KidLit

Ten Cliches That Make Agents Roll Their Eyes

f3fc3c45fd59bc3cb7fe8ad224519132Great books break these rules all the time. I’ll say it again: great books break these rules ALL THE TIME.

But here are ten cliches agents see so often in queries and samples, they make us go “ugh, not again.”

 

  1. Characters running hands through their hair. This move almost certainly springs from the era of Jonathan Taylor Thomas hair.

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  2. Dead parents. It needs to be said, even though everyone does it, including me. But remember, grief is not a shortcut to character development.

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  3. Redheaded best friends. Poor redheads, always relegated to the position of bestie. Also, why are best friends so often the fun one, while the hero is a stick in the mud? Yes, shyness is relatable, but it’s okay for your main character to be a firecracker, too.

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  4. Alcoholic moms, especially ones that drink boxed wine. Like ‘Busy Dad’, ‘Drunk Mom’ has become a shorthand for suburban ennui and inattentive, embarrassing parenting. Unless your story is truly about substance abuse, try and find a fresh way to signal mom is less-than-perfect.

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  5. Car accidents! If you’re a parent in YA, you’re probably drunk or dead. If you’re a boyfriend, you’re probably two pages away from a horrible car accident. If Kaydan has to go, why not have him get hit by a falling tree, or skateboard into a meat grinder? Get creative!

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  6. Stories that open with characters moving to a new town. I’m not sure why this is such a common set-up, especially in YA and MG, but rather than kickstart the plot, this device can leave agents feeling like they’ve covering the same old territory. (Oops, slipped into “listicle” voice there. Sorry.)

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  7.  / being forced to spend the summer with grandparents / relatives / country bumpkins of any stripe. I think this one originated in romantic comedies, where the too-busy, too-snobby hero is brought down to earth by the love of a simple man. (There are actually quite a few great books that follow this trajectory, but again, agents see it too often.)

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  8. Amnesia. In chapter one. A great story can explore a hero’s rediscovery of her past, and this plot device isn’t an instant turn-off to agents, but if you’re setting out on your first draft, this may not be the best place to start.

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  9. “I bet you’re wondering how I got myself in this situation.” Direct-address to the reader pulls us out of the story and reminds us we’re being narrated to. I think this is something we’ve picked up from movies and t.v., but in novels we’re ALREADY being narrated to, and don’t need reminding. We want to be immersed in your story and identify with your hero, not hear her monologue.

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  10. Heterochromia. This is one of many writer shortcuts for ‘there’s something different / special about her.’ For some reason it’s usually attributed to girls rather than guys, and sometimes suggest the supernatural. Speaking of which, this picture is creepy.

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If you’ve already queried a sample with one or more of these elements, don’t panic. Agents look past this stuff to see what’s truly original about your work. BUT, while there’s nothing wrong with the above in an artistic sense, the best and most enticing writing feels fresh, so in the future, kill these darlings!

Are there any I missed? Add them in the comments!

Happy Pub Day, THE DOLL’S EYE!

Several years ago an author sent me one of the creepiest, delightful, unnerving, exciting stories I’d ever read, and today I’m so excited to see Marina Cohen’s THE DOLL’S EYE hit book shelves! Congratulations, Marina!

Doll's Eye_Cover“An ever present and always-growing sense of dread accompanied by an atmosphere of chills and mystery make this perfect for reading in the closet under the cover of night.”―Kirkus Reviews

“Cohen crafts a pleasingly shivery tale of greed, repercussions, and innocence. A must-have for horror fans.”―School Library Journal

“Cohen makes maximum use of creaking doors and strange shadows to create a delightfully chilling atmosphere, while an unnerving neighbor and whispered rumors heighten the suspense.”―Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

All Hadley wants is for everything to go back to the way it used to be—back when she didn’t have to share her mother with her stepfather and stepbrother. Back when she wasn’t forced to live in a musty, decomposing house. Back when she had a life in the city with her friends.

As Hadley whiles away what’s left of her summer, exploring the nearby woods and splitting her time between her strange, bug-obsessed neighbor Gabe and the nice old lady that lives above the garage, she begins to notice the house isn’t just old and creaky. It’s full of secrets, just like appearance of a mysterious dollhouse and the family of perfect dolls she finds.

Oh, how she wishes her family were more like those lovely dolls! Then one day, Hadley discovers a lone glass eye rolling around the floor of the attic. Holding it close one night, she makes a wish that just might change her world forever.

You can order Marina’s super spooky THE INN BETWEEN on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

Check out Marina Cohen online and on twitter.

Congrats to Ann Dee Ellis on her new deal with Dial Books!

From Publishers Weekly:

ann-dee-ellis_picNamrata Tripathi at Dial has bought world English rights to Ann Dee Ellis‘s second middle grade novel, The Wild Place. The story follows 12-year-old Cass, who after reconnecting with her maternal grandmother discovers she is a descendant of Etta Place, mistress of the Sundance Kid, and finds herself on a journey to unearth long-lost outlaw treasure. Publication is set for spring 2019; John M. Cusick of Folio Jr./Folio Literary Management brokered the deal.

Publishers Don’t Want Good Books

This conversation has happened at every agency in the world (particularly in the kids and teen department).

Agent 1: I’ve got a new project.

Agent 2: Yeah? How is?

Agent 1: It’s good.

Agent 2: Good?

Agent 1: Yeah, good.

Agent 2: Oh…Damn.

Agent 1: Yeah.

Agent 2: *Sips martini* That’s too bad.

imgres.jpgAgents, editors, and maybe you, the author, know the curse of the “good” book. The book that’s perfectly fine, that works, that tells an interesting story, and that is, sad to say, darn near unsellable. The rejections often contain phrases like “didn’t fall in love,” or “just didn’t feel strongly enough,” leavened with genuine compliments about the writing or characterization. After years of learning the craft of story and voice, you’ve finally created a nearly flawless novelone you know is as good (heck, better!) than a lot of stuff on the shelf. And it just…doesn’t…sell.

What’s going on here? Are publishers just crass, cowardly, visionless hacks who take pleasure in crushing the dreams of talented writers, refusing to give even promising careers a chance to get started?

The answer, of course, is no. Nobody is more motivated (apart from the author) to see a book succeed with flying colors than publishers. Believe me when I say us soulless agents and our human counterparts- editors- are wishing and dreaming as hard as you for that Newbery Medal, the debut on the New York Times Best Sellers list, the book signing line that wraps around the block.

It pains me to say it- and it pains all of us in publishing, I promise you- but there typically just isn’t room for “good” books. Publishing is an increasingly competitive space. More and more people want to be published, and the standard for what constitutes a “success” gets higher every day. Publishers have limited space on their lists, and so each novel has to be more than good. It has to be something special.

Of course there are many kinds of special. Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star, Chris Grabenstein’s Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s LibraryVictoria Aveyard’s Red Queen– four completely different novels, with pretty different audiences, and they all have something in common. These are novels that demand you sit up and take notice. They are more than just functioning stories. They refuse to be ignored.

images.jpgWhen I say publishers don’t want good books, I don’t mean they’re after bad ones either. Nobody is more passionate about compelling fiction than your friendly neighborhood editor, whether the novel in question is a beautiful, heart-breaking, cry-on-the-subway coming of age, or a heart-pounding, unforgettable, so-damn-sexy-you-need-a-time-out fantasy, romance, or action/adventure. Though you may have found writing on the shelf at Barnes & Noble that makes your skin crawl (in the bad way), fiction is a subjective business, and I guarantee that even if it isn’t your brand of beer, every novel published made someone, somewhere, feel something profound- whether it was excitement, intrigue, or love.

Awesome, thanks for that John. Of course I want to be better than good. I want to be special, too. So what do I do?

My advice to my clients, to all novelists (and to myself), is always the same: push yourself. Don’t settle for your first idea, or even your second. Don’t stick with a project simply because it’s written, when you know rewriting or moving on to the next thing will be even better. Can you tell a story? Great. Now ask yourself, why does my story need to be told? What about it is new, what about it pushes boundaries? What about it has, at least, the potential to change a person’s life?

Teens need you. Teens need writers. I know I did. Novels saved my life, and I am one of thousands in that club. So be fearless. When you tell someone what your story is about, what’s their reaction? You want “Wow,” you want, “Oh my goodness, really?” You even want, “You can’t write a book about that!”

We’re all striving to do something great, and most of us ultimately land somewhere between where we started and the stars. If you want to be a novelist, you have to want to be the best novelist, or you’ll never get off the ground. As maddening as it can be, I’m glad the publishing biz is so competitive. It pushes us to be more.

So get good, write a good novel, hone your craft until you are a master of structure.

Then start again.

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