Children’s Nonfiction

One of the more interesting and unexpected developments in the children’s book industry over the past year or two has been the rise of nonfiction. Publishers Weekly recently ran an article that surveys the landscape, and how publishers are having success with the kind of MG and YA nonfiction that, until recently, was thought to be going the way of the dodo. Who would have foreseen that in 2015, guidebooks for a video game would be bestsellers?

(Then again, if anyone can explain the appeal of Minecraft in the first place, please do!)

But while video game tie-ins are all well and good, obviously those are licensed products, and for the average children’s book writer, writing for a licensor is a hard gig to land. So how can writers take advantage of this NF “moment” and capitalize on the momentum?

Well, from my seat at the agent’s desk, books like BOMB and RAD AMERICAN WOMEN are the way to go–titles that can fit with Core Curriculum standards while having the kind of adult-market trade appeal that will catch parents’ eyes in the bookstore. Biographies are also attractive, particularly those of living figures (for instance, Hillary Clinton) recently deceased figures (Steve Jobs) or historical figures that are back in the zeitgeist (Alexander Hamilton). And if you’re a published adult writer whose book can be reworked for MG or YA, that’s a great way to further your reach, too.

I’ll also add that on the picture book end, nonfiction is in demand as well. Of course, the topics naturally skew younger than MG or YA–lots of animal stories and bios that can sidestep most controversy. Multicultural topics are also a plus at this level, as they can often be paired with the kind of highly imaginative artwork that editors love.

And here’s another plus on children’s NF–submission guidelines tend to be somewhat squishy. So while picture books submissions do require full text, often you can write longer than the 500-1,000 word limits that frustrate a lot of PB writers. And for MG and YA, my experience is that most editors will review a proposal in lieu of a full manuscript, and a fairly brief proposal at that.

So, for any children’s book writer who’s contemplating NF, this is the time to do it–and when you’ve got your MS or proposal together, send it to me!

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The book made me do it!

I walked out at lunch time on this scorching, humid day in New York City, and immediately felt like I was in a tropical jungle—only this was the concrete kind.  As I tried to get my errands done quickly so I could scurry back to the relative coolness of my portable air conditioner (my office windows are of a vintage that makes standard units impossible to install)Air Conditioner, I found myself thinking of literary jungle settings—Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Lily King’s Euphoria, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, etc.  In part, this had to do with the sliced mango stand I ran across on the corner of Broadway and 14th Street…but I digress.

Back in the office, while eating my chilled pea and mint soup, I happened upon this piece in Galleycat about Riverhead soliciting essays for a collection about “how Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous memoir [Eat Pray Love] served as inspiration for readers to go on life-changing adventures” and, having just been thinking about her recent novel, I had one of those moments where I felt the universe was trying to tell me something.

I decided that what it was telling me was not to pack up my bags and head for the Amazon (where Jane will be in a month or so, btw), but that I should do a blog post about what books have inspired us to do things.  For instance, reading Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak in high school made me want to learn Russian in the worst way.  And, so I took three years of this beautiful, complicated language while in college (I remember nothing, in case you’re wondering).

It’s a great exercise, in my opinion, to consider how books have influenced our actions.  For those of us who are obsessed with literary works, it’s an exercise that can turn up some fascinating (and maybe disturbing) insights into our psyches.  So, have books influenced actions for you?  If so, what books…and what actions?

Just Breathe

 

Thrillerfest, the International Thriller Writers’ annual convention, was held earlier this month and, as I’ve done each of the past several years, I participated in its event known as PitchFest. Over the course of two and a half hours, in a kind of agent-author speed-dating setup, I spoke with nearly twenty aspiring thriller writers for an allotted span of ten minutes each.

I heard some good pitches, and asked several writers to send me their manuscripts. I’d gotten lucky at PitchFest two years ago, when I signed up the French Canadian Secret Service member Simon Gervais. He had a crackling idea for a spy thriller—and who better to write it? That manuscript, THE THIN BLACK LINE, was ultimately acquired by Lou Aronica of The Story Plant, and it is now burning up the amazon charts, particularly in its Kindle edition. Since then I am eager to get to PitchFest each July to find out what other promising debut writers I might meet, because—you never know.

But this year I heard something that left me a bit rattled. Sure, there’s a lot of tension behind  the scenes at a make-it-or-break-it event like this, where an author has everything riding on the impression he or she will make, and on whether they have developed and presented the right “elevator pitch.” Many of them have paid dearly to take time off work and to self-finance a trip to New York for the chance to pitch their big project. This was the first time, however, that I heard that some attendees were so nervous just before PitchFest that they were hyperventilating, and that some were even close to the point of passing out! Yikes. If that means we agents have a certain power, I don’t like that kind of power. I don’t want to be a figure who is capable of putting someone into a state of such distress at the prospect of facing my yea or nay.

We’re all in this together. We need each other, and we agents are only as good as the writers we represent. Without our writers, we would have no business; we would not be making a living; and I, for one, would be missing out on the deep and nourishing connection I enjoy with the authors I’m lucky enough to claim as my clients.

So if you are a writer attending a similar conference, trust in your own talent, and know that you’ll be at your best if you can try to adopt a Zen attitude and relax. We agents are there because we are eager to meet you, and because we don’t want to let The Big One slip through our fingers. Together, we can make it work.

4

Vacation, all I ever wanted…

It’s summer time, and you know what that means: vacation.  Vacation is one of my favorite things, because I love traveling, but it’s also when I read the most non-DGLM titles in a row.  I try to keep up with personal reading throughout the year—as an agent you need to know the market—but it’s hard to do when the metaphorical reading pile is in constant danger of toppling and authors are eagerly awaiting word. If I read a book for pleasure, I have to tackle at least 10 or so work projects before I feel like I can justify dipping into anything else for fun.  Otherwise the guilt stifles my enjoyment too much.

sorrento-mare1But on vacation I can read anything I want.  And this year I’m heading to Sorrento to sit on a balcony sipping wine and reading and staring at the Gulf of Naples.  Now that everything’s booked, I have to turn to the important decision: what to read.  I’m trying to limit the physical books I bring to two, promising myself I can buy more books at the airport or in Italy if I really want.

So I’m welcoming suggestions.  The only rules are that they must be available at short notice in trade paperback (my format of choice for personal reading), they should be fiction or highly engaging and easily digestible nonfiction, and they can’t be on the DGLM client list.  Ideas?

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Stories Behind Stories

Every project has a tale–a story behind the story–and when I talk with potential clients, I always ask what brought them to the book they wish to write. The answers are often remarkable: I can only give a handful of examples (though this is a post that could go on and on) but learning the provenance of a given project is part of what I love about my job.

When his grandmother gave him a vintage typewriter that had once belonged to a distant, long-dead cousin, journalist Bill Lascher had no idea that it was a gift that would change his life. As it happened, the cousin had been Mel Jacoby, a dashing young war correspondent for Time Magazine who covered the opening days of WWII in the Pacific Theatre. Along with his new bride–a pioneering female correspondent named Annalee Whitmore—the newlyweds dodged Japanese bombs in the Chinese capital of Chongqing, narrowly escaped the fall of Manila, hunkered down in Corregidor with General MacArthur, and reported on the soldiers fighting desperately in Bataan. As Bill researched the history of this long-lost cousin, he became convinced that he had to write the story Mel Jacoby did not live to complete. A DANGER SHARED will be published by William Morrow in 2016.

In a similar vein, another of my clients, writer and scholar Diane Simmons, inherited a trove of yellowed, perfumed letters from a close family friend. When–a bit reluctantly–she dug into them, she found a story that beggared belief, an epistolary chronicle of a charming serial bigamist and his nine wives. She used that remarkable tale as the centerpiece of an examination of the changing roles of women before and after WWII. THE COURTSHIP OF EVA ELDRIDGE is narrative history and a detective story rolled into one.

When first I talked with her, psychologist and corporate coach Michelle Brody described the illustrated relationship book she wanted to write; she’d developed an effective technique in her practice in which she literally drew a picture of each of the dozen fights that all couples have. (Turns out Tolstoy was wrong, that even unhappy families are pretty similar). Her concept struck me as brilliant–12 stick figure fights!– but tricky to execute. Michelle was not an artist herself, nor had she created a proposal, but she did have a vision for the book. After expressing my enthusiasm for STOP THE FIGHT, as well as options for how we might proceed, Michelle vanished. But when she returned, more than a year later, it was with a complete manuscript. She’d hired an artist and created precisely the book she envisioned, and that’s the book I sold. Take a look at her smart, funny, spot-on website www.Stopthefightbook.com.  I challenge you NOT to recognize yourself in one of these fights.

I’ll close with the story behind the story of one of my memoirist clients, Qais Akbar Omar, author of A Fort of Nine Towers, who started recording his recollections of growing up in war-torn Afghanistan as a way of shaking off the nightmares that plagued him. Although English was not his mother tongue (far from it; he’d taught himself English from appliance manuals in the wake of the American invasion) he found that writing in English offered him a degree of distance from the traumatic events he recounted. For weeks, he locked himself in his room in Kabul and wrote. When he emerged, he handed off the hundreds of pages he’d produced to a friend, Steve Landrigan, an American aid worker and former journalist. Landrigan quickly realized that the book Qais produced was something far more polished and profound than the typical writing-as-therapy. The men found their way to me because I’d worked with Naguib Mahfouz, one of Qais’s all-time-favorite authors. They sent me the full manuscript and I was thunderstruck.The book has now been published to great critical acclaim, in more than a dozen languages around the world.

I’d love to hear your stories behind your stories—what brought YOU to the tale you wish to tell?

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Fall fiction, and a few debut author stories

Not that I want to rush summer, which is my favorite time of year, but I did get a little excited when I saw this roundup of big fall fiction in Publisher’s Weekly, which really is right around the corner. Fall is always the time when big books are released, in both the nonfiction and fiction categories.

The list is pretty eclectic but the one common factor is that all the books are debuts. Someone took a chance and felt that these books could stand out in a very crowded and difficult marketplace. I’m always eager to get a sense of what publishers are excited about in terms of not only plots, but also writer backgrounds and pedigrees. Has their short fiction been previously published? Do they have an MFA from a prestigious program?

In the case of this list, it’s a mixed bag. There’s a lawyer from Reno, an MFA from NYU, and a former magazine book editor. But my favorite story is about an author who had been rejected by 60 agents (and that’s after getting her MFA from Columbia, people!) before sending her novel to a few independent publishing houses. Eight months later, a fellow student from Columbia was working as an editor at Soho Press and asked her if the manuscript was still available. INTO THE VALLEY by Ruth Gahm will be published this fall.

Check out all of these stories. They are interesting and fun, and look for the books this fall. If PW is profiling them, there’s a good chance at least a couple of them will do really well. Which ones do you want to read? Any other books you’re excited about for fall?

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“WORK all the time.”

I love Jack London. I love him because he struggled through life, never gave up, and got better because of it. He never begrudged life or nature for its callousness. He was never the type of writer who gave up after a single rejection, or even after a hundred. And more than that, when he did become successful, he never stopped working. Proof of that can be seen in his “Getting Into Print,” published in 1903, which you can read here.

There’s a lot to be said for the try and try and try method, but something I found fascinating about London’s efforts is that he continued to write new things. If he received a rejection, he moved onto the next project. His prolific nature and his ability to continue writing new projects when his old ones failed, allowed him to grow as a writer. Not that a single rejection means a your work is a failure, but if something is consistently not working, why dwell on it? Revise it, and in the mean time write something new. Most importantly, as London says, “And Work. Spell it in capital letters, WORK. WORK all the time.”

What more can you do?

How fast can you read?

There is SO much out there that I want to read and so little time to read it all. It’s one of the universe’s sick jokes. I thought Ken Kalfus summarized it perfectly in the beginning of this piece for the New Yorker.

So wouldn’t it be great if we could squeeze all that reading into our schedules? If we could read a page by just glancing at it? There’s no shortage of speed reading books and websites that claim to be able to drill this skill into you. And of course there are apps that help you speed read too.

A lot of these sources relay a lot of the same information. Focus and block out all distractions. Don’t read sentences more than once. User your peripheries and track your place with a finger or pointer. Don’t vocalize the words in your head, which I am pretty sure is impossible NOT to do.

These are all good tips, but do any of these sites offer any substantial improvement? While I can’t answer that definitively, I can point you to this Slate speed reading piece about the plausibility of speed reading and information retention rates.

So what do our readers think? Any tips you’d like to share?

Take the test here to see how you stack up. I got 567 wpm (and 3/3 answers). Challenge extended.

2

Learning about Middle Grade fiction

I have been agenting for a long time, and I’ve met a lot of interesting and wonderful writers and learned a great deal about different categories of fiction and nonfiction, what sells and what doesn’t.  But, I am always eager to learn new things.

Over the last several years we have all heard a great deal about Young Adult books and what seems to work and what doesn’t.  And we at DGLM represent a bunch of bestsellers in this category.  One of the interesting things in this category is the crossover market that has developed with books like THE HUNGER GAMES series and titles authored by John Green and James Dashner.  And I have been fortunate to represent a number of significant new YA authors.

When we were looking to choose a category for our next book club meeting, Jim McCarthy wisely came up with the concept of all of us reading a recently published Middle Grade book and I loved this idea as this is a category I am just now dipping my toe into.  The potential market is huge since the Harry Potter series put the genre on the map and obviously crossed over into an adult market.

RATSCALIBURTo prepare, I have studied the category a bit.  I know that the age range of readers is between 8 and 12 and the average length of books is 100 pages or less.  Here is a piece I found that clearly describes this category and its traditional market.

Middle Grade classics include the previously mentioned Harry Potter titles, Charlotte’s Web, Matilda and our own Chris Grabenstein’s Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and The Island of Dr. Libris.

So I chose as my book club title (with Jim’s help) Ratscalibur by Josh Lieb.  And my thought is that I will read this and then give it to my seven-year-old granddaughter, Elena, who is a terrific reader, to see what she thinks.  Stay tuned for our thoughts.

I’d also love to know what your experiences are with Middle Grade and what you (and your children) have enjoyed reading in the category.

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Powerless

Yesterday, July 16th, 2015, will forever be known as The Day We Had No Internet and No Telephones for More than Half of the Day.

It was very dramatic.

Or was it?

While of course in the modern world in which we live and work, having access to the internet, to emails and the office phone line is very important to carry on business as usual. And it wouldn’t be ideal if this happened all the time or even frequently. But on a quiet Thursday in the dead middle of summer, it wasn’t so bad. In fact, a lot of us here at DGLM were musing on how productive we were without the distractions of constant emails pinging in.

We also had time to catch up on submissions, read manuscripts, vet contracts and edit proposals—things usually reserved for after work hours. The office was calm and quiet…and got very clean and organized, too. When service returned later in the afternoon, all was abuzz and it was a flurry of activity to catch up on those missed hours, and still, productivity and focus remained high.

Maybe it was just the blessing in disguise that we needed, or maybe there’s something to be said about turning off the notifications, closing the browser windows and minimizing email tabs for set periods of time throughout the day. Though all this communication and information technology does have immense benefits in the long run, going back to “the old ways” once in a while certainly doesn’t hurt, and even offers some real perspective.

(and now you know why the blog postings you were dying for yesterday never appeared!)