What I Learned from Agents’ Day – Part Two

For Part Two covering a summary of the fantastic SCBWI Oklahoma Fall conference held earlier this month all about agents, we move on to the Agent Panel and the Query Letter Panel with our agents in attendance:

Natalie Lakosil from the Bradford Literary Agency

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Emily Mitchell from the Wernick & Pratt Agency

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Danielle Smith from the Foreward Literary Agency

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For the Agent Panel, the agents were asked a series of questions by our moderator, Helen Newton, our new Assistant Regional Advisor. Here are a few of them and the agents’ overall responses. You may find some of their answers surprising.

Question 1: Do you visit an author’s web presence?

Natalie and Danielle both said that they did and that having a web presence was important. Emily labeled herself the Luddite of the group and said it was less important to her, but that an author should feel comfortable with it.

A word of caution was mentioned about what you post online, especially regarding negative experiences of submissions and attitudes towards agents. One of the panel members received a submission from a writer who had blasted her online. Needless to say that was a pass. It was also recommended that you NOT discuss details of your submission process online. Similar to Fight Club, the first rule of Sub Club is you don’t talk about it outside of your group of writer friends…and then only in private.

Question 2: Does an agent ever have something to do with promotion?

No. They don’t.

What?

That’s right. They don’t help you set up book signings or plan out your book promotion.

Are you kidding? We really need to learn how to do that stuff on our own?

Not completely. The in-house publicist should help you with that. As budgets for marketing and publicity have notoriously been on the decline, it would benefit you to learn some basics. However, you won’t be entirely alone. Your agent can work as a go-between with the publicist or help you navigate the crazy world of promotions, but that doesn’t actually fall under their job description. The level to which they provide this help may depend on their own comfort level with PR. Just as some agents are more editorial than others, some agents enjoy or have more experience with the PR side of things than others. That is definitely something to consider when selecting an agent for representation.

Am I the only one totally surprised by this?

Now I understand why you may want to hire a publicist as well. So interesting.

Question 3: What if you don’t like a work by a client, what do you recommend?

Emily stated that she didn’t have to love everything a client produced, but she did have to think each was sellable. If not, then maybe the author should fix it or shelve it. Either way, it would be time for a discussion. Her advisory role kicks in during those situations.

Danielle had a similar response and added that she would ask the writer what else they had to offer.

Natalie stated that it’s a mistake to think everything you write is publishable or you’re a failure.

That is something we should all keep in mind.

Let’s move on to the Query Letter Panel.

Here are some great suggestions made by the agents after our moderator, Helen, read aloud from the anonymous letters submitted for scrutiny:

  • Too much detail. This was the main complaint. So many query letters were filled with extraneous details of either the story or of the writer’s background.

Emily suggested that you pitch yourself smartly.

Danielle boiled this down to a formula that her fellow Foreword Literary agent, Pam van Hylckama Vlieg, came up with: “the hook, the book, and the cook”. Get the reader’s interest with the hook, tell them a little bit more in the next paragraph with the book, but leave them wanting to read more, and finish with a brief paragraph about you with relevant facts about your writing experience and publishing credits.

  • Lot of plot, not a lot of action. Writers spent too much time explaining plot instead of giving the overall view of the action of the story. The agents suggested studying the flap copy of many books to get the feel for how to write a better query.
  • Don’t include market research for FICTION. I think that’s self-explanatory.
  • Don’t include word count near the beginning. If your word count is on the large side, seeing this right away might stop an agent from reading on further. Your goal is always to get them to want to read more. If they are enticed by the hook and book description, they may overlook a word-heavy manuscript and still request more.
  • Include personal connection. If you’ve met the agent, make sure to mention this in the introduction. And don’t lie and say that you’ve met the agent when you haven’t; it’s very unprofessional.

So many great ideas came out of that panel!

It was fantastic. I hope everyone learned something new. I know I did.

What I Learned from Agents’ Day – Part One

Our local SCBWI chapter really outdid itself with this year’s fall conference, otherwise known as AGENTS’ DAY.  We heard from three dynamic agents who are actively acquiring and who, during the query letter panel, offered their collective knowledge and helpful suggestions that gave all in attendance unique insight into the publishing industry. That alone was more than worth the price of admission, and yet there was more. Two fine local literary stars shared their personal publishing journeys. Both were inspiring, reminding us all to keep pursuing our dreams.

Keynote speaker Hannah Harrison

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What I learned from Hannah’s talk:

Hannah started out the day with the story of her incredible journey to publication. She’s so amazingly talented you wouldn’t think the road would’ve been arduous at all, but she revealed many surprises in her talk entitled The Least Efficient Way to Get Published. One recurring theme that resonated with me was how often she got in her own way. Not following up on leads – when houses asked her to keep her work on file, she only updated every few years instead of every few months. Not having a strong web presence – she digressed from her talk to emphasize that all artists should have a website. Not submitting, not submitting, not submitting! (She only submitted her manuscript two times in five years.) She turned down an offer of representation because she didn’t think she needed an agent. Her reasoning? Illustrator Kevin Hawkes said her work spoke for itself. Hannah had apprenticed under Hawkes and had helped with some illustration work for the book Handel, Who Knew What He Liked. In the end, she realized she did need an agent. We’ll go more in-depth into Hannah’s story when she stops by for an interview in a few weeks.

Takeaways:

  • “If it doesn’t mean anything to you, it’s not going to mean something to anyone else.”
  • You have to be your work’s strongest advocate and submit it when it’s ready. And keep submitting. As good as it may be, it won’t get published on its own.
Special Guest Speaker Gwendolyn Hooks

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What I learned from Gwen’s talk:

Gwen was inspired to become a writer after she saw a play that a relative had written. Then Gwen set off to do what she does best; educate herself. She joined several writing groups and attended conferences to learn how to be a writer. One early critique comment said her story “didn’t have any spark.” Gwen set off on a new quest – to find spark. She studied and wrote and improved, still she had moments of self-doubt. A friend called her one night with a fantastic idea and told her she had to write the story. Gwen told her she’d think about it. After doing her own research, she agreed the story needed to be told, but she thought, “I can’t write it; I’m not good enough.” Her friend was relentless in her insistence that Gwen had to be the one to write it. Gwen gave it a try, but still didn’t think it was right. She kept writing and rewriting until the spark appeared. The result of all this effort is the inspirational story of Vivien Thomas, the Man Who Saved the Blue Babies which will be published by Lee and Low in 2015.

Takeaways:

  • “If something is near and dear to your heart, it doesn’t belong in the drawer. Keep working on it.”
  • When a critique points out weaknesses in your writing, use these moments as learning opportunities and educate yourself to make your writing better.

The three agents :

Natalie Lakosil from the Bradford Literary Agency

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What I learned from Natalie’s talk:

Unlike most agents who arrive at their careers through alternate routes, Natalie knew she wanted to be an agent when she was thirteen years-old. She’s an editorial agent with a wide range of interests and a wide range of clients. She represents picture books to young adult to adult fiction, with an emphasis in children’s literature as her client list is 75% children’s publishing. She’s interested in historical, multicultural, sci-fi, fantasy, gritty, darker contemporary, horror, Victorian literature, magical realism, middle grade with heart, short quirky picture books (around 600 words), and adult romance.

What she’s looking for:

  • Voice. She described voice as being almost autobiographical. She said it has place, a taste of where you came from, what’s shaped you, the author in life. The best voices reveal a piece of the writer and are immediately connectable.
  • A desire to keep reading.

Takeaways:

  • Query hook: What is your book about? The hook should answer this question in a way that intrigues the reader in EXACTLY THREE SECONDS! That’s it.
  • Natalie’s Top Three Reasons to Say No: Poor pacing, unoriginal plot, and not connecting to voice.

To learn more about Natalie Lakosil, visit her agency website above.

Follow her blog Adventures in Agentland.

Follow Natalie on Twitter @Natalie_Lakosil.

Emily Mitchell from the Wernick & Pratt Agency

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What I learned from Emily’s talk:

Agents no longer need to live in New York City to be in the heart of the publishing world. Emily works from home, like all the agents at her agency. They Skype frequently and physically meet at the office several times a year. This way, she gets to live in Massachusetts, send her kids off to school, and then attend to her agenting work. This mostly entails sitting in front of one type of computer screen or another and reading; reading and thinking. She began her agenting career at the Sheldon Fogelman Agency where Mo Willems was one of the agency’s first clients. They tried for over two years to sell Don’t Let the Pigeon Ride the Bus. It was something new and didn’t have much of a story arc; no one knew what to do with it, yet they never gave up on it. That’s persistence.

Emily firmly believes in the rules of grammar and feels writers should, too. She wants to trust you know what you’re doing. “Don’t give me a reason as a reader not to trust you.” This is where grammar and usage come into play.

What she’s looking for:

  • Voice
  • Authority
  • Pragmatism
  • Flexibility

Somebody who loves the work, who gets the process, who loves creating.

She read from a few books she doesn’t represent, but wished she did including Prisoner 88 by Leah Pileggi, Counting by Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan, and Clementine by Sara Pennypacker.

Takeaways:

  • Not everyone can be a best-selling writer. Be okay with being a mid-list writer.
  • Nobody is too good for an editor.

To learn more about Emily Mitchell, visit her agency’s website above.

Follow her blog emilyreads.

Follow Emily on Twitter @emilyreads

Danielle Smith from the Foreward Literary Agency

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What I learned from Danielle’s talk:

Danielle is also part of an agency where everyone works from home. Foreword Literary is a new agency that just opened in March of 2013 servicing children’s through adult books. It’s a hybrid agency that marries traditional publishing with digital publishing possibilities. Danielle started her agent journey as a popular children’s book review blogger at There’s a Book. Her award-winning site is still held in high regard, and continues on even as she pursues her agenting career. Danielle represents picture books, early readers and chapter books, middle grade, and the rare young adult. She has a soft spot for middle grade. She has her two kids who help her review books on her blog read manuscripts with her when they come in.

What she’s looking for:

Takeaways:

  • Make sure you’re always reading. It can help you in your craft.
  • Have kids read your work as a litmus test.

To learn more about Danielle Smith, visit her agency’s website above.

Follow her blog There’s a Book.

Follow Danielle on Twitter @thefirstdaughter.

Thanks so much to all of our speakers for being so generous with their time and knowledge. It was a delightful
weekend.

In Part Two, I’ll be sharing some of the nuggets of wisdom the agents shared during the afternoon panels.

Stay tuned!

DISCLAIMER: If you are interested in submitting to any of these fine agents, please be sure to visit their respective agency websites and follow their submission guidelines. They mean business, and if you’re serious about writing, you should, too.

Exciting News

This past week has been quite exciting here. This is just a quick post to update you on a few of the highlights.

One of the most exciting things that made my week spectacular was when I received this tweet after I posted my review of See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles:

Jo Knowles Tweet

WOW!!!

I never thought in a million years an author I read would read my review of her book, love it, AND then pass it on for others to read! Such a fabulous thing to do. Could I love her even more? I think not.

If that wasn’t enough to make a girl’s week, I escaped to the Oklahoma countryside for the weekend and stayed at a beautiful bed & breakfast with my favorite writing people for the Agent Day conference. I had the pleasure of meeting KT Hanna for the first time, face to face – what a wonderful hugger! (I also got to see more pics of her new baby, the little cutie with those adorably squishy cheeks.) I also met Heather Cashman and Sarah Crespo who’d traveled with KT all the way from Wichita, Kansas, to attend out Agent Day event. It was so great to meet these online friends in person.

I will be happy to share the plethora of information I learned about agents and the world of agenting with you all very soon. The lovely Hannah Harrison, who gave the keynote speech, will also be stopping by for an interview in the near future to expand on her fantastic and inspiring presentation.

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Front view of the Statehood Inn in Chandler, OK
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There was a beautiful wrap-around front porch, complete with rocking chairs and one very curious cat with big green eyes.
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Inside the kitchen at the Statehood Inn. Love all of that light!

The only drawback to the rural location of the conference was poor WiFi service, but frankly, it was nice to be out of touch for a few days. Upon my return home, I discovered some exciting news waiting for me in my inbox.  As some of you may know, I gave an interview myself recently for Jenny Perinovic at The Great Noveling Adventure. Well, I had so much fun doing the interview that I applied for one of the openings they had on their blog. And guess what? They invited me to become part of their team! Of course I said yes. So exciting! I’ll be posting once or twice a month on whatever topic I’d like. Artistic freedom? Yes, please.

I’m still recovering from an amazing weekend and all of this great news, but I wanted to make sure I shared it with you. Big things are coming, I can just feel it. Stay tuned to enjoy the ride.

My First Publishing Credit – And Other News

  • Exciting news here on the blog. One of my recent posts was accepted by a regional paper! Yes, my first publishing credit, woohoo! It’s all thanks to my folks passing along my story, How a Few Days in the Country Almost Killed Me to a local editor at the Ozark County Times. She liked it so much, she asked me to edit it down by a third so it could fit into their e-news format. I did what she asked and it appeared in this past Wednesday’s edition, along with a link back to my blog. Not bad, eh?

Here’s the article as it appears online:

Country Boy to London, City Girl to Country

  • A brief update on our upcoming spectacular SCBWI OK Fall event, AGENT DAY:  There are just a handful of spaces left! So if you’re thinking about attending this outstanding event, sign up now or you’ll wish you had. I’m so excited that some of my online friends have already signed up and I’ll get to meet them in person. To learn more details and about the participating agents and guest speakers, see my previous post here.
  • On that exciting note, I take a short leave of absence to the land of mild weather and eternal sunshine to attend the SCBWI LA Summer Conference. After a brief hiatus, in which I absorb all the literary goodness, I will be ready to return and share my newly acquired knowledge. In the mean time, I thought I’d share with you the series of posts inspired by last year’s conference. This may give you a hint as to what kind of delights I will be sharing with you in the month ahead.

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What Makes a Story Timeless? Emotional Truth  A post that explores how to connect through emotions.

Are You a Premature Querier?  A post that explores when to know if you’re really ready to send out that manuscript.

Markets and Trends; Don’t let them run your writing life, but don’t run away from them either. A post that explains why it’s important to be aware of trends while at the same time writing what you love.

A Brief Discussion About V-O-I-C-E Editors and Agents sound off on what this elusive quality is and how/if it can be attained.

Read, Read, READ!!! Various conference speakers discuss why it’s so important to read if you want to be a good writer.

Pay Attention! How being aware of our surroundings can benefit us as writers.

Things Beginning Writers Don’t Know Well, that one is pretty self-explanatory.

Enjoy!

Recap of our Fantastical SCBWI OK Spring Conference – Part Two

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First off, I want to apologize for leaving you all in suspense much longer than I had anticipated. Shortly after writing Part One, I came down with some form of spring plague that left me miserable and bed-ridden. I love ending a post on a cliff-hanger, but more than a week is torturous. Although my family, who had to endure my wretched state of being and constant whining, were probably tortured more than all of you.

Back to our regularly scheduled program!

So, after lunch, where my table dined with the lovely Claire Evans (and we learned a little bit about her book preferences; she loves books with convoluted family histories, books where the setting is really important and becomes almost like a character itself, and books about sports), I made it to the illustrators’ showcase room and had a few minutes to peruse through some of the portfolios. Always a fun thing to do. The range of art and talent was incredible.

I made it back in the nick of time to see Katie Bignell, Assistant Editor of Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Katie BignellBooks, take the stage. The title of her presentation was the Best Practices for Writing Your Best Picture Book. She gave us a detailed hand out so we could concentrate more on what she was saying than on taking copious notes. (I still took notes, but that’s just how I help my brain process information. Super Nerd.)

She talked about the best words, the best places, the best characters, and the best stories.

When talking specifically about the best words, she said:

What if Sendak had said…

‘Let the wild rumpus party start’?

How would that have changed the story? Use the best words.

Katie has an unusual background for an editor. She is an accomplished dancer and has studied all kinds of dance for many years. She actually put some of her skills to good use, keeping us awake after lunch by showing us how movement was important. She also said writers should give illustrators movement to illustrate in their stories. Her dancing talent shown most brightly when she discussed rhythm. As a dancer, this was her favorite part of picture books. She said something so lovely that I would never forget it:

“By the very nature of our beating hearts, we are hard-wired to crave rhythm.”

Ah! I could’ve just died that was so fantastic.

Isn’t that just gorgeous? And true?

Who hasn’t seen a child move with abandon to music – before they grow up and become aware/self-conscious of how others see them when they dance?

She said because of this innate sense of rhythm, we can also tell when something is out of rhythm. That is why you should read your book out loud over and over. Have several friends read it out loud as well. Make note of what what sounds good to your ear and what doesn’t.  Make note of when your readers trip over words. Revise it until it sings.

So hard to believe this was one of Katie’s first presentations. She was amazing.

To learn more about Katie Bignell and her imprint, go to Facebook and like her imprint page, Katherine Tegen Books. Katherine Tegen Books has also just started a Tumblr page here. You can also follow Katie on Twitter here.

Our final speaker was literary agent Karen Grencik from Red Fox Literary. Karen talked to us about rejection; something every writer Karen Grencikgets to know intimately. Karen was a very passionate speaker who truly identified with writers and their struggles. It was surprising and refreshing to see someone who felt our misery and took it to heart. You just wanted to hug her.

She told us that when she started out, “I was as scared as you.” In the beginning, there was no one to teach her how to be an agent. She said she made every mistake you hear about at conferences, including chasing speakers out to their cars and asking them to read pages.

Ouch!

Then she started learning. And people were kind to her and forgiving of her earlier missteps. And she kept learning. Now her little boutique agency (that she runs with former editor-turned-agent Abigail Samoun) is really taking off.

Karen gave us an extensive hand out on reasons for rejections (101 reasons to be exact, and they were divided by reading level – picture books, chapter books, middle grade, young adult – fantastic stuff!) and she went through several of the big ones in detail. I’ll share one reason with you here:

#1 reason for rejection: Too quiet to compete or to stand out in today’s competitive market.

What was Karen’s answer to this? Move on and let your heart determine what you write! You’re going to find so many reasons for rejection out there, so you’re either going to quit or keep going.

If writing is your passion, stick with it and learn your craft. Karen did. Who cares how many mistakes you make or how long it takes you to get there?  Don’t pay attention to anybody else’s timeline for success. Yours is the only one that matters and it takes as long as it takes.

To learn more about Karen Grencik, check out her agency website here or follow her on Facebook here.

Next was the Speaker’s Panel where we heard their responses to our pitches. All were read out anonymously, although I did recognize several from our Pitch Clinic that we held over on Twitter prior to the conference. One pitch from the Pitch Clinic received three thumbs up from the panel. That was very exciting! (Congrats! You know who you are, you tyrannical squirrel-lover, you!)

Final announcements came after that where the winners of Best in Show and the Nita Buckley Scholarship fund were awarded.

For the Best in Show, all of the illustrator portfolios were judged by our speakers and the winner…Lauren Juda! She won a free registration to our Agent Day Conference coming up this October, which is a really exciting event!

For Agent Day, we have three agents speaking (and critiquing first pages) along with a special keynote speaker. The agents are: Natalie Fischer Lakosil from the Bradford Agency, Danielle Smith from the Foreward Agency, and Ann Behar from the Scovil Galen Gosh Agency. Right now, registration is only open to SCBWI members, but registration opens up to everyone July 1st. Stayed tuned for more details!

The Nita Buckley Scholarship had so many exciting entries that the  judges decided to give out a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place award. Make sure to look for a write-up about Nita and this scholarship in the next SCBWI bulletin.

  • The 3rd place honor of a free registration to the Fall Agent Day Conference  went to Patricia Harvey(woohoo!).
  • The 2nd place honor of a free registration to the 2014 SCBWI OK Spring conference went to Regina Garvie. (These first two ladies were seated at my table. It was very exciting!)
  • And the 1st place prize of $1500 toward the cost of the SCBWI LA Summer conference went to Brenda Maier. (Brenda is such a lovely and talented young woman. This will be her first LA conference and I know she’s really excited!)

Congratulations to all of the winners!

What an excellent way to end the conference…although some of us didn’t quite end the evening just then. We headed out to a local eatery for dinner with the speakers to unwind and to take over the establishment that wasn’t quite prepared to be completely invaded. They couldn’t fit us all at one table or even inside the building. Here are a few pics of our fine folks kicking back after a day of literary camaraderie. Thanks so much to everyone who made this conference possible and to our dynamic leader, Anna Myers, to whom we all owe so much and without whom this conference wouldn’t be what it is today. We love you, Anna!

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