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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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Booklist Review of THE DOLL’S EYE

Congrats to Marina Cohen on this awesome review of THE DOLL’S EYE:

Doll's Eye_CoverThe phrase “Be careful what you wish for” takes on ominous significance in this creepy story where wish fulfillment and perfection make for a menacing collaboration. Hadley Jackson, along with her mother, stepfather, and stepbrother, has moved from the city to an old country house that seems to keep losing occupants. Something maliciously magical is brewing, and it emanates from a dollhouse hidden in the attic. The story alternates between Hadley’s perspective and that of the first girl to live in the house, each of whom find that the wishes they make tend to come true—but not as intended. Hadley’s efforts to undo her calamitous wishes lead to an unexpected ending that will surprise readers with its bold, menacing conclusion. Doppelgänger dolls, flesh-eating flies, echoes between realities, and a glass eye contribute to the doomed, gothic undertones of Hadley’s story. As the pieces between past and present fall chillingly into place, they threaten to trap Hadley in a world of her own dreaming. Read this one with the lights on.

— Kara Dean

 

Pre-Order THE DOLL’S EYE on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and  Indiebound.

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

Check out Marina Cohen online and on twitter.

Happy Pub Day to Susie Salom and KYLE FINDS HER WAY!

Happy Pub Day to Susie Salom and KYLE FINDS HER WAY! Must be fate that today is also #DayOfTheGirl. I read a sample of KYLE in an online pitch contest a few years back and immediately fell in love with Kyle’s odd-ball, open-hearted voice. I’m so excited y’all can read this now too!

kyle-finds-her-way-_coverOn the first day of sixth grade, Kyle Constantini lands in the principal’s office after standing up against (that is, punching) Ino Nevarez, who was teasing a deaf girl at school. Her punishment? Join the NAVS program, which teaches constructive problem-solving (that is, not punching).

Kyle loves NAVS, where her team competes in a challenge to navigate a maze. But her parents refuse to let her participate… so Kyle may just have to fudge the truth a bit to get around them. Then her best friend starts to crush on a cute new English boy, who seems to be interested in — Kyle? As the NAVS competition approaches, she has to trust her instincts, take some good advice, and figure out her way through the amazing maze of middle school.

Rich characters, a big heart, and a witty, warm voice make Kyle Finds Her Way a debut worth discovering.

What folks are saying:

[Kyle’s] conflicts with her friends and her parents are well-realized and believable, andher voice has a subtle edge of humor and self-deprecation that enlivens the presentation. Amusing, engaging, and honest, Kyle and her strugglesand successes will be familiar to many middle school girls.” – Kirkus

“In the samevein as R.J. Palacio’s breakout hit Wonder, this charming middle grade debut will strike a chord with readers who enjoy realistic fiction with depth.” – School Library Journal

Get KYLE FINDS HER WAY on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indie Bound, and check it out on Goodreads!

You can find Susie online at twitter.com/susie_salom and susiesalom.com.

Happy Pub Day to Marina Cohen and THE INN BETWEEN!

Congrats to Marina on her awesome (and I do mean awesome– and spooky) middle-grade…

Inn Between cover

Order THE INN BETWEEN on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

Check out Marina Cohen online and on twitter.

Eleven-year-old Quinn has had some bad experiences lately. She was caught cheating in school, and then one day, her little sister Emma disappeared while walking home from school. She never returned.

When Quinn’s best friend Kara has to move away, she goes on one last trip with Kara and her family. They stop over at the first hotel they see, a Victorian inn that instantly gives Quinn the creeps, and she begins to notice strange things happening around them. When Kara’s parents and then brother disappear without a trace, the girls are stranded in a hotel full of strange guests, hallways that twist back in on themselves, and a particularly nasty surprise lurking beneath the floorboards. Will the girls be able to solve the mystery of what happened to Kara’s family before it’s too late?

An Amazon Best Book of the Month Editor’s Choice Pick!

 

“Cohen’s emotionally gripping tale perfectly captures the essences of friendship and sibling love. Readers looking for a mystery with heart, humor, and hairy moments will be captivated.”―Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“The well-placed narrative balances emotion and plot, and the strong underlying mysteries offer up plenty of clues for attentive readers to piece together. Quinn is a likable, authentically muddled young character, and occasional flashbacks to events surrounding her sister’s loss flesh out her guilt-ridden motivations without overtaking the story. Ultimately offering a happy resolution, this middle-grade supernatural story functions well as horror for beginners and a clever concept for fans of imaginative fiction.” ―Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“For readers who enjoy being scared silly, this will fit the bill while also providing them with a thought-provoking ending.”―Booklist

 

 

A debut deal for Susie Salom with Arthur A. Levine Books!

Very excited to announce Susie Salom’s debut middle-grade, KYLE CONSTANTINI FINDS HER WAY! From Publishers Weekly:

Cheryl Klein at Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books has acquired world rights toKyle Constantini Finds Her Way, a middle-grade novel by debut author Susie Salom. As Kyle participates in a problem-solving competition, she also navigates the maze of sixth-grade friendships, crushes, and trust, using T’ai chi, echolocation, twin ESP, and her lucky blue fedora. Publication is planned for fall 2016; John M. Cusick of Greenhouse Literary negotiated the deal.

Susie SalomJMC: When and how did you start writing?

Susie: I had this little tablet with a smiley-faced rainbow on it when I was six years old. I filled it with poems. Later, in third grade, I wrote a short story called ‘Nose Knows,’ in which a person (named Nose) with an enormous schoz saves the day because of his bionic sense of smell and his ability to trust where it leads him.

Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

Honestly, in the very beginning I was more hot and bothered by non-fiction, particularly stuff about outer space, the weather and any ‘unsolved mystery’ kind of reads that were available in the early ‘80s. I liked, and practiced, the venerable art of reading auras so the kinds of books I gravitated toward most were, like, I don’t know Esoteric 101 for Squirts. But if you put a watergun to my nostril and said, ‘Quick! Name a legendary storyteller from when you were a kid!’, I’d give props to William Sleator (Into the Dream was the first novel I hooked up to like an IV until I was done with it) and Zilpha Keatley Snyder. I’d say Snyder’s The Changeling had a measurable impact on my psyche. But I also loved really down-to-earth, recognizable, funny contemporary stuff like (the honorable) Judy Blume (long live Sheila the Great,) Barthe DeClements (Nothing’s Fair in the Fifth Grade, anyone?) and this other book that I’m super stumped in my efforts to remember. It was about this girl in junior high whose parents divorce and the mom goes on a health kick and gives her food that she’s embarrassed by in her lunch sack–tofu was seen as a heckuva lot weirder circa 1985–so she forms this club that meets under the bleachers to avoid the cafeteria crowd. If this sounds familiar to anyone, can you please help me solve the mystery? I’d be fraternally grateful.

Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?

My first novel was completed eons ago. Key to going the distance were a handful of beta readers–my sister, a former student of mine, one of my best friends–who read chapters as I was writing it and were gracious enough to let me know where they’d laughed. In fiction, as in life, if you can laugh at the same stuff, you’ve made a gorgeous, inestimable connection. Then, of course, just finishing the thing–a women’s fic piece that was at once thinly-veiled autobiography as well as an amateur, but wicked fun, exercise in wish-fulfillment–also made my confidence soar. It was like, I can totally do this. And that was indescribably rad.

Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?

I’m a sprinter. Every novel I’ve completed, it’s been like that. I have a whole, virtual storage unit of novels I started but didn’t finish so if it’s gonna fly, it’s gotta happen quickly. I started off with Stephen King’s admonition to write 1500 words a day and I totally believe in having a metric like that. What I’d suggest, in case anyone wants unsolicited advice, is to find your pace and be true to it. For me, it’s banging out a novel before it dries up inside me. The last one I wrote came at a rate of about 3500 words a day. It was Middle Grade, so it only clocked in at around 40K words. I don’t know if I could sustain that pace for a full-length manuscript for adults, but that’s the fun in getting to know yourself creatively and productively. What are you capable of? What fuels you? Which worlds do you totally dig inhabiting when you can block out the one filled with autocrats and laundry and a ludicrously imbalanced signal-to-noise ratio. Sorry. Think I went off. Not sure I stayed on topic with your question but basically, when I’m writing, I start in the morning and I stop when I’m done for the day. Sometimes that’s around lunch time, sometimes I’m burnin’ ye olde candelabra after the sun’s gone to bed. I just have to work fast before the thing sets. It’s a lot like wet cement. Also, if I wait too long to explore a story idea, it kinda shifts, like this super-fragrant, lilac vapor (pre-cement stage,) and just goes somewhere else. Maybe to a spinal column that is better prepared to sit its coccyx down and do the work now. (No, I do not, nor have I ever, done drugs.)

Can you tell us about your next book?

Can I do that? I mean, is that kosher? Well, I’ll let you decide what to print since you’re my agent! After Kyle’s story, I wrote a novel called ACE MASTRIANO AND THE SUPERSONIC MYSTERY CARAVAN. It’s kid’s fic that is at once thinly-veiled autobiography as well as an amateur, but wicked fun, exercise in wish-fulfillment. Just jokin’. It’s about an indomitable 12-year-old girl, Alexis ‘Ace’ Mastriano who stalks the secrets of the universe. She even tries to get a club off the ground to assist her in her quest until one day … the universe answers. It’s set in 1984. Yes, kids, the cosmos were communicating even before the Internet.

Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?

I love this part. My tip is simple: know thyself. And then be true. The amount of horse doody you’re going to have to wade through on your way to The Desired End is staggering. So. Get used to the smell, and let your Nose lead you–sometimes around but sometimes through–where (and how) you need to go. Trust yourself. You’ve got this.

What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?

What a killer note to end on. I’m gonna go with Ford Prefect. Either him or Jerry Spinelli’s timeless, artless, deeply wise and alive Stargirl.