Sunday, May 29, 2011

Interview with Super Literary Agent, Kevan Lyon

Today, I am interviewing the fabulous Kevan Lyon of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, LLC. Kevan is not only my agent, but she is also the agent for several other members of our YA Fusion blog.

Hi Kevan! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.

What do you represent and what are you currently seeking?

I represent all types of women’s fiction, some non-fiction and young adult fiction. In the broad women’s fiction category I represent commercial women’s fiction both contemporary and historical, mystery and suspense, and all genres of romance. The only exception is I don’t do much in the Science Fiction or inspirational categories. I am always looking for fresh stories with a great voice that really draws the reader into the characters’ world and the story – both in women’s and young adult fiction. I am particularly looking to build my young adult author list as well as women’s commercial fiction.

How can our readers query you?

My preference is an email query with a brief description of your story and a bit about you – writing credentials, writing groups you are a member of, awards, etc.

The Romance Writers of America conference is quickly approaching and many writers will be preparing to meet agents such as yourself. Will you be attending and if so, will you be taking pitch appointments?

Yes, I will be there this year for the full week and I am scheduled for 2 hours of pitch appointments as well as a few panels at this point.

I'll admit, I've only pitched once in my life. I was so nervous that I walked the length of the hallway outside of the conference room at least a hundred times. Thankfully, my awesome friend entertained me by suggesting that I give a short finger puppet presentation of my story, Pushing The Limits. Solemn face, she added that I should draw red hair on one thumb to represent my character Echo and draw a cross tattoo on the other for Noah. She, of course, was joking, but she made me laugh which in turn helped ease the nerves.

You attend several conferences throughout the year and take pitch appointments. What advice can you give writers just as nervous as I was on pitch appointments?

I always try to put people at ease and just get them to tell me about their story – in the same way that they would tell a friend of theirs. We are listening to the pitch to get a sense of the story and if it might be something we are willing to read a sample of. I think most agents will err on the side of asking to see at least a sample of your story if it falls in an area that they represent. It is pretty rare that I tell someone their book doesn’t sound like it is right for me in a face to face setting, generally I will read sample pages. If someone really catches my attention with their pitch then I may read it sooner because I am excited about it, so it is important to practice and make sure you are prepared (and try not to read your pitch, but if you must that is o.k. with me too). Try to run through it with a friend or family member a few times to hopefully minimize the nerves. It is also important to make sure you are familiar with the person you are pitching too – make sure they represent the type of work you are pitching, that will definitely improve your chances of getting a sample page request! Then, realize the agent is there looking for prospective clients and wonderful new projects. They want to make a good impression on you as well – so try to relax and enjoy it!

What elements are you looking for in the perfect pitch?

I am first looking for a genre that I might be particularly interested in, and then I am hoping for a really compelling story hook – something that can be summed up in just a few sentences that immediately catches my attention. I usually am listening carefully to get a sense of the arc of the plot and whether or not it sounds like something I might like. I love that feeling when someone sits down with a story that I am intrigued by and can’t wait to read more!

Is there anything a writer should avoid during a pitch appointment?

Doing anything that doesn’t feel comfortable to you – i.e. don’t try to be memorable via costumes, or some other catchy idea – just be yourself. The pitch session is also about whether or not an agent and author believe that they can work together, sometimes in the short 5 or 10 minute pitch you can immediately tell that this is an individual you like talking to. So it is important to be yourself and for that few minutes you have with an agent make sure that you feel it is someone you could possibly work with.

A buzz word I heard while preparing for my first conference was the elevator pitch. Which for any of our readers not familiar, the elevator pitch is the 10 second version of your story. When at conferences, do you receive many elevator pitches?

Often in the hallways or public areas an author will approach me, and frankly it is often hard to really concentrate on what they are telling me, but occasionally it works, particularly if we are talking at a social event or other function. I don’t mind being approached usually, unless I am in the middle of another meeting – which has unfortunately happened, and then you really don’t have my full attention. It never hurts to be prepared for the quick pitch if we chat informally somewhere and I am generally open to listening.

What is the oddest thing that's ever happened at a conference?

Can’t think of anything odd….hmmmm. I can think of conferences where I was really excited to received someone’s work – and then we go on to sell it. Those become some of my more memorable conferences!

What is the thing you enjoy the most at a conference?

Finding a new project that I am particularly excited about – I will often think about it for days afterward, anxiously waiting to see the pages come through my email. I also really enjoy seeing my clients and meeting them in person whenever possible at conferences. Conferences have a way of getting me rejuvenated and reminding me of how much I love what I do.

In any of the genres you represent, do you see anything currently trending?

This is always hard to say – but I am sensing the market is tightening up on the acquisitions side with particular genres of romance at the moment – historical romances come to mind as something that feels ever more difficult lately. On the YA side, it feels like the market is fairly full when it comes to new dystopian type stories, something needs to be completely new to catch an editor’s attention. Now, that could change tomorrow, but that is my sense lately.

Thank you so much for talking to us, Kevan!

Now, for my readers. What are your thoughts at pitching at conferences? Do we have any success stories? Was anyone just as nervous as I was about pitching? Tell us about your conference experiences.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Organic—it’s not just for veggies anymore

A couple years ago, I was accepted to the C.I.A. Not the Central Intelligence Agency (how cool would that be!?), but the nom-nom one. The Culinary Institute of America. I grew up in a family of master chefs and food has always been one of my passions—but so has fiction. Even as I filled out the application, I was torn. Then, when I met with the counselor and she told me the main reason I was accepted was the essay I wrote, well, I saw that as a sign. I passed on the spot and threw myself into writing.

Obviously, I still love to cook. Just because I’ve chosen the author path, doesn’t mean I’ve forsaken my roots. Special occasions, holidays—apple season is like Applepiepocalypse around here. I have nightmares about being chased through the streets by an enormous peeler flanked by jars of cinnamon wearing gang colors.

This says a lot about how my mind works…

But anyway, every once in awhile, someone will ask me for a recipe. This is a problem. Why? Because I don’t follow recipes. And when I try to write ingredients down as I’m cooking, it leads to disaster.

I’ve come to realize my writing works the same way. Everyone has their own process. Something unique that works for them. Mine is, well, messy. Organic. Some of my more organized writer friends look at me like I’ve got two heads, a tail and am wearing a pair of flashing neon chaps. But for me, it works.

Matter of fact, it’s the only thing that works.

I’ve tried to do it the other way. Outlines and character bio sheets. Research and plotting. All that planning ahead trips me up. I think it’s because I’m putting too much thought into it. Instead of just going with my muse and letting the story and characters (or recipe) take shape, I’m obsessing over the details. Did I get the voice right? Is that really enough sugar?

I think of the first draft as the ingredient gathering stage. Start with a concept (dish) and build from there. For me, it’s usually the hook that pops first. Sprinkle in some world building and a kick ass character or two, and you’re ready to rock.

Once you’ve got everything together, you move on to the revisions (cooking). Revisions are kind of like making Risotto. If you over toast the rice (story) the outcome is going to be less flavorable. Going through and adding layer by layer to your story is like adding the broth to the rice as it cooks. Slowly absorbing flavor.

Then, when you think it might be time to yank that puppy from the burner, you need to do a taste test. This is where betas and CPs come in. You send your work out, they sample it and tell you what it needs and if they think you’ve overcooked anything. Luckily, with writing it’s much easier to fix an over written scene than a burned batch of biscotti and an oven fire.

Yeah… Um, that’s a totally different post.

So come out and share your process. Do you follow an outline? Maybe you just jot down a few notes and see where they go. Or are you like me? Throw things into the pot and let the chips—chocolate preferably—fall where they may.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Identity Crisis

I still feel funny referring to myself as a writer.

It seems sort of idealistic. A little too pie-in-the-sky maybe. What do you do? Oh me? I'm a writer. As though this somehow implies I spend my days pouring over poetry by the fountain, and sampling vegan foods from around the world, and contemplating the human condition with any number of brilliant acquaintances from my diversity roster.

For the record, I haven't read much poetry since college, and my vegan experience peaked at the Whole Foods salad bar. I do have lovely, smart friends, but we usually spend our time eating pie and catching up on what’s happening in our day jobs.

The truth is this: I hesitate to call myself a writer because I’m afraid I might be a bad writer. I swim too, but I don’t call myself a swimmer. Michael Phelps is a swimmer. I’m a person who likes to swim. So maybe I’m just a person who likes to write.

I mean, I do suck at grammar, and Spellcheck is the only reason I don’t look like a total idiot in print. For crying out loud, writers are supposed to be good at the mechanics, right? Yet, some small voice inside of me insists that these things don’t matter. That being edgy, and mysterious, and brilliant – all those stereotypes I set up and then fall short of – aren’t important either. They’re just layers of padding, built in excuses so I don’t have to admit that I’m afraid of looking like a fool.

And the truth is I am afraid. I send my manuscripts to my agent and then chew my nails down to nubs, and eat everything in sight, and refresh my inbox forty times an hour. I rehearse what I’ll tell my editor if she doesn't like my work. I remind myself that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks – what is this middle school? – as long as I’m happy with myself…blah, blah, blah. And you know what I’ve learned? It’s okay to be neurotic. It’s okay to be self-conscious. If I wasn’t so afraid, I wouldn’t care, and if I didn’t care, writing would just be a hobby.

Here’s how I know it’s not: When I wake up in the morning, I want to write, and when I go to bed at night, I know I haven’t written enough. I think in sentence form (typically grammatically incorrect sentences). I’m distracted by dialog being spoken in my head. And I will always assign hero and villain status to individuals in my everyday adventures.

When I write I feel like my best self, the self I want to be. When I put it all out there on the page, I feel fulfilled. And if that makes me vulnerable, and that vulnerability makes me scared, that’s okay. Because this is who I am.

Maybe writing isn’t your thing. Maybe it’s basketball, or, I don’t know, acting, but you don’t know if you’re any good. Own it. If it’s what burns inside you, if it reframes the way you think and is a part of every decision you make, you aren’t just a person who likes to act. You’re an actor.

And me? I’m a writer.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

I Think I'm a Box Screamer . . .

. . . Symptoms? I seldom scream aloud. I seldom give in to huge emotions – no weeping and wailing (Okay, weeping, but only quietly and mostly in private or in a dark movie theater.); no shouting (heaven forbid! What loss of control!); no beating a fist against the wall (would probably hurt, besides, it’s my head I visualize against that wall.); no ripping something apart with my bare hands ( I have a hard enough time shredding the mail.); no mooning someone despite serious provocation (would probably cause permanent blindness in the recipient, and permanent guilt for me.)

But the most definitive symptom? My favorite YA books are screamers. Emotional screamers. They throw off the lid and shout it all out. Like Gayle Forman’s “Where She Went.” Holy Cow! The minute I opened the front cover, anger and angst roared out and shook me. Or Simone Elkeles’ “Leaving Paradise.” Wow! Anger and such incredible longing filled those pages. And Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series. Whether your Team Edward or Team Jacob, the emotions in these books are loud and seductive.

How did I become a box screamer? Sad to say, I've been programmed by life. School and family and friends and bosses don’t want to deal with an overabundance of in-your-face drama 24/7. Even strangers shy away from messy, public emotions. Life has trained me to tone it down, to keep it under a lid.

But those emotions are still there. Still inside me. I connect with them every time I read a good YA. And when I write, they flow from my heart to my fingers to the keyboard. I scream them down on the page: the joys and sorrows, the vulnerabilities and strengths, the hopes and fears, the yearnings and failings, the dreams and despairs. They scramble for life, until it’s time to find the lid, time to close them back inside.

What about you? Are you trapped in a box? Have you kicked off your lid lately?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Contest Winners!

The winner of my surprise YA book giveaway is... Vicky Alvear Shecter from Georgia! I had planned to give away Jandy Nelson's The Sky is Everywhere, but Vicky already read it, loved it, and owns a copy. So, we went with A Northern Light, an older favorite of mine by Jennifer Donnelly.

The winner of Bethany's book giveaway is... Donna Maloy from Texas! Donna, please email Bethany to select your free book out of those mentioned in her post or the comments.

Thanks to everyone for checking out our blog and entering the contests. Happy Mother's Day to all the book-sharing, story-telling moms out there!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Voice- Everyone Has One, but is Yours Teen Enough?

Read to the bottom for Contest Details! 

I've heard a lot of questions about voice over the years...What is it? How do you recognize it? Is it something you can learn? Can you change your voice? In this blog post I'm going to try to answer those four questions, while adding four self-assessment questions for YA authors;
  • 1. Is it Natural?
  • 2. Is it Consistent?
  • 3. Is it Youthful?
  • 4. Is it Engaging?

1. What is it? Voice is the way a character's personality comes through via the writing on the page. There are many elements that constitute voice, and it overlaps with style. Length and rhythm of sentences, figures of speech, dialect, use of slang...voice reflects the way a character views the world and how they relate that world to the reader. 

2. How do you recognize it? All characters (hopefully) have it, just some seem "voicier" than others. For third person narration try reading The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, contrast with a less intrusive narrator in The Giver by Lois Lowry. (both MG books, but great examples) In first person, try Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L.Going. For contrast, you might want to try Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

3. Is it something you can learn? Is writing a craft or an art? I believe it is both. We all have a certain amount of talent for whatever way we want to create (music, art, literature). But there's also a learning curve. Most people with the drive to improve their writing will improve. As a creative writing teacher, voice is difficult to teach...that doesn't mean you can't learn it, but I don't think it's a teacher-taught skill. You have to find a way to learn it on your own. Hopefully my four self assessment questions will help, at least a little. My best advice? Read a lot. In my experience the students who read a lot tend to have the best natural voices.

4. Can you change your voice? I'm going to rely on personal experience for this one. When I wrote HANDCUFFS, my one and only published excursion into realistic fiction, I poured a lot of myself into it. I can open the book to any random page, and when I read it aloud, it feels exceptionally natural. The first few manuscript chapters I sent my former agent after Handcuffs sounded like Parker's voice in Handcuffs. Oh no! For awhile I was quite worried that Handcuffs was written in MY voice, and I'd never produce anything as authentic, or quite honestly, authentic at all, in a different voice. (Writers and their insecurities, right?) 

A few years/manuscripts later, I feel like there are some identifying characteristics to my writing, but that my voice can and does change with the main characters I create. 
Examples? Why yes, I can provide some! 

From Handcuffs
  We’ve done Christmas morning the exact same way, forever and ever. The week before Christmas, we put our gifts to Mom and Dad and for each other under the tree. I wasn’t truly expecting much from the sibs. Little brother shopped at the grocery store with a ten-dollar bill Dad gave him. That made my share of the loot two dollars and fifty cents worth of grocery store bought lip-gloss or Cheetos or whatever seems like a good present to him. Now my sister, well, let’s just say my birthday present still hasn’t been delivered. She thinks I’m dumb enough to wait patiently for my box from, and I have, but so far, nothing

Christmas morning is supposed to be about wonder. After we go to sleep, my parents put out all of the big presents, piles and piles of them in every shape and size. Even though we are all too big to believe in Santa, and have been for years, my heart still missed a few beats when I went downstairs and saw the tree and all the glittering gifts underneath.

From Masque of the Red Death (or whatever it shall be titled) 

     My anger runs deep enough that I cannot reach out to her. But there is nothing I can do when Father reaches out to her. No matter what they think, no matter my tantrums when I was younger, I’ve never wanted to stand in the way of whatever happiness they can rediscover together. She’s here now. We’re the remnants of a family.
     I collapse onto the couch between my parents, and we sit in miserable silence until the sun comes up. Mother gasps each time the floor shakes. I keep my feet flat on the ground and my hands flat against the sofa cushions. My medication can make me anxious, even when there aren’t explosions and fire.
     “What would our lives have been like if the plague hadn’t happened?” As soon as I say the words, I wish I could take them back. I have never said anything like this out loud.

I picked two family scenes to try to make two very different books seem at least a little more comparable. Is there a difference in the two excerpts in terms of voice? Or is the difference stylistic? I'll let you the educated and intelligent blog reader decide. It's the best I can do!

Okay, now for the helpful stuff! Here are four questions you can use to assess your use of voice as a fiction writer or reader (particularly YA, but that goes without saying...the world revolves around YA, right?)

1. Is it Natural? Try reading your work out loud. Does it trip you up? Does it sound like real observations from a real person? Does your character live and breathe on the page. The reader should suspend disbelief that this is a character and feel like (or want them to) live and breathe someplace in the universe. 

2. Is it consistent? Does the voice stay the same from page to page? If your character uses the most offensive words in the English language on page 3 and then switches to cute euphemisms on page 5, there better be a darn good reason, like Grandma is visiting, or they've had a lobotomy. And if we're talking internal dialogue, then the offensive words should still be there, in their head. Distinctive phrases should only be used by one character. In real life, we pick up on the words our friends use and start to sound alike. In fiction that comes off as lazy writing. If your character walks around saying "groovy" all the time, give him or her a reason to use a superlatively anachronistic phrase, and don't have other characters use it. As your character arc plays out, the way your character views the world may change, but the way they report those observations should stay relatively consistent

3. Is it youthful? Okay, here is where some adults trying to write YA get weird and start lurking around mall food-courts. Does the writing have a youthful feeling? I don't think that feeling comes from use of slang (and slang dates your writing, so I think it should mostly be avoided). Youth pervades writing in many ways...people who are young are experiencing things for the first time. How they report that may change (cynicism, bewilderment, wide-eyed wonder at the awesomeness of the world!) whatever, they are navigating new roles and new experiences. Teens also tend to exaggerate experiences, things are a big deal because they don't have the life experience that adds perspective. As a writer you have to help the reader see that their angst is drama rather than melodrama. While melodrama is, in many ways, the defining characteristic of the teen years (and ironically teens refer to melodrama as drama, totally confounding my definitions). As an adult, it's easy to write off a high school break up as relatively unimportant. But to a high schooler it can feel like the end of the world. Showing the experience to the reader as important rather than overblown is a big part of portraying youth accurately. I strongly believe that all teens are different, but there are experiences and reactions that are common to the majority of adolescents. Grab a Developmental Psych book and read up on the world of the teen!

4. Is it engaging? This is subjective. I, am a huge fan of Holden Caulfield.  Some readers think he's a huge phony. (that was a Catcher in the Rye joke, laugh, and we'll get along just fine). Some readers like a less in-your-face sort of voice, some readers enjoy over-the-top quirky narrators. I think you have to develop your own style and make it fit your story...In Hunger Games, Katniss' voice is utilitarian. She notes what needs to be noted. I would place Freak Show by James St. James, (a book about a cross-dresser sent  to reform school) on the opposite end of the spectrum. The main character has so much voice that reading him can be exhausting. As a reader, I'd interpret the voice as a coping device. A character who is not accepted by the world at large, commenting upon that world...both books are essentially about survival. Both voices are engaging, in wildly different ways.

This is me...I added this character to the bottom and top of this entry for a reason. The single best strategy for voice is knowing your character. Know everything about them. Write scenes that don't go in the book. Write blog or diary entries in their voice. Know what motivates them, what drives them, what makes them get up in the morning...when you have all of that, you have your character, and voice and character should coalesce (yes, I did use the thesaurus for that word!) during the writing process. 

I LOVE all the different voices in YA fiction. So get out there and write a character whose voice enthralls, entertains, enrages, and or engages (no thesaurus needed. those came from my brain!). 

CONTEST- Any blog subscribers who give me a recommendation for books with great voice, or a hint for improving voice in YA fiction, will be put into a drawing for a copy of any book I've mentioned in this post. (except Masque of the Red Death which is not out until next summer, and in the process of being re-titled) If you've read everything I've mentioned, then I will be very impressed, and we can pick a different book! 

Happy Writing!