QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The "And then!" Plot

Folks, let's talk plot and how it relates to your query letter, because I've seen a mistake repeated a few times recently and heard other writers complaining about the same thing.

Here's the story. Fred is going to work. He meets Wilma. They have their meet-cute and they both like each other.

AND THEN!!! Fred breaks his foot, and Wilma stops by to loan him her crutches.

AND THEN!!! Wilma runs out of milk and goes to the grocery store where she gets a flat tire, so Fred comes over and changes it.

AND THEN!!! There's a thunderstorm that knocks out power to the city, so they can't charge their phones to text each other.

AND THEN!!! A wormhole opens up and Fred has to go shut it to save civilization.

You get the picture. None of the major plot points are related to each other. It's as though the story itself were a bunch of snapshots. Sure, the main characters keep getting together, and sure, they'll probably have their Happily Ever After at the end, but it's not satisfying because none of the events are related to each other any more than the first pitch ("STRIKE!") is related to the second pitch ("BALL!") and so on.

The solution to this is to figure out how to connect your plot points with "And therefore" instead. Fred and Wilma meet and hit it off, and she loves hiking, so Fred pretends he loves hiking too. They decide to meet for a hike.

AND THEREFORE Fred breaks his foot, because he doesn't know what he's doing.

See how this works? When you're reading it, everything seems to flow naturally one from the next, almost as if the events were inevitable. Of course Fred would want to show off and end up hurting himself. Of course Wilma would respond to that with compassion and just a little mockery. And at the end, of course that thunderstorm would open the wormhole, and of course Fred will be willing to climb the skyscraper and shut the wormhole because he's learned from the foot-breaking incident how to be careful and not show off.

In hindsight, all those things will be perfectly sensible. Of course there are plot twists, but not plot twists like, "Oh, and then they got into a huge car crash and everything changed." Not unless you've shown us ahead of time that your MC is a lousy driver who doesn't pay attention, and therefore was texting while driving and hit a truck.

Readers and editors don't like and-then plots, and therefore neither do agents.

And therefore your query shouldn't look like a string of things that happen to a bunch of interesting people.

One of my ex-agents (we shall not name which) accidentally turned out a pitch like that for one of my stories, and I only realized it when we got back a rejection saying, in effect, there's no causation here. Of course in the story there was lots of causation, but in an attempt to work a complicated plot into a 250-word pitch, the agent had in effect listed a bunch of plot points. And then they do this, and then they go there, and then the antagonist does this other thing, and then they have more problems, and then they pull it together somehow.

So we reworked the pitch until it had that sense of rolling inevitability. This happens and they respond by doing that, which has the unintended side effect of this other thing, which triggers a specific response by the antagonist, which results in the following chaos for the main characters.

See how that works?

Oh, and yes, "and then!!" happens all the time in real life. And then you come home to find a notice from the IRS in your mailbox saying you're getting audited because you reversed two digits on your 2011 tax return. And then your kid falls out of a tree and breaks his arm. And then you get a promotion and will have to move to Pensacola. Keep in mind that life itself doesn't make for good fiction, and that people expect the author of their fiction to craft a story that flows toward a climax and a resolution.

And therefore here is your takeaway: when pitching, set up your characters and their circumstances so that as every piece unfolds, the agent will feel a sense of, oh, I see why that would happen, and then Yes, they'd get into trouble doing that, and then Oh no, they're making their situation worse.

Remember, it's not "AND THEN!!! you get an agent." It's and therefore you got your agent. You crafted a wonderful story with a compelling plot and characters who responded believably to their circumstances, and therefore readers loved it.

Jane Lebak is the author of Honest And For True. She has four kids, eleven books in print, three cats, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and tries to do one scary thing every day. You can like her on Facebook, or visit her at her website at www.janelebak.com.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Guard Your Time

I was on vacation a couple of years ago when I got an email from a former critique group partner. At first I couldn't even recognize his name, but I opened the email because it was kind of familiar.

 It started by praising my suggestions in the past as the most valuable he'd ever gotten (I don't remember being brilliant, but okay) and then telling me the great news. He'd finished his book! It wasn't one of the ones I'd seen, but a new one. He'd had many health issues, so it had been very hard to write, but he'd pushed through.

I looked again at his name, and then I remembered. That guy! He'd turned in sections of different stories as part of this one novel-length group I'd been in. He had argued with me about every point I ever made. I don't think he ever changed anything in response to my suggestions, and later on, he stopped participating. Except now he wanted my help.

Okay. I mean, I blog for QueryTracker, and I teach query-writing workshops, and I've done what I consider mentoring. I can see why he might think I'd do this.

Without asking anything about my life, he then explained that he wanted me to read his novel, edit it, and tell him how to publish it.

Mmhmm. Of course you do.

Here's where I will now jump in and admit I did the next thing wrong.

What I should have done was deleted the email right here and never thought about it again. Let him think I was dead or that I was so special that I'd forgotten everyone I'd met on the way up to stardom (pardon me while I laugh a bit) or that my personal secretary had deleted the message by accident.

I should have guarded my time, so I'm going to pass this on to you, dear QueryTracker readers: guard your time. You have been given twenty-four hours every day to spend on an assortment of activities. Your writing (and associated efforts) take time, so you need to budget your time.

Critiquing other writers is an excellent use of your time. Interacting with other writers is going to help both you and them by creating relationships. You'll form loose partnerships with other writers and discover how much you have in common as well as what makes you different. You'll learn and they'll learn. You'll encourage each other. You'll inform each other.

But at the same time, note that some people are not going to give as much as they expect you to give them. They think it's fine to join a query-letter critique forum and immediately post their critique, their synopsis, and their first five pages, then never comment on anyone else's submissions. When they have what they want, they leave. With those folks, they don't want a give-and-take relationship, so it's okay to back off.

Anyhow, I made a mistake and answered this guy. I said I was sorry to hear he'd had health problems but glad to hear he'd finished his book. I pointed him toward QueryTracker.net as a resource for finding literary agents.

And then I told him (Dumb, Jane. Dumb) that I'd look over his first three chapters, but not the whole book. I told him I didn't have time to do an edit, but I could give some overall comments based on the first three chapters. Besides, I explained, most of the errors a writer makes will evidence themselves in the first three chapters, so that would be enough.

He wrote back and sent the whole book.

"Once you start it," he said, "you will want to read the whole thing."

(Imagine my "What the hell?" face.)

I opened the document. It was 300,000 words.

I'm going to repeat that: three. hundred. thousand. words.

The first chapter alone was forty pages long, and it was filled with all the same mistakes he'd been making a decade earlier. So I guess I'd given him the most valuable feedback anyone ever had, but that doesn't mean he'd opted to follow it.

And this is the second thing I'm going to point out about takers. It's not just that they don't give back when a community generously shares with them. Of course we all start out as information-sinks rather than information-sources. That's the nature of learning.

The difference is that someone who wants to belong to a community comes to that community with an attitude of participation. They want to work.

They want to grow. So they look hard at where they're falling short and focus on those areas. They keep reassessing, and they keep retargeting their efforts.

The taker who shows up and says, "Fix my query so I can get a bestseller" isn't willing to put in the effort. The person who sits around for an hour or so trying to think of who in their critiquing past might know how to get a book published, then launches their book in that person's general direction even when that person says no, isn't willing to put in the effort. And this interaction showed it.

Why? First, no sense of what the market will bear. Three hundred thousand words is three times longer than most publishers will consider from a first-time author.

Second, no evidence that he'd in any way tried to improve his craft. The only thing he'd changed in a decade was his subject matter.

And third, he'd invested nothing in trying to restore a realtionship with the person he was culling for a favor that would involve at least a hundred hours of her time. Just, "Get me published."

Since chapters should be ten pages long rather than forty, and I'd volunteered to read three, I read the first ten pages and skimmed the next twenty. I sent him some suggestions, starting with removing all the unnecessary stage directions and repetition, removing the head-hopping, and beginning where the story actually began. I rewrote a 550-word paragraph to show how you could do it at half the length.

He never replied, proving how right I'd been to guard my time.

Reading that book would have taken weeks; critiquing it would have taken even longer, and what would have been the result? Would he have pared that book down to a slimmer volume or maybe a trilogy? Or would he have decided I was just an ignorant hater and looked for someone who would snap their fingers and publish his work?

Guard your time. Nurture relationships with other writers who are interested in you and your work as well as their own. Trade critiques, and when you find brilliant critique partners, invest your efforts in working with them. In fact, seek them out by reading their work and approaching the ones who seem like a good fit.

And grow. Always grow. Never be afraid of working hard, but keep in mind that a lot of that effort has to go into your own writing.


Jane Lebak is the author of Honest And For True. She has four kids, eleven books in print, two cats, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and tries to do one scary thing every day. You can like her on Facebook, or visit her at her website at www.janelebak.com.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What is Success in Publishing?

Sometimes it's easy to define a win. A promotion, a perfect score, winning the spelling bee. All of these things can be measured and quantified. And in many careers, certain benchmarks tell you if your trajectory is up, down or lateral.

But not so in publishing. As I thought of a topic for the blog, I perused the forums and thought about my critique group meeting last week. It struck me that we ask each other for input and endlessly fret about rewrites and editing and because we are all seeking success in our writing careers. But success in a publishing career is really in the eye of the beholder. In one of my favorite movies, Caddyshack, another golfer asks Chevy Chase's character how he measures himself, since he doesn't bother to keep score. Chase responds, "By height."

There is a lesson in the quip. If you keep score based on number of books written, or number of national awards received, or sales, you will almost always feel you've failed. It can make you crazy to compare yourself to another writer. The odds are stacked against any of us being as prolific and lauded as Joyce Carol Oates or selling as many books as Stephen King.  Most of us will never quit our day jobs. Many of us will not be agented. Even those who are agented may not get a publishing contract. If we do, maybe it is with a small press and not a large one. Meanwhile, a semi-illiterate reality star gets a ghostwriter and a book deal and goes on a national book signing tour. Success? Well sure, depending on how you measure it.

Defining a win, I think, requires us to stop looking outward. There is always a golfer with a better score. There will always be a writer who has something we don't. So define for yourself what your "win" is going to be. Start with writing a great story. Then add the other ingredients to your own taste and your own score card.

I'm curious how you're measuring your careers. Is it completing a series, getting an agent, or getting your self published book out into the world? Or something else? Or do you write for the joy of it and not bother with the business side? Let's talk success.

Kim English - is the author of the Coriander Jones series and the award winning picture book 'A Home for Kayla.' Her latest picture book, 'Rolly and Mac' will be released in 2016. Her website is Kim-English.com. She is represented by Gina Panettieri.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

To Critique or not to Critique

I wrote my first my first book in 2012 in a complete vacuum. I had no critique partners, no real beta readers (unless you count my sister) and no idea how to critique my own work. Since then, I've tried, with varying degrees of success, to obtain more feedback during the writing stage. Many writers swear by their weekly or monthly critique groups. Others have tried and true critique partners. Others prefer to fly solo until it's time for a beta reader.  I have yet to find the exact sweet spot, but I have come up with some thoughts on how to decide what works and what doesn't.

A critique group has the upside of making you write something, anything. The crappy first draft won't write itself, after all. If you're a procrastinator or find time management  a challenge, that regular meeting where you're supposed to show up with something can be excellent motivation. But I'm glad I didn't have a roundtable to chime in on each chapter on my first book as it was being written for this reason: It may have been too discouraging and I may have given up.  After a few years in the query trenches, a few projects later, and after over a year on submission, I'm less likely to take a negative critique as a reason to quit.

Finding the right group presents a few issues. First, geography and time are critical. Retired folks who meet at 3 p.m. on Tuesdays won't work for someone with a full time job. Commuting across down during rush hour? Maybe not. And then there are the groups that have some version of the "know it all" who relentlessly assails passive voice and third person omniscient point of view because... well, because they heard it somewhere so it must be true. And frankly, sometimes a group member's writing  is riddled with tropes or purple prose or stereotypes that it make it hard to take her critiques seriously. Having the self reflection to recognize our own weaknesses is hard enough but telling someone else their hard work is only mediocre is not a fun way to spend your spare time.

I was recently invited to join a critique group (geography and time worked, fortunately) and am cautiously optimistic that it won't kill my spirit or cause me to spin my wheels in endless re-writes that address every single comment. It has been eye opening to see how others view my characters (not likable? How dare you, sir!) and even more eye opening to read in other genres. And the camaraderie among writers makes me come away from each meeting feeling more determined to get through the next chapter and figure out that plot bunny. But at the end of the day, you have to analyze the input, make the changes that will improve your story, and learn to weed the rest out. You can't please everyone, and if there were ever a better example of the subjectivity of publishing, it will be the diametrically opposed viewpoints you sometimes hear from the group.  But if your regular meeting leaves you feeling depressed, anxious, or talentless, then move on.

If the group meeting dynamic just isn't for you (writers are often introverts, right?) you may have better luck with a critique partner. Finding the right CP is like sighting a unicorn. But the nice thing is that your CP and you are tailor made because you choose each other based on what you write and what you are willing to critique. You set your own parameters about the kind of input you want: plot, consistency, voice, general impressions or a line by line commentary. You set the swap schedule and you're certain to be interested in their genre. QueryTracker and Twitter are only two of many web sites where CP marriages are made. I've had limited success finding a long term CP, but many people forge years-long and multi book CP relationships. It's more personal, and more flexible than a group.

Even if you're a die-hard loner, do consider beta readers, who will read your completed and hopefully edited book and give you feedback. Pick someone who will be honest with you and who reads in the genre you've written.

And whatever method you choose for getting feedback, don't ever let any one person's opinion deter you from continuing to write.

Kim English - is the author of the Coriander Jones series and the award winning picture book 'A Home for Kayla.' Her latest picture book, 'Rolly and Mac' will be released in 2017. Her website is Kim-English.com. She is represented by Gina Panettieri.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Take Your Worst Thing and Make it Your Best. Repeat.

I take an adult gymnastics class on Wednesdays (no really, I do), and as I went to get water one week I passed a group of girls working out on beam. Their coach was frustrated with one of the girls, who was complaining that beam was her worst event, and what the coach said stuck with me. "Take your worst event and make it your best. Then repeat."

She wanted her student to work at beam the hardest, with more determination than she worked at bars, vault, and floor, until it was her best, most consistent event. Then her originally third-best event would be her worst, and she should work at that event the hardest until it was her best, most consistent event, and so on, ad nauseum.

Though my days of competing gymnastics are long over, the coach's advice has stuck with me. "Take your worst thing and make it your best. Then repeat." Several times this week, I've mentioned to my CPs or other writing friends that I can write sentences better than I can plot, and that I focused so hard on a passable plot I forgot to write a well-rounded main character. I gave her a desire and a flaw, but not much to like about her.

It's easy for me to tell myself that writing excellent sentences and a decent plot should be good enough, that I'm just not good at characterization the same way the girl at gymnastics isn't good on beam. But I can hear the coach in my head now: take what you're worst at and make it your best. Subconsciously, though, this is what I've been doing since I started taking writing seriously five years ago. In 2012, I was worst at writing believable characters. So I practiced, short story after short story, until I was better at writing believable characters than I was at writing dialogue, or plot, and so on and so on.

Now, five years down the road, I think I've cycled through my list: I'm back to having characterization as the weakest point in my writing set. This time around, to use another gymnastics analogy, my start value is higher. I'm working from a better base. And when I make it through the list again in another five or however many years, I hope to have improved even more.

What is your "worst event" when it comes to writing right now? There's the elements of a novel: pacing, description, dialogue, characterization, theme, etc., but there's also the meta-skills of query writing, marketing, building a readership. Figure it out. But instead of accepting it as a weak point in your resume, a place where your score will always be lower, work at it with a vengeance, until it is your best. Then find your next weakest point and do it again.

Rochelle Deans is an editor and author who prefers perfecting words to writing them. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two young children. Her bad habits include mispronouncing words, correcting grammar, and spending far too much time on the Internet.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

When your agent wants to charge you a fee

Every so often I hear an icky agent story and know you guys need to be warned.

There are two kinds of lousy agents. The first is the scammer, the kind who wants to get money from authors without in any way performing the services an actual agent ought to perform. When you know the basics about the business, you'll recognize those. They ask you for money just to read your manuscript and refer you for "necessary" editing services to their friends, many of whom are actually themselves operating under a different business name.

The second kind of lousy agent is just...slippery. That agent is harder to recognize from the outside. While you know to run from agents who charge reading fees, for example, what do you do about one who brings up "administrative charges" after the contract is signed?

Today a writer sent me a copy of an email his agent had sent him. This agent is a legit agent at a legit agency. It's just that....well, you'll see.

The agent sent the writer an email about changes to their literary agency agreement, with the expectation that the writer would sign it and be thrilled. (Note: I've removed all references to The agency and rephrased in order to clarify in parts. The content is the same, and I verified on the agency's website.)
In the current contract, the only charges are for any extraoridinary expenses that may occur (courier services, foreign exchange, etc.), $250.00 per year, and a $500.00 cancellation fee should the author wish to terminate the contract.
Please note: don't sign a contract with that stipulation. Why should the author be charged a fee to break the contract? There's no matching fee for the agent if the agent decides to fire the writer, after all. Usually an agented writer is pleased to stay onboard. When the writer wants to leave, often it's because the writer has issues with the way the agent is representing the manuscript. By charging this ridiculous contract-breaking fee, the agent has stated that s/he would rather have a bitter, angry client than just part ways amicably.

Right from the start, this stipulation sets up the agent/writer relationshp as an adversarial relationship, one in which the writer is the child who must be punished if there's a disagreement with the agency.

(Industry standard is for both parties to have the right to leave with thirty days written notice, and the agent would be the agent of record on any sales resulting from pitches already made as long as they occur in a certain timeframe. Most agents are glad to have a pissy writer slam the door OR they're willing to work hard to come to an understanding with an earnest but unsettled writer. Remember, agents are negotiators. If they can't negotiate with their own clients, they're missing an important job skill.)

Then we get to the fun part, where the agency describes their new contract, introducing an administrative fee structure:
The first year we represent a manuscript we charge five hundred dollars ($500.00), then an additional two hundred fifty dollars ($250.00) each year until we place it with a publisher. Upon securing a publishing contract, the agency receives 15% of net revenues. 
On their website, they try to sweeten the deal: they explain that this fee helps them partner with writers who are serious and willing to invest in their careers. 

No, folks. This is not normal. You don't have to prove to an agent that you're serious and willing to invest in your writing. As Gavin DeBecker says in The Gift of Fear, statements like that are designed to get the target to act against his or her own self interest in order to prove s/he isn't whatever the speaker is accusing them of being. 

So let's step back and be serious, as the agent wants us to be. This agent seriously wants you to fork over five hundred bucks before even starting the job, and that $500 won't come out of the advance when the book sells. Then, if the agent fails to sell your book in one year, the agent gets rewarded with an additional $250.

In what reality does this make any sense for the writer? After taking your five hundred dollars, why would the agent work hard to sell your manuscript? Agents should get paid by commission. If they don't sell, they don't get paid.

Agents do not get to charge you $500 to make them do their job, then collect commission if they do it correctly, then collect an additonal $250 if they don't do it correctly, and then shake you down for a final $500 when you decide to leave because they didn't sell your book.

If anything, most writers stay with a bad agent far too long because they don't want to be out there on their own again. They stay because they feel like this is their book's only hope. I'm afraid a lot of authors will sign this amended agreement because they think no one else will want them, or because they want to prove their seriousness. But this is not normal.

Run away. Fly like the wind.

I understand that an agency with insufficient cash flow might want to tap additional sources of revenue. But you, you dear writer, should make sure you are not the source of this revenue.

Also, keep in mind that as soon as an agent starts charging this fee, all the agent's good writers will find a way to get out of the contract as soon as possible (not signing the new one, for example) and who will be left with that agency? Only the writers who don't know the industry and don't have a lot of experience or contacts. How long will an agency survive when all its experienced writers leave?

I have nothing against agents making money. I hope your future agent makes lots of money! May you be the occasion of your agent receiving truckloads of revenue, but only because they're getting their 15% after you've gotten your 85%.

Jane Lebak is the author of Honest And For True. She has four kids, eleven books in print, three cats, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and tries to do one scary thing every day. You can like her on Facebook, or visit her at her website..

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Did you NaNo? Welcome to the "Now What?" Months

As Jane mentioned at the end of November, November isn't the time to query your NaNo novel. And, despite the glory of starting your year of by sending out batches of queries, that isn't the best idea, either. After all, traditional advice for revision includes waiting (at least) a month between your first draft and your first re-read, so you can look at the story with fresh eyes.

So, using the official NaNoWriMo etymology, January and February are the "Now What?" months. This, however, is where the official site falls short. Per their page on revisions, they recommend the same kind of "anything goes" approach to revisions as they do to writing.

While I (and most others) are all for first drafts in which anything goes and nothing matters but the words on the page, revisions should be approached more carefully. There are many moving parts in a novel that need to be in perfect alignment if you want the smoothest, most enthralling story for your readers. You need to have characters that are well-developed and (usually) follow a character arc, a plot that hits the major plot points, and a theme that comes organically out of the characters and plots.

It can be overwhelming to think about everything your novel needs when you first sit down to re-read what you've written. The most important thing you can do is realize what you have accomplished. Think about the strengths in your story. Consciously dwell on the pieces you're most proud of--whether it's a specific line, or a plot twist, or a fascinating character you just love. You've already done more than most people ever will: you've written a novel!

There are lots of successful writers who use intuition in revision, but if it's your first go of it, or you like a little more structure, I recommend finding a revision process that works for you. I use the detailed revisions process laid out by Susan Dennard as a jumping off point, which has evolved over time to suit me.

A Google search for "Revising your novel" leads to a lot of x-step guides to a finished novel. Holly Lisle, for instance, says she edits a full novel in one to two weeks and if you're taking more than a few months you're probably doing it wrong. I disagree with her, especially if writing isn't your full-time job. Many of us, myself included, simply don't have the time to devote 6- to 8-hour days to working through our manuscript. Take the time you need to take. That said, she offers excellent advice (set a realistic deadline for yourself; write the best book you can now, without worrying about the best book you can write next year) and some great questions to ask as you re-read. Despite the title, Anne Lyle's Revising Your Novel in 10 Easy Steps doesn't overly simplify the process, but gives you a great place to start and concrete steps toward making your book the best it can be.

If you either enjoy consciously plotting story structure or don't understand much about it, K.M. Weiland's website, Helping Writers Become Authors, is my go-to website for learning about structure. There are series on structuring the whole of a book, structuring scenes, and structuring character arcs, as well as a database of examples and a plethora of other things. If you don't know what to look for when it comes to making sure your story holds together, her website is an excellent source.

However you choose to go about revision, there are a few things to remember:

  • Always revise big picture first and details last. If you have to add a new scene, treat it like a new first draft, making sure the right things happen before making sure dialogue is perfect before making sure typos are absent.
  • There comes a time when you will need to show your work to critique partners and betas. This is absolutely necessary before sending to agents or out for self-publishing. For me, this step is after my second draft, when I've done my revision for the big picture and tackled much, but not all, of the smaller issues. For you, it might be after the first draft, so your critique partner can work as a sounding board for how to change things. It could be as you write, chapter by chapter. It might be after your fifth draft. What matters isn't the timing, it's making sure you get someone else's opinion.
  • Revise again after you receive feedback. Probably set it aside for a few weeks and revise another time after that. Revise until you're not sure you like the story anymore. Then stop, trust yourself, and head over to QueryTracker to start querying. That's when you'll be ready.
Rochelle Deans is an editor and author who prefers perfecting words to writing them. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two young children. Her bad habits include mispronouncing words, correcting grammar, and spending far too much time on the Internet.