"Is This A Kissing Book?"

Note: This post is *not* about romance novels or subgenres of romance (e.g. paranormal romance, romantic suspense, other genres containing the word romance). Romance, by definition, revolves around two characters getting a happily ever after. This post is about love interests in books that are *not* romance novels.

Despite being a romantic, I’m incredibly bored by actual romance. I don’t represent romance as a genre and it would be difficult to find a love story in books I represent that isn’t at least a little bit nontraditional. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of people who love cute, uncomplicated romances (and plenty of agents who represent them). I’m just not one of them. Why am I so heartless? 

Well, I’m not. I just need more convincing that these characters belong together. Romance readers (including the agents and editors who work with romance novels) have the ability to get swept up in the characters’ obvious devotion to each other. When we say “publishing is subjective” we mean it because the same way not everyone can suspend their disbelief for fantasy novels, I find it hard to suspend mine for romance. What I do love, though, is rooting for two characters to get together. Like tiny Fred Savage in The Princess Bride, I need to be tricked into liking romance. But once I’m hooked, I will shout for the main characters to just kiss already!

When I’m reading a novel and it’s clear love interests are starting to form, I prepare myself to ask the following questions:

1. Who are these characters outside of their attraction for each other? Do we see them do other things, have other friends, and have independent lives before the other person enters the picture?

2. Do they maintain that independent life even after the other person enters the picture?

3. Is the main plot of the novel (i.e. not their romance) strong enough to stand on its own?

4. Is it clear why they love each other? Is the writer showing me something deeper than an appreciation for good looks? 

5. Are the characters falling in love while they’re doing other things? Or do they just gaze at each other and call it love? (coughTwilightcoughcough)

Sorry I had something in my throat. Moving on.

If I can’t answer those questions then that type of romance is probably not for me. I don’t want to be happy the main characters got together because I was told I should be. I want to know it’s deserved and that they’ve both experienced life enough to make a real decision in the end. So that when Logan tells Veronica they should have been epic, I melt. Or when Jordan finally holds Angela’s hand, I feel her excitement. And while, yes, both of those scenes involve high school students, let’s not forget how we all feel right before a first kiss with a new person who just might be The Person. We’re all teenagers in that moment, and if you’re not you’re doing it wrong.

I’m a person who loves love, but I hate blind love. Give me two whole people coming together to share something because there’s no one else they can share it with, not because they need a second half. You characters deserve to find happiness on their own terms, and your readers deserve to feel satisfied by their decision.

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Should You Publish Your Memoir?

There have been some good posts about memoir recently – I’m thinking specifically of Janet Reid’s post on querying a memoir and Rachelle Gardner’s on when to write your memoir. I’ve noticed an increase in nonfiction queries lately, and have met with a few writers at conferences who are trying to get theirs published. I like memoir and personal essay collections a lot and don’t read them nearly as much as I used to. (Note: Not because I stopped liking them. It’s mostly because I don’t have the time.)

Creative nonfiction reminds me of why I wanted to be a writer. My expectations and fantasies of New York were formed when I read E.B. White, Joan Didion, and David Rakoff in college. I went head-to-head with writers like Nick Hornby and Chuck Klosterman in my obsession with pop culture analysis. I commiserated and laughed with David Sedaris over our crazy families. Through writers like Jennifer Finney Boylan, Leslie Feinberg, Mary Karr, and Joyce Johnson I formed my ideas of feminism and civil rights and shared in their experiences even though their lives couldn’t have been farther from my own.

I expect a lot from memoir writing and essays, which I think is why I haven’t found anything I’m head-over-heels in love with yet. I’m looking, always looking, but it’s hard. I need to be inspired, awestruck, unable to put down the book even after I finish it.

Reactions like that are harder to come by these days. I’m no longer the idealistic youth I was when I first discovered creative nonfiction, but I am still a romantic at heart. The difference now is that I’m a tougher reader, a stronger editor, and even if a story gives me that jaw-dropping reaction, I’m forced to look at it from a business angle. Can I sell this? Is there a place for it in the current market? Do I know the right editors to send this to? The same questions that go into whether I offer representation on a fiction project go into nonfiction projects. But, there’s an added question when it comes to nonfiction. Even though memoir writing is pitched to agents the same as a novel would be (see Janet Reid’s post linked above), the word “platform” looms over even the most literary and story-focused nonfiction writer.

As an agent, I end up rejecting queries from writers who have bravely shared their stories of abuse, drug addiction, war, divorce, cancer/fatal diseases, kidnapping, and almost every other painful or difficult thing you can think of. Because the thing is, these things are horrible, but they are also, unfortunately, common. There is a fine line between “relatable” and “boring.” Agents and publishers need to see your story on a national scale, and while things seem unique and important to the writer, their stories don’t always translate to a bigger picture.

That’s where platform comes back in. It’s an awful feeling to have to say to a writer “your story is beautiful, but not enough people will care.” (OK, not that I’ve ever said that to a writer, but that is what it comes down to.) People care about celebrities because they think they know who they are and want to relate to them. The difference between Michael Douglas’ cancer and your cancer is huge, I’m sorry to say.

I’m a big proponent of writing as a form of therapy. Treat your story like you are going to share it with the world. Get everything down on paper and then edit, edit, edit. Even if no one else ever reads it, EDIT. If someone outside of your family won’t understand something, cut it. If your emotions are still too strong to view a situation objectively, cut it. I’ve done this with my own experiences and it really does help. Sometimes we just need to get things down on paper so it escapes our minds. That doesn’t mean we need to publish it.

It’s obvious why people write memoirs. Sometimes it’s the only thing they can do. But, unless you are a celebrity or published author, ask yourself the following questions before you try to publish your memoir:

1. Can someone else write this story?
It’s true, everyone handles situations differently and learns different lessons. That is not what we mean when we ask whether your story is unique. As I mentioned above, most people have gone through what you’ve gone through. Unless you are the only person who can write about that topic, your memoir will probably get overlooked by agents and publishers. Excellent writing can often change our minds, but you should know going in that even if you have an MFA from a top program and have crafted your memoir flawlessly, it will be tough.

2. Why does this need to be published?
Most people write memoirs because they think others can learn from their personal experiences. This can be true, but that’s not a motive that interests me. I want to be told a great story, whether it’s your memoir or a novel. If you set out to inspire people or teach a lesson, make sure you’re not writing a self-help book instead of a memoir. Creative nonfiction means you employ the same techniques as novel writing, except the ideas come from real life instead of your imagination. The ability to tell a story and develop a character needs to be there in order for your memoir to get published.

3. Will this be more effective as a novel?
I give this advice to debut memoir writers a lot. If the story is interesting, but not particularly unique or exciting, I wonder why it’s so important to the writer to publish it as nonfiction. Fictionalizing real life can be just as therapeutic and it allows for creative freedom to build an even more interesting story for your reader. The heart of your story remains, but you’ll be free of platform-building. Not only that, your readers won’t expect as much from you. Reading a memoir creates an intimacy with the author, but if that author is just some stranger off the street, sometimes readers are left wondering, “yeah but so what?” A novel, on the other hand, transports the reader into a fictional world that’s far less demanding and just as real.

I tend to think of personal essay collections the same way I think of memoir, but I admit they are a slightly different breed. For one, you’d need to have a few pieces already published in some higher profile magazines or keep a regular blog that has a substantial following. Essays also, when done well, offer cultural or political analysis through a personal narrative, which is hard to convince readers of if you’re not at least mildly known.

I’m rooting for you, creative nonfiction writers. Just be prepared for how much harder it can be to break into nonfiction as an unknown author – even harder than fiction, and those writers can tell you just how hard that world is to navigate. Readers love true stories and feeling like they aren’t alone in the world, but more goes into memoir writing than being a regular person. Make sure you’re trying to publish for the right reasons, and if your story is as funny, sad, wonderful, and inspiring to us as it is to you, we’ll fight for it.

Are You Writing a Dystopian?

This post has been a few months in the making and I haven’t got around to it for a few reasons. The topic started as a joke with me, HarperCollins editor Sara Sargent, and literary agent Hannah Bowman. Important note: we were not making fun of dystopian. Personally, I love it. But like with any genre, there are certain conventions you can’t avoid when writing it. The reason I didn’t write this post earlier is because I figured no one is even publishing or submitting dystopian anymore. Sure, there are still some stragglers – some established authors finishing up trilogies or the rare debut that manages to be the needle in our haystack of queries. For the most part, however, the dystopian trend has slowed to a stop to make way for whatever the next thing will be.

Like I said, I love dystopian, but writers often confuse “personal preference” and “what agents are able to sell.” My love of dystopian needs to take a backseat in the post-Hunger Games market. The stakes for what makes a stand-out, original novel have been raised and there just isn’t room for 95% of them right now. The market won’t be ready to take a chance on a more traditional dystopian – especially in YA – for a few more years. (“Traditional dystopian” means a story that stays within the genre and doesn’t try to reinvent it.) Hence, not feeling the need to write this blog post. Then I noticed a recent increase in dystopian submissions. It’s obvious writers who were told to shelve their dystopian manuscripts waited a month or two, and are now re-submitting under the guise of other genres. The general premise and genre elements of dystopian are still there, but writers are labeling it “sci-fi,” “futuristic fantasy,” and “dark contemporary with sci-fi elements.”

If you’re wondering if what you’ve written is a dystopian, here’s a quick checklist. More importantly, this is how agents and editors know what you’ve written, regardless of what you call it:

1. Everything Has Generic Name
Your character lives in District or Zone [number], New [name of old town], or, if they’re rich, “Capitol City.” The government that controls everything is called The Corporation, The Agency, or simply The Government. The people fighting against them are The Resistance or The Rebels.

2. Story Begins with The Government Entering the Main Character’s Life
This main character is often a girl who’s either super pissed or super scared. She might even sass one of the guards before she goes with them willingly to a place where her destiny awaits.

3. The World Totally Sucks Now – Doesn’t Matter Why
To be dystopian, the modern/contemporary world needs to be destroyed. Sometimes there are references to “the old world” and other times we’re just placed in the middle of What Happened After. Usually this thing is a natural disaster or a virus, both of which are probably government conspiracies. Whatever it is, we don’t get to see the transition into dystopian society. It just exists.

4. Teenagers Matter A Lot.
Props to Hannah Bowman for making this point. Obviously in YA (which is where most dystopian novels live), teenagers need to be the focus, but rarely is it explained why society focuses on them. (Presumably there are more children and adults than teenagers in any given world, right?) Teens are the ones chosen, left behind, arranged into marriage, or sold into slavery. If you’re between the ages of 14 and 18 in a dystopian world, you’re pretty much screwed.

5. No Matter How Bad Things Get, There is Never a Shortage of Pretty Dresses
OK, this last one is kind of a joke. But seriously – why are so many dystopian heroines given beautiful gowns and why do we spend so much time reading about what they look like?? (You’re not above this, Katniss!)

There you have it. Keep in mind this list is a bit tongue-in-cheek. If your novel has all of these elements, it doesn’t mean it’s unoriginal, poorly written, or won’t get published. It just means it’s a dystopian. You should put just as much effort into making it perfect as you would any other project. Just be prepared to hear a lot of “I’m not taking on dystopian right now” or “Dystopian is really hard to sell…” comments from agents and editors. We like you and we like your book and we like all those fun, now-expected dystopian elements. Most of us are just taking a break from it, so query with caution, but query correctly. (I’m looking at you, “dark futuristic fantasy with romantic and sci-fi elements” people!)