At the 10th annual FL SCBWI conference in January, there was much buzz about one workshop. QUIET BOOKS: "Shhh!" by Erin Murphy and Audrey Vernick.
Erin and Audrey graciously agreed to share some of their excellent advice from that workshop. Today, this dynamic agent/author duo offers 6-1/2 Ways to Elevate Your Quiet Book.
(After reading, please scroll to the end for your chance to win a brand new, autographed copy of Audrey's book, IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?)
Meet agent Erin Murphy . . .
Erin Murphy founded Erin Murphy Literary Agency http://emliterary.com/ in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1999. She works with publishers of all sizes all over the U.S., and has placed clients' books with every major children's house in New York and Boston, but she cut her teeth in regional publishing. Erin represents writers and writer-illustrators of picture books, novels for middle-graders and young adults, and select nonfiction. She is especially drawn to strong characters and heart-centered stories—stories that others often consider "too quiet."
Meet author Audrey Vernick . . .
Audrey Vernick is the author of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? and its sequel, to be released in June, Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums. She also wrote She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story, a Junior Library Guild title that was named to the ALA’s Amelia Bloomer List. In September, Audrey’s debut novel, Water Balloon (which is no longer too quiet) will be published by Clarion Books. You can visit her website at www.audreyvernick.com and her blog at http://shelovedbaseball.wordpress.com.
6-1/2 WAYS TO ELEVATE YOUR QUIET BOOK TO THE NEXT LEVEL . . .
AV: I have attended writing conferences and listened to speakers who fired me up to a point that I couldn’t wait to get home and start a new project so I could apply all the bits of genius I had just heard.
Likewise, I’ve read others’ conference notes and thought, wow, how trite.
I think on some level, we all know most of this stuff and it all depends on where you’re at when you hear it again.
I was in the exact-right place when Erin and I had a talk, one we often refer back to, about how to take your quiet book to the next level. We offer six and a half of those points here, in case you’re in a similar exact-right spot.
EM: I’ve always been attracted to quieter stories as a reader, and as an agent, have found some of my biggest successes with books others have found too quiet. I think these books have their own, very loyal readership and can definitely find their homes.
There’s no easy way to define “quiet books,” but if you’ve gotten the “too quiet” comment in rejection letters, this advice is for you.
AV: I had written a quiet novel. I knew this because when an earlier version had been submitted, just about every editor said it would be hard for the book to stand out on her list. I knew I needed to rewrite, and I suspected I needed to add one thread, one more plotline or SOMETHING that would elevate it. Erin helped me define what that meant—elevating it.
EM: Sometimes “too quiet” means “too familiar” or “too mundane.” Bring out what is unique in your story. And flesh out the most appealing parts—if there’s a romance, for example, bring it to the forefront. Agents, editors, and readers all love romance!
Sometimes an element has to be brought in to add tension—like a ticking clock. My client Conrad Wesselhoeft’s debut novel Adios, Nirvana http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780547368955 has a lot riding on the deadlines the main character is facing.
AV: I have decided that next time around, I’d like to skip the part where I first write a novel that’s too quiet. I have a tendency to be too kind to my characters. One thing I plan to do in my next novel, probably before I start writing it, is think about what I can do to make my character very uncomfortable. I suspect I will have him or her make a very bad decision.
EM: In Audrey’s forthcoming novel, Water Balloon (Clarion, Sept. 2011) http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/catalog/titledetail.cfm?titleNumber=1462667&searchString=water%20balloon, she added a scene that made me so uncomfortable when I read it that I had to stop and take a break. I was yelling at her: “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” It involves her main character committing social suicide without realizing what she’s doing is such a huge mistake. That one scene really brought the whole novel up a notch—especially because one of the things that is most important to this character is her friendship with two girls who seem to be leaving her behind as they all grow up.
Taking away a character’s support systems, making him face his worst fears, putting in danger the thing she loves most—all of these can elevate a quiet book to something much more.
I can think of lots and lots of books that might have been thought of as quiet if the situation the main characters were in weren’t so extreme:
Story of a Girl http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780316014540,
If I Stay… http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780525421030
3. CHARACTER LOVE
AV: If it were up to me, I’d just write books about characters living their daily lives. I’m interested in details, relationships, what things a character finds funny. I suppose plot and setting and all that nonsense matter too, but for me, character is key. I want to read about characters who live on in my mind long after the book is over.
EM: I am such a sucker for falling in love with characters. If a book has not just a main character but also secondary characters I love and want to spend time with, if I’m sad to see them go when I turn the last page, I’m really sold. I think of
The Penderwicks http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780440420477 and
Saffy’s Angel http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780689849343, and from my own list,
Eighth-Grade Superzero http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780545096768,
Palace Beautiful http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780142417454, and the forthcoming
One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780810997196 as books whose characters I felt complete affection for—and I could feel the authors’ loving affection for them, too. (Which doesn’t mean the authors treat those characters gently, by any means…)
AV: One way to figure out if your book is a quiet book is to try to come up with a one-sentence summary. I kind of hate this advice, because I’m terrible at it. But it’s a good exercise to try. An editor will have to pitch it in order to acquire it. Identifying the weak parts of your pitch might help you identify those areas you need to strengthen in your story.
EM: The pitch should emphasize the unique rather than the universal. Hint: Read the brief descriptions of books being sold on Publishers Marketplace http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/ . (Sign up for the free weekly “Lunch” and read through the announcements faithfully.) You’ll start to get a sense for the ones that are most effective, and that will help your own pitches.
5. WISH FULFILLMENT
AV: Many books that make a lot of noise are kind of quiet at their heart, but have taken readers to a place they can only dream about. If you remove the royal elements from The Princess Diaries http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780380814022 , you may be left with a pretty quiet book. If you’re struggling for a way to pull your book out of the too-quiet pile, is there an element of wish fulfillment you can add?
EM: This is another way to take out the familiar and insert something unique. What if the group of girlfriends at the heart of your story had most of their conversations not at the school cafeteria, but at an afterschool job in a high-end clothing boutique occasionally visited by celebrities, or mixing tea leaves and rolling out croissants for a tea-and-pastry shop? A book like Anna and the French Kiss http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780525423270 cleverly takes a high school friendship-and-romance story and places it in a swanky French boarding school, and poof!, there’s a terrific and sexy marketing hook.
6. REMAIN TRUTHFUL
AV: We interrupt this blog post to remind readers that it’s very easy to forget to, say, write well and truthfully, while trying to juggle all these other tricks to make your book less quiet. But at its core, this is really the number one bit of advice. Write your heart out, make all your characters three-dimensional, likeable but flawed, and when you’re in the writing zone, forget about everything else.
EM: A lot of books that might be tagged “literary” might have once been “quiet,” but the writing and the voice have been polished and crafted to such an extent that what readers notice is the beautiful writing and construction, the way all the parts work together so seamlessly, the way it sticks with them long after they finish reading. Craft is the most important thing when you’re writing quieter stories.
AV: A truly awesome title can, I believe, go a long way toward distracting an editor from the fact that you might have written a quiet book.
EM: When coming up with a list of possible titles, don’t just think of the tone they carry and how they reflect the story and its themes. When you’ve got it down to a shortlist, also think of what visuals those titles evoke. (Don’t suggest these visuals in a cover letter, by the way! Just be aware of the possibilities.) If an editor starts visualizing a cover as soon as she hears a title and pitch for a manuscript, she’s going to give it a serious look.
If you'd like a bit more of Erin Murphy's wisdom, please check out her blog post at SHRINKING VIOLET PROMOTIONS. Her ideas about what success really means garnered dozens of comments and put this author's mind at ease.
Enter to win an autographed copy of Audrey's new book: IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?
To enter, click the "follow" button on the right and leave a comment. One lucky winner will be chosen at random Wednesday, February 23rd. (PLEASE CHECK BACK TO SEE IF YOU'VE WON BECAUSE I WILL NEED YOUR MAILING ADDRESS.)
Thank you so much, Erin and Audrey!