Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Writing Advice by Marissa Burt

I often get queries from aspiring writers who ask me for tips on how-to-get-published, and I find my responses now falling into a familiar set of recommendations.  On the off chance that these tips might be worth more than the proverbial two-cents, I post them here.  I’ll also leave the comments open for tips or road-to-publication questions.  Join the conversation!

On Writing

Read.  Read.  Read.  As much as you can and as widely as you can.

Write.  Write.  Write.  If you are stuck on a story, write a scene or a character sketch.  Journal.  Not only is it good practice, but you have a nice little keepsake at the end of it.

Revise.  Revise.  Revise.  Don’t be afraid to make dramatic changes.  Edit boldly.  Cut scenes.  Kill off characters.  If one or two crit partners offer you similar feedback, listen.  Don’t respond immediately to critiques and try not to argue with readers.  Most are on your side.  If they had a particular response to a scene, consider what they’re saying.  Sit with reader input for a few days, then revisit their advice and see what you want to implement.

Stop revising.  You can make changes forever, and at some point, you’ll need to send your manuscript off to face its fate.  Polish as well as you can, and then get ready to submit.

On Querying
Do your research.  There are so many fabulous resources available to help make the querying process less intimidating.  You’ll easily be able to find some of your own favorite blogs, forums, and books to help you figure out how to format a query letter and find reputable agents.  My favorites are:

The Absolute Write Forums.  There is a wealth of information here and the added bonus of writerly companionship in what can often be a lonely journey.  You’ll find space here to indulge in a bit of submissions-angst but you’ll also find practical tips for every stage of the writing process.  One of my personal favorites is Query Letter Hell, where you can post a draft of your query and receive expert advice.  This lovely people were a huge help to me when I was querying.  And after you receive some input, pay it forward!  Drop by and offer your tips for other writers and share the love.

Nathan Bransford’s Blog.  I discovered this gem back when Bransford was still agenting and blogging regularly, but I think all the posts are archived and easily searchable. 

2013 Writer’s Market.  You can easily find this at your public library or local bookstore.  For those of us who are often overwhelmed by the searchability of the internet, this provides a finite way to search for agents, understand what they’re looking for, and find further contact info.  I recommend starting with the book and then following up with an agent’s website as sometimes submissions requirements change between printings.

Once you’ve done your research and crafted your perfect query letter, you’re off and running.  You’ve probably heard the sound advice of sending out your queries in batches.  This is a good idea, because if you send out your first round of ten queries, and get ten form rejections fired back at you, you have the opportunity to tweak your query and get input from crit partners on what might not be working with your story idea. 

As far as finding agents that represent MG, I’ve found that many who represent “juvenile fiction” or “young adult” also represent middle-grade.  It’s often lumped in there somewhere, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t find MG specified on agent listings.

A word of advice: we all know this industry takes a bit of a thick skin.  The first rejection still stings.  It does get easier.

On the Call
Do more research.  This will help you from obsessively checking your e-mail while out on submission.  Read up about what the agent’s role is in publishing and determine what kind of professional relationship matches your personality.  I know some writers who loathe phone calls.  Others who have regular friendly chats with their agents.  I found that the Idiot's Guides were helpful for understanding the agent role.

If an agent does call to talk about representation, have a list of questions about things that are important to you.  Of course you’ll have done your research on scammy agents on the outset, so only reputable agents will be contacting you. 

I would suggest considering:

1.     How enthusiastic is the agent about your project?  How many clients do they represent?
2.     How do they handle communication?  When can you expect to hear back from them if you e-mail a question?  How available are they by phone?  Something I have profoundly appreciated about my own agent, is I can count on a speedy reply to every e-mail.  Figure out what elements of communication are important to you and make sure you find out if the agent is a good match.
3.     Do they have a “handshake agreement” or a written contract?  I’ve heard mixed opinions on this.  Study the ins and outs of both and find out how your potential agent operates.

You’ll find other elements that you may want to consider, but I think understanding an agent’s communication style and figuring out how that matches with your own expectations is central to a positive professional working relationship.

On Submission

Congratulations!  You’re agented and you’re on your way.  Over the first hurdle, that is.  The submissions process can be quite the rollercoaster.  In some happy success stories, authors land an agent and then a deal almost immediately.  For debut authors, it seems to typically be a longer road.

Most agents have some editorial input, so plan to make revisions before your book even goes out on submission.  This will be good practice for your eventual editorial letter.  Remember, that your agent is your friend.  They want to sell your book.  They have experience in the industry.  Listen to their professional editorial advice.  

Unplug.  Go offline.  Start another writing project.  Get caught up on your reading.  While your book is on submission, you’ll go nuts with the waiting.  Twitter-stalking potential editors will only leave you half-crazed.  Was that snarky comment about your lame manuscript?  Or maybe the rave was because she read your masterpiece?  Opt out of this.  It will also be good practice for future book reviews.  At this point, there’s not a lot you can do except wait, check in with your agent, and wait some more.  This is yet another reason why it’s important to determine communication styles early on and make sure you find an agent that’s a good fit.

Be positive and try and cultivate humility.  In my case, my now-editor asked if I’d be willing to do an exclusive revision for her.  We went through two significant revisions over a period of about six months before she took my book to acquisitions.  I loved her for her willingness to invest in my book and me as an author.  I learned so much through the process and owe much of the final book’s form to my editor and agent’s astute input.  An exclusive revision was not at all what I imagined.  I imagined the “Of course we want it!  I couldn’t put this book down while I was reading it!  I stayed up all night to finish it and we must buy it now.  At auction.  For lots of money” reply. 

This is a touchy subject, because our creative work is always dear to our heart.  We obviously think it’s in great form before we send it out to agents and editors, so hearing that it’s less-than-perfect, in fact that there’s much room for improvement can sting.  Remember that your well of creativity won’t run dry.  You won’t miss out on an opportunity by being willing to listen to someone else’s feedback.  But you can pretty much guarantee stagnation if you’re only listening to your own creative voice.  Be willing to learn from others.  Seize every opportunity.  Even if a revise-and-resubmit request doesn’t pan out, you’ll have benefited from valuable insider professional input on your work.  Celebrate that!

On Writing (Part 2)

Enjoy the process.  Enjoy writing.  Enjoy your story.  The road to publication can rob you of some of the joy.  Hold on to joy. 

What about you, dear readers?  What questions do you have about the road to publication?  What tips would you like to share with others?  Where do you find your favorite resources for writing good queries or researching agents?


  1. Awesome tips Marissa. Literary Rambles is a great resource in researching agents and Casey even breaks down the agents into who represents MG vs. YA. I know, because I'm researching agents now. I've also found some agents through the Guide to Literary Agents blog.

    Matt MacNish also does a great job critiquing queries on his blog. It's a great resource.

    1. Yes! Literary Rambles! Great tip, Natalie!

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  3. Typos, I begin again-

    I too love Literary Rambles for helping keep straight possible agents to query or take off the list, and while many agents rep YA exclusively, finding agents receptive to MG, is often harder than agents representing picture books, especially picture books by non-illustrator writers.

    My best advice to any writer is this-

    NEVER let "Reading like a Writer" destroy "Reading what you LOVE!"

    Regardless if you treat like an Ivy League master thesis.

    Also, please don't let your reading be limited to what you want to write, just because the majority of middle grade readers wouldn't enjoy (Or understand...) the latest historical novel by Tracy Chevalier, poetry or clever lyrical prose by Billy Collins or Langston Hughes, as opposed to the offbeat, really-not-as-simple-as-it-looks rhyme schemes of Prelutsky and Seuss.

    Sometimes, I NEED/WANT to read about characters my own age (Or close to it), about things kids don't understand, and in some cases, it's great they don't have to understand.

    1. Great advice to read widely. I think that's so important. For example, even though I write fiction I learn so much by reading nonfiction books. Yes!

  4. Most of this is still so beyond my situation, but it certainly sounds good!

  5. You've covered it all, my friend! Great advice here. To finish a conversation we had earlier, I've never had an Absolute Write account, but I have spent a lot of time there lurking. Great place to gather information.

    1. Come on could be EmilyStarr over there. huh? huh? Actually I mostly lurk these days, too, but I've so appreciated the relationships. In fact, that's how I'm even part of PM, since Hilary and I connected over at AW.

  6. Oh, you are very thorough in your advice! Do you find that people actually follow through on your suggestions? Because, sadly, people who ask me for advice are usually looking for some short cut and give me sad puppy eyes when I start to describe this process.

    I love how you advise AGAINST Twitter-stalking agents and editors who have your manuscript -- AND that it provides good practice for not reading reviews later on! LOL!

    1. haha! I hope people will only take what's useful and for what it's worth - two cents. Okay, maybe three cents. ;)

      I know I was an obsessive researcher through the process so probably would have sat there with color coded notes for any advice anyone had put out there -haha! Maybe this post will help my fellow nerds out there. ;)

  7. Great advice. Your post just made me realize my next post should be on what to do when you get an offer from an agent. I will add a few things below:

    On Querying: Remember that your future agent will work FOR YOU, and that you want someone who will fight their asteroids off for you, and make you as high a priority as their Newberry winners. You need to have someone who doesn't talk down to you, and you don't want someone who's "giving you a chance." You want someone who thinks you're giving them a chance. Too many writers feel inferior to their agents, and this is a recipe for a future divorce.

    On Querying: When you are sure your query is there and your manuscript is too, query wide. Send out a few at first to some agents. If you query draws quick requests, and your initial pages do as well, go wide with another 20-25. If you get an offer, send an immediate "OFFER OF REPRESENTATION" email. Then watch how quickly the emails come. But like I said, this is only if your query/pages are there.

    On Attitude: If you're "stuff" is good, be confident! Agents want writers who don't just think they belong, they want writers who KNOW it. Confidence is key. Not cockiness, but confidence. Write with it. Query with it. Live with it.

    On Being on Submission with Editors: It sucks! The waiting is horrible and it is best to start writing something fresh ASAP, as you said Marissa., it's nearly impossible not to be obsessive. We all get that way.

    1. GREAT advice, Mike! And, yes! Do a post on what to do when you get an offer! The waiting really is the hardest part. Such a bad match up...let's have imaginative people wait with their "what ifs" all fired up -haha!

  8. Great post! I think the "read, read, read" part gets ignored too often, especially when it involves reading kidlit published more recently than a writer's childhood. I've talked to far too many people at writers' conferences who don't read for the age they are writing, and they don't see why that may be contributing to some of the lack of positive feedback.

    1. Yes! And It's a great excuse to browse the kids' section. Not that we really need one. ;)

  9. Brilliant job! A wealth of information presented concisely. All writers, not just the fledgling, should hang on to this blog post!

  10. Brilliant job! A wealth of information presented concisely. All writers, not just the fledgling, should hang on to this blog post!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!