I will be on the faculty at the Las Vegas Writers Conference this May 2-4, along with a fantastic group of publishing industry professionals like Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Jessica Watterson and more. I’ll be taking pitches and leading the workshop “Polishing Your Prose to Make it Submission Ready,” which is always a popular one, as it urges you to take a fresh approach to your prose, particularly commercial fiction, before sending it to literary agents.
Kimberley Cameron & Associates is hosting another Query Boot Camp via Writer’s Digest January 15-18. Get four hours of online time with me or one of our other agents to ask ANY questions you might have about publishing and writing*. Maybe you want to know if dragons make good romantic heroes, or what is the average word count for middle grade, or why you shouldn’t start your novel with the character staring in the mirror even if they’re a zombie. Or perhaps you want a peek behind the curtain on the daily work life of an agent, do we really cackle loudly as we throw queries in the trash and eat unsuspecting new authors for breakfast? I promise an honest and fun forum! There’s an added bonus of a query and sample critique after the course is over. It doesn’t matter if you are ready to query or just putting the first words of your novel down. Click the image below to enroll. Sign up soon as spots fill up!
*If you’re writing nonfiction I recommend requesting to join Elizabeth Kracht’s group as the rest of us don’t represent nonfiction.
Part of a literary agent’s job is, sadly, “crushing dreams.” With every rejection I send I know I am causing real pain to another person out there. Joey Franklin stated in his fantastic Poets & Writers article Submit That Manuscript! Why Sending Out Your Work Is So Important, “Neuroscientists have actually identified similarities between our response to rejection and our response to physical pain.” I was equally in total agreement and completely horrified. I’ve had reactions to rejections that lasted hours if not days. But I also send rejections on an almost daily basis. My submission karma is not looking good.
Franklin goes on to express why submitting is so important. It’s a part of the necessary evolution and development of your writing. You need your dreams crushed so you can pick them up again and make them stronger. Ignorance is bliss, but it won’t get you published (in most cases).
In my desire to help writers, I can be harsh with my advice, as if by doing so I’m saving them from the inevitable rejection pain that comes from their ignorance. I still haven’t figured out if this approach is misguided, but sometimes I can’t help it. A few weeks ago I was on a panel and a writer asked, “How can we balance picking out comparable titles yet staying true to our story because it’s too different, unique.”
I looked her straight in the eye and replied, “Trust me. Your story is not unique.”
Woah. I knew instantly it was a bit much, a knee-jerk response. It’s because I hear that all the time, “My story doesn’t have any comparable works.” or “What I’ve written is beyond compare.” etc. It makes me angry when writers seem to ignore the magnitude of what makes up the literary canon. I have to remind myself that in their inexperience, they really do think there aren’t any stories like theirs on the shelf or in the submission pile. (Fyi, there are dozens if not hundreds of other stories with similar concepts to yours in slushpiles around the world.) Usually I try to be gentler with my advice, so they hear me and don’t shut down into defensive mode. Because the more aware a writer is of how wide and sweeping the literary world is, the better they can navigate it.
Luckily, and to my embarrassment, the agent next to me chimed in to ease the tension. She used a word which resonated with me and the room full of writers. Fresh.
Stories, by their nature, are repetitive:
But yours can be a fresh take.
Take a story about a superhero who saves the world. How many times have you read that one? I bet you’re rolling your eyes right now. Me too. So how did a movie with that same old story make over 200 million dollars world-wide opening weekend just this year? Because it was fresh. Wonder Woman was a superhero movie starring a female superhero, directed by another female. Gasp. (Sad that in 2017 this is considered fresh, but we’ll save that rant for another time. Throw in the argument that a female screenplay writer should have been involved, and my head might explode.)
So how do you know you are writing something fresh? By reading, reading, reading. Then writing, writing, writing. Then submitting, submitting, submitting. And all over again. Writing is an apprenticeship. The more you read, write, and submit, the more you learn. You learn to recognize the commonality of stories and writing. You begin to see the building blocks which all books are built on and the mythologies that have supported stories for a millennia. You come to understand what is universal truth versus lazy stereotypes. And your vision shows in your writing. You are able to take a story and make it your own, put a new spin on a tired tale.
So perhaps your story is not unique. But it can be fresh.
I realized, as I often do during Q&A sessions with authors, how much information I take for granted as a literary agent. I have learned so much on the other side of the desk, and it’s easy to forget how mysterious it all seemed once upon a time. One particular question that appeared to cause a lot of anxiety was whether or not a manuscript fell into the “crossover genre.” Writers were unsure what crossover meant, yet they had heard it was important that their manuscript achieved that status. I’d be pretty anxious too!
So, to clarify. Crossover isn’t a genre, it’s an adjunct of the genre, and it’s used as a label in publishing mainly for marketing purposes. In a literal sense, your manuscript is crossover when it “crosses over” from one genre to the next, e.g. a thriller in an urban fantasy setting. Publishers love crossovers because they can potentially be bought by fans of both genres, i.e. it “crosses over” to different audiences, which means…
Crossover can also pertain to the type of writing, e.g. you’ve written a romance but the language is so elevated it could be considered upmarket or even literary. In these cases the term crossover is often dropped and occasionally the commercial genre label is dropped as well, and instead it’s referred to “upmarket” or “bookclub” fiction.
The most common use of the term crossover (and where the most confusion seems to happen) is referring to the age range of the reader. In particular YA (young adult) novels are considered crossover when the publisher is hoping to reach not only teenage readers, but adult readers as well. For example, The Hunger Games was read widely by both kids and adults, and its crossover appeal is what drove a lot of its popularity. In the technical sense the reverse is possible, i.e. adult books can crossover to kids, but this is far less common, and not used in marketing. When pitching a crossover in age range, it’s always in terms of aging up, e.g. a middle grade that can appeal to young adults, YA to adults, etc.
So what does this all mean for you the author? Knowing if your manuscript is crossover or not, shows a better understanding of the market, which can only further help your submission. Unsure? Then stick to your main genre and reader age. An agent can spot a crossover even if it’s not stated as such. But if you do claim it’s a crossover and it’s not, then that may cause the agent to believe that you don’t understand the market you’re writing for or that you are trying to overcompensate for something lacking in the writing itself. This won’t kill your submission necessarily, but it won’t help.