Category Archives: advice

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!

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.


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?


“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.


Audio book ideas

As some readers might remember from past blog posts, my in-laws live in coastal Maine, which is about a 7-hour drive from NYC. Usually, we leave right after the boys wake up and arrive mid-afternoon. However, we’re going up next weekend, and to maximize our time, we’re attempting a night drive next Friday night. We’ve never done this before, but the boys are solid sleepers, and after a full week of camp they’re typically knocked out by Friday evening. So, I’m hopeful they’ll conk out before we hit Connecticut and stay that way!

Okay, what does this have to do with books? Well, typically when we drive up to Maine I get about a half-hour of radio in before the boys demand a DVD, and so most of the entertainment on the trip consists of me listening to the audio of their movie from the back seat. It’s a slightly surreal experience–I could probably recite the dialog of THE LEGO MOVIE and DESPICABLE ME before I’d even seen either movie.

But for the night drive, movies will be shut off by nightfall, and I figure the radio will be too noisy or distracting for the boys. And while they tend to snooze whenever we put on dub or reggae, I’m worried that might be a little sleep-inducing for the driver, too. So it dawned on me–here’s a perfect chance to listen to an audio book! And yet, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit, I’ve never done an audio book before. Whenever I’m alone in the car, I’m a music guy–either I tune in to the radio or load up the ipod with something new.

So, any suggestions for a good listen? Any readers that I should look for or avoid if I want to stay awake but keep the boys asleep? I was thinking of downloading GIRL ON A TRAIN, since I haven’t read it yet–has anyone listened to it and can recommend? Thanks in advance for the feedback!

Unexpected authors

You know how I love to inspire our blog readers with success stories. After all these years, I still enjoy learning about how writers began their publishing careers because unlike doctors and lawyers and the like which require an advance degree and extensive training, writers can pursue their craft from anywhere at any time.

I was reminded of this from reading a few relevant stories recently. Publisher’s Weekly has a series called Flying Starts where they interview various (published) writers who share their stories of getting started.

So, speaking of doctors, this Flying Start looks at the debut of Pennsylvania surgeon Ilene Wong (pen name I.W. Gregorio). She fit her writing into her schedule in blocks while she worked full-time and her first novel about an intersex teen was recently published by Balzer + Bray, a division of HarperCollins. A dream come true for her!

MOSQUITOLAND is a recent YA novel by David Arnold that got a ton of great reviews and attention, and the author talks about how he was a freelance musician and stay-at-home dad before he wrote this book. How cool is that?

My own client, A.J. Hartley, is a renowned Shakespeare professor in his day job who in his other life writes highly commercial fiction across a myriad of categories. And Deborah Lytton was an actress and musician turned lawyer before she became a children’s author.

These stories give me hope that if you are destined to become a published author, you can achieve your goals no matter what else you are doing in your life. So, soldier on, keep writing and persevering and you will find your way. If you have any great publishing stories to share here, please do so in the comments.



As you all know, we’ve been pushing the whole build-your-platform-through-social-media idea pretty much relentlessly since grumpy cat memes and the Kardashians became a thing.  We’ve also suggested that understanding how social media works and knowing how to use it properly (for good, not evil) is essential.  We’ve seen how often it can backfire and how damaging the repercussions can be.

That was brought home to me this week by two separate “#Ask___” Twitter events.  First, E.L. James had to deal with responses that ranged from mildly sarcastic to outright insulting when she agreed to participate in an online chat to promote her latest iteration of 50 Shades.  Then, in a very different arena, presidential candidate Bobby Jindal’s #AskBobby hashtag elicited some pretty rude commentary about the Louisiana governor’s policies and even personal life and left a lot of people wondering if someone so clueless about how Twitter works could actually be a good president.

What’s amazing about both of these situations is that these are folks who should know better—or at least their handlers and p.r. people should.  The social media universe is mostly a Hobbesian place—all cynicism, righteous anger, and meanspiritedness—where moderation in opinions or dialogue is in very, very short supply.  And, those who are out there promoting themselves, their work, or a cause, need to figure out how not to fall victim to the pitchfork wielding mobs (metaphorically speaking, of course).  So authors need to beware.  In order to reap the benefits of an effective social media presence, you need to understand the potential pitfalls and be thoughtful about how to avoid them.  Like any tool, this one can help build or destroy.

What useful things have you learned from your experiences on social media?



What I’ve Learned as a Writer Working at a Literary Agency: The Essential Elements of a Pitch

On the last day of my MFA program, I attended a lecture about how to secure and work with an agent. The lecture was very informative and covered a lot of what I’ve learned since starting to work at an agency; however, as a writer, I wanted to know more about query letters. She didn’t quite get into the importance of pitching your novel. She merely said, “write a short synopsis.” This was so vague! How short is short? What details should you give? What does an agent need to know about your novel, and what can you leave out? Luckily, this got me thinking, and I made a list of the items that I want to see when reading a pitch in a query letter.

Main character(s) – You should include your protagonist(s) and antagonist(s), along with their roles in the novel.

Relative age – Whether directly stated or implied through action/conflict/setting of the story.

Genre – This can be stated before you pitch your novel. You can say it directly (e.g. “In this fantasy novel…”), or you can imply it in the pitch (e.g. “Jamie wants only to be king, but can he defeat the Lord of the Dragons?”). Just make sure it’s clear somewhere in the query letter.

Inciting event – What starts the conflict of the novel?

An idea of the direction in which the plot goes – What can I expect to read about?

Promise of emotional payout – Probably the most important to make sure you’re including. Why should I care about this novel? What can I expect to feel? Though, this should NOT be directly stated (e.g. “You’ll cry when you find out how his daughter was murdered.”). You should imply it (e.g. “When his daughter is sacrificed by his religious leader, he has to choose between loyalty to the religion that will make him king or vengeance.”).

You do not have explain the conclusion of the book—this isn’t a true synopsis, but a pitch. You want to use the query letter to draw your reader in and make them want to read more. If you spoil the ending, what’s the point?

What do you think? Are there any other essential elements that will make a pitch perfect?


Lessons from a ghostwriter

The work of a writer can take on many forms. Whether it’s articles, nonfiction, short stories, fiction or some combination of all of the above (thinking of Stephen King, Ann Pratchett, our own David Morrell and many others). But I think it’s safe to say all writers do one thing over anything else – they write.

So I found this article in PW interesting as it is written by a ghostwriter or collaborator who had worked with several authors on their own nonfiction projects, and then she decided to write her own memoir. It’s a bit of an unusual hybrid to have a ghostwriter penning a memoir, but it worked for her, and she learned some things about her own work from working with others. The lessons she offers are worth reading because she shares what she learned about her own life from writing about other people’s lives, and how she applied it to her own work.

I think there is takeaway here for writers in general. Especially her last idea that you are responsible for your own story, not other people’s reaction to it. That is such a widely applicable concept as a writer because so much uncertainty and fear exists in putting your work out there for others to see. Even seasoned authors sometimes complain that they can’t handle a bad review, or they feel terrible when they see a negative comment about their book on Amazon. We’re all just human, after all. And it takes real guts to write, and share your work with others. Bravo to Sarah Tomlinson and to all authors for overcoming their insecurities and sharing their work with the rest of us.

Take a look and see what you think. Any other tips you can share for improving your own writing from working with others?