Posted in Publishing, Writing

Why You Need to Learn How to Write Compelling Loglines

In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,

A logline pitch is what most agents and editors compose to get attention for our projects. It’s a distillation of your book into a short, digestible, and, ideally, electrifying idea.

If you want to become a successful writer, it’s vital you learn how to write loglines.

This is most especially the case if you write screenplays or novels, although figuring out a logline for your latest short story can be helpful, too.

A logline can seem annoying to you at first. You might think, I just put six months into this script or novel. I just gave it everything I have, and now I have to find a way to pitch the thing in one to two sentences???

Yep, you do.

In fact the earlier you figure out your dynamic, electrifying pitch the better. The worst thing you can do is spend a year or longer on your latest novel, and then discover there’s no clear way to pitch the thing in a concise way to the people who matter — literary agents and editors.

I’m struggling with this a bit right now actually with my MFA thesis novel. It has two POV characters who only slightly intersect with each other until the very end of the narrative. Trying to figure out how to pitch this particular project has given me many a headache, especially since I’ve been working on it for two and a half years.

There’s a lot that you’re asked of as a writer, I know. Not only do you need to revise your novel or screenplay to the point where it’s ready to be queried, but you also have to often write a 1–2 page synopsis, which is a tedious process but necessary for most agents and editors.

And then, of course, there’s the logline. That brief sentence or two that can make a world of difference in your writing career.

So what exactly is a logline?

Mary Kole features a clear definition in her book:

The logline is a sentence that delivers all the necessary information about a project. The genre, the protagonist, the set-up, the problem or the hindrance to said goal.

You should in two sentences or less be able to quickly tell another person what your book or script is about in a way that makes that person want to read it. And you should be able to in as few words as possible get across your genre, who your main character is, the main set-up and conflict, and what the problem is for that character in reaching his or her goal.

Here are three samples of loglines from Kole’s book…

A kid with legendary bad luck must survive a juvenile detention camp’s secret agenda and unearth the truth about his family curse. (Holes by Louis Sachar)

A boy grieving for his crush receives a box of tapes sent just before her suicide that implicates thirteen people in her death — and he’s one of them. (Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher)

A popular girl has the opportunity to relive her last day over and over against to see if she can change her ways and alter her destiny. (Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver)

Notice had none of these three examples necessarily gives away the genre of the book, so if the genre sort of comes through in your pitch of the story, you likely don’t need to explicitly state it.

Just get to the story, the main character, the dilemma. Do what you need to do to ensure that your latest writing project is attractive to your potential readers!

No matter what part of the writing process you’re in, try to boil your project down to a logline.

You don’t have to be finished. You don’t even have to have started the novel or screenplay yet! I’ve heard famous authors say you should come up with the logline before you write a single word. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but some people stand by it.

Yes, at a certain point you’re going to need to come up with a way to pitch your project in a couple of sentences. Sure, in a query letter for a novel or screenplay you can write a little bit more than two sentences. You can usually get away with six to eight sentences or so when you’re discussing the story.

But figuring out your logline sooner than later will absolutely help you in the long run. It will help you understand what makes your project stand out, what makes it unique. Discovering the perfect logline early on will get you even more excited to keep working on your project and ultimately complete it!

And it will also help you find that all-important audience when that logline attracts the readers you want. Like beta readers, sure, but also agents and editors. The people who have the power to make a major difference.

So go for it! Come up with incredible loglines time and time again, and there’s no telling how much success you’ll have throughout your writing career.

Posted in Publishing, Writing

Why You Need to Take a Chance on Writing a Commercial Book


You should write the book that compels you first and foremost, no matter its sales potential.

If the book you want to write might not be commercial enough, might not be the easiest sell in the world, but you want to do it anyway? Then by all means, write it.

I’ve had a couple of books like this in the past. A novel about two boys who meet on the first day of first grade and proceed to fall in love over the course of twelve years, that was one. I’ve tried to sell it on and off for four years now, with no success.

For the most part I’ve been lucky in that what compels me for the most part in my novels is commercial stories. Stories of romance and horror and suspense. Stories that will hopefully grip any reader who comes in contact with it.

Because here’s the deal. If you want to be a novel writer, at the end of the day, you need to at least grasp the concept of commercial novels, of sales hooks. You need to write books that lots and lots of people will want to read!

In her 2012 book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole defines a commercial novel as the following…

A commercial book is one that has blockbuster potential, whether it’s because of a trendy genre, an engaging world, an unforgettable character, or a great “meets” comparison. For example, a commercial premise could be “Lord of the Flies meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and gets a lot of editor attention (if done well). Commercial books are larger than life and have higher stakes than most literary books.

I grew up loving commercial books, loving commercial movies, and I’ve always been drawn to larger-than-life stories that have high stakes.

And you know what? So do many readers, especially younger ones.

They want a story that keep them hooked from beginning to end. One that offers endless surprises. One that makes it impossible for each and every one of them to put the book down!

That’s the kind of book you want to write, whether it features non-stop action or features no action of any kind. It doesn’t really matter the genre ultimately. What kind of story can you tell that has big stakes, not small stakes. What kind of story can you tell that will transport the reader to a different place?

And what kind of story can you tell that has a great sales hook to a potential agent, editor, librarian, reader? What will make people want to read it?

Kole defines a sales hook as the following…

[It’s a] selling point. Is this book in a particularly hot genre? Does it feature romantic elements or a strong friendship story? Does it tackle a hot-button issue in a new way? Is it about an especially timely topic? Is there something to the storytelling that makes it stand out? A selling point isn’t a gimmick, but it’s a unique benefit that’s easy to get excited about and pitch.

Having a sales hook is important because it will actually get the important people who can make a difference in your professional life as a writer to get excited about your latest manuscript.

I write books for children. I want to get my books in front of children. But the only way I will ever get there is to write a book that will excite my agent, excite editors, excite librarians. And a really helpful way to do all of that is to write a book that has a commercial component, that has a hook of some kind.

Remember that you don’t ever want to write a book just to write something commercial.

All those gatekeepers I mentioned before will see right through that. You have to be passionate about your stories and characters, you have to care about the world you’ve created.

To write something just to sell it, just to make money, without any deep feeling or care for the story as a whole, will lead you down a lonely road that ends in disappointment.

At the end of the day you need to write the story you’re fascinated by, that you simply have to write no matter what. And even if it’s not the most commercial story in the universe, still at least keep in mind those elements that make up a commercial story in the months and years to come.

Because it’s super important, always, to consider your potential readers, as Kole talks about in her book…

[Your readers] want stories that surprise them, thrill them, and lift them out of the everyday with a once-in-a-lifetime plot that’s a big departure from their normal existence. What’s something they can’t experience in reality? What’s something realistic but unlikely to ever happen to them? What are some universal “What-if” questions all humans tend to indulge in and that you can drill into? This is the beginning of high-concept thinking.

Your readers want a story they’ve never experienced before. Something that will keep them mesmerized from the first page to the last.

Give them that story, no matter what story it may be, no matter what genre it might be in.

Take a chance on writing a commercial book one of these days… and then see what happens!

Posted in Fiction, Publishing, Writing

Wow, My Short Story is Being Published in a Paperback Journal!


It usually doesn’t work out this way.

Usually I write a new short story, and I brace myself for two years or longer before it sells.

I have two stories I wrote in 2016 that still haven’t sold. Two stories that have been rejected more than fifty times each.

I have a story called ‘Character Driven’ I first wrote as a screenplay way back in 2005 before I eventually turned it into a short story in 2017 and received dozens of rejections over the course of eighteen months before it finally sold to a paperback anthology.

I’ve even had stories that took four years to sell, like my piece of creative non-fiction ‘A Window to Dreams’ which I wrote in 2012 and then sold to a literary magazine in 2016.

And like my story ‘I’ll See You in the Morning,’ one of my favorites I’ve ever written, which I wrote the first draft of in May of 2015. I revised this story more than a dozen times and I collected probably seventy to eighty rejections on it before it finally sold to an online literary magazine earlier this year.

Let’s just say I’ve had my share of difficulty with trying to sell my short stories. I don’t write too many of them — one or two a year — and so each one means a great deal to me.

Earlier this year I wrote my newest short story, ‘Walter.’

This was my first story I’d written after receiving my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2018, and the process of it was kind of great.

For the first time in years, I was writing a story I knew wasn’t going to be workshopped. That I was writing more for me than anybody else.

I had an encounter with a homeless man last March in Portland, Oregon, where I was attending the AWP Writers Conference, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the encounter when I was traveling home to Reno. I thought those ten seconds or so held the nugget for a new story.

Wouldn’t you know it, in mid-April of this year I sent the latest draft of my middle grade horror novel off to my literary agent, and I suddenly found myself with two to three weeks with no creative project to work on.

These periods don’t happen to me too often, actually. Usually I’m writing the first draft of one novel and then revising the fifth draft of a second novel and then maybe tinkering away on the twelfth draft of a third novel. I usually jump from one project to the next all throughout the year, with little time to dedicate to a new short story.

But suddenly I saw myself with three weeks to work on something new, and the encounter with the homeless man was still lingering in my mind.

So I wrote the story. And I wrote it really fast.

I wrote the first draft in five days. I started it on a Monday morning. I finished it on a Friday morning. I wrote 800 words a day, and the first draft was 4,000 words exactly. The original title was ‘Spare Any Change?’

The following week I changed the title to ‘Walter’ and I cut about 300 words and added about 200 new words.

The third week I cut another 300 words, got the manuscript to a place I felt really good about it, and then I let the story rest for a month.

At the end of May, I read through the story one more time, tweaked a few final things, then sent the story off to ten literary magazines.

I hoped I might hear back from a few of them throughout the summer. I heard back from half of them. All rejections. But that was okay. I’m used to rejections.

In June I sent it to two more magazines, and at the end of July I came across a literary magazine called Bosque Journal that took literary stories under 5,000 words and ONLY accepted submissions between July 1 and July 31! So I sent it off quickly. The editors at Bosque rejected a story I wrote last year, so I didn’t have high hopes.

On Tuesday afternoon, I received an e-mail.

I’ve been hard at work on other projects. I haven’t even been thinking about ‘Walter’ much lately.

I heard the ding sound from my phone telling me I had a new e-mail. I clicked on my inbox. And saw the following word.


That really is a great word, isn’t it? Especially when you’re a writer. Acceptance. Not rejection. For once in my lifetime, it’s not rejection.

I figured I’d was going to be sending ‘Walter’ to literary magazines well into 2020 and beyond. And I was okay with that, honestly. It’s my philosophy that you should send out a short story 100 times before you give up, after all.

I felt it’d be a miracle for this new story to be accepted in less than a year. I didn’t think I was going to hear any good news this summer, that’s for sure.

So color me surprised when I learned that the story was accepted by the editors of Bosque Journal, a well-regarded paperback literary magazine, and will be published in its ninth issue this November! How cool, is that?

This brings me number of story acceptances on to 5.

5 acceptances, and 428 rejections. Yep, you read that right.

This great news about my latest story is further proof that if you want to be successful as a fiction writer, you can never give up. You have to keep going no matter what. You might go a whole year receiving rejection after rejection. You might think your fiction is worth absolutely nothing.

And then one day, you discover your fiction is worth something. That it’s actually worth more than you thought. You discover you have talent, that you have something to say. Someone out there loved your story… and you’re about to be a published author!

Amazing moments like this one is exactly why the writing journey is worth taking.

Because when you’re rejected most of the time, an acceptance is truly an out-of-body experience.

My little story I wrote mostly for me is now going to be released into the world later this year… and I couldn’t be more excited.

It’s like what I’ve said before. You won’t get rich writing short stories, but if you love writing fiction, if you want to have a long career, it’s worth doing anyway.

So do what I did. Write the next story, revise it a few times, send it out widely.

And then see what happens.

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

This is the One Thing a Reader Wants



In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,

Today’s publishing marketplace is tough. Not all writers who set out to publish will see their dreams come true. And even if they do publish, readers will not automatically flock to your writing without good reason. The only thing a reader wants, at the end of the day, is to care about a character and a story. That’s it, that’s all. If you let them down here, they will not return to your pages.

The one thing a reader wants is simple.

A reader wants a character and a story to care about. That’s it.

A character. And a story. To care about.

Sure, there are other factors that will keep a reader flipping through the pages all the way until the end.

Big surprises. High stakes. Constant tension. A good mix of dialogue and description.

But a compelling novel especially comes to down to that one thing: a character and story to care about, deeply and completely.

I don’t know about you, but if I don’t care about both of those elements, I struggle continuing on with a novel I’m reading.

Especially when it comes to character. I don’t even need an extraordinary story if the characters mean something to me.

I just adored every minute of the third season of Stranger Things, and something that hit me by the end of the first episode was that I love the characters on the show so much that I’d still enjoy the show if nothing extraordinary happened.

If there were no monsters. If there were no big stakes.

If all the show did was explore those characters’ lives, I would still want to be there for every minute of it.

Such is the case with the best fiction.

You want your characters to be so compelling that very little could happen in the story, and you would still go along for the ride.

So when you do have a lot happen throughout the narrative, when you throw endless surprises and twists at the reader, when there’s a major death nobody sees coming, when an ending reveals something about a character that changes your entire perspective on the book…. your reader will absolutely love you for it.

Mary Kole is right: the publishing marketplace is tough. There are lots of reasons for an editor to say no to your novel.

What you want to do is write a story and characters that nobody will want to say no to.

That no readers will ever be able to put down… even if they try!

All a reader wants at the end of the day is to care about a story and a character.

If you can master that part of novel writing, there’s no telling how much success you’ll be able to achieve.

Posted in Publishing, Writing

Learn to Think Big with Your Stories if You Want to be Published


In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole says,

Many beginning writers fall into the trap of thinking too small with their stories. The resulting projects lack multidimensional characters, tension, and stakes. The whole novel goes from point A to point B with only a few bumps in an otherwise straight line. None of the characters experience deep, seismic shifts in their lives, beliefs, or identities. And I fail to care even a little bit about the story because there’s not much of one.

If your reader doesn’t care about your story, it’s over.

There’s no way around it. There’s nothing you can do about it. And it doesn’t matter that you think every sentence of your story is lovely, that your use of setting is stellar, that your POV work is ambitious.

There needs to be a story that readers care about. And you need to write characters they connect with. I’ve struggled a lot in my writing life throughout the years, but one thing I’ve tried hard to do well when it comes to my short stories and novels is writing compelling stories with three-dimensional characters. Stories that make you keep flipping through the pages. Characters you can relate to.

I would much rather read a novel that’s just so-so written but has an amazing story and unique characters than read a novel that’s beautifully written but has no story or characters I care about. Something needs to pull you through the narrative. Something needs to keep you coming back. I’m a slow reader and often need a week or longer to finish a novel.

I can’t tell you how many novels I’ve started reading that I enjoyed for a few chapters… but then lost interest. I’m sure the same thing has happened to you, too. Sometimes I’ll make it halfway through a novel and then still give up. And with more and more years that go by, and less and time it seems, that book really needs to keep me hooked from beginning to end.

Such is why it’s important for you not to think too small with your stories, and instead think big.

But what exactly does it mean to think big with your stories?

You might think this means you need to write a giant epic fantasy novel that takes place in a whole new world with robots and cyborgs and magical lands and apocalyptic winters and death-defying action scenes.

No. Thinking big with your story doesn’t mean the story itself needs to be big and epic. You can still tell a realistic contemporary novel about a romance. You can write a suspense thriller that takes place in one day. You can tell a simple story about friendship and growing up, you can really do whatever you want when it comes to the actual idea.

What Mary Kole is discussing in that quote is that you need to go beyond your basic story idea in order to write a truly compelling novel. It’s not enough to just come up with an idea you love and tell the story in a way that offers little in the way of obstacles and tension and surprises. It’s not enough to come up with a cast of stereotypical characters we’ve read in a hundred other books.

Sure, just getting a first draft of a novel completed is a major first step and worthy of celebration. A lot of people can’t even get that far.

But if you want to be published, you need to start thinking bigger. Imagine you’re the reader of your book. Would you want to read every page? Is there any place in the narrative you might find yourself drifting?

Kole talks about stakes in that quote. I believe having high stakes in a novel is immensely important. High stakes can be a lot of things, of course. It can be life and death for your protagonist externally or internally. It can be winning the state championship game, or getting the girl, or just surviving middle school. But the stakes need to be there somewhere, in every chapter hopefully. You can’t write a story that grips the reader without any stakes.

Stand out from the pack by thinking big, not small, with your latest story.

When it comes to your latest narrative, don’t just do the obvious. Don’t take your story from point A to point B in a way that twenty other writers would, too. Do something original. Throw obstacles at your characters. Tell your story from a POV that might not be expected. Include a twist in chapter five, not necessarily chapter twenty-five.

There’s a lot you need to do in order to be a published novelist. So many struggles you’ll face along the way, like I have. You can follow all the rules, do everything you think you need to, and still get rejected. You can write the best story you can, revise it to death over the course of two or three years, and still get rejected. You can sign with an awesome agent, have your work pitched to equally awesome editors, and still get rejected.

It’s why one of the first things you should do when you start a new project is think big, not small. Think about ways you can stand out from the pack. The idea itself doesn’t have to necessarily be super original, but the way you tell the story should be. You should tell the story in a way that no other author would.

You might not deliver on your first novel, or your latest novel, whichever number that may be. It might take you a few more. I just finished the first draft of my twentieth novel… and I’m still trying. I’m still going for it, thinking big every time.

If your dream is to become a published novelist like mine is, just keep writing, keep growing, and keep thinking big.

As long as you don’t give up, you’ll get there eventually!

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

Here are the Essentials of Young Adult Fiction


In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole says,

Bookstores have an MG area and a YA area. They’re not sharpening their saws to build a special hybrid shelf just for your project. These guidelines will help you make an educated decision [of which market you’re writing for].

It’s important as a writer to learn the difference between middle grade and young adult.

Don’t ever think you can lump them together, as Mary Kole says.

Sure, there’s the rare instance like the Harry Potter series, where the first three books are middle grade and then the rest of the books veer more into YA territory, with Harry aging and the themes growing darker.

But in pretty much all cases, MG and YA are separate things. Yes, they’re both kidlit. Yes, many literary agents will represent authors who write both MG and YA, and many editors will be on the lookout to buy both MG and YA. And many authors write both successfully!

But when it comes to your novel, it should never be a little of both. It should be either MG or YA. Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. It honestly wasn’t until I picked up Mary Kole’s book in 2014 that I finally began to understand the major and minor differences between MG and YA.

Let’s take a look at the essentials of young adult fiction!

Young Adult Essentials

Here are some rules you should try at all times to stick to when writing YA books…

  • Your main character or characters should be fifteen to seventeen years old. Sixteen is typically ideal.

Of the twenty books I’ve written, fourteen of them are young adult. This is the market I love to write for the most. I’ve written all kinds of YA. Realistic YA, fantasy YA, horror YA, thriller YA, LGBTQ YA. I’ve tried so many different kinds of stories for the young adult market.

And one thing I have found over the years that has brought me the most success is writing main characters that are sixteen years old. This age seems to be the sweet spot. Seventeen works, too. And fifteen as well, although I’ve never actually written a YA to date about a fifteen year old.

Keep in mind that most YA readers are younger than the age of your protagonist. Like eleven, twelve, thirteen. These readers want to read up, so sixteen or seventeen is typically ideal for your character’s age.

One thing I’d recommend? Try not to write about an eighteen year old. A literary agent once told me to my face, “I can’t sell YA with an eighteen-year-old protagonist.” I was told this five years ago. Maybe things have changed.

But if you can, try to make your protagonist sixteen unless there’s a really strong and specific reason why the character needs to be older or younger.

  • The length of your young adult novel can go as short as 50,000 words, but unless you’re writing fantasy, try not to go over 90,000 words.

I’ve tried all sorts of lengths in my YA books. The longest one I ever queried was 82,000 words. The shortest one was 58,000 words. I didn’t have success with either one.

You want to know the lengths of the YA novels I did have success querying? Between 65,000 and 70,000 words. That seems to be the sweet spot for YA word counts because it’s long enough to tell a complete story but not too long to overwhelm any of the agents who might request your book. 75,000 is fine, too, of course. 80,000 probably won’t raise any eyebrows.

But I’d think long and hard about querying a novel that was longer than 90,000 words unless you have a really good reason for it. If you’re writing hard science fiction or fantasy, then maybe. But as soon as you hit 100,000 words and up, you’re going to have lots of agents click over to the next query letter in a heartbeat, remember that.

  • You can go edgier in your subject matter in YA than you can in MG.

Honestly this is a big reason why I often choose to write books for the YA market than the MG market. I don’t like to feel restricted about what I can and cannot do in my storytelling, and what’s so exciting about YA is that you can basically write any story you want, without restrictions, without too many rules or guidelines.

The truth is that librarians and parents are much stricter toward what MG books kids might read, but there’s not as harsh a strictness for YA books kids might read. In YA, for the most part, almost anything goes.

A few more rules to keep in mind…

  • Teens have a sensitive, built-in BS-o-meter, so for the YA market especially, authenticity is super important.
  • Realistic, contemporary stories do really well in YA.
  • There are fewer opportunities to target boy audiences in YA than there are in MG. You’re taking a gamble if you target your YA to a solely male audience.
  • Conflicts in YA tend to be bigger and all-consuming and are resolved in a more bittersweet note than MG.

Pay close attention to that first one. It’s critical that you bring authenticity and reality to your YA novels. Even if you’re no longer a teenager and aren’t around a lot of teenagers, you need to find that authenticity through any means necessary!

At the end of the day, feel free to do what you want in your YA writing.

Follow that story you love, that compels you. It’s important to take chances in YA and offer something new and exciting we’ve never seen before.

At the same time, be sure to keep at least most of these rules in the back of your mind, especially as you begin the process of writing your latest novel.

Once you’ve master the essentials of young adult fiction, there’s no telling the kind of incredible stories you’ll be able to create!

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

Here are the Essentials of Middle Grade Fiction


In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole says,

Bookstores have an MG area and a YA area. They’re not sharpening their saws to build a special hybrid shelf just for your project. These guidelines will help you make an educated decision [of which market you’re writing for].

It’s important as a writer to learn the difference between middle grade and young adult.

Don’t ever think you can lump them together, as Mary Kole says.

Sure, there’s the rare instance like the Harry Potter series, where the first three books are middle grade and then the rest of the books veer more into YA territory, with Harry aging and the themes growing darker.

But in pretty much all cases, MG and YA are separate things. Yes, they’re both kidlit. Yes, many literary agents will represent authors who write both MG and YA, and many editors will be on the lookout to buy both MG and YA. And many authors write both successfully!

But when it comes to your novel, it should never be a little of both. It should be either MG or YA. Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. It honestly wasn’t until I picked up Mary Kole’s book in 2014 that I finally began to understand the major and minor differences between MG and YA.

There are subtle differences between MG and YA which I plan to go into later. For now, let’s look at the way to tell at first glance what exactly is middle grade fiction…

Middle Grade Essentials

Here are some rules you should try at all times to stick to when writing MG books…

  • Your main character or characters should be eleven to thirteen years old. Twelve is typically ideal.

I’ve written three middle grade books to date, and all three feature twelve-year-old protagonists. I just feel like that’s the perfect age for MG. The characters are just entering middle school, always an awkward and scary time in adolescence. Things are changing. Friendships are being tested. It’s a great age to write about.

Thirteen is OK, too. So is eleven. But I wouldn’t go younger than eleven. Similarly, as soon as your main character hits age fourteen, you might find yourself being pushed into YA territory.

  • The length of your middle grade can go as short as 35,000 words, but unless you’re writing fantasy, try not to go over 60,000 words.

My first middle grade novel came in at 90,000 words, and then I queried it a few months later at 80,000 words. I was so clueless I actually thought MG novels were supposed to be just as long as YA, but such is not the case. Most MG novels are much shorter than YA novels, and some have even sold at 35,000 words.

My MG novel currently on submission to editors is 45,000 words. My newest MG I’m currently revising is at 43,000 words, and I’m trying in this latest draft to build it up a bit to 45,000 or 46,000 words. My agent once said that you’re pretty safe as long as you don’t go over 60,000 words. That seems to be the max number of words for most MG novels.

  • The most popular MG genres are magic and high fantasy, adventure, paranormal, mystery, and humor.

At the same time, it’s important you remember to write the kind of MG novel that speaks to you. Don’t just write a high fantasy because you think it’s popular and therefore will sell. If you want to write a quieter literary MG novel, go for it. I’m writing spooky horror MG books, which seem to be getting more popular for kids with each passing year.

But it’s at least important to keep in the back of your mind the kind of genres that usually fare well with agents, editors, and readers.

A few more rules to keep in mind…

  • There are more boy readers of MG than YA, so give your MG books greater room for boy appeal.
  • Think about the cultural and racial diversity of your cast of characters.
  • MG readers are welcoming of animal protagonists.
  • Historical novels have a place in MG, but the historical setting needs to be essential to the story.
  • Don’t set a story in the same decade that you were a child just because that’s what you remember. If you’re going to write an MG book set in a previous decade, you’ll need a better reason.
  • For the most part, modern or future settings work best in MG.

I would pay particularly close attention to those first two. Lots of boys read MG, so don’t think your audience is going to be strictly female. And make sure you think critically about cultural and racial diversity in your fiction writing as well.

At the end of the day, feel free to do what you want in your MG writing… within reason.

Follow that story you love, that compels you. If that story is set in the 1940s in France with dog protagonists, go ahead and write it! It’s important to take chances in MG and offer something new and exciting we’ve never seen before.

At the same time, be sure to keep at least most of these rules in the back of your mind, especially as you begin the process of writing your latest novel.

Once you’ve master the essentials of middle grade fiction, there’s no telling the kind of incredible stories you’ll be able to create!

Posted in Publishing, Writing

Don’t Feel Pressured to Write the Next Blockbuster Novel


In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,

The blockbuster mentality that is rampant in Hollywood and in adult and nonfiction publishing has finally come to the kidlit market. We now know that children’s books can make money, so we expect them to. That is a change that writers must pay attention to.

“So, are you writing the next Harry Potter?”

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I get asked this question often enough to make me want to strangle someone. It’s maddening to tell a person you’ve just met that you’re a young adult novel writer and then get that common response. I truly do hear it all the time.

No, I’m not writing the next Harry Potter. And more importantly, I wouldn’t even know how to write the next Harry Potter.

That first book was a case of lightning in a bottle. Something incredible that came around at just the right time and became a phenomenon unlike any other. It simply can’t be replicated. Even if I go on to write another fifty novels, I’ll never write anything as popular as that series.

You might of course be compelled to write something that reaches even five percent of the popularity of Harry Potter. Something that can reach what’s known as blockbuster mentality.

And don’t be naive to think that people in the publishing industry aren’t looking for the next blockbuster, too.

Until Harry Potter, children’s books were never looked at as blockbusters. Some books sold better than others, but before Harry Potter, children’s books weren’t necessarily the go-to place for film and TV adaptations, it wasn’t the place for massive hits that both kids and adults wanted to read with equal amounts of enthusiasm.

But in the last twenty years or so, kidlit has been looked at as a place for huge blockbusters. Nearly every year there’s at least one break-out success, and people in the publishing industry are always looking for the next one.

Mary Kole is right: for those of us who write books for children and teenagers, we should at least be aware of the blockbuster mentality. And we should be aware that books in children’s literature are expected to make money.

That second part of course goes to books in most markets. That book you spend months or years on and revised with an agent and then sold to an editor is expected to earn everybody some income. You should be writing the book you want to write, but you should also be thinking about your market and your genre expectations.

At the same time though, don’t ever feel pressured to write the next blockbuster novel.

That’s a place no author I believe ever wants to be in. If you write your next book expecting it to be a blockbuster, odds are you’ll be disappointed in the end, and worse, your book will probably lack any heart because what was at the forefront of your mind while writing it was money.

Yes, you should want to earn income from your writing, and you should hope to sell your next novel. But to write a novel strictly for money, in the hopes that it might turn into some kind of blockbuster, is an illogical exercise. There are so many other ways to earn a living, after all. There are so many other things you can do.

Hope for the best with your writing career, always, but when it comes to the actual writing of your next novel, write the story that compels you. Tell a story you want to tell. If it turns into a blockbuster, then great. If it doesn’t? Then that’s fine, too.

Whatever you do, don’t feel that pressure. Just keep loving the process, tell the best stories you can, and eventually amazing things will happen!

Posted in Publishing, Writing

Why You Should Never Query Your Novel as a Series


In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,

I urge all beginning writers to think of stories that stand alone and not to require a series contract right off the bat. Depending on your sales performance, that one satisfying tale might be all you ever get with that house.

I know, I know, you might be compelled to pitch your novel to literary agents as a series.

Why shouldn’t you, after all, since series is truly where the money is when it comes to book publishing.

Unless you’re one of the really, really lucky ones who hit it big, stand alone novels can often struggle in terms of sales. And series, which readers clearly love, are often where authors make the big bucks.

Think back on the biggest publishing phenomenons of the past twenty years. Harry Potter. Twilight. The Hunger Games. Jack Reacher. Alex Cross. Outlander.

All series. All written by authors who have made millions and millions.

People working in the publishing industry are always looking for the next big series, and so it should be in the back of your mind to attempt a series of books sooner or later. I definitely have. I’ve written and self-published two trilogies earlier this decade. And I’ve written at least three books since that I definitely set up for sequels at the end.

My book currently agented and on submission to editors is being pitched as a stand alone, although the ending is written in a way where there definitely could be one, possibly two sequels. I’ve actually outlined two sequels to this middle grade book already and have clear ideas of where the story could go.

If you’re written the first installment of a series, you might be compelled in your query letters to say it’s the start of a trilogy, or the start of a five-book series, of whatever you think it may be.

Ultimately you’ll have more success, however, if you pitch your novel as a stand alone.

And going a step further, I would suggest you write the novel in a way that makes it so that it could continue into a second book but that it could also end in book one. Find a solid middle ground.

Because here’s the deal: pitching a series right off the bat can scare potential agents and/or editors away, and so what you should do instead is write the best book you can and let it stand on its own merits.

Agents might not take a chance on you if they feel that you’re only interested in writing a series and not a stand alone. Furthermore, that agent might take you on, but then an editor might only be interested in purchasing the first installment from you, and not any sequels. You might spend all this time setting things up for part two when your editors wants you to wrap things up at the end of part one!

Mary Kole is right in that you’ll be better off in the long run by capturing the magic of your story as best you can in the first installment, instead of putting yourself in a position where a series contract is required.

At the same time, you want to be ambitious in your novel writing career.

You want to sometimes think about writing a series. Be ambitious, and think big! But you also need to be smart about how you go about this process. You might imagine a seven-book series, but it’s probably best you keep that to yourself, at least for now.

If you put in your query letter that this is the first of seven books, you will struggle finding an agent, I guarantee you that. You might get lucky with one person who believes in you, especially if the writing is strong, but you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot like this ever.

Now you could write a sentence near the bottom of your query letter like this: [Title] would appeal to readers of [such and such] and could be the first of a series. I don’t think it hurts to vaguely point to the book potentially being the beginning of a series. Any agent might even like that there’s series potential.

It’s when you write a sentence like, [Title] is the first of a seven-book series, all six sequels of which I’ve heavily outlined, and I can send you those outlines if you’d like as well.

Do not do this! You might think you’re standing out from the crowd in a good way, but usually sentences like those stink of amateur writers.

When in doubt, don’t even mention a series, and let the agent fall in love with your book so much that he or she asks you later on, Could this be a series? Only then should you discuss your ideas for future books!

One other thing: do not, under any circumstances, write the sequels before you sell the first book!

If you’re self-publishing, go all out. Write twenty books of your series. Series are huge in the self-publishing world.

But if you’re querying your novel to literary agents, don’t waste your time in the following few weeks or months writing part two and part three.

You might think you’re saving time by writing book two now because you just know your first book’s going to sell later in a two-book deal where a sequel is going to be requested… but the editor or even the agent might not like the direction your second installment goes in, and all that work might have been for nothing.

If you’re aiming for traditional publishing and want your latest project to be a series, the best thing you can do is write a first book that could be a stand-alone but also has enough of an open ending that it could continue as well. And then take the time maybe to outline what books two and three could be. I’ve done that with my book on submission, and you can do that, too.

Just stay ambitious, think big, and be smart when it comes to the world of book publishing. You’ll be glad you did!

Posted in Publishing, Writing

Why You Need to Understand Your Market as a Writer


In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole says,

Writing does not exist in a vacuum. The savviest aspiring writers must have a serious understanding of their intended market, not just their craft.

Of course your craft is important as a writer.

For most of us, it’s what we pay most attention to, and for good reason. You’re never going to get anywhere if your writing sucks. If your writing doesn’t come together in the way it should. If your writing is mediocre to the extent that you can never find an agent or get any of your work published.

In the beginning, you absolutely should focus almost completely on the quality of your writing. Because it often takes a few manuscripts, a few years, to get really good at it. Nobody but the geniuses of the world write a perfect book the first time around. I’ve written twenty books in less than ten years, and I genuinely don’t feel like I started getting good at novel writing until book twelve or thirteen.

And this is something you should remember, too, before we discuss the importance of writing to the market: write whatever the hell you want to write. Write the story, the characters, that mean something to you. Often the best work comes from the heart, and not from some hidden agenda to write something in a popular genre that sells well. Don’t resist a story just because you think it doesn’t fit inside the perfect market or the perfect mold.

If you believe in something, go for it no matter what. Maybe it will fail in the long run. I’ve had plenty of novels I believed in fail in the past decade. But maybe if you take a huge chance you’ll have a payoff down the road like you could never believe!

So work on and study the craft of writing, keep practicing with different stories and different characters and different genres if you can, and always write the narratives that compel you the most.

At the same time though, at least eventually, you need to develop a serious understanding of the market you intend to sell your work in.

The word market of course is heavily linked to the word genre, so you might think of it a potential market as readers of adult romance books or readers of adult mystery books.

But market doesn’t always just mean genre. Children’s books, aka kidlit, is a market, not a genre, and going more specific, there’s a market in children’s books for picture book readers, chapter book readers, middle grade readers, and young adult readers.

Middle grade is not a genre, and young adult is not a genre. Middle grade and young adult are categories, audiences, markets.

I write for both middle grade and young adult markets. Although both markets rest in the world of kidlit, these two markets are extremely different. There are different rules, expectations, ages of readers. And the earlier I learned exactly what kinds of stories worked best for these markets, the more success I’ve had in the last few years as a novel writer.

So how do you develop a better understanding of your market?

There are lots of ways! And don’t feel like you need to understand everything right away. It might take a few years and lots of research and exploration to figure out your market to its full potential.

But here are five things you can do right now…

1. Read as many books as you can from your market.

This is the most obvious one of course. You should be doing this already. Part of the job of being a writer is being a reader too, and something you should always be doing is reading books, recent ones if possible, that are aimed at the market you’re currently writing for.

As a MG and YA writer, for example, I try to seek out the latest and greatest MG and YA books to read. Doing so is fun, first and foremost, but I also learn a little bit from every new MG and YA book I pick up. I learn more about voice, about pacing, about structure, particularly when it comes to books aimed at these two particular markets.

So no matter what market you’re writing for, pick up at least one new book a month written for that market and read it cover to cover to try to learn something new.

2. Study what literary agents represent books in that market.

I genuinely believe the earlier you start putting together a database of literary agents that sell books in your market the better. When I was doing revisions on my first novel back in the summer of 2010, I started a Word document of all the potential agents I could send the book to, and then over the course of seven years I kept adding to and refining that list, particularly when I moved on to strictly writing for the MG and YA markets.

As of 2017, right before I signed with my agent, I had two immense documents filled with information about literary agents, one document for MG agents and one document for YA agents. Each document was more than 30 pages long.

Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to the world of literary agents, because they are your guides to potentially selling your book to editors. The more you learn about literary agents in your field, the better off you’ll be.

3. Research what kind of editors publish book in that market.

This list is a bit more difficult to put together than the list for literary agents, but a great resource you should take a look at if you haven’t already is This site is where you can find everything you need to know about literary agents, as well as most editors, too! Many editors won’t look at a query for your novel if you don’t have an agent, but some editors will, and even the ones who don’t you should begin to learn about.

Yes, at the end of the day, your literary agent will do the hard work of finding what editors he or she should pitch your novel to, but it doesn’t hurt to at least have an understanding of the big and small publishers out there, and any editor who might be the perfect fit for your latest work-in-progress.

Something I love to do, and something you should do as well, is turn to recent books you love written in your market and read through the acknowledgements page at the back! Here you will often find the name of the author’s literary agent and editor and publishing house. You can learn so much about your intended market from an acknowledgments page, never forget that.

4. Look up what kinds of books are selling in your market through websites like Publisher’s Marketplace.

Another awesome resource for authors is Publisher’s Marketplace. You have to pay to join, but it’s well worth it. Here you can find what novels are selling and by whom and for how much in any market you choose. I love to see, for example, what’s currently selling in MG and YA.

You can keep developing your database if you want, not just for literary agents and editors but also of authors writing in your market. Track the different stages of their novels throughout the months. Study what that author is doing to get people interested in his or her novel. I love to see what people are doing and saying on Twitter in the weeks or months before their book’s release, for example.

All of this will help you in the long run, even if you might not get your book published for another five years or longer. The more you learn about the publishing industry, the more power you’ll have when you finally get your book deal!

5. Take note of ways writers find fresh new hooks and voices for books in your market.

Lastly, something Mary Kole talks about in her book is that you can’t just rely on cliches of books from your market that have sold well in the past. Remember that books coming out today were likely sold a year or longer ago. So what editors are buying and what agents are representing right now in 2019 probably is something vastly different!

So don’t ever feel pressured to write something that was popular this year or last year, it will get you nowhere. Even a book that sells today might have a concept that is cliche even just a year or two from now.

It’s a tricky balancing act, I know.

You need to know your market well enough so that you don’t spend a year or longer of your life writing a novel that for whatever reason just won’t ever find a place in that particular market. If you’re writing a YA novel, for example, don’t have the protagonist be twenty years old and have your second main character be thirteen. The ages of your characters might not seem important, but in YA the ages are especially important! Don’t shoot yourself in the foot like that. Learn your market. Learn what’s expected.

But at the same time don’t just write the same old story that’s sold well in years past. You might think you’re being smart by writing a story that has sold before and will likely sell again, but at the end of the day, you’ll be better served telling a story that you’re passionate about, that is unique in some way and offers a freshness to the market.

Just learn your market to the best of your ability, and keep writing. If you eventually understand your market well, and are writing one fantastic book after another, your time as a published author will come, I guarantee it!