Pub Rants

Category: Clients

This Month, NLA’s Tallahj Curry had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna MacKenzie’s client Sarah Zachrich Jeng, author of upcoming novel The Other Me.

In The Other Me, Kelly is trying to make sense of a life that feels unfamiliar. She finds answers that lead to more questions. What is your process of mapping out a mystery that grows throughout the novel?

I spent some time brainstorming ideas for how Kelly could investigate—what if she interviews a certain character? What if she finds some sort of document?—and tried to figure out what she might discover using each method, what bearing that new information would have on her “case,” and where else it might lead. Since I did a lot of this in revisions, I knew most of what she would ultimately need to find out. It was just a matter of getting her there in a way that didn’t feel like too much of a leap.

Do you write the novel ending first, last, or somewhere in between? How does this help you build suspense?

I usually don’t have the ending written or even outlined too exactly when I start. Though I like to have some idea of where I’m going, the last couple of things I’ve written have ended up in very different places than I thought they would. With The Other Me, I wrote two or three different endings, because the middle of the book had changed in ways that demanded the ending change as well. Generally revisions are where the real attention to pacing and tension gets paid.

Kelly goes through a massive, unexpected jump that tests her own memory. The life she is told she lived does not match the life she thought she lived. What is your method for making two versions of the same character?

Spreadsheets. Really. I had a tab for her Chicago life and a tab for her Michigan life, with dates and key events from birth until the novel’s present. I also made lists of things that might have changed, such as her appearance, and the ripple effects of those differences, like how her brother Nick now has a son and a decent job, because since Kelly didn’t go to an out-of-state school he had no excuse to keep living at home to look after their parents. 

Not everything was super precise. Our memories play tricks on us all the time, and I figured in a parallel universe kind of situation, some things would just be different because a butterfly flapped its wings a thousand years ago. But I tried to include enough plausible anomalies to keep Kelly off balance.

What was your process for writing a different take on a familiar trope? How did you follow the rules of the fictional world as you wrote the story?

I’m going to try really hard to answer this without spoilers. The short answer is “more lists.” (Can you tell I’m a list maker?) I had a list of the way events proceeded linearly, as well as according to each key character’s perception. I had a list of the principles that a certain important piece of technology in the book operates under, and theories that either correspond with or contradict what happens in the novel. I wasn’t too concerned with accurate science (for reasons that will be obvious once you’ve read the book), but I was concerned with consistency.

I also wanted to make sure that by the end, I’d made it clear(ish) to readers why Kelly’s life changes all at once, at the exact moment it does. So I spent a lot of time thinking through the implications of what happens to cause that, and writing and rewriting. I drew this really ugly diagram of [redacted thing that happens] so I could have a graphical representation to refer back to when I forgot what a certain character was supposed to know about at a certain part of the story.

How much did you draw from your own life when creating the characters for The Other Me? Do you believe advice to write what you know is helpful or restrictive?

I played in rock bands in my twenties, but once I got a “real” job and had a child, that lifestyle wasn’t practical anymore. However, I found myself missing both the creativity and the feeling that something exciting could happen at any time. (When you live in the suburbs and go to bed at 10pm, not much happens that’s unexpected, except maybe getting puked on.) So writing The Other Me was both a creative outlet and a way for me to work out my feelings about the ways in which my life had changed.

“Write what you know” can be helpful when you’re feeling your way into a new project or trying to evoke emotions. My writing is always more resonant if I’m trying to capture a feeling or an experience that I myself have had, even if I’m coming at it from a different direction. That said, like any writing guideline it’s not absolute. If you decide you want your main character to have a job you don’t know anything about, that’s what research is for. “Know what you write” might be more apt advice in those situations.

I do think writing is enriched by personal knowledge. As I’ve learned more about the zero-sum nature of publishing, I’ve come to believe that white, privileged writers (who are still the majority of published authors) shouldn’t appropriate the stories of marginalized people, when those stories could be better portrayed by authors from those groups. 

What is the greatest lesson one of your characters has taught you?

That one thing you think you want is probably not the thing that’s going to make you happy.

What is one of your favorite lines from The Other Me?

Kelly: “Everyone has regrets. If you don’t you’re either an a**hole or you’re lying to yourself.”

The Other Me by Sarah Zachrich Jeng releases August 10, 2021. Preorder the book here!

Fan Favorites and Likability

This month, we asked three NLA authors about their fan-favorite characters and what makes them so likable.

Which of your characters is a fan favorite? What makes them likable? Is that important? Why or why not?

Stacey Lee, author of The Downstairs Girl and Luck of the Titanic

Jo Kuan of The Downstairs Girl seems to be a favorite. As an advice columnist, she is principled, and opinionated in a way that real life doesn’t allow her to be. She also has a bit of a wit, and I think that endears her to readers.

Swati Teerdhala, author of The Tiger at Midnight series

One of the fan favorites in my series, The Tiger at Midnight trilogy, is actually a side character. Alok, the best friend of Kunal, one of the main characters, quickly became the character that garnered fan mail and questions. He also got into my heart as well, refusing to let me push him to the side in the later books. Alok is the type of character who is fiercely loyal but isn’t afraid to take Kunal, his best friend, down a peg or two. He’s also the person in the room who often says what everyone’s thinking. We all have a friend like that, or we are that friend! He’s a character that is really easy to understand and root for in all situations and that relatability is what makes him so likable. I don’t think fan favorites have to be likable necessarily, but there needs to be something about that character that makes people connect.

Celesta Rimington, author of The Elephant’s Girl and Tips for Magicians

I’ve had very positive reader responses about the character of Roger in The Elephant’s Girl. He appears to be quite the fan favorite, and he even made some “Favorite Fathers in Middle Grade” lists on Twitter. Roger is the train engineer at the zoo, an aficionado of “old things,” and the rescuer of the little girl he finds after the tornado. He turns his life upside down to become Lexington’s foster father and to protect her.

Roger is likable because he is both strong and gentle, he’s extremely patient with Lexington, and he shows unconditional love for this quirky young girl as though she were his own. He’s also a bit quirky himself as a man in a contemporary world who restores steam trains and believes in ghosts. I think for my young readers, Roger represents support and safety. For my adult readers, he also represents the memorable qualities in beloved father figures they may have known or admired.

I think that in middle-grade books especially, it’s important to include likable characters with whom young readers can feel safe. A book isn’t interesting without conflict, but perhaps it isn’t memorable without characters the readers would wish to know in real life. And if you want your readers to keep reading, you’ll want to write characters who cause your readers to care about what happens to them.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

This month, NLA’s Tallahj Curry excitedly interviewed Quressa Robinson’s client Brittney Morris, author of SLAY and her recently released novel The Cost of Knowing.

How has writing for other platforms, like video games, aided in your writing for novels?

When writing for video games, you have to take the player into account as a second storyteller. It forces you to give the reader (or in this case, player) enough respect to let them decipher and infer things on their own—like tension between characters, etc, which is a great skill to have when writing books too!

How do you go about incorporating supernatural abilities into a character who can still be related to?

Supernatural abilities come with supernatural weaknesses. Mental and emotional ones, not just physical. Relatable characters have strengths, weaknesses, goals, and fears, so I try to make sure those all shine through on the page.

The characters in your books, like Alex, a young Black boy trying to do right by his younger brother, all have a well thought out backstory which many can relate to. How do you map this out before beginning a book?

Thank you! I give myself 24 hours to outline before jumping into drafting, which forces me to listen to my characters as they give me their first impressions. I can’t let myself overthink it, or it won’t feel real. Their backstories, their personalities, even their names, are almost always the very first one I thought of.

What is the impact that you want your books to have?

I want to take a concept my readers have maybe lived with for awhile (one in The Cost of Knowing is “accidental racism,” for example), and show it to them through a different lens, and a different angle, on new terms. I want my readers to think about things in new ways and enjoy the ride along the way!

Follow Brittney online:

This month, NLA’s Tallahj Curry had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna MacKenzie’s client Jonathan Messinger, author of the series The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian, as well as a podcast of the same name.

You established an audience for your stories through a different avenue. Did you find that made it easier to bring words to a page?

It definitely made it easier. I had over 100 episodes to find the personalities and voices of the characters, and to figure out what resonated with kids, and what jokes or plot lines fell flat. It was a little difficult at first to write for a book, rather than a podcast, because with a podcast I have all sorts of crutches I can rely on: music, sound effects, funny voices. Putting the story in a book meant I had to try to evoke those same feelings just with the words.

What parts of your own personality did you use to write for a young audience? 

When I published a book of stories many years ago, a critic said I had written “fiction for aging hipsters.” I was 27! I’ve never forgotten (or forgiven!) that line, probably because it was accurate. As a 40-something dad now, I’ve aged out of hipsterdom. Writing for kids has meant stripping away all pretense, not trying to be “cool” or “interesting,” just trying to tell a good story that connects with the audience. It’s really allowed me to be more myself and have a lot of fun. I try to pack as many jokes as I can into the story, because that is a very dad thing to do.

What writing techniques did you focus on or leave behind to suit your reading audience?

When I submitted my first manuscript, my editor had me shorten or break up almost every sentence. I got rid of all the circuitous phrasing, many commas and loads of parentheticals. It was a humbling and fascinating process. Because I had written stories for a young audience on a podcast, I could make almost anything work by how I paced or paused as I was telling the story. But on the page, I had to be much more direct. The books are way better for it, of course. Not just for the kids, but on a very technical level, the writing is just better because I stopped trying to impress myself.

What advice would you give to an author who wants to write for a younger audience?

Read the work aloud. You can see how sentences drone on or get lost just by reading it out loud. Also, I’d say read it to a kid. I have, with my kids, something I call “the Lego test.” If I’m reading a story to them and they reach over and start picking up the Legos, I know I’ve lost them, and that part needs to be shortened or tossed altogether. It’s instant, ego-bruising feedback, and it’s very helpful.

Follow Jonathan online:
Podcast
Twitter

Achieving Writing Goals

This month, we asked three NLA authors to give some tips on how they achieve their writing goals.

If you set a writing goal, what are two tips to achieve it? If not, what is something that you do instead?

Alison Hammer, author of You & Me & Us

I’m the type of person who writes things on my to-do list that I’ve already done, just so I can have the satisfaction of crossing it off. I take the same approach when it comes to goal setting.

While I admire people who set stretch goals for themselves, I find I’m much more successful when I have smaller, more achievable goals.

One of my favorite examples of this is a good friend who set a goal to open her manuscript each and every day. She didn’t have to write a single word to meet her goal—but most days, she did. After all, the manuscript was already open and ready for her.

I personally have a goal to write every single day. I believe in the daily writing habit so much that I started a Facebook support group for women writers called the Every Damn Day Writers. Some days that means writing for ten minutes, others I set a word-count goal anywhere from 250 to 500 words or 1,600 words if it’s November and I’m NaNo-ing.

Whatever goal I set, I just make sure that I’m setting myself up for success.

Miranda Asebedo, author of A Constellation of Roses

It’s pretty much impossible for me to dedicate an entire 8:00 to 5:00 day just to writing, so I schedule chunks of time when I know I can be my most productive, and I stick to them no matter what. For example, pre-Covid, one of my “chunks” was from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm every day while my kids were in after-school activities. I’ve gotten a lot of writing done in ballet studios and my car while waiting for them! Headphones are a must for this, but once it becomes a routine, it’s amazing how your brain just switches on to writing-mode without any big pre-writing rituals or anything.

My other tip is a reward system. If I hit a certain word count on schedule, I get to spend some time with the book I’ve been dying to read or the next episode in my Netflix queue that night. It always works!

Reese Eschmann, author of Etta Invincible

When I’m working toward a goal, the thing that helps me the most is to find someone to help keep me accountable. These days that means texting, Zooming, joining critique groups, and scheduling writing sprints with friends, but I’m looking forward to a time in the near future where I can sit across from a writing partner at a coffee shop again!

My second-best tip is that I’ve found that when I’m beginning to get overwhelmed, setting a time goal instead of a production goal (i.e. “I will spend one hour with this project” rather than “I will write 500 words”) takes some of the pressure off and allows me to get ­into a more relaxed, creative mindset! 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Dave Herrmann

A referral to an agent is like the holy grail of introductions for a writer. It lets you skip ahead to the front of the line. It’s a get-out-of-query-jail free card. What writer wouldn’t want that? As an agent, I do give priority to referrals, but I think there might be some confusion among writers concerning what actually constitutes a referral. So let’s break it down:

What is a referral?

Basically, a referral is when one of my current clients or an established publishing-industry professional whom I know personally reaches out to me directly and asks if they can send an author my way. The referral comes in directly from that client or industry professional—not from the author. Occasionally, one of my clients will give me a heads-up that a certain writer they know and feel is ready for agent representation will be reaching out to me with a query. That is, they will be submitting a query to me through our regular query process. When that happens, I alert my team to watch for it and forward it to me when it comes in. That’s it.

But I think referrals are worth talking about a little more because some writers (hopefully unwittingly) use the term “referral” a little too freely, or in a broader context that might not be recognized by agents and editors. In QueryManager, our online query-submission tool, there’s a field where writers can submit the name of someone who referred them. If you don’t have an official referral, it’s OK to leave that field blank.

What isn’t a referral?

• If a writer meets an agent at a conference, and that agent has requested the material, there’s no need to call it a referral. In the industry, we call it a solicited or requested submission.

• If a writer hears the agent speak at a conference, and the agent says to the audience at large that they are free to query the agency, that is not a referral, nor is your query a solicited or requested submission.

• If a writer follows the client of a particular agent on Twitter or some other social-media platform, and the writer mentions they plan to query that client’s agent, and the client wishes the writer luck, that is not a referral. It only becomes a referral when the client reaches out directly to the agent on the the writer’s behalf before the submission happens.

• If a writer knows other industry professionals, but that professional does not know the agent personally, that is not a referral. It’s always a bit disconcerting to see that reference in a query letter. It leaves me scratching my head because the name being used as the referral is not familiar to me at all.

• If a speaker or panelist at a convention or writers’ conference mentions an agent’s name during their talk, that is not a referral. That is simply a recommendation, but not one given to you directly. It’s just a broad mention to a wide audience. We actually receive a lot of query letters that cite this situation as a referral, and it’s not.

• If a writer works with an established author or a professional editor, and that person simply recommends querying me, that is not a referral. It only becomes a referral if that editor or established author is reaching out to me directly to request my review.

• If a writer finds the agent’s name in the acknowledgments of a current client’s published work and then references it in the query letter, this is not a referral—although this does show you are savvy and you’ve done your legwork!

• This one might cause a chuckle, but finding me, or any other agent, on Google is also not a referral.

When in doubt, if you have to fill out that field in QueryManager (or some other submission tool), just leave it blank. Feel free to mention names in the context of your query letter—such as in your bio or why you choose that particular agent for your submission. And if you do know someone willing to give you a legitimate referral, definitely thank them and use that referral to your advantage!

Creative Commons Credit: amenclinicsphotos ac

We are in the season of hot chocolate, sweaters, and storytelling late into the night. Because of that, and because this is the last NLA newsletter of 2017, I wanted to share a story of authorly hard work, hope, and, ultimately, perseverance with you. If you have gotten nothing but rejections for your query, or you haven’t landed that agent, or your full manuscript has gotten nothing but passes, DON’T GIVE UP!

I met Jillian Boehme when I landed my first agency job in 2013. I was an assistant and she was my boss’s client. At that time, she had already spent eight years working toward a book contract. She’d written several manuscripts before landing an agent and been on submission to editors at every reputable publishing house with three additional manuscripts that had gotten nothing but passes. In 2007, she had also started a popular (and, at the time, anonymous) writing advice blog called Miss Snark’s First Victim, which boasted many success stories by connecting numerous authors with agents who went on to sell their books. And yet, despite her hard work, despite her industry connections, despite continuing to write and building her platform, despite having an agent, despite her persistence, she could not seem to sell a novel.

The thing about Jill is that she has an unrelenting work ethic mixed with a deep core need to create art. Every time she was knocked down (and it happened many more times than either of us wanted), she shook it off and approached her writing with a renewed sense of determination. When she submitted her fourth novel, a YA sci-fi, my boss and I gave her a massive revision that, among other things, included eliminating a love triangle by changing the gender of a character, throwing away an entire central plot line, and replacing it with an entirely new one. She got the edit letter, took a breath, and pulled it off beautifully, improving the manuscript by miles in the process. Sadly, that book didn’t sell either, but it did do something important. It pushed her to be a better writer.

By the time Jillian wrote her fifth book for submission to publishers, she had switched to YA fantasy, which my boss at the time didn’t represent, but happens to be one of my favorite genres. I was building my own client list and she and I had been working together for almost three years. We had developed a relationship built on trust, jokes, a love of chocolate, and mutual admiration. Neither of us knew for sure whether she’d ever land a book deal, but I had never seen any author work harder, bounce back from rejection more completely, or improve so drastically in skill and technique with each project. She approached her career with a dogged determination and kept trying even when she had every reason to give up. I loved her fifth book; it was the strongest thing she’d ever written. My boss stepped aside, we formalized our agent/author relationship, edited together, pushed it to be even better, and enthusiastically submitted to editors. We got so close. Every rejection was a heartbreaker, glowing and filled with praise. It still didn’t sell.

Now, twelve years in to Jillian’s journey to publication, five years in to my own relationship with her, and six publisher-submitted manuscripts later, all that hope and hard work has finally paid off. In November, we announced a deal with one of NYC’s major publishers. Jillian’s debut YA fantasy, Gathering Storm, sold to the brilliant and insightful Elayne Becker at Tor Teen in a two-book deal and will be published in Summer 2019. It is already generating film interest.

It is my personal philosophy as an agent that I need to be my clients’ biggest fan and cheerleader. We are a team. There were times when Jillian felt discouraged and couldn’t find hope; in those moments, I told her I’d take care of hoping for the both of us. I have read each of her books upwards of five times and we’ve had endless (and wonderful) editorial and strategic conversations. The agent/author relationship is a special one of shared enthusiasm and dedication to art and business. Through each rejection, we looked to the future and strategized about the next step. This was a very meaningful win. When the offer from Elayne came in, Jillian and I both cried a lot of happy tears.

Whether you are querying agents, waiting for that first book deal, or already published and working to climb higher, you can look to Jillian and her journey for inspiration. Remember that rejections are a badge of honor. It means you are in the game; people in the industry are reading your work. No matter how many no’s you get, all you need is one yes. And, most importantly, there is no such thing as overnight success. To move forward in this business (or in any business), you must constantly learn, grow, and improve. Work hard and don’t ever give up. You are reading this because you are a writer; keep writing and keep getting better. The rest will follow.

Emily Easton at Crown Books for Young Readers has won, at auction, Scott Reintgen’s debut science fiction young adult trilogy beginning with THE BLACK HOLE OF BROKEN THINGS. In the novel, a Detroit teen accepts an interstellar space contract only to realize the promised millions must be won in a brutal competition where winners face the ultimate choice—take the money and become pawns in the corporation’s sinister plans or find a way to fight that won’t forever compromise their humanity. Publication is scheduled for 2017. Kristin Nelson at Nelson Literary Agency brokered the mid-six figure deal for North American rights.

To celebrate Scott’s awesome news, I’m delighted to share with my blog readers Scott’s original query letter that landed me as his agent and resulted in an auction for a mid-6 figure young adult book deal.

Date: July 1, 2015 at 1:58:01 AM MDT

To: querykristin@nelsonagency.com

Ms. Nelson:

I have the highest respect for you and how you represent your clients. After looking through your submission guidelines, I felt that my novel might be a good fit for your list. Thank you for your time and consideration.

THE BABEL FILES [title was changed for the actual submission to editors] is a completed, YA science fiction book of 83,000 words. Readers familiar with Pierce Brown’s Red Rising or Fonda Lee’s Zeroboxer will find similar elements in my work. I do feel one of the most important features of this novel is the focus it has on a main character who is a PoC. Having worked in urban schools my entire career, I so often find my students have little to no representation in these types of books. I was hoping to give them an opportunity to see themselves, vibrant and on the page and victorious. To this end, I followed advice I received from author Mary Anne Mohanraj at the World Fantasy Convention. She suggested I seek readers of a diverse background in the beta process. I did just that and was incredibly pleased at the response to Emmett’s authenticity and relevance.

Emmett Atwater isn’t just leaving Detroit; he’s leaving Earth. Why Babel recruited him is a mystery, but the number of zeroes on their contract has him boarding their lightship and hoping to return to Earth with enough money to take care of his family, forever.

As he and nine other teenagers wormhole their way through space, Emmett discovers the promised millions aren’t a guarantee. Each recruit must earn the right to travel down to Eden. There, Babel will use them to mine a substance that’s quietly become the most valuable in the world. Emmett’s year-long flight will act as a competition. Every training session is measured, every point matters, and Emmett will do anything to win. But Babel’s ship is full of secrets. Secrets about the volatile substance they’re hoping to mine, about the reclusive humanoids already living on Eden, and about their true intentions for the kids that don’t win their competition. As Emmett uncovers the truth, he realizes he’s not fighting for wealth or glory, he’s fighting for his life.

I am a 10th grade English and Creative Writing teacher who has spent years sharing my favorite science fiction and fantasy novels with my students, and I’ve started writing stories with them in mind. THE BABEL FILES is my third completed novel, and the first in a science fiction trilogy. I have included sample pages below for your consideration. I look forward to your response.

All best,

Scott Reintgen

The following would have been impossible even seven years ago:

This week I sold the film/tv rights for a memoir that a major publisher took out-of-print in 2013. But because of the indie-publishing revolution, the author had made her memoir available in the digital realm. Because of that, it was discoverable by a major Oscar-winning director and producer who not only took an interest, but also optioned the rights for television.

Sounds like fiction, doesn’t it? Back in 2005, I met Kim Reid at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs. Kim had made a pitch appointment, but she pitched me a novel that didn’t sound right for my list. However, in the course of our conversation, I learned about her extraordinary childhood as the daughter of one of the lead detectives who helped solve the Atlanta child murders, committed by Wayne Williams in the seventies and eighties.

I immediately told her, “You need to write that. I could definitely sell it!” So she did, and I signed her as a client. It took sixteen months of dogged determination, and Kim surviving a slew of rejections, but I finally sold No Place Safe in June 2006.

Kensington Publishing did a lovely job with it. Good packaging. Wonderful editing. And then the book was published, and bookstores shelved it, oddly, in African American Studies rather than in biography, where it truly belonged. I can honestly say that the shelving diminished the book’s discoverability, as well as its ability to sell.

Heartbreaking. By 2013, the work was out-of-print, and the rights reverted to Kim.

Luckily, the digital revolution happened. So Kim, in partnership with NLA Digital LLC, indie published the memoir to give it a second chance at life. Director/producer John Ridley found it. Bought a copy. Read and loved it so much that he convinced ABC Studios to buy it for him.

Suddenly, a memoir that would have dropped completely from sight was saved by publishing’s digital transformation. This title now has a ton of exciting new possibilities unfolding.

This is why I love agenting in the digital age. Authors have so many more options available now. And this particular terrific story happened to a very worthy book!

Photo Credit: Alyssa L. Miller