The Trope Police

Hello, friends! How’s the writing going?

Every so often on Twitter I offer some Query Trends, which are multiple instances of oddly specific things I see in my queries. Lately I’ve been thinking of trends on a larger scale. Not just genre trends, which come and go and come back again seemingly at random, but rather writing trends that I officially see as cliche.

So, what am I seeing that I’d love to see go away (or, at the very least, become severely lessened)?

 

Teenage girls who are super into photography.

Putting aside that the majority of “photography” is being done on iPhones with Snapchat and Instagram filters, let’s talk about this very impractical and expensive hobby that every teenage girl (and some boys!), regardless of background or economic status, seem to have. And not just a vague interest in photography – a full-on I will buy this sophisticated camera with various lenses and walk around with them all the time obsession. I see this in YA most often, but I also see it in Adult fiction with teen characters and, more recently, in the TV show Casual and the movie, Boyhood.

I’ll repeat how expensive of a hobby this is. It’s really expensive. These characters aren’t settling for point-and-shoot digital cameras. They have some serious equipment and in a lot of cases, these are characters specified as decidedly not rich. How are they paying for all of this?

Expenses aside, this hobby often feels forced. Has the “wannabe writer” cliche played out so photography was next “artsy” career path in line? It feels only mildly realistic and for as many teens legitimately interested in technique, I would guess that far more take selfies with friends at parties and call it a day.

We get it; your main character sees the world through a unique lens. But unless they’re Veronica Mars, and photography also comes in handy in their secret side job, consider that you’re possibly using a cliche for no real reason.

 

Powerful women as a technicality (or gimmick).

Regardless of what happens in November, I hope Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will help make a trope I hate finally go awayand that is the Female Character Falling Ass Backwards Into Power. My literal examples are all TV-related:

  • Veep, Male president resigns, female VP rises
  • Commander In Chief, Male president dies, female VP rises
  • Battlestar Gallactica, Everyone in the line of succession dies, female Sec. of Education becomes president (and is amazing, of course, but still)

Seriously, did no one think a woman could just, ya know, get elected? All by herself. Can’t we have even a fictional world where the people chose a woman voluntarily and not because a male option was dead? (But I digress…)

In not-so-literal examples, some trends I’ve noticed in submissions are:

  • Female athlete who learned everything from her dad, who may or may not be the coach of her team too.
  • Battle of the Sexes science fairs or class president elections.
  • Propelled into the plot because of a missing father.
  • Propelled into the plot because her father is the doctor/detective/scientist directly involved in the story.

In each of these stories, the girl is in the shadow of a more powerful man, and then – and only then – can she find her inner strength. It takes an “anything you can do, I can do better” approach to feminism that feels outdated.

I’d love to see a female athlete who trains with her Olympic medal winning mother. Or a lawyer (or future lawyer) who was inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Where’s my teenage Leslie Knope? Where’s my Katniss as an adult? Give me someone who isn’t just propelled into the plot, but drives the plot.

 

The “wild” best friend.

If Writer-Sarah may admit something up front – I’ve totally written the wild best friend story. Most of us who grew up to become writers probably had the wild best friend. I actually love the wild best friend. From Rayanne Graff in My So-Called Life to Lila in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The complexities of friendship, in general, are always interesting to me. That said…

I’ve been noticing two different types, in published books and in even more manuscripts, usually dependent on gender:

  • Girls/Women: The friend who lives without fear of consequence. She says what she’s thinking, she flirts, she’s reckless, and she’s probably a little damaged. She pushes the main character to live life to the fullest and go beyond her comfort zone.
  • Boys/Men: The horndog. The slacker. He makes sexist comments, he gets high, he thinks the main character just needs to relax. He’s the id to the main character’s ego.

Both are cautionary tales. Both serve as windows and mirrors for the main character.

So if I love these types of stories so much, why am I sick of them?

Because they’re all starting to sound the same. In YA, it’s the best friend pulling the main character into a plot, teaching them things about life. In Adult, it’s the best friend who remains so in-name-only even though it’s obvious the main character outgrew them. They become a symbol for The Road Not Taken as opposed to being actual people.

Why else am I sick of these friends?

Because I am SO ready for the “wild best friend” to be our main character! They are clearly the more interesting friend. They deserve more than teaching the main character a valuable lesson, or making the main character feel better about their “boring” life. They deserve to have their own story told.

***

I’ve said before (here) that it’s OK if you’re not completely original. Premises are always going to sound similar; it’s how you interpret them and make them your own that counts. So, sure, a few tropes might slip in and no one will care if the rest of the book is amazing and unique. Cliches aren’t the worst thing in the world, but for a debut author they can be the difference between an offer and a rejection.

 

(OK, if the only thing holding me back in a manuscript is an overused character trope, I’ll probably opt for having a conversation with the author or asking for an R&R.)

 

Keep writing, friends! When your photography-loving main character goes to search for her missing photojournalist dad and takes her wild best friend with her, remember we’re still rooting for you! But maybe just tone it down a bit.🙂

2015: A Year in Queries

It’s that time of year again… when writers see the end-of-year stats from agents and feel overwhelmed. I’m sure this post will be no different, though I will try to reassure you up front that these numbers are not as scary as they seem!

 

As always, keep in mind the following stats are from unsolicited queries only – a.k.a. “the slush pile.” Any requests made at conferences, from contests, referrals, or previous R&Rs were not part of the tally. So, without further ado, My Year in Queries!

 

January: Total: 439; Requests: 6

February: Total: 383; Requests: 5

March: Total: 383; Requests: 5

April: Total: 349; Requests: 4

May: Total: 287; Requests: 3

June: Total: 256; Requests: 6

July: Total: 282; Requests: 3

August: Total: 300; Requests: 9 (Woo!)

September: Total: 294; Requests: 3

October: Total: 298; Requests: 6

November: Total: 396; Requests: 2

December: Total (as of 12/28): 188; Requests: 3

 

Total Queries in 2015: 3,855

Total Requests from Queries: 55

Most Requested Genre: YA contemporary (28 out of 55)

Genres I Wish I Saw More: Literary MG and Upmarket/Contemporary Adult Fiction

Total New Clients from Queries: 6

Total New Clients in 2015: 7 – Lilly Barels (YA, query); Tracey Neithercot (YA, query); Dalanie Beach (YA, conference); Jackie Jacobi (YA, query); Evan James Roskos (MG/YA, query); Jan Saenz (Adult/WF, query); Miranda Suri (Adult/UF, query)

 

I’m especially proud of how many new clients I signed this year for a couple reasons:

  1. I signed more new clients this year than I have in any other year, and nearly doubled my client list, which was one of my goals for 2015. Hooray!
  2. 2015 was a bit of a year for me, both personally and professionally. Not that it was all bad. Some of it was incredibly, unbelievably wonderful. It was just a lot. So, it makes me happy that despite capital-L Life happening all over this year, I still found some amazing new talent to work with, and I cannot wait to bring their projects into 2016!

 

Some things to keep in mind, lest that Total Queries number is ringing in your head:

  • That total includes all the queries I receive in genres I don’t represent. In 2016, I’m going to be better about including that number as part of my stats, as I imagine it will make the total appear far less threatening.
  • I ask for R&Rs a lot. (Revise & Resubmit) That means I’m not signing quite as many clients at the fastest rate, but I am actively working with authors with the intention of offering representation. If I ask for an R&R, it means I really, really want to offer representation, but I need more confidence in the writing before I commit. My goal isn’t to make writers wait around for me, and if they sign with someone else instead of revising, that sucks for me. My hope, however, is that those 2015 R&Rs will turn into revisions I *love* and those authors will become 2016 clients!
  • Every query I receive gets tallied in these stats. Including, unfortunately, the few I delete without reading. I read and respond to 99.9% of my queries, but sometimes queries are so off base that there are simply no words. These include:
    • Mass queries. If I’m obviously BCC’d, or one of 100 agents CC’d on a query, I’m not going to bother responding.
    • Pre-queries. These are the email equivalents of someone asking, “Can I ask you a question?” The query itself IS a question, so just ask!
    • Queries sent as attachment. No, complete stranger, I will not open that unsolicited attachment or click on that weird link.
    • Queries addressed to someone else. Copy & paste fails happen, but I will assume you did not mean to query me, sorry.
    • The “Is This a Query?” Query. If you’re querying a self-published novel, make sure you’re including sales figures and what you hope an agent will add to your writing career. Do not just email agents a publicity sheet about your self-published novel. If a book has a cover and blurbs, I assume it’s already published and that your “query” is marketing spam.
  • Even if I represent the genre, the query looks great, and the project has potential, I simply can’t take on everything. I keep my list small so I can devote my time equally to all of my clients who need it. This means I have to pass on very good projects and hope they land with other amazing agents instead. Do not take it personally if you get a rejection. It’s always a business decision based on our time and expertise and skill set, and is rarely because your book is “bad.” Agents want you to succeed even if we, personally, can’t be the ones to take on your projects.

 

If you received a form rejection, personalized rejection, or any sort of response from me on your query, it means you did everything right! Be proud of that, and even though agents can’t always send individual Thank You notes, consider this a huge THANK YOU for following guidelines and making the submissions process run smoothly! We appreciate you.

 

Now go enjoy your holidays, take a break from the book world for a bit, and we’ll see you in 2016!!

 happy-new-year-champagne[1]

Agents, Schmagents, and Pink Flags

Hi there.

I’m not sure if you saw the #SchmagentRedFlags hashtag on Twitter this week, but if you’re a writer who is agented or querying agents, you should check it out. For those unfamiliar with the term, a “schmagent” is short-hand for agents who are not very legit or respected in the industry. I wrote about them a while back in this post: Shady Business.

The hashtag shared some good insights and tips to new writers. But then I got involved in a conversation that made me pause. An agent – a legit, respected agent (not a schmagent) – said if an agency hasn’t done a deal with every Big 5 publisher, they aren’t legit. I agreed and disagreed with this, but it didn’t sit right with me and I couldn’t figure out why. Twitter was not going to be the right venue for me to say things without thinking first, so I left it alone.

My initial response was that some agencies are just super small and niche, but I kept circling back to new agents (which are not the same as schmagents, as you’ll see in my older post linked above!). So, I conceded her point and let it go because I did agree with her. Mostly, anyway. But I kept thinking about it after. Do agents need to have an established boilerplate with every Big 5 publisher in order to be considered legit? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed outdated to me.

It is 100% an advantage for an agent to have established relationships with as many bona fide publishers as possible, especially the Big 5 (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster). If you’re a writer who gets an offer of representation, you should ask that agent who they have established relationships with and where they’ve sold projects similar to yours. If they don’t mention the major players at all, that might be a problem.

But, not every agency is the same, nor are the needs of all writers the same. Such as:

A 10-year-old agency specializes in only children’s literature. They’re known for several award-winning books and a few bestselling authors through publishers like Scholastic, Candlewick, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and have had success with a few imprints at Big 5 publishers. But, for whatever reason, they have never sold a book to Hachette. Maybe they got close, but never got an offer from them. Maybe they went with another publisher during an auction. In any case, after 10 years, they still don’t have a boilerplate with one of the Big 5. Are they considered a schmagent? I would hope not, and I would hope that a children’s book writer getting an offer from an agent with that agency would jump on the opportunity.

A similarly hypothetical agency could be one that’s been around for about 5 years and focuses on romance, and maybe some erotica and NA too. In only a short period of time, they’ve established important relationships with places like Harlequin and Kensington and are known for a few successful series within those genres. They might also find they work with mostly digital publishers these days because that’s where the market has shifted. Therefore, they might not really have had a need to sell to all 5 major publishers. A good agent follows the market they’re trying to sell to. They keep up with industry trends. Agents need to be open and adaptable, and if certain genres aren’t as big in print anymore, we need to adjust accordingly.

One last example I was thinking about are the quiet literary novels. Not Franzen or the big splashy Great American Novelist literary novels. I mean the ones that get critical acclaim and are brilliantly written, but the average reader probably hasn’t heard of them, nor do they care. You see these novels with places like Graywolf Press, Melville House, National Book Award committee discussions, and, well, these novels, basically. There are a few dedicated and amazing imprints with Big 5 publishers who still seek quiet literary fiction. They publish it well and put marketing dollars behind them, but an agent can’t rely on a few imprints to sell a book and then call it a day if that handful of editors pass on it. Sometimes books like this are a labor of love, and writers should want an agent who knows how to effectively sell their work even if it isn’t a 6-figure deal with Penguin Random House every single time.

So, those were my larger-than-Twitter thoughts about this and I’d be curious what others think in the comments. Mostly, I just think the industry has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, and the fact that we say The Big Five instead of the The Big Six should be evidence that agents can and should diversify their submission lists and establish new relationships in the industry.

Like I said before, a relationship with the major players is still a key component to being a good agent. But maybe it’s not everything after all. Maybe it’s not a red flag so much as a pink flag. Maybe in another five years we’ll have The Big Four, and even if we end up with The Big Three it won’t mean publishing is dying or dead or any other nonsense like that. It just means everyone involved needs to look outside the “model” and realize it might not exist anymore, so what’s next?

There is No Feminist Agenda; Only Zuul

You may have heard the news this week that the much-talked about Ghostbusters reboot finally has its all-female cast. I love this cast. Love, love, love this cast!

Of course, there are differing opinions about this movie.

Since the Internet is full of terrible people, I’ve seen some Men’s Rights Activists’ tweets about how this movie is going to dismantle the sanctity of their childhood memories and why do feminists have to ruin society all the time?

Since the Internet is also full of wonderful people, I’ve seen several supportive tweets already hailing the movie as a feminist achievement and waving the Girl Power flag proudly. This is where I needed to pause.

I will admit, I do not like reboots in general. They usually mean that instead of producing an original screenplay, Hollywood opted to dip into the same well because it’s easier money. But! If they were going to do this at all, I’m happy they went with an all-female cast. I’ll end up seeing it because it’ll probably be good, but it won’t be Ghostbusters. You can’t recreate that no matter how good the new cast is. So why not just make a new comedy about women fighting paranormal elements? Men In Black meets Ghostbusters, but with women. You’re welcome, Hollywood.

Anyway.

Hating this movie because it stars women makes you an asshole, and I have no time for that nonsense. Praising the movie as “feminist” feels misguided though. It reminded me of the issues I had with Bridesmaids being hailed as the best movie ever even though it was just a regular comedy (I elaborated on that here: Never A Bride.) It’s great that Hollywood green-lit an all-female reboot, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking this counts as feminism.

Asking women to fill the shoes of beloved, iconic figures stacks the odds against them right from the start. If the all-female reboot is successful, it will be a huge step forward. My fear, however, is that it will create a surge in remakes, not necessarily new roles created for women. And, again, let’s not fool ourselves. We shouldn’t have to accept sloppy seconds as an “achievement” in feminism. Much like the recent remake of Annie being designated Black Annie, “Female Ghostbusters” doesn’t exactly make me feel like an equal, let alone someone’s first choice. It’s a lazy approach to diversity. Give me a character that wasn’t established by a man first.

As always, everything relates to writing, which is why the Ghostbusters talk has made me think a lot about my own slush pile. Many queries I receive begin with lines like, “Because you’re seeking strong female characters…,” which I think is great. I also love a good re-imagining of a classic or fairy-tale, but I end up rejecting 99% of the ones I receive. That’s because their “strong female character” isn’t really as dynamic or three-dimensional as they think they are, and their “re-imagining” is just a retelling.

[Digression: When agents and editors say “strong female character,” we mean strongly written. If she also happens to literally kick ass, that’s cool, as long as there’s more to her than that.]

Like a Hollywood reboot (a good one, anyway), re-tellings should be more than simply rearranging scenes in the same story we already know. There should be a reason this story needs to retold for a modern audience. Why are you writing it? What’s your approach? What makes it unique and relevant?

Gender-swapping is fun and can add a different perspective to a familiar story, but I see too many “re-imaginings” that rely on gender-swapping as its only twist. This holds very little appeal to me. The most common I see are Beauty and the Beast, but the female character is the beast; or a typical paranormal romance set-up, but the girl is the vampire who gets a shy boy to love her. Nothing about the stories themselves have been updated or changed. I need more than that to impress me. And I definitely need more than that to convince me the novel is somehow feminist just because it’s not not feminist.

And don’t get me wrong. I love a good gender-swap. Just make sure that’s not all you’re relying on. Feminism is not using the Find & Replace feature and changing Jim to Jane. It’s about creating roles for women, making us in control of our own narratives, and acknowledging that women’s stories have just as much merit as a man’s.

2014: A Year in Queries

Hello, everyone!

It’s that special time of year again where I look back on my year in queries and share the terrifying results with you. Last year I had to give you my stats in two sections because of my mid-year hiatus in between agencies: here and here. 2014 was my first full year at Bradford Literary Agency (woo!), and here’s what it looked like from the query side of things.*
*As always, the following stats are from unsolicited queries only, meaning the ones that came through my regular query inbox (“the slush pile”). Any requests from conferences, contests, or referrals from people I know were not part of the tally.
January
Total: 323
Requests: 4
Genres Requested: Adult literary; Adult urban fantasy; YA contemporary (2)

February
Total: 256
Requests: 3
Genres Requested: Adult literary; Adult magical realism; YA contemporary

March
Total: 245
Requests: 3
Genres Requested: Adult literary; Adult urban fantasy; YA contemporary

April
Total:263
Requests: 5
Genres Requested: Adult literary; YA contemporary (2); YA mystery; YA sci-fi

May
Total: 271
Requests: 3
Genres Requested: Adult mystery; YA contemporary; YA thriller

June
Total: 263
Requests: 3
Genres Requested: Adult magical realism; YA sci-fi (2)

July

Total: 284
Requests: 10
Genres Requested: Adult sci-fi (2); Adult mystery; Adult short story collection; YA contemporary; YA sci-fi (2); MG fantasy; YA urban fantasy; YA magical realism
August
Total: 241
Requests: 4
Genres Requested: Adult literary (2); Adult sci-fi; YA urban fantasy
September
Total: 247
Requests: 4
Genres Requested: Adult literary; (2); YA contemporary (2)
October
Total: 324
Requests: 7
Genres Requested: Adult  magical realism; Adult sci-fi; YA contemporary (2); YA urban fantasy; YA sci-fi (2)
November
Total: 283
Requests: 3
Genres Requested: MG fantasy; YA horror; YA contemporary
December
Total: 289
Requests: 3
Genres Requested: Adult women’s fiction; MG fantasy; YA contemporary

Total Queries Received in 2014: 3,289

Total Manuscript Requests from Queries: 52

Request Rate from Queries: 1.6% (approx.)  


Most Requested Genres: YA contemporary, Adult literary, Sci-fi (both adult & YA)

Least Requested Genres (of those I rep): MG (but when requested, usually involved fantasy elements), YA mystery/thriller

Total Offers of Rep from Queries: Two


Total Offers of Rep Overall: Five
Total New Clients in 2014: Three
1) Anthony Jones, adult sci-fi/noir: R&R from 2013 query, received revision and offered rep in 2014
2) Marissa Marangoni, YA literary/contemporary, from 2014 query
3) Kelly Calabrese, YA thriller/horror, met at a 2014 conference
While these stats may seem daunting to new writers currently querying or thinking about querying agents, keep in mind the following things:
  • I receive a LOT of queries for genres I do not represent. If I had to guess, I’d say at least 40% of my slush pile consists of queries from people who don’t actually care what I represent, as long as I represent them. This is not a good way to go about finding an agent. You want an agent who is excited about your book, but who also has the right editorial eye for your genre and experience selling it.
  • More often than not, I ask for an R&R (revise & resubmit) when I’m interested in something. Good writing can’t exist without revision, yet revising is a separate skill not every writer can master. Since I’m an editorial agent, I need to know my future-clients can take notes, make them their own, and revise. There were about a dozen times this year when an author whose manuscript I requested received an offer of representation. In some cases, that manuscript just wasn’t for me. Other times, though, I saw the potential in the manuscript, but it needed too much work for me to make a counter-offer. In other circumstances, I’d ask for an R&R, but if they have an offer on the table already, then I have to pass. 
  • I read and respond to every query I receive, with the exception of the following:
    • Mass queries – queries addressed to more than 1 agent (it’s also very obvious when we’re all BCC’d)
    • Pre-queries – emails that ask whether they can query, which is a waste of time for everyone involved. The answer is always yes, just query. 
    • Queries sent as attachment. 
    • Queries addressed to someone else 
    • The Maybe-Query. (If you self-published the book you’re querying, make sure the agent knows you’re seeking representation and not just spamming them with a promotional email.)
The above-mentioned list are only fraction of the queries I receive, but they do contribute to just how many queries I end up with by the end of the year. The majority of writers who query me are informed and professional. I can’t request everything, even if they query is well-written, but I always appreciate the writers getting it right. I know a form rejection doesn’t convey that, and I wish I had time to personalize each response – or at least give a secret high-five to the writers whose queries were awesome, but just not my thing. So I’ll just say here, “thanks, writers!”
One of my 2015 goals is to double my client list (!). So I hope you’re all ready to send me more great queries – or send me those R&Rs I requested in 2014 – and help me reach that goal. 
See you in the new year, writers! 

The Cool Table

If you read this blog, then you probably also follow me on Twitter. I’m a huge fan of Twitter. I encourage every writer, editor, agent, and wannabe intern I meet to join and embrace it. It’s where the publishing community hangs out – our collective water cooler – so obviously if you want to be part of that world, that’s where you need to be. (Note: This is not the first time I’ve had thoughts about social media on this blog.)

As much as I advocate for Twitter, I’ve noticed a growing trend that goes against everything I love about social media for writers. New writers, particularly the ones who joined Twitter specifically to meet people and learn about the industry, are accidentally falling in with a bad crowd. This “bad crowd” often has good intentions, but they’re who I refer to as The Cool Kids.

Transition.

When I was in high school, my BFF-at-the-time and I used to call the popular kids “Air Quotes” because every time we’d mock their “cool” status, we’d put air quotes around the word “cool.”

The “Cool” Kids in the online book world are a little different, but can still be just as misguided and destructive. These Cool Kids, as stated above, usually mean well, but sometimes end up doing more harm than good to new writers who become convinced they need to be a Cool Kid too. (Ironically, the Cool Kid syndrome is most prevalent in YA writers, who often try to defy social hierarchies.)

Hint: You don’t need to know a secret handshake or be part of “in” crowd in order to succeed in publishing. Watch out for these “Cool” people who may lead you to believe otherwise:

Cool Kid: The Blogger
Why They’re Dangerous: No credentials are needed to start a blog.

Not all bloggers write reviews, and not all blogger-reviewers write smart reviews. The danger of The Blogger comes from those who simply call themselves bloggers without putting in the work or building an audience. Yet, to writers just starting out, it’s hard to tell the difference, and can get outdated or incorrect information. The Blogger ends up being in a position of power for writers who want to learn about the industry from people they assume are experts.

I have a blog (obviously), as do many agents and writers, but I do not consider myself a blogger. The type of blogger I’m talking about isn’t just someone who writes blog posts. I’m talking about the ones who spell their title with a capital B. The Blogger who holds pitch contests every two months just to get hits, and posts query advice despite not being agented or published. These are also the Bloggers who feel slighted when they get rejected from NetGalley.

At BEA a few years ago I was in line for the bathroom with a few of these Bloggers. They complained loudly about how they were rejected by the publisher for a coveted galley and couldn’t believe they had to wait in line with a bunch of commoners. One turned to me even though she didn’t know who I was or that I worked in publishing. “My blog has 500 followers. It’s not like I’m just some random person!” she told me. I shrugged and left to find a different bathroom.

Here’s the truth of modern society: Everyone is online. Being a blogger in the publishing/writing world may have been impressive 10 years ago, but today it’s practically expected. Being online doesn’t entitle anyone to anything anymore, and it doesn’t necessarily mean The Blogger has industry knowledge or connections.

What does entitle bloggers to things now? Having a good blog. Having a large, loyal, and consistent readership, and being well-known among the literary community. Publicists know that bloggers aren’t going to have the same reach as the New York Times, and they take that into account, but they still need to believe the blog is a respected voice in the industry.

Here are some non-agent/editor, capital-B Bloggers and blog-like sites I particularly enjoy:

Jane Friedman
The Rumpus
The Millions
Bookslut
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Stacked
Book Riot
YA Interrobang
YA Highway
The Daily Dahlia

Cool Kid: The Twitter Darling
Why They’re Dangerous: They’re your best friend… until they’re not.

Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by The Twitter Darling.

The Twitter Darling knows everything and everyone. They may not be bestselling authors, or even well-known outside of the Twitter and blogging community, but they have made themselves Very Important People To Know. The Twitter Darling tweets approximately 100 times a day and will RT and promote the shit out of you because that’s what supportive BFFs do.

Twitter Darlings keep up with industry news and trends. They are Bloggers-with-a-capital-B who never get rejected from NetGalley. They are close friends with a few industry folks and get invited to publishing parties. They have the power to invite you to sit at the “Cool” Table, and if you’re already cool, they will convince themselves it’s because of their influence and acceptance of you.

If you’re friends with the Twitter Darling, congratulations, but remember to stay true to yourself. Because the thing about Twitter Darlings? They have the power to kick you out of the “Cool” Table. Reasons might include: Not being agented, not having a book deal, not being published by what they consider the “right” house, not acknowledging the Twitter Darling’s greatness, and not wearing pink on Wednesdays.

They can be wonderful allies and friends, but they can also create unnecessary pressure to be just as “Cool” as they are.

An important thing to keep in mind about being “Cool” is that agents and editors Do. Not. Care. We want to work with good writers and people who act like professionals online and offline. If you’re “in with the in-crowd,” that’s fine too, and it may even be beneficial to your career. Just remember there is no standard of “Cool,” and you should never, ever let yourself feel “less than” for not measuring up to a false deal.

Cool Kid: The Fanboy/Fangirl
Why They’re Dangerous: Their contagious enthusiasm may end up being your downfall. 

The Fanboy/Fangirl is usually on the periphery of the book world – aspiring authors, recent grads working as booksellers or interns, bloggers, etc. We like them and support them. Until they cross boundaries.

A “fanbase” is not something I expected to have working in publishing, and it’s also something that makes me super uncomfortable. My authors are the one who deserve fans. My job title is “literary agent” the way others are “teacher” or “accountant.” Yet, an increasingly disturbing thing I’ve noticed is that some writers equate my job title with being a celebrity. This is not healthy or helpful.

I’m happy so many people seem to find my tweets and blog posts amusing, helpful, or interesting, but the Fanboy/Fangirl takes this appreciation to a whole other level. I’ve had “fans” come up to me at book events and conferences to say they love me. Not “I like your Twitter account” or “I really loved your client’s book,” but rather “OMG I love you!” Um.

Think, for a minute, how you would react if a stranger came up to you and declared their devotion. Police might get involved. Or at least a very cautious, slowly backing away. I’ve seen agent-friends ambushed in similar fashions.

I don’t respond to everyone who tweets at me. I do, however, recognize names and have developed friendly relationships with writers who have reached out to me online. Most times it’s because our personalities mesh or we have the same sense of humor, and that comes in handy if they also happen to write in a genre I represent. What never works, though, is pretending you already know me, being argumentative for the sake of attention, or responding to Every. Single. Tweet.

What’s dangerous is that otherwise sane writers have asked me if they should care more about “agent gossip” or be more familiar with editors online even if they’ve never spoken to them before. They somehow get convinced that the super enthusiastic Fanboy/Fangirl is the one doing it right simply because they’re doing it the loudest.

(An aspiring author and blogger who respects industry folk without Fangirling over them is Charlee Vale, who wrote this necessary post expanding on this concept.)

Cool Kid: The Debut Author 
Why They’re Dangerous: Their “inspiring” Twitter feed could make other writers have nervous breakdowns.

This is a tricky one because the real “danger” of The Debut Author lies in how you handle them. I love debut authors. I buy their books, support them, and have quite literally devoted my career to creating more of them. The Debut Author doesn’t always know the damage they do, and I’d wager that 99.9% of them don’t mean to cause any damage at all.

Twitter is a great community for writers as long as everything shared is taken with a grain of salt. Comparisons are inevitably made, and in the age of social media, broadcasting why your news is the best news can cause other writers to question their own accomplishments, or lack thereof. You should be 100% proud of your achievements, which is why I’m not telling The Debut Author to stop tweeting their Agent Success Stories, Deal Announcements, Film Options, or anything else positive and amazing.

What I am asking is for other writers to stop drawing comparisons. Celebrate your friends’ good news without secretly resenting them. Step away from social media and clear your head and remember that the only thing you need to focus on is what’s right for you and your career. Your agent loves you just as much as The Debut Author’s agent loves them. Your “dream editor” is out there too.

No one’s timeline is going to be the same, and success doesn’t come in one size. Your modest debut may not compare to The Debut Author’s 6-figure multi-book deal, but you have more than one book in you, and a writer’s “breakout” novel is rarely their debut. So, relax, be happy, and get offline if you need to.

(By the way, agent Carly Watters had an excellent post on this topic. Bookmark it for your own sanity!)

All of these Cool Kids have one thing in common, and that’s their ability to make writers feel less than what they are. Don’t let them convince you there’s one way to do things, and be aware that most of these Cool Kids aren’t intentionally causing harm. Embrace social media, but remember to be yourself, stay sane, and be open to new online friends who are supportive and understanding. If they start to make you feel like you should sit at a different table, then go sit somewhere else and leave them behind.

Writing for the 21st Century

I represent Adult fiction and YA & MG fiction, but I talk more about the latter. I know I do this, and it’s not because I don’t have a lot to say about Adult fiction. It’s that YA, and especially MG, are still new. They are still evolving. Adult genres get redefined every once in a while, and audiences grow, but mostly, adults are adults and their writers know who they’re writing for.

I talk more about YA because the category itself is known for jumping from trend to trend, being super enthusiastic and supportive, yet misunderstood (and often disrespected) by mainstream literary culture. Its target audience can relate, and they aren’t known for standing still either. Adults age at a much slower pace. The difference between a 32 year old and a 36 year old is barely a blip compared to that of a 13 year old and a 17 year old. Sometimes writers laugh when I say things like, “this character should be 16 instead of 15,” as if one year could possibly make that much of a difference. But when you’re a teenager, it can and it often does.

With adults, whether they’re 52 or 27, they have at least one thing in common: they can look back on their adolescence as adults. Teens can’t. They only know their own worldview and the here-and-now. This is one of the main reasons I love YA and want to bring more of it into the world. Teens are full of possibilities. They have more ahead of them than behind them, and their stories often reflect that.

A less idealistic reason I love teens, though, is their ability to see through adults’ bullshit. They know when they’re being pandered to. They know when you clearly don’t understand them. They know when you don’t care about their lives – meaning, their actual lives and not the silly or melodramatic ones adults think they have. Teens are tricky and they are wonderful. If you’re choosing to write for them – and not just about them – then you should know why you’re doing so.

When I read submissions, I see writers succeeding in storytelling and realistic characters and good ideas… what I see failing in MG & YA lately is setting. It’s not hard to see why. Setting is generally only considered when physical place has a major focus. What I see writers ignoring more and more is that setting also refers to time. Contemporary/realistic fiction is becoming very blurry, time-wise, and doesn’t feel as authentic. We’ve gotten so used to each decade being “similar enough” in the late 20th century that it seems we’ve failed to notice it’s over.

Recently I tweeted a reminder to MG and YA writers that made many writers feel “old.”

@sarahlapolla · Aug 26: MG/YA writers: If your pub date is 2015 or 2016, no one in your target audience was born in the ’90s. Use this info while you write. [1/2]

@sarahlapolla · Aug 26: Think of the world they were born into, how they are growing up, & keep in mind what concepts/politics would be irrelevant to them. [2/2]

My point is that the 21st century is a teenager now. What’s more, it has a shorter attention span than its predecessors. It’s not going to slow down and wait for writers to catch up.

So, who are the teens living in this century? Why is our late 20th century mindset no longer cutting it?

Today’s teens are not 20th century teens in a way that goes deeper than simply pop culture and fashion. Plot and character should be the first things you have in mind when you sit down to write, but once you know what those are, go back to that question of why.

Why did you choose to write for teens? Why will today’s teens care about this story? Even if you write historical fiction, there should be a reason you think modern teens will connect with the time and story you’ve chosen. Otherwise, why make it MG or YA? The reason you chose to write for this audience should be based on more than YA being popular in publishing right now. Think of who your audience is and what they care about. More importantly, remember what they don’t care about.

There’s a huge difference in cultural and political attitudes from the 19th century to the 20th. Think, for example, how folks growing up in 1890 differ from the folks who came of age during the Roaring ’20s. They’re only one generation apart, and yet seem like a completely different world if you look at the history books. This is where we are now. The new century has taken shape and 20th century attitudes are becoming less and less relevant – a big part of that is because of the very tangible world-changing event that kicked off the new century, 9/11.

Want to go back and watch 9/11’s influence on pop culture? Aside from the many “post-9/11 novels” that came out around 2005-2008, and our desire to bring back superhero movies in a big way, take these examples of my two favorite shows:

– The West Wing was largely about the staffers of a liberal president who never went to war, and who’s biggest problem was that he didn’t disclose an illness before the election. After 9/11? Bartlett becomes increasingly more willing to take strikes on foreign land, the show itself becomes darker and more high stakes, and suddenly “the day in the life of a White House staffer” wasn’t a strong enough premise to compete against the real world drama of the early ’00s.

– Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is full of ’90s optimism, fashion, and attitude; it was often campy along with clever, and full of righteous heroes who believe the world is worth saving – a lot. By Season 6 (after 9/11 happened in real life), Buffy no longer knows who she is or what world she’s even trying to save anymore. The whole season is about feeling lost and hopeless. By the end of Season 7 (when we 1st invaded Iraq in real life), the Scooby Gang goes to war, refers to it as such, and is aware there will be casualties.

What those TV shows turned into are now what shows begin as – dark, gritty, in need of an anti-hero because all the “real” heroes have left the building. The real world influences pop culture all the time, and it often defines a generation in the process. We’re not as lost as we were in the early ’00s, but life didn’t go back to how it was either.

The teens reading YA only know about 9/11 from history class. They have no concept of what life was like in the 20th century. The way Americans live and think changed after 9/11. Imagine what your perspective might be like if you didn’t remember September 10th.

Someone on Twitter asked what I meant by “concepts/politics” in my tweet, and, in addition to major world events, I mentioned race and gender. I used the “Long Duck Dong” Syndrome of ’80s movies as an example. Movies geared toward teens are by no means perfect, and definitely not always politically correct, but overt racism is no longer mainstream comedy. Nor is language used to hide rape references, like in movies like Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds. For every “boys will be boys” attempt in modern teen movies, there’s a smart, sassy girl who ready to shoot them down and make them the butt of the joke. 21st century teens still see horrible socioeconomic disparities, gender roles being challenged and disputed, and racial equality taking leaps forward and backward at the same time, but having more of a voice and reach because of the Internet. (The 21st century is, after all, still a teenager… it has a way to go before it reaches mature adulthood.)

These are ideas that go beyond whether your character uses a cell phone or says, “totally buggin’.”

We don’t all need to be scholars or philosophers. I still want fun, commercial stories about teens being teens, and I am a firm believer that teens are teens are teens. Meaning, their circumstances and perspectives change, but they don’t. Not really. That’s another reason why I love YA. I don’t need to be a 21st century teen to remember what it felt like to be a teenager. The heart of your stories – the emotional arcs of your characters – should be timeless. That doesn’t mean you can ignore a changing world that influences how your audience relates to your novel.

Another reason I’m elaborating on these tweets is because a lot of replies had to do with pop culture, which I understand. But, pop culture shouldn’t be given more of a focus than worldview, in my opinion. There were jokes about not mentioning certain bands or making their characters accidentally wear outdated styles.

Technology was another big concern. Teens text, not call. Teens use social media, but only some of it. Do they still blog? What’s a snapchat? How do we handle the rapidly changing trends that will likely be different before we even finish reading this blog post?

As an agent, I am concerned about these things when I read MG and YA. As a reader, I cringe at real-life pop culture references and technological fads that give your book a shelf life of about two years. These are things to keep in mind when you write, but don’t give them more power than they’ll actually have on your reader. At the end of the day, these things are superficial. Teens might roll their eyes, but they’ll keep reading if the story is compelling enough.

Sure, they can Google that band from the early ’00s and, yes, they’ve heard of VCRs before, but do they care? If they look it up online, will their understanding of the book as a whole really be effected? Probably not. So why risk interrupting the narrative? When I tell my authors to delete certain references, it’s not because I think teens won’t understand them. It’s because I know the reference isn’t really for them.

Besides, those surface-level references are easy to fix anyway. You don’t need to study modern teens or be up-to-date on the latest trends. You just need to remember it’s OK to be non-specific and embrace fiction. You’re writers; this shouldn’t be difficult.

For example:

“Low-rise skinny jeans” = jeans

“Smartphone/”cell phone” = phone

“Facebook” = some made up social media site that involves status updates and photos

“Taylor Swift” = fictional pop star

See? Easy.

Honestly, unless your plot is heavily dependent on whether your main character tweets, listens to Justin Bieber, or uses their phone, you probably don’t need to call attention to it at all. The best uses of setting are the ones you barely notice because you’re already fully immersed in it. Trust your reader. They can assume your characters do “normal teen things” even if it’s not directly written on the page. Don’t over-think it. (I mean, it’s not like you’re writing an episode of The Vampire Diaries or anything.)

We don’t need to envision the future, or even make a comment on it, in order to write about the present. We just need to remember what the present is. We may live in the future, but teens only know this world. As writers, we need to respect that world and let them trust we can see things from their point of view.

You should write the story you want to write. But if you query an agent, be prepared for a lot of questions about why it should be published. You owe your readers a story they can connect with. Your readers, however, owe you nothing. They don’t need to buy your book just because you really, really wanted it to be published. So remember the Who and What come first, the Where and How should come next, but don’t forget the Why. And don’t forget teens love asking that question much more than agents do.