2015 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Agent Brooks Sherman


By Elisabeth Norton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations 

Brooks Sherman is an agent with The Bent Agency.

He represents picture books, fiction for young adult and middle-grade-readers, select literary and commercial adult fiction, and nonfiction in the areas of humor, pop culture, and narrative nonfiction.

He was interviewed by Elisabeth Norton for the SCBWI Europolitan Conference.

You’ll be presenting in Amsterdam about using social media effectively. This is a topic most creators wrestle with at some point in their career.

ON SOCIAL MEDIA…

Does a writer have to be on social media these days?

No. It could be argued that it is more essential for nonfiction writers than for those who write fiction, as nonfiction usually requires author platform.

Here’s the thing: Social media can be useful to a writer, if they are good at it. If you are uncomfortable communicating via social media, it will show, and it will actually have a negative effect. So, if you absolutely loathe using Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, don’t do it!

That said, if you do want to learn how to use it, it can be an invaluable tool for following industry news and trends, as well as networking with other writers and industry professionals.

Do you think the target reader age influences whether a writer needs to be on social media? Is it more important for a writer of young adult fiction to be on social media than say, someone who illustrates picture books?

Again, I don’t think anyone needs to be on social media. I will say that the young adult reading and publishing communities are quite active on social media, so it’s certainly worth considering if you write in that area.

Also, I found my first picture book client, Sam Garton, on Twitter; he had created a Twitter profile for his character Otter that included a link to his website.

Once I clicked onto his site and saw his wonderful humor and amazing artwork, I decided to reach out to him to see if he was working on any picture books.

So if you are an illustrator, keep in mind that social media can be a great way to advertise your artwork and online portfolio.

What’s your advice to the writer who has no social media presence at the moment?

I would encourage every writer to at least explore a few social media platforms, to see if any of them hold appeal. Twitter is a different experience from Facebook, as are Instagram, Pinterest, etc.

Try them out before you decide you don’t want to use them.

Before I got into publishing, I thought Twitter was a useless, narcissistic tool. Since I’ve become an agent, I’ve found it incredibly useful for keeping up with world news, publishing news, promoting my clients’ work, and building my own professional reputation.

Is there such a thing as too much social media presence?

I think so. While I think it’s great if writers and publishing professionals are active on social media, if you are too active, it can become exhausting for those who are following you, and you might turn people off.

Also, keep in mind that social media should be a tool, not a goal; if you are using it nonstop every day, when are you going to find the time for your real work? (Or your family, friends, and health?)

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see by writers/illustrators using social media?

The biggest mistake I see people make on social media is forgetting that everything they do is public.

Again, social media is a tool; don’t use it when your emotions are running high, or say, after you’ve had a few glasses of wine. Social media is an excellent way to build a public persona, but it is not you — it is the you that you want to share publicly.

Also, no need to overshare: you don’t need to share every single thought that pops into your head!

ON GRIPPING OPENINGS…


Can you give a couple of examples of what you think are gripping openings, and tell us why they work?

Certainly. Here is the opening line from my client Emma Trevayne’s middle-grade fantasy Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times:

“There are doorways, and there are doorways.” 

Right away, this sentence establishes atmosphere and style. There is a classic feel to this narration, and it compels you to keep reading.

There is also the opening line from my client Heidi Schulz’s middle-grade adventure Hook’s Revenge:

“There have always been pirates. Why, even as far back as Eve, on the day she was considering whether or not to eat that apple, a pirate was most certainly planning to sail in and take it from her.” 

Again, atmosphere and style are immediately apparent. There is some wonderfully wry humor here, and really, who doesn’t love reading about pirates?

The opening lines from my client Becky Albertalli’s young adult contemporary novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda:

“It’s a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost don’t notice I’m being blackmailed.” 

Here is an example of the story starting right away — as a reader, I definitely want to know what’s happening, because my interest has been piqued with the word “blackmailed.”

Who is blackmailing our narrator, and why?


In the submissions you see, what percentage would you say grab you with their openings?

I receive somewhere between 50 to 100 queries (with opening pages) during an average week. Of these, I would say perhaps 10 percent of these intrigue me enough to request the full manuscript.

Do any of those stories with gripping openings lose you later?

Learn more!

Unfortunately, this does happen.

Sometimes it is simply a case of my loving the story’s premise but not connecting with the way the story is told.

Other times, it feels like the writer has worked very hard on the opening pages, but not as much on the rest of the manuscript.

While it is important for you to have a gripping opening, don’t forget to give the same attention to the rest of your story! Make sure your story is as tight and strong as possible before you query agents and editors; you want to put your best foot forward.

Thank you, Brooks. See you in Amsterdam.

Cynsational Notes

Learn more!

Elisabeth Norton was first
published at age 16 when she had no idea what an “unsolicited
submission” was. Seeing her byline on the subsequently published
magazine article ignited her desire for a career as an author.

Once she realized she wanted to write for children, she joined SCBWI and now serves as Regional Advisor for the Swiss region.

Originally from Alaska, she now lives in Switzerland between the Alps and the Jura and writes for middle graders.

2015 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Agent Marietta Zacker

By Elisabeth Norton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations 

Marietta Zacker is an agent at Nancy Galt Literary Agency.

Marietta has experienced children’s books from every angle – teaching, marketing, publishing and bookselling.

She thrives on working with authors who make readers feel their characters’ emotions and illustrators who add a different dimension to the story.

Some of the books she is championing in 2015 include The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt (Scholastic), Something Extraordinary by Ben Clanton (Simon & Schuster), Just a Duck? by Carin Bramsen (Random House), The Struggles of Johnny Cannon by Isaiah Campbell (Simon & Schuster), Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin (Simon & Schuster), Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes by Rick Riordan (Hyperion).

Among other things, she is a proud Latina and the Agent Liaison for the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Marietta is active on Twitter under the name @AgentZacker

She is interviewed on Cynsations today by Elisabeth Norton for SCBWI Europolitan conference

At Europolitan, you’ll be presenting “Finding Seeds of Gold” and you will present about how to determine if your work is ready to submit. From your point of view as an agent, are most of the submissions you receive “ready?” What would you say is the biggest difference between the submissions you see that are “ready” vs. those that are not?

I believe that most people truly believe that they are ready to submit when they do, but one of the questions I typically suggest writers and artists ask themselves is: “If someone were to offer to publish this text or illustration tomorrow, would I be proud of seeing it ‘as is’ on the pages of a book?”

Since essentially eradicating the need to print submissions in order to take to the post office, many send queries via e-mail to ‘test’ whether or not their work is good enough.

It’s true, the business is subjective and we have all passed on projects that went on to get published, but we read too many queries and can usually see, feel and read right through queries that, even if technically masterful, are missing the heart and the essence of the storytelling. And so we pass.

I highly recommend printing your work and holding it in your hands (whether it’s text or an illustration). It makes it more official, it’s tougher to convince yourself that it’s ready to go when it’s not, it also allows you to see the work in ways you never have before.

Hit PRINT first, review it, let it sit, review it again.

If you would be proud to see it published ‘as is’ the very next day, then go ahead and click SEND.

You’ll also be leading a session about “How and Why Characters Bloom” with a discussion of “character-driven” projects. Does “character-driven” mean “not action packed?” Would you say that “character-driven” projects are “quiet” projects? Where do “character-driven” projects fit in to today’s market landscape?

You’ll have to come to Amsterdam to get most of these answers.

In all seriousness, though, the key to remember is that there is no magic bullet. One description does not negate the other, nor should anyone feel that their work must be described in one singular way.

Ideally, there are multiple layers within each project and a variety of ways to describe any story. I firmly believe that the stories that resonate most with readers are ones that are as complex, as diverse and as multi-layered as the children and young adults who made the choice to keep the book open and continue to read and explore.

The theme of Europolitan 2015 is “Creativity in Bloom: Growing Beyond Boundaries,” and we will be exploring the topic of diversity in children’s literature. Some authors express reservations about writing diverse characters because they themselves are not a member of the same community or group that their character is. They fear backlash if, despite their best attempts at research and having proof-readers from the represented community, they get something “wrong.”


Do you have any thoughts as an agent for writers who may be anxious about getting diversity “wrong” in their project? 

You have to be humble, you have to be willing to learn, you have to be empathetic. You wouldn’t want someone writing an account of your life without getting to know you very well first, understanding the depth of the life you’ve lived, attempting to walk in your shoes and comprehending how you felt during key moments.

The same applies when writing about someone or a group of people whose life or lives you have not lived.

It’s not about getting the facts right (or certainly, what you believe to be the facts). It’s about scratching deep beneath the surface and understanding the things that links us as beings on this planet – the feelings and emotions that make us each individuals, the way we are affected by being de facto members of any one group.

Understanding that this world is diverse and believing that this makes the world a better place is simply not enough to include characters whose experiences are different from yours.

Being willing to empathize with others is the first step.

 Again, we’ll talk more in Amsterdam.

Cynsational Notes

Learn more!

Elisabeth Norton
was first published at age 16 when she had no idea what an “unsolicited
submission” was. Seeing her byline on the subsequently published
magazine article ignited her desire for a career as an author.

Once she realized she wanted to write for children, she joined SCBWI and now serves as Regional Advisor for the Swiss region.

Originally from Alaska, she now lives in Switzerland between the Alps and the Jura and writes for middle graders.

Guest Post: Cecilia Galante on Where to Start Your Story?

Cecilia Galante

By Cecilia Galante
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

One of the things I’ve noticed my graduate creative writing students struggling with is where exactly to start in a book.

I’ve had two students fill up the first 40 pages of their novels with excruciating back-story details involving family history, blood-lines, place of birth, and so on.

Another one began her book with a five-year-old protagonist relaying her ideas on life, which might have worked if any of her musings had eventually found their way into her adult life. (They did not.)

The truth is, it is a very difficult process to figure out where in your character’s life you should start telling his or her story. But it’s not impossible.

Here are a few pointers that have helped me navigate this process in my own writing:

1. Don’t ever start at the beginning. Unless you’re writing a memoir, starting out with your character as a kid and then following them up through the teen years and into adulthood is not only boring, it’s missing the point of writing good fiction.

(Random House, April 28)

Most people don’t read books to learn how other people navigate their entire lives; they read books to learn how others navigate a certain part of their lives. The hell of eighth grade perhaps, or a loveless marriage. Don’t cheat your readers by weighing down enormous life experiences such as these other unnecessary ones.

Start right at the crux of things, where the details are the ugliest. The truest. Your readers will trust you right away.

2. Back off the back-story. Even if writers don’t start at the beginning of their characters lives, a lot of them still seem to think that they have to get into all their messy histories, as if apologizing beforehand for all the coming mistakes he or she is going to make.

Don’t fall into that sandpit. Not only will your reader get bored by all the unnecessary details, your story will stop dead in its tracks, which is certain death for both the reader and the writer.

That’s not to say of course, that you don’t need some back-story. Every character needs a little fleshing out when it comes to their pasts. But insert that kind of information sporadically, here and there in little fits and starts, especially when things come up in the present that remind the character of the past.

3. Write big. Right away.

All I knew, when I sat down to write my first book, The Patron Saint of Butterflies (Bloomsbury, 2009), was that I had a scene in my head that had to be put on paper. The scene involved a little boy whose finger was accidentally amputated in a door.

I could see this scene in my head. I could feel it. Taste it. I wrote it out in two days, flush with detail, pulsing with life. And from that scene, the next one came. And then the next, until, a year or so later, the book was finished.

But the finger amputation scene did not end up being the beginning of the book. In fact, it ended up being somewhere in the middle. But because I’d pulled up the anchor and started somewhere, the ship had been allowed to set sail.

Don’t get bogged down by the details of starting. Just start. And if you’re like me, start with something big. Something exciting. Something that makes you want to get back into the chair every morning and keep writing.

And one day, maybe much sooner than you think, you might find yourself climbing up on that deck to see something that looks very much like the end in the not so distant shore.