Kate McKean is a literary agent at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. You can find her on Twitter @kate_mckean. She’s writing a YA novel, too, so she feels your pain.
Editors and agents read thousands of pitches, queries, and manuscripts every year. Some of the same ideas and plots pop up here and there. But there are things that appear all the time, and there are things that appear ALL. THE. TIME. Don’t be that writer. Avoid the following:
(Note: All of these are taken from queries and manuscripts myself and my colleagues have seen hundreds of times. Details have been changed to protect the clueless.)
“My book is the Next Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games!”
That’s like walking into a music studio and saying you’re the next Lady Gaga. No one wants Lady Gaga II. That doesn’t mean you aren’t going to be a YA superstar and sell millions of copies, but we’re not looking for the next Rowling, Meyers, or Collins. And why would you want to be like someone else? Be your own superstar. (Plus, the people who really are going to be the next big bestsellers are so focused on writing good books, they don’t have time to brag about how famous they’re going to be, tempting as it is.)
“She was just an ordinary girl.”
Please. People read books to escape ordinary people. Why would you want to read a story about an ordinary girl? I want to read about EXTRAORDINARY girls and boys and aliens and vampires and ghosts and oversized gnomes. You get the point. While your main character might end up extraordinary by the end, don’t call attention to how boring she is at the start. Just get to the story. And if she really is a completely average nondescript human being, perhaps the query letter is not your biggest problem.
“my book is the best u should totally publish is tell me if you want to publish it andthen i’ll tell you ALL ABOUT IT!”
If something you write could get mistaken for a Kanye West tweet, you’re doing something horribly, horribly wrong. Your work should be grammatically correct and use standard formatting (all lower case letters might look cool, but they will drive an editor, agent, and your grandmother BONKERS). But when you’re trying to get an agent or editor, don’t forget to tell them about the story! They’re not going to jump through hoops to read yours if you’re being difficult, lazy, or paranoid.
“But I mean everything I SAY to sound like this in DIALOG!”
Giving a character a verbal tick or specific way of speaking may seem like a good way to develop their personality or differentiate them from other characters. Except it’s as annoying in a story as it would be in real life. Plus, not every reader is going to read it as you intended. I read the above sentence like a whiney Valley Girl. You could read it like she was really, really angry. Confusing, like, dialogue IS, like, THE worst.
“I DIDN’T ASK FOR THIS.” *shakes fist at the sky*
Maybe this is just me, but when a character discovers her secret power/skill/mission/heritage, and gets huffy and doesn’t want to explore it, I think she’s just a big baby. The reader knows she’s going to come around eventually, or the next 200 pages are going to be pretty boring. But it’s also not a very interesting reaction. Get over yourself, girlfriend, and go kick some butt in the rest of the story.
The Perfect Boy/Nerdy Boy or Perfect Cheerleader/Ugly Duckling Lazy Love Triangle.
We’ve all seen this. Heck, there’s been a hundred teen movies about it (many we still love to watch). But in today’s competitive YA market, this is a well-worn cliché that will not get you noticed by agents or editors. Flipping it on its head isn’t the fix either. Jock is a closet singer? Perfect Cheerleader struggles to keep it together? Been done. Aim to write stories about real, live characters, not clichés and stereotypes. “But that’s the way it happened in real life!” We don’t care if you found a blank check and filled it out for a million dollars and got the money and built a theme park and never got caught. We’re not buying that book. Most fiction is rooted in real life, either something that happened to the author, or someone they know, read about, or overheard in a coffee shop. But fiction isn’t real life, by definition. Real life is sometimes stranger than fiction. Your reader has to trust you, and if you present events to them that look unbelievable on the page, even if they happened in real life, they will stop reading your book. Write things that fit in the reality of your book’s world. (And if you actually had to fight to the death on national TV, I’m really, really sorry. I hope you won!)
She’s new in town, but the omghottttest guy in school falls madly in love with her at first sight.
Can this happen? Sure! But why does it happen so much in YA novels? It’s a convenient way to introduce a character and get a love story going, that’s why. But it’s been done so many times it makes agents and editors beat their heads against their desks. It can also appear a little Mary Sue-ish. Really? The lab partner, the quarterback, the student council president, AND the principal’s son are in love with her?
“Grrrr! That guy makes me so mad! Why do I care what he thinks?”
Newsflash! The reader knows why—it’s because she likes him! Avoid making your characters look clueless. Don’t let the reader get ahead of them in their realizations. We all know Susie likes Aggravating Boy. Give your character some of self-awareness and your readers will follow you wherever you go.
Introducing. . . . . . Quhaytlynn. Keight instead of Kate. Crystyn instead of Kristen. Kheaven instead of Kevin. Jyawn instead of John. Eternity, vampire. ?uest, the lost soul. Wtckllkrstn, the princess.
Come on now, people. Imagine reading those names a few hundred times per book, multiplied by a few dozen books per year. You’d go crazy. You’d be picking at your eyeballs with toothpicks. Pick the right name for your characters. Don’t try too hard to mean something. And a handy hint? Names should have both consonants and vowels, but not numbers or symbols.
Follow these tips and you’ll make editors and agents happy around the world. (And you’ll make your story stronger in the process). Next time we’ll talk about the ten things editors and agents LOVE to see. Stay tuned.
Previously on “Pub Talk with Kate McKean”: Snowflake Sentences and the Delete Key