Shaping the Spark: Inspiration, Plotting, and Character Development

by Melanie Figueroa

When you get an idea for your next story, chances are you’ll want to dive right in. You’ll be sitting on the train or walking down the street when the muses decide to grace you with their presence—but you’ll never be next to a computer or notepad, because that’d just be too easy. As you’re rushing to get home, maybe you even jot down a few lines on your phone, on a crumpled receipt you found buried in your bag, or, heck, even your palm.

Fueled by the adrenaline from the rush of new ideas, you sit down and knock out a few thousand words, but then the spark starts to dwindle. You’ve hit a wall. Oh, the spark’s still there, but the ingredients for the perfect fire to keep that spark burning haven’t been built yet. This is why pre-writing can be such a useful tool for writers. While those few thousand words of initial free writing can be a great way to get going, stories rarely appear in our minds fully formed. After that initial burst of inspiration, it’s usually a good idea to pause and start laying the groundwork for your story before you go any further. Writing tends to be about ten percent inspiration and ninety percent hard work—the hard work being all the effort (plotting, character development, and yes, the actual writing part!) that comes with feeding that spark into a roaring fire.

I’ve found that if you don’t get at least a skeleton of your plot down ahead of time, it can be really easy to get lost in your own narrative. Should Character A go down Path 1 or Path 2? When does the climax hit? What’s the central conflict? What are the stakes? Sometimes it’s fun to just see where the story takes you, but it can also be useful to know your main plot points (how you want to open your story, the rising action, the climax, the denouement, etc.) before you plunge your characters into the fray. Which leads me to the second pre-writing point of interest: character development. Characters often take on a life of their own as you write, but in order for them to do so, it helps to know them intimately—flesh and bone and then some—before they even set foot on the page.

There are countless ways to approach pre-writing. For me, character sketches come first. Other writers may choose to begin with a more detailed outline of the plot, but I’d like to focus on where/how to start with character development since it’s what I have the most experience with.

When it comes to character sketches, it’s good to start with the basics. List their physical characteristics, age, ethnicity, etc. What is their background? Who are their friends and family? What are they afraid of, and what do they want and why? Even if hardly any of this makes it into your actual manuscript (in fact, a lot of it probably won’t), filling in these crucial details will help you to write authentically from your characters’ POV(s) and to make sure that their thoughts and actions are genuine and believable as they encounter obstacles and grow throughout the course of the narrative.

At this year’s AWP conference, I attended a panel called “I’m Just Not That Into You: Unsympathetic Characters in Fiction.” Among the panelists was author Hannah Tinti, who teaches creative writing at Columbia University and edits One Story. Hannah gave the audience her five-point plan for creating well-rounded characters, in which she uses the idea of a superhero and villain to demonstrate a way to approach character sketches:

  1. Costume (What do they physically look like?)
  2. Superpower (What are they good at?)
  3. Kryptonite (What’s one thing that could destroy them?)
  4. Backstory (Where did they come from?)
  5. Quest/Diabolical Plan (What do they want?)

If this checklist sounds useful to you, why not write it down and tape it to the wall above your desk? Or tuck it away close to where you write—somewhere easy to reach. Pull it out when you are in the pre-writing stages or when you’ve hit a wall with a character, and ask yourself some of Hannah’s questions. Or, better yet, ask your characters directly, and see what they tell you.

The best stories, in my opinion, are stories in which the plot is driven by the characters, not the other way around. Characters advance the plot by being the people they are and making the choices they make. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t map out your story’s plot; just be prepared for things to shift around as your characters come to life on the page and interact with each other and with your plot points. Often, the story will change as your understanding of the characters deepens, which can be frustrating, inspiring, challenging, confusing, and exciting—frequently all at once.

As you shape your story and the people who populate it, keep this in mind: as long as you care about your characters and what happens to them, your readers will, too.

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National Poetry Month: Sylvia and Melanie Weigh In

Hi there everyone,

April’s almost at an end, but it’s not too late for Sylvia and intern Melanie to tip their hats to their favorite poems!

Sylvia:

My favorite poem is “Stings” by Sylvia Plath, out of her Ariel collection.

Bare-handed, I hand the combs.
The man in white smiles, bare-handed,
Our cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet,
The throats of our wrists brave lilies.
He and I

Have a thousand clean cells between us,
Eight combs of yellow cups,
And the hive itself a teacup,
White with pink flowers on it,
With excessive love I enameled it

Thinking “Sweetness, sweetness.”
Brood cells gray as the fossils of shells
Terrify me, they seem so old.
What am I buying, wormy mahogany?
Is there any queen at all in it?

If there is, she is old,
Her wings torn shawls, her long body
Rubbed of its plush–
Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful.
I stand in a column

Of winged, unmiraculous women,
Honey-drudgers.
I am no drudge
Though for years I have eaten dust
And dried plates with my dense hair.

And seen my strangeness evaporate,
Blue dew from dangerous skin.
Will they hate me,
These women who only scurry,
Whose news is the open cherry, the open clover?

It is almost over.
I am in control.
Here is my honey-machine,
It will work without thinking,
Opening, in spring, like an industrious virgin

To scour the creaming crests
As the moon, for its ivory powders, scours the sea.
A third person is watching.
He has nothing to do with the bee-seller or with me.
Now he is gone

In eight great bounds, a great scapegoat.
Here is his slipper, here is another,
And here the square of white linen
He wore instead of a hat.
He was sweet,

The sweat of his efforts a rain
Tugging the world to fruit.
The bees found him out,
Molding onto his lips like lies,
Complicating his features.

They thought death was worth it, but I
Have a self to recover, a queen.
Is she dead, is she sleeping?
Where has she been,
With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?

Now she is flying
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky, red comet
Over the engine that killed her—
The mausoleum, the wax house.

What don’t I love about this poem? In all seriousness, it’s difficult to talk about “Stings,” and Sylvia Plath’s writing in general, without just losing control of my faculties completely and turning into a blubbering mess on the floor.

Plath is spare and impassioned in turns, and the choices she makes with her words somehow manage to feel both deliberate and off-the-cuff in this really emotionally affecting way. For example, “To scour the creaming crests / As the moon, for its ivory powders, scours the sea” brings my attention to the alliteration, the slant rhyme, and the incorporation of all those luminous, white-tinted words like moon and creaming and ivory—everything is very controlled and lovely—and “Where has she been / With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?” feels more visceral and alive, (her lion-red body) and also delicate and vulnerable (wings of glass), coupled with a starkly presented question to the reader (where has she been) that demands you ask this of yourself, as well.

Thematically, this poem covers a lot of ground. There’s the push and pull between autonomy and domesticity/traditional gender roles, jealousy, suicide ideation, love, grief, sex, hope, betrayal, femininity, freedom, and so much more. The extended apiology metaphor has so many layers that I can’t always see all of them at once; I’ll read through the poem and the flowers and honey-gathering will pop out as a symbol of the sweetness of domestic life, and another time all I’ll be able to focus on is the image of the bees as women tearing themselves to jealous pieces over a man, and yet another time the queen is the part of the soul that withers and dies when we compromise parts of ourselves for any number of the many obligations and promises and debts that life throws at us and that we don’t always know how to handle.

Most of all, this poem gives me an incredibly intense feeling of being both trapped and free at the same time. It makes me want to crawl under a rock and never come out and also burst apart and become a million stars rocketing through the sky. I’ll never be over this poem.

Melanie:

I have a lot of favorite poems—which probably defeats the point of having a favorite at all. Like Sylvia, Plath has always resonated with me. One of my favorite books is The Bell Jar. After I read it, I began sifting through Plath’s poems. “Mad Girl’s Love Song” caught my attention. It’s not about a romanticized or idealized love, but rather one full of longing. Recently, I learned that’s a common thread throughout many of the poems I enjoy—a level of honesty. The world can be ugly and gritty, and moments that frequently touch our hearts are small and simple. They’re intimate—that’s the poetry I read.

When I first moved to Portland, I got involved with a literary nonprofit called Late Night Library. They frequently host readings downtown, and I attended one featuring Marcus Jackson. He lives in Nashville and has been published in the The New Yorker, but I hadn’t read any of his poems prior to the event. Hearing him read was a great experience. Every member of the audience reacted to his poems in some way. The people that filled his lines were real, everyday individuals. They were your wife, your father, the regulars in the bar down the street. You felt their presence. Later on, I read every poem of his I could find (online, because I didn’t own his book yet), and I fell in love with “Kiss”:

Saving money the summer
before moving to New York,
I painted houses during days,
nights in a restaurant kitchen
hosing dishes, loading them
into a steel washer that gusted
steam until two a.m.
Once, when I came home,
my back and neck bidding for bed,
asleep on the couch laid dad.
Flicker from muted TV
was the room’s lone light,
but I could see his face fine,
broad nose, thick cheeks
holding glow as he breathed.
In five hours I would wake,
ride in the crew truck
to the assigned site,
gallon buckets and stepladders
chattering over road bumps,
axels clanging
like prongs of a struck fork.
Still, I stood and stared
at dad, a man
who poured four years
into the Navy during war,
who worked worse
jobs for shorter pay than me,
whose hands have blackened
fixing cars that quit
no matter how many replaced parts.
Above our house, clouds
polished moon as they passed.
Dad wriggled,
body pain or threatening dreams.
What else could I do
but bend down slow
and touch once
my lips to his brown brow?

When I spoke to Jackson after the reading, he told me that in his own poetry he tries to describe one scene—one moment—in the most honest yet beautiful way that he can. I think he achieves that. The problem with poetry (for most people) is that they can’t relate to it. They feel that they have to be holding the poem in one hand and a thesaurus in the other simply to understand it. But Jackson is writing to his father. To the man that works long hours for little pay. He manages to make the mundane poetic.

What’s you’re favorite poem? Why? It’s not too late to share!

–Sylvia and Melanie

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Better Late Than Never: Emerald City Comic Con 2014!

Here’s a little fact that will surprise no one who’s ever spent more than five minutes with me:

I’m a geek.

A rather huge one.

I’ve been head over heels for all things science fiction/fantasy since I was a little kid. I regularly attend Doctor Who trivia at my local geeky bar, I have a quote from A Song of Ice and Fire tattooed across my left wrist, and I’ll happily talk you under the table about Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes and Firefly and Tolkien any day of the week given the slightest provocation. I wear my geekiness proudly on my sleeve, and I’m of an age where I’ve stopped being worried about people judging me because of it, simply because I no longer desire to expend the energy it takes to be bothered about it.

Yes, my friends, the geek life is and always has been the life for me. As Simon Pegg so eloquently put it in his book, Nerd Do Well:

“Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.”

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to enjoy a lot of amicable commingling between my life as a geek and my life as an editor. I’ve found that being really passionate about things that I enjoy has turned me into a much sharper and enthusiastic editor, and that doing what I do for a living has made me a more active and critical consumer of the media that I love.

My geeky life and my professional life have been colliding in unexpected and especially wonderful ways lately. The weekend of March 28th through the 30th, for example, I attended Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, Washington. I didn’t go in any professional capacity—I spent the weekend running around oo’ing and ahh’ing over all the amazing cosplays, attending tons of panels, and ogling the wares at the hundreds of vendor tables and exhibits with a group of fellow gleeful fanfolk—but I ended up having a ton of rewarding experiences over the course of the con that spoke to my identity as an editor, as well.

ECCC did a fantastic job of representing both the local and national stage in the comic/graphic novel and sci-fi/fantasy spheres, with big industry names such as Dark Horse in attendance as well as tons of small presses, independent artists, and more. There were also lots of panels on writing and publishing, and I attended as many of them as I could. My favorites were definitely the writing for young adult audiences panel (“when I was a young writer, we had to write uphill, both ways, in the snow!”), the Welcome to Night Vale panel (“Stories about the world as it is are compelling, and the world is full of different kinds of people. Anything less is boring.”), and getting to listen to the incomparable John Scalzi, blogger, novelist, and former president of the SFWA, read a chapter from his forthcoming book and drop some knowledge about writing and the business of books (“Much of the writing process is muscle memory. If I only wrote when I was inspired, I’d be dead broke.”)

If I had to sum up the weekend in one quote, though…well, I couldn’t do it, because I have two. The first, from Welcome to Night Vale’s ever-brilliant Cecil Baldwin:

“We make art out of necessity.”

And second—I think I might need to get this embroidered on a pillow or hung on my wall someday—from someone sitting next to me during a panel who seemed to be giving a why-I-love-sci-fi-and-fantasy-and-why-you-should-to elevator pitch to a friend:

“Come over to the dark side! We have cookies. And magic. And spaceships.”

Sounds good to me :)

Me (a la gender-swapped Sherlock Holmes, sadly without my riding crop and persian slipper stuffed with tobacco), one of my con buddies, and the Welcome to Night Vale Crew!

Me (in my gender-swapped Sherlock Holmes cosplay, sadly without my riding crop and persian slipper stuffed with tobacco), a friend, and the Welcome to Night Vale Crew.

Live long and prosper, etc.

–Sylvia

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Behind the Scenes of Freelance Editing: 10 Facts From Sylvia Spratt

This post was originally published at The Poetics Project by Missy Lacock.

Let’s face it: If you’re reading this blog, you love writing and reading—and probably wouldn’t mind a paycheck for doing it. Enter freelance editing, just one of the many positions available to talented bookworms. Sylvia Spratt, cofounder of Ex Libris Editing, a two-person editorial firm based in Portland, Oregon, and Denver, Colorado, agreed to share ten behind-the-scenes facts with The Poetics Project about operating a freelance editing business.

Consider founding a company, partnership, or informal collective.

Although Sylvia has been editing in some capacity for around ten years, she decided to cofound her LLC two and half years ago with her friend and business partner, Sarah Heilman.

What’s the advantage of forming an LLC instead of maintaining sole proprietorship?

“Increasing consumer confidence,” Sylvia said. Some clients feel more secure working with a company instead of hiring an individual. “We collaborate on marketing, and we have the legal protection of a company, even though we take on most of our projects individually,” Sylvia said. “We also wanted room to grow in the future, which is why we settled on an LLC.”

The hard part? “Remembering to get out of your PJ’s when you’re working from home!”

Be prepared to take tests.

It’s not always as simple as finding a manuscript to edit; editors often undergo regular testing to prove they’re worth the expense—especially for larger clients. Test materials usually cover grammar and style, especially where less-common style guides such as AMA Style (for the medical sphere) and IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) are concerned. The tests are usually timed for acceptable ranges and completed using track changes in Microsoft Word.

Most clients are referred by word of mouth.

Networking and positive referrals are key to consistent freelance employment. However, freelancers can also find editing gigs by combing sites like bookjobs or mediabistro, or, for a yearly fee, by joining the Editorial Freelancers Association.

Businesses still hire copyeditors.

More and more businesses are utilizing freelancers to help cut costs, but Sylvia said in-house office jobs for editors definitely still exist at ad agencies, PR firms, publishing houses (but they’re extremely competitive), universities, and even local giants like Nike and adidas.

Continue reading

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AWP 2014 and The Author-Editor Relationship

Although Sarah and Sylvia sadly weren’t able to make it up to Seattle for AWP this year, our intern, Melanie Figueroa, did. Here’s a short recap of the three days she spent at the writer’s conference:

AWP is an overwhelming conference, in the best possible sense of the word, but with over 10,000 people in attendance, that’s to be expected. You can spend a whole day walking up and down the aisles at the book fair, meeting editors, designers, agents, and other publishing professionals or digging through the plethora of discounted books available—and I did.

In addition to exploring the book fair, I went to several panels: one on unsympathetic characters, a few on writing for young adults, another on humor in memoir, and, lastly, a panel focusing on the author-editor relationship, which will be the main focus of this post.

The author-editor panel was led by Grove Atlantic’s publisher, Morgan Entrekin. Grove Atlantic editor, Elisabeth Schmitz, and several of their authors, including Sherman Alexie, Margaret Wrinkle, and Jamie Quatro, were also on the panel.

Grove Atlantic has a particularly hands-on approach to the author-editor relationship, forging lasting friendships with their authors whenever possible. Elisabeth has worked as an editor for all three authors and occasionally goes jogging with Jamie. Sherman Alexie has published the majority of his work, except for his Young Adult books, with Grove Atlantic since the 90s. Morgan, reflecting on a conversation he had with an editor at a larger house at a previous book fair, said, “I stepped away from the author, and he came up to me. ‘You shouldn’t be such close friends with your writers. They’ll only break your heart.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Does that mean you shouldn’t fall in love?’”

Today, many publishing houses—especially big New York houses—often aren’t able to maintain this sort of relationship with their authors. While it’s custom for an author to offer the house that published his or her previous book first look at a manuscript, publishing houses don’t always acquire these manuscripts, and authors often jump from house to house.

For a while, the same applied to editors. “Traditionally, editors stayed with one publisher,” Morgan told the audience. “Then that changed, but I do think it’s starting to slow down.” Elisabeth, for instance, has been with Grove Atlantic for almost twenty years.

I took a lot away from this panel, even if much of it was a lot of great quotes of Sherman, saying things like, “We were at the Chateau…These are the things you get to say when you’re published. So f**k you all. Sorry. That was the Valium.” Proving that he is just as awkward, gleefully inappropriate, and funny as one would think. (In case you were wondering, the Valium was for his back, which he hurt the night before playing basketball.)

Mainly, I learned how important the role of trust is between author and editor. Sherman, candid as always, recalled a time where he vehemently fought with Elisabeth to keep a chapter in his novel Flight that involved the time-traveling protagonist fighting a saber-tooth tiger. Elisabeth won the fight. It’s been seven years since Flight was published, and after rereading that chapter, Sherman, who now calls the chapter “horrible,” is grateful that Elisabeth fought so hard to cut it. “That kind of relationship,” Sherman said. “Can only occur over the long-term and through trust.”

Sherman went on to say, “In the midst of all the sorrow, pain, rejection, the review you didn’t get, the sales you didn’t meet, the awards that slipped by, the shitty person who said the shitty thing, your sharing it all with your editor.”

Best,

Melanie, Sarah, and Sylvia

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Write to Publish 2014

Sylvia Spratt moderating the Genre Fiction panel with authors Stacey Wallace Benefiel, Allison Moon, Jemiah Jefferson, and literary agent, Holly Lorincz.

Hello everyone!

On Saturday, February 15th, Ooligan Press hosted Write to Publish 2014, a writer’s conference that aims to demystify the publishing process. This year’s conference focused on the “New Adult Revolution,” with panelists discussing how to write and market books that fit into the budding New Adult genre. The New Adult genre focuses on an audience of readers aged 18–23, with stories centered on protagonists who are transitioning from teenagers to adults. Sylvia and I (Ex Libris’ amazing intern, Melanie ;) ) were in attendance. I was a volunteer, and Sylvia was a moderator for the Genre Fiction panel. Panelists included authors Stacey Wallace Benefiel, Allison Moon, and Jemiah Jefferson, and we were also joined by author and literary agent Holly Lorincz. Sylvia asked each of the panelists questions about what it’s like to write and sell genre fiction, and how the emergence of New Adult is influencing and interacting with the market.

If you visit Amazon’s New Adult section, labeled “New Adult & College Romance,” almost every cover features a very traditional-romance-cover-y young man and woman, half naked, in a passionate embrace. Why? As the panelists discussed, New Adult is still being defined, and right now, a lot of publishers and booksellers see the genre as sexed-up YA—in other words, as commercial, not necessarily literary. Genres like romance, true crime, and high fantasy often get a bad rap for not being “serious” literature, and it looks like New Adult’s been getting similar treatment. But hey, genre fiction is also the most consistently commercially successful fiction out there, romance especially. That said, as far as New Adult goes, the panelists agreed there is also potential for the genre to grow in numerous directions as it matures and expands.

Although some see New Adult as just a marketing ploy meant to appeal to adults who like to read YA, Holly pointed out that the audience, those 18–23 year olds, were the children who grew up reading Harry PotterTwilight, and The Hunger Games. These readers still want to read stories like the ones they grew up on, but with older protagonists whose narratives reflect their current challenges and experiences. New Adult is, in many ways, answering an already present demand from readers—we just haven’t really had a name for that market until now.

The panel didn’t focus entirely on New Adult, however. The panelists also discussed the importance of genre conventions. For example, if you are writing romance, paranormal or not, many readers have some pretty rigidly established expectations before they even begin to crack open the cover. During the Q & A portion of the panel, I asked the authors if they felt this hindered their ability to be creative by making them feel they had a formula to follow. Allison Moon, author of the Tales of the Pack series (about which, can we just say: lesbian werewolves!), acknowledged that fear of breaking the rules—of defying genre tropes—and how doing so may turn off some readers. But she also admitted that there may be occasions and stories that call for a bit of rule breaking, and as with many things in life, it may be a good idea to demonstrate to your readers (and publisher) that you understand the formula before deviating from it.

At the end of the conference, Allison, who was also the keynote speaker, gave an inspiring speech about “sucking” in public (we swear, it was great!). It’s something writers fear—myself included—but sometimes we have to allow ourselves to fail in order to find success. As Allison put it, “The only people who risk sucking are the people who are doing things.” In her keynote, Allison offered five rules for writers:

1. You have to give yourself permission to write by believing your voice is worthy.
2. You have to write.
3. You have to finish.
4. You have to share your writing with the world.
5. You have to do it all over again.

Seems simple enough, right? So much of a writer’s daily life is spent alone (possibly at home in pajamas, with a cat nearby), but events like Write to Publish help us remember how important it is to get out there and meet other authors, editors, publishers, and people in the industry in general. When we talk with each other, we help each other generate ideas and remind each other that it’s okay to suck, as long as you’re believing in yourself, writing stuff, finishing stuff, sharing your stuff with the world, and yes, doing it all over again.

See you at next year’s Write to Publish!

Melanie, Sarah, and Sylvia

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Submitting in 2014

The New Year is a time for resolutions. For writers, these resolutions often involve the refining of craft, being more disciplined about their writing habits, or seeking out publication. While most of us can agree that it’s important to write something you enjoy—if you hated writing it, chances are your audience will hate reading it!—it’s also necessary to understand what literary agents and acquisitions editors are looking for as you start seeking out representation for your work.

Luckily, most agents and editors aren’t quiet about what they want. For example, the folks over at Andrew Lownie Literary Agency have already created a nice list to get you started. The agency contacted over twenty editors, asking each what kind of books they’re looking to acquire in 2014. The Tumblr Agent and Editor Wish List is also a good place to visit. The account administrator reposts tweets from literary agents and agencies all over (so you don’t have to).

When we reached out to Fiona Kenshole, Portland-based literary agent and former editorial director at HarperCollins UK, to talk about 2014 publishing trends, the fantasy genre came up. While Fiona agrees that the trend is catching on again, she also clarified that “It’s still an over-subscribed arena, and I would not want to sell a fallen angel or twist on ancient gods story at the moment.”

So what stories do editors want to purchase this year? Historical novels or memoirs that touch on subjects not often talked about have been mentioned by more than a few editors. According to Fiona, “I’m being asked for distinctive voices—diversity has come up a few times, especially stories by and about people of color.” Editors are also looking for pieces that use humor and wit—books that create a personality that readers can relate to.

Looking at the industry as a whole, if you are looking to pitch a middle grade or children’s book, stories about ghosts and mysteries, or pieces with series potential, you might be in luck. For picture books specifically, character-driven stories come up often, and let’s not forget about the new-adult fiction buzz that’s currently sweeping through publishing houses across the nation and the world.

One caveat to the above: remember that books that editors acquire now probably won’t be published until 2015 at the earliest. When Twilight made vampires sexy and popular again, lots of authors jumped on the bandwagon, hoping to land book deals in a then-booming genre. But by the time these manuscripts were ready to hit the shelves, the trend was already on its way out the door. This is not to say that if you’ve got what you believe is the next big vampire romance bestseller sitting on your computer right now that you should just torch it and start over—far from it. It’s more of a reminder that publishing trends change in the blink of an eye, and you’ve really got to believe in your work and do your research in order to snag an agent or acquisitions editor’s attention, not just follow the big trends and hope for the best.

So let’s have it then: what are your publication plans for 2014?

Happy pitching!

Sylvia, Sarah, and Melanie (our awesome intern)

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