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Blog: Writer's Toolbox

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 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]

This is a workshop handout for a beginner’s class Michael taught at the Writing Center in the mid-nineties. “For most readers, I expect it will be obvious material. But still: It’s got some points to make, even if it veers into the pedantic, and there may be something of use here for some fledgling writers.”

Download: Printable version of Dialogue – Some Basics

1. Why use it?

Dialogue dramatizes character. (Action also dramatizes character.) It allows the reader to hear and see how the character expresses herself. We can learn her level of education, how she feels about herself, how she relates to others, and more through her word choice, her syntax, her tone. If she is talking about something close to her heart, this is especially telling.

And dialogue (characters speaking) is more dynamic … [more]