QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Author Quality: A Thirst for Knowledge

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” ~Confucius

Today I’m going to be pontificating on a quality I believe all authors should possess—the thirst for knowledge. It’s sort of like the quest for the Holy Grail, except not quite as life-threatening. Or filled with Nazis.

In order to become a better writer, you [probably] have a few things to learn. How do you go about learning said things? The first step is acknowledging that you do not know everything. The second is to have a desire to learn more, become better. Without first accepting these two truths, you can’t move forward. So are you good? You know you’re not perfect and you’re ready to learn more?

Sweet! Onward and upward, then. I’m first going to examine a few different areas of the author’s life. There are new and exciting things to learn in each arena. If this overwhelms you, pick one and at least just get started.

1. On writing. I haven’t earned a degree in creative writing. Or English Literature. Or anything writing related. Does that mean I can’t be a successful writer? Of course not. Now, if I choose to ignore basic laws of grammar and spelling, then perhaps. If I refuse the help of others, if I won’t read and research and constantly strive to improve my craft, then yes.

There are many, many ways to learn the technical aspects of writing. I’ve read articles on “show, don’t tell”, comma rules, and a pantheon of other writing helps. I’ve attended conferences, online writing workshops and participated in critique groups. All of these things help me to become a better technical user of words.

Go forth. Learn to be a better writer.

2. On Formatting. When I sat down to write a novel, I didn’t realize the whole 1-inch margin, 12-point font, double space, single sided thing. These things came with time, with research and with discussion between fellow authors and / or reading publishing blogs. I’m not here to tell you which font to use or what these guidelines are. I’m just saying there is a “standard” way to format your documents that makes you look like a professional.

I think most of you know by now that I believe in the author being confident in themselves. If you prefer Courier, use Courier. Me? I’m a TNR girl all the way. You wanna know why? It’s the default in Word, and I’m just too darn lazy to change that. (lol)

But seriously. There are appropriate ways to format submissions, so take the time to learn what you need to know before submitting.

Climb higher. Format your perfect words perfectly.

3. On Querying. I have a whole post on researching agents and learning as much as you can about them as a person coming up so I’m not going to touch on that here. No, this is about writing the query letter and understand how publishing works.

This one actually has several steps. The first thing you need to do is understand that the querying game is a part of publishing. There’s no sense in going all ape about it. If I told you how many hoops I have to jump through to stay certified as a teacher, you’d die. (I actually pay money to print my own renewal certificate. At my own house. On my own lame copy paper. Srsly.) This is the same thing, trust me. Right now, agents accept queries. So you better know what one is. And do as much research and soul-searching as you can as you write one.

There are many fabulous spots to get your letter critiqued. There are many “formulas” and helps (one by none other than yours truly) that you can find and use. I want to say this: discover the way that works for you and do it. If you like Noah Lukeman’s formula, use it. If you like mine, use it. If you like a combination of both, do that. If you feel like pioneering a new formula, have at it (although I wouldn’t go the sequined feather route). This all goes back to believing in yourself and having confidence, something I blogged about a few weeks ago.

No matter what you do, you need to know what a query is, how to write one, and how the process works. This takes time, dedication, confidence and more time. Don’t skip over this important well of knowledge and start sending out random queries or thinking that you know a better way things should be done in the publishing industry.

I have a few more things to say, so I think I'm going to break this topic into two parts. So far in my head, I'm thinking about 4. Submissions 5.Networking and 6. Researching Agents as thirsts every author should be dying to quench. What else should I be thinking about? What do you guys think? How much work have you put into making sure your writing is spot-on? That your formatting is correct? That your query letter is as good as it can be? Do you like this "behind-the-scenes" part of being an author? Which parts DON'T you like?

I adore discussions on publishing-related things, so post your comments, concerns and / or questions!

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.


B.J. Anderson said...

This is such a great post and so true. I'm sure I've spent the total of an entire year sitting in front of the computer researching agents, finding tips on formatting, and searching for ways to write the perfect query letter. There's just no easy way to do it, and if you don't have a thirst for knowledge or if you don't want to take the time to do your research, you're probably not going to do very well in this business.

Abby Annis said...

Ah, research. My favorite form of procrastination. :)

As always--Great post, Elana!

Tabitha said...

Great post! I totally agree that the thirst for knowledge is essential in this industry. I've spent the last ten years or so trying to learn as much about what books are out there, as well as how this industry works. And I'm finally starting to understand it all...and yet there's still so much I don't know. :) Like you said, upward and onward! :)

Yamile said...

I wrote my first novel at the end of last year, and I'm in the process of polishing it and making it better. I love learning new things, and since I'm a compulsive reader, when I become interested on a topic, I research about ti tirelessly. The whole industry side of the writing process is still very overwhelming to me, but I feel the thrill of the challenge. There are hoops to jump in every profession, and for every dream that one has, there are a thousand obstacles to pass. Query letter, formatting, networking, etc. I'll do all I can to do my best, and that has to pay off, right?
Thanks for the wonderful post. It filled me with energy.

Windy said...

Very informative, Elana. Thanks! Looking forward to the next half of the post.

Rene said...

Great post. The learning curve is never ending when it comes to publishing. And every day a new question comes up. But the answer is there. I think it is important to share what you've learned. Always remember you were in someone else's shoes once.

Michelle McLean said...

I always love your posts - full of information, insight and they always make me smile. You are simply made of awesome Elana. And thinking about your discussion on querying, I know a lot of people (myself included) get frustrated at the process - but, as a very wise man I know pointed out recently, while writing may be an art, publishing is a business. And when you are trying to be a professional in any business there are rules you have to follow and hoops you have to jump through and games you have to play. Fun or not, it is the way it is - and my thirst for everything else writing has to offer makes jumping through those hoops a little more tolerable :)

Rebekah Prudhomme said...

Thanks, Elana. I think if we didn't have a thirst for knowledge we wouldn't be here reading your wonderfully helpful posts. I'm with you on TNR for my font! ;) I do have a question. What do find is the best way to research agents? I'm trying to find out about the business side of writing and would appreciate any help you can give me.

Elana Johnson said...

Thanks guys! Bardmaid - I have a plethora of ways to research agents. I'm going to be discussing that probably the first week of June. Or maybe the second, I can't remember which right now.

B.J. I've spent countless hours too! I feel a mind twin....

Good luck everyone!

Lynnette Labelle said...

I've spent the past year or so learning the ins and outs of the craft and the industry. Well worth the time.

Lynnette Labelle

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Elana - I can't even begin to tell you all that I have learned in the last year...BLOWS ME AWAY!!!

Thanks for this!

Stina said...

Great post, Elana.

I definitely have a thirst for knowledge. At least that's the excuse I use for buying/reading all those teen magazines (great for plot and characterization ideas), YA novels, and books on writing (and the industry) that are taking over my half of the bedroom. (My husband can't complain because HIS annual reports are taking over the other half). That's also my excuse for attending the SCBWI conference in LA this summer. You can never learn enough about this industry and the craft of writing.

Bunny Hills said...

I stink at absolutely all of this. Am I a bad person? I must be the LAZIEST writer here...but loved the post, and will continue the uphill battle of being better!

Unknown said...

Great post - I think that so many of your points involve basic research: researching how to do queries, formatting, etc. and as mentioned in another post here, I love research and tend to use it as a method of procrastination.

I'm looking forward to the next post - I absolutely love researching agents and have a nice little list going. Of course, I've done nothing with it yet, partly due to the other querytracker post today about people who write in multiple genres. I'm just not sure which age group/genre I want to submit first. Thanks for the post. :)