General, The Selection, advice

10 things I do when I edit

So this will probably be the most boring post ever, but with all my talk about flags in Book 2 of The Selection trilogy, I thought you might like to know how I edit.

In truth, so much of the work you do as a writer is editing. You only get it out of your head once. The rest is making it suck less until (hopefully) it doesn’t suck at all. I’m really lucky because I have an awesome team that will straight up tell me what sucks and will encourage me through the rest. But, at the end of the day, the job of making it pretty falls on me. Sooo…

Once I get my editorial letter and manuscript back, this is what I do:

  1. I bind it. You might have noticed that I tweet from Panera a lot. That’s where I work. I don’t have a space to work in my house, and I’m terrified I’m going to drop it on the floor in public and just lose everything, so I have to have it bound.
  2. I pick a pen. Erica does her edits in purple. I love this. And every time I come across something that she says to change, I check it off with a non-purple pen (usually a really bright pink) so I know I took care of it.
  3. I whip out the sticky tabs. When I come across something, like a big picture detail from my editorial letter or a line that needs to change but I need to think about, I highlight it and put a flag on that page so I know to go back to it. For me, it’s dumb to waste time working straight through when an edit might take me 20 minutes to fix now… or 5 to fix later.
  4. I make notes. You know how I said I bind my book? Well, sometimes that means I punch through Erica’s notes and have to ask her what she said. Or I see something in a totally different light than she does and don’t think it should be changed. Sometimes I keep another document open just for notes I’m making back to Erica, or I scribble them in the manuscript.
  5. I go with my gut. From time to time I come to a section that might be cut or moved or rewritten so fixing what’s in them might be a waste of time. Or maybe I can’t work on what’s next because I think I know how to fix a big scene. If so, I drop the line edits and work on that. 
  6. I finish. No highlights, no flags, all the scenes in the right place, and all the notes worked in. Ahh.
  7. I go through it again. I make sure all the edits have a check by them, or if I kept something a certain way, I make sure there’s a good reason. Often, I even get a new pen and check all the checks over. That’s just me needing to be thorough. This is also the time I make sure everything I could possibly get from the editorial letter into the book is done.
  8. I read it again. I try to leave enough time to really read through the manuscript and make sure than anything I deleted or moved or added makes sense. Sometimes it doesn’t all work, and I have to write some more. I hate that.
  9. I send it back. I’ve taken to labeling things “Selection 3.0” and the like so I can keep the rounds of editing straight, because there are SEVERAL. And I send my notes on anything important back with it.
  10. I eat cake and wait. I know it will only be a few months until I have to read through my book again (Which is why you should always write what you love. You can’t escape.), so I try to use the down time to read other books, play with Guy, and work on what’s coming next.

And there you have it. I don’t know if what I do is normal… it’s just what I do. I once saw an author who broke her manuscript down into small pieces and put them in folders so she only had to tackle one part at a time. That’s smart, too. Anyway.

Was this helpful at all? Honestly, I’m still freaking out that The Selection is less than a month away, and my brain is on fire, so I really can’t tell. I hope it was. Even a little.

General, The Selection, advice

On Perfection

I get asked pretty regularly if I have any advice for newbie writers. Usually I say: Learn as much as you can. There’s so much going on behind the scenes of making a book, it benefits you to know as much about it as possible beforehand. This is one of the reasons I keep making Behind the Book videos. I hope my adventures will make your journey smoother.

But today I thought of something else, and I want to pass this on as well: Forget perfection.

Forget it. It doesn’t exist.

I say this because as I sit here working on Book 2 in The Selection Trilogy, I’m looking at a pile of purple marks on my manuscript, and I’m a bit overwhelmed. Granted, this feeling is probably because of the baby brain, but still. And this isn’t technically the first round of edits. The first thing I handed over was so jacked up, Erica (my editor) didn’t even bother doing line edits because I basically needed to gut the book and fix it. And, actually, that wasn’t even the first round because Elana (my agent) and I worked on it before sending it off. She put notes in the margin saying “Why? Just why?” at one point. It was that bad.

And I’m pretty sure that, no matter how long I do this, I will never send out a manuscript that doesn’t come back with something that needs to be changed. I will never get it right the first time.

And neither will you.

You will always have to work at being better, and really that’s a good thing. Hopefully it encourages you to be the best writer you can be and create the best books for your very generous readers. At this moment, it’s hard to look at those notes that way, but I know that every purple dash means you’re getting something better than what I originally put on the paper. As easily tired and confused as I am these days, I can’t complain about that.

On a related note, The Selection is less than two months from hitting shelves, and the pilot for the (potential) series is being shot right now. People have ARCs out there or have gotten hold of the script, and I’ve heard all kinds of opinions on this. There’s a range from “this is the best book I’ve ever read!” to “why are they making this piece of $h!t book into a show?”, and, honestly, that too is a good thing.

Yeah, sure, I wish that only the nice stuff made it to my ears. It’s already a pretty daunting task what I’m doing here, and it’s not always easy to do when you feel like there are people excited at the possibility of you failing— whatever failing even is— but haters are a good thing.

Hard to believe, I know, but that’s how I genuinely feel. If everyone loves what you’re doing, you’re not reaching enough people. If you get out of the safe waters of people who adore you, you will run into those who CANNOT STAND what you’ve done. Querying alone will teach you that.

This is one of those things you have to accept. Your idea of the perfect story will not be the same as everyone else’s. Try to be supported by the good stuff, ignore the bad stuff, and NEVER go looking for either. Trust me, enough of both will make its way to you. Alas.

Let perfection go. Aim for your personal best. And as things change, adjust that goal.

For me, I’m not even sure what that is right now. Maybe just seeing that gorgeous cover finally hardbound and on a shelf. That will be a goal four years in the making. I know, right?

Anyway. Just learn what your best is, always make the effort to create exactly that, and roll with the rest.

General, advice

Querying: An Update!

I’ve been seeing that a lot of friends on twitter are getting ready for the adventure of querying. Wahoo! Not gonna lie, I’m so happy I don’t have to do that again, but it makes me happy to watch other people do it. I have to tip my hat to anyone with the guts to try, and I wish you all luck!

A long time ago, I did a post on how to query, and I thought I would follow up with a little note about staying organized. I tend to be a bit of a mess, and the only things that save me are tools like festive folders that I can’t possibly lose, pens stashed in every corner of my house, and the gloriousness that is color coordination. So, as you go to make your list of agents, here are some tips on keeping everything together.

I still recommend using agentquery. It’s free and easy to navigate. All the information you need is listed under each agent, and here’s what I suggest you do with all that info. In a Word document:

  1. Order the agents you want to query in order of how much you love them. This is a long-term relationship, so if you happen to see that you have similar tastes in books or know they make you laugh on twitter, put them in your top 10. Or close to it anyway. I may have said this before, but I actually put Elana in the number 11 spot because I thought we would be a good fit and I was so afraid my first 10 would be rejections that I bumped her *just* out of it. Superstitious and silly, but it worked in the long run.
  2. List the agent’s name and beside that any pertinent notes, like that they’re actively seeking your genre or you met them at a conference. Underneath that, put the agency. Note beside that if a rejection from one agent is a rejection from the whole agency. Some are small and share stuff if they think another agent will like it, so you if you have multiples from one agency, pick a fave and go with it.
  3. Get the stats: You need their email address or snail mail address if they’re not down with e-queries. Beneath that, you want a list of what they ask for. Just a query? A query and the first 10 pages? Whatever it is, write it down, and before you send out a single query, make sure you have everything you need. I needed the letter, a 5-page sample, a 10-page sample, a 2-page synopsis, and a 5-page synopsis for The Selection. Oh, and I only sent out 13 queries… so that was a lot of stuff for a small number of agents. Be prepared so they’re not asking for something that you have to make them wait for.
  4. Once you start sending your queries, start color coordinating and dating. Beside each entry, note the date you sent it, and assign a color for sent emails. Do the same for rejections and for when agents ask for more. For some agents, they tell you they’ll get back within a certain timeframe. If you sent a query 8 weeks ago (which you know because you dated it) you can follow up with a “Hey, did you get this?” because sometimes things get lost. This also helps for when agents are reading a partial or whole copy of your manuscript. At that point it gets bumped from things they *have* to read to things they *want* to read, and it might take them a while to get to it, and after a respectable time (I’d say 8 weeks again), I think it’s okay to follow up.
  5. And even though this isn’t about being organized, I want to remind you to be patient. When I was querying, I couldn’t figure out what took so long! I thought that was all agents did all day. But now that I’m on the other side of it and see just how much Elana is doing for me (negotiating contracts, helping with website stuff, giving me general advice, hunting for quarters so I can take the bus when I visit New York, and a thousand other things), I get it. And she’s not just doing that for me, but for her whole list of clients. So cut the agents some slack, and keep writing in the meantime.

So who’s querying in 2012? Keep me posted on your progress, and again, GOOD LUCK!

General, advice


This is just a quick note, as there's not much to say today. (SIDE NOTE: Next week there will be MUCH to say. Stay tuned.) But I was realizing this morning how lucky I am to have so much support in my life. Today I met with my friend Carl for coffee (hot chocolate for me) and we caught up. I haven't seen Carl in about seven years, even though he also lives in Blacksburg. He used to be my boss when I was an RA at Radford. I could tell slightly shocking stories... but I won't.

Anyway, all this time later, we're talking about our kids, our general weirdness, our jobs, and I pull out the cover for The Selection so he can see it... and he is just super happy for me. It's been years, and he looks like he could do a backflip. And it's not just him. My parents and in-laws squeal when there's new news, and Callaway is behind the scenes helping things go smoothly. Elana and Erica are on the business side of this all, doing my math and making sure the final product is amazing. Even the chicks at Guyden's daycare ask about what's going on and are always happy for updates. I am in a cocoon of support!

I'm so ridiculously lucky.

But not everyone is. If you don't have someone in your life who is there to tell you what could be tweaked in your work or you can update with your query stats, FIND THAT PERSON! If you can't find someone in real life, get online. There are tons of resources, the first in my mind being You can post your writing, discuss the trials of the publishing world, and if you're as lucky as Leigh Fallon, actually land a deal. I know, right?!

All I'm saying is, it's tough. You need at least one person in your life who can say "I can see your book on my bookshelf". Maybe you need to be that person for someone else. I don't know. But I've learned that this is hard to do alone. So don't.

General, The Selection, advice

Why I'm Nuts.

I’ve decided that if you want to be a writer, you have to be completely mental. Seriously. Go ahead and abandon any hope of being normal. If you’ve already done this thanks to torturous years in high school, congratulations. You’re off to a good start.

I say this because, if you choose to become a storyteller, you’re going to have to hang out with a wide range of imaginary friends. And if you have more than one story in yourself, this will be an array of people who all exist, but shouldn’t meet. Because that’s almost too odd. But it’s more than the fact that there are people living in your head, it’s the fact that you have to do what they say.

I recently had some complaints from Callaway over word choices in The Siren, and I had to lovingly explain to him that they just talk that way, it’s not my fault. I might be the one who dreamed up the world, but they are the ones who tell me how things go down. And while I might not be the kind of girl to drop an F-bomb into conversation on a day-to-day basis, one of my characters might be. If I try and censor them, the story just isn’t as good.

Also, sometimes it takes me several drafts of a story for them to even clue me in on what’s really going on. Just like people I meet in real life, I don’t always understand why they do things the way they do or why. I don’t know what’s going on in their heads or hearts. If it was all me, shouldn’t I already have known that detail? Shouldn’t I have known this person was going to be as important as they are or that these two people were in love the whole time or that this guy had a secret in his back pocket from the start? But I don’t!

I just found this vlog from August of 2009, right after The Siren came out. I was home a lot, busy growing a baby, and I was reworking The Selection because I loved the story. Now, it had been done for a while, but then I had to go back and change entire scenes because I realized that my main character, America, wasn’t who I thought she was. And when she started whispering in my ear “That’s not what I would do”, I had to go back a fix it. My responsibility is to take what these people have shared with me and hand it over as honestly as I can. They mean that much to me.

And that makes me 100% certifiable. No one in their right mind should admit to needing to honestly translate what their invisible friends are shouting in their head.

I’m finding myself in a similar place now. I’ve been with the first book in The Selection so long that if something shifts, I know what that means. I can make things flow because I’ve lived it with America for years. But as I start going over the second book— something that’s only been in a completed state for a few months— trying to figure out where it goes next, I’m a mess! I keep waiting for the moment when she explains everything saying “Don’t worry, Kiera. I did that for a reason.”

For now, I just have to continue to act like a kook and focus on the people walking inside my brain and hope that I can get it all down right. Because, weirdo that I am, it matters.

General, advice


I went to my very first writers conference this past weekend, hosted by the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group up in PA. It was a lot of fun to meet other writers face to face, and I learned some interesting ways to come at my writing. But I have to say the thing that stuck with me the most probably wasn’t intended to be an actual lesson, just a moment of life…

Donald Maass runs a literary agency, and he’s written several books on how to make your novel all kinds of awesome. I attended his session about creating depth of character and a lot of… weird things were discussed. Do you know what grunge boots are, for example? If not, they are work boots that you wear unlaced, typically with your jeans tucked in them. This is what Donald has told me. I live in rural Virginia. I see what the horses are wearing mostly. Anyway, he had us take a moment and let our main character rant about their opinion of grunge boots, and I was very happy because I knew exactly how America would feel about that look and that it would change depending upon who was wearing it. I was pleased to see how much I got her. Anyway, not the point.

Another thing Donald asked about was where your characters go to escape or regroup. And he mentioned that we as writers all have different ones too. For example, I used to walk on the Huckleberry Trail a lot and sometimes I like to just drive around and think. He lives in the city and doesn’t have a car, so his places are much different. And then he said something kind of beautiful to me. Donald and his wife recently adopted a 3-year-old son, and he doesn’t like being left alone. Donald mentioned hiding in the bathroom and that even this was too much for his son sometimes. So he’s started doing his thinking while holding his child.

I don’t always adapt well to change. Unless I’m planning for or am really giddy about something, I don’t know how to handle things. Even then it can be… ungood. And this just struck me on several levels. Forget my silly little story or my characters, what about my life? Sometimes I come at things the way I did when I was in my teens or early twenties, and maybe that’s why I relate to my readers so well. I get you. But I can’t do that for every situation. It’s the subtle things. I can still brainstorm while rocking Guyden to sleep or plot while I cook. Sometimes motherhood is very overwhelming. But it’s not the end of anything. Some of the coolest things that have happened to me ever have come since I got pregnant almost two years ago.

I’m sure those few honest lines about his life will help my characters, but more importantly, they’ve helped me. I think the thing we seek in books is humanity (even in inhuman forms), so it’s important that I simply be human myself. Change, grow, fail… all good things. Anyway, that’s just a thought.

Does this make any sense at all? This is all I’ve been able to think about. Whatever. You knew I was weird.

In other news, stay posted. I got a few books over the weekend and a giveaway is on the horizon! Also, perhaps a video with some conference tips are in order? Yes. I think so.

General, advice

Is Self-Publishing For Real?

Today Maureen Johnson had an interesting conversation via twitter on self-publishing as a follower asked for thoughts on self-publishing vs. traditional publishing for e-books or new writers. Somewhere in the conversation the question popped up:

Does a self-published book count as an actually published book?

Having gone this route, I have some thoughts on the pros and cons, but first, let me catch you up to speed if you’re not familiar with my story. A few years ago, I wrote a book. And I loved it. And I had fans who wanted to read it. I tried good old-fashioned querying, and it didn’t work out, so I decided to self-publish. That book is now The Siren, and you can find it around… though not in a store. That was good enough for me. I was able to get this story into the hands of the small group of people who wanted it, and I was happy. After I self-published The Siren, I moved on to other ideas, found one I adored, and went to work. I polished it up, queried again, and got my choice of two agents. For the record, I chose the devilishly awesome Elana Roth. Be jealous. And now my trilogy, The Selection, will be coming out with HarperTeen beginning in the summer of 2012. I have an editor I love and all the energy around this book has me so full of excitement, I can hardly stand it.

So, self-publishing. Does it count as a real book? Yes and no. Yes, in that it's real and it's out there, but no, as in not a lot of people will take you seriously.

I’ve had quite a few doors slammed in the face of my first book, and there’s a good reason for that. When anyone can publish a book, that means you need to brace yourself for an onslaught of absolute crap. If you self-publish, even if your book is fantastic, you are adding it to a pile of mediocre writing. And, try as you may, you will never be able to shine up your book as good as a professional editor can. I knew that then, and I know it even more so now. I still love my book and having fans that still tell me it’s their fave or one they read again and again makes me so happy. But it’s not as good as it could have been. I didn’t ruin my reputation or anything, and no one has looked down on me for trying it on my own, but… it’s not quite as cool as having multiple layers of people confirm that you’ve written something good, want to help you make it better, and support you in your quest to share it with other people.

Still, there were some cool things about self-publishing. The speed was fantastic. The Selection is taking years to see in print, and The Siren took two months. And the power! No one could force me to change something I didn’t want to. Lucky me, my editor values all my thoughts, and we’ve yet to come upon something we disagree on. And there’s the fact that sometimes self-published books break the mold. The Shack, Still Alice, and Eragon were all originally self-published. So if you go that route, the question of your book being a breakout might linger in the back of your mind… but the chances are small. At the very least, it could be a learning experience, as it was for me. The things I learned from that season are lessons I absolutely treasure.

Advice: If you’re going to self-publish, go the e-book route. More and more people are checking out self-published books in this format because it’s low risk. Self-pubbed books can be expensive (surprise) and don’t always deliver on quality, but a few bucks for an e-copy? Not so scary. If you do go with a print book, do your research on companies and, for goodness sake, put some real thought into your cover art. If it's bad, you’ll kill your chances before people even look inside. And, if you happen to be doing something for a very small market (your church or something, or maybe you wrote a cookbook), it might be a nice path for you.

Otherwise, grow a pair and start querying. It’s scary, and you will be rejected a lot, but that’s a cool learning process too, and one that will get you a lot further along if seeing your book on a shelf is your absolute dream.

Please feel free to leave questions! I love talking about this topic, and I'm happy to help anyone considering self-publishing.

Brave New Love, advice

Making Your Short Story Cool*

As you all know now, I am participating in a YA dystopian short story collection entitled Brave New Love. The title of my piece is (currently) Into the Clearing. I might change my mind on that one. Anyway, if you haven’t yet, hop on over to the Brave New Love page and listen to the first song on the playlist, which I’ll be adding to as we get closer to the release date.

Since I’ve got short stories on the brain, I thought I might give you some wisdom that I picked up along the way as I wrote my first. Short stories are a great way to practice your writing without spending a gazillion years on a project. So here are a few handy tips on crafting a short story:

  1. Read other short stories. If you want to know how to do it right, you have to learn from those who have already mastered it. If you check out my January Reads post, you’ll see that I read some more contemporary short stories last month to see what was out there now, but I have some old school favorites that you should check out too. Like To Room Nineteen by Doris Lessing, A&P by John Updike, The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe, and The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant. This is easy research too! They’re such fast reads.
  2. Find the true beginning of your story. I ended up starting Into the Clearing several times only to cut off the first page or two because I realized that crap didn’t matter. Anything that did, I wove into the story later. And things like that are nice, breaking up what’s happening with something the character already knows. It’s a good rule for whatever you write: Skip the crap!
  3. Keep your character’s motivations close to the surface. It takes me multiple drafts to figure out why my characters are doing what they’re doing. And then I have to figure out how to make it as clear to everyone else as it is to me. This time around, I tried to be faster at finding them and putting them in places where you could see them clearly. I want you to care about what they care about!  And we don’t have time to waste!
  4. Make your words do double duty. The Selection currently stands at about 80,000 words. The Siren is over 100,000. I like words! So when I was told to get a story across in under 13,000, I panicked. Chopping off my unnecessary openings helped, and so did making my words say two things in one go. Saying a building is the twin of another or that a person’s appearance is the opposite of someone else’s describes two things at once and makes room for the good stuff. Like kissing. Always save room for kissing.
  5. Keep the time span short. Trying to cover years or months in short stories isn’t the best idea (though I can think of a few exceptions). Try to keep things to happening within a few days (or even one if possible). I will admit now that I’m breaking this rule. Sort of.
  6. Listen to your characters. Just like any story, it might go in a direction you weren’t planning. Go with it. If the scene with the moose chase doesn’t work out, you can always undo it.
  7. Endings are negotiable. Sometimes, like novel-length stories, they can come to a happy, well-rounded conclusion. Sometimes, not so much. With short stories, there’s room to leave your readers wondering what happens next or, if you’re brave, to end it with a twist. The Necklace is one of my faves, and the very last line of that one was a punch in the stomach the first time I read it. So there.
  8. Edit, edit, edit. The great thing about editing short stories is that you can read it in a few hours as opposed to a few days. And that’s good because you can get rid of your bad ideas faster. I have to tell you, maybe the first five drafts of Into the Clearing were stank nasty ugly. Now, I’m happy with it, and it will only be polished more along the way. Take the time to make your writing shine. Just because it’s brief doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve some lovin.

And there you have it! I hope this makes your short stories super lovely. And stay tuned for more info on Brave New Love!


*Umm. Maybe.

General, advice

The Joys of Research

I’m very curious as to what other people have done to get into the worlds they’ve created. I know sometimes to make a fictitious world work, you have to research things in the real life.

I know Simone Elkeles went to a juvenile detention center when she wrote Leaving Paradise and Sarah Darer Littman worked with the FBI while writing Want to go Private. I think that’s all kinds of amazing. I went to Maine when I wrote The Siren, and loved doing that, but this time around… I’m feeling couch-bound.

So far most of my research for writing The Selection has involved starting to watch The Bachelor since everything I know about elimination dating I learned from Flavor of Love. (FLAVOR FLAAAAAVE!) Also, with this whole royal wedding thing going down with Prince William, they’re showing lots of specials on the royal family, which is quite enlightening for me. Oh, and Miss America. Can’t forget Miss America.

I think next time around I’m going to write something that requires me living with nuns or dying my hair purple or something ridiculous. I need cooler stories behind my stories. For now, it’s Monday, and that means it’s Bachelor night, and so far, I like Emily. Just saying. ;)

What about you? Have you done anything cool in the name of research?


The Joys of Rejection!

Seriously, there is something wrong with me. Today, for no reason I can conceive, I went back and looked through all my rejection letters. Oh, yes, I’ve got them all. For The Siren & The Selection both, and honestly, it’s a big fat pile of ouch.

I’ve heard of authors who took their rejections and hung them around the room, saying those words actually inspired them to do better. I think while I was going through it, I tried to tell myself the same thing, ya know? Screw them! They’re missing out!... But now that I look back, I can feel freshly just how bummed I was each time I got a rejection letter. The worst were the ones where they asked for more, so I had a little string of hope to cling to, and then *snip snip* bye-bye, hope!

The words all kind of melt together: Sorry, unfortunately, doesn’t resonate, shows promise but, declining, doesn’t fit, (and my favorite) our present incarnation just isn’t right for it. There’s also the rejection that came nine months after I sent my query (a lifetime if you’re a fetus!), and the guy who rejected me for someone else’s manuscript... Do I really suck that bad?

But then there also the joy of the one letter that led to the one phone call that made the rest of that just stuff I happened to have saved. Yay for history!

What’s the point of all this? Excellent question!

I know that a lot of people around me are about to begin the querying process and that rejection will soon be upon you. So, here are some things to think about while life is slamming doors in your face:

  1. This is small potatoes. One day, when your words are in people’s hands, they’ll be judging you on a lot more than a one-page letter in a far less professional manner. This is good practice. Treat it as such.
  2. Make sure you have at least one person in your life who can be your cheerleader. I have many, and I needed all of them to get through the waiting.
  3. If you get so far in and nothing is happening, tweak your query letter. With The Siren, I had a long string of no’s, reworked my queries, and got a much better response.
  4. Don’t be afraid of the sun. Or anything that keeps you from checking your inbox every five minutes. It’s okay to live while you’re querying.
  5. Rejections can be a good thing. Getting any old agent isn’t going to help you. You want someone who is just as excited about your work as you are. We’re kissing frogs and finding princes here, people.
  6. It only takes one yes. And every no gets you that much closer to it. So don’t stress too much.


There’s probably better advice out there, but this will tide you over until you find it.

In other news: I am hoping to post a blog soon about self-publishing. If you have questions please leave them in the comments. And happy querying to all of my soon-to-be published homies.


The Odds

Hello, my lovelies!

So, I’ve been realizing how lucky I am. My agent, Elana, has been violently angry with her query pile lately, and I’m sure with good reason. Every once in a while, I think about what it would be like to dig through tons of letters— some good, some bad, some obviously not my taste, some addressed to the wrong person… some showing no sign of understanding basic English— and have to pick out ones that I thought showed promise.

I think I lack a certain patience and toughness it would take to be a literary agent. Bravo to anyone who takes on that job and manages to make it through the day without pulling out their hair.

That said, I was thinking about what it’s like on our end, the writer’s end. Elana has been helpful enough to post some of her query stats on the CJLA blog, and based on those numbers, it looks like Elana got at least 3,000 queries last year. And I think she took on only 3-4 new clients. And not all of them from queries. So… yikes!

I’m genuinely counting my blessings and am so thankful she saw something worthwhile in my writing, and I hope, once The Selection is in all of your hands, that you feel the same way. But I look at those numbers and think that if I was starting out now, I’d feel kind of depressed. To be one chosen out of thousands… what are the odds?

Well, here are some things you should know. 1 out of 3,000, right? You’re odds of finding an agent are better than:

The odds of you drowning in the bathtub this year (1 in 900,900)

The odds of you winning an Olympic medal (1 in 662,000)

The odds of you dating a supermodel (1 in 88,000)

The odds of you winning an Academy Award (1 in 11,500)

The odds of you becoming a professional athlete (1 in 22,000)

The odds of getting struck by lightning. (1 in 567,000)

So be encouraged. There are harder things to do out there. And I also just discovered the odds of me writing a New York Times best seller are about 220 to 1...

Oh yeah, baby. Oh yeah.

General, advice

How to Query

These are some of the questions I regularly get about querying, so here they are in one place for your viewing enjoyment!

Q: How do I get an agent for my book?

A: Whoa, Vanilla. First thing to do is figure out if your manuscript's even ready. Have you completely finished it? Gone back and fixed all the spelling and grammar errors you can find? Shown it to some trusted friends, teachers, or mentors to get advice on how to make it better? Told yourself it sucks and given up on it and then come back to it again? Twice? Then you might be ready.

Q: Ok, now how do I get an agent for my book?

A: You need to decide what genre your book is (young adult, fantasy, romance) and then go to a site like and look for agents that represent the kind of book you’ve written. You can also pick up books like the one you're writing & check out the acknowledgements page. Authors usually thank their agents.

Q: What next?

A: Now you write a query letter.

Q: What the crap is a query letter & how do I write one?

A: A query letter is a letter telling the agent all about your book and then a little about yourself. Helpful things to include are:

+ Your book's genre

+ The word count

+ A short pitch (like what you read on the back of a book that makes you pick it up)

+ Any writing experience you have

+ Any platforms you have

That's a good place to start. I can't tell you how to write a great query letter, but you should try to tailor them to the individual you are writing to. Also, spell their names right and call them by the correct gender. Also, SlushPileHell is a nice way to see what not to put in your query. Basically, try not to be an idiot.

Q: What's a platform?

A: Any way you have of promoting yourself. Social media like twitter & Facebook are good, starting your own website is nice. I have a YouTube channel, which is weird & awesome, & I put that in my query. Also, I've heard any links to media are nice to mention.

Q: What if I don't have any experience?

A: Say so (briefly) and move on.

Q: What if I'm 16... or 13? Should I mention that?

A: There is no rule saying you have to disclose how old you are. That said, if you're that young, your youth will probably read through in your writing. You seriously might want to take this project and wait a while. You really need to write a lot to get good at it. I mean, you have no idea how much you suck right now. Look at anything you wrote this time last year, and you'll see how bad it was. If you don't think it's bad then one of these things is true: One, you are a lying liar, or, two, you haven't grown at all in the last year. Either way, it's bad.

That said, if you really want to press on, if you get a call from an agent, you should let them know you're not legal.

Q: What else should I send? The whole book? A picture? Virtual confetti?

A: Seriously, if you do any of that I will pretend I don't know you. Every agent has on their blog, agency website, or query profile what they want. Send them that and ONLY that. If you disobey that simple instruction, what reason do they have to trust you with more? If they say "I want a query and the first 5 pages", send that. If they want a 2-page synopsis, send that. It's really that easy. And do not include fluff. Most queries are done via email these days, but I've heard of agents who got queries via post with tea bags and a request that they read the manuscript while drinking it to get the full effect. They're busy, so don't do that crap.

Oh, and don't call query. That's a bad idea.

Q: What if I mix up who wants what?

A: The smart thing to do is to make a list. I made one with each agent's name, her literary agency (because sometimes a rejection from one agent is a rejection from the whole agency), her email, and what she wanted. Then, as I started sending things, I put the date by it as well as the date I was rejected or asked for more. It helped a lot.

Q: Now what?

A: You know that query letter you wrote? It sucks. Throw it out and start again. Trust me.

Q: Ok, my manuscript, query letter, and agent list are ready. Do I just start sending them?

A: Yes. Prepare yourself for that top-of-the-rollercoaster-I'm-going-to-pee-in-my-pants feeling. It's scary sending your work into the world, but it's very exciting, too. As a rule, send out 5-10 queries at a time. When you get a rejection, send another out so there are at least 5 floating in space at any given time. Agents aren't typically exclusive over queries, but it’s nice to mention that it’s a multiple submission. Just pick your faves and send to them first.

Q: Hold up. Ten at a time? Rejections? How many people are going to turn me down?

A: Probably a lot. It's all about finding the right fit. You don't want an agent who isn't excited about your work, and there's no way to tell how long it’ll take to find the right person.

Personally? I sent out over 70 queries for The Siren and even approached some small presses over the course of 6 months before I fully committed to self-publishing. For me, that was the right decision at the time. But for The Selection I sent out 13, had 2 agents who were interested in less than 2 months of querying, and I got to choose who I work with. It's all about finding the right idea for the right person.

Q: What do I do in the meantime?

A: Work on something else, continue to research, have human interactions. You know, normal stuff.

Q: What do I do if everyone rejects me?

A: Look at you! You bravely navigated the high school bathrooms of querying. That's a heck of a lot farther than most people get, so be proud. You do have a couple of options at this point, so don't fret.

One, you can move on. Hopefully, you should have another project. That's kind of crucial, since you don't want to be a one-trick pony. Work on that project or work on brainstorming.

Two, you can take this last project, work on it, maybe rename it, write a better query letter and try again in a year. If an agent read it and said no, listen to why they said no and work from there. If you feel like you must stick with this project, wait a nice long time before querying again.

Three, you can self-publish. Anyone can do it. I did. And that is why it both rocks and sucks. You can get your book to anyone if you want to, but since anyone can do it, there's A LOT of crap out there. If you choose to self-publish, prepare yourself. It's hard to do it right. I'm proud of my work, but it could have been better.

Or, four, you can quit. If that whole experience was too taxing for you, get out now. It's hard to get rejected like that, and it's even harder when lots of people read your books and not everyone thinks you're awesome. If it hurts too much, there's no shame in stepping away.

Q: What do I do if an agent wants more!?

A: After you do your happy dance, take a few breaths and come back. If an agent asks for more, then you give them what they ask for and wait some more. It's always nice to let other agents know that someone else is reading your manuscript. If they've just been a little busy and weren't 100% sure, they might ask to read it as well, so be courteous. If things go well and you get "the call", then you're out of my hands, little butterfly. Fly free! Your agent will guide you from here.

If you're ready and are feeling really brave, my literary agency (Caren Johnson Literary Agency) is having a twitter pitch session on Janurary 6th. Follow them on twitter (@cjlitagency) for more details. Feel free to leave questions for me in the comments or come visit me tomorrow on BlogTV at 2 PM EST for a LIVE Question Tuesday!

advice, contests


For my next trick, I will post a blog with a toddler on my lap.

So people have asked for my advice on how to start a book. I’m here to tell you, I have no freaking clue.

I only recently put the pieces together on how this all started coming together for me, and I’m not going to talk about that today. But I do know that once the ball started rolling, it was hard to stop. I wrote because I couldn’t help myself. If you’re determined though, there are a few things that most everyone agrees are good ways to start.

Reading is step one. If you don’t know what to write, you should read. It’s good to get a feel for the way words flow, for how a story should start and end. Think about the stories you love and what’s so awesome about them, and then try to make it your own. Also, reading other people’s work is a great way to start dreaming up your own ideas. This is ridiculous, but once while reading Harry Potter, I invented a girlfriend for him. The idea spun off of itself several times, to the point I had this really cool girl with this really cool gift in my head. Thanks, JK. Or try picking a line from a book and writing what you think should come next. Start with something indistinct. Like avoid character names.

I just opened up A Certain Slant of Light to pick one out for you, but there are too many pretty lines to choose. Just go read a book, okay?

Next, try journaling. Get into the habit of writing. This was one of the big pieces for me. And pretty self-explanatory, yes?

And, as silly as it sounds, you need to daydream. You must. I once read that Stephenie Meyer came up with her ideas because she sat around telling herself stories when she was bored and was shocked to find out that not everyone did that. And I was like… they don’t? I spend time in my head. I have friends that only exist up there. I listen to music and look at pictures. I look at jewelry and houses. I smell things. There’s a beautiful and terrible world around you to draw from. Take it in, bend it, and share it.

And, I guess on the other end, is writer’s block. You get into your story and have no idea what to do next. First, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with stepping away from something and coming back to it. Unless you’re on a deadline, give your story room to breathe. Work on something else and give yourself a chance to miss it.

The block usually comes from not understanding something. I’ve mentioned before that for The Siren, I mapped out Akinli’s house, drew the girls’ dresses, made playlists. Those things helped me jump back into the story. If you don’t know what’s going on with a character, you need to ask them. If you don’t know what’s happening next, maybe there’s something you don’t get about your world. Step back and look. Usually, the next chapter is right in front of you.

Is that too vague? I don’t know. But I guess that leaves room for you to ask questions, so yay!

Oh, also! Congrats to Belinda, Kaylyn, BarelyBueno, Maya L, and Lily! Please send your addresses to kierasfriends at gmail dot com, and I will get you your goodies as soon as possible. Wahoo!