Teachers Write 7.19.17 Q&A Wednesday

Wednesdays are Question and Answer days here at Teachers Write, and each week, we’ll have a different panel of official guest authors here to answer your questions in the comments. Today’s fabulous mentor authors are Ammi-Joan Paquette, Caroline Carson, and Jody Feldman.

Teachers & librarians… If you’d like to ask a question, just post it in the comments. (Don’t forget that if this is your first time posting, your comment won’t appear until it’s moderated, and that may take a little while. Be patient, please, and don’t post more than once!) Joan, Caroline, and Jody will be monitoring comments throughout the day and responding to your questions!

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73 Comments

  1. Posted July 19, 2017 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    Hi all! I’m looking forward to chatting with you today. I write middle grade novels; humor, adventure, fantasy and mystery are my most familiar terrain, but I’m happy to answer questions about whatever else you’re writing, too! I also have some familiarity with other parts of the writing and publishing world: I have an MFA in writing for children, studied poetry in college, worked for a few years writing and editing textbooks, and was the children’s literature editor at the literary journal Hunger Mountain. I’ll be checking in throughout the day as often as my child’s nap times allow it!

  2. Ammi-Joan Paquette
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    I’m here too! In my author hat I write picture books and middle-grade, with TT&L (above) as my first foray into non-fiction. I’m also happy to answer publishing-type questions with my agent hat on. So looking forward to chatting and hearing your questions!

  3. Posted July 19, 2017 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    I am a junior high teacher and just finished my first YA novel in verse. I’ve had about a dozen beta readers (most who don’t know me) who had positive feedback and some suggestions (which I’m not sure I want/need to revise). That said, I think I am ready to look for agents, but like any school hiring a new teacher, I want to work with a recommended agent — one to trust. So here are my questions:

    1. What are some signs that the agent is “good” for my work?
    2. What are some signs that I should run away from the agent?

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      Congrats on getting this far with your novel! My biggest advice on #1 is to do your research — lots of research. There are great sites like querytracker.net where you can research agents’ lists and tastes, see what they represent and what they specialize in. Try and read some of the books they rep, to see if you love them as well. After that, a lot of it is going to be finding the right fit – many agents have full lists and it can take time to hear back. But it’s a wonderful journey to be on!

      For #2, again: Do your research *before* submitting. Investigate an agency website thoroughly. A brand new agent may not have many sales of their own, but they should be with a reputable agency – if the entire agency has no sales at all, or only sells to dubious-looking publications, watch out. Big red flag: If an agent asks you for money upfront. Legitimate agents only get paid on commission – a percentage when they sell your work. Don’t let anyone tell you different!

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      Joan’s given you fabulous answers, but I just wanted to add my congrats on having a manuscript ready to send out into the world! That’s a big deal. Best of luck finding an agent who’s the perfect fit.

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Hi, Barbara Dee jumping in here. One thing I’d like to say about finding an agent–it’s not just about signing with someone. Even if that author has a good reputation in the business, he or she has to be the right agent for YOU. Often your agent will be passing along disappointing news–so you want to be sure she or he can do it in a way that’s positive and sensitive. Also, your agent is your most valuable first reader, so he or she needs to be able to communicate feedback constructively. I’d recommend meeting the prospective agent face to face, if that’s possible, or at least having one or more good phone conversations . You’ll be able to judge chemistry–and that’s just so important in this relationship. Good luck!

      • Posted July 19, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        Very important reminder. When I signed for my academic book, I was so excited to have a contract (just with a publisher –no agent) and didn’t believe I’d have another offer that I just signed. The process of getting it published was fairly painless, but it was lonely, and the marketing was disappointing. My book never got into the hands of the people who I thought needed it.

        Now, new-insecure to writing, I have to remember this. I don’t just want to be published, I want my book into the hands of readers (lots), and I want it to be as good as it can be.

        I am now going to work on a list of questions-wishes for my agent and publisher (positive thinking).

        So grateful to you, Barbara, Caroline, and Ammi-Joan!

        • Posted July 20, 2017 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

          Congrats on your manuscript! I wish you all the best and can’t wait to read your work!!!

  4. Diana Murrell
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Thanks for answering questions today! I have 2:

    1. Do you know a series is a series before you publish the first book or do you write more once the first one is a success?

    2. Do you recommend starting with magazines and contests before trying to publish a book or just diving right in?

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      Hi Diana! Great questions. Some thoughts:

      1) I’d recommend starting with book #1. You can jot ideas/notes for sequels, but I’d wait to place the first one before actually diving in to writing subsequent books. There’s always a chance that this first book may not sell, or that the content might change in revision once it’s acquired. So pre-sale, your time is better spent exploring new worlds and growing more as a writer. That said, if you do envision it as a series, keep that in the conversation as you’re talking with agents and editors – having a brief outline for the series/pitches for the sequels can be very helpful.

      2) Either/or! You certainly don’t *need* to do articles before writing books, but you could do one first, or the other, or both simultaneously. As I see it, they’re totally different beasts, so do whatever works for you ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      Of my four published books, three are a trilogy and one stands alone. I didn’t know when I wrote the first book in the trilogy that it would be the start of a longer story, but when my publisher suggested that I write sequels, I agreed because I could easily imagine writing more stories set in that world with the same characters. I was very lucky that the publisher was interested in those sequels, though, and that I felt I had a story worth telling in the additional two books. Some books really do work better as standalones!

      If you’re a writer of short stories, poems, or other work that would lend itself to a magazine format, it sounds like pursuing publication in magazines could be a great way to get your writing out to readers. If you’re more of a novelist, learning to write shorter work for magazines could be fun and interesting but would be a completely different task in terms of craft. Magazine publishing might help you catch the eye of an agent or editor, and I’ve occasionally seen cases where work published in a literary magazine has led to a book deal down the line, but I think that’s the exception rather than the rule. As Joan says, whatever works for you is the thing to do!

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      Hi Diana!
      Joan and Caroline have answered you thoroughly, but I will add something from my own experience. My first book, The Gollywhopper Games, was sold as a standalone, and for several years was viewed that way. Then when sales took off, my publisher asked for two follow-ups. I admit, I always hope my ideas are special enough to call for a series. I mean, you get to know and love your characters so much, it’s great to work with them again. So I take the approach that a book will always be a standalone. I give it a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying ending; however, I do throw in a few nuggets that could be a launch pad for subsequent stories.

      2. Time is so valuable that I would follow your heart and write (and become skilled in) what you truly want to be writing.

  5. Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Good morning, teachers/writers/curious-types!
    I’m excited to be here, too, so ask away..
    As brief introduction, I’m mainly write upper MG, but have dabbled in stories for all ages. My background is in advertising, but I left that life behind when I found my true passion in writing kidlit. I’m pretty much self-taught when it comes to writing fiction, meaning that before I started down this road, I’d never taken a creative writing course. That said, I’ve accumulated so much wisdom from editors, agents, other writers, and even young readers. And I’m very happy to share that with you today.

  6. sheila mustard
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks to all 3 of you for taking your time to help us out!

    5th grade students know they are supposed to use a trusted web source (.gov .net .edu…). During our writing units students are researching topics about peoples courageous acts, space discoveries, and several varieties of ecosystems. Sometimes the site is to “technical” and, if we search our topics followed by “for kids”, the context is below their understanding.

    Do you have any suggestions to improve our research techniques?

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      Oh, that’s an excellent question. I wish I were a reference librarian so I could come up with some really good Web resources for you! As a writer and reader, I can say that I’ve been very impressed by a lot of recent nonfiction for middle grade and young adult readers that hits that sweet spot you describe: understandable enough for a young layperson, but not too simplistic. I’m thinking here of books like those by Deborah Heiligman, Steve Sheinkin, and Candace Fleming.

      I’d also suggest referring students to reputable newspapers and periodicals, which are written for a general adult audience and shouldn’t be too technical, though kids may need a little assistance here and there. Many newspaper websites let you search back through their archives, so kids can learn about historical events from articles written when those events actually happened.

      I’m sure Joan and Jody will have more ideas for you, but I hope that’s a start!

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      The availability of info is incredible in this age, but yes, it’s also confusing. And you don’t want to limit the bounds of your students’ imagination and their desire to learn more. Tough one, but let me attack your question from my journalism school perspective. Legitimate publications ask their reporters/writers to verify facts, often using three trusted sources. I’m wondering if you let your students blue-sky info from the Internet and use that as a curiosity launch pad. (Ha! My second reference to that today.) If they can corroborate that information from other sources — getting to that in a minute — those are facts they should be able to use. Now knowing that reputable journalists from established and respected publications to need to verify facts using multiple sources, does it reason that these could be good resources? Also consider: *well-respected not-for-profit sites (e.g. World Wildlife Fund, Reading Is Fundamental, Women in Engineering)
      *larger for-profit companies, perhaps as idea generators
      *science and medical sites (e.g. Mayo Clinic)

      One other thought. If you’re fortunate to be in a school with an involved group of parents, you may want to consider setting up a resource center where doctors or engineers or plumbers or nutritionists or carpenters or adults of any profession would be open to receiving email questions from the students.

      Hope this helps a little.

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      Great advice on this so far! You might also have your student use the research databases through your local library – there’s some excellent resources there. And I wonder if using a keyword like “topic + basics” might give a simpler breakdown without going to too simple a level?

      Good luck to you and your students!

    • Audrey
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      Hello! I am a school librarian and this is just the sort of thing we specialize in! First, I think it’s important that students begin to understand authority in a more authentic way than considering the website suffix. It’s potentially misleading…I teach a unit on selecting quality web resources to sixth and seventh graders and one of the websites I have them look at is a hoax…the tree octopus site. The URL happens to end in .net so, of course, when I ask them if it’s a good website they immediately reply “yeah…it’s a .net” ๐Ÿ™‚ Then, there are sites like blueplanetbiomes.org which is a wonderful reference source and is actually produced by elementary students.

      Do you have a school library? If so, you likely have access to some fantastic databases that are expressly built to support the research you are talking about.

      To make matters more confusing, some of the best, free reference sites out there with text written for school-aged readers, are .com: dkfindout.com, ducksters.com, mrnessbaum.com, factmonster.com, etc.

      When I get to work with the fifth graders, I typically introduce them to one or two really good sites that are relatively technical (an example would be the CIA world fact book) and I walk them through how to use it as well as what kind of information they will find on the sites. Then, I coach them through searching on their own…which is complicated, but the honest truth is that there is no perfect formula for teaching students how to find the best information using Google. You could try having them use sweetsearch.com, a search engine that’s been curated to be useful for students! RUSA (Reference and User Services Assocation) maintains a list of the best free reference sites and some are wonderful for student research http://www.ala.org/rusa/awards/etsbestindex and AASL (American Association of School Librarians) has a yearly list of the best websites for teaching and learning that could be useful for you to use as you point out the hallmarks of quality resources to your students! http://www.ala.org/aasl/standards/best/websites/2017 Best of luck ๐Ÿ™‚

      • sheila mustard
        Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        Audrey – Thank you for all of your helpful hints!!!

  7. Nels Tooker
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Can you discuss what tools (if any) you use to lay out the plot of a novel? I have an idea of how I my story should go, but I feel like I have a lot swirling in my head. Do you storyboard, outline, do something else or just write it out?

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      I usually don’t do anything too formal–at least, not before writing the first draft. In that idea-swirling stage at the beginning of the story, I try to write down as much as I can think of in a brainstorming notebook, both so I can remember all my ideas and so I can try to organize them into some sort of sensible order. Inevitably, though, the plot changes as I write. By the time I’m about halfway through the first draft, I’ll usually have a good idea of how the rest of the book will pan out, so I’ll type up a brief outline at that point (or even later–I wrote an outline for my current work in progress after I’d already written 75% of the first draft!). This outline helps me write an ending that wraps up the plots I’ve already started, and it helps give me a better sense of what the whole book might look like once it’s done.

      For me, more formal plotting tools come in most useful during revision, when I can look at the entire book and figure out what needs to be tightened, what should be expanded upon, where the stakes should be raised and tensions should rise, etc. The editor Cheryl Klein has a great plot checklist that I believe is available in her book THE MAGIC WORDS, and possibly on her website as well. I’d highly recommend reading the entire book, not just the parts about plot!

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      I, personally, use what looks like disorganized notes on 11″ x 14″ sheets of paper, but I’ve come to realize that I’m actually organizing in my head using a tried-and-true method. Just recently, I developed a storyboarding workshop and gave it a test run in a couple schools this past spring. Using only 6 panels, I modeled how students could organize even complicated stories, whether they were writing personal narratives or works of fiction. It makes them focus on what is essential and gives them touchpoints to hit as they write. Even in that short time, once I set the students loose, many were able to complete a full story. It was a great experience all around. If you do a websearch for *storyboarding*, you should find some great guidance. If not, email me (and let me know you’re part of Teachers Write) and I can give you a few basics.

      • Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        I would love to have your storyboard board method, too. How do we get your email? I do have dummy/thumbnail printouts from Debbie Ridpath Ohi, but could use something for CB and MG. TY.

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      I tend to kick off a new project by diving right in to the first few chapters, to give myself a sense of the characters and voice and world. Then I pull back and write a fairly free-form synopsis – generally following the story turns, mapping out my way, figuring out where I’m going. This gives me a path to follow once I start writing, though of course there is always much refining that goes on during that crucial drafting stage.

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Great question! When I first started writing, I never outlined–I was convinced that committing my plot to a rigid format would make the whole process less fun. But starting with my seventh book, TRUTH OR DARE, I wrote out a synopsis first–and was amazed at how much smoother (and faster) the writing was. For STAR-CROSSED, which parallels the plot of Romeo & Juliet (up to the ending!), I also wrote a synopsis first, using the play as an outline. Because plot is what’s hardest for me, I’ve learned that doing all the plot-planning ahead of time lets me relax and enjoy the fun stuff–hanging out with characters, writing dialogue, etc. And I never feel constricted by the outline–I always allow myself to improvise, as the book takes shape..

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

      Jumping in here to recommend Scrivener, which is the software program I use when I’m drafting a book. It has an outlining component that I like a lot. https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

  8. Jen Caldwell
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Good morning! Thank you so much for being here and lending your expertise! I’m hoping you can help me out-

    When you’re writing how much do you take into account what your reader wants and how much do you follow your plan/gut?

    You see, I’m stuck. I’ve been working on a YA novel for a while, on and off, and I don’t know the ending. The idea came from my horror and wonder about families who live for years without knowing what has happened to a missing/abducted child. How do you go on?

    My MC is the older sister of the missing child. So, initially, I thought to be realistic, by the end of the book we’d have to be no farther along the mystery of the disappearance than the beginning. We (readers) still don’t know. But I think readers would find that frustrating (as they should in real life!). Do I need to resolve the disappearance by finding the girl one way or another? Do readers need closure? Obviously, if it isn’t about finding the girl, it’s about the MC dealing with it in whatever way she does and a reader needs to be invested in HER story. . . (I’ve always been better at writing characters and mood than plot!)

    Do I need to write three different endings and see what works?!

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      What a compelling idea for a story. And you’re right, it presents a tricky problem! While you’ll need to give your main character a resolution to her story, you’re absolutely right that that resolution isn’t necessarily the discovery of what happened to her sister. And I absolutely believe in nuanced endings that leave questions unanswered, especially when the real-life truth of the matter is that we often never get the answers we’re hoping for. Speaking selfishly and as a reader, I’d hope to get at least a little bit of a clue about what might have happened to the missing child; I think I’d be disappointed to learn absolutely nothing about the situation over the course of the book. But you won’t be able to please every reader, and what one reader might love could make another reader throw the book across the room, so it’s most important for you to consider what the story needs to achieve the effect you’re hoping for. Some readers will adore it! Some will hate it! But if you have confidence in your decision and feel it’s made the story stronger, that’s what matters most.

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Let me start with a standard YA guideline: Your story should end with, at least, a glint of hope. And it sounds as if, no matter which ending you choose, you’ll have that. You’re definitely on the right track, focusing on your MC and her obsessions, fears, flaws, and how the story best satisfies what she needs.
      Now, if you do end the story without any advancement in the mystery, however, make sure it’s a conscious decision. If you don’t, and you’ve decided not to resolve the disappearance because YOU haven’t figured out a good solution, chances are, your readers will see right through that. (My hands have been slapped by beta readers over that more than once.)

      As for auditioning 3 different endings, it’s never a bad idea. Even if you like all three, your gut (and your MC) should tell you where to go.

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      To zero in on your first question: You should always, always follow the story. Keeping a reader in mind is fine, but you should never write for the reader to the sacrifice of your gut. With that said, as mentioned above, it can never hurt to do a little exploring with regards to potential endings. Especially if you’re on the fence, try out a few different direction. Sometimes you don’t know what might work till you give it a shot ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Kay Berry
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Good morning! Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. My question: I am an AP Lit/11th grade/concurrent enrollment teacher, and I am in the middle of writing my first novel. I have noticed with many of the writing books (craft) I have read that they really emphasize cutting out extra fluff, extra scenes not needed. I still enjoy reading lengthy scenes or description like Charles Dickens, (of course he got paid for each word!) Do you think that this kind of writing has gone out of style? Is our society not patient enough to read like that anymore. I read a great deal and I love poetic/lyrical type writers, but it does seem like YA novels do not put any extra descriptions in.

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      I think the key here is that you are still writing your novel. I really would not worry in the slightest about what you’re writing at this point. Being too prescriptive and focusing too much on the end result is going to hamper your inspiration and work flow. Instead, follow your inspiration and your muse, wherever the story takes you. Once you have a finished draft and are in revision mode, that’s when you can take a good hard look at what you’ve got. I think that rich world-building and a certain amount of descriptive elements can enhance a story – the right story, the right elements done in the right way. Between you and your writing partners, and eventually your agent/editor, you will be able to judge what extra elements are boosting and enriching the story, and which are weighing it down. As with everything, balance is king ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      I love Ammi-Joan’s response! But I’d just like to say that 90% of my own editing is deleting. I think that it’s wonderful you’ve done such elaborate world-building. But I guess the question is: does it all need to be on the page? Can it be in the book–but implied, in the background, or just in your own conception of the characters and their world? That’s important, too.

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      I do think that kind of writing has gone out of style somewhat, which is a shame for those of us who love to wallow in language and spend lots of time exploring our scenes. I can’t write sparse, so I don’t even try, and my books find their readers, so don’t worry if you’re the sort of writer who has Dickensian tendencies. But I also do let my editor tell me when I’m getting carried away and try to trim things down to her specifications when I feel it’s in the best interests of the story.

  10. Posted July 19, 2017 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    1. When writing a YA book that has a trio of main characters, how important is the consistency of movement of POV from one to another? Should it bounce A-B-C fairly evenly, or is it okay to move A-B-A-C-B, etc? The novel is told in third person.

    2. Also, does a realistic fiction YA book have to have a completely happy ending? (I have read a few darker YA books that didn’t, but is there an expectation that they will?)

    3. How long are the chapters usually in YA books? The other novels I have written are MG.

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Great questions! In general, I don’t think there’s any one prescriptive answer to any of these. It’s really all about the story, about what calls to you and what works for you and your story and your characters. With that said, some general thoughts:

      1) I’d say that if your three are all main characters, you should have an even amount of face-time for each one. If one of the characters leads the story, they can have more chapters. Ideally you’re going to follow a similar reading order, just because I think it makes for a smoother transition – but again, be led by the story. if it works, it works.

      2) Bittersweet endings are tough to pull off, and can be hard to sell. But again, if the story calls for it, then that’s what you should do. Ideally you’re going to have SOME form of rewarding feel – a reader can feel cheated when they get to the end of a long book and there is just sadness and misery at the end. Even if it’s sad or dark, there should be some takeaway that’s either hopeful or thought-provoking or the like. But again, YMMV ๐Ÿ™‚

      3) Any length! Follow your heart! ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • Posted July 19, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        Let’s just say for number 2, they decide cheating is the way to their common end goal. They almost pull it off except they forgot about the power of social media and the publicity surrounding everything…so they won until they didn’t win, if that makes sense?

        • Posted July 19, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

          Ditto all of Joan’s thoughts above.
          I’d add a caveat, though. Make sure you need all three POVs, that it’s important to the story. Some stories work best that way, but I’ve seen others that may have been stronger from just one.

          And yes, your scenario does make sense (and sounds very interesting). I’m thinking that while such an ending may not be hopeful to the MCs, it could be ultimately satisfying, hopeful, thought-provoking to the reader.

  11. Posted July 19, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    On FB lately, Literary Agent Rachelle Gardner has been talking about the query letter process. I’m curious about what your query letters look like. (Anyone want to share theirs?) When writing a picture book, is a query letter even necessary, or do you just include the PB text?

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      Betsy, I posted a bit of an answer in my reply to the next question. Sorta got both yours and Dayna’s tangled up in my mind. As for PB queries, I’ll let Joan and/or Caroline handle that. Once upon a time, when I tried writing and submitting PBs, I did have a query that offered a little of my background and where I saw the story fitting into the marketplace. But that was long ago, before I realized I had too many words in me ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      You can find some great query letter examples online! But in general, short and sweet is my advice. Keep to the point – the query is just a showcase for your great writing sample. As for the other, read up on the specific agent you’re querying. Some prefer a certain amount of sample writing with the query, others don’t. But yes, it’s always good to have a query, even for a PB – otherwise, how will you pitch your project? Short, sweet, and snappy ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Yup, my query was pretty short and simple, as Joan and Jody describe. A sentence or two of introduction, a few sentences about the book itself, a couple more sentences about me. Some agents have specific guidelines for queries, so be sure to check their websites before contacting them.

      You didn’t ask this, but one thing I like to mention to people about query letters is that if you are having a hard time condensing the key points of your manuscript into a few concise sentences for the query letter, it may point to a larger issue you may want to revise in the story itself before querying! Query letters are like little story microcosms; they can give us all sorts of clues about the broader shape of our stories.

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      Here’s mine from THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. (which, as you’ll see, was called SWINGER OF BIRCHES once upon a time!)

      Dear _______,

      I’m a big fan of your clients’ books, X and X. I’m currently seeking representation for my middle grade novel, SWINGER OF BIRCHES, and I feel like it might be a great fit, based on your current list.

      12-year-old Gianna McGuire can handle her grandmotherโ€™s tendency to leave false teeth in the refrigerator. She can handle a little brother who thinks heโ€™s a member of the paparazzi. She can even handle a health-food nut mother who equates Oreos with arsenic. But her 7th grade leaf collection might just be the end of her.

      Gianna could miss her last cross country meet of the season if she doesnโ€™t get the project done on time, but comic catastrophes face her at every turn. To make matters worse, her beloved Nonna is showing signs of Alzheimerโ€™s Disease more serious than dentures in the fridge.

      SWINGER OF BIRCHES is a 40,000-word middle grade novel that should appeal to fans of Lisa Yee and Cynthia Lord โ€“ readers who love a story with humor and a big heart.

      I am a full member of SCBWI and a National Board Certified teacher of English Language Arts. My first book, a middle grade historical novel called SPITFIRE, is being published by North Country Books this month. Iโ€™ve also written several picture books, and Iโ€™m currently at work on two more middle grade novels.

      Thank you again for your consideration of SWINGER OF BIRCHES. My full manuscript is available upon your request.

      Best wishes,

      Kate Messner

  12. Dayna Collings
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Good Morning Ladies,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions today. I enjoy my alone time while writing, but when I’m ready to take my manuscripts to the next level I feel lonely and lost in the daunting publishing process. While I can research my submission/publishing questions online it is so nice to have authors who are open and willing to share their encouragement, experiences and expertise!

    My question is: Did any of you try submitting unsolicited manuscripts to random publishers from the start or did all of you have literary agents that guided you through the process from the beginning?

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      I wish I could post a picture here, Dayna. It’s constant in my PowerPoint and shows a mass of overlapping papers spread out on my floor. Dwarfed by that is an 18″ ruler. And superimposed on a follow-up slide: 289 rejection letter (not including at least 50 more from agents).
      Yeah, there was that.
      Those were at a time when most publishing houses were open to unsolicited submissions. Not true today. So most often, you will need to go through an agent. I do have one now which is why I do not have any current query letters to show you. I did find a couple very old ones, but you don’t want to use them as a template for yours. Trust me. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Dayna Collings
        Posted July 19, 2017 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for the response Jody.
        I also wanted to tell you that I recommend “The Gollywhopper Games” all the time to students visiting the library. I read it years ago when it was on the Texas Bluebonnet Nominee List (2009) and it has been a favorite ever since ๐Ÿ™‚

        • Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:05 am | Permalink

          Thanks, Dayna. And just to put things into perspective, The Gollywhopper Games, alone, received in the neighborhood of 40 rejections (publishers and agents) on its own. ๐Ÿ™‚

          • Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:56 am | Permalink

            These examples make those of us in the subbing/querying trenches take heart, TY.

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      Dayna, I’d strongly recommend working with an agent. It’s not just about finding you the right editor and negotiating your contract–agents protect you in so many ways as they guide your career in an increasingly tricky business. Your agent is also your most important early reader–evaluating your work with one eye on the market. As daunting as it is to find the right agent, it’s so worth it. Don’t give up! .

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      I’d certainly advise getting an agent if possible. But this can be a process and can take time. Before I was published, agented, or an agent, I did attend a lot of SCBWI conferences, and familiarized myself with publishers who took unsolicited submissions, and with the tastes of editors who attended those conferences and often opened themselves up to submissions for a brief window of time afterward. For those who write widely and prolifically, and have several things to offer (particularly with PB, where it’s harder to get an agent), it can sometimes be helpful to have one manuscript that you are sending around to publishers, and others that you save so they are “fresh” for the agent query. Once a manuscript has been shopped widely to editors, it is less likely to draw an agent (though a couple of targeted subs won’t hurt), but you can also take a ton of time waiting for that connection. So there’s honestly a trade-off on both sides!

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      I never tried submitting anything before having an agent. And agents are worth their weight in gold, especially during the submissions process! They know who is most likely to love your story, can get it to those people quickly, and can make a better deal than you’d ever get for yourself.

      I once had an internship at a publishing house, and part of my job was to wade through the slush pile–the literal bin full of unsolicited, unagented manuscript submissions. There were a few gems in there, but there was a whole lot of writing that was unsuitable for the publisher at best and… well, you can probably imagine the worst. I strongly recommend letting an agent carry your beautiful manuscript high above the mountain of slush and beyond the beleaguered interns’ grasp!

  13. Kim
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Hello all! The story line is obviously always important but so are the illustrations! How do you edit/revise illustrations? Do you interview illustrators? Do they come up with the ideas, you, or a collaboration? Have you ever published a book where you’ve regretted an illustration?

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      The good news is that if you are a writer, you don’t have to worry about illustrations at all. This is something that your editor will handle – finding an illustrator, working with them, etc. Sometimes you will get to offer input, and other times it’s completely out of your hands. Of course, if you are self-publishing that’s a different story altogether. Hope that helps some!

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      As Joan says, your editor and the publishing house will make decisions about illustrations if you’re only providing the text. I’ve sometimes had the opportunity to give a little feedback about the art in my books, but I’m usually just curious and excited to see what direction the illustrator will take. It is a thrill to see another artist interpret your words and create new parts of the world you’ve imagined! If you really loathe the artwork, you and your agent can let the publisher know (another reason it’s great to have an agent; she can handle things like this for you!). Sometimes the publisher will act on your concerns, and sometimes they won’t. Every book really is a collaboration, not just between author and artist but among editors and art directors and sales and marketing people as well.

  14. Stephanie S
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Thank you ladies for taking your time from your day to answer our questions! I work as a library tech at a K-8 school, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned with teachers and students on the writing process and possible lesson ideas.

    My question is about beta-readers. As I understand it, these are people who are reading your novels in early drafts, possibly before, possibly after sending it to an editor. How do you find these “beta-readers”? Are they friends/family, or do you seek other sources, or are they randomly chosen from your editor/agent? I’m new to the realm of sharing my writing, and am wondering how best to share it with the world. (BTW, my work is probably more YA or older if I were to place it in the library, like high school or higher, based on content, though I notice some interest in the stuff by middle school audiences as well …)

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      The members of my past and current critique groups have always been other writers. I have them read my drafts when they are as good as I can make them on my own; and always before submission. I have found most of my readers through SCBWI (Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators) and by attending conferences and workshops. Most of my groups have had members from across the country and we’ve mostly “met” online. My guess is, if you put out a call here, you might find a person or two to connect with.

      Anyone? Anyone else looking for beta readers of YA or older novels?

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      My beta readers are always writers, too–friends I’ve made through my MFA program and during my writing career. I really like Jody’s suggestions, and I’d add that it can be very dangerous to ask your family members to be your beta readers, especially if you would like honest and pointed feedback. I can handle all sorts of brutal truths when they’re coming from my editor or my professional friends, but hearing those same truths from my husband or mom would really sting, so they are only allowed to tell me how much they love my work!

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

      You definitely want to find the right readers to advise you on your writing journey – some writers’ message boards or listservs will occasionally have critique partner match-ups, etc. But you want someone who can be a thoughtful reader and look out for the type of changes that you’ll want to make as you strengthen your work toward publication.

  15. Jen Howe
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for being here today. I’m collecting information from different authors about their writing processes. If you haven’t already described your writing process above (haven’t read the comments yet), please share.

    This request was inspired by a NerdCampMI theme–there is no writing process, just the writer’s process.

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      Here you go, Jen; my 10-step writing process.
      1. I think of an idea or a setting or a character I can’t shake from my thoughts. Even if I’m working on something else, it keeps invading my brain.
      2. I add it to my idea folder and try to forget about it.
      3. I can’t and so I do an inordinate amount of musing. What happens? Who does it happen to? Why does s/he care? Why do I care?
      4. My idea moves from the folder and becomes a file unto itself, wherein go all those ideas.
      5. When all those thoughts come together and I hear my characters voice, and s/he speaks that first line, I’m off and running.
      6. Then I start typing. And typing. And typing. And 2-3 months and about 60,000 – 70,000 words later, I have a horrible first draft.
      7. I force myself to put it away for at least a week (optimally, a month). And during that time, it’s like I’m still writing. The characters — their hopes, fears, strengths, weaknesses — solidify in my mind.
      8. Rewriting/revising. I’ve taken to pulling out individual scenes that need special attention and work on those first. Otherwise, I start at page one and move through to the end, looking primarily at the big picture.
      9. Subsequent revisions focus on dialogue, word choices, etc.
      10.After about 4 passes, the book goes to my beta readers. And then, probably 2-3 revisions later, it’s off to my agent.

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

      Good question! My writing process changes a bit with each book, but here’s a general idea of how it usually goes…

      1. An idea shows up. Often it’s a mashup of topics that interest me, or it’s sparked by something I read in the news or in a nonfiction book. I let the idea spend some time with me for a few days or weeks or months to see if it’s something that can sustain my interest. If I keep thinking about it, getting more and more excited about it as time passes, I know it’s worth working on.

      2. I spend a couple weeks brainstorming as much as I can: characters and their emotional arcs, plot developments, surprising twists, worldbuilding, and all the other major building blocks of a story. I usually use a questionnaire I created for myself in grad school, based on advice from several of my faculty advisors, which helps me ask myself essential questions about character, plot, conflict, and setting. Having answers to some of these questions before I start writing saves me a lot of trouble later in the drafting process.

      3. When my brainstorming turns into procrastination, I give in and write the first draft. I start at the beginning and end at the end; I can’t write very well out of order. Sometime during this drafting process, I might make a story outline. I keep taking notes about things I want to add or change later. I try not to worry too much about getting everything right the first time–which is impossible!–but I also try not to steer my draft too far off course. I’m a fairly slow drafter compared to other writers I know. My most recent published book took me a year to draft, and the one I’m working on now took about 8 months.

      4. I set the draft aside. I often send it directly to my editor at this point because my drafts tend to be pretty neat and because I am often trying to meet a deadline. If I magically have extra time, I’ll send it to a couple of writer friends first so they can read it and offer feedback. During this time, I don’t look at the manuscript at all. I hardly even think about it. This distance is essential for allowing me to come back to the book and revise it effectively later on.

      5. Next come several rounds of revision, usually with my editor’s guidance. We start with big-picture changes and work our way down to line edits and, eventually, copyedits. By the time we’ve gone through all our revision passes, I’m satisfied that the book is as strong as I can possibly make it. Also, I can’t bear to look at it anymore and can’t tell if the whole thing is a giant disaster. This is when I get my husband and mom to read the book and tell me it’s great and they love it.

      6. I eat a fancy dessert or drink a nice cocktail and celebrate! Then I go back to step 1.

  16. Posted July 19, 2017 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m stopping by this evening and reading the really good questions and responses. Thanks so much to the TW Campers for getting some of those nitty gritty questions out there and to our authors for sharing so much. I feel like I’ve really learned a lot from today’s Q&A.

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

      There were some great questions here! Thanks for the opportunity to chat about books and writing, all!

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

      So glad you’re finding it useful! Thanks to all the people who’ve asked fabulous questions that have gotten me thinking hard about my own writing process.

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

      Agreed! I end up learning something every time I do this. Happy writing everyone!
      Jody
      P.S. I need to call it quits for tonight, but I’ll check back in the morning in case anyone else has a last-minute question ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions today. I am learning so much from your responses! This question really focuses on my students’ writing. Every year I have students that write amazing stories, and I want those stories to extend beyond the classroom or school. How do I help students get their writing published? Or how do I help the student and their parents to get his/her writing published?

    • Posted July 19, 2017 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

      I’d suggest helping students find resources that specialize in publishing students’ creative work. When I was growing up, I subscribed to a fabulous magazine (now out of print) that published only fiction written by kids. Perhaps someone here or in your community might know if there are still publications like that today. Depending on your students’ age, they might also be able to share their fiction in online writing communities–I think you are allowed to use sites like Wattpad if you’re at least 13.

    • Posted July 20, 2017 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      Hi Michelle!
      I hoped you’ve checked back in. I’ve been asked that question more than once, and
      Caroline’s answer echoes what I’ve said in the past.

      Because so much publishing, today, is online only, we are raising a generation that accepts the concept. And that’s part of the reason why I’ve started a feature on my website, where classes like yours can take over a webpage of mine and post creative efforts of your choosing. I’ll feature your class page for a period of time; after that, you’ll still be able to access it in the archives. If you, or any of you, are interested in signing up for the coming school year, take a look at my test school’s page:
      https://jodyfeldman.com/school-takeover/
      And here’s the link to the FAQs. https://jodyfeldman.com/for-educators/school-takeover-faqs/

      Even on your own, should your school allow it, you might consider creating a class webpage where you feature a “published” story of the day? It’s possible to even password-protect certain pages if you’d want to limit access to the students’ immediate world.

      If you do find a great answer to your question, please let me know so I can pass it along.

  18. Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Hi and thank you’ll for your time today, Ammi, Jody, & Caroline. I had bites in 2 pitch contests & have submitted my mss. These are smaller houses & accept un-agented work. It’s been almost 6 weeks for one publisher and they indicated that if they did not respond by then, it was a “no” per their website. But if they ASKED me to sub my piece, should I nudge? (There was no direct info re: twitter pitch contest and how long the wait.) I did receive an automated notice that my work had been received.

    • Posted July 20, 2017 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      Hi Kathy,
      First, congrats on the bites. You must have a great concept!
      Generally speaking, though, when that’s the stated policy, no reply means ‘no’, no matter the circumstances under which you’ve submitted. That said, two things.
      1. I’ve just come from a conference where publishing professionals, more than once (agents and editors) mentioned that the industry is running on super slo-mo these days. So you may still have a shot.
      2. I’d wait a few more weeks, then if you still feel the pull to contact them, VERY briefly, I’d thank them for the opportunity they gave in regard to TITLE and you hope that they’ll be open to seeing your next piece when its ready. That’s it. Then don’t expect to hear back and move on and keep writing something that will wow them.
      Good luck!

      • Posted July 20, 2017 at 10:01 am | Permalink

        Thanks for jumping in even though I’m late to the party. Great advice. I’ll be patient & look back at when I subbed. Trying not to obsess.

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