College Applications, Manuscript Submissions, and Lessons Learned

There was a big College Information Night at my son’s high school. There are still years to go before he’s ready, but he’s a planner.

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So we went.

Approximately 50 reps from colleges all over the country were there. They ran from big and big name schools (UCLA–the most-applied to school in the entire Unite States) to so small I don’t know how else we would have heard of them (Holy Cross–921 students, total).

We talked to lots of them, asking most of the same questions about GPA needed, acceptance rate, majors offered, class size, etc. The school my son most wants to go to had one of the biggest lines (guess others want to go there too). We waited quite a while to talk to the rep, who patiently repeated the same information over and over. (Seriously, why weren’t the parents just listening in while they were in line? But I digress.) While we waited, we grabbed their college brochure and started flipping through it. We noticed some more obscure majors listed for the school, ones my son was sorta interested in, and wondered if applying for one of those would make sense, instead of those which were sure to be the most popular/crowded/competitive. So we asked the rep, if our son were to major in, say Japanese, would that up his odds of getting accepted, as opposed to him majoring in engineering.

The rep waited not even half a second before answering flatly: “Major what you want to major in. Don’t apply to something you aren’t interested in.” And we felt stupid for considering it, or even asking about it. I did, at least.

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Now bear with me as I cut over to Manuscript Wishlist, an amazing resource where editors and agents tell you EXACTLY what they are looking for. And I mean exactly. It’s a website as well as a “hashtag” (which means you can do an internet search for “#mswl” and up will pop the most recent posts about it). It’s fantastic because if you are working on a book, say, about kids and frogs you can type in “#mswl kids frogs” and see if there is an editorial match. If so, you know who you should add to your sub list! The more specific the less likely you’ll get a hit, but hey it’s worth a shot. One recent post from an editor, I swear, read “High-tech elves with internet while everyone else is trying to figure out the Iron Age.” It’s that specific.

Scanning the posts or website can be a fount of inspiration. Even if you don’t find a perfect match for your current work-in-progress, it can give you manuscript ideas. Knowing there is someone waiting for that topic/character/etc means you’re one step closer to acceptance! I’ve found myself creating and re-creating all kinds of story ideas from trolling around. Sometimes, I’ll see an element an editor shares about him or herself, and I’ll add that character tag to one of my main characters just so I can add in the cover letter, “Emma loves jelly beans just like you.” I’ve raced to complete a final product since I can almost taste the sweet reward of publication from an already-ready editor. Any edge helps, right?

But here’s the rub. It’s never panned out. The problem is, those stories I was working stories weren’t really my stories. The ideas weren’t my ideas. Even if I can run with a concept, my heart isn’t in someone else’s idea of what makes a great plotline. Just like picking a major just to get accepted at the school you might want to get into, a school you might not otherwise have a chance at, writing a story just to get published at a house that might not otherwise notice you is a waste of time. No one wins. Not you, not the editor or agent, and not the story.

The reader suffers too.

In that moment back at the college fair, I was struck by the similarities of the college app and manuscript submission process. We both search and search for the best fit, then send our submission package after years and years of hard work. (We also fret and fret after hitting the send button, having no control and no idea when we’ll hear back…)

All the time I spent creating those MSWL story ideas? It took me away from MY stories, the ones in my soul, the ones I WANT to write. I’ve wasted my time. I thought I was being clever. But I screwed myself. (Is it OK for me to be frank?)

I hope I haven’t been wasting your time with this analogy.  All this is to say: write the story you want to write. Write the story you need to write. Don’t waste your time writing the story that you think will get you a leg up in the industry.

Write the right one.

Yours.

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How do I Find an Agent?

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Google “how to find a literary agent for children’s books” and you’ll get 1,580,000 hits. Over one and a half million! And that’s just in the kidlit world. There are many, many theories on how to find one, just like there are many many theories on how to write the perfect picture book. Many roads will take you there, my friend. You just need to start walking. THEY AREN’T GOING TO COME TO YOU.
First things first. You need to make sure your manuscript is print ready. Never send something that isn’t perfect/finished! Has it been copy edited? Have you had more than one other person review it–do you have a reliable/experienced critique partner/group? Have you been working on it for longer than, say, a month? The ironic thing here is that the next thing I’m going to say is be prepared to make changes if necessary which contradicts the “make sure it’s perfect/finished” statement. An agent might have suggestions on how to make your manuscript better, and you might need to make those changes before he or she agrees to represent you. (It’s ALWAYS up to you to decide if and how those changes will be implemented. It’s your manuscript, afterall. Feel free to say “No, thanks” and move on to the next agent on your list if the recommend changes don’t feel right to you.)
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Second, you need to research the right agent FOR YOU, one that will like/accept not only your genre and age range but fits your style. That means your style of writing as well as your style of a working relationship. You do that by researching reputable agencies online and reading up on every agent that reps the kind of manuscript you have–based on what they have already sold and based on what they say they are looking for. Have they represented authors that have books similar to yours? That’s what you are looking for. This may be the only time you don’t want uniqueness. You want someone with relevant experience so they can get you the best deal and offer you the best, most applicable guidance. A super YA agent, for example, might be a crappy picture book agent. It’s a different world. Maybe it’ll work out–see what else they’ve sold. The good news is they will tell you directly on their page what they are looking for and have sold but that bad news is it’s a lot of work b/c there are so many agencies and so many agents.
How to get started researching, you may ask?
  • https://janefriedman.com/find-literary-agent/ gives an excellent overview on finding agents. It’s not specific to kidlit, but is worth reading every word. This post is from 2015 but still very much valid. Jane gives tips on checking an agent’s track record, what to expect from a good agent (are they members of AAR?), and explains submission guidelines piece by piece. READ IT. I’m not kidding.
  • The very first blog page on that Writer’s Digest site that I’d recommend you read is http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/pubtips. Editor Chuck Sambuchino culled advice from real agents, who Tweeted their top tips on what to do and how to do it. For example, some advice from 2013 that still stands is from agent Jacquie Flynn’s (@BookJacquie): “Check out an agent’s website, tweets, & blog posts to get a sense of her style & taste before you query. Customize for best results.”
  • Speaking of Twitter…I’ll go ahead and quote Chuck from that same blog, who says, “Many, many agents are on Twitter. And by reading their tweets, you can get a deeper understanding of what they seek as well as what kind of writing excites them. Use an agent’s online footprint and research them. Read their blog interviews. Review their website. This helps you better target agents to query, and it also helps you learn more about each rep, giving you information you can use to begin your query letter. For example, ‘Dear Ms. Flynn, I saw your tweet about how you seek irreverently humorous young adult books such as Spanking Shakespeare. For this reason, I think you would like my YA comedy of errors, [Title].'”
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Social media is your friend when researching agents

  • And speaking of matching up agents with what they’ve already said they like…Have you heard of MSWL? If not, write it down! There is a great website/resource called MSWL — Manuscript Wish List  — where agents regularly Tweet out exactly what they are hoping to find, and the results are tallied and searchable here: http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com You can do a search for exactly what you’ve written, such as #magic #chapterbook #unicorns, and see if there are any matches. It’s worth coming back to again and again.
  • If you’re a member of SCBWI (and if you’re not, don’t be an idiot, join already!), start looking up names and agencies with “The Book” that is online to members http://www.scbwi.org/online-resources/the-book/. Go to the Agents section. It lists websites for every agency that’s worth reviewing. [“The Book” also lists all major kidlit publishing houses, and gives websites and contact information as well as if they accept unagented or “unsolicited” manuscripts (unsolicited means you need to end a query first), if you decide against pursuing an agent.] Narrow down the agencies you like, then look at their agents, and if the agent reps your age range and/or genre and you think you’d get along, then give them a whirl. There are other sources online that charge for this information and may be worth looking into if you don’t have SCBWI access. Either way, always verify your searches with the agent websites and/or agent social media accounts. Do that with a basic Google search.
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  • Wondering about warning signs, such as contests disguised as paid editing services or agents asking for a reading fee? NEVER PAY AN AGENT TO READ YOUR MANUSCRIPT! RUN AWAY, RUN AWAY! [The exception is legit conferences where you submit your work for a fee in exchange for a critique/feedback, or fundraisers like #PensforPaws where agents (or editors) donate their time to giving you feedback and the money goes to charity. These are NOT solicitations for representation so don’r count as creepy agent maneuvers.] Tally up sleeze-meter readings with help from this list created by “Writer Beware” http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/agents/
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In all honesty, you don’t NEED an agent in the children’s book industry. If you ask me (and you did) I suggest you take all that time researching agents and spend it perfecting your manuscripts. You can submit to many editors and publishing houses directly.  The key is always quality writing, not the agent that submits it. 
The bottom line is: just like when writing your manuscript, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Perfect your work. Research out a few solid agents that will work FOR YOU, submit per their exact submission guidelines, and see what they say. If they all pass b/c they say your manuscript isn’t ready, well, you know what your next steps will be.
If they like it, well, wasn’t all that work worth it?
Write on!

Pay to Enter a Writing Contest?

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There are some sneaky things going on in the writing world that you might not find sneaky. But I do. And I’m calling it out.

Writing contests. Mostly the kinds where you send in unpublished works.

It seems everyone and their mother, literally their mother, has some sort of reader’s or writer’s choice award. All you have to do is pay a small fee, say $19 to enter your manuscript or book into the contest. WHY ARE YOU PAYING MONEY TO ENTER A WRITING CONTEST? At least at the state fair you get a free fair pass in exchange for your peach pie entry fee. If it’s for charity, of course, yes yes pony up. But otherwise NO. As in NO.

What do you win? Let’s dissect a bit.

It might be bragging rights that you won a writing contest. That’s OK. It doesn’t have to be a trip to Sweden to accept the award.

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Maybe it’s simple a ribbon or actual award/plaque. Fine. Still not a reason to cough up dough. Don’t tell me they are charging you to cover the cost of the actual award. Oh please.

Why would you pay money to say someone liked your unpublished story? Will it help you move forward, professionally, in some way? Really? Don’t fork over cash just to have your ego massaged. Volunteer somewhere if you feel the need for that kind of ego boost. Or I can tell you: You are a good person. You have value. Your writing is great. I think you’ll amount to something someday. Really. I believe in you. Please don’t waste your money.

Ask yourself these questions:

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