I’ve been here before.

My last novel, an Upper Middle Grade Fantasy, was the first book I ever seriously tried to get published traditionally. I queried well over 100 agents to that end, without much success. I’m now about a dozen queries into the process with my latest novel, ACTUALLY EVER AFTER, another Upper Middle Grade book. However this time, I have some experience under my belt.

What does it mean to “be prepared” to query? You might be surprised.

First, your manuscript

  • Finished! If you’re querying a novel, you can not query a WIP. Agents only consider completed manuscripts.
  • Polished! Do not send off a first draft. Do not send off a draft just read by your mother. Use alpha readers to review each chapter. Use beta readers to review your whole manuscript. Do a pass for consistency. Do a pass for grammar and punctuation. If you’re novel contains sensitive topics or you are writing about a culture other than your own, find or hire a sensitivity reader. Consult experts on your research.
  • Properly formatted. There are plenty of resources to define this, but basically, 1 inch margins, double-spaced, indent each paragraph, no spaces between paragraphs, start each new chapter halfway down the page, 12-point Times New Roman. Each page should have your last name and the page number in the upper right corner. There should also be a title page containing your contact information, your genre, and your word-count.

As hard as this is to accept, the manuscript is only the beginning. Querying means approaching individual literary agents with a pitch for your novel. But there are multiple ways to get agents’ attention. You may go to writer’s conferences and have an opportunity to talk to agents face-to-face. You make want to take advantage of the numerous Twitter pitch events throughout the year. In either of these events, you will want an “elevator pitch” to promote your novel. The standard for this is to describe the key theme, conflict, and plot of your novel in 35 words. For Twitter, you have total 280 characters (including spaces) to do this (however you need to leave around 12-18 characters for the required hashtags). And even if you don’t attend a single conference or intend to participate in Twitter pitches, you still want to develop your elevator pitch. Firstly, many agents specifically request one, but secondly (and more importantly) you want one. In order to talk about your book in a way that will entice agents, you need to be able identify the theme and conflict and express them in a couple of sentences.

This turned out to be a revelation for me when I began to query my last novel. Because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t identify the key conflict — that one thing my hero needed to accomplish, and what would happen if she failed. It’s not that I was blind, it’s that it wasn’t clear in my story to begin with. It turns out this is a major problem and common stumbling block for new writers. It turns out (I learned way too late) you want to have this clearly in mind before you start writing your novel. You can decide this in the middle of writing your novel, too, or even after you have finished if you don’t mind going back and doing a major rewrite. It’s a lot like changing your major after three years in college, or right before graduation. You can do it, but it will take a lot of extra work and you’ll wish you had done it sooner. That’s what I did with my first novel, and I ended up doing several major rewrites in an effort to nail down a clear theme and compelling conflict The fact that no agent wanted to represent that book may be the results of my poor planning.

Here is the elevator pitch for my current novel:

One accidental wish and Clio and Mary are in 1507 Ireland, caught between Cinderella and her wicked faerie godmother. Strength and friendships are tested as the girls must choose between going home or saving Ireland.

And here is one of several Twitter pitches (I settled on 5, because most contests let you pitch multiple times over the course of several hours):

Yesterday Clio & Mary were ordinary 13yo girls. 1 wish later: Clio the faerie princess & Marigold the pixie are caught between Cinderella & her wicked faerie godmother, who’s bent on conquering Ireland. Strength & friendships are tested as they go to war. #PitMad #MG #HF #FTA

Once you have your pitch nailed down, you’re in a good place to begin writing your query letter. Because you want to express that same theme and conflict in a couple of paragraphs, but in such a way as to entice your agent-of-choice to want to read your book. There are many resources on the web for how to write a good query letter, and I could write several long blogs on various approaches, so I’ll leave that up to you. Generally, you want to keep it to 1 page, keep the actual pitch for your novel to 2 paragraphs (don’t give away the ending!), then a paragraph describing your audience and providing comps (books comparable to yours), and a brief biography of your writing experience and why you’re the best person to write the book you wrote.

Here’s where it get’s personal. A query letter shouldn’t be just a boilerplate you send out to every agent on your list, just substituting their name at the top. The best way to get an agent’s attention is to personalize your letter to that particular agent. Show you have done some research and chosen this agent for specific reasons, rather than just pulled their name from Writer’s Market. That means search the web for interviews they have given recently, check the Manuscript Wish List website. Manuscript Wish List a true godsend, and it comes in three flavors. Originally, it was a Twitter event where agents were invited to tweet what they were looking for under the hashtag #MSWL. Now, that hashtag is perpetually being used by agents to share what currently tickles their fancy or what they are on the lookout for. You can go to Twitter and filter by that hashtag, as well as by other hashtags such as #MG for middle grade, or keywords like horror or LGBT or pretty much anything else. Or, you can go straight to https://www.manuscriptwishlist.com and do the same thing. This site makes it easier, though. Things are organized there by keyword and by agent’s names, etc. This eventually evolved into the website I mentioned above, which is where many agents have a profile that details everything they want authors to know — their bio, who they represent, their wish list, their favorite books, and how to submit.

Use these resources! You don’t have to write a thesis on every agent you pitch to, but it helps if you include in your query a sentence pinpointing those specific things they said they were looking for which they will find in your book. For example:

I see from your wish list that you’re looking for fairytale-esque fantasy in a historical setting, and I hope ACTUALLY EVER AFTER fulfills your wish.

This shows the agent you went to some effort to seek him/her out and that your book should be a good fit for them. Both of these will be checkmarks in your favor.

But you’re still not done!

The Synopsis. Yes, the dreaded synopsis. This where you describe the entire plot of your book from start to finish, including the ending. The synopsis is not so much a pitch to sell the idea of your book, but to show that you know how to plot a story and that it hits all of the key elements of a story, as well as the tropes of your particular genre and age group. Some agents want it to be under 1,000 words (about 2 pages), and some require that it be under 500 words. Again, resources abound on the Web for how to so this.

NOW YOU’RE READY. I mean, there is always more you can do to prepare. Going back to polishing your draft, you want to give special attention to the first three pages, and especially the first paragraph. These are your first real impression, query letter aside. These can make or break a prospective agent’s interest, no matter how good your query. Also bear in mind that different agents or agencies have different submission requirements. Some request the first 3 chapters, others only the first chapter. Some ask for the first 50 pages, some want 25, while some ask for just the first 5. So, with that in mind, you maybe want to consider when you write not to leave the really good part for page 45. I knew this when I started my current novel, and made sure there was a really good gut-punch on page 3, and the inciting incident before page 20. Every little bit helps.

If you have queried before and have advice of your own, please share it. And good luck out there. KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON!


Flying man

Are you a “Pantser” or a “Plotter?”

pantser  noun

\ ˈpan(t)-sər \

a. a NaNoWriMo term for a writer who ‘flies by the seat of their pants’ when they are writing a novel. They have nothing but the absolute basics planned out.

b. one who performs a pantsing on a pantsie.


plotter  noun

\ ˈplä-tər \

a. a writer who meticulously outlines the plot of their novel in advance of writing it.  Plotters know the ending before they start writing.

b. a person who schemes or conspires

It turns out these are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to plot and wear pants at the same time.  Because each of these approaches has very definite advantages, and for some people disadvantages.  You can move closer to author nirvana by combining the best parts of both.

For example, when I started my first children’s book, I really didn’t have much planned out aside from the basic premise and the characters.  Pantsing was the perfect approach because I needed to feel my way through the story, not having any real idea of where to begin, how to get to the end, or even the basics of how to plot a book.  Those early chapters were exercises, and very little of that initial pantsing actually made it to the final draft. But I learned a lot about pacing and voice and how the characters talked, etc.

I eventually reached a point where I simply could not continue writing the book until I knew where it was going.  Because the book had evolved into a quest story, and my character would need to accomplish a series of steps and meet a cast of characters along the way. And to make it all work, I had to plot it out like a heist, scene-by-scene.  In other words, there was a point along the way when I joined the dark side and switched from a pantser to a plotter.

But it turns out I never really gave up pantsing.  Which makes me a mole, I suppose, or some sort of literary double-agent.

You see, for my next and current book, I approached it strictly as a plotter.  I had learned a great deal about plot, story beats, tension, stakes, foreshadowing, and story structure.  And I knew I could not simply start writing and expect them all to flow out of my fingers in the proper sequence.  I needed to nail as much of that down in advance as possible. So I wrote an outline with plot points and story beats, with highs and lows, with stakes and motivations and failures and triumphs, and a little bow at the end tying everything neatly together. And so I began chapter one….

And this is when I discovered I still needed my pantsing pants. There is a huge difference between a two-page outline and a 60,000 word novel.  The first sentence of my outline would become a 10-page chapter, and a lot of story still needed to be invented along the way.  At one point I needed to evoke a somber, foreboding mood, and on a whim I added a visual detail that set the tone perfectly.  That single detail, that minor spooky note, became a vital and defining facet of a main character.  That was world-building and character-building all rolled into one, and it was 100% pantsing.

The fact is, no outline alone is simply going to blossom into a novel by adding hot water and stirring, like a box of mac and cheese.  And no amount of writing by the seat of your pants with no direction and no structure is going to magically turn into a cohesive book, without a great deal of sawing and hammering afterwards. But take the best parts of both methods and combine them, and you can accomplish anything.

Find your own balance.  A little of one and a lot of the other, or vice-versa.  Find what works. But don’t be fooled into believing one way or the other alone is all you’ll ever need. They may be opposite sides of the coin, but have you ever tried to spend just one side of a coin?




It’s like she finally came home from vacationing abroad.  For months — despite being excited, motivated, and committed to my new novel — I couldn’t seem to get anything on paper to stick.  I wrote and rejected half a dozen opening paragraphs, unable to get past that 1-page hump.  Nothing worked.  Where was my muse?

And then the other evening, I settled into bed with my iPad and wrote four pages.  Four lovely pages I still like, over a week later!  Obviously, she’s returned home.

Since most of this book will take place in Ireland 500 years ago, I’m hoping that’s where she went on her extended walkabout.  She certainly seems to have brought back some souvenirs; my writing is pithier and more focused than my previous efforts.  Maybe she just needed a break from me.  Who could blame her?  Either way, I’m delighted she’s back, and steady progress is eminent.

Here’s a taste:

Sketch’s mouth curled into a wicked smile as more of her bright red hair pile up at her feet. Tomorrow would be her thirteenth birthday and she was going to prove once and for all she was not her mother’s precious fairy princess. Sketch hated everything to do with fairy tales, while her mother seemed to be living in one. The doctors said the medicine would help, but they lied.

Mary, Sketch’s best friend, paused with the scissors in her hand. “She’s going to kill you, you know.”

“She can’t.” Sketch shrugged. “I’m a teenager, now.” She ran her hand over the short, prickly patch on the left side of her scalp.

Mary raised a blonde, skeptical eyebrow. “Not until tomorrow. And that only works when you turn eighteen.”

“Whatever.” Sketch flipped her red curls out of the way. “Keep going. Make it like my drawing.” A sketch pad on Mary’s bed lay open to the drawing Sketch had made of her radical new hairstyle, shaved on one side and long waves hiding her face on the other. Sketch never went anywhere without her sketch pad and colored pencils, which is how she’d gotten her nickname. She secretly liked that “sketch” was also slang for “odd” or “a little dangerous.”

And a bit later:

When the Goldstein’s minivan rolled to a stop, an unnatural quiet clung to Sketch’s neighborhood like an oppressive fog.  Only the dripping of icicles in the midday sun disturbed the silence.

Sketch shivered as she stared at the flowerbeds buried under a foot of snow in front of their duplex. Then she noticed the tree branches thrusting out of Mrs. McNulty’s windows on the left side. As if a tree was growing inside her half of the house. The branches had black leaves.

No. Not leaves.

Mary’s breath caught as she leaned past Sketch to look out the frosted car window. “They’re birds,” she whispered.

It was true. The branches were covered by hundreds of small, unmoving black birds.

I’m realistic — I have no doubt these early pages will change dramatically before the book is finished.  But there is something there, now.  A tone, a voice, an attitude.  I can build on this and get to the meat of the story, which is coming soon.  And that is when I’ll need my muse to have all of her unpacking and settling in completed, because we’re going to need to roll up both of our sleeves.


I wrote my first novel* by the seat of my pants.  If there is one scrap of wisdom I can claim to have learned from that experience it is this: You will revise your first chapter more than any other part of your book.  If for no other reason than it is the part of your novel you will have on paper the longest (unless you write sideways; I can’t manage that particular technique).

I revised that first chapter dozens of times. By which I mean complete revisions. In some I started with a pithy saying, in others I started with action.  I changed locations several times.  In one, the protagonist was doing homework and got in trouble for doodling in the margins, in another she lost track of her little brother and had to go hunt him down at a crowded street fair.  In some she met the eventual villain (before either of us knew he was going to become the villain), in others she didn’t. Every time I learned some new “truth” about the proper way to begin a novel or introduce a character I would tackle that first chapter so that I could improve it and improve my chances of snagging an agent.  And each and every time I revised that chapter, I was happy with the results.

Until I wasn’t.

I have a fatal flaw for a writer, one I know I will eventually have to fix: I can’t move on until I’m happy with what I have.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, and I know I’m likely to change it at some point down the road, but in the moment I have to feel like what I have is the best I can do before I’m able to keep going (this is why I suck at NaNoWriMo).  Every scene and chapter I write is built on those that came before, and if there are holes they will only grow larger the further into the story I get, regardless of how much planning I’ve done.

I didn’t really understand this when I wrote my first novel.  Just as I didn’t understand all of the ways a first chapter, a first scene, a first paragraph impact the reader. When I started my first novel, I was fearless and idealistic. Like maybe the first time one skydives or wrestles an alligator (presuming that’s something one is eager to try). Starting my first novel was easy. Because I didn’t know how hard it was going to be.

And, honestly, when I started my second novel I felt like it would be easier, because now I knew all of that stuff. I could avoid most of the abortive revisions as I groped around in the dark for understanding and clarity. Because now I know before I put the first word down what I need to do, and how to do it. I’m going to write this one by the seat of my pants; I have an outline, color coded, broken down chapter-by-chapter. I have stacks of books and articles I’ve highlighted as part of my historical research.  Unlike my first novel, I know my setting, my villain, my stakes, and how it is going to win.

What I didn’t count on was being paralyzed with indecision about that first word.

See, now that I know what doesn’t work and that I’m incapable of carry on until I’ve nailed the beginning, I’m just rejecting everything I come up with as not good enough. Because I know it isn’t. With my first novel, I wrote the first three pages in about an hour.  It was trash, but I didn’t know that. Because I had no idea what I needed to accomplish in that first chapter.  I was jumping with my eyes closed.  This time around, I know exactly what I need to do in the first chapter, and it’s quite a lot.  I know exactly where I need to be at the end of the chapter, and there are a number of very specific things I must set up before then for the rest of the novel.  I have to be brief and succinct, but I can’t rush.  I need to set up relationships and provide some backstory without too much telling. And none of the openings I came up with led me in quite the right direction or seemed interesting enough.  I’ve spent the last month throwing away a half-dozen abortive attempts at the first paragraph. Not the progress I expected, given all of the confidence and experience I gained the first time around.

This weekend, I finally settled on an approach I’m happy with.  The dialogue is flowing. The backstory is being filled in one small chunk at a time.  The voice is there, as is the relationship.  And the very first glimpse of the main character is provocative.  I’m happy with it.

Of course, before the end it will all have to go….

*My first “real” novel.  I’m not counting the fantasy novel I wrote in high school, before I learned what “plot” was.

Man as baby. Child in diaper with pink teddy bear.

I don’t want to grow up.  And you can’t make me.

I write middle grade novels with fantasy elements.  In the past I’ve written high fantasy and dabbled in science fiction.  I’ve considered and rejected writing for young adults, because I’m not comfortable being responsible for teen-aged girls engaging in romantic relationships.  And frankly, adults are boring.  However, when it was time to seriously nail down what I wanted to write my next novel about, I hit upon a new idea (for me): The cozy mystery.

I work in a bookstore on the weekends, and I had the opportunity one day to spend several hours working with the cozy mystery shelves.  I’d never taken a hard look at those books before, and the first thing that struck me was the titles.  For the most part they are funny and whimsical, which immediately made me think about how fun it would be to write one.  If you are not familiar with the genre, they all tend to feature a main character with a certain hobby or vocation — baking or farming, running an antique shop or a dress shop. Many of them feature dogs or cats, and quite a few involve food of one kind or another.  These main characters are never professional crime fighters, such as police detectives or criminal lawyers (like you would find in traditional mysteries).  These women (about 90% of the protagonists are women) are all accidental sleuths.  Think Murder She Wrote.

As I scanned the shelves I encountered titles like, Tart of Darkness, Seams Like Murder, The Quiche and the Dead, Italian Iced, No Farm, No Foul, and Murder, She Barked.  I founds books that featured pretty much any kind of occupation a middle-aged woman might find interesting.  There were books about a glass shop, a seafood restaurant set in a lighthouse in Maine, a bed and breakfast, a tea garden, a bridal shop, a chocolatier, a cheese shop, a caterer, a florist, a bakery, a sewing circle, and a beauty parlor.  There were books where the protagonist loved crossword puzzles, beading, crochetting, candlemaking, quilting, scrapbooking, journalism, gardening, or one of any number of crafty diversions.  And they almost always take place in a small colorful town, full of quirky recurring characters.

But here’s what really made me sit up and take notice, as I researched the cozy mystery genre. They are formulaic, of course.  But unlike children’s books (or almost any other kind of novel), nobody expects you to be original.  There aren’t just several books about baking, there are a lot of books about baking, and every one of them is part of a series about baking.  Sure, some are about cakes and others are about muffins and still others are about bread, but nobody is going to tell you there are too many cozy mysteries about baking.  A pretzel stand by the beach would fit right in.  The heroes are all very similar, too: 20-40, female, usually single, a tiny bit ditsy, maybe struggling to run a business with money inherited from a deceased aunt, and caught up trying to solve a murder they had nothing to do with.  The deaths are almost always off-stage and “clean” — no gore, little blood, not much violence.  Their best friend’s or neighbor’s brother is the chief of police or a clerk at the local courthouse, so there are plenty of ways for our hero to get official information.  People are constantly coming and going to their little shop so there are a million opportunities to pick up clues, but as the owner they can drop everything and close up shop any time they need to chase down a juicy lead.  Romance is light, and expected to take several books to kindle.  Yes, these are written specifically to be series.  In fact, it’s pretty much a prerequisite.

All of these things attracted me: a simple formulaic plot, a fun hobby to research and write about, some humor, a small-town setting, and an expectation that the publisher will want more.  I started thinking about a divorcee running an antique bookstore in a snowy northwestern town tucked in the mountains.  I started filling the town with characters….

But ultimately, I have decided to write another children’s book.  A historic fantasy set in 16th century Ireland.  Think Freaky Friday meets Brave.  This book will be more difficult to write — more research, convincingly portraying an utterly alien world with it’s long-forgotten speech and modes of dress and local superstition, creating complex characters that will appeal to a young audience, and being original all at the same time.  With no guarantee of any interest in a possible sequel.

Why?  One reason: it excites me more than the alternative.  And without that spark, that drive, that eager motivation, I would probably not get very far.

Businessman rolling up sleeves

It’s been a while coming, but that excitement and enthusiasm that proceeds starting a new writing project has finally returned.  I felt it’s slow approach for quite some time, like a long winter portends the spring.

In fact, that’s exactly what it was like.  Last July, in the hottest part of the California summer, we packed up our possessions, loaded them onto trucks, and moved to the beautiful Pacific North West.  Practically Canada, in fact.  We were tired of the weather as Bill Hicks put it, “Every day, hot and sunny.”  Autumn arrived one afternoon, like literally one day it was colder and everywhere the trees started turning yellow and orange that day. Then shortly it was winter.  I mean actual winter.  Not like in California, where it rains a little and the wind blows a bit and you might have to put on a jacket.  Feet and feet of snow on the lawn and in the trees and on the roof and on the roads.  This February we piled up just about as much snow as this region usually gets all year.  And it went on and on and on.  And on.  Winter lasts about five months, up here.  I mean, intellectually, we knew spring must be coming.  But it felt like it was taking years to get here.  The snow just kept falling.  Then, just like autumn, one day in the middle of March spring arrived.  The temperature went up like 10 degrees, and in two weeks the snow was gone and we could see roads and lawns and flowerbeds again.

My muse returned the same way spring did.  I felt her approaching, knew she would get here at some point, made plans for that day, and … waited.  Like contemplating the impending dawn.  Like looking forward to an eighteenth birthday.  Like your anticipation that I will eventually get to the actual point.

Well, here it is: Inspiration is fickle, but eventual.  Some days it overwhelms you like a blizzard, and other days it is like trying to catch a soap bubble on a breezy day (you can’t; you have to let it land).  But that doesn’t mean that in the meantime you can’t buy a clean, new notebook and sharpen some pencils.

For me, it meant choosing my next project.  I had an embarrassment of ideas, any one of which might have become my next novel, but all of which needed research and consideration — a kind of feasibility study.  When I decided six years ago to get serious and write a novel fit for publication, I had to choose between completely rewriting the adult fantasy novel I had already written in high school and college, or starting a completely new children’s book.  I had to weigh all of the pros and cons, compare the amount of joy each prospect gave me, evaluate how much work each would be.  This time around I had two MG projects already started, and a third entirely new notion for adults.  Which should I pursue?

Here are the things you should know so you don’t waste valuable time when your muse swoops in and grabs you by the frontal lobe:

  • Who is your audience (age group, genres)?
  • Where does your story take place?
  • When does your story take place?
  • Who is your main character?
  • What is at stake in your character’s story?
  • Does this story excite you?

For me, the difference between this second book and the first one is that when I started the first one I didn’t really know the answers to all of these questions, except for the last one.  And as it turned out, passion alone was not sufficient to write a marketable book.

You don’t have to be in a writing mood or feel bound to produce a certain number of words-per-day as long as you are moving forward with your research and development.  Sketch in some backstory.  Color in your setting.  Research your time period.  Learn the local lingo, the local hangouts, the local weirdos — or make them up.  Nail your character’s conflict.  Write the perfect 35-word pitch (because if you can’t do that, you don’t have a clear handle on the stakes, yet).

So, don’t fret if your muse is a seldom or fair-weather friend; spend your time in between visits doing your research and getting ready. Such forethought might even make her stick around longer once she finally does arrive.

Manual typewriter and screwed up paper

I’ve been absent for awhile, because I haven’t had anything new to say.  It’s taken me awhile to realize that that’s a problem.

It’s not that I have some hubristic need to spout my “wisdom” to the unsuspecting world on a weekly basis.  The simple fact is, I find writing a blog to be personally useful; it helps me hone my chops, focus my ideas, and clarify my thoughts by forcing me to express them to an audience.  But my first rule has always been to only post things I think will be interesting or instructive to the children’s writing community at-large. About a year ago I reached a point where I had no new useful thing to talk about with regard to my manuscript and my drive to find an agent.

That should have bothered me.

It took me a whole year to realize the problem: I had refused to give up on my dream.  Why is that a problem?  Because I didn’t have room or permission to move on.

Early on I made a commitment to myself to do everything possible to see my MG book, Princess Material, traditionally published.  “Never give up! Never surrender!” And for four years I queried, entered contests, engaged critique partners, and hired professional editors.  The manuscript and query letter steadily improved.  But after over 100 rejections, I have been forced to consider that there is something fundamentally flawed about that book (or it’s just not a good fit for the current market), and no amount of tweaking or polishing will make it right.

And that gave me the opening I needed to refocus my attention on a new project.  I had started a sequel to Princess Material, but part of my evolving attitude about it included the realization that there was no point in writing a sequel to a book that nobody was ever going to read.  So I needed a new project.

Ideas I had.  Even an entire outline.  But until I gave myself permission to put my first book aside, I didn’t have the bandwidth to really focus on an entirely new project (I seem to be a one-book-at-a-time kind of guy).

Notice I didn’t say I had given up on my dreams.  To become a published author, to see my book on a retail shelf, to start a second career as a children’s author.  I have not given up on those.  And I haven’t entirely given up on the dream of getting my first book out there.  But for right now, I have given myself permission to put that particular dream aside so that I can chase a new dream.  It’s a whole lot like the first, but it means starting over with a new book.  Not completely over, of course.  I have gained tons of experience and wisdom over the last four years, which I will make liberal use of going forward.  I will be scrolling back through this blog and revisiting posts from the early days of writing my first novel.  And I will be chronicling this new journey here.  Stay tuned for details of my new project, and maybe a bit about some of the ideas I had along the way.  If you haven’t already, please subscribe.  I expect to be posting here every week, just like before.

Air horse illustration

We’ve all read or written in first-person (I) and third-person (he/she), but where is the elusive second-person (you) novel?

Second-person seems to be exclusively the realm of the choose-your-own-adventure novels (which had their heyday in the 80’s), Internet fan fiction, and instruction manuals.  There is one notable literary exception: Jay McInerney‘s Bright Lights, Big City. In this novel the narrator is actually talking about himself from a distance to separate himself from his own trauma.  Whereas in the choose-your-own-adventure books and most fan-fiction, the “you” in the story is the reader, who steps into the role of the hero.

So, there are specific examples, but they are so specific and far-between (and non-commercial), that writing in second-person has become kind of a trick, a gimmick, a badge of being different for difference’s sake.  And yet….

As a children’s author, the notion of writing an adventure (in which I will do the choosing, ahem) has much appeal.  As readers, children are much more forgiving and willing to experiment than are most adults.  Children expect the unexpected, and are drawn to books that are unique in their own way, be that in the setting or characters, the shape of the book itself, or in how the story is presented on the page.  My gut tells me that an adventure story featuring a young person solving puzzles, getting into wild scrapes, and being heroic would be a natural fit for second-person narration.  Particularly if written in such a way as to allow readers to immerse themselves in the story even further than traditional stories allow.

Consider the following (rough) opening paragraph, for example:

The young pearl-diver gulped another great lungful of early-morning air then scrambled again for the bottom of the ocean.  The mermaid has to be here, he told himself.  He had seen her!  He kicked and swam his way down toward the sunken hull of the ancient ship, the pressure in his lungs burning.  The pouch at his hip slapped his thigh with every stroke, reminding him of the wicked gull woman and her terrible price.  But now he had the enchanted ring, and soon … even his very dreams.

Now in first-person:

I gulped another great lungful of early-morning air then scrambled again for the bottom of the ocean.  The mermaid has to be here, I told myself.  I had seen her!  I kicked and swam my way down toward the sunken hull of the ancient ship, the pressure in my lungs burning.  The pouch at my hip slapped my thigh with every stroke, reminding me of the wicked gull woman and her terrible price.  But now I had the enchanted ring, and soon … even my very dreams.

More intimate, right?  You feel like you’re more inside the diver’s head, as opposed to just a distant observer.  But second-person goes even further.  And by putting it in present tense instead of past tense, the story becomes immediate:

You gulp another great lungful of early-morning air then scrambled again for the bottom of the ocean.  The mermaid has to be here, you tell yourself.  You saw her!  You kick and swim your way down toward the sunken hull of the ancient ship, the pressure in your lungs burning.  The pouch at your hip slaps your thigh with every stroke, reminding you of the wicked gull woman and her terrible price.  But now you have the enchanted ring, and soon … even your very dreams.

Did you find yourself holding your breath?  Do you think a child might?  I said my gut tells me such a story written in second-person present tense would be a natural fit for a kid’s book.  Unfortunately, agents and editors are all adults, and while many of them represent (and adore) children’s books, they are only willing to represent something they believe will sell.  And there is no historical market trend for such a book.  It’s a risk — as much for me as for a prospective agent and any subsequent publisher.  Plus, it screams “gimmick.”  Is it enough simply to write a book in an almost entirely unique style, or is there some reason this particular book must be written in that style?  Jay McInerney found such a reason, but that reason isn’t going to work a second time, and it isn’t going to work in a book for 10-year-old readers.

So this particular unicorn eludes me.  But I haven’t given up the hunt.  I may find an approach that makes second-person irresistible and absolutely necessary.  And when I do, I’ll be willing to risk it.

unhappy teenager with thumbs down

Yes, this is a real thing.  And yes, believe it or not, a rejection can be good news.

Well, more accurately, a rejection can contain good news. If you’ve queried your manuscript for any length of time, you have no doubt received rejections that are positive and friendly and even encouraging.  Most form rejections try to soften the blow, but I have received several personalized rejections, and they almost always reference some aspect of the query or sample the agent liked.  Occasionally they will contain suggestions or even an offer to look at the manuscript again (or some other future project).

The rejection I got the other day wasn’t that.  It was a flat rejection.  It turns out this agent simply does not represent midde grade (this was not evident in the research I did).  But nevertheless, this short rejection was perhaps the most encouraging response I’ve gotten from any query (not counting the R&R and requests for the full ms).

Note that I had recently finished a major rewrite after hiring a professional editor.  Once I had done that I , naturally, needed to revise my query and synopsis.  One thing I noticed was a series of comments on Twitter and in various agents’ wish lists that they were tiring of the whole “chosen one” trope.  So I added something new to the beginning of my query: “If there’s such a thing as the opposite of the chosen one, it’s Catherine.”  Then I sent it out to exactly one agent.  Here is her response:

This is a great pitch, and even though I knew it wasn’t the right project for me, I couldn’t help peeking at it after reading that terrific first line.

The truth is that at least for now, I’m not seeking MG books. Every great author deserves an agent who not only believes in their book but also knows what the heck to do with it, and if the rest of the book is as much fun as your pitch and opener, you’ll have little trouble finding someone who fits the bill on both counts. I wish you all the best in that endeavor.

I am now extremely confident and eager to move forward with this query and this manuscript.

Rugged Book 1

A year or so ago I told you about the nifty keyboard case I got for my iPad mini, essentially turning it into an “iBook Nano.”  It changed my life.  By putting it into a zippered padded pouch with pockets for pens, charger, note pad, etc., I had a handled “briefcase” no bigger than an average-sized hardback book, which I took everywhere.  Because I use Word integrated with Dropbox, the latest version of all my files are always at my fingertips and ready to work on in seconds.  I could spend 12 minutes of a 15-minute break actually writing.

The thing about the Zagg Slim Book(c) is that because it is so thin, it is rather fragile.  Hence the padded pouch.  But there is one spot on the case, where the speaker and charger cutouts are, that will crack very easily.  Fortunately, Zagg has an outsanding return policy, and as long as you register your purchase online, they will replace your entire product with a brand new one at zero cost to you.  I did that twice.

The third time my case cracked, however, I discovered that Zagg had discontinued my particular product.  This is the point where Zagg really earned a gold star in my book.  They offered to upgrade me to the new Rugged Book keyboard case at no cost.  The Rugged Book retails for $139.99 on Zagg’s site, but you can find it varous places, including Amazon, for much less (I was still working my initial $37 investment of that original Slim Book I bought on sale).


This new case lives up to it’s name — rugged.  The upper case has a rubber seal on all sides, and you would have to try awfully hard to break it.  It’s designed for outdoor use — camping, construction, surveying.  It still has the same great features as the Slim Book: function keys, keyboard backlighting, a full year of charge, bluetooth connectivity, and the keyboard feels like full size. Now I don’t have to wory about the case cracking, and if anything does go wrong, Zagg has generously restarted my warranty … to make up for the “inconvenience.”

61CuEP+QTTL._SL1500_To round out my portable office, I purchased high capacity portable charger with a nifty build-in charging cable.  I got the 5000mAh pocket charger by Kolumb through Amazon, for $19.99.  I can recharge my iPad to full with this, and my iPhone 7 to full twice over.  It charges fast, too, and fits in the pocket of my case without hardly making a bump.  It’s not quite as thick as my iPhone, and only about a quarter of an inch longer.  The adapter allows it to charge both Apple and Android devices.


For anyone who has trouble finding time to write on a busy schedule, this is an affordable, workable solution that I have found invaluable.  Now get writing!