QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Don't play it again, Sam!

"Authors who love their books too much" isn't a topic you're going to see on a talk show, but I think we need to visit it.

You love your book. I love my books too. That's good and healthy because you and your story are going to spend in excess of a hundred hours together just writing the thing, and then you have to account for revisions, edits, discussion, and the sheer time you spend thinking about it while you're washing the dishes or driving the car. Some people in romantic relationships don't even spend that much time together.

And then you factor in the time spent querying plus the time spent angsting over the queries you just sent and the time writing the dreaded synopsis: it's a lot. At the end, it would be great if we all ended up with a published book, but sometimes that doesn't happen. You do everything as you ought, and the book goes nowhere. Either you don't clinch an agent or the agent doesn't broker a book deal. You and your book are left together, looking at one another. What's to be done?

Maybe you've learned a bit by this point, and you see where your story could be punched up a bit. Maybe your main character could be more active or your sentences shorter. Maybe all that backstory can go, and maybe the ending screams of deus-ex-machina and could have been better wrought. Maybe you rewrite.

Maybe the rewrite also goes nowhere.

And now you're tempted to rewrite a second time. Or a third time.

Allow me to step in please: don't do it.

It's okay to love your story. It's okay to lavish time on it to the extent that your family gets worried and your friends are sure you've lost your mind. To some extent that's normal and healthy for writers. What's not normal and healthy is to keep rewriting the same novel for twenty years. Or in some cases, the same two or three novels, cycling through the same rewriting/resubmitting process for decades. And in the most heartbreaking cases, writers have taken the work off submission, self-published, and then unpublished it and gone back on submission with the piece touched up and dusted off just a bit.

The hallmark of this kind of wheel-spinning is that the writer most often doesn't even have solid feedback on which to rewrite. S/he is just rewriting and revising every few years and hoping for better results.

I understand the urge. You worked hard and want it to succeed. But I've seen writers in some of my writing groups stuck in the same story for decades, hungering to bring them to the world and unsure why they're not getting anywhere no matter how often they work on the story again. It breaks my heart, so let's look at three reasons to move on.

1) After you've queried the thing twice, everyone has seen it, and now they're going to remember it. The first re-query might have been viewed with a charitable eye if you explained your extensive revisions. A second one won't be.

2) Agents and editors want a writer who can craft more than one story. A career isn't built on one excellent novel (To Kill A Mockingbird being the exception that proves the rule.)

3) You've probably outgrown that first novel, or even your first and second novels. Many times, there's a factor in your early work that renders the work unsellable and is simultaneously a factor you refuse to let go.

Let me expand on #3 for a moment. As a new writer, you knew what you liked to read, and you set out to create something just like it. But without the skills to do so, you cobbled together the story as best you could. Many times, that story is going to have some kind of major flaw that keeps it from fully inhabiting the world it could have. You set out the foundation of the story, but the foundation itself was limited.

Years later, maybe you have the skill to build mansions, but you can't build a mansion on the same foundation as a tool shed. Sometimes you've got to jettison that first story just to escape the boundaries you set for yourself.

Maybe you've developed the ability to write incredibly nuanced characters, but if the main character's motive is nothing more than simple revenge, the story may feel flat.

Maybe you can craft intricate and elegant sentences, but overlaying them one at a time is going to give your work a choppy feeling.

These are the reasons I've heard for continuing to rewrite/requery a novel seven or eight times:

1) I've put so much work into it already.

2) I know so much more than I did the first time around.

3) I'm afraid I'll never come up with anything this good ever again.

Do you hear one of your critique partners in this? Do you hear yourself? If so, be honest: have you outgrown your story like a little kid whose ankles and a good deal of his calves are sticking out beneath the bottom of his jeans? And isn't it really fear holding you back like an anchor, whereas if you cut the chain you could really fly and really see what you're made of?

Are you afraid that if you try again, you'll fail again, and it's just more comfortable to fail with what you already have in your hands than to maybe succeed with something entirely new?

Let me encourage you: set it aside. Lay out a new foundation, new characters, new motives. Bring your new skills to bear. Move forward. Love that old manuscript, but love it fondly the way you still feel kind of giddy about your first crush (even though you never so much as made eye contact).

You're not giving up on your old story by moving ahead. Rather, by moving ahead, you're not giving up on yourself.

Believe you have more than one or two stories in you. Explore and fall in love again with a new set of characters. It's never a failure as long as you've learned

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Making Your Characters Round

For a reader to invest upwards of 80,000 words or more into a character, there must be something worth following. Flat characters spell doom for a book. Even if your novel is a plot-driven mystery, the characters should be as developed as possible. Every character should have a backstory that gives nuance to her actions, or reasons for her choices. Supporting characters deserve the benefit of a personal history too, and for a writer just beginning the process of writing a manuscript, a set of character details can enhance the story even if the reader never necessarily finds out every tidbit that you used to build the character.

It's easy and often tempting to start with plot points, beats within a scene, or crafting dialogue and then dive into writing with a few sketchy character details (he's an innocent man unjustly accused running from the police, etc.) . But the characters' experiences shape their decisions, which translate into conflict. Their personal history affects how they speak, or whether they speak at all in any given situation. Here are some ideas on making your characters more round.

Start with some of the things a person may answer on a dating profile, or in a job interview, or even if they were writing an autobiography. Everyone had parents, foster parents, a father/mother figure, a teacher who influenced him. Who were they? Did they shape the character for better or for worse? Where did your character go to school? Or did she drop out? This affects self esteem and socio economic status, which drives the characters' choices, which in turn, will feed into the novel's conflict. And your book needs conflict. Lot of it.

What's your character's ethnic, racial and religious background? It's a great big world out there and your book should reflect it. What are their spiritual and political beliefs? Not having either is fine because that can also explain how people behave, how they react to the world, and how they treat others. It's easy to have a cookie cutter "stern librarian," or the familiar beleaguered police sergeant who keeps saying he's "too old for this," but dig deeper: Did the librarian have a childhood dream to become an actress that was squashed by an abusive parent? Does the sergeant have a sick spouse at home and is only on the job to keep his insurance benefits? Just picking a character's name, gender and occupation isn't enough. You should know why they have the job they have, who they love and who they lost, and how they view themselves in the world. Do they drink scotch or beer?

Does your character have a secret? Even if the "secret" is as benign as a corporate executive being a Star Trek cosplay nerd, this gives him depth and makes him realistic, and ultimately more interesting. If she has a body buried in the backyard, bonus!

What is your character's dream/goal? If he has an unfulfilled dream, and is stuck in a job he hates, that again gives him curves and edges. It's easy enough to describe a rather overweight person eating fast food.  But if you have that character looking at the food in disgust even as he eats it, alone, in his car in the parking lot of McDonalds, your reader knows this is a lonely, sad person who uses food for comfort. You, as the author, already know that his adult kids hate him, he hates his job, and he used to be a college athlete who has let himself go. You don't necessarily put all that into the narrative, but just knowing that will help you craft a few sentences that give him some texture, and that makes him come alive for the reader.

Some enterprising authors make a spread sheet with all of the characters that lists all their relevant information. You don't have to necessarily go that far, but remember that the plot still has to be carried by people, and the reader must want to read about these people dealing with that plot. Rounding out your characters will make the reader stick with your story because you've created people worth caring about.

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, September 6, 2016

Is Your Story Structure Working?

I love story structure. It's my go-to tool for planning a novel, and the first thing I look at when it's time to revise that novel. As long as everything is in the right place, I can focus on the story and characters and trust my plot is holding all the pieces together.
What makes story structure so valuable, is that it provides solid, proven turning points that can help you decide what events need to happen when to get the most out of your story. It also helps you find holes in the plot, and places where the stakes might need to be raised, allowing you to find potential problems before you stumble across them.
As valuable as structure is in the writing process, it's critical in the revision process. Your structure is your guide to tightening weak areas, adjusting your pacing, strengthening your goals--the entire foundation on your novel is built on its structure. A weak structure creates a weak novel (and nobody wants that). Analyzing these points helps you craft a stronger novel.
A note about story structure: As you go through these questions, keep in mind that the terms used are meant in a general, conceptual way. For example, the “final battle” doesn’t have to be an actual battle, or even a fight, it’s the final moment when the two conflicting sides (protagonist vs. antagonist) resolve the conflict.
Look at your story and ask:
Are all the pieces in the right places? Key turning points in the plot keep the story moving forward. Put the right piece in the wrong turning point, and the novel can drag, or feel rushed if things happen too early.
Does the opening scene present an intriguing problem or mystery to draw readers in? The goal of the opening scene is to pique readers’ interest and make them want to read on. Is there something interesting happening on page one that makes someone want to read page two?
Is there an inciting event within the first 30 pages (or 50 pages for longer manuscripts) that puts the protagonist on the path to the rest of the novel? In every story there’s a moment early on that changes the protagonist’s life forever by putting her on the plot path—if it hadn’t happened, the plot wouldn’t unfold as it does and the story wouldn’t have happened.
Is there a moment in the beginning where the protagonist makes the choice to pursue the story problem? Near the end of the beginning (around the 25% mark in a traditional Three Act Structure), the protagonist has the option of saying “no” and not pursuing the core conflict goal, but makes a choice to move ahead with the plot and venture into the unknown.
Do the stakes escalate at this time? Good story structure provides opportunities for the stakes to escalate at major turning points of the plot.
Does something happen in the middle of the book that changes how the story problem is viewed or approached? The middle of the book often shifts things for the protagonist and plans start to fall apart—whether she realizes it or not. Or things might be revealed which change how the entire story thus far has been viewed or understood.
Are the stakes raised again around this time? Stakes typically become more personal and the risks get higher at the midpoint, and the protagonist is now more invested in resolving the problem.
Is there a dark moment or set back just before the ending starts that raises the stakes again? As things get harder and tougher for the protagonist, it becomes uncertain if she can win. Shortly before the ending (around the 75% mark in the Three Act Structure) everything is (or has been) stripped away, and the protagonist loses all hope and doesn’t see a way out of the problem.
Are the stakes raised yet again? Often, this is when the highest, most personal stakes come into play—an all or nothing, do or die consequence.
Does the protagonist make the decision to continue the fight despite the risks or sacrifices? This is a critical moment that triggers the climax, sending the protagonist to face off against the antagonist to resolve the novel’s core conflict.
Is there a clear win for the protagonist at the climax? Something that must be done in order to succeed? The final battle uses everything the protagonist has learned so far, and what must be done to win is clear (though how is often still a mystery).
Does the ending resolve itself in a way that satisfies the story questions posed in the beginning of the novel? Not every loose end needs to be tied up, but the core conflict and the major plot threads should be answered to reader satisfaction.
Is the ending satisfying? A satisfying ending frequently equates to a great novel, since it’s the last thing readers see. It’s the ending readers have been waiting for, and gives them what they wanted (though not always in the way they expect).
Story structure is not a template, so don't feel you have to follow every step exactly. Turning points can shift or change to suit the novel it's supporting. Use it as a guide to a stronger story and a reminder of the storytelling moment most novels use.
What story structure do you prefer?

Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy
Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win.
To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I'm going on a three-month blog tour--and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me.
It's easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. At the end of each month, I'll randomly choose a winner.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my new book Revising Your Novel: First Draftto Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released PlanningYour Novel Workbook

Janice HardyJanice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft and the upcoming Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). She's also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

*Excerpted from Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft

Sunday, September 4, 2016

QueryTracker Migration

We did a little house keeping this weekend and moved QueryTracker to a new server. Unfortunately, there may be some residual effects that are keeping some people from seeing the new site properly.

The number one culprit is that your browser is trying to show an older, cached version of the site and getting things confused.

The easiest fix for this is to reboot your computer.

If that doesn't work you may need to delete your browser's cache. Here are some instructions for clearing your cache.

Thank you for your patience and sorry about the inconvenience.

If you continue to have trouble, please post below with a description of the problem.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Art of Giving and Accepting Critiques

"Be kind and considerate with your criticism. It's just as hard to write a bad book as it is to write a good book." 

Writers' stories are essentially their children. Sometimes they are incredibly proud of their offspring, other times they find them cringeworthy, and yet, when someone else dares to point out their flaws, the author/parent feels compelled to leap to their defense.  It's hard not to take it personally when someone doesn't "get" your protagonist, or reacts with a "meh" to a scene you agonized over for hours. Giving and accepting critical opinions is a tool that should be in every writers' arsenal.

There is a point in your own writing career where you become more comfortable offering advice to people just starting their publishing journey. Maybe you've obtained an agent, or a publishing contract, or have found an indie niche. You realize that you do have answers to many newbie questions (never send attachments with a query- don't nudge after a week, etc.)  The writing community in general is supportive and kind. Writers understand the special pain of pouring your heart and soul into something only to have it ridiculed or dismissed. Yet, sometimes a writer who is just starting out is making some basic, rookie mistakes, or perhaps the writing is just... bad. It's easy to tap out an anonymous one-star review with snarky gifs. It's quite another to offer constructive comments with suggestions for improvement. So, if a writer asks for input, remember this:

Be Nice. You serve no purpose being snide, condescending or rude. And don't kid yourself that you're just a "straight shooter" who is "blunt, but fair" or whatever phrase people use to justify being a jerk. It's a tough enough business when writers get form rejections on full requests from unpaid interns and twitter hashtags exist only to ridicule unpublished writers. Don't contribute to an already demoralizing process by picking on the new kid.

Be Specific. Maybe the story in question is full of Mary Sues, assorted tropes, hackneyed dialogue or stereotypes. It's easy to just say, "This is a cliche-ridden story with boring characters and no plot."  But the writer can only improve if he understands the root problem.  Identify the plot hole, the character who needs fleshing out, or the well-worn plot device that holds back the story from reaching its full potential. If it can be identified, it can be fixed.

But be nice.

Find Something Positive to Say. Yes, even if it's just, "Hey, you wrote a book! Congratulations on that achievement." Often, an otherwise solid theme (jealousy, love, loss) is simply not well-executed. But acknowledge if the author has the bones of a good story, or if she used a particularly lovely phrase or had a piece of dialogue that made you laugh. 

Offer Advice on How to Improve. "Write it better" is not advice. Remember all those form rejections you got that said something like, "I just didn't fall in love with the story" or "Ultimately, I didn't engage with the characters"? Give the author something to work on. "If you're writing historical fiction, the characters shouldn't speak like 1980's valley girls." That's advice. And it's direct, but polite.

And on the flip side, you've asked for a critique and now you've got it. And it stings. A lot. What to do? Here's your checklist.

Put It Aside For At Least 24 Hours. Early on in my career, a mentor told me that whenever he was tempted to write a nasty letter, he'd write it, put it in the drawer overnight, and if he was still mad the next morning, he'd consider sending it. Alas, the advent of email and the instant gratification of typing whatever pops into your head makes this system a bit of a dinosaur.  Let the initial hurt subside a bit so you can look at the critique more objectively.

Don't Tell The Reviewer She Is Wrong. Don't bother arguing, complaining or justifying. You asked for feedback and you got it. Thank the person for their time and move on.

Be Nice.

Take Off Your Writer Hat and Put On Your Reader Hat. These characters are your babies. You know them. You know why you made them, and how they evolved as you wrote the story. But a reader has no skin in your game. He either likes the story, doesn't like it, or is a bit indifferent.  You don't love everything you read. It doesn't mean the writer didn't agonize over every single word.

Make a List of The Most Critical Comments. Assuming they are constructive (see above) ponder them carefully. Have you fallen into a writing cliche? There is a fine line between an archetype and a trope. You might not decide to gut and rewrite the whole manuscript, but you may find that you do need to make some changes.

Categorize The Problem Areas: Characters, Plot, Conflict and Writing. You can fix things like using crutch words or having overly flowery descriptions. You can tighten up plot holes or issues with world-building. You can round out flat characters. You can raise the stakes or make them clearer. But you can't write someone else's book, SO,

Go With Your Gut. This is your story. And, as we so often hear, this is a subjective business. You have one person's opinion. Do with it, or not, as you wish. We can all think of a bestseller that we hated. Am I wrong to think Pride and Prejudice is overrated? Maybe. But I stand by my opinion. And at the end of the day, it's your name on the cover so write the book you want.

But remember. Be Nice.

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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Revising When You Don't Want To

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an author's feelings toward her manuscript fluctuate in degrees that would give a roller coaster envy. And yet authors, for all their points in creativity, tend to have selective memory.

I'm neck deep in revision for my third novel right now, and revision is almost always my favorite part of writing. The words are down, and it's time to make them perfect. But recently I've wanted to do almost anything except work on it. I sat down last night with a journal, after distinctly spending all day doing Anything Else, to figure out what was wrong.

And, it turned out, I was in a stage of hating every word I've written, sure the story wasn't working, that it was stereotypical and flawed, and that I could never make it good enough. Then I reminded myself that I was revising, and revising a first draft, at that. The story didn't have to be good enough yet. Still, getting back to work was difficult, but I did it, working through two more scenes.

When you feel like the work you're doing isn't good enough, isn't there yet, isn't anywhere near as good as what so-and-so is writing, remember that writing is a process. No one claims to write good first drafts. An author I know (Cathy Lamb, who writes women's fiction) goes through fourteen revisions before her book makes it to press. And that isn't a typo. Fourteen times, and by the end, she's sure it is all drivel and won't sell and no one will like it. Which never ends up being true, of course.

What separates authors from people who think they'll write a novel one day isn't the first draft. It isn't the second draft and sometimes isn't even the third draft. What separates authors from those who don't make it is getting to the end of their rope and writing anyway. So if you're in a tough spot right now--written into a huge plot hole in the first draft, struggling through revisions like me, or having a tough time with querying (or submission, or wondering if people will like your ARCs), remember that feelings fluctuate, and what makes you an author is that you keep going anyway.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Book Hangovers: The Pain You Love to Hate ('cause It Feels So Damn Great)

Yep. That was a pretty confusing title. Mostly because it's paradoxical and logical and completely relatable in all its horrific ridiculosity.

Let's consider the term: book hangover.

Two nouns. One word is one of the most amazing words ever written. The other word represents a syndrome of withdrawal and physical ache and dejectedness that has nothing positive about it whatsoever.

Put them both together and you get blessed, wonderful, hair-pulling complexity. You hate it. But you want it. And you chase it down, again and again.

What's a book hangover? asks the person who's been living in a bubble in the middle of a no-signal book-free wasteland of Why Do I Even Continue to Exist Because Obviously I Haven't Learned to Truly Live Yet.

For those poor, unfortunate souls, I say this: a book hangover is the syndrome a reader experiences after having become completely immersed in a book's world only to be ripped mercilessly out of it by the words "The End".  Two crueler words have never been uttered. Look what happens when they show up.

Lovers break up long before one is finished loving. Knitters run out of yarn long before they are done knitting.  Toast butterers find themselves desperately scraping out the thinnest smears because half their bagel is still naked but it's no use. They will have to choke down that dry crust because the butter dish has cried "No more!"

And readers are forced to close a book and put it down because the author said The End. Now there are no more pages to read but those characters live in your head. The feels aren't done. You can't sleep because you still see those scenes played out, over and over. Work/school/everything is impossible because you can't stop thinking about that damned book.

Hydration and naps and Alka Seltzer can't fix a book hangover. But there is a cure.

Kind of.

Hair of the Dog That Bit You
Alcohol creates hangovers because as alcohol is broken down in the body, it gets converted into aldehydes. Unlike fun alcohol, aldehyde is a miserable old sod, which is why being drunk is a lot more fun that being hungover. It's just science.

But add a little water and those aldehydes undergo the miracle of transformation and get turned back into alcohol. Bye bye, misery! We got the fun stuff back!

Bloody Marys help, too, because you get hydration, electrolytes, and a liddle bit of something-something to ease off on the aldehyde attack. Plus, you get celery to crunch on, and celery is widely if mistakenly believed to be considered a health food.

So, what's the cure for a book hangover? Not water or terrible-sounding cocktails, obviously, but there's definitely a need for some hair of the dog.

Pick up another book.

Yes, it leads to a viscous cycle that leads to memes and Instagram barrages and new merch at Hot Topic. But let's be honest. There are no subsequent underage fines, no nights in the tank, no drunk dials leading to awkward avoidances of eye contact later on. That should automatically make it a good thing.

Prevention isn't Key—It's Condemnation
Of course, you could avoid the whole book hangover thing by never reading anything ever again.

But, a word of caution. Nobody ever says Boy, oh boy, abstinence! Do you know why? Because book abstinence is an unthinkable exile, an unjust condemnation. Why would you even think about doing that to yourself?

You did nothing wrong. You innocently picked up a book so you could engage your mind in a pleasing way to pass time. It's not your fault the characters came to life and rose up from the pages. It's not your fault their stories were so complex and emotionally riveting that you not only identified, you lived through them. You cried. You laughed. You highlighted your favorite passages and made quote art on Pic Monkey and I am here to tell you that none of it's your fault.

It's the author's.

That author did this to you. She may not have put the book in front of you and turned each page while you helplessly consumed her passion and craft but she may as well have. She concocted that wonderful elixir of plot and personality and perfection. She dreamed up those characters who haunt your every thought like the sweet echo of a beloved ghost. She's responsible for the way you see that book now everywhere you look, every time you go online or walk into a bookstore.

She's the one who cast this sheen of her book over every aspect of your life, so that you tear up when you run into Walmart because you see strawberries in the cooler as soon as you go in. Strawberries. That character had strawberry-blonde hair and she died of diverticulitis because of a strawberry smoothie she shared with the boy she loved but could never have because he had to move to the opposite side of the world, like the exact opposite, as in drill straight down and there he'd be so you know he couldn't get any further from her so better diverticulitis than a broken heart. Next stop is an ugly cry in front of the packaged salad cooler. Oh my God, the feels

So, blame the author for your book hangover.

And then blame the next one because he is going to do the same damn thing to you because you will never, ever learn. You say "never again" but it's just a matter of time until you're standing in the bookstore, cracking open another heartache. Book hangovers are part of a vicious cycle of love-hate-miserable joy...and I hope there will never, ever be a cure for them.

Just as I hope there will be no end to the supply of authors who cause them.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, is a Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”.

Currently, Ash is getting ready to launch CHARM CITY, a book about exorcists and angels and addiction to magic. Here's hoping a new book hangover is headed your way.