Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Editor Interview: Stephanie Lane Elliott, Senior Editor, Delacorte Press

Stephanie Lane Elliott, Senior Editor with Delacorte Press (Random House Children's Books), was kind enough to answer a few questions concerning MG, YA and the mysterious journey from acquisition to publication:

Varian (VJ): What is your typical day like as an editor? Or is there no such thing as a “typical” day?

Stephanie (SE): Each day is a little different, depending on where in the season we are. But I would say usually, I get to work and spend the morning answering emails, returning phone calls, checking over passes and mechanicals, and keeping books moving through the system. I try to get most of the “procedural” stuff done during the morning. Ideally, I then have the afternoon to read submissions or edit. It doesn’t always work out that way, though—it’s hard to get that stuff done in the office, because there’s always something going on, always fires to be put out. That’s why I try to work at home when I’m really behind on reading, because I get more done there.

VJ: You acquire both middle grade and YA fiction. Aside from the age of the protagonists, what are the main differences you see between middle grade and YA fiction?

SE: In terms of content, middle grade is very innocent compared to YA and getting more innocent every day. We’re told more and more that middle grade is a young category, and that every aspect of the story needs to be appropriate for the youngest piece of the category—meaning eight-year-olds. So right now I think there’s a big jump in terms of content between middle grade, where you can’t even really say “damn” or have interest between the sexes except in a really innocent way, and YA, where you can kind of get away with anything as long as you’re okay with being classified as “fourteen up.” : )

Storywise, too, I think you see a difference between YA, where the characters are old enough to be pretty independent and get into trouble on their own, and middle grade, where kids’ lives are still fairly controlled by their parents—and so you see a lot of fantasy and magical realism. In middle grade, I think a lot of the action tends to come from imagination, whereas in YA, it’s tends to be a little more gritty and realistic.

VJ: Similarly, what are the main differences you see between YA and adult fiction? Are any subjects “off-limits” in YA fiction?

SE: This topic is sort of up for debate, but to me, the difference is tone. YA is very in the moment. If you’re a teenager, you are experiencing being a teenager right then, right there—you are making decisions in real time and still dealing with the consequences. Whereas adult fiction about teenagers tends to be more reflective, more “if I only knew then what I know now.”

In terms of what you can get away with, it’s tough—it’s changing all the time. I think we’re coming out of a strange, conflicting period in YA—on the one hand, we’re being told stores and customers want cleaner stories, and on the other, all the other forms of media, like television and movies and even the internet, are pushing the limits more than ever before. So there’s this weird divide: either you’re totally clean or you’re tackling very mature topics, and we’re calling your book 14 up. I think that middle ground where you’re writing about what most kids are realistically going through, messy subjects and all, is getting smaller and smaller. I hope that will change as the culture changes.

I think most of us working in YA fiction have a sense of responsibility toward our readers and our characters, so one thing you won’t see is a story that exploits its characters. I think you can get away with most things—if it’s written realistically and there’s a reason it happens—but when it doesn’t feel like a teenager him- or herself is experiencing it, that’s not a YA book.

VJ: Many adults freely admit that they prefer to read YA fiction as opposed to adult fiction. What is it about YA fiction that makes it “universal”?

SE: I think we all have really strong memories of that time in our lives. And just as stories, I think YA novels tend to be really strong, really compact, and quick-moving; you’re writing for an audience that doesn’t tolerate a lot of throat-clearing. I think that’s refreshing to a lot of people who want a story to really hook them and keep them involved.

VJ: In general, after a novel is acquired, it seems to take anywhere from 12 months to two years for that novel to hit bookshelves. Can you walk us through the life of a typical novel as it journeys from acquisition to publication?

SE: First there’s the task of getting it acquired—doing a profit and loss statement, getting the contract through. Then it’s usually a couple months before we’ll start revisions, assuming we’re not rushing it to make a certain pub date. Depending on the book, revisions can take anywhere from one to six or seven months. We usually go through at least two rounds, starting with the big issues and getting smaller. Then the book goes into production, is copyedited, then typeset; we send out a first pass for authors of the first typeset edition, and that’s usually the last time they see it. Meanwhile, we’re coming up with a marketing plan and making ARCs and sales proofs (jackets to sell from). There’s usually a lull of a few months between the time ARCs are done and the time we start selling in and then getting reviews. Then reviews start trickling in, and ta-da: finished books come in from the printer, and then it comes out.

VJ: I know that Delacorte is closed to unsolicited submissions. How do you find most of your authors?

SE: Most of my authors have come to me via agents, but I’ve also acquired several authors through our contests—we run two contests each year, one for YA fiction, one for middle grade. Sometimes a manuscript won’t win but will stick with me for some reason; I’ll write to those authors and see if they want to attempt a revision. Those manuscripts are often acquired down the line.

VJ: What types of novels do you like to acquire?

SE: I’m really open to anything, but I have a particular affinity for literary novels, funny books, absurd humor, magical realism and historical novels.

VJ: Can you tell us about some of the upcoming novels that you have coming out this Spring?

SE: Sure! In Spring 2009, my list is:

THE LAST SYNAPSID by Timothy Mason: This is a fantastic, gently humorous fantasy that reminds me of E.T. It follows Phoebe and Rob, two twelve-year-olds in Faith, Colorado, who befriend a prehistoric creature who wanders through a time snag into their town—and needs their help.

HOLLYWOOD AND MAINE by Allison Whittenberg: This is the companion novel to a novel I bought through our middle grade contest, actually—it was called SWEET THANG. It’s set in the 1970s in Philadelphia, and follows the adventures of fourteen-year-old Charmaine Upshaw as she learns to deal with her first boyfriend and her ex-con uncle, who’s come to live with her family.

BACKTRACKED by Pedro de Alcantara: This is an action-packed time travel book through the New York subway. It’s about Tommy Latrella, whose brother died a hero on 9/11 and he feels like he can never live up to his memory. So he plays a dangerous prank in the Times Square subway system and is hurtled back in time to the early 20th Century, the Depression, and WW2.

THE DIAMONDS by Ted Michael: This is a darkly funny YA novel that reminds me of the movie Heathers. Marni has always been one of the Diamonds, the most popular girls in school—until she breaks the rules by flirting with the ringleader’s ex. Pretty soon her former friends have taken over the school’s mock trial system and use it to try to take Marni down. This has a great voice, and some really smart things to say about civil liberties and what rights we’ll allow to be given away.

VJ: Thanks Stephanie.

For those of you looking for more information about Stephanie, check out her recent interview with Lori Polydoros for SCBWI.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Holly: Five Books That Made This Writer

When I first read this book I was the same age as the main character, 12-year-old Claudia, and I had a brother the same age as her 9-year-old brother Jamie. One of my favorite daydreams at the time concerned secretly living inside the mall, so it was tremendous fun to live vicariously through Claudia and Jamie as they ran away and slept inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I decided that I wanted to write for teens and pre-teens, Konigsburg's novel is one of the first I went back and re-read. It was everything a great MG novel needs--a strong, smart main character, adventure, and heart.

THE STAND by Stephen King
Stephen King is tremendously underrated. He's not just a horror writer; he's a master of characterization. At over 800 pages, THE STAND was by far the largest novel I'd ever read (and now that I think back, there were some terribly inappropriate passages for an 11-year-old!). I dragged the enormous hardcover book with me everywhere for three months and read a few pages whenever I could. I remember breaking down in tears one day, over my pancakes in Denny's, when my favorite character suddenly died. By then I'd already known for several years that I would be a writer, and it excited me to think that one day I might be able to affect strangers the way Stephen King had affected me.

WRITING DOWN THE BONES by Natalie Goldberg
Writing Down the Bones is my creative writing Bible. I first read it in ninth grade, while attending an arts school and majoring in creative writing. I rolled my eyes at the sonnets and terza rimas the teacher expected us to write, but I loved the 20 or 30 minutes for journal writing we were given every morning, and I loved the emphasis on Natalie Goldberg's approach to writing. The book is filled with advice that is simple and practical, but easily forgotten ("Show, Don't Tell;" "Writing is Not a McDonald's Hamburger"). I go back to the book often, when I'm feeling bored or uninspired or even lonely, because the chapters feel like old friends. Natalie Goldberg is a poet, and it comes through even in her non-fiction. I know all writers are different, but I can't imagine anyone reading Writing Down the Bones and not taking something away from it.

In my heart I always knew I would be a writer, but sometimes my rational mind wondered if that would really work out the way I wanted it to. I knew "regular" people and I knew of writers, but I didn't know any regular people who had become writers...until 2003 when Pamela Ribon's first novel was published. Okay, so I didn't personally know Pamie, but I'd followed her online journal for several years and she was very much a real person to me. Pamie's success renewed my faith in my own writing. Reading the book also gave me insight into the process of writing a novel. Like Pamie, her main character kept an online journal. The majority of the plot was clearly fiction, but some of Pamie's actual journal entries made their way into the novel, and it fascinated me to see firsthand how an author used her own experiences in her fiction.

Maureen Johnson's first novel was my gateway drug into the world of YA literature. I'd called my first novel "literary fiction" because I had no idea what it really was, but I knew it wasn't working, until I woke up one day with the brilliant idea to completely rewrite it (again!) from the perspective of a 16-year-old character, and call it Young Adult. Since I didn't know anything about young adult literature, I headed to the library and found Johnson's book. Right away, it felt like home. I related so strongly to the characters and the situation. I thought about all the novels and short stories I'd written, or started, or thought about over the last few years, and I realized they'd all work as YA. I think it was fortuitous that I blindly selected something as excellent as The Key to the Golden Firebird as my first YA read in years. If I'd picked something less stellar, I may have dismissed the entire genre, and then where would I be today?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Saundra: Building Your Mailing List- Data Mining for Authors

While authors may enjoy the art half of our industry, the business half can be confusing and overwhelming. For example, we could use a great mailing list- but where do you get the list? The free way is called data mining, and anyone with some time and an Internet connection can do it.

The most important part of data mining is figuring out what you need to know. You need to look at your book and determine who wants to read this, and who will help those people read it.

We'd all like to think the answer to those questions is everybody, but unless you have the funds for 30 million postcards, you might want to focus your efforts.

To start, let me show you how to break down your book into targeted audiences, using my book as an example:

YA novel = I want to target independent booksellers who specialize in YA or children's books.

YA novel = I want to target middle and high schoolers. Best way to get to them? Middle school and high school librarians.

YA novel about ghosts = I want to target independent booksellers who specialize in horror or genre novels.

YA novel set in Louisiana = I want to target independent booksellers in Louisiana.

Author lives in Indiana = I want to target independent booksellers and YA librarians in Indiana.

These are your basic categories- type of book (can be more than one category,) demographic of book, setting of book, author region. Now that you've narrowed your data requirements down from "every single person in the world" to, say, librarians in (your state), it's time to fire up Google.

Here's the beauty of the Internet- chances are, somebody more fastidious than you has already collected the information you need in ONE place. You just have to find it. Some of the best Google tools are simple searches. Start macro, and go micro- choose the broadest possible search terms first, then refine. For example:

indiana libraries returns LibCat, which just so happens to have lists of EVERY SINGLE PUBLIC LIBRARY in the United States, arranged by state, with links to each library website.


Bookmark your state page, open a word processor, and get to work data mining. Start at the top of the page, and go to the first library website. Copy and paste the name and address of the library into your open word processor. Then, click around the site to see if you can find the name of the director, or the specific librarian you need. Try


Because these two sections are where you're most likely to find a staff list with titles. And yes- this will take a long time. I like to do batches of 50, then switch off to another task so I don't start making errors.

For each targeted area, you're going to repeat that process, and you have to refine your search terms each time.

Sometimes, you have to go micro to macro- more specific to less specific. For example, "indiana independent booksellers" gives lots of great information returns, but you'll discover that the IndieBound website is hard to use for this because it wants you to search booksellers by zip code. That's great if you want to find one store, but not if you want to find all of them in a given region.

So if I go macro with just "independent booksellers", not only do I find great resources like the Southern Independent Booksellers, Great Lakes Independent Booksellers = regional bookseller groups that often have their own awards, and other resources- but I also find American Booksellers Association- and their search page lets you search by state. Get to pasting!

This works for any major groupings of information you need. Try "school districts indianapolis" (replacing Indy with your town, of course!) to get a list of all the school districts in your region. Then go micro by searching for "[name of school district]".

You'll usually find a centralized page for the entire district, which then gives you links to each school in the district. Target appropriately- again, you'll often want to use ABOUT US or CONTACT US to find out who runs the media center.

Tips and Tricks

Can't Find Staff Information for Schools or Libraries?

1) See if they have a blog. Most people use a variation on their name when they're making blog entries- is the YA librarian posting as Saundra? Then check her e-mail address to get her last name. In the US, school and library e-mail addresses are packed with information:
S. Mitchell at Akron Public Library, Indiana, United States
S. Mitchell at Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township, K-12 Schools, Indiana, US

2) Check the activity calendar- sometimes they'll have contact information there that isn't elsewhere on the site.

3) Check out the gallery- sometimes, there will be pictures of library events, nicely labeled with people's names!

Further Refining Your Search Results

If getting more specific with your search terms isn't helping, try using modifiers. Did you know you can use quotation marks, and plus and minus signs in Google to refine your search terms?

shadowed summer = A regular search, this returns information about my book, but also poetry with those words in it, anything about summer, anything about shadows- it's kind of a mess. So I can refine my search like this:

"Shadowed Summer" = using quotes tells Google to search for that phrase exactly. Now all my search terms are either about my book, or they're probably poetry that features the words "shadowed summer" in the lines.

"Shadowed Summer" -poem = Using the minus sign tells Google to EXCLUDE anything that includes the following term in the search. Now I'm finding anything that has "Shadowed Summer" in exactly that order, plus Google is now removing any searches that are specifically about poetry.

"Shadowed Summer" +"Saundra Mitchell" = Using the plus sign tells Google that you want search results for your initial search term that ALSO include the additional search term. Now I will only get results for "Shadowed Summer" that also include my name on the page.

You can use multiple + and -, but Google, like anything else, works best when you refine, rather than overspecify.

Weigh Your Sources

Sure, there's all kinds of information on the web, but some sites are more accurate than others. Weigh your sources when you search for information- a dated government website listing all the libraries in your region is probably more accurate than an undated Geocities website made by an unknown author.

If a website seems sketchy, or incomplete, check the information there against other sources. It's especially important to have accurate contact information- you want to send your postcards to the librarian in charge of youth services now, not the one who retired in 1998!

Accept Limitations

Sometimes, you just cannot find the name of the librarian in charge at a particular institution. Sometimes, you can only manage a last name. Or an initial. Or nothing at all. And that's okay.

You can still contact an organization by phone or by e-mail to request specific information. And, some pages have Instant Chat help- just type your question, and get an answer in real time.

Don't waste a lot of time searching when you could resolve your question with one phone call, IM or e-mail. Take a quick look at CONTACT US, ABOUT US, the blog, the pictures, and if you can't find the info you need, send an e-mail and move on.

Stay Organized

You will end up with multiple files but fewer headaches if you organize like information with like information. One file for regional booksellers. One file for school libraries. Etc., etc., etc..

I like to keep my lists in Word. It doesn't do a better job than notepad, but when it comes time to use that information, I can change the color of each address after I use it- that way I don't multiple-mail people- harassing them, and wasting my postage and time!

Another way you can organize your mailings is to print your labels on a sheet of plain paper, then on the sheet of labels. Staple these together, so when you remove a label, you can see the address through the backing paper. When the whole page is empty, you can see which addresses have already been mailed.

And... those are the basics of data mining: tighten your focus, macro to micro, refine, refine, refine. That's all there is to it- now all you need is time and patience. And cocola. Cocola makes everything better. ^_^

Monday, December 8, 2008

Marianna: Let's Get It On -- Sex Scenes in Young Adult Novels

I’ve been a connoisseur of sex scenes in YA fiction since I was nine, when a dog-eared copy of Forever made the rounds in my fourth grade class. So I was shocked that when I tried to write one for the first time, it was a disaster. I was embarrassed. My characters were embarrassed. None of us knew what to do with our hands. We didn’t even get to first base.

Writing sex scenes for adult readers can be awkward, as well, but writing for young adults brings a whole other set of concerns. The considerations of how to deal with the (touchy, sticky – insert pun of choice here) topic of sex in such a way that is appropriate for readers of varying levels of maturity can seem extremely complex. Add to that the worry about censorship, people accusing us of corrupting their kids, the issue of portraying responsible sex, etc.

All of those worries, along with basic inhibitions, distracted me from my main concern – crafting a good story. Once I stepped back and looked at YA novels I think handle sex beautifully, I realized I needed to come back to that – the craft. Because, in the end, good craft will set us free. My firm belief is that our responsibility is to tell the most honest stories we can, and that the question is not, “What is appropriate?” but, “What is appropriate for the story I am telling?” (I loved Varian’s Nov. 24th post that dealt with this issue of the writer’s responsibility.)

Anyway, I went back to that sex scene I’d tried to write and looked at it from a more objective, less panicky and emotional, point of view. I considered it from three angles: plot, level of detail, and language, and brought with me what I’d learned from studying those books I loved.

Regarding plot/”What should those hands be doing?” -- simply put, the physical actions should reflect the emotional truth of the scene, the relationship between the characters, and often, larger themes of the novel. I believe the key to finding this emotional truth is respect -- respecting the right of characters to make mistakes, to take risks, to be desirous, and, if the story calls for it, to do things that I wouldn’t do, or that I wouldn’t want my (hypothetical, at the moment) son or daughter to do. If a character is fully fleshed out, readers will understand her decisions.

In Bringing Up the Bones by Lara Zeises, Zeises’s eighteen-year-old protagonist, Bridget, is dealing with the recent death of her boyfriend, Benji. During one of her first post-death social outings, she briefly meets a boy, Jasper, goes to his apartment, and sleeps with him. This event is the catalyst for the rest of the novel – the story of how Bridget’s relationship with Jasper helps her overcome Benji’s death in unexpected ways. Zeises uses that first sex scene between Bridget and Jasper to establish the dynamics that will characterize their relationship throughout the book:

His lips brush from my breasts to my belly button to the dampened cotton crotch of my panties which soon find their way to the floor. I come quickly, guiltily. But it doesn’t stop there.
He reaches over me to the wood-laminate nightstand, fishes around the top drawer until he finds a condom. I can feel him looking at me in the darkness, can feel him wondering if I’m one of those girls who likes to slip it on the guy herself. My nails dig into the soft flesh of his shoulders; my tongue thrusts itself into his mouth. He decides to do it himself, rolls away from me a bit.
And then he’s inside me, and I’m expecting to feel the searing pain I did with Benji but it’s not like that this time. […]
When it’s over, I start to cry. Quietly at first, then louder (27-28).

The details of this sexual interaction hint at so many aspects of the novel: the oral sex speaks of Jasper’s tendency to give, and Bridget’s to receive; the moment with the condom reflects Bridget’s use of sex/body language to communicate instead of words; her mention of Benji shows Bridget’s constant need to compare Jasper to her idealized ex; and her guilt and tears reflect her emotional confusion.

This is brave writing. By allowing her character to have sex with a stranger, Zeises risks making her unsympathetic to readers. I would be very surprised though if anyone read this book and felt harshly towards Bridget, because the scene is emotionally honest. We fully believe that this is what Bridget would do in the situation, given her grief over Benji, and once we know Jasper, we believe it’s what he would do. The physical reflects the emotional – with all its mess and complexity.

Another book that does a great job of using the specific events in a sex scene to reveal theme and character is Doing It, by Melvin Burgess. Protagonist Dino wants to lose his virginity – primarily to reassure himself that he’s the stud people think he is, not the unsure, vulnerable kid he is inside. But his girlfriend won’t oblige. In his desperation, he decides to have sex with a girl he meets at a party at his house. His parents are away, the house is empty, she’s willing. Dino’s all set.

He pushed her gently to the bed, and she got in. He took his trousers off and got in after her. […] He peeled her knickers off and she lifted her legs to help him. And then…and then…
Dino began to lose it.
[…] He rubbed his pubis on hers, but as his fear of failure grew so his knob got softer and softer and now at last it was nothing but a felty slug hanging off him.
[…] The girl lay under him looking up with a half-smile on her face, and Dino had never felt so alone as he did then, in bed with a girl and no erection (99-100).

Adolescence is a time of losing control and gaining control – as you lose control of your body in some ways, you gain independence and control of your life. The sex scenes in Doing It perfectly illustrate this dichotomy. The physical result of Dino’s emotional confusion makes for a pretty devastating scene, one that, again, took bravery to write.

So, when I’m writing a sex scene, I think about what happens through the lens of what it says about my characters, and how it can illustrate the book’s themes. Both Zeises and Burgess succeed because they let their characters tell them what would happen, regardless of the fact that their characters’ actions aren’t ones that you would assume would be sympathetic to the reader.

The two examples I’ve given go into a fair amount of graphic detail, although less experienced kids might not grasp exactly what’s going on. And that’s certainly fine. Many sex scenes are written so that the meaning will only really be clear to more experienced readers. But sometimes, it’s appropriate to describe things with a certain level of detail. Again, the decision of which way to go has to come from the character, from the story, from the tone of the narration.

Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky is the story of seventeen-year-old Dominique’s first love and sexual experiences, and the sex scenes live up to the book’s title. None of the language or content is inappropriate or gratuitous, though. Scenes are written to reflect Dom’s confusion and curiosity.

Even by the dim blue moonlight filtering in through the glass balcony doors, I can recognize the features of his penis from my anatomy books. The shaft, the head, the urethral opening – it’s definitely all there. Only it looks so much more alive and urgent than any photograph could ever capture. […] (112-114)

Nothing left to the imagination here! But filtered through Dom’s eyes (she’s an avid science student in addition to being a curious virgin), this is the only way the scene could have been narrated. For Dom, these first explorations are not about passion so much as they are about experimentation.

In Jenny Downham’s beautiful book, Before I Die, terminally ill Tessa makes a list of things she wants to do while she’s still able. First on the list is having sex. The very night she makes her list, she goes out with a friend to a club, meets a boy, and sleeps with him.

He lies down, moves my legs apart with his, presses closer, his weight on top of me. Soon I’ll feel him inside me and I’ll know what all the fuss is about. This was my idea.
I notice lots of things while the red neon numbers on his radio alarm move from 3:15 to 3:19. I notice that his shoes are on their side by the door…
He supports himself with his arms, moving slowly above me, his face turned to one side, his eyes tight shut. This is it. It’s really happening. I’m living it now. Sex. (25)

The emphasis is on her distracted thoughts, not the sex. Tessa has no connection to this boy, no emotions about the sex. The details of it aren’t important to her. She couldn’t care less what his penis looks like. It’s the fact of finally having sex that matters.

So, I ask myself how important the actual details of what happens are to my narrative. Are they going to express something about the characters and about the book’s themes? Do they provide a necessary clue about something? Or would a full description be gratuitous?

Closely related to the issue of explicitness is the issue of language. Obviously, the language in the example I gave from Anatomy of a Boyfriend is an extreme example of one approach – using the anatomically correct words. More often, slang is appropriate, as that’s usually going to be a more natural fit for the narrative voice. But different slang words bring different connotations. Take the following line from Ellen Wittlinger’s Sandpiper: “…it’s clear that what he really needs is for me to put my mouth around his dick.” This immediately shows Sandpiper, the protagonist’s, hostility about her sexual encounters. “Dick” brings a sense of harshness. On the other hand, when one of the protagonists in Doing It says he has to go “shake hands with Mr. Knobby Knobster,” well, we know that his relationship with himself is a friendly one.

I gave a lecture on this topic at Vermont College that went into more depth about our responsibility as YA writers, but here I’m just going to say this: if we treat our characters with respect, and write the scenes with honesty, we are fulfilling our responsibility. And part of respecting our characters is respecting them as desirous, sexual beings. A well-written scene of a sexual interaction can show characters at their most vulnerable, truest selves, and can be among the strongest in the book. I leave you with one last moment from Downham’s Before I Die, when Tessa, now very close to dying, has a final sexual encounter with her boyfriend (someone she’s very much in love with, not the random boy from the club):

His hand slides to my waist to my belly to the top of my thigh. His kisses follow his hand, work their way down until his head is between my legs and then he looks at me, asking permission with his eyes.
It spills me, the thought of him kissing me there.
His head is in shadow, his arms scooped under my legs. His breath is warm on my thighs. He very slowly begins.
If I could buck, I would. If I could howl at the moon, then I would. To feel this, when I’d thought it was over, when my body’s closing down and I thought I’d have no pleasure from it again.
I am blessed.

And readers are blessed that Downham had the bravery to write a scene of such emotional honesty.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Sara: Queries that Worked

All of my debut sales started with a query letter, and I still read each new query hoping to be excited and intrigued by a new author.

What works on me is most likely not very different than what works on all agents - a well written letter about a book I’d want to read. I can’t think of a better way to actually show what works on me, than to follow some other agent's blogs and to share some of the letters that did work on me.

What I want to highlight in the following letters is the description of the book. This is what I want to know about most, obviously — and is often overlooked in favor of a lot of unnecessary information about the writer of the letter, such as they have been writing since they were five and love Harry Potter and their grandchildren love their work. Especially when you have not won literary awards or had a book published before, the description has to grab me for me to want to see more. I have asked to see novels that have descriptions that I might think are too long, and too short — so its not so much about length to me. In a perfect world, I’d love all descriptions to be contained in a paragraph— because I have a lot of queries to read, but as you can see from the below, longer can work too, as long as the description stays focused and I do not get bored or confused by reading it.

Dear Ms. Crowe:

(She got my name right— but I am not too picky about this. About 50% of the time I am addressed as Ms. Harvey. I do appreciate that is is addressed to me, and is not a mass email where 40 other agents are copied.)

I am impressed at your track record in placing Young Adult books, and I was glad to read in Publishers Marketplace that you are actively seeking new clients. I would like to invite you to consider representing my young adult novel Just Like Mama Cass. (Short and clear introduction- with some flattery, which also serves to show that she has done her research.)

Once Dara Cohen was Little Miss Maine. Now she is an overweight seventeen year old who has to take a leave of absence from her prep school because an English assignment was grossly misinterpreted. She goes to live with Rachel, the sister she never knew, on a goat farm in Western Massachusetts. Jezebel Goat Farm has long been a home for outsiders. Now its residents include Belinda, the silent matriarch, and Owen, a striking teenage boy kicked out of his home for being gay. And of course there is Rachel, who lets Dara in, but keeps a wall around herself. When Owen enters Dara in the local beauty pageant, the whole farm rallies around her to help her succeed. Just Like Mama Cass (63,900 words) tells the story of Dara's summer spent preparing for the pageant in between feeding the goats, going to mandatory therapy sessions, and reading stacks of anonymous typewritten pages she finds in her closet. Over the summer she tries to figure out why her parents kept her from Rachel -- and why she wants to win Miss October Grove so badly.

(This is a complex plot, but Megan manages to describe it succinctly. The first two sentences work especially well to set up Dara’s conflict and to draw me in.)

I was in the first class to complete the Undergraduate Creative Writing Certificate Program at Columbia University. There I studied with Jill Ciment, Phyllis Raphael, and Siegred Nunez amongst others. I was accepted into the Senior Honors Fiction Workshop with Dani Shapiro. My own fiction has been published in several online magazines. Professionally, I am a high school librarian -- which fuels my love of YA literature and the teens who read it.

(This is a great example of a bio paragraph-- includes only information that is relevant and useful, and I liked the way she ties her work into her writing.)

Thank you for taking the time to consider my query. I would be happy to send you a full or partial manuscript. I look forward to hearing your response. (professional exit)

Megan Frazer

Megan’s first novel, now titled SECRETS OF TRUTH AND BEAUTY will by published in July ‘09 by Hyperion.

Dear Ms. Crowe:

As you may recall, we corresponded this summer regarding my first novel WAITING FOR TOM COREY. You invited me to contact you again with future manuscripts. I am writing to inquire if you would be interested in reading my 70,000 word YA novel, ON THE VERGE.

(Holly reminds me of our past correspondence in a direct and effective way. I did remember her first novel fondly, and was so grateful that I was getting a second chance)

18-year-old Lainey Pike can tell you everything you need to know about the people in her family just by telling you how they died. Her reckless stepfather drove his motorcycle off the highway and caused the biggest traffic jam in years. Her long-suffering grandmother lived through cancer and a heart attack before finally succumbing to a stroke. And Lainey's mother, still hung up over her husband's death, hung herself in the basement just days after Lainey's high school graduation. Now Lainey's five-year-old brother is an orphan and her estranged older sister moves back home to act as his guardian. Dealing with her brother has always been a struggle, but sharing the responsibility with her sister is proving to be just as challenging.

Lainey knows that this is all her mother's fault, and she also knows that she eventually has to move out of the "anger" phase of the grieving process. What she can't figure out, though, is how to make peace with a dead woman. But as she tries to pull away from everything familiar, she meets an intriguing young man with an unexpected connection to her mother.

(Holly's description is also very good- it manages to tell me that this is not your ordinary problem novel by giving me a hint of Lainey's dark sense of humor. I LOVE when a letter manages to convey the tone and voice of the book.)

I have pasted the first page below for your review. ( I think this is a smart thing to do in an email query) The full manuscript is available immediately upon request. Thanks for your consideration.

Holly Nicole Hoxter

Holly’s debut ON THE VERGE will be published by Balzer & Bray in 2010.

Dear Ms. Crowe:

Rhonda Lee is your everyday, overweight, African-American math genius. (Great opening!) finds comfort in the basic pleasures in life (geometry, calculus, and strawberry ice cream). She hasn't had a boyfriend since ninth grade (as she calls it - the Year of Hell). Now a senior, she spends most of her free time tutoring math at the local community center. Her short terms goals are simple- to get a scholarship to Georgia Tech, and to avoid the "in-crowd" as much as possible. (Varian has told us a lot about Rhonda Lee— but has also got us wondering what happened her freshman year)

Her last goal is put in serious jeopardy when Sarah Gamble, Senior Class Goddess, waltzes into the West Columbia Community Center. Rhonda hates popular, preppy, stuck-up teenagers like Sarah (and like Christopher, Rhonda's ex-boyfriend). Grudgingly, Rhonda agrees to tutor Sarah, and as much as Rhonda wants to hate the girl, she finds herself actually starting to like her.

Rhonda soon learns that trigonometry isn't Sarah's only problem when she discovers that Sarah is pregnant. Rhonda had been in the same situation three years before, and it destroyed her faith in herself and her father. Rhonda wants to make sure that it is Sarah that decides what to do about the pregnancy. Rhonda had that right taken away from her by her father, and she has never forgiven him or herself for it. ( I like that we did not find this out about Rhoda in the first paragraph— and it tells me that the focus of the novel is broader than her abortion)

As Rhonda helps Sarah deal with the new life growing inside of her, Sarah helps Rhonda to reclaim the life that she has allowed to slip by. After the Year of Hell, Rhonda rededicated herself to her studies. Boys were not to be trusted (or rather, she wasn't to be trusted around boys). However, with the help of Sarah's twin brother, David, that all changes, whether Rhonda wants that change or not. In the process of connecting with David, Rhonda begins to reconnect with her father. Come the end of the school year, Rhonda has a boyfriend, a pregnant best friend, a stronger relationship with her father, and a new and improved outlook on life. If only she had started tutoring popular, pretty, stuck-up girls sooner....

Dividing By Zero is a novel about second chances. Throughout the course of the novel, Rhonda deals with all of her issues with humor, emotion, and sheer determination. The manuscript is approximately 68,000 words, and features a multicultural cast.

Thank you for considering this manuscript; I look forward to hearing from you. My first novel, Red Polka Dot In A World Full of Plaid, was published in November 2005 (Genesis Press), and recently made the Essence Magazine Best Seller list for the month of March. I am also a member of SCBWI. ( He could have put this publication info up front— but as his first novel was not published as a YA — it makes sense to have saved it for last)

This novel was published as MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS by Flux in 2007. Varian’s new young adult novel, SAVING MADDIE will be published by Delacorte next year.