Making story time engaging

Aren’t our nieces so darling? We always look forward to getting to spend time with them when their parents have a date night.

I’ve read books to them before, but in the past I’ve tended to pick books based on what *I* wanted to read, rather than taking account of their current interests and picking a book based off of that. As a literary agent AND an auntie, I always want to encourage the love of reading. I knew that my older niece, Meira, is going through a potty humor phase (she is 5, after all) so when I saw WHEN UNICORNS POOP at Barnes & Noble, I knew I needed to check it out. I thought it was funny and clever, and chock-full of potty humor so it was the perfect fit.

This picture was taken for our first read-through when they both quietly listened. Then they asked to read it again, & they giggled through it. (Meira giggled at the book and Thea followed suit to be like big sis.) Then they asked to read it again & they made sound effects. Then they asked to read it AGAIN & they had it memorized.

My nieces are young and squirmy so I’ve learned that zippy, funny books are best for them, and if there’s a dash of potty humor, all the better. I have also learned: doing funny voices and accents, encouraging them to make sound effects, asking them to point to things on the page, etc. has kept them engaged. I want books to be fun for them! How do you keep your little, squirmy ones engaged?

P.S. I didn’t represent WHEN UNICORNS POOP, but that doesn’t mean I can’t plug it! You can buy it here, or at your local bookstore. I’ve seen it at most Barnes & Noble locations, too.

First paragraph of a query letter

Let’s talk about the first paragraph of a query letter! In my mind this is the most important part to get right, and I want to share some thoughts on how to make it strong.

I look for the first paragraph of a query letter to include a birdseye view of the project—AKA the basic stats: title + reader category + genre + word count), as well as a quick logline. This grounds the agent in the project + shows that you know your stuff.

This looks like:

BIPPITY BOPPITY BOOP is a YA Romance at 80,000 words in which a young magician enters a televised magic competition only to find out that the competition is rigged to make the producer’s son win—and even worse, she’s falling in love with him.

The first paragraph is also the right place to mention any specifics on why you’re querying the agent in question—you were referred by one of their clients, you saw something specific on their MSWL, etc. Keep it professional though! Don’t be like, “I saw on your Instagram that 65 weeks ago you went to Ice Cream Social. I too love that place!” This doesn’t feel professional to me.

Now let’s talk more about what you ~shouldn’t~ do in the first paragraph. A common mistake I see is when writers use this precious real estate to list the themes or issues explored in their project. This feels vague and fluffy to me.

This looks like: “My novel is about love and fear and forgiveness and mental health issues and my protagonist overcomes many obstacles to accomplish her goal.” This doesn’t give me any sense for what actually happens in your book!

Other common querying mistakes: bashing other books in the same age group/genre as yours, word count too high/low, not including the basics, and when it doesn’t feel like a professional email.

Some of you have heard this similar advice dozens of times before, but we repeat it so often because so many writers forget to include the basics! They are crucial!

This has been First Paragraph of a Query Letter 101 with Adria Goetz. Remember to list your basics and nail down a succinct logline and you’ll be golden! Go get ‘em! You’ve got this!

The art of stress-baking

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When I go through busy, stressful seasons, I tend to bake a lot. “Stress-baking” was what one of my roommates in college called it. During final exams my kitchen sink would be full of bowls and spatulas and measuring cups, and the counters would be full of brownies and chocolate chip cookies and lemon lavender shortbread.

Recently, it’s been a busy time in both my professional and personal life, and whenever I get stressed or overwhelmed, I end up in my kitchen with my hair up in a messy bun, just like my younger self did.

Most recently I tried my hand at a classic Swedish cookie called drömmar. The literal English translation for drömmar is “dreams” and the cookie itself is most commonly referred to as the “Swedish Dream cookie.” The recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of baker’s ammonia (also called hornsalt or ammonium carbonate.) I had to special order it on Amazon, and when it came in the mail I opened it up and took a sniff and immediately started coughing. It smells terrible. Like high school chemistry class chemicals, or YMCA pool water.

While I mixed together the ingredients—butter and flour and sugar and vanilla and oil, and then added in the teaspoon of hornsalt, I thought, “There is no way these are not going to taste like YMCA pool water.” While they all baked together in the oven, the kitchen filled with the bitter fumes that made my eyes sting, and I again thought: “There is no way these are not going to taste like YMCA pool water.”

But after I pulled them out of the oven, and let them cool, I tried one and felt like my entire body melted into a pile of sugary buttery goo. They’re truly such little dreams come true. Like buttery pillows you want to rest your head on at night. The hornsalt is the crucial ingredient to get the right texture. And, for the record, they did not at all taste like YMCA pool water.

And you know I can’t help but think: this is exactly what writing is like. Right?

When you begin, you have the goal and intention to make something delicious. But as things get going, as you mix things together, things don’t smell like how you want them to. Doubt creeps in and you begin to think: “There is no way this is not going to read like whatever the literary version of YMCA pool water is.” But the beginning is always icky. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott calls this the “sh*tty first draft. ” But you can’t get to the dreamy final draft without it. And you have to hang in there during the sting and the stink and trust that the editorial process—and perhaps a critique group’s help—will bake out the yuck.

Because you can’t reach your dreams without a little bit of hornsalt.

__________________________________________________________________________

Drömmar Swedish Dream Cookies

(Recipe thanks to “Cultures of the World: Sweden” published by Cavendish Square in 2015)

1 stick unsalted butter, softened.

1 1.4 cups sugar

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1 tsp. baker’s ammonia, also called hornsalt or powdered ammonium carbonate

1 2/3 cup all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.

In the bowl or mixer, beat together the butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Slowly add the oil with the mixer on low speed. Add in the baker’s ammonia and flour and beat until combined. The dough will be on the drier side. Form 1-inch balls and place 2 inches apart on the baking sheet.

Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until cookies have just begun to set. Let cookies cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes and then transfer cookies to a wire cooking rack and let cool completely.

Note from Adria: I’ve seen other recipes which include coconut, but I’m not one for coconut. I’ve also seen recipes call for almond extract rather than vanilla, which I’m going to try next time!

Meet Martin Literary’s newest agent

Please welcome Natalie Grazian, our newest agent, who recently relocated to Seattle from San Diego. Natalie is smart, witty, and lovely. She represents Adult Fiction projects, from commercial to literary, and has a special lean toward fiction with speculative elements. You can direct your queries to natalie@martinlit.com. You can read about her submission policies here. Her official website bio is below:

Natalie Grazian, Associate Literary Agent

As the latest on staff, Natalie is eager to build her adult fiction list. She is currently accepting queries for commercial, upmarket, and literary adult fiction.

Natalie has a BA in English and Minor in Spanish from Santa Clara University. Upon graduating, she worked as a sales representative for W. W. Norton & Co. and interned for two literary agencies, including Martin Literary & Media Management. For two years, Natalie was the Fiction Editor of The Santa Clara Review, the oldest literary magazine on the West Coast.

She’s thrilled to join MLM and fully realize her passion for working with authors and bringing their stories to life. She has a knack for collaborative manuscript development, extensive insight into the publishing world, and an irrepressible drive to see her clients’ work at the bookstore.

Natalie would love it if you sent her contemporary fantasy (in the vein of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians). She’s drawn to dark comedy that still carries a beating heart—because at the end of the day, she turns to books to find humanity. She is highly interested in reimagined myths and fairytales from different cultures, historical fiction, and a good quest narrative in any genre. More than anything, she looks for complex characters who make the unrelatable relatable, and for a smart, distinctive narrative voice. At this time, she’s not seeking military thrillers, sports stories, or romance novels. 

Natalie grew up in sunny San Diego, which she recalls wistfully from time to time, but not too often. She’s taken to Seattle like a duck to water. When she isn’t lost in a book, she might be writing stories or doing any number of bipedal activities in the mountainous Pacific Northwest. She is distrustful of any purse that can’t fit a slim paperback. Or two. Natalie tweets at @NatalieGrazian.