Tuesday, March 29, 2016

NoQS SUCCESS: Karen McManus: How I Got My Agent

As a long-time contest junkie, one of my favorite parts is hearing the success stories (after all, contests are fun, but at the end of the day, that's why we do this). I'm thrilled to be able to share with you this success story from last year's Nightmare on Query Street contest.

Karen McManus: How I Got My Agent

I was one of those kids who wrote constantly. By middle school, I had an entire library of books I’d written and (badly) illustrated. But once I started the college-career-family trajectory, I let my interest in writing slide.

A few years ago I started reading YA books and was inspired to try my hand at writing again. I spent months writing at night and on weekends, and for the first time since my childhood, I finished a book.

Not a GOOD book, though.

It was a classic first effort that should have been trunked as a learning experience. In late 2014 I didn’t have critique partners or beta readers. Nobody except my sister and a friend had read ever my book. While it had some characters I still love, it also had gaping plot holes, pacing problems, and so much first-chapter exposition that my MC sounded like a tour guide. Plus it was dystopian-themed, which had been off-trend for years.

But I didn’t know any of that. I attempted my first query, which was basically plot teasers and adverbs strung together with clich├ęs like “she doesn’t fit the mold.” Which mold? Who knows. I didn’t specify.

Not surprisingly, my inbox was a mixture of crickets and form rejections.

A breakthrough came when I joined Twitter in spring 2015 and met other writers. I found my first critique partner, who became my writing soul sister. I learned the market and studied writing as a craft, reworking both my query and my novel. I gave PitMad a try. I participated in a YA first-page critique party and met another amazingly talented CP. But while I finally managed to eke out a few agent requests, I realized my first manuscript was fundamentally flawed and put it aside.

(I did enter that MS into the 2015 PitchWars as sort of a Hail Mary, hoping one of the mentors I applied to might help me fix it. They all quite rightly turned me down.)

I wrote another book, a YA contemporary fantasy my CPs praised, and started querying in the fall. I had a better request-to-rejection ratio than my first manuscript, but still heard “just not for me” plenty of times. Then in October I entered Nightmare on Query Street (NoQS), a contest run by Michelle Hauck and Michael Anthony, and was chosen for Michael’s team. That was a huge confidence booster that came with bonus helpful mentoring.

I received three contest requests, but I’d also gotten a couple passes on querying fulls. Things were moving slowly—one step forward, one step back.

Meanwhile, back in September, I’d been inspired with an idea for a third book, a YA contemporary mystery. I wrote it madly in every spare minute—the characters completely took over my brain—and finished a draft in two months. My CPs thought it was The Book, but I wasn’t sure. I put it away for a few weeks, and when I came back to it I saw clearly what plot threads had to be reworked.

I’d met some amazing beta readers during NoQS, and they helped me revise more intensively than I ever had before. I took every opportunity I could find for additional feedback, searching for common issues that tripped readers up and trying to fix them. It was a complete 180 from my early days of writing in a vacuum.

In January 2016 I was ready to jump back into the querying trenches. I’d gotten a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, and had carefully researched agents I thought would be a good fit for my book and the career I wanted to have. I kept getting drawn to Rosemary Stimola’s website, admiring her list and the editors she’d worked with. So one Friday afternoon, I took a deep breath and submitted a query via her online form.

She requested the full three hours later. I’ll let you imagine the unprofessional flailing about that followed.

I sent my manuscript and settled in for a long wait, submitting a few more queries and getting additional requests. I also drove myself crazy looking at QueryTracker statistics and preparing for what felt like inevitable disappointment. But when Rosemary emailed a week and a half later, she wanted to set up a time to talk.

Flailing. Unprofessional. Lots of it, again.

When Rosemary offered representation, her vision for the book was so perfectly in line with mine that I was tempted to accept on the spot. But I had other fulls out between my second manuscript and this new one, and needed to give those agents a chance to read. By the end of the week I had additional offers and considered them carefully, but ultimately Rosemary’s immediate connection to the book won me over. I happily signed with her in February.

I learned a lot while querying, but the lessons that stuck with me the most are these: Connect with other writers. Constantly improve your craft. Above all, even (or especially) when you doubt whether you have what it takes, keep writing. Don’t give up. You never know which of the projects you’re working on will turn out to be The Book.

Updated: In news of the pinch-me-I’m-dreaming variety, Delacorte Press will be publishing my debut and a second book, which is the best postscript I could ever have hoped to add. 

Karen McManus writes contemporary and fantasy YA, and is represented by Rosemary Stimola of Stimola Literary Studio. You can find her on Twitter @writerkmc and at www.karenmcmanus.com.

Monday, March 21, 2016

What Not to Say to a Writer on Sub

Submission is brutal. Having a support group is crucial, whether it's just a couple of close friends or a group. The process differs for everyone, but it's nearly always emotional. It can last a very long time. In a group of writers polled about submission, common themes for getting through it included "drink more" and "distract yourself." Today, I want to review some things that it's better NOT to say to a writer on submission, even if you really want to help.
  1. Don’t say, “It’s going to happen.” Getting published is not a certainty like death or taxes. Unless you are a publisher offering a contract, you cannot promise it’s going to happen. (And publishers fold, so even that isn't a guarantee.) The unfortunate truth is, there are a lot more people out there with unpublished books than published authors.
  2. Don’t say “You only need one person to love it.” Presumably, your friends and your mom have told you they love your book, but that doesn't create a published book. Some editors love a book but don't want to buy it because of the market. Some editors love a book, then get laid off or go on leave and never come back. Some editors can't get a book they love through acquisitions. Finding an editor who loves the book is the first step, but it's not the end of the road.
  3. Don’t say, “You can do anything if you work hard enough.” That may be true in many areas of life. However, getting published requires more than just working so many hours your family doesn't recognize you, and then working more. It also requires timing and good luck and those are beyond the writer's control.
  4. Don’t say, “You’re a much better writer than [famous, hated writer].” How is that going to help? Would you feel better if someone said that you’re prettier than the person your spouse cheated on you with? Probably not. Reminding your writer friend that there are less talented, more successful writers just reinforces that the odds against success are huge, chances are it won’t happen, and getting a contract isn't even based on talent (or hard work). Presumably, those other authors worked hard, too.
  5. Don’t say “You can always self-publish.” There are many valid reasons for self-publishing, but it's not a consolation prize. Self-publishing is a difficult, full-time job all its own, with none of the support you’d get from a publisher. People should only self-publish if they WANT to do it. To be successful, it helps to have some knowledge of business and marketing. Telling someone set on a traditional contract they can self-publish if they don't get an offer is like saying you can always take your cousin to prom if no one else asks.
  6. Don’t say, “Have you thought about writing [rip-off of huge bestseller]?” For one thing, yes, they probably have. But more importantly, that doesn’t make any difference. Writing is 1% about the idea, 10% about the writing, 25% about pulling your hair out, 8% about crying/ignoring bad advice, 60% about revising, 27% timing and luck, and 42% not being math. It takes more than just someone handing over an idea on a silver platter. Plus, if something else is wildly popular, it’s probably too late to hop on the gravy train with a book that isn’t written yet. Trends change quickly.
  7. Don't say, It'll happen when you least expect it. You know when authors are least likely to be thinking about submission? When they're asleep. And even then, they might be dreaming about it. Editors don't call in the middle of the night. But also, knowing that just means that, even when you normally wouldn't expect it - you're still expecting it.
  8. Don’t say, “There’s nothing you can do, so just relax.” The type of people who spend a lot of time worrying about things they can't control are not likely to feel more relaxed when you point out that they lack control. I've never heard someone reply to "Just relax," with "Oh, right. Sorry. All better! Thanks."
If you want to hold a writer's hand (physically or virtually), lend an ear, or give hugs, that’s wonderful. They'll probably appreciate it. But don’t lie. Don't say what you think they want to hear. Don't pretend the process is easier than it is. All that does is take perfectly understandable frustration with the process and turn it onto you instead. The only thing you can really say to help is, “Here, have some cake.” If you don't have cake, "This sucks, I'm sorry" goes a long way.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Query Kombat Critique Winners!

I am ecstatic to announce that I've been asked to join Michael Anthony and Michelle Hauck as the third host of Query Kombat this year! (They didn't even make me change my name to Mlaura.) 

Query Kombat holds a special place in my heart not only because it's the first contest where I got agent requests (not the first contest I entered, or the first contest where I was chosen...) but because it's also the contest that gave me invaluable feedback I needed to change my query and first page, and those changes are what ultimately lead to me getting an offer.
Query Kombat is also where I saw the benefits of working on contests from the other side. I got to know some of the other judges, and the hosts. I saw the benefits of critiquing other people's queries, and how that improved my own. A few months after I signed with my agent, I was lucky enough to be allowed to read slush for PitchSlam and Nightmare on Query Street. The next year, I was asked to host PitchSlam, act as a judge for Query Kombat, read slush for NestPitch, and mentor in Sun vs. Snow, NewAgent, and PitchWars. I'm hopelessly addicted, so of course, when I was asked to help out with QueryKombat as a host rather than a judge, I jumped at the opportunity. We've got a great contest planned for you this year!

I write commercial women's fiction, but I also read thrillers, romance and YA contemporary. My favorite books include all things by Tamora Pierce, Harry Potter, and the Artemis Fowl series, so I'm not terribly picky when it comes to genre. I recently completed an internship with an agent, which gave me a lot of insight into the things agents are looking for. If you're looking for more information on me, head on over to my bio page.

And now, I'm happy to announce the winners of our query critique giveaway! Please email your query to the same address where you sent your entries. Thanks to everyone who participated!

Feel free to tweet your excitement about the contest using the #QueryKombat hashtag! All three of us will be there, partying!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


The peculiar tale of an enchanted baker who creates fairy tales’ darkest and most magical confections.

Maire is a baker with an extraordinary gift: she can infuse her treats with emotions and abilities, which are then passed on to those who eat them. She doesn’t know why she can do this and remembers nothing of who she is or where she came from.

When marauders raid her town, Maire is captured and sold to the eccentric Allemas, who enslaves her and demands that she produce sinister confections, including a witch’s gingerbread cottage, a living cookie boy, and size-altering cakes.

During her captivity, Maire is visited by Fyel, a ghostly being who is reluctant to reveal his connection to her. The more often they meet, the more her memories return, and she begins to piece together who and what she really is—as well as past mistakes that yield cosmic consequences.

From the author of the Paper Magician series comes a haunting and otherworldly tale of folly and consequence, forgiveness and redemption.

Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet is available for preorder on Amazon and B&N. Ebook, audiobook, and paperback release from 47North June 28th!

You can also preview the novel on Goodreads.

About the Author

Born in Salt Lake City, Charlie N. Holmberg was raised a Trekkie alongside three sisters who also have boy names. She graduated from BYU, plays the ukulele, owns too many pairs of glasses, and hopes to one day own a dog.