Middle Grade? Teen? Where Do You Draw the Line?

The best books start here.

Category: Writer’s Toolbox

sand_drawingIf you have never participated in the Twitter feed #kidlitchat, you really ought to give it a shot. The discussions are always about smart topics and draw a wide range of commentators—both veterans and newbie writers, editors, agents, and the occasional gibbering weirdo. (I’m looking at you, @chrisrichman.) The tweets ratchet up the Twitter client in a fast and sometimes furious stream, so quick as to be nearly unreadable. Trying to follow the many threads of conversation is like watching three hundred tennis matches held simultaneously on the same court—there’s no way to keep the threads separate, and yet … you try anyway.

Last Tuesday night’s chat was a gem. You can read the transcript here, but the gist of the discussion was this: What qualities make a manuscript middle grade instead of … [more]

TypewriterIn my younger and more vulnerable years, I was given a piece of advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. (And no, it is not to shamelessly rip off The Great Gatsby‘s opening line; that I do all on my own.) The advice was this: Write a thousand words of your work-in-progress each day. No more, no less. Just a cool grand.

Here’s the why of the advice:

  • A thousand words is a fair bit, to be sure. But it’s not so much that you can’t see the end of your target when you sit down to begin. It’s not so much that you can get lost in those thousand words. It’s not so much that you’ll have to set aside hours and hours of your day that really should

twentyI was fortunate enough last summer to speak with Bruce Coville at an SCBWI event in Orlando. (He’s an amazing speaker—truly amazing—and if you catch word that he is speaking somewhere, by all means go and see him.) Bruce mentioned something he called “The Rule of Twenty.” He doesn’t recall where he picked it up—a business article? a self-help book? a primer on original thinking?—but wherever it came from, I have since relied on it and relied on it often.

What is it? Put most simply, it is this: It is only when one reaches the twentieth or so idea that one starts entering the realm of the truly original idea.

The first five or ten? Those are the obvious ones that the brain goes to along its well-traveled paths. Most people’s heads … [more]

Who Knew Chewy was a South Paw?

Now THAT’S a pitch!

I recently judged a contest for the blog at QueryTracker.net, a great site for writers at the query stage looking for more information about potential agents (and where my client Cole Gibsen first learned about me). I agreed to help out and, seeking something that would be both 1) easy on me and 2) beneficial to writers, I decided to limit the entries to pitches of 25 words or less. To see the winners and more details about the contest, head HERE.

I can already hear many of you groaning. If boiling  down a story into two or three paragraphs for a query is like stubbing your toe, then fitting an entire novel into 25 words is like getting a 50 ton anvil dropped on your cat. You know, … [more]

(First entry in an occasional series in which we bandy about useful terms for the industry. Want to contribute your own? Please email your entries to podcast@upstartcrowliterary.com. This first is inspired by Michael Pollan’s useful thoughts about food.]

madgeBook-like product. These are high-profile (and high-priced) projects: Books that are purchased by publishers and published but that are not sold to the traditional book audience, or are sold on some appeal that is extra-literary.

They may be books “written” by celebrities (such as the recent deal for Hilary Duff, or Lauren Conrad’s two novels, or Jerry Seinfeld’s Halloween “picture book” from a few years back). Or books that no one outside of the celebrity’s following (mostly non book buyers) would purchase. (Think of Madonna’s The English Roses. Or Glenn Beck’s picture book.)

Such projects … [more]

Little__Brown_and_Company-logo-9849B524CB-seeklogo.comIf you work in publishing in any capacity whatsoever, then you likely have a deep affection for Little, Brown. And not just because they are riding so high these days. Sure, they the publishers of a kind-of-sort-of-somewhat-successful series you may have heard of, but they also have one of the sharpest, most insistently singular lists around. Not just the thrill-a-minute money machines of James Patterson, but also cheerily commercial fare such as Vampirates, literary bestsellers that smart kids love such as The Mysterious Benedict Society, compelling and complex teen fiction about dark stuff in life such as The Hate List and North of Beautiful, and more more more. It’s just a great house with great books, and the people who edit there are pretty fabulous, too.

But this isn’t a … [more]

Michael discusses the basics of writing a query letter.

What follows is by no means dictating the only method a writer should use to query us or any other agent. There are as many ways to write such an introduction as there are writers. As with any advice, use whatever seems useful, discard whatever is not, and try to find a way to make the letter you send as vivid with your own voice and style as you can make it.

I see the cover letter as a way for me to get context about the book, sure—but also about the writer: who she is, where she comes from, and why this manuscript matters to her.

Download: HowToQueryLetter


Address it however you address letters. Obviously, email requires different treatments. What you see here is … [more]

mopheadThe other day I came across a tattered, unlabeled sheet of paper I’d picked up somewhere. It is a list of questions a children’s books buyer asks of picture books during sales calls.

While some of these questions should not be on the mind of writers when they are approaching agents (specifically, those questions about packaging and the publisher), other questions having to do with target audience are so savvy that they are worth asking of your own manuscript—whether you are writing a novel or a picture book. These are the sorts of challenges put to your book after it has found an agent, after it has found a publisher, when it is facing that final hurdle to get real estate on a bookstore’s shelf.

Without further ado: Questions from a children’s book buyer[more]

sammichThere used to be site called www.rejectioncollection.com where people would post their rejection letters. Sadly, it’s been taken down or the operators failed to pay their bills or some printer’s demon got loose and did its evil work. Regardless, it was sort of morbidly fascinating, and not just because I recognized so many of my rejections among the many posted there. (Usually I would read what I’d written and feel that pleasant burr of recognition of something you’ve put out into the world. Sad, but true.)

What I found most interesting about the site was how very wrong-headed it was. After each reproduced letter, the rejected author would answer a series of questions: How did receiving this rejection make you feel? and What bothered you most about this letter? As though a rejection letter is … [more]

This first appeared as a handout circulated by Michael to a workshop back in 2004.

Download: Printable version of Ten Commandments of Writing for Children

Thou Shalt Not Talk Down to Your Readers

Some beginning writers make the mistake of trying to appeal to kids by writing in a manner that can only be called “cutesy.” Resist this urge! Cute gets in the way of clarity. Clear writing, evocative writing, truths simply put—these are what we strive for when we write for kids. Though our characters may be children, or bunnies, or what-have-you, their lives and problems and the way we write about them must be those of the real world put into a language that children can understand. Maxim Gorky writes that “You must write for children the same way you write for adults, … [more]