Archive for August, 2015

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Not quite a year ago my daughter and I finished our manuscript for our middle grade novel, The Last Princess, and contemplated finding an agent to represent our book.  I started drafting a query letter, wrote a synopsis, learned about loglines, and basically dove in with both feet.

Yes, that is backwards, isn’t it?  The common expression is “jumped in with both feet,” but however I got into the water, it wasn’t the smoothest entrance, although I didn’t make much of a splash either.

I did, however, puchase a copy of the 2015 Guide to Literary Agents — basically a huge Yellow Pages of literary agents.  Now, nearly a year later, we’ve sent out dozens of queries to agents, and currently have a number agents and editors interested in our manuscript. However I never once consulted that book.

The reason is because I wanted agents that represented middle grade fantasy, and that book is not really organized that way.  It is alphabetical.  It’s a fine resource for looking up an agent who’s name you know, but not so much for choosing the right agent.

So I scoured the Interwebs for some resource where I might search agents by category.  And I found a few such sites.  I started painstakingly compiling an extensive spreadsheet of the results.

I didn’t query many of those either.

Because very soon thereafter I discovered the writing community on Twitter.  There are a hunge mumber of resources there, not to mention just the tremendous amount of wisdom and insight you can gain just by following agents, writers, slush readers, editors. and publishers.  You can follow #amwriting, #amediting, #WIP, #amquerying, #agentadvice, and dozens of others.  I’ve talked about this at length before.

One of the most valuable is #MSWL, which stands for “manuscript wish list,” and it is a feed where agents and editors post exactly what kind of books their looking for.  The feed is also searchable.  In this way I found a number of agents to query, to whom I could say in my query, “We read you are looking for a middle grade fantasy with fairy tale elements and a strong female protagonist,” or something similar.  Such personalization is a great way to rise in the slush and get noticed.

MSWL now has its own curated website: https://mswlparagraph.wordpress.com. The site is searchable four different ways, and offers full profiles for each agent, including contact information and sumission guidelines.

If your ready to start querying, or have been querying but have been unable to find zn agent looking for what you have to offer, I urge you to discover Twitter and dive in with both feet. Hint, when agents are interested in you, they often look to see if you’re on Twitter. A halfway decent profile and a few on-point tweets can make a difference.

Good luck! Look for me at @John_Berkowitz.

Mini rex rabbit appearing from a top hat, isolated

About 35 years ago, when I was in high school and just beginning to think about writing seriously, I remember reading an article in Starlog magazine. It may have been written by David Gerrold, who had several columns in Starlog over the years. But the piece I remember talked about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. The author pointed out that science fiction had rules – that was the “science” part – whether the story involved science or technology or whatever. In science fiction, if a character can read minds or levitate objects, there must be rules about how that skill can and can’t be used, its limitations, etc. Whereas in fantasy, you can say the character can simply blink his left eye and levitate something. Fantasy needn’t have rules.

Immediately this bothered me. Oh, I saw the truth of it in the stories I read at the time. On one hand I had Larry Niven and Robert Heinlein with their hard science fiction that always made sense and was always internally consistent. And on the other hand I had Piers Anthony with his pun-filled Xanth books where nothing was sacred and anything seemed to be possible because of wild magic. I saw something then that I have always held onto in my writing (and reading), and that is that fantasy aught to have rules, too. After all, magic is really nothing but science we don’t yet understand. Science we understand perfectly will appear as magic to someone who does not understand it.

So I set out to write my Great American Overlong Fantasy Epic with this radical idea in the front of my mind: the magic has to make sense, it has to be internally consistent. I would treat it like science as if I was writing a science fiction novel.

Years later I began to realize that I was not the only person to do this, and if you listen to any successful fantasy writer or writing instructor today, they will tell you that your magic system must make logical sense, be internally consistent and have clear limitations and consequences. Many people still equate sci-fi with space ships and ray guns, and fantasy with dragons and wizards, ad leave it at that. But, in fact, Star Wars is pure fantasy. It’s like the Xanth books; there is no attempt to define or quantify “the Force” and the technology – while it looks fantastic – is based on no science anywhere. A planet that is a ball filled with water, where you can pilot a submarine from one side to the other by going through the middle? Giant tanks that walk on four legs? A spherical space station the size of a small moon? Whereas books like The Dresdon Files, a series about a wizard who lives in present day Chicago, are more like science fiction than fantasy, because Harry Dresdon’s magic is tightly defined, internally consistent, and its limitations are an integral part of the character and plot. Harry’s magic is as much science fiction as the transporters on Star Trek. Neither happens to exist, but if you accept that they do in their respective universes, they are both utterly reliable (or predictably unreliable) every time.

I am involved in a summer critique group for authors with finished manuscripts. One of those manuscripts is a middle grade of great promise that happens to deal with several kinds of magic. However, in reviewing it I found that I was vexed by the complete lack of differentiation between the different kinds of magic. One was witchcraft, another was priest-based magic, and the third was wizard-type magic. But in practice, they all worked exactly the same. In my view, if a character casts a spell, the reader should instantly be able to tell what kind of magic it is. The thing that really put the nail in the coffin for me was the priests were accusing a main character of using witchcraft, when that character was actually a wizard (and being accused of witchcraft was apparently a great insult). But the wizard in question was actually using priest-based spells against the priests! And the priests still thought they were dealing with a witch.

Audiences are much more sophisticated now than they were 35 years ago. Because authors and filmmakers have realized that any skill set – magic, technology, super-powers – must be defined, have limitations and remain consistent. And if there are more than one in a given story, they must be distinct. In The Avengers, we have four super-strong heroes: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk. But their super strength is different in every case, and each has their own limitations. Thor is an alien, whose race is generally stronger than humans, while Iron Man wears a suit invented by Tony Stark. Both Captain America and the Hulk are strong because of gamma radiation (under very different circumstances), but the Hulks strength is Bruce Banner’s weakness, and the Hulk is a beast with little or no control. And Captain America is a man out of his time with strong values which severely limits what he is willing or capable of doing. Of all of these strong men, only Thor can lift Thor’s hammer.

All four of these men have very distinct kinds of physical strength, which are used in different ways under different circumstances. The book I mentioned above is more like a superhero movie with three Supermen, each wearing a different colored cape.

So if you are writing speculative fiction, and your story contains some special skill or technology, it will pay to make it believable. I don’t mean possible. Science fiction has never been limited by the possible. Only the believable. Faster-than-light travel is not possible. But it is readily accepted in science fiction as long as it is treated like an existing science. In today’s market, magic is the same way. Even for children. Because the competition is fierce and readers of all ages are less forgiving than ever.

Am I Under-Excited?

Posted: August 12, 2015 in Writing
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This is all pretty new to me, and I don’t have a frame of reference to tell me how I should feel.  Maybe I should be dancing in the street with giddiness like Fred Astaire, jumping in and out of puddles and swinging on lamp posts.  Or maybe I should keep my expectations low, and stay mellow like Donovan.

Here’s the deal; you tell me: My daughter’s and my newly-revised middle grade novel manuscript caught the attention of a well-connected freelance editor, who loved it so much (her words) that she wants to “champion” it in her free time.  Which appears to mean she is telling all her editor/agent colleagues how great she thinks our book is and some of them have been infected by her enthusiasm enough to request the full manuscript, just on the basis of her recommendation.  This happens all the time, right?

As a consequence of this sudden interest, I took the liberty of dropping a line to a couple of agents who had favorited our pitch during #KidPit back in May, but who hadn’t gotten back to us in a while.  One of them had requested the full manuscript in June, and another had previously rejected our manuscript. I wrote to them and told them of the sudden interest in our improved manuscript, and perhaps they would like to take a look at the revised version now under consideration at a top agency and also at one of the big 5 publishers.

The first agent responded immediately and told us she was happy to see the new version; she had been just about to set up a time to discuss her evaluation of our book, but needed to postpone to look at the new stuff. That sounds promising, right? Then the other agent — the one who had rejected our manuscript once already — wrote to ask us to please send the full manuscript to her “if it is still available.” This is normal, isn’t it?

I took a moment to count heads this morning, and I realized our full manuscript is currently being considered by five different agents/editors/publishers. And several of them seem quite entusiastic; the editor’s agent-friend wrote and said she and her interns were “reading and enjoying” our book.

Okay.  So on one hand, I feel like we are on the brink of our dream coming true, and if I don’t do something all of my skin is going to fly off. But on the other hand, I don’t know … maybe this is pretty standard stuff, and just not big deal. We don’t want to get our hopes up, right? Falling from that kind of height would hurt pretty badly.

All kinds of scenarios play out in my mind — bidding wars, multiple offers, difficult choices…. But I don’t want to go there if it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous, right? I should play it cool and just sit back and wait.

You try it.

This week we’re camping, so I will not have access to this — or any other — blog.  So until I return next week, I beg your indulgence and hope you will enjoy this guest blog.

I’m handing the reins over to two young ladies you may have read about on this blog, twelve-year-old best friends Catherine Brökkenwier and Roselyn Connolly, the main characters in my daughter’s and my middle grade novel, The Last Princess.

Take it away, girls.

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Cat & Rose

Rose: Okay, I’m Rose. Cat’s my best friend and she can see fairy-tale creatures the rest of us can’t. And I’m going to ask her questions.

Cat: Wait. What’s a blog?

Rose: It’s like … writing in your journal, but posting it on the Internet.

Cat: Oh, cheese! My mom uses the Internet! Is she going to read this?

Rose: How should I know? Are you ready?

Cat: Sure, I guess. Hello, Internet!

Rose: Okay. So, what’s it like being the Last Princess of the Fae?

Cat: Whoa! I’m not any kind of princess, yet. There are secret greetings and different kinds of fae I’ve never even heard of, yet. And a quest. I’ve got to learn everything before I even have a chance at becoming the princess of the fae.

Rose: So what kind of fae have you met so far?

Cat: Let’s see. I met a cute djinni boy. I think he’s the only pure-blood fae I’ve met. All the other fae are actually just “fae-born” – they have a little fae blood in them but they’re mostly human. Like Gail Westerly, the Information Lady at the library – she’s a sylph-born. And Hunter Alfson, the archery instructor at Squirrel Scout camp. He’s elf-born. And a couple of others, I guess. Nobody special.

Rose: Hey!

Cat: I’m totally kidding! You, of course! Piskie-born – what else? You have perfect blond hair and look like a fashion model.

Rose: Hmmm. Maybe. I was going to be a fashion model when I grew up, but with a real princess for a best friend, that kind of sounds boring, now.

Cat: Hmph! You wanna trade? I’ll be perfect and beautiful and rich, and you can try to impress the creepy ogre-born man across the street. Good luck! Don’t let the foot-long butcher knife scare you!

Rose: I’ll pass. So, okay. What’s it like having a super-power?

Cat: You mean my “fae-dar?”

Rose: Exactly. What else did you call it?

Cat: Mrs. Dalyrimple calls it the Sight. She’s the one who told me about how all the fae disappeared and blended in to humanity hundreds of years ago. And how nobody else can see them besides me.

Rose: Right.

Cat: Well, when I look at someone I can tell they have fae blood because they sort of sparkle if I look hard enough. But what I really get is a feeling of … something different, and my imagination or the Sight or whatever just draws a picture. And I can usually tell what they are because I’ve been reading fairy-tales all my life.

Rose: I know, but I mean, what’s it like being able to see stuff the rest of us can’t?

Cat: Oh! Well, totally cool, obviously. But scary sometimes. Some fae-born don’t want people to know what they are. I found that out the hard way.

Rose: I can’t believe you laughed at Mr. Alfson’s shoes!

Cat: They were pointy! He’s an elf-born! What was I supposed to do?

Rose: I don’t know – act normal?

Cat: You’ve met me, right?

Rose: Yes. So … what’s the best part about being a princess? Almost a princess?

Cat: Oh, wow. I don’t know. I guess if I make it, it will be that I get to help all of the hidden fae-born find others of their kind. So they know they’re not alone.

Rose: That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. I think I’m going to cry.

Cat: Shut up!

Rose: Ow! Stop hitting me! Okay, so what’s the worst part?

Cat: You know the worst part.

Rose: Yeah. But the people reading this don’t.

Cat: Oh, yeah. The worst part is my family doesn’t know about any of this. And if my mom found out she would kill me.

Rose: Why?

Cat: Because she’s decided I’m too old for fairy-tales and wants me to grow up and be little Miss Perfect.

Rose: Well, you are almost thirteen. What’s wrong with that?

Cat: You’ve met me, right?

Rose: So what are you going to do, Cat?

Cat: This adventure so far has taught me one thing. I can never be the proper, groomed, button-down darling my mother wants me to be. But I can fake it.

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Thank you Cat and Rose! That was very informative. I’m sure my readers join me in wishing you good luck with your quest, Cat, and your modeling career, Rose. And if anyone knows Mrs. Brökkenwier, please don’t tell her about this, okay?