QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Dreaded Pitch – What to Include in That One Line

As you may or may not know, I recently judged the first QueryTracker blog contest ever —I chose the top four one-sentence pitches out of 585 entries! And out of those entries, 25% of them weren’t even pitches at all. Now that might have made my job easier, but let’s make it so that the next agent to judge that contest has to pick the winners out of 100%, shall we?

The pitch line. In the movie industry these are known as log lines. Your pitch can also be your hook, but your hook doesn’t necessarily need to be your pitch. Confused yet? Well, I’m going to try and clear it up for you.

The pitch needs to convey three things: the plot, the genre and the tone of the story. And it needs to convey these things in one concise sentence. It doesn’t need dialogue, it doesn’t need a cast list, it doesn’t necessarily need the title and it definitely doesn’t need the word count—and before you snicker at this advice, you should know that these are common mistakes. And they’re not the only ones.

Think about the winning entry: When you look into someone's eyes, you see their soul, but when sixteen-year-old Emerson Taylor kisses their lips, she sees their pasts.

This entry gives me enough of the plot to get me interested, I know that it’s a YA with a girl protagonist, and it definitely conveys the mysterious, paranormal tone. AND, of course, it’s concise!

The End.

Just kidding.

I know it’s not as easy as that. How do you know what techniques are wrong? What kind of pitches actually work? What are the other common mistakes? How do you know if you’re making them if I don’t tell you what they are?!?!

Okay, okay…I’ll try. These are the five most frequent incorrect pitch types that I’ve seen:

1.The Cheerleader: JOHN CRETON, YOU’RE DEAD is an exciting, action-packed thriller with a romantic sub-plot that will leave the ladies drooling.

Sure this tells us the genre, and it’s concise, but what the heck is the story about? And is the tone supposed to be “campy adventure”? Probably not. All this person did was talk up his/her story—rah, rah, sis boom bah!

2. The Opener: The hot sun beat down on the streets of Barterville, baking the dead body—previously known as John Creton—in the town square, sure as heckfire making the swirling vultures drool.

Okay…is this a western? A mystery? Comedy? Picture Book? Aside from the last guess—-I hope—-I really can’t tell because it reads more like an opening sentence than anything else. And an opening sentence can lead to anything.

3. The Two (three or even four!) Parter: When Carol Barterville met John Creton, she knew she was in for a passionate night…she just didn’t know the night was going to change her life forever; John Creton, however, had been drooling over Carol for a long time…as werewolves often do; and a baby born to the two of them, just may take the world by storm.

For those of you who don’t know…a semi-colon is just shy of being a period; this means that anything after the semi-colon is supposed to be a full, complete sentence; it further means that anyone who uses them is technically writing more than one sentence; in conclusion…it is no longer considered a one-sentence pitch.

4. The Riddler: Why is the harsh world so unfair to snorting, ugly, drooling John Creton, and how can he turn it around to make it more fair?

How does this tell me about the story? Am I supposed to answer this question? Is my answer supposed to be the pitch? Who is pitching to whom now? Are you as confused as me?


Before you go all John McEnroe on me, notice the name of this incorrect pitch type is not The Question, it’s The Riddler. That’s because using a question isn’t always a bad thing when trying to write a pitch (see below). But asking a vague question that kind of sums up most people’s lives is like the time I paid $30 to get my palm read…the information could have been about anyone, just like this story could be about anything, and any John Creton for that matter…well, any hairy John Creton who happened to have his teeth recently pulled and a cold.

5. The “You Talkin’ to Me?”: “Mama, you just can’t leave ol’ John Creton crying and drooling on the side of the road,” Carol said.

This is really similar to The Opener, but it’s even more awkward because it has that ‘Carol said.’ tagged on the end. I feel like I just opened a book somewhere in the middle, closed my eyes and pointed to a sentence, and this is what I got. Using dialog may actually work as a one sentence pitch…I’ve just never seen it work. “Dare you to prove me wrong!” I yell at my computer screen until my voice is hoarse and my ears ring.

So you now know what not to do, and I’m almost positive there are more Pitch No-No’s that can be added to that list, let’s move forward.

What does work? Try these techniques:

1. This Meets That: As the undead take over the world, the Cretons and the Bartervilles just can’t seem to drop their rivalries and fight together, until new-zombie John Creton starts drooling over more than just Carol Barterville’s brains in this ROMEO & JULIET meets DAWN OF THE DEAD paranormal romance.

Giving your agent or editor the perfect line to describe your book is tough, but when you say two well known titles, characters, or authors, we get it! And so will everyone we tell about it.

2. The Question: If you needed to fix your mom’s car before she came home from vacation, would you take the school dork to the 11th grade dance for $1000, even if it’s snorting, ugly, drooling John Creton?

Tone--check. Genre--check. Plot--check.

3. The Basic Pitch: Detective John Drool-Creton is sick of the LA streets and ready for early retirement, until the serial killer who murdered his wife five years ago resurfaces, and he finds out that Carol may still be alive.

This is a simple summary of a story that is most likely between 70,000 and 90,000 words. Yes folks, it is possible to sum up a whole story in one sentence. There is no easy way to tell you how to do this, but just practice whittling down your story, little by little from full manuscript to outline to synopsis to summary to query to pitch. All I can say in this case is practice makes perfect.

So I guess that’s it on one-sentence pitches, at least for now! Please keep in mind that I’m in no way claiming to be an expert on pitches, but as a person in the publishing industry, I have a pretty good idea as to what works. I hope I was helpful to at least a few of you. The rest of you may get nothing from this but nightmares of John Creton drooling. So, yeah…good luck with that.

Joanna Stampfel-Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary is currently looking for a wide range of fiction from young adult, fantasy, science fiction, romance, thrillers, women’s fiction, middle grade, historical and commercial fiction as well as non-fiction in a few areas. Before submitting, please check out her profile on QueryTracker to make sure she represents your genre.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Defining Genres: Where Does Your Book Fit?

Deciding what genre your book falls in can be a daunting task. There are a LOT of genres out there, and many times (if not most times) your book is going to have elements of more than one genre. It's best to stick to the main one or two when describing your book; but that still leaves you with the problem of deciding where your book would best fit. A good question to ask is, if you went into a bookstore, what section would your book be sitting in?

First of all, what is a genre?

– basic definition – a literary term used to describe a group of works with similar characteristics such as characters, themes, and setting.

Seems easy enough. Until you see the list of genres :) Now, let's take a look at some definitions. There are more genres than you can shake a stick at – really. So this list nowhere near completes the possibilities, but these are the most common.

Action/Adventure: Often, though not always, aimed at a male audience. Contains elements of physical action, violence, danger (physical, global, etc), hazards, travel to exotic locations (jungles, deserts, tropical islands). Storylines often contain use of weapons, technology, martial arts. Can and often do contain elements of humor. Examples include the James Bond films, Indiana Jones, the Die Hard movies, the Rush Hour movies, the Mummy movies.

Chick-Lit: geared toward women, often urban settings, includes elements of romance, humor, professional struggles, relationships. Examples include Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex and the City.

Contemporary: Mostly used to denote the setting. If you have a mystery that is set in present time, on this planet, etc, you could call it a Contemporary Mystery.

Experimental: Usually edgy in style or content. Pulp Fiction would be a good example.

Fantasy: Fantasy stories are set on other worlds or in other realities. You can have vampires or werewolves or fairies, but in general, fantasy creatures tend to be more…fantastic, mythological – dragons, gryphons, three-headed dog beasts. Magic is a huge element of fantasy stories. Here is a little test: if you can take away the “weird” in the story (i.e. the beasts, the magic) and the world you are left with is still not the normal, everyday world you know, it’s a fantasy story. Lord of the Rings is a fantasy.

--Urban Fantasy – this genre is actually closer to a paranormal than a fantasy. These stories deal with magical or paranormal elements in a real world, contemporary (or urban) setting. Many paranormal books could also be classified as Urban Fantasy, including Twilight, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake and Merry Gentry series, and The Dresden Files.

General: This is kind of a blanket genre for anything that doesn’t fit in any of the other categories. On Golden Pond is an example of general fiction.

Historical: Portrays fictionalized accounts of real life historical events or people. In non-fiction and fiction, a story set in the 1940s or 1950s could be considered historical, and definitely anything set early than that. Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Sister and Anchee Min’s The Last Emperor are examples of historical fiction. This does not apply to Historical Romance. For Romance, anything after 1910 is still contemporary (for now…this may change the farther into the 2000s we get).

Horror: The plot usually contains threats to the main characters that often end in death or torture. Horror stories try to create a sense of horror, terror, and revulsion in its readers. This type of story doesn’t have to end happily. One or all of the good guys can lose. Stephen King's The Shining is a great example.

Humor/Comedy: The main goal of this genre is to make the reader laugh. Often combined with other elements such as romance and action/adventure. Austin Powers and Men In Black are examples of humor.

Inspirational: Mostly Christian-based storylines, though points of view of other religions are becoming more popular. Stories contain elements of faith and religion; working through life problems with a focus on a character’s beliefs and religion. An example of inspirational fiction is Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly series.

Literary: This one can be hard to define. Nathan Bransford has an excellent post about this. Literary fiction tends to be more geared to the characters, the inner workings of their minds and hearts. It does need to have a plot, but as Nathan states, the plot is often beneath the surface, whereas in commercial fiction, the plot is on the surface. Examples would be Out of Africa and Gilead.

Middle Grade: Geared toward preteens. Often have a moral message or lesson; the character learn about self-esteem, confidence, friendship, etc. Charlotte’s Web and Nim’s Island are examples.

Mystery: The plot is geared toward the solving of a problem, often, but not always, murder. Subplots are fine (many have a romantic element), but the “problem” (i.e. the mystery) presented at the beginning must be resolved. Murder on the Orient Express is an example.

Niche: This type of book will only appeal to a certain niche of reader. For example, if I wrote a fiction book about frogs that lived in Texas, and that was all the book was about, it would only appeal to those that liked frogs or the state of Texas. So, I would query my hypothetical book Frogs of Texas as Niche Fiction.

Paranormal: Paranormal stories are set in the real world, the world as we know it…with a little extra thrown in. Vampires, shapeshifters, fairies, elves, witches, demons, gargoyles, ghosts, psychics, mediums, telepaths, time travelers…these all belong in the paranormal world. Use the same test as we used for the fantasy worlds…if you can take away the “weird” factors and you are left with our everyday world = paranormal. For example, if you take away the sparkling, gorgeous vampire, or vengeful ghost, or the time portal the main characters travel through, and you are left with everyday Earth – your story is paranormal fiction. Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse vampire books are examples of paranormal fiction.

Romance: The plot of a romance centers around a couple that fall in love and have a “happily ever after” ending. This is a must; there are no exceptions. If your couple is not happily in love and together at the end of your book, it’s not a romance. It might be a love story (in which case, it would go under women’s fiction) but a romance has to have a "happily ever after." You can have subplots, but the main plotline must be about the couple’s romance. Now, there are so many subgenres to the Romance genre (many totally unique to romance) that I will do a separate post on these next week, so stay tuned.

Science-Fiction: This one is actually pretty self-explanatory. It’s fiction about science. The plot usually has something to do with science or technology and has to be within the realm of possibility. Stories are often set in the future or on other planets. Star Wars, Stargate and Star Trek fall in this category, as do I, Robot, Starship Troopers, Dune, Ender’s Game, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, A Wrinkle in Time, and Jurassic Park.

Suspense: While often lumped together, suspense novels are generally not as intense as thrillers. The threat is often directed at the main character. Can include many elements but often includes mystery, murder, a little romance, danger, action.

Thriller: More intense than suspense; the threat is often against a larger group than just the main character (threats against the community, a city, a country, the world). Usually about life and death situations where ordinary heroes are up against mastermind villains. Generally lots of action and plot twists. The Da Vinci Code, The Hunt for Red October and Enemy of the State are examples.

Western: These are generally set in the Western United States before 1900. There are also contemporary westerns. An example of a Western is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

Women's: There are several different sub-genres, but in general this genre is geared toward women; a woman is the main character and her development, life, experiences, etc, are the backbone of the story. Think Fried Green Tomatoes.

Young Adult: These books can include any genre but the main character should be the same age as the readers the story is geared toward (teens, 13-18). There can be romance but this element is usually on the tame side. Examples are the Harry Potter books, Twilight, Vampire Academy, and Wicked Lovely.

Once you have your genre down, you can pick your subgenres if necessary. However, do not list your book with more than three genres. If at all possible, keep it to two. You have to be able to narrow your book down. Remember our question. What shelf should it be on in a bookstore? It can only go in one section, so pick wisely. :) You might have six different elements in your book, but stick to the main two.

Really, the only two instances three genres might be necessary is for historicals and Young Adults. One because it tells the time period and the other because it tells the age the book is geared toward. My current book is YA Urban Fantasy. This isn’t overboard, but querying your book as a Mystery Thriller Urban Fantasy Women’s fiction with romantic and science fiction elements is a bit much. Your book may contain all of those but you don’t need to give it all away.

I do not mean to ignore non-fiction genres, but this list was getting very long and for the most part, they are pretty self-explanatory so I left them out of this post. However, if anyone is interested, please let me know either in the comments or by email (my address is in the list on the right) and I will do a post on non-fiction genres at a later date.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Can YOU Query a Tune? A Query Contest!

Okay my little QT-patooties, it's contest time again!

The inspiration for this contest came when I inadvertently composed a query song.

I have a mock-up book trailer for my novel, The Edge of Memory. For the background music, I used the song with the lyrics snippet that inspired me with the novel idea. UMG has approved personal use of the song on youtube. However, if I ever published the book, I wouldn't be able to use Half Acre any more. Which has caused me to ponder on odd occasions what I would use instead.

A few weeks ago, a tune* popped into my head (This happens to me from time to time. Usually, I forget them.) When I have access to a piano keyboard, I plot them out and write them down. Sans keyboard, though, the only way I'll ever remember them later is to make up lyrics to them.

With lyrics, I'll remember the tune indefinitely. As evidence, I submit my full recollection of the pop tune I wrote in the 80's titled It's a Fantasy Which is GRIPPING, I tell you.

So I wrote lyrics to the tune. About my book. A musical query, so to speak.

In her hands unfolded is a letter unclear

The search for its meaning will take her from here

When she follows the train tracks to places unknown

She'll uncover dark secrets and make them her own.


As haunted now as haunted then

Still haunted by "Remember when..."

Truth doesn't always set you free

At the razor's edge of memory.

As someone who bursts into song without provocation, I love the idea of musical queries. And what better way to get musical queries than a QT query contest?

So here are the rules:

1. The contest will run for one week. Submissions will be accepted until 6 pm EST on 5-5-09
2. Your song should include at least one verse and a chorus.
3. An actual tune is optional (but STRONGLY encouraged)
4. Parodies are totally cool with me, so you can just say "To the tune of ___".
5. Since this is not an agent contest, query songs for unfinished (or
completely imaginary) manuscripts are acceptable.

Post your query lyrics as a comment on this thread. If you have an actual tune of your own, you can upload it to imeem.com or similar and include the link. And I wouldn't discourage any youtube performances, either.

My favorite entry will receive a fabulous prize!

A copy of Agent Demystified by Authoress of Miss Snark's First Victim.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the query process and the hunt for an agent, this is the book for you!

*Please bear in mind that the only music-writing education I had was a 4-week special lesson in third grade, so I wasn't able to transcribe the tune perfectly, and the timing is a smidge off in this sample.

H. L. Dyer, M.D. writes women's fiction and works as the Clinical and Academic Director for the Hospitalist Program at a pediatric teaching hospital near Chicago. In addition to all things literary, she enjoys experimental cooking and composing impromptu parodies to annoy close friends and family. Click to visit her personal blog, Trying to Do the Write Thing.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Interview - Literary Agent Anna Webman

I first met Anna Webman last August when I had the honor of sharing some of my work with her. She was an absolute delight to correspond with. When the time came for me ask agents for interviews, Ms. Webman was at the top of my list.

From Curtis Brown LTD's website:
Anna Webman began at Curtis Brown working with Elizabeth Harding, and is now an associate agent. Anna has a small, select list and is interested in all categories of children's books authors and illustrators. She is always on the lookout for first-time authors and is particularly interested in stories with unique voices with something to say. Her ideal book would be one that has both a driving narrative and beautiful language. Anna graduated from The George Washington University and lives in Manhattan with her rescue dog Vinny.

You may recognize some of the interview questions; several weeks ago in a shout-out to our readers you weighed in on what questions you'd like us to pose to agents. Without further ado, I give you the interview:

Why agenting? A lifelong dream, or something that happened serendipitously?
I was raised by a literary agent, so I guess you could say it’s in my genes. I think it took me a little while to come to terms with the fact that I actually wanted to work in the same industry as my mother. When I first began working as Elizabeth Harding’s assistant, I thought I might want to eventually move over to the editorial side. After a few months I was hooked—I really love the business side of things: working with creative people, reading, editing, negotiating, matching author’s works with an editor and a house, and figuring out how best to help clients manage their careers.

What would you like to see more of as an agent? As a reader?

As an agent, I would like to see more quality writing and to sell books that I respond to so immediately and thoroughly that I can’t put them down or stop thinking about them. As a reader, I would like exactly the same thing.

What's the most common mistake you see authors making in their queries?

I think it’s probably not staying on topic. I get so many queries where authors give a lot of superfluous information about themselves. Track record is significant, but other than that, for fiction, the manuscript should speak for itself. Another common mistake I see is authors not addressing their query letter to me (I can’t tell you how often I receive letters addressed Dear “Mr. Curtis Brown”, “Editor” or “Agent”).

What’s the one thing an author can do to catch your eye? How can authors get agents to look beyond the query letter?

A compelling query letter, with no typos is a good place to start. And then to make sure to send the first couple pages of a manuscript along with the query letter.

What is projected to be the next big thing in publishing for children and teens? What trend do you see dying?

I really don’t think it’s possible to know for sure what the “next big thing” will be. I think perhaps mysteries because they really have been underserved and there seems to be a market for them—Perhaps what will work for this market is mysteries with other elements-like Scholastic’s 39 CLUES series or Harper’s THE AMANDA PROJECT. Another growth area might be novels illustrated in interesting ways- not graphic novels, but other kinds of illustration with narrative. For example, THE DOLL PEOPLE by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, illustrated by Brian Selznick.

Is it possible to do YA without the "edgy" element? What is too edgy in YA?

Yes! I do absolutely think great YA can be done without being edgy. I shared this with some colleagues and we couldn’t think of anything that is too edgy these days. The canvas is very big and wide open. Perhaps the only caveat is that there should be an element of ultimate triumph/hope rather than despair.

Do you often choose to represent works that only you would personally read and enjoy or do you aim to represent works that you know will sell, even if you don't like them?
It’s a very fine line. I’ve found that I’m most successful in representing authors whose work I either love personally or whose appeal I understand in an intuitive way. However, this is such a subjective business, so I don’t want to limit myself. Fortunately, those also tend to be books that I believe will sell.

With the economic slow down as it is, are you signing fewer new clients and focusing on the ones you already have?
I am still building my list, so I am definitely looking for new clients. Honestly, I don’t know of any agent who would ever say their list is completely full, regardless of the economy. Who wants to be known as the agent who turned down the next big literary phenomenon?

Do you ever get a chance to read for fun? What book do you not represent that you wish you did?

I always to try to be in the process of reading one “for pleasure” adult book (it can take me months to actually complete an entire book). And I’m also constantly reading the current YA, middle-grade and picture books, which is both fun and a great way to stay on top of the market.

If you could offer one piece of advice to aspiring authors everywhere, what would it be?
I think it would be to read as many books as possible in the genre you write, and then be able to openly accept criticism and learn from it.

And now, just for fun, I'll hit you with the Fast Five:
Coffee or tea? Coffee
Courier or Times New Roman? Times New Roman
Cruise or Self-Guided Tour? Self-Guided Tour
3 chapters or 50 pages? 3 chapters
Guilty pleasure? Watching Gossip Girl and shopping online

Anna, thank you so much for taking the time to give our readers a glimpse into the uber-secret world of agents. Readers, be sure to mention the QueryTracker Blog when you query Ms. Webman.

For those of you unfamiliar with the QueryTracker.net main site, everything you need to know about querying Ms. Webman is here, including links to Publishers Marketplace, AAR, the Curtis Brown LTD website, and many others. With a free membership, QueryTracker.net helps you find agents and track your queries. To get up to speed on the what, why and who of QueryTracker, read this post.

Have a fantastic week!

Suzette Saxton's idea of a perfect day includes a picnic lunch, laughing children, and her laptop. When she's not writing books for kids, Suzette can be found gardening, doing finish carpentry in her home, or walking in the canyon in which she lives.

Plug Your Book! Giveaway Winners

Thank you to everybody who commented on last Thursday's interview with Plug Your Book! Online Book Marketing for Authors author Steve Weber (and especially to Steve, for not only doing the interview with us, but also for answering reader questions)!

We threw the names of each person who commented on the interview into a hat and then drew six.

And the winners are...

Bert Johnson
Annie Louden
wickerkat (Richard)
Remembering Micah
Sherry Dale Rogers

Each of these people has won a free Advanced Reader Copy of Plug Your Book! Please email me (ckaufman) your snail mail address using the email address listed to your right!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Publishing Pulse: Week of 4/20/09

Blog News

Next week will be exciting for the QT Blog authors. On Monday, Suzy will be interviewing Anna Webman from The Curtis Brown Agency. Heather is hosting a query song contest on Tuesday. Michelle will be discussing genres on Wednesday and Carolyn will be hosting a guest blog post by Joanna Stampfel-Volpe, who judged our contest last week. Ms. Volpe will be discussing pitches.

Agent News

Rebecca Gradinger, is now with Fletcher & Company. She represents literary fiction, upmarket commercial fiction, narrative non-fiction, self-help, memoir, humor, parenting, YA, and pop culture. Rebecca is particularly looking for health and medicine, memoir that takes you into unfamiliar worlds, women’s issues of all kinds, cultural studies, and fiction that is simply impossible to stop reading (and if it makes you weep, all the better!)

Rebecca joins a great team of agents at Fletcher & Company, including Swanna MacNair, who has recently been listed on the QueryTracker main site. Swanna has a special love for Southern literature and music. Her other interests include literary fiction, non-fiction, narrative journalism, investigative journalism, international fictions, thrillers, crime, paranormal, cultural studies, medical investigation, Young Adult, self-help, minority literature and smart romance.

Industry News

Early registration for the RWA Conference ends May 31. After early registration ends, the member price goes up from $425 to $475. So if you are planning to attend, get registered!


Writer's Digest is holding its Seventy-eighth Annual Writing Competition. You can compete in ten different categories. Deadline is May 15, 2009.

Blog Posts of Interest

Nathan Bransford's Week in Publishing

Jessica Faust tackles
Queries and why they may not be working.

Chloe Neill and Agent Lucienne Diver will be conducting an online chat in the TKA Chat Room on April 30, 2009 at 9pm EST. Visit the TKA Blog for more details.

Have a great weekend!

Mary Lindsey writes paranormal fiction for children and adults. Prior to attending University of Houston Law School, she received a B.A. in English Literature with a minor in Drama.

Mary can also be found on her website.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Interview & Giveaway with Plug Your Book! Author Steve Weber

Joining us today is Steve Weber, the author of Plug Your Book! Online Book Marketing for Authors. In the words of one reviewer, Plug Your Book! "reveals the most effective and least expensive [online] tools to promote your titles and to increase your exposure."

Steve was also extremely generous in sharing some Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) with us to give away.  We will be drawing six names from among the people who comment on the interview below and announcing winners next week!

QueryTracker Blog: Could you tell us a bit about Plug Your Book?

Steve Weber: About five years ago I wrote my first book, a how-to book about one of my hobbies, selling used and collectible books online -- The Home-Based Bookstore.

In trying to market that book, I made the same mistakes most first-time authors do, I suppose. First, I thought people would automotically buy it, simply because it was available. When that didn't work, I tried advertising. Google's Adwords was all the rage, so I experimented with those pay-per-click ads and Yahoo Publisher ads also, because I'd heard they were so effective. But after wasting a few thousand dollars, I discovered that paid advertising -- even online advertising for a product that appeals to an online audience -- is not very effective. After about three months I gave up on advertising and, as a last resort, started blogging and participating on MySpace and other social-networking sites. Around the same time, I started recruiting some Amazon Top Reviewers to read and review my book.

That's when my book started selling, and it was such an epiphany: All those things I'd been spending money on to promote my book were basically a waste, while the grassroots techniques that cost nothing were extremely effective. So I thought it would be very helpful for other authors to discover this, too. So I wrote Plug Your Book!

QTB: I had the same experience with AdWords, and I know that some of the other QT Bloggers have had great success using social networking sites. How can joining sites like MySpace or Facebook help a writer’s marketing campaign?

SW: The balance of power is shifting to book readers, and away from traditional gatekeepers like professional critics in newspapers and magazines. As a matter of fact, nearly every stand-alone newspaper book section in the country has been killed off in the past couple of years. Online book reviews by "amateurs" are crucial now, especially for new authors. The word of mouth from Amazon customer reviews can be tremendous. So my book has a whole chapter devoted to getting customer reviews on Amazon and encouraging Amazon "Top Reviewers" to review your book.

I consider Amazon the ultimate social network for authors and readers. And Facebook, MySpace and Twitter can be used the same way, while the techniques you'll use (and the audiences of each) are a bit different. Of course, there's also Shelfari and LibraryThing for serious bibliophiles.

QTB: Agents and publishers are increasingly asking unpublished writers to have a platform, or an established “presence” of some kind. How might writers use some of the techniques you talk about to help get their names out there even before they’re published?

SW: Having a blog -- or a MySpace profile where you post your content or stories -- are great ways to build a platform, and they're essentially free.

QTB: Which of the techniques you talk about in the book do you feel is most underused by writers?

SW: Putting sample chapters or stories out there, so that people who've never read your work before can develop a taste for it. It's much more effective than advertising, and you don't have to spend any money doing it.

QTB: So, does this mean everything about publishing and book marketing has changed?

SW: The main thing hasn't changed at all, it's more important than ever: you must write a good book. Successful book marketing starts with a good book.

The Internet amplifies and accelerates word of mouth. So if you have a good book, people are going to find out, and it will work in your favor. However, if your book is weak, readers will figure that out pretty quickly, too. The Internet makes things very transparent, and it's getting extremely hard to sell books -- or anything else -- that doesn't meet expectations.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Willy Wonka & The Publishing Industry

The inspiration for this blog post came when a quote from Willy Wonka popped into my head and seemed to fit my quest for publication.
"There's a hundred billion people in this world, and only five of them will find golden tickets [representation as a debut author]. Even if you had a sack full of money, you probably wouldn't find one. And after this contest [process] is over, you'll be no different from the billions of others who didn't find one."

"But I am different. I want it more than any of them."

The more I recalled from that film, the more appropriate it seemed. So, here's what I've learned about publishing from Willy Wonka:

1. You should never, ever doubt what nobody is sure of. If there's one refrain everyone and their brother is singing, it's that publishing is subjective. Rejections are expected, even for eventual best-sellers. A particular genre or topic or plot device may be unanimously declared cliché, or overdone, and yet opinions can change in a split-second based on fresh execution. So, all you can hope to do is keep writing what you love, and hoping someone else comes along who loves it as much a s you do.

2. Rude demands and entitlement issues will send you down the garbage chute. There have been a lot of posts about this on agent/industry blogs. From moonrat's unproductive lunch, to odd or hostile letters sent to Jennifer Jackson, Colleen Lindsay, Jonathan Lyons and even intern Jodi Meadows... the one clear fact is that these author reactions did not help them get published. Take home point? Be a good egg.

3. In here, all of my dreams become realities, and some of my realities become dreams. I am often surprised at how often control becomes a fundamental point of focus. Part of what I enjoy about writing-- the reason I find it therapeutic-- is that I finally have complete control over something. My characters, their world, and what happens to them depends entirely on what I decide. That is a heady feeling. Interestingly enough, once the writing is finished the next step (if publishing is the goal) means putting yourself in a situation where you have very little control. I think that's why so many authors get frustrated riding the query-go-round and alternately cling to rules and/or declare them arbitrary and unreasonable.

4. There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination. Opening yourself to other people is the only way to share something wonderful you've created. It also means they might disrespect or destroy it. Be ready to filter your chocolate river.

5. A little boy's got to have something in this world to hope for. I struggle with this one a bit personally. I realize rejections are expected. I know thick skin is a publishing industry prerequisite. I know I haven't queried enough to make any assumptions about my chances to be published, but reading the odds can be pretty discouraging. But stories are meant to be shared, so I'll keep a healthy dose of optimism on hand.

6. One is Enough for Anyone. Moonrat once made a lovely post in celebration of the Little Novel That Could. What is striking about this story to me is that sometimes, one champion makes all the difference for a project. Certainly, in order to get a book published, a lot of different people need to believe it can be successful. But sometimes just one person... if it's the right person for the right project... can make them believe.

7. What Are You At, Getting Terribly Fat? I participate in several online writers groups where people share their query letters for critique, and I'm surprised at the number of intelligent, otherwise well-informed folks who seem to be unaware of appropriate lengths for novels. Colleen Lindsay of FinePrint posted a great breakdown of wordcounts by genre a while back.

And finally:

8. Don't let a golden ticket make the chocolate taste terrible. As much as any aspiring author wants to be recognized and published, the publishing process should not be allowed to spoil the experience of writing. It's easy to get swept into the madness of query letters, synopses, and pitchcraft. And I've spent my fair share of time agonizing over query blurb wording (many can testify to that), but it is important, I think, to remember why we started writing in the first place.

Kate on ktliterary posted a while back about Josie Bloss's plans for a tattoo to celebrate the release of her novel Band Geek Love, and asked what other aspiring authors would do to celebrate publication. I think I might sing "Golden Ticket" at the top of my lungs:

I never thought my life could be
Anything but catastrophe
But suddenly I begin to see
A bit of good luck for me.
Cuz I've got a golden ticket
I've got a golden twinkle in my eye.

I never had a chance to shine

Never a happy song to sing
But suddenly half the world is mine
what an amazing thing!

Cuz I've got a golden ticket
I've got a golden chance to make my way
And with a golden ticket
It's a golden day.

H. L. Dyer, M.D. writes women's fiction and works as the Clinical and Academic Director for the Hospitalist Program at a pediatric teaching hospital near Chicago. In addition to all things literary, she enjoys experimental cooking and composing impromptu parodies to annoy close friends and family. Click to visit her personal blog, Trying to Do the Write Thing.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Do You Really Need to Write What You Know?

“Write what you know” is one of the most often heard phrases in the writing world. When I began seriously writing, my first reaction to this bit of advice was, “Oh heck no. No one is going to tell me what to write!” I didn’t want to write what I knew. That would be boring. I wanted to explore new worlds and dive into old ones.

It didn’t make any sense to me because I was hearing it very literally. I kept thinking, “Well, if writers only wrote what they knew, we’d have no fantasy or scifi or historical novels.” I mean, unless people were out there falling in love with vampires or having their home planets overrun by meat-eating aliens, it just wasn’t possible to always write what you know.

What I finally realized was that the best writers really do write what they know. Now, does that mean Stephenie Meyer has recently run into a family of vegetarian, sparkling vampires? Or that J.K. Rowling once stumbled upon a whole community of magical kids running around undetected by all the muggles somewhere in Britain? Of course not! (Well, not that I’m aware of in any case).

So how do writers write what they know? They infuse their stories with all of the emotions, knowledge, and life that they’ve experienced and use all of it to build their characters and storyworlds into incredible books that suck their readers into a new reality. I’m willing to bet that Ms. Meyer has, at some point in her life, experienced fear and loss and that total exhilaration of first love. J.K. Rowling was certainly never a magical teenage boy fighting a weird, snake-looking wizard…but she probably knows what it feels like to be terrified, excited, helpless, alone…to find friends who love you, fight for something you want, and maybe have things turn out great in the end.

To write what you know, you need to write about something you care about, something that touches you. That connection you have to your subject will come through in your work.

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut sums it up perfectly:

Find a subject you care about and which in your heart you feel others should care about. It is the genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

Agent Rachelle Gardner had a great post about writing what you know last year. In her opinion:

Write what you know means write with authenticity about thoughts, feelings, experiences of life. Be honest. Write from a deep place. Don't write from the surface. Whether you're writing about parenthood or cancer or anything else... be real.

Don't reflect what you know from other people or the media... write what you know from your own inner life.

There is a more literal approach to the “write what you know” statement as well. It really is necessary to be familiar with your genre and the world of which you are writing. There are little quirks and “rules” to every genre – what works for a romance might not always work for a thriller.

Agent Scott Eagan posted about this in his blog a few months ago. He stated:

It is crucial for you to write in the niche that you know the best. By doing so, you understand the twists and turns to that genre that others might not get. More importantly, you understand the voice that is commonly associated with that genre.

This can also be an area when a little research can come in handy. If you are writing a book set in Ancient Greece, it is necessary for you to do enough research that you really know what you are talking about. Otherwise, you will never be able to truly transport your readers into the world you are trying to describe. Mary wrote a wonderful post about how familiarity breeds authenticity. You may not be able to personally experience the day Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii, or what it is like to live beneath the ocean, but you can familiarize yourself enough with the pertinent details that you can convince your readers that your characters are living through those experiences.

This applies to the worlds you create yourself as well. Fantasy and science fiction writers create their own worlds, true. But there are certain rules even within the realms of fictional worlds. Maybe in your world, women have supernatural powers and men don’t. Or maybe blondes can see the future and brunettes can fly. You can make whatever rules you’d like for your universe, but you have to stick to them. And you have to have enough knowledge of that world to convince your reader that the experiences and emotions of your characters are authentic and appropriate for the world in which they live.

When you write a book, you want to suck your reader into your world – whether that world is set in the past, the present, the future, or on some other planet or reality…you need to know enough about that world, your characters, and the things they will feel and experience to draw your readers in. Using your own emotions and experiences, and your own specialized knowledge about the world you are creating, will help you craft an amazing story.

In other words, my dear writers…yes, write what you know ;-)

Michelle McLean writes YA fiction, children’s picture books, and adult non-fiction, and has been published in three Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She holds a B.S. in History and a M.A. in English. If her nose isn’t stuck in a book somewhere, you might want to check her pulse.

Monday, April 20, 2009

One Line Winners!

Wow, everyone should be thinking good thoughts about Ms. Stampfel-Volpe. Talk about a lot of reading. Not only that, but she's volunteered to do a guest-blog post for us on writing the pitch! So watch for that to be coming soon to the QueryTracker blog. Thanks Joanna!

Winners, please email me (Elana) at my querytracker address (the same one you sent your entries to) for specific submission details and instructions.

Here's what Joanna had to say:

This was a very difficult contest to judge! In the end, there were twenty-seven pitches that I really liked, but I still had to whittle that number down to the four winners out of a serious variety of genres and themes. What won out in the end is high concept and something fresh or with a fresh twist. But I still have to reiterate--it was freaking hard!

To everyone that participated, thank you so much for making this a fun experience for me. And although I may not have picked your pitch, I hope to still see queries from you in the future.

Joanna Stampfel-Volpe

3rd Place: Submission of first 10 pages
Danny Bryan - On their way to happily ever after, the Princess Detectives must first contend with a mysterious death, an impossible jewel heist, multiple kidnappings, a very inconvenient poisoning, and a jester's truly horrific jokes.

2nd Place: Submission of first 30 pages
Jocelyn Rish - After the body she discovers in the woods disappears, seventeen-year-old Breanna must prove it was not the product of her notorious overactive imagination, but rather the handiwork of a killer who plans to silence her.

1st Place: Submission of first 50 pages
Leanna Weissmann - Sixteen-year-old Lily McPherson is skating for Olympic gold - on a pair of skates she shoplifted from Robinson's Supercenter, the store where her cop father died during a shoot out.

Grand Prize: Submission of full manuscript
Katie Anderson - When you look into someone's eyes, you see his soul, but when sixteen year old Emerson Taylor kisses their lips, she sees their pasts.

Winners, please email Elana (elanajohnson@querytracker.net) for specific submission details and instructions.

Congratulations everyone! Thanks again Joanna!

Elana Johnson writes science fiction and fantasy for young adults. Besides a serious addiction to the Internet, she can never get enough reality TV, Dove dark or reasons to laugh. Click here to visit her blog.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Pulse Update!

There is BIG breaking Queryfail news.

Today is Queryfail round 2 on Twitter. It has been radically revamped and now is being called "Queryday."

Check out the details on Colleen's Lindsay's blog.

Publishing Pulse: Week of 4/13/09

A Big Thank You

The QueryTracker blog's first contest was a resounding success and created quite a stir. Thanks to all the agents who tweeted about it, and to Galley Cat for posting an article. It has been an uplifting experience to work with our readers, and we here at the blog can't thank you enough for your entries and support. We also want to shout out a BIG thank you to Joanna Stampfel-Volpe. She has been absolutely amazing to work with. Winners and prizes will be announced on the blog this Monday.

Agent News

Lauren McLeod joined the Strothman Agency. Ms. McLeod is drawn to highly polished literary fiction. Her specialties include young adult and middle-grade fiction and nonfiction of all types. You can also find her on Twitter.

Ethan Bassof has moved into agenting at Inkwell Management. He's looking for literary and commercial fiction, narrative nonfiction, science writing, pop culture, humor and religion books.

Congratulations to Meg Thompson for her promotion to agent at LJK Literary Management, where she has been working since its inception. She is interested in new media projects, narrative non-fiction, politics, and books on popular culture and humor.

After 18 years of experience in the publishing world, Lisa Leshne can be found at LJK Literary Management. Ms. Leshne is especially interested in non-fiction, memoirs, literary fiction and popular fiction, plus historical novels and business, political and popular culture topics.


Blooming Tree Press has announced its annual Bloom Award writing contest. This year's genre is middle Grade mystery, adventure, or who-done-it. The grand prize will include a book contract. Check out Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog for all the details.

Writer's Digest has opened its Annual Writing Competition. Entry details regarding genres, prizes, deadlines, etc., are available on their website. The grand prize winner gets $3000 and a trip to New York to meet with agents and editors.

The Knight Agency's Book in a Nutshell contest ends the 20th, so this is your last chance to enter!

Book Giveaway and Interview

Next week on the QueryTracker Blog, Carolyn Kaufman will be interviewing Steve Weber, author of Plug Your Book! Online Book Marketing for Authors, Book Publicity through Social Networking. Stay tuned for details about how to win your own copy!

Blogs of Interest

AmazonFail made waves on Twitter over the holiday weekend.

Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown Literary and Talent Agency weighs in on AgentFail. Check out her comments on Gretchen McNeil's blog.

Query Fail: How Not to Land an Agent sums up everything that makes an agent hit the eject button.

Jessica Faust of BookEnds sheds light on the recent Rise in Queries.

Have a fantastic weekend!

Suzette Saxton's idea of a perfect day includes a picnic lunch, laughing children, and her laptop. When she's not writing books for kids, Suzette can be found gardening, doing finish carpentry in her home, or walking in the canyon in which she lives.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Research Tips: How to Find Your Information Without Losing Your Mind

Every writer, at some point, will need to do a little research. But most writers I’ve spoken to just don’t know where to start…or don’t have the time. Being one of those weird individuals that enjoys research and studying, I spent years learning and practicing how to research. Now, the tips I will list here definitely do NOT include any and all possibilities. This is simply how I go about finding those obscure little facts that give my manuscripts that extra ounce of authenticity.

When I first started to really pursue writing, I focused mainly on historical settings, which, as you can imagine, requires a LOT of research. Though my genres have changed a bit recently, research is still a very important part of my writing process. As a stay at home mom with two small children, I don’t have the time (or energy) to attempt to do research in a library as I once did. Before having children, I would spend hours wandering among the shelves, pulling book after book and relaxingly browsing for the information I needed. With a three year old and a five year old and a husband who is very often out of town….this just isn’t an option for me anymore. Therefore, I do most of my research on the internet.

1. First of all, you need to know what exactly it is that you need to research.
Do you need to know if toilets were widely used in 1856? Maybe you need to know what a bottle of poison would have looked like in 1662, or what a pistol from 1734 looked like and how it was used.

  • Make a list, keep a binder, create a spreadsheet. You need to have some way of recording your information. For me, I create a document in my word processor and a file folder for research within the file for whatever Work In Progess I happen to be working on. I also print a copy of whatever information I record and keep it in a WIP binder. When I am writing, it is actually easier for me to refer to the binder than to flip back and forth between Word documents.

Once I know what I want to look for, I hit the internet. Google is my best friend. It really is amazing what you can find online.

2. Book Search.
When you google a topic, it almost always pulls up Amazon.com with a few titles. Many times, you can search the index or table of contents of these books on the Amazon site. This is very helpful. You can also specifically google for books on a particular subject. If you need info on toilets, google for “books on toilets,” or “books on the history of plumbing,” etc.

  • Utilize Your Local Library. Once I get several titles that look promising, I get on my local library’s website and see if they carry the books in question. As I live in a tiny town, my library very rarely has the book in which I am interested. However, I can request the book through interlibrary loans without ever having to leave my home. When they come in, all I have to do is run down to the library and pick them up from the desk…relatively simple, even with two children in tow.

3. Scholarly and Scientific Journals.
These are a great place to find information Again, this is something you can plug into Google.

  • Search For Your Topic. Do a google search for “scholarly journal articles on pirates in the 16th century” and see what pops up.
  • Utilize Your Local Library. Many scholarly journals will require you to have a subscription or membership, but again, here is where online library tools come in handy. Even if you can’t get the full article online, you can usually get enough of an excerpt to see if it will help you. If it is something that you need, but you can’t get it online for free, check your local library. Libraries carry many, many scholarly journals and magazines. If they don’t have what you are looking for, they should be able to get it. And with journal articles, many times they are able to just email or fax you a copy of the article in question.

4. Online Sites and Sources.
There are also many, many online sites and sources of which you can take advantage.

  • Personal Websites and Forums. When I was doing a search for 17th century pistols, I did a little google searching and it pulled up a website of people who were pirate aficionados. They wore the outfits, collected the guns (either replicas or sometimes the real article). There were pictures and forums and these wonderful people are usually more than happy to answer questions for someone who is truly interested. Don’t be afraid to jump in with both feet and ASK SOMEONE.
  • Ask an Expert. When researching what kind of flowers would bloom in England in January, I emailed a horticulture society and they sent me several pages of information on all types of British winter flora. I once emailed a website of physicians on whether or not a 100-year-old skeleton would still have hair, and got a very detailed answer from an expert on the subject. It took me five minutes and all my questions were answered. All you have to do is find the right place or person and just ask.

5. Online Encyclopedias and Information Sites.

  • Proceed with Caution. Sites like Wikipedia and Ask.com are handy, and you can get information quickly, but you need to remember that this information is written by whoever wants to answer the question, so be sure to double (if not triple) check your information. I generally use these type of sites for a quick memory refresher…if there is something that I am pretty sure I know, but want to double check, I’ll look it up on Wikipedia.
  • Use as a Starting Point. These sites aren’t bad to use as a starting point. Wikipedia especially often has sources listed at the end of their articles. These sites can be a useful place to get titles of books and articles to further your own research. Beware the articles that do NOT have sources listed. These are the ones that are more likely to contain inaccurate information. And again, I would urge any good researcher to double check the information they find.

There is a wealth of information at your fingertips – you can find most of what you need without ever leaving your home or computer.
Michelle McLean writes YA fiction, children’s picture books, and adult non-fiction, and has been published in three Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She holds a B.S. in History and a M.A. in English. If her nose isn’t stuck in a book somewhere, you might want to check her pulse.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why Attend a Writers' Conference?

Recently, I was following a thread on a forum regarding writers' conferences. After some discussion about conferences, someone
asked if it was worth going if there wasn't an agent representing his/her genre.

Lots of folks answered, "no." Some even said that it was a waste of money to attend more than one conference because once you've been to one, well, you've "been there, done that."

I disagree.

Now, let me preface my dissent by saying before you plunk down a substantial chunk of cash for a conference, you should decide why you are going. Be realistic. Do you expect to walk out with an offer for your book? Offers at conferences are rare. What you need to do in addition to dreaming big is to set a reasonable goal. Is that goal worth the money?

If the only goal is to pitch an agent or editor, it's essential to research and be sure there is an agent/editor in attendance who represents your genre. Even if you don't get your first choice of pitch appointments, don't be discouraged. You'll have chances to talk to your preferred editor or agent at some point during the conference. As a general rule, agents and editors make themselves available at meals, between workshops and at the bar. Some conferences specifically schedule casual time to chat up the editors and agents, like a cocktail hour at the end of the day. You have to decide that your goal is worth the effort and find the nerve to go introduce yourself. Be sure to have your 30-second pitch ready. Informal meetings do not lend themselves to a full book description.

Now, there are plenty of other reasons to go to conferences. I attend several a year. I don't go because I want to learn what an agent does, how to query an agent, or how to write a synopsis. I'm pretty well versed on those topics, but sometimes I attend workshops on them because it's nice to have different people's takes on agent basics. You can never know everything.

I ask myself two things when I select my conferences: 1. What industry professionals are going to be there? I'm not just talking agents and editors. I'm talking published authors and other industry professionals. 2. What workshops/discussion panels are being offered?

I have a secret third criterion: Does it look like fun?

Okay. The third one is subjective. I must say though, that if you've ever attended an RWA or RWA chapter conference, you know what I'm talking about. RWA conferences are flat-out fun. Compared to the multi-genred conferences I attend, there seems to be a higher proportion of published authors who just go to sell books, hang out and have fun.

I attended an RWA chapter conference in Dallas last weekend and had a blast. The hotel internet went down so everyone hung out at the bar after the sessions were over for the day. Not only did I get to catch up with local writers who had driven up from Houston like I had, I met writers from all over the country. New friends. I loved it. I came home energized and ready to write. If you aren't a social person, this networking aspect might not appeal.

My goal for this most recent conference was simple. I attended for the express purpose of meeting other writers--especially those with extensive publishing experience. The workshops were great, but I learned more from sitting around in the bar with other writers. It's nice to come out of seclusion and socialize with other people who have been holed up behind their computers, too. Writing is a lonely job. Conferences take the sting out.

Okay. Is a big, fun, networking party worth hundreds of dollars? For me it is, but for most unpublished authors, pitching is the primary purpose of a conference. I totally get that. All I'm saying is, before you go to the next one, decide, "What's in it for me?"

I came out of this last conference with exactly what I'd hoped for: New friends, excellent connections and some killer writing tips.

I'm headed to a conference today, in fact. Alas, it's not a fun writers' conference. It's a boring legal conference. I'm going to keep hubby company. Yawn. It's okay. I'm taking my computer in the hopes of cranking out some chapters.

Have a fantastic day.


Mary Lindsey writes paranormal fiction for children and adults. Prior to attending University of Houston Law School, she received a B.A. in English Literature with a minor in Drama.

Mary can also be found on her website.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Angst, Mental Illness, and Creativity

Everyone talks about angst-ridden creative people, and I've had several readers ask me if angst is in fact a necessary ingredient for creativity. Since angst means different things to different people, I decided the best place to start was the dictionary:

Angst (n.) (ängkst)

1. A German word that refers to “A feeling of anxiety or apprehension often accompanied by depression.”

2. Fanfiction writers also use the word to help categorize some forms of fanfic: “Putting the characters and by extension the readers through deep emotional and possibly physical pain.”

Mental Illness

Some people take the definition of angst a lot farther. They believe writers need to be at least a little touched by madness. Interestingly, there is a strong positive correlation between bipolar disorder (aka manic depression) and creativity. According to Frederick Goodwin and Kay Redfield Jamison, both giants in the study of bipolar disorder:

It is counterintuitive that such a destructive illness could be associated with imagination or great works of art. Yet the perceived association is a persistent cultural belief and one that is backed by data from many studies… The argument is not that manic-depressive illness and its related temperaments are essential to creative work; clearly they are not. Nor do we argue that most people who have bipolar or recurrent depressive illness are creative; they are not. The argument is, rather, that a disproportionate number of eminent writers and artists have suffered from bipolar spectrum disorders and that, under some circumstances, creativity can be facilitated by such disorders.
From Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley, from Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan to Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King, depression or bipolar illness is disproportionately common in creative geniuses.

Is Angst Necessary?

Now, if bipolar disorder and depression are common in creative geniuses, and angst is a description of how people with those disorders often feel, does that mean angst is necessary to the creative process?

Looking at the psychological research…no. Interestingly, people who are creative have more in common with people who are bipolar than they do with “normal” people, but the commonalities lie not necessarily in mood disturbances, but rather in idiosyncratic thinking patterns, in enthusiasm and passion for their art, in how easily they can produce new and strange ideas. In many cases, people who are bipolar and creative are better able to express themselves creatively when they are being appropriately treated for their disorders.

Part of what makes being creative with a mental illness so difficult is the behaviors that result. Alcoholism is found in over 50% of the people with bipolar disorder. Drug abuse is also extremely high. Periods of despair can be so intense that the individual can hardly get out of bed, let alone create something. And of course the rate of suicide and suicide attempts is much higher than in creative people who aren’t also struggling with a mental illness.

The way I think of it is like this — there is an overlap between “creative” genes and “bipolar/depressive” genes. And while some people, like Kurt Cobain, feel much more creative when they’re in the manic phase of bipolar disorder, they may also be less coherent (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” lyrics, anyone?), and they also have to deal with the crash of depression (Cobain committed suicide). Research also suggests that over time depressive/bipolar illnesses gnaw away at creativity. In a study done with children , “we found a negative correlation of illness duration with…creativity ; the longer the children were sick, the less creative they were.” So overall, the illness becomes a hindrance to creativity, rather than a help.

Angst vs. Soul

An ex of mine was an amazing artist, technically. He could reproduce anything he saw, often without ever lifting the pencil. I’ve never seen someone who could draw like he could without ever needing to erase. He didn’t need to work the image over and over from rough to smooth — he just produced an immaculate image the first time.

He spoke at one point to some galleries about displaying his work, but he was turned down. One director was kind enough to give him some feedback. She told him something was “missing” from his work.

He thought it was angst. But it wasn’t. (He got to share mine, and it didn’t affect his art at all. I checked.) What he was missing was soul.

So I don’t think it’s angst that we all need to produce good stuff. It’s soul.

Dr. Carolyn Kaufman is a clinical psychologist and professor residing in Columbus, Ohio. A published writer, she runs Archetype Writing: Psychology for Fiction Writers and an associated blog. She is often quoted by the media as an expert resource. E-mail Dr. Kaufman at her querytracker email address (at right) if you have psychology/writing questions -- she may answer them in a future QT blog post!