Writers ask, Cynthea answers…
Q: Should you copyright your manuscript before sending them to an agent? How do you someone won’t steal your ideas. What is the common practice among authors?
A: Your work is copyrighted as soon as you’ve written it. You do not need to go through the formal process of copyrighting before submitting your work.
The common practice (the STANDARD practice) is to write your manuscript, revise it, get second opinions, revise some more, revise some more, then send it out! Indeed you have to trust the process some.
But there is little incentive for someone to steal your work, in my opinion, particularly when the advance for sold work is usually quite low. You do want to exercise good judgment though and not post your stuff on the Internet. Or if you’re working with another writer for critique purposes, TRADE manuscripts with them versus showing them your stuff and not seeing theirs. As for people stealing ideas, I guess it could happen. But you’ll find many ideas are done over and over again just by shear chance. A copyright doesn’t protect an idea to begin with. So you can’t sue someone for stealing your idea because ideas are not that unique. It’s the execution of the idea that is unique, and that would be your specific manuscript. Of course, I am no lawyer, but that’s the general consensus on how many authors feel about this topic.
Q: I am writing a picture book. Should I include art specs for each page? Or should I just explain the general idea in the cover letter and hope the editors will “get” what I’m visualizing for the art?
A: A picture book text is 50% of the story. The other 50% is what the illustrator brings to the table. Specifying art direction for every page of a picture book is strongly discouraged and will flag you as an amateur. You should NOT provide art direction. That’s the illustrators job to come up with something. Something better than even you can imagine. However if there is a “surprise” in your story that can’t be conveyed in the text or some other thing happening in the pictures that would be stupid to put in the actual text, then an illustration note is in order. Illustration notes should only be included if they facilitate comprehension of the story. Otherwise, let the illustrator do his job! Don’t try to tell the editor that the kid’s coat has to be red because that’s what you see in your head. Those sorts of notes are big no-no’s.
If you need an illustration note you put it beside the text where the note is relevant. Likes so.
Your manuscript text. Your manuscript text.
[Boy surprises girl with a live dinosaur as a gift]
Q: How do I know if an agent is great?
A: Great is a subjective word, but if you do your research by going to the places I suggest in my course, you’ll start to narrow down who might be great for your work and who might not. For example, I believe GREAT agents are ones who are
1) LEGIT, meaning not scam artists – go to the resources I point out in my agent articles to double-check that they appear to be who they say they are and don’t charge fees, etc.,
2) Represent the kind of work you write (e.g., Picture books, or nonfiction, or novels, or all of the above)
3) Meet the criteria you have for an agent (again the see the articles for a list of criteria)
4) AND one who you seem to get along with. This last one is going to be your biggest indicator as to the word GREAT. You can do a lot to narrow down an agent that might be a good fit, but it’s not until you are offered representation, that you will have a real opportunity to interview them and figure out if you are a match. See my article on interviewing an agent.
Q: If a publisher’s guidelines says to address all submission to a general
submissions editor (e.g., acquisitions editor or something similar) versus a specific person, is it acceptable for me to “break those rules” if I learn about an editor there who has preferences for the kind of work I write?
A: Almost all houses have submissions guidelines that are generic or say to send something to SUBMISSIONS EDITOR, or something like that. So to answer your question, you are “technically” breaking a rule, but almost all houses won’t penalize you for it if you’ve shown care has gone into who you’ve picked to send your submission to. And even if you target the submission to an editor who is not interested, then the worst case scenario is they reject you, pass it on to someone else who might be interested if it’s good enough, or just hand it over to their submissions editor. Most publishing houses don’t have the time to remember who you were and blacklist you permanently simply because you tried to get your story to the right person.
In other words, don’t overthink this too much. If you know something about an editor at a house and think you have a good reason to put his or her name on your submission, you are only being a good, educated writer. You should include that reason in your cover or query letter. See my articles for examples on how to lead-in with your reason in your letters.
What you don’t want to do is blindly send a manuscript to a specific editor simply because you want to put a name on the envelope. Have a reason. Don’t have a reason? Then follow the generic guidelines the house provides.
The majority of well-educated writers target their submissions if they can, regardless of guidelines that request the writer to do otherwise.
Q: I want to write for teens, but I’m much older than a teen and don’t really know if it’s something I can tackle without coming across as unauthentic. What’s the best way for me to learn how to write for the teen audience in particular?
A: The best way to get to know YA is to read a bunch of YA novels. You don’t even have to read the whole book; opening chapters say a lot about the great range within YA. Then ask yourself, Can I do this? The key is to look at a lot of teen novels though…Don’t think one particular bestselling YA book represents the entire market. It doesn’t. There’s room for lots of different teen voices. I think many people believe that teen books have to be edgy, gritty, sexy, or Like Ohmigod! That’s not true. There’s a huge range out there. Also, it really helps if you can remember what you were like as a teen. If you’ve blocked out that whole period in your life, you might find it hard to think like one. So draw from that.
Q: What elements make for a good hook, particularly at a story’s outset?
A: Hook is really hard to define. But here’s how I look at it (in terms of opening pages)
It’s something that draws you in.
It could be a first line.
It could be a character’s unique voice.
It could be an interesting situation on the first pages.
It could be the style in which the piece is written.
It could even be a picture above the chapter header! (Did you notice they do this in Harry Potter? Those marketing people are genius.)
Often it’s a combination of all these things.
HOOK is what draws me in. I can’t NOT flip to the next page (pardon the dbl negative). It’s a combination of unique factors that makes your work compelling.
Put it another way: if your opening pages don’t present something that feels interesting to a decent number of people, then you probably don’t have a hook.
The best way to grasp writing a hook is to find opening pages of books you love. Find the very best ones and see what they’re doing to draw YOU in. Then you’ll know if you’re opening pages can compete.