Monday, August 22, 2016

Mail Bag: Tenses, Agents, Editors, and Letting Go of the Writer You Think You Should Be

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

It's another mail bag day, where I take a look at the questions that have languished in my inbox and answer them!

Zena said, "Every time I start writing, I always get confused on what tense I should be using on my writing. I'm using the third-person point of view on both stories, but I get confused if I should be using past tense or present tense."

This is a personal choice, and every story is different.

Third person, present tense is rarely used. For whatever reason, it just doesn't read very naturally. Not to say it should never be used or that it can't be done well, just that you don't see a lot of it.

Probably most the books you pull off your shelf are written in third person, past tense. This is the most common POV and tense, and that's no reason for anyone to turn their nose up at it. As is the case with fonts, trying to get too fancy with these elements hardly ever earns you points.

I grabbed two Maggie Stiefvater books off my shelf to show how even the same author will make different choices depending on the story they're telling. The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater uses third person, past tense:
Much to Gansey's annoyance, he had phone reception. Ordinarily, something about Cabeswater interfered with cell signal, but today his phone vibrated with incoming texts about black-tie Aglionby fund-raisers as he climbed up and then down a mountain.
I'm a fan of books written in first person, which is most common in the young adult market, but is sometimes used for adult books too. First person works well with both past and present tense.

In The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, she chose first/present:
It's midway through October now. Like all autumn days on the island, it begins cold but warms and gains color as the sun rises. I get a currycomb and a brush and I knock the dust out of Dove's dun hide until my fingers warm up.
Whatever you pick, it can be changed later if you decide that the story works better written another way. I've done that before. Not fun, but do-able!

Tessa says, "As of right now, I have one novel that is nearly ready to be published. I really would like your assistance in directing me where to go for an agent and editor."

In her email, Tessa specified that she had already read the Publishing 101 post that we have here on the blog, so these comments will build on what we already have there.

First, if you're wanting to publish the traditional route rather than doing it yourself, what you want to pursue first is a literary agent.

Most editors won't look at your work unless you have an agent, so having an agent opens up lots of doors. Also, good agents care about you and your career; it's helpful to have them involved from the beginning. While many editors care deeply about their authors, ultimately they work for the publisher, and that's where their focus has to be.

Here's a list of thoughts on how to pursue agents and editors:

  • Your favorite books: Look in the acknowledgements of your favorite books. Authors often thank their agent and editor. Then you can search for them on-line and see if they're open for new clients. Even if they're not, you'll see which agency they work for and could maybe follow their industry blog or check out their Twitter feed. More on that in a minute...
  • Industry magazines like Writer's Digest. This column, Guide to Agents, is a great resource:
  • Blogs: Many agents and editors contribute to or have their own blogs. These are some of the best ways to hear their thoughts on the industry and see what you think about the way they interact. The first exposure I ever had to my current agent was a blog post that she wrote.
  • Twitter: Many agents/editors--I would even suggest most of them--are on social media. This is a great way to learn about them not only as an industry professional, but also as a person. My editor, Jillian Manning, is on Twitter. Holly Root, Shan's agent, is a great one to follow. Jill's agent, Amanda Luedeke, and my agent, Sandra Bishop, are also active on Twitter.
  • Conferences: Run an internet search for writers conferences in your area or look at the staff list for big cons to get some ideas of who is out there. Most of my early success with agents and editors happened in face-to-face meetings at conferences. I think they are well worth the money.
That's not a comprehensive list, but it should at least get you started.

One important note is that legit agents only make money when you make money. They make a percentage (usually 15%) of anything you guys sell together, so don't get suckered into paying reading/consultation fees from someone posing as a literary agent.

The same is true for editors. Unless you are hiring a freelance editor to help you get your manuscript ready, you should never be asked to pay an editor. Any business that claims to be a publishing house but says you owe them a check before they'll publish your book is a vanity press. Nothing wrong with hiring individuals to help you self-publish your book, but a lot of places (Tate Publishing is the one I'm asked about most often) masquerade as traditional publishing when they are not.

Preditors and Editors is a great site to check if you suspect you're getting scammed.

Cat wants to know, "Normally I can spit out 8,000 words in a sitting but lately I have shoved my fun pieces to the back and have decided to pursue just one book path. Only problem is, I can't seem to determine what it is I want it to do. I have countless short starts to other projects, all with varying plot lines but I don't know if it's because I want to do this one right or what, but it's ten times worse than writers block."

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a serious novelist. The kind who wrote heavily symbolic literary masterpieces that you might study in English class. I told myself, "Stephanie, you are a high school graduate. It is time to stop writing stories about high school and start writing stories for adults!"

I had a story idea that I loved. Or that I was pretty sure I would love, once I learned to. Kind of like how coffee is an acquired taste.

I putzed around with that story for months and never made it past chapter three. One day, I was looking through a magazine and saw an advertisement from a publishing house for their upcoming young adult releases.

My heart raced. I wanted to read those books. I wanted to write those books! Novelist Liz Curtis Higgs said, "I wanted to be deep, but God gave me funny." Fortunately for the world, she embraced her funny. Likewise, I finally came to terms with the fact that I didn't really want to write literary fiction.

All that to say, your writing should feel fun to you, Cat. 

While it's natural to sometimes struggle with a story or get distracted by a shiny, new idea, your phrasing of shoving the "fun pieces" hurts my writer's heart. Unless you're contracted to write that novel and will have to pay back your advance money if you don't deliver, I say give yourself a break. If you're burning to write something else, write it. If you're exhausted from the pressure to write, take a week off. After that, if you still don't feel like writing, give yourself another week. My guess is that if you remove some of the self-imposed pressure, you'll soon be back to churning out 8k a day.

Have your own bit of advice to offer with these writers? Share it in the comments section! If you have your own writing questions, you can leave it below or send me an email.

Also, my author newsletter is going out later this week. I'm giving away several Advanced Reader Copies of The Lost Girl of Astor Street over the next few months to newsletter subscribers, so if you're interested in that, now is a good time to sign up!


  1. Love your Liz Curtis Higgs quote. I feel that way quite a bit.

    1. I think many of us do. It's hard to let go of our own expectations.

    2. That's interesting, Patricia, because I had the opposite problem. I thought I had to have witty dialogue and light characters, but it just didn't work for me. Once I figured out that a serious tone was more of my thing, I found my author's voice, found my story, and was still able to pop humor in wherever it felt natural. My style uses mostly irony and pitting different characters' personalities against each other, often for satirical purposes. Once I learned to let go of my initial expectations (as you said, Mrs. Morrill), I found a style that was balanced and uniquely me. Thanks for the article!

  2. You give such great advice! <3 I am soooooooo excited about The Lost Girl of Astor Street. I actually got to meet the acquisitions editor for Blink/HarperCollins at a writing workshop this summer, and got a one on one three page critique with her. I'm so happy for you getting your book published here!

  3. I love your advice for Cat's question. Thank you for another great mailbag day, Mrs. Morrill!!

  4. Thank you so much. I will keep these thoughts in mind.

  5. So much great advice, Steph! Love this.

  6. So much great advice, Steph! Love this.

  7. I want to reach through the screen and give you a big hug. I'm taking the quote from Liz Curtis Higgs and adding it to the many around my computer screen. Thanks for posting this!

  8. I have a question and it would be amazing if you could give me some insight! My writing teacher, who I absolutely trust, has suggested that I post chapters of my book on my blog to gain readership. Is this wise to do? I know that it may inhibit my future publication, but if it's only by a little bit I do not mind. I've gotten quite a bit of views on the page and I feel like it's working well.