Agents, Conferences, Pitching, Querying, Writing

How to Stalk WriteOnCon Ninja Agents 2017

If you’re in the kidlit community, you probably know about WriteOnCon and missed it as terribly as I did in 2015 and 2016. Well, hallelujah, it’s back! I don’t have anything to query at the moment, but I do have a work-in-progress ready for some feedback in the forums, so I’ll definitely be dipping a toe in. And of course I’ll be soaking in all the amazing knowledge to be gained from the blogs, vlogs, and live sessions starting tomorrow. Woohoo! (If you haven’t already registered, what are you waiting for??)

But back to the title of this post. In case you are new to WriteOnCon, you may be wondering what a Ninja Agent is. Basically, it’s a literary agent who sneaks through the forums leaving comments. Their identities are closely guarded, even after the conference is over. The only way you find out who they are is if they send you a private message with a request.

Anyway, you want to stalk these agents, whether they comment on your query/first 250/first five pages or not. The knowledge you’ll gain from their critiques of others can often be applied to your own materials.

I originally posted about how to stalk Ninja Agents in 2013 and updated it in 2014. Since the forums are on an entirely new platform this year, I decided another update was required. I’m just digging into the forums in earnest today, so I may make adjustments to this post as I learn more, but here we go.

1. Log in to the forum.

2a. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see who’s online (Users Online or Users Online in the Last 24 Hours). Unfortunately, these aren’t in any kind of order. I recommend doing Command+F and searching for “Ninja”–it’s quicker than scanning by eye.

2b. If there are no Ninja Agents online at the moment/in the last 24 hours, scroll back to the top and click on Members. Using the search field on the right-hand side, search for “Ninja” and a list of all Ninja Agents will come up. This list shows you how many posts each ninja has made and how recently.

3.  Click on a Ninja Agent to go to his/her profile.

4.  Click on “View this member’s recent posts” and, voila!, you can see everywhere the agent has commented. To see the post he/she is responding to, click on the title of the thread.

If you want to get even more stalkery, you could keep a Ninja Agent’s profile up on your computer and watch his/her current activity. Or you can locate someone on Twitter who’s already doing that and giving updates. In previous years, there’s always been someone giving Twitter updates once a Ninja Agent was spotted. The hashtag for the conference is #writeoncon.

I tried several different options in the search function to see if there was a way to pull up all of the Ninja Agents at once since you could do that on the previous platform. It doesn’t appear to be possible, but if someone else figures it out, let me know and I’ll add it.

Another option is to go through and follow all of the Ninja Agents individually. Once you do so, if you click on Following in your Profile, it will show you their activity. However, it will mix the Ninja Agent activity with that of everyone else you follow, and it’s not just what they’ve posted. It also lists anyone they follow or become friends with. I did notice that the Ninja Agents tend to follow all of the other Ninja Agents. So, for example, if you click on Ninja Midnight and then Following, it will show you the activity of other Ninja Agents. But again, there’s a lot of activity other than posts mixed in (like “Ninja Dusk changed their avatar”), so whether you go that route depends on whether you want to wade through the extras.

If you’re already in the forums, come find me! My username is michelleimason. My work-in-progress is a young adult contemporary titled YOUR SECRET’S NOT SAFE WITH ME.


Romance in Kidlit and Other 2014 MOSCBWI Takeaways

Last Saturday I attended the Missouri SCBWI Conference. 2014 was my fourth year attending, and it’s interesting how my attitude toward this conference has changed. My first year, I soaked up everything. I was new to the world of writing for middle grade and young adult. I was just discovering all of the resources available on the internet, and so the information available at this regional conference was golden. These days I go less to learn something new than to catch up with writer friends, meet new writers, and hear something interesting. So for those purposes, it met my expectations.

The first speaker had interviewed seventeen editors and agents to gauge where the market is now and where it’s headed. She didn’t share anything I hadn’t already seen from the editors and agents I follow online, but I could tell that the information was extremely valuable to others in the room, so it was definitely a relevant topic.

The most interesting–and hilarious!–speaker of the day was author Cecily White, author of PROPHECY GIRL, who gave a keynote on “The Space Between Us: Layered Romantic Tension in Young Adult and Middle Grade.” She approached the topic from a psychologist’s perspective, giving background on how experts like Freud and Erikson defined these age groups and how they view the opposite sex. It was quite fascinating and gave a unique insight into why romance is different at these reading levels. Not your typical MG vs. YA presentation! Oh–you want to know what the difference is? Well, I don’t think I can just give her presentation away, but here’s a taste:

  • Middle grade love: Are we friends or what?
  • Young adult love: We’re dating! It’s forever love!

I also found author Steven Sheinkin’s keynote presentation, “Research or Detective Work,” fascinating. Mr. Sheinkin writes narrative non-fiction–which is something I never intend to write–but after listening to his process I’m now very interested in reading his books on Benedict Arnold, the guys who tried to rob Abraham Lincoln’s grave, and the men who staged a mutiny at Port Chicago. Honestly, I didn’t take a ton of notes during his presentation. I just enjoyed listening to him tell stories about how he’d tracked down all of the facts behind these untold histories. And it’s all because he worked for a history textbook company that wouldn’t let him put in the interesting bits! Now I must make sure our school library carries his books … But if you do write narrative non-fiction or even historical fiction and want to get your facts straight, a few tidbits I did catch that I might not have thought of are:

  • You can request FBI files, military files, etc., on people. They might blank things out, but the Freedom of Information Act gives you this right.
  • If possible, interview primary sources or people in the area who are experts on that topic, including authors of other books. He contacted one author who had done in-person interviews no one else knew existed.
  • Check old newspaper accounts.

I would highly recommend Ms. White and Mr. Sheinkin to any SCBWI chapters looking for speakers!

The day ended with a First Five Lines critique by two agents and an editor. It’s always interesting to hear industry professionals respond on-the-spot, especially to gauge their individual tastes. One of my writing friends received some very helpful feedback through the critiques, so yay!

Overall, I was glad I attended, although I’m excited to try something new next year. Some of my writer friends across the country have been urging me to branch out, so I may be headed toward the northeast …

Were any of you at MOSCBWI? What did you think?

Agents, Conferences, Critiquing, Querying, Writing

WriteOnCon! With Advice If You’re Posting in the Forums

It’s WriteOnCon time! WriteOnCon is a free, online conference for picture book, middle grade, young adult, and (this year) new adult writers. If you fit into any (or all!) of these categories, you should definitely check it out! The information I’ve gleaned from this conference over the past few years is beyond measurement.

One of the most popular features of the conference is the forums, which allow you to post your query, first page, and first five pages in separate forums. As an added bonus, Ninja Agents–so called because although a list of agents is given they have code names–slink through the forums and leave feedback on the posts. Sometimes they even request additional pages or full manuscripts through private messages. If you want to receive one of these coveted requests, it is in your best interest to post in all three areas (query, first page, first five pages) as an individual Ninja Agent may only stay in a single forum. One of my most popular posts last year was on How to Stalk WriteOnCon Ninja Agents. It gives detailed instructions on how to find them, so if you want to be sneaky …

If you are posting in the forums, I would like to give some unsolicited advice. Maybe you already know this, and maybe you read my Thoughts on Revising from Public Critiques Post, but here it is anyway:

  1. Don’t try to explain everything, especially with a query. If someone asks you a straight clarification question, by all means, answer it, but if you try to get into too many details, you’re likely to end up making your query even more confusing or adding more details than you need. Often it’s easier to just revise and say, “Does that clear things up?”
  2. Remember your intended audience. If critiquers don’t recognize a reference to something–whether it’s a comp title or something the character is watching or technology they’re using in your first pages–maybe that’s ok. Will an agent know the comp title? Will the 11-year-old know that show? Will the 16-year-old know that gadget? Possibly you have to explain it, but possibly you don’t. Trust your instincts.
  3. When it comes to the first page, if a commenter is questioning something that will be answered later, don’t move it up just to answer his/her question. If that information shouldn’t be revealed until page three–or page fifty, for that matter–save it for the right moment. If an agent is intrigued enough by your writing and voice, they’ll stick with the story to get those answers when the time is right.
  4. Unless a comment automatically resonates with you, wait until you have several to revise. That’s the value of this kind of event. You’re going to receive feedback from multiple writers, so wait to hear from more than one before you jump on that gut reaction. They might not all agree. If they do, it’s easy to know what to fix. If they don’t, that’s when you have to sit back and figure out what’s not working. Because if everyone’s commenting on the same section but not agreeing on the solution, probably something needs to happen there.

I think that’s it. So go forth and post in the forums! If you do, let me know where you are and I’ll stop by. I haven’t posted my own yet, but I will soon!

Conferences, Revising, Writing

Missouri SCBWI 2013 Conference Recap

On Saturday, I attended the Missouri Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference. I would categorize this as more of an inspirational than a working conference. It consists of a series of keynote addresses with one breakout session. There was the option to attend an additional breakout session on Sunday morning, but as I have church commitments, I didn’t attend that part. Oh, there were also critiques available from two agents or an editor. Didn’t do that part, either. While I enjoyed the speeches, I’m going to focus on the two that gave me the most takeaways.

Krista Marino, Executive Editor, Delacorte Press

I’ve heard editors speak before but never with the approach Ms. Marino took. She centered her talk around books she’s purchased, starting with how she encountered the author and then unique aspects of the deal. It was interesting to hear the range of stories, from the traditional offer after an agent submission to buying an unfinished manuscript from an unagented author after a 10-page critique at a conference. It definitely brought home that each writer’s journey is different. Here are a few interesting things I learned from Ms. Marino.

  • E-book serials/novellas are a lot of extra work for the editor. Digitizing a work is a complicated process, and these books still require publicity plans, covers, etc. They can be a great publicity tool when done well, but they are becoming so common the novelty is wearing off.
  • Meta data and internet search marketing have become an essential part of an editor’s job. Book and series titles are extremely important when it comes to searches. Editors spend a significant amount of time considering what terms should be included to ensure the book shows up.
  • Editors are willing to take on books they believe in, even when they know they won’t sell big right away.
  • Editors will pass projects on to colleagues if they see something special but know it’s not for them.
  • When a publisher signs a two-book deal with an author, the second book doesn’t have to be determined yet. Editors often work with authors to come up with the idea for the second book.
  • While publishers do get input from booksellers, they will sometimes go against them if they really believe in something. For example, Ms. Marino is sticking with a cover one bookseller asked Delacorte to change, even though it may cost some sales with that particular bookseller.

I found her discussion of exclusive editions particularly interesting. An exclusive edition is sold to a particular bookseller with special content, whether an annotated first chapter, full-color illustrations that could be torn out, or an extra scene. An exclusive edition guarantees sales with that particular bookseller. It sounds like a great tactic, although a lot of extra work for the publishing team. Ms. Marino has worked with authors on as many as five exclusives for a single book. Once the exclusive deal ends–usually after a year–the content reverts to the publisher. In one case, Ms. Marino’s team compiled all of the exclusive content into a single package and sold it to fans with a teaser for the author’s new series. It was a successful promotion.

Lisa Yee, Author

Lisa Yee was hilarious. I haven’t read her books yet, but I definitely will now! I attended her revision workshop, and here are some of the gems I wrote down:

  • Sometimes when you work too hard on something, you can ruin it. (I so get this. There comes a time when you have to stop revising and set your work free!)
  • Cut ruthlessly. You can probably cut 20 percent of your manuscript. If you think it could be cut, try it, then re-read. If you don’t notice anything missing, it was the right cut.
  • Read your work aloud, or have your computer do it for you. (I agree. Check out my post about reading aloud.)
  • Change the margins and font so the manuscript looks different. It will force you to slow down and you’ll be less likely to skim.
  • Sometimes we do what’s easiest instead of what works. Make sure you’re writing in the correct POV, tense, etc. for the story.
  • When revising, take your work and turn it upside down.

Ms. Yee had us do an exercise in which we wrote a paragraph and then revised it several times from different viewpoints. It was a great way to see how different characters in the same scene might experience their surroundings, particularly depending on what baggage they bring to it. If you ever have the chance to hear her speak or do a workshop with her, I highly recommend you seize the opportunity.

While I could share tips from the agents or other authors, these two stood out the most from the conference. I hope they’re helpful/interesting for you, too!

Conferences, Middle Grade, Pitching, Querying, Writing

Make Your Pitches Specific and Other WriteOnCon Takeaways

Another WriteOnCon is over, and once again I feel energized and ready to get back out there with my manuscript. It’s amazing to me how different the conference is from one year to the next. The organizers do a great job coming up with new topics and presenters. In case you missed it, here is my post from last year as a comparison before I jump into this year.

Live Google Hangouts

I loved the addition of the Live Google Hangouts, during which agents reacted real-time, on-screen, to Twitter pitches. I attended three–Suzie Townsend/Kathleen Ortiz, Danielle Smith, and Tamar Rydzinski.

Here are some of the takeaways:

  1. If your pitch could apply to dozens of stories, i.e., “She must figure it out before it’s too late,” it’s too generic.
  2. Avoid cliches.
  3. If you can, use comp titles. It’s a quick way to give a sense of the story, particularly when you only have 140 characters.
  4. It’s still a matter of taste. The Suzie Townsend/Kathleen Ortiz hangout was particularly great on this point, as one could be totally intrigue by something while the other would shrug and go, “eh.”
  5. Be clear, specific and inject voice.
  6. Make sure the pitch includes a plot in addition to a premise. Agents want to know what’s going to happen, not just the situation.

Danielle Smith also mixed in great info about the market for picture books and middle grade. I admit I was a bit distracted after she talked about my pitch (!!!), but here are a few things I caught:

  1. PBs about princesses are a hard sell
  2. The market is saturated with PBs about farm animals
  3. MG science fiction is a hard sell (:() but can still be done if the voice is fantastic

Whether you plan to query Danielle or not, the info she shared was fantastic, so I recommend you watch the replay.

Middle Grade

As primarily a middle grade writer, I’m always interested in the posts/events that focus on middle grade, and two stood out to me this year: the vlog by Frank Cole and the Q&A with Peggy Eddleman. Here are a few of the points they touched on:

  • Violence–Scary is good, but creepy is better. Although there are exceptions, if you start killing off characters, it’s no longer MG. The more violence you include, the more you narrow your audience, and fewer gatekeepers will buy the book.
  • Romance–Younger MG boys make fun of girls they like, while older MG boys will do things to try to impress them. However, boys are more likely to guard their crushes closely, while girls will tell their friends.
  • Relationships with adults–Most 8 to 12-year-olds have a lot of respect for adults, so if your character doesn’t, it should be noticed as out of the norm by other characters.
  • The market–Middle grade doesn’t generally have the saturation / burnout on genres like YA does. With MG, platform doesn’t matter nearly as much as it does for older age groups, although you will need a website post-deal. There’s less of a market for upper MG for girls because many of them are already reading YA.

Agent/Editor Thoughts

The agent and editor chats are always enlightening as well. Here are a few of the things I tweeted during the conference.

  • On breaking rules in queries: “Is the voice, character, or concept good enough to get away with the rule break?” Victoria Marini
  • Common query problems: “Often a query is soooo vague it could apply to 3-4 books…that have already been published.” Katie Grimm
  • On queries for books with dual POVs: Generally, one character per paragraph. An Inciting incident. Wrap-up. Victoria Marini
  • On how to write a strong query: Grab our attention with a compelling or witty logline then explain the larger conflict. Brooks Sherman
  • On what an editor will take on: “You can fix a plot, but it’s…hard to fix something as subjective and as personal and intrinsic to a writer as voice.” Sarah Dotts Barley
  • On world-building: “You need a hook or a voice that pulls readers in and makes them ask questions without feeling lost in this new world.” Andrew Harwell
  • On pop culture: “If your references are all pulled from the headlines, your book will become dated very quickly.” Andrew Harwell
  • On the same issue, Lindsay Ribar added that it depends on whether the references will be relevant when the book comes out in 2-5 yrs. Disney and Elton John are probably ok, but “Call Me Maybe” not so much.

Everything Else

Obviously I can’t recap the whole conference, so when you have time, I urge you to go through and read the other articles or watch replays of the events. Here’s a link to the full program.

If you attended, what were your biggest takeaways?

Conferences, Critiquing, Querying

How to Stalk WriteOnCon Ninja Agents

Please see my 2017 post, which is updated for the new forum platform.

Note: I’ve postponed the MMGM I had planned for today due to being lost in the WriteOnCon forums. What’s that, you may ask? Read on.

WriteOnConIf you write for kids, teens or new adults, you should attend WriteOnCon tomorrow and Wednesday. It’s a free* online conference featuring vlogs, blogs, live events and more from agents, editors and published authors. 2013 will be my third year attending, and I will be chained to my computer for this year’s event.

The beauty of WriteOnCon is that it’s more than a deluge of information (although that part is great, too). It’s also an opportunity for feedback and maybe even to catch an agent’s interest. If you’re a querying writer, you should participate in the forums. You can post your query, first 250 words and first five pages for critique by other writers and possibly even Ninja Agents. It doesn’t have to be ready to query. If it’s a work-in-progress but you have something you want critiqued, take advantage of the opportunity because this is the greatest concentration of kidlit writers you’ll find at a time. You might even find a new critique partner there. I did last year.

Ninja Agent, you say? Yes, so named because it’s an agent in disguise who sneaks through the forums leaving comments. Their identities are closely guarded, even after the conference is over. The only way you find out who they are is if they send you a private message with a request. I have mixed feelings about this as it would be nice to know who left you the comments if they don’t request, but I can also see the value in the agents maintaining anonymity.

But back to the title of this post, you want to stalk these agents, whether they comment on your query/first 250/first five pages or not. The knowledge you’ll gain from their critiques of others can often be applied to your own materials. And it’s so easy to do.

1. Log in to the forum.

2a. If you’re in the thick of the conference, scroll down to the bottom of the page to see who’s online (Currently Active Users). They appear in alphabetical order, and if there’s a Ninja Agent listed, you can click on their profile.

2b. If there are no Ninja Agents online at the moment, scroll back to the top and click on the Quick Links pull-down menu. Select View Forum Leaders. The list of Ninja Agents is at the bottom.

3.  Click on a Ninja Agent to go to their profile.

4.  Click on Find All Posts and, voila!, you can see everywhere the agent has commented.

If you want to get even more stalkery, you could keep a Ninja Agent’s profile up on your computer and watch their current activity. Or you can locate someone on Twitter who’s already doing that and giving updates. The last two years, there’s always been someone giving Twitter updates once a Ninja Agent was spotted. The hashtag for the conference is #WriteOnCon.

2014 Update: I’ve discovered there’s also a way to search for all of the Ninja Agent posts without looking through individual Ninja Agents.

  1. To find all Ninja Agent posts, click on Advanced Search. It’s to the far right under the general search field.
  2. Select the Search Single Content File tab
  3. In the User Name field, enter “Ninja Agent”
  4. In the Search in Forum(s) field, click on Critique Boards–or you can select a more specific one if you only care about, say, YA Query Crit
  5. In the Find Posts field, select A Week Ago and newer (or change this if you’re looking at this after the conference is over)
  6. In the Show Results As field, select Posts. If you leave it as Threads, it will take you to the general thread rather than directly to the Ninja Agent’s post.

If you’re already in the forums, come find me! My username is mmason. I’ll be posting my key takeaways from the conference later this week.

*They do ask for donations at the end, but it’s not required.

Conferences, Querying

Missouri SCBWI Conference Recap, Part 2

Yesterday I posted Part 1 of my Missouri SCBWI Conference recap. On to Part 2…

Illustrator Will Terry kicked off the afternoon sessions. He offered the most polished presentation of the day, and of course he had a visual component. Like Ms. Dryden, he spoke about how technology has changed the industry, but he had an entirely different focus. He gave us tips on several iPad apps I’m going to check out for my kids (The Wormworld Saga, Nighty Night, Mash Smasher).

He asked the question: Which is more important, story or craft? I thought this was a trick question, but it turned out it wasn’t. He used movies as examples, saying that his kids would rather watch the old Star Wars than the new ones. Why? Because while the earlier movies had the coolest special effects of the time, they focused on the story. The new movies also have the coolest special effects of the time, but the stories are weaker. I’d never thought of it that way, but he’s right, and it bears out in books, too. Writers like to knock TWILIGHT, but the story draws people in, so it doesn’t matter if the writing technique is weaker.

Mr. Terry said that if you build the right product, you won’t have to spend a lot on advertising because people will share it on their own. The key is to come up with something amazingly “something,” whether that’s good, shocking, touching or “something” else. Great advice, right? Get on that!

Best-selling YA author Ellen Hopkins shared her publishing journey. It was interesting to hear how she started out publishing non-fiction. She wrote CRANK because of her daughter’s addiction to crystal meth. Although I haven’t read her books (I’m a happy ending kind of girl), I appreciated the feedback she shared from her readers. Here’s a quote that really caught my attention:

“My readers need the books to understand themselves but also to understand people who are not like themselves.”

The agent who was scheduled to attend this year’s conference wasn’t able to get out of New York due to Sandy. Instead, Emma Dryden and Ellen Hopkins gave the agent speech from the viewpoint of an editor and author. Here are some of the tips they gave:

  1. Agents aren’t looking for perfection; they’re looking for potential.
  2. An agent has to love your work AND think they can sell it.
  3. Agents aren’t looking for a book; they’re looking for an author. You should have other projects available, especially if you write picture books.
  4. If you plan to write a series, don’t hold everything back for the third book because there’s no guarantee people will want to get there.
  5. Make sure the agent is the right fit.
  6. Your agent is working for you–you are paying them. (Probably wouldn’t hear an agent say that.)
  7. You need an agent for contracts, especially early on. Authors don’t have the clout to ask for things. Ellen Hopkins shared that she made her first deal without an agent and regretted that. She also pointed out that it’s about more than the advance. It’s about subrights and marketing support.
  8. Don’t put illustration notes in a PB manuscript. If a PB manuscript is excellent, the agent should be able to picture the illustrations from the text.
  9. Make sure you have a walkaway clause with an agent if things don’t work out.

It was interesting to hear these notes from the editor/author points of view, although I felt like I could have given the speech based on my querying experiences. In case anyone who was at the conference stops by my blog, I’d like to point out one answer that was incorrect. You should NOT follow up two weeks after a query and definitely not CALL to follow up. The only exception would be if the agent’s submission guidelines state to do so. A few say you can follow up if you don’t hear within a certain time frame, but I haven’t seen any that say you can call.

The day ended with a panel of all the conference speakers. I didn’t take any notes there, but I was about ready to go home by then. Overall, the speakers were entertaining and interesting. Until next year…