the Conference Choice Award and my thought was: "They give out awards here?" I really did not know that. So imagine my surprise when the next morning...


Keynote and Awards: Another awesome, inspiring Keynote Speaker, and then the conference overseer gave out the awards. I'd honestly just gotten done explaining to the woman sitting next to me that I didn't have a chance (my advance reading appointment hadn't felt like it went THAT great) when they read my name. I pretty much went into shock for the next hour. I skipped the first round of break-out sessions, opting instead to use the time to text/call people (yes, I am that lame) and the only thing that snapped me out of it was that I had another Consult to get to.

Third Consult: This one was with an agent I knew nothing about--so that actually made it a lot easier. I hadn't built him up into this huge, unreachable thing in my mind. And he seemed to like my idea--enough to tell me to query at least. So it was something.

Final Consult: By this time I felt like a pro--so I think I probably did the best job with this pitch. And she asked a lot of questions and said she'd love to see some pages, so I think it went pretty well. Of course, it's possible she said that to everyone--just to be nice--but I guess we'll see once I'm finally ready to query.

Lunch: We were on our own this time, so I grabbed a sandwich from Starbucks and spent lunch in the lobby meeting other writers. Lots of people congratulated me on my award--I felt like a celebrity. But it was just a quick break and then it was back to learning.

Breakout Sessions: I finished out the conference with a session on Voice, a session on all the things I should know before I query, and a session on writing a query and synopsis. Learned a lot, but by that point I was pretty worn out. I'd basically been running on pure adrenaline since Friday and I'd been away from my husband since Thursday and I was ready to go home. So I bought the CDs for the sessions I missed when I was in my appointments and headed straight home when the conference was over. And let me tell you, coming home never felt so good.

So all in all, it was an amazing experience. I can't say I would describe it as "fun"--but that's not really what this conference is designed for. This is a conference to give you once in a lifetime feedback and one on one time with some of the top agents and editors in the country. Makes it very stressful, but I learned SO much--and got a huge confidence boost from getting so much good feedback. Like I said yesterday, none of the agents I met were falling over themselves to represent me or anything--but they were nice, and remembered me when I'd run into them in the halls, and seemed interested in my idea--which is better than I could have ever hoped for. So even if they all turn me down when I actually send pages, at least I got to meet them in person, get their honest feedback, and they helped me overcome my agent phobia. And I got an award to boost my ego. Weekend well spent.

Okay, that should give you a pretty good idea of what I experienced, and I will spend the rest of this week, and part of next sharing what I learned from my sessions. And somewhere in there I'll also give away a signed book--from none other than the amazing Laura Joy Rennert--so check back for that!

Hope that satisfies your curiosity, and if you have any questions feel free to ask in the comments. 

Monday, February 1, 2010

Writer's Conference Update

So, I promised to update you on how my conference went this weekend and all I can say is...

O! M! G!

When I went there, my only goals were to learn as much as I could and try not to make a fool out of myself.

I wasn't expecting this:

It may just be a handwritten piece of paper, but that is one of the very small handful of Conference Choice Awards given out. Each Agent/Editor who did advance reading appointments had to pick a favorite writing sample. And somehow--I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it--the editor I met with chose me. 


 I can't. stop. smiling.

So if you're wondering how the conference went...


I also had consultation appointments with 4 agents--all of which went way better than I expected. No, they did not offer to sign me or fight over me or anything those of you with wild imaginations might be envisioning right now. (So, no, I will not be fulfilling any of my deals with the universe--despite how much you all may want me to) But I did get very positive feedback, and they all said they would love to see my query. So...we'll see if anything comes from that. 

Either way, I now have--officially--the best writer porn EVER!

I mean really, how. sexy. is. that?


Sadly, I can't show you the best part, (a couple of those have instructions scribbled on the back for how to jump the slush pile when I query) but that's actually only a TINY handful of the agents I met. (I didn't take cards from the ones who didn't represent what I write) And you know what? Agents really aren't as scary as I thought they were!!!

But I'll talk a LOT more about that later.

I promise, I will fill you in with all the details about who I met and what I learned and I even have an awesome signed book to give away sometime this week or next, but right now I am WIPED.

I've basically been running on pure adrenaline for the last 72 hours and I am crashing HARD. I'm not even sure if this post makes sense, so to try and pass on some of the wisdom I acquired is totally beyond me right now.  

But check back tomorrow because there are awesome things to come.
And now...I think I'm going to try to do something I haven't done in months.


*Head hits pillow*