The best picture books make equal use of words and illustrations.
Dialogue is often one of the clunkiest elements I read in a requested manuscript. It’s difficult to balance the nuances of real-life speech and the guidelines for written conversation, but it doesn’t take much to improve the dialogue you have already created. Here are six steps to improving written dialogue:
Step 1: Sit at a coffee shop and listen to conversations.
Write down fragments of what you overhear. This is the best way to get real-world inspiration for your dialogue. For example, if you’re writing a book about teenagers, then listen in on a conversation between teenagers. No matter your protagonist, you can find real-world inspiration for how they talk, what they care about, and how they connect with other people through conversation. If a coffee shop doesn’t work for your research, then pick another public location. Parks, libraries, bookstores, restaurants… almost anywhere will work.
Step 2: Avoid dialogue tags.
Dialogue tags are almost always unnecessary. If two characters in your book are having a conversation, readers don’t need to know who said what after each line. Your readers can assume that the speech is moving back and forth. Dialogue tags can make your writing look clunky and also waste your allowed word count on absolutely nothing.
Step 3: Look up other ways to say “said”.
Even when you try to avoid them, sometimes you will need to use dialogue tags in order to let the reader know who is speaking. And when you do, occasionally find different tags than “said” to keep things interesting.
Step 4: Remove (almost) all name mentions.
Most writers have a bad habit of including characters’ names in speech in the early drafts of a novel. People rarely call each other by name in real-world conversation. Don’t let every line of dialogue start with someone’s name because it’s unrealistic.
Step 5: Get rid of the small talk.
Many people will tell you, when advising how to write dialogue, to make it sound as close to real-life speech as possible. This is one exception. Small talk happens a lot in real-life (how many conversations about the weather have you had in your lifetime?), but it shouldn’t be in your novel. No one wants to read small talk; readers are looking for interesting dialogue that is engaging and moves the plot forward.
Step 6: Read all dialogue out loud.
Go ahead. Do it. Read every single line out loud. Pretend your dialogue is the script of a play and act it out. The way you’ve written it (and the words around the speech) should include hints at the emotion behind the words. Reading your dialogue out loud is the best way to catch errors, judge its compelling nature, and check that it sounds authentic.
Now go forth and write great conversations!
I could fill pages and pages with the things that writers do wrong when writing query letters. Instead, today I’m going to share nine things you can do to make your query letter shine.
#1. Connect with the agent by mentioning their clients’ books. This only works if you’re actually familiar with a book or two. If you can find a way to bring up how much you loved a title they represented, then you will definitely be on their good side (we love our clients’ books).
#2. Keep the query letter short. You want to pitch your project to the best of your ability, and I promise you that writing eight paragraphs about your character is not the way to do this. Short query letters are always more effective.
#3. Write an incredible hook. I think too many people overlook the effect of a great hook in a query letter. One excellent sentence can immediately pull the reader in and make the agent decide to request material.
#4. Leave them asking for more. Don’t let your query letter give everything away. It should be exciting and engaging, but also a little bit mysterious – no matter what genre you may be writing. Agents should feel like they need to read your book after reading your query letter.
#5. Include links to your website and social media accounts. You don’t need to go make a website or social media account just to do this, but providing links to your active online channels will save agents an extra step (because literary agents will Google your name anyway).
#6. Follow the submission guidelines. I know, I know, you’re tired of hearing this… but agents wouldn’t talk about this so much if the majority of queries didn’t ignore a guideline (or three).
#7. Use comparison titles that you know the agent adores. This requires a little bit of stalking (on social media or websites; please not in real life). If you can use a book, tv show, or movie that the agent considers a favourite as a comp title in your query letter, that will definitely catch their attention.
#8. Demonstrate how you’re part of the literary community. Agents like to work with writers who take their work seriously, so including information in your query letter about how you’re involved in the literary community is a great way to show that you want to be part of the industry. Whether you’re part of a writing group, active on an online Twitter chat about books, or a frequent attendee at local book readings, share some of your love for books and writing in your query letter.
#9. Write an incredible book. This one is obvious, right? A great premise, pitched to the right agent, will always stand out in the slush pile.
Conference season is well under way, and I know from experience that some writers get very nervous about pitching literary agents in person. To calm your nerves, I’m sharing some advice to help you approach in-person pitches from a new perspective. Hopefully you can refrain from being too nervous and let your enthusiasm for your book shine through.
RELAX. This is the most important thing you can do before pitching a literary agent. Remember that we are humans too! We also like to talk about books. We also stumble over words sometimes. It’s okay to be excited to talk about your project, but don’t let that turn into nervousness! We want to hear about what you’re working on. I promise we won’t bite.
PREPARE AN ELEVATOR PITCH. If you’re worried that you’re going to forget everything about your book, then prepare an elevator pitch in advance. An elevator pitch is a super short description of your project (two or three sentences). It’s something that is easy to memorize. You can be confident that you’re sharing the most important parts. It’s even okay to write your pitch down on paper! We won’t mind.
HAVE A CONVERSATION. This goes back to what I said earlier: literary agents are humans too. Not only do we want to hear about your project, but we actually want to talk about it! Don’t be alarmed if the agent you’re pitching starts asking questions. And it’s okay to talk about things that aren’t your manuscript after you’re done pitching. Being friendly and open to conversation makes a great first impression.
ASK QUESTIONS. Come prepared with questions about your manuscript idea or even the current market for your category/genre. It’s not every day that you get to discuss your work, and writing in general, with a literary agent, so make the most of your time and ask questions that can help you as you move forward in your writing career. The best way to make the most of your pitch session time is to know which questions you can ask if you’re done talking about your project and there’s still time remaining.
LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS. This piece of advice might seem a bit weird, but I think it’s necessary. There is a good chance that the literary agent you’re pitching won’t ask to see more material. This is completely fine. Every story isn’t for every person, and your pitch session is a way for you to get feedback on your idea and then use that feedback to contact even more agents (which is why having a conversation and asking questions is so important). Definitely don’t expect a literary agent to physically take material from you during the pitch session—if interested, we’ll ask for you to send some pages over email… we don’t want to carry around your printed manuscript all day.
You’ve probably heard over and over again that when it comes to searching for a literary agent, you need to be patient. The querying process can be dreadfully long, so staring at your email day after day isn’t the best way to approach the task. But there comes a time when, after receiving what feels like an infinite number of form rejections, you’re not sure whether your book has what it takes anymore. So how do you decide if it’s time to move on to something else?
First, you need to eliminate the possibility that there’s nothing wrong with your book, but that there’s something wrong with your submission strategy. If you’re receiving a ton of rejections and no requests for material, consider these three possibilities:
Possibility #1: Your query isn’t the best it can be. Did you do a lot of research before writing (and sending) your own query letter? Did you have other writers read it and give you feedback? Consider revising your query letter, taking a query letter course, or asking someone else to read it and give you feedback. Maybe this is your issue.
Possibility #2: Your opening pages aren’t the best they can be. If you’re getting partial requests, but not being asked to send along the full manuscript, then your issue might be that your pages aren’t living up to the hype of your query letter. Polish your first few chapters again to make sure they’re making the right first impression.
Possibility #3: You’re not querying the right agents for your project. If you didn’t put as much emphasis on the research part of the querying process, then your issue could be that the agents you’re querying aren’t really looking for what you’ve written.
Now, if you’ve eliminated all those possibilities and you really think that it’s time to move on to a new project, then that’s a decision you need to make on your own. There is no concrete number of rejections you can receive before you know it’s time to query something new. But you know what you can watch out for? Your own passion for the project. If you’re no longer passionate about the manuscript, if the idea of revising it again makes you want to hide under a blanket for a week, then moving on to something else is probably your best decision. Your passion for a project will be infectious, and it’s impossible to find other people to champion your work when you’re no longer interested.
A couple weeks ago, I shared #100Queries on Twitter and explained what does and doesn’t work in a query letter. I also fielded questions from writers who were following along as I talked about what I was reading in my inbox, and one topic that came up more often than I expected was previously self-published projects. I’ve answered this question many times, but never in detail in a full-length blog post, so I thought now is better than ever to explain how literary representation and self-publishing interact… or don’t.
You’ve probably read somewhere that most literary agents are not interested in receiving queries for books that have previously been self-published (unless the books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies). Let’s break down why this is the case:
- Agents are not interested in these projects because publishers are not interested in these projects. Why? Self-published is still published—why should a “traditional” publisher do something that has already been done? The way that publishers (and agents) look at it is that you made the decision to publish the book, and so it has had its chance to find its audience (which translates to sales).
- Queries for self-published projects often state something about the author not having the right resources for marketing or publicity. I don’t doubt that this is the truth. Unfortunately, making the decision to self-publish goes hand-in-hand with needing to promote your own book. This can take time and money that many writers simply don’t have. This is why it’s so important to assess all the possible publishing paths before committing to one decision. There are risks and rewards for every type of publishing (whether it’s self-publishing, publishing with a small press, or publishing with one of the major, “traditional” publishing companies). Whichever route you decide to take, published still means published.
- The caveat of this general statement—that publishers might be interested if a book has sold hundreds of thousands of copies—is a difficult pill to swallow. Whatever “magic number” of sales a book needs to interest editors at publishing houses will vary by person, and often this number changes depending on the price point of the book. For example, if you self-published a book in ebook form and only ever sold it at a .99 cents price point, then there’s a chance you might not get interest from a larger publishing company even though your sales look impressive.
- Self-publishing is becoming more popular as writers search for accessible ways to break into the publishing industry. But it’s not always the best decision for every writer, so it’s crucial to think about the type of writing career you want long-term. If you’re interested in self-publishing and finding literary representation, then maybe you want to consider being a “hybrid” writer—which means that you plan to both self-publish and pursue more traditional routes of publishing. There’s nothing wrong with this, it just requires careful planning on your part.
If you have already self-published a project and have changed your mind about your career/now want to find literary representation, I recommend sending out query letters for a brand new project. A literary agent won’t mind that you self-published another book, but remember to be honest about your publishing experience and what you expect moving forward. By querying a new project, you’re starting from scratch with a new business relationship and you can work together with your agent on shaping your career.
I hope this clears up some confusion surrounding the issue of querying previously self-published books. Please leave a comment below if you have any more questions about this topic.
One of the most nerve-wracking components of searching for a literary agent is the phone call! I know many writers get anxious when an agent asks to speak to them on the phone. After all, asking for permission to talk in real-time is often one step closer to receiving an offer of representation! But the thing is, agents get anxious about these phone calls too. When we fall in love with a manuscript, we so badly want a call with a writer to go well because we want to know that it’s a good fit. The author/agent relationship goes beyond having a great project, so getting to know one another is an important component.
I’ve seen many posts online about what authors should ask agents during this type of phone call… but what sort of information do agents want to learn when they ask to schedule a call? Below are five questions I ask every potential client when speaking to them for the first time.
#1. Why do you want a literary agent? The answers to this question are never the same. Some writers think a literary agent will automatically make them millions of dollars. Others respond with a more modest response, that they’re hoping to find someone to stand in their corner and navigate their way through the many decisions one needs to make in the publishing world. Whatever the initial response, this question allows me to find out what expectations a writer has about agents in general and about me specifically, and it also allows us to have a conversation about how the author/agent relationship works and what expectations I have for my clients.
#2. Are you willing to make changes to the manuscript? Whenever I am considering offering representation on a project, I have a few changes in mind for the story. I like to go over my suggested changes with the author on a call to make sure we’re on the same page about where the story needs to go. And it’s totally okay if an author doesn’t agree with an agent’s suggestions! That just means the agent may not be the right fit for the book. But it’s important to have this discussion so that both the author and the agent know what’s next in line for the manuscript. This question also allows me to find out if the author is collaborative and appreciative of editorial feedback.
#3. What is your writing process? I like to learn the creative process of any potential client. This can tell me how long they spend on a draft, whether or not they make use of beta readers and critique partners (all writers should—even after they have an agent), and how long it might take for them to finish a revision of a manuscript. Some writers write every day, early in the morning, before anyone else in their family wakes up. Others only have time to write on their daily commute home from work. Whatever the situation, I like to know that the author is taking their writing seriously and does have time carved out for writing, and that the act of writing has been explored long enough for some sort of process to take shape.
#4. What is your publishing history? This is a really important question, especially now that so many people self-publish books! It’s okay if an author hasn’t published a book before—that’s not something that will change my mind about offering representation; most agents (including me) love debut writers. But I do need to know if the author has self-published a book, if the author has had a book at a major publisher that didn’t do so well, or even if the author has a best-selling title! The agent/author relationship requires a lot of trust, so it’s crucial that the author is honest and lays everything out on the table so I am aware of the history of their career. I’m also interested to know if the author writes for any online publications, has had short stories published in literary magazines, etc.
#5. What else are you working on? I like to sign clients with their long-term careers in mind, not just based on one project, so I definitely want to know what else they’re writing. Since the writer is querying a finished manuscript, I expect that they are now working on something new. I don’t need to know all the details, but I do need to know if the writer plans to write in specific categories or genres (that I am comfortable representing). A short little “pitch” is always nice to hear, especially when the premise gets me excited about what I’ll get to read next as the writer’s agent, but I never expect to hear a fully-formed story during this type of phone call. This question also opens a discussion about the long-term goals of the writer and how what they’ve written, and what they’re working on, fits into their career as a whole.
There are definitely other questions that come up during a phone call with a potential client, and the specifics often change depending on the author’s history or the project itself. But these five questions come up time and time again, and I imagine the majority of literary agents ask very similar questions as well.
Let me know in the comments what questions you ask (or plan to ask) literary agents when you get to speak with them about your work, or if there is anything you wish agents would ask you when considering offering representation.
It’s impossible to be inspired 24/7.
Organize your writing space. This is an important task that will help you get so much more writing done once you feel ready to look at your book again. Find a designated writing space in your home, whether it’s an entire room or just a certain chair. Surround it with both practical and inspiring things: your favourite pens, a notebook, a warm blanket, framed photos, maybe even throw some aromatherapy into the mix (I personally have a slight obsession with candles and incense to help me focus, but it’s not for everyone). If you have an established space already, change it up to make yourself just a tiny bit uncomfortable.
Schedule a call with your agent. Did you know that you don’t need to wait for your agent to contact you? Schedule a time to talk about your current work-in-progress, future book ideas, or that really cool short story that you’re publishing in a literary magazine. Whatever! Updating your agent on your career is always a good thing. If you don’t have an agent, then schedule a call or online chat with a critique partner or beta reader.
Re-design your website. I mean, why not? It can always use improvements. You want to avoid clutter, include important information, and make it useful. If you want more website ideas, read this post: 10 Things You Need on Your Author Website.
Make an inspiration board on Pinterest. I know, I know, this sounds really lame but it is actually a life-saver when you have too many ideas to keep track of. An inspiration board can help you notice patterns in your thinking and spot what the true focus of your book is. It’s great for brainstorming the physical descriptions of characters and settings… helpful research that will impact your book in the end.
Attend a local event. Most cities have some sort of literary events every once in awhile. Whether it’s a book signing, a poetry reading, or an industry-related event, meeting with other writers and publishing professionals is an excellent use of your time. You’ll also be exposed to books you may not have heard of otherwise. If there’s nothing going on in your town and you’re desperate to do something (but not write), head to a local bookstore and spend an hour or two browsing the shelves.
Listen to a podcast. The best thing about podcasts is that you can listen to them while getting other things done. You can find a podcast for every topic under the sun, but these are some of my personal favourites that I’d recommend to writers (in a general sense, without knowing any of your personal interests): The Writers Panel, Book Riot, Let’s Get Busy, Being Boss, Books on the Nightstand, #Girlboss Radio, and The Minimalists Podcast. A completely unrelated-to-writing podcast that I love (and you should definitely listen to if you’re Canadian and interested in anything media-related whatsoever): CANADALAND.
Take new author photos. You never know when you’ll need a great author photo! You should probably update these every six months or so to reflect your current look. This post shares a simple way that you can take these photos yourself instead of paying a photographer.
Read a book in one sitting. If you’re dreading the idea of writing today and you have a lot of spare time on your hands, then pick up a book on your TBR list and read it from cover to cover. There’s no better way to learn about the craft of writing than reading other writers’ writing.
Register for a conference or workshop. You obviously won’t be able to do this right away, but take the time now to research conferences, workshops, and webinars and make a list of the ones you’d like to attend. Bite the bullet and register for something and get it written on your calendar. You’re making a future investment in your career by registering for these events, and you can decide if a local workshop or an online webinar works better for you, or if you want to make a trip of it and attend a big conference held elsewhere.
Join a chat on Twitter. Find some other writers on Twitter and start talking! Or join in on an established chat, like #mglitchat or #wattpad4. There are a ton of hashtags and time-specific chats on Twitter, so do some research to find something that fits your interests and start learning from what others have to say.
It’s not uncommon for writers to change literary agents throughout their careers. Maybe you no longer have the same vision for your career as your agent. Maybe your agent no longer represents the category you’re writing. Or maybe your agent is leaving the industry entirely. Whatever the situation, these things happen, and sometimes that means previously represented writers need to jump back into the query game and find new representation.
I have been asked a couple of times how writers in this situation should approach new literary agents, so here are a few guidelines to follow if you find yourself looking for new representation:
Ask for previous submission details. If you haven’t already, you’ll want to contact your previous agent to ask for information about any projects that were sent out on submission. Having a list of editors and imprints contacted is very helpful for your new agent; your agent will need to know who has been introduced to your work, and this information is absolutely crucial if your new agent will be submitting a project that has already been out on submission. You don’t need to include any of these details in your query letter, but you will need them once you sign a new representation agreement. It’s best to get them right away while your (ex-)agent has all of your material on hand.
State that you were previously agented. This detail won’t automatically get you new representation, but it does let literary agents know that your writing is strong enough to have caught an agent’s attention previously. It’s always helpful when you mention your ex-agent’s name—agents do talk, and will often ask around for information about a previous client. Of course, sometimes a split with an agent isn’t always for good reasons, so it’s expected that sometimes writers won’t want to mention their ex-agents by name. That leads us to the final guideline…
Be prepared to tell the full story. Whether or not you mention the name of your previous agent in your query letter, you can expect for your potential new agent to be very curious about why you’re now looking for new representation. If an agent calls you to discuss your project, there’s a very good chance you’ll get questions about your previous representation. Questions like the following: Who was your agent? What happened? What projects did you work on? There are so many possible reasons for an author and agent to split up, so it makes sense that literary agents will have questions. You want to start the relationship with your new literary agent by being completely honest so you can both move forward and make the right decisions for your career.
Querying literary agents for a second (or third, or fourth) time is really no different than the first, other than you now have a better understanding of how the author/agent relationship works. Finding new representation is nothing to be worried about—it happens a lot more often than you think! The important thing to remember is that being honest about what did and didn’t work with your previous agent will make the relationship between you and your new agent work a lot better.