5 Funny Literary Agent Contradictions

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If you’re like me, scrounging for query-writing advice online, you may feel a little frustrated. Okay, a LOT frustrated. Like, throw the computer out the window frustrated. Why? Because so much of the advice contradicts itself. Some agents like this, some like that, and you can’t seem to please everyone. If this describes your experience, you may enjoy the following five contradictions:

Contradiction #1: How to write a query.

This week I put my query on WriteOnCon.com, an online two-day conference where you can post your query for advice from other writers and agents. I kept reworking it and thought it was fairly good until the agent commented, “A query should always have three paragraphs: the log-line, the mini-synopsis, and the bio. And don’t make me scroll down! If I have to scroll, it’s too long.” With a screen that small, “scrolling down” meant the query had to be less than four to five sentences. Total.

Um…well, my query was six paragraphs, but they were short and focused, and I separated them that way because QueryShark says that white space is good, and to NEVER start with a log-line…blah.

Fine. So I reworked my query to fit her advice, and suddenly none of the attendees liked it–and frankly, neither did I. The mini-synopsis was suddenly too long and boring, and my awesome “hook” was now a story-summing log-line, which actually wasn’t as interesting. Nor as hooking…hookingy…oh, whatever. Lesson learned: One size does not fit all.

Contradiction #2: Don’t follow trends, but make the book marketable.

You hear it all the time, right? “Don’t follow trends. Write what you love, and what you feel passionate about.” Then they follow it with, “But don’t submit paranormal, though. Oh, and not dystopian. And please, no science fiction, fantasy, western, religious, or anything too true-to-life–basically don’t submit anything even remotely interesting to you.”

Is there anything left? It’s amazing that books get published at all. 

Contradiction #3: Every book must fit into a genre…but also be fresh and new.

If there’s one thing literary agents and editors all agree on, it’s that they want to see the “next big thing,” or something “fresh.” The problem is, no one knows that that is.

Here’s the thing, though. If your book is too different, it won’t fit into an established genre, which makes it hard to sell. In other words, they want your book to be the same, but different. Clear as mud? Yeah, I think so, too. And make sure it doesn’t fit into the list of genres above, or they won’t even read it, even if it really is “the next big thing.” Yeah, good luck with that.

Contradiction #4: Make your characters likeable, real, and flawed–but different than every other likeable, real, and flawed character out there.

My book is a YA, which means that like most YA works, the main character is a teenage girl. There are plenty of opinions out there about how a teenage female protagonist should be: not snarky, but independent and confident, but not too confident, and sweet and giving, but not boring, and interesting with a dark edge, but not rebellious. O…kay. Gotcha. No wonder all the boys in these books are the same. At least we can all agree on love interests: strong yet sweet. End of story.

Contradiction #5: Treat me like I’m the only agent you’re querying…but I’ll probably not treat you that way in return.”

Ouch. This one hurts. You’ve heard the advice to use the agent’s name (spelled correctly), research their guidelines, read the books they’ve represented, and think of something politely personal as an introduction. You craft that letter carefully, crossing your fingers for luck when you hit “Send.” Then you wait.

Months later, you get a form letter rejection.

To Whom It May Concern:

Thank you for submitting (title). Unfortunately, even though you did your research, reading books I represented and taking the time to address me personally and treat me with respect in your letter, I’m not going to do the same for you.

I’m giving you a form letter rejection because it’s not worth two minutes of my valuable time to tell you why or how you can improve. Why? Because I’m the gatekeeper–the wizard of stardom standing in your way, screaming, “You Shall Not Pass!” And you’re just a lowly author, one of hundreds I’ll respond to today, most of which are rejections. Tough luck.

Sincerely, (Name)

It happens, and it happens to unpublished and NYT Best-selling authors alike. Brandon Sanderson didn’t achieve success until he was writing book #11, and it was his sixth book, Elantris, that finally got published. Stephenie Meyer was lucky to publish her “too long” novel, Twilight, and even JK Rowling received eight rejections before breaking into the business. Just pick up the pieces and move on, and eventually you’ll find the right person to represent your book. 

Onward and upward, writers, and don’t give up! Like our characters, we have to climb the seemingly impossible mountain peak before we can descend into the valley of success. (Sorry, I’m in a dramatic mood today.)

Good luck and keep writing!

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5 Rules for Writers Groups–Break With Care

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Writers are a funny bunch. If you’ve been to a writing conference, you know it’s true. We’re wise beyond our years, with varying degrees of artistic ability, wrapped in emotional pain and plenty of passion. We’re just really, really cool people–people who need each other.

Before my first book was published, I had no idea what the social norms were between writers. Three critique groups, dozens of interviews and signings and conferences and a million mistakes later, I’ve come to realize that yes, there are some rules that authors (and aspiring authors) should follow when it comes to critique groups and writing networks. Here are the big five:

Rule #1: Remember that writing isn’t a competition. 

Unlike in other professions, an author’s career isn’t threatened by other writers. In fact, s/he does better with a supportive writing network than without one.

It’s an interesting phenomenon–the longer you’re with a critique group, the more likely you are to get published. And once someone in your group hits success, the more likely others in your group are to achieve publication, too. My critique groups have been fantastic so far, and I feel myself being stretched further and higher every single month. 

Rule #2: Give as much as you take.

I’ve met writers who finish their manuscripts, scramble to find readers under the pretense of wanting a critique group, milk ’em for all the advice and help they can get, and then disappear again. I know life gets busy, and sometimes writing takes a backseat. But if you don’t contribute as much as you take, you’ll have very grumpy friends . It’s just like any other profession–carry your weight.

If another writer spent valuable hours reading your work and giving advice, they’re probably hoping you’ll do the same for them. If you just don’t have the time, offer to help in some other way, like reviewing their work on your blog, or at least reposting/retweeting their promotional efforts. Remember, what goes around comes around–especially in the writing world. 

Rule #3: Positive always comes first. 

Whether you’re critiquing someone’s work or giving an overall review, always focus on the positive first. Sometimes that can be hard (really, REALLY hard), especially if the writer is just starting out or if it’s not in your preferred genre, but trust me. You can find something of worth in anyone’s work. It could be a character you like or a clever city name or a funny line of dialogue. Collect those little bits of potential and start with those first.

Even the thickest-skinned author appreciates a little positive thrown in with the constructive criticism. It takes guts for them to hand over their “baby” to you, trusting that you’ll help them make it better. The least you can do is show that you respect them enough to start with the things you liked. 

I reviewed a book on Amazon today and gave it three stars, lower than any of my reviews so far. But half the review was about what the author did well. I wanted people to know that she had a lot of potential, and there was a lot I really liked about her book. And then I was honest about what needed to be worked on. When my first negative review comes for my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, I’m hoping the reviewer does it that way, rather than making it sound like my book has no redeeming qualities at all!

Rule #4: Don’t be a know-it-all.

You know who I’m talking about–that writer who knows more than his or her friends, whose lofty status as “author” or “writer” has taken over their brain’s common sense. Their advice is law, their opinion is gold, and you’re lucky to even be in the same critique group as them. Ugh. Who wants to help someone who is above your help?

The point of a support/critique group is to help your writing improve, not tear everyone else’s writing down and reject any suggestions that come your way. It should be about the person first, and their work second. Just be sensitive. Common curteousy, folks.

And that leads us into number five.

Rule #5: Be open to feedback.

In my very first writing group, there was a writer who seemed to think constructive feedback was negative and insulting. He never took anyone’s advice, and the fact that it was being offered at all seemed to threaten his pride. I stopped reading his work after awhile, because it was completely pointless. All he wanted was compliments. Not surprisingly, as far as I know, he hasn’t gotten published.

Let me just say this: if you can’t handle feedback, you’re in the wrong profession. Critique group friends are WAY nicer than editors are. Just saying.

We’re lucky to live in a time when we can connect with thousands of other writers on Facebook, writing blogs, Twitter, and in writing conferences, in addition to critique groups. They are absolutely priceless, if you follow these five rules. If not, you may find yourself out of the loop and out of support.

Thanks for reading. Can you think of a rule I missed?

5 Dummy-Proof Parenting Tips from Disney Movies

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My seven year-old daughter loves the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. I’d guess it’s really the long blonde hair and the pink dress (well, when it’s not blue) and the fact that she can talk to animals–which, when you think about it, is really quite creepy.

Anyway. We were reading the story together recently and she was like, “Why did the king and queen outlaw spinning wheels and send her into the forest? Why didn’t they just teach her not to touch one?”

And I was like, duh! Even a seven-year-old girl gets it. Thus, the idea for this blog post was born: Parenting tips from Disney movies. Here are five of them:

Tip #1: Toss the Control Issues Aside.

Just as Aurora’s parents freaked out and tried to control everything (thus defeating the purpose), we learn from Finding Nemo that we really can’t control our kids. We can control what we teach them about the world, and to some extent we can limit what they’re exposed to, but ultimately the choice is theirs.

Take Ariel from The Little Mermaid. What would’ve happened if her king father had admired her human possessions instead of destroying them? What if he had sat down–um, well, the mermaid equivalent of sitting down–with her and told her all he knew about humans, the good and the bad? What if he’d gone with her to take a quick look and satisfy her curiosity? Or even given her legs himself, and accompanied her on land so she could find out what they were like in a controlled environment?

Yes, we are responsible for our children, and we do have a little control over what they experience–but locking them up and forbidding any knowledge of what’s out there isn’t the way to do it.

Tip #2: Enjoy Childhood.

As Wendy’s father learned in Peter Pan, kids do strange things when forced to grow up too quickly–like jump out of windows with strange flying boys in tights, for example. Or in Alice’s case, slide down holes into mysterious worlds with shrieking queens and crazy tea-drinkers in top hats.

When you think about it, a kid’s childhood doesn’t last all that long–maybe fifteen percent of his life, a time when he’s taken care of by others. After that, there’s a short transition during college when they get to take care of themselves and (usually) nobody else. It’s a rite of passage, a fleeting stage we recall with fondness.

When we start raising our own kids, suddenly it’s never about ourselves ever again. Like, ever. Even after the kids leave, there are grandchildren, and then great-grandchildren, etc., etc. And besides, childhood isn’t without its lessons–play is a child’s work. It’s how they learn about consequences, teamwork, friendship, and who they are as people in this world. So why rush them into teenage-hood and the real world? That’ll come soon enough.

Tip #3: Bad Things Happen to Orphans.

Have you noticed that the proportion of books and movies regarding orphans is much higher than that in real life? It’s because when you remove a child from his or her family, he either has to grow up and learn life’s lessons right away, or fade into the darkest parts of society.

Bambi got just enough lessons to keep him alive before his mom was killed, as did Simba in The Lion King. Miraculously, they were both of royal blood and had to realize the full scope of that before they could reach their potential. Same with Snow White and Arthur from The Sword and the Stone. And then there’s the regular Joe or Josephine who just got the short end of the stick when it comes to life: Lilo from Lilo and Stitch, Mowgli in Jungle Book, Aladdin, Cinderella, and Quasimodo.

Have you ever wondered about their parents? How dare they die! Almost makes you wonder if cartoon characters avoid marriage and children, because as soon as they have kids, they die! (I know, that was a stretch. Sorry.)

The crazy thing is, some real-life kids grow up with the same survival instincts as orphans, even when their parents are alive–because their parents are there, but they aren’t present in their lives. (It’s ironic that I’m typing this right now, since I just remembered that I don’t have a clue what my kids are doing downstairs…Ahem. Excuse me a moment while I go check…)

Okay, I’m back. But seriously, let’s be there for our kids so they don’t end up orphans–because orphans make great characters in Disney movies, but real life tends to be much harsher.

Tip #4: Parents Should Work Together.

There aren’t many Disney movies where the mother and father are both present. But in movies like The Incredibles, it can make for great conflict. Anytime you’ve got two super awesome people doing something as hard as raising a family, they’ll disagree on some things.

The key is to find what you have in common and work together. Think The Parent Trap, where the threads of their affection for their twin daughters are what eventually pull them all back together. Aww. Precious. Same with Wendy’s parents in Peter Pan. Usually, the mother character is right and the father character is wrong (smart scriptwriters, I must say), but in real life, it could go both ways, and it totally does. I’ve been wrong about the kids at least twice.

Don’t tell the hubby I said that.

Tip #5: Parenting is Hard, But Worth It.

In the words of Dory, sometimes you have to tell yourself, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.” There’s nothing more worthy of the reminder than parenting!  The biggest lesson that Mary Poppins taught wasn’t even to the children she nannied–it was to their parents: Your little ones are priceless. Enjoy them while you can.

A letter to the Joggers Who Saw Me Go Crazy

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Dear Joggers from Last Week,

I know you were having a leisurely run that morning, probably enjoying those precious few moments of freedom before your intense day of mothering began. And I know the sweet silence of morning was broken by a crazed, screaming lunatic in her backyard, yelling like a banshee at her kids at eight o’clock in the morning. I’m sure you didn’t mean to stop and stare, but you couldn’t help it. I mean, who does that? Most people are still asleep that time of day, and here she was, already yelling at her kids, and the day had barely begun. You probably shook your heads, thinking, I’d never do that. You probably grumbled to each other as you continued on your way, whispering comments about “child protective services” and “nurturing.”

Luckily, you probably didn’t know that mom, disheveled and wearing her pajamas, was the author of a parenting book. Whew. How embarrassing would that have been?

I don’t blame you, ladies. I’ve done that before, too–watching crazed parents screaming at their children at the grocery store, the park, and even in stopped cars at an intersection. Even though I knew they loved their kids (hey, each family member was proudly displayed as a stick figure sticker character on the back window, so that proves it), it always made me think, Wow. I’d never do that!

So when this incident happened the other day and you walked away, shaking your heads, I just wanted you to know what you missed. You didn’t know how little sleep I’d gotten the night before, and the night before that, and how the kids were awake and roaming the neighborhood in their pajamas at six o’clock to “take the dog on a walk.”

You didn’t know that my two-year-old (also called Houdini) had gone missing because the older kids left the gate unlocked, and of course he’d been found playing and running in the street. (At least he wasn’t naked this time.) You didn’t see the stress of work, deadlines, and the looming financial disaster that I carried that day, clenching my jaw inside as I forced a smile. You didn’t hear the sassy remark from my daughter when I asked her to come inside and do her chores. And you certainly didn’t see how I cried harder than she did, or the awesome breakfast I made them, our lovely family trip to the park later (which miraculously, went very well–even with the dog). All you saw was that one moment in time, for which I will forever be branded in your minds. And boy, I bet it was entertaining.

I hope you enjoyed it. But above all, I hope you said, “I’d never do that,” to each other. Because honestly, I believe those words are worse than breaking a window or walking under a ladder, because they don’t just bring bad luck–they ensure that yes, you will do that–and you’ll probably have two mommy joggers walking by when you do.

Because that’s the way the universe works.

Sincerely,

Me

What Makes an Author? Thoughts on Self vs. Traditional Publishing

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My kids watched a cartoon after lunch today. I half-listened as I cleaned the kitchen, perking up as the young character showed his teacher a story. The teacher said, “Good job! You just wrote your own book. That makes you an author!”

Well, no, I argued internally. It hasn’t been published, so he’s not technically an author yet. After all, if every person who wrote a book called themselves authors–whether the book was Uncle Fred’s yet-to-be-proven World War II story or the next great American novel–then the title “Author” would lose its value, don’t you think? There are millions of people who say they’ll write a book but never do–so shouldn’t those of us who actually do be entitled to the term Author? 

I’ve thought about it all day. I know, I must be bored (hey, it’s cleaning day, all right?). But here’s why–where do you draw the line between two people and say, “You’re an author, but you aren’t.” It’s like saying, “You play football, but you aren’t a football player.” Some of the best cooks I know don’t consider themselves chefs because they don’t have their own cooking shows. Some of my favorite teachers didn’t have degrees, but taught me powerful lessons. So what is an author? 

Fifty years ago–heck, even twenty years ago–authors were writers who’d had their work published traditionally, in a hardbound book that people could purchase at bookstores. Now, it’s not that simple. Mine was published traditionally, sure, but what if it had been exclusively an ebook? What if I’d self-published, and my book wasn’t available at brick-and-mortar bookstores? What if my book had come out in sections in a magazine, but nowhere else? Now it gets complicated. The old definition of an author breaks down at that point. We’ve got Amazon, handheld reading devices, and thousands of books available for free online. So what is an author?

It makes me sad when some high-and-mighty authors who’ve chosen the traditional route frown on self-publishing authors, as if their method is the only legitimate one. I love being able to go to the bookstore and see my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, on the shelves–it’s a great feeling, and I’ll never get tired of it (or the funny looks I get from the staff when I pull out my camera like a proud momma). But does that make me more an author than someone else who chose a different publishing path? In an age of worldwide media at the click of a button, where 300,000 books are released a day, does it really matter HOW it entered the universe? Personally, I don’t think so. I think it’s an exciting time for writers and authors alike. There are more books enticing readers to their pages–er, um, screens–than ever before.

Honestly, this musing has confused me more than anything, but I do feel strongly about one thing. An author is someone who loves to write, lives to entertain others, and will never be able to stop–because the art of storytelling is one of the most fulfilling services a person can leave behind. Free or not, print or not, and best-selling or not. Period.

Best of luck to my author friends. For more information about my book and fun content, click here.

10 Symptoms: You Know You’re a Mom When…

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I love Jeff Foxworthy’s “Redneck”clips so much that I wanted to give them a little twist. So here you go, for your reading enjoyment:

You know you’re a mom when…

1) You have a secret candy stash–and not even your husband knows about it.

2) You run to the bathroom, lock the door, and cover your ears to avoid the sudden wailing and catastrophes that indefinitely occur while you do your business.

3) You have a stack of parenting books you intend to read, bills you intend to pay, diet recipes you intend to follow, and Pinterest projects you intend to try someday–like, ten years from now. Hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?

4) You adore your kids the most when they’re gone or asleep.

5) You wake up tired and go to bed awake.

6) When the house suddenly gets quiet, you leap up in panic mode.

7) You can sleep through the snoring, earthquakes, and the zombie apocalypse, but jerk awake at the tiniest whimper of a child.

8) A homemade dinner consisting of a vegetable and protein is Hollywood-Walk-of-Fame worthy. (Wait, are you saying it’s not?)

9) If a child walks out the door in matching shoes and clean clothing (never mind the wrinkles), you are Mother of the Year. Seriously.

10) You use Clorox wipes nearly everywhere–not because you’re a clean freak, but because the smell gives the illusion that you’ve spent the day cleaning. 

Can you think of another one? Write a comment below. Check out my mom quiz or my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, for fun parenting and writing content. Thanks for reading.

3 Powerful Rules for Raising a Grateful Child

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“Mommy, I want one, too,” my five year-old said as he watched me give a piece of toast to his big sister. I resisted the urge to correct his manners and whipped it up. When I set it front of him, his mouth turned into a pout and he said, “No! I wanted a bigger one.”

Does this sound familiar? This happened just this morning, and when he said it, I knew I had to write a blog post about it.

The thing is, I’ve taught them manners since infancy. I’ve read them the manners books. I’ve enforced the “magic word” and insisted on gratitude. I even model good manners, hoping they’ll pay attention. But after that scenario this morning, I did some good, hard thinking and realized that I needed something bigger–the “big guns” of anti-spoiling parenthood. So I did a little research and found three powerful rules to curb that sense of entitlement and ingratitude. I hope they help you as much as (I hope!) they’ll help me:

Rule #1: Set expectations.

In one of the articles I read, the parents called each errand day a “look” day or a “buy” day. If it was a “look” day, they were just window shopping, and the kids knew in advance not to ask for anything. If it was a “buy” day, they knew to bring their money because they’d be allowed to make purchases. That way, they weren’t constantly setting their hearts on objects and expecting treats. Setting expectations in advance can be a great teaching tool.

Expectations should also be clear at home. In our house, respect is the number one rule. My kids (usually–but not today, apparently!) know to begin their requests with “Please may I have…” or “Thank you for…”

Each member of my family must follow the respect rule, even the parents. I’ve sent myself to my room before. It wasn’t the punishment my kids thought it was–I think I pulled out a book–but it did show my kid that respect is something that everyone should give. Even Mommy.

Rule #2: Serve others–and make it fun.

I know. This one sounds like a sermon, but really, kids are pretty eager to serve other people when they’re young (unless it involves chores and Mom). One year at Christmastime, we passed a tree in the mall called “The Giving Tree,” decorated with ornaments of children who needed gifts that year. My daughter asked what it was, and I told her (a complicated task, considering that I had to explain why Santa brought some kids gifts, and not others). She was quiet for a long time. Finally she said, “Can we give them the money from my piggy bank? I don’t really need it.” We didn’t follow through with it–we made if a family project instead–but for that moment, she stepped out of herself and her wants, in exchange for someone else’s needs and wants. Hurray!

It doesn’t have to involve a huge sacrifice, though. It can be fun. My six year-old niece decided to draw pictures and set up an art stand outside her house. She sold her pictures to neighbors for 3 cents each and gave the money to Primary Children’s Hospital. It was a great way to combine something she loved with helping others (and frankly, her mom didn’t have to find a place for all her art. Definitely a win-win).

Oh, yeah. One more thing. My kids love making thank-you notes. It’s a good way to help them recognize the efforts of others, but still have fun creating something. And what grandparent can’t resist a thank-you note with greasy fingerprints and baby slobber all over it? I mean, come on. Priceless.

Rule #3: Teach them about the less privileged.

I talk about this a little in my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, but I worked in a Romanian orphanage for a few months in college. The children I served were the ones with physical and mental disabilities, the ones no one would ever consider adoptable. They were ignored all day until meal time, during which they had food shoved down their throats in record time. They were never potty trained, and since the orphanage couldn’t afford diapers, the orphans did their business in wadded-up pieces of clothing stuffed into their pants. I look at my own children and think, “Wow, kid. You’ve got it so good.”

I remember groaning at my dad’s “When I was a boy” stories. (How can the way to school be uphill, both ways? And how did you have snow? You lived in southern California…) But now that I have my own family, I understand why Dad was so insistent. My sisters and I grew up in better circumstances than my parents did, and my kids are living better than I ever did.

With such a limited perspective, it’s nearly impossible for kids to understand why they need to be grateful when they can’t see past their own circumstances. Maybe it’s time to carry on the “When I was a girl” stories–except they’ll start with “When I was a student, I lived in Romania…”

Well, there you go–three powerful rules for raising a grateful child. I promise to follow up on this subject and let you know how it goes. Do you have a good anti-spoiling idea? Please post it! Thanks for following.