QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Holding On While Searching for Success

Courtesy of sqback

Success is one of those tricksy creatures that's neither one thing or another, and usually doesn't look exactly the same for each person. In a way, it reminds me of the magician's egg. (Or it could have been a sorcerer's. I read this fairy tale a long while ago, and have forgotten the name.)

The magician had put his heart into an egg, so of course--he being an evil sort of magician, the hero of the story had to find the egg and destroy it if he wanted to get to the magician.

Which was fine, except the egg didn't stay an egg for long once someone picked it up with the intent to smash it. To the hero's horror, the egg went through a number of transformations--most of them sharp, deadly, poisoned, unpleasant, and pointed.

But the only way to reach the magician's heart in the egg was to hold on no matter what. This advice is all well and good if you're the hero just starting out on the journey, but when you're actually living the tale, the advice doesn't feel so sound anymore.

The egg turns into a viper? Don't let go, even if it's sunk its fangs into your hand. Now it's a ball of fire? Keep a hold of it, never mind the burning. Now it's a bit of fur with razor sharp teeth? A man's soul isn't judged by the number of fingers he keeps in this life. It's a rabbit now? Well, that's ok--er, they're awfully slippery little things, aren't they? And, oh. Yes, they bite too.

In this story, the hero didn't have a lot of choice as to which forms the egg would take. Writers pursuing the dream to be read will also find that they have little to no control over so many important things that will affect the outcome of measurable success. Like finding the right agent (not just an agent, the one who is the right fit), a book deal, book sales, low returns, a beautiful cover, readers, etc.)

But there are two things a writer, just like the hero, can control completely: their preparation and when--or if--it's time to let go.

A writer in search of readers must do their very best to prepare for the journey. This often equates to spending a great deal of time learning, but everyone learns and flowers at a different rate. The important thing is to keep striving to do better and learn more. The moment a hero decides he's learned everything there is to learn, the moment the skills he does have begin to grow rusty. This is also usually the time when a new, unknown monster comes to town, devouring the villagers and destroying the village, and generally needing to be dealt with.

A hero must also resist the urge to compare himself to the horde of heroes in the training yard. Instead of looking on with envy or disdain, a wise hero studies what others are doing and learns from them. A hero who has a good chance of succeeding is also open to new ideas as well as pointers on improvement.

A hero enters the fray with success, not failure, in mind.

(And alas, in both life and the tales, success is never guaranteed--at least success that relies on other people. That's what ballads are for, to remember those who have fallen. And even that's some measure of success, because those heroes wouldn't have fallen if they'd never tried.)

In short, a hero puts in the sweat and time and blood and tears to prepare as best he can, always with an eye on succeeding.

And then there's that other thing. A thing that's sometimes harder than all the hard work that came before. Only the writer can decide when to let go and when to hold on. There will be times, so very many times, when the hero is weaving on his feet and seeing double--if he can even see at all. Those are the times when the hero must decide whether or not to hold on.

Sometimes letting go is the right decision. Maybe what the hero wanted in his heart of hearts was not to defeat the magician, but to discover the path to an underground kingdom. (The portal just happened to be in the magician's study.) And sometimes the hero wants the egg so much, he will hold onto it no matter what it turns into. No matter how it burns or cuts or pains him.

Because to lose the egg, he would be losing a part of himself he isn't willing to part with.

The search for success, no matter where that success may take place in, is a path full of sacrifice, hard work, joy, and a thousand other emotions words have no name for.

Ultimately, we all have our own path to success that will often be unlike those of our friends, our crit partners, or others who have gone on before. But the tools we use to get there are generally something we have in common, no matter what stage we're in or what we're aiming for.

Hard work and tenacity. And wisdom to know when it's time to hold on for dear life, and when it's time to find a new dream.

What are some things you've done to either get ready for the quest or to hold onto the egg?

Danyelle Leafty writes MG and YA fantasy. In her spare time, she collects dragons, talking frogs, and fairy godmothers. She can be found discussing the art of turning one's characters into various animals, painting with words, and the best ways to avoid getting eaten by dragons on her blog. Her serial novel THE FAIRY GODMOTHER DILEMMA can be found here.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Conflict & Characterization: Lessons from an Old Anime

(I promise that what lies below ties in to writing!)

I’m a big fan of this old-school (1972) anime called Gatchaman (and of its American translations…well, some more than others).  Author and friend Jason Hofius wrote a definitive guidebook on one of the American translations, which was called Battle of the Planets (1978), and recently he sent me an email to tell me he’s created a website on the same topic.

So I went tooling around the website, and it struck me that writers could learn a few things from his approach to the information.

Story Conflict

In the Battle of the Planets series, as in most stories, there are bad guys and there are good guys.  The bad guys are from the planet Spectra. Because Spectra is dying, the bad guys run around consuming the resources from the Peaceful Planets and generally trying to destroy the Peaceful Planets using monster mecha machines. The good guys belong to the Intergalactic Federation of Peaceful Planets, which is a very green and scientific sort of group.  The Federation’s most important answer to attacks from Spectra is the 5-person G-Force ninja team. (Please rest assured that this came long before Disney’s elite guinea pig team. The members of this G-Force are human.) 

Here’s what struck me, though. For each and every one of the series’ 85 episodes, Hofius indicates what Spectra is trying to accomplish and what the G-Force team is trying to accomplish.  You  might think this would get ridiculously redundant (for example, Spectra’s Goal: To steal a precious mineral; G-Force’s Goal: To stop the Mecha of the Week and recover the stolen mineral) but it really doesn’t because each side has numerous sub-agendas and internal conflicts (read: subplots).

Your Writing

You may know who your good guys and bad guys are overall, and what each side’s mission is in your story or novel as a whole, but do you know what the key conflict is in each scene?   If your story is moving forward properly, each scene’s conflict should be a little different as the characters react and respond to each other.  Each scene’s conflict should also advance the story as a whole.

As I edit a novel, I often find that I have several redundant scenes, usually because I am trying to make a point of some kind.  But a story is more exciting (and fun) if it doesn’t get mired in redundancies.

For example, in the novel I’m currently working on, I found three scenes meant to emphasize how bad things were for the good guys now that the bad guys had successfully invaded—the good guys had reached the point of surrendering not just physically, but also psychologically.  

My goal was to prove that things were BAD, and I did such a good job with it that I found myself depressed and a little hopeless, even though I knew the good guys would eventually prevail. There’s nothing pretty about beating a dead horse, folks, and if you insist on doing so, your readers may beat a hasty retreat. 

Though I’m not much of a chess player, the craftiness of the game has always intrigued me, and so I like to think of a story like an intense chess game between sides. One side moves; the other side has to counter that move and not only block the opponent’s goals, but also further its own.

So take another look at that story you think you’ve finished.  Is it as tight as it can be?  Do the conflicts between characters evolve and change with each and every scene?  If not, can you combine scenes or otherwise hone things down to keep your writing razor edged?
Character Guides

Back for a moment to Hofius’s website.  In addition to the great episode guides, he provides fantastic character guides.  Again, what strikes me about them is that they’re different from every other character guide I’ve ever seen for the series (and I’ve seen a bunch and even written a number of them).

Rather than focusing on the obvious—G-Force team member Mark, for example, has blue eyes and likes airplanes—Hofius tells us about the characters, referencing at least one episode for each tidbit.  That “at least one episode” is important—the show’s creators were fairly consistent in developing the characters’ abilities.

Your Writing

You may have character sheets, but have you managed to work details that define your characters into the story?  

I recently did some editing work for an aspiring novelist who’s still mastering the art of working the details into the story.  She knew a lot of important things about her main characters, for example, and she did a fantastic job of describing them, but she needed to work on slipping the information in without infodumps or blatant telling (e.g. “I am an honest sort of guy”).

One of the biggest dangers of telling (rather than showing) characterization is that your character won’t ring true to readers.  Think about it – if someone you worked with ran around telling everyone what an honorable guy he is, but you never saw him do a single honorable thing, you’d think he was a liar, wouldn’t you?  Readers will feel the same way about characters unless they get to see that honor in action.

Your turn: Is your writing as tight as it should be? Are you effectively showing conflict and characterization?

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+! (Her Gatchman site, which she linked to shamelessly in the post above, is here.)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Publishing Pulse: 8/26/2011

Success Stories 

Congratulations to our latest QueryTracker.net Success Stories! We have five -- that's right, five -- QueryTracker.net members who became agented this week! Kaitlyn Schulz, Kate Karyus Quinn, Elizabeth May, Stephanie Denise Brown, and Ramsey Hootman.

Around the Web

As always, Rachelle Gardner has some great posts.  This week she explained When to Re-Query an Agent and shared some quotes from pass letters SHE'S gotten from publishers (happily, the books all went on to sell without needing any additional revisions).  Finally, she reminds us that smaller advances have advantages, too!

Creativity expert Susan K. Perry shares some tips from Joni B. Cole's Toxic Feedback in Don't Sleep with Your Critic (And Other Feedback Tips)

In Improving Your Submission Process, Fuel My Writing's Cynthia Morris gives you some straightforward tips on how to format all kinds of manuscripts to make them easy for editors to read.

Do you maintain a writing blog? ProBlogger offers some good tips on blog branding and promotion with What Do You Want People to Say About Your Blog? and How to Recruit [People Who Will Talk About] Your Blog.  And if you're wondering just how much time you need to spend saturating social media networks with your material, take a look at this post about the minimum effective dose. (Especially if you're feeling burned out!)

Have a fantastic weekend!

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Query Bombing: Your Query Timing Questions Answered

Can I send multiple queries at a time? 

How many is too many? 

Should I wait for a response from one agent in an agency before querying another person in the same agency?

 First off, query bombing is a no-no.

 Who or what is a query bomber? 

One who sends out dozens or even hundreds of queries at one time.

 Listen, we get that you’re excited. You think your book is the next Harry Potter. You want to be at the casting call when your book is being made into a movie. We all have those dreams, and yes, some of them may come true, but sending hundreds of queries at once isn’t the trick to getting there.

 It’s kind of like looking into a job. Should you send a mass email out to several businesses? No, because each business (or in this case agent) is looking for something different. For that reason, you need to tailor each letter.

 So what’s the best plan of action?

 For the sake of this post we’ll assume you’ve mastered your manuscript, query letter, and synopsis. Next:

 1. Make a list of agents you’d like to query. 

(This can be as small or as large as you want. I normally go with the cliché “Go big or go home.”) QueryTracker.net is a great resource to help you do this.

2. Research each agent.

Remember, this person could have a big influence on your writing career, so you want to know who you’re working with. Check out agent information sites like AgentQuery, Publisher’s Marketplace, and Preditors and Editors. (QueryTracker.net provides links to these resources for each agent.) Also dig up interviews the agent has done, as well as her website/s, blog/s, and Twitter account. Who are the agents on your list representing? Are they making deals? How long have they been in the business? Find someone whose personality and interests (and sales) are a good match for what you write.

3. On QueryTracker.net (or via whatever spreadsheet system you’re using), prioritize the agents you just gathered.

I use the numbers one to ten. (Yes, you’ll have several under each number). Ones are for your top agents, and tens for great candidates that aren’t quite a perfect match. It’s also a good idea to make notes as to why you chose to rank agents the way you did. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a funny quote on their blog or the fact that they like cupcakes (and so do you!). Or maybe you’ve fallen in love with the advice in their Tweets, or believe you write like someone they’ve represented.

4. Send queries. 

Now, bombing isn’t the way to go. Instead, send a few out at a time. The goal is to see how they respond and then make necessary adjustments based on any feedback. 

I start by looking at my spreadsheet. Personally, I pick out all of those agents I ranked with a number five because while they aren’t necessarily my dream agents, they are agents I’m excited about. I normally send out five queries at a time.

Some writers send another out another query the minute they get a rejection, some wait for feedback, while a few are tempted to burn through their query list.

5. Re-evaluate.

I wait after I send out each batch of queries. I want to see how the agents are reacting to my query. If the first five queries didn’t succeed, I tweak the query, send it out to friends to make sure I’ve improved it, and then send out five more queries to agents on my list. Querying is a tough sport. That’s why sending two dozen out at once is a bad idea. You don’t know what needs adjusting until you’ve gotten some rejections, feedback, or requests. Try and try again are words to live by.

So the next time you’re thinking of query bombing, step back and ask yourself if you want a job. If the answer is yes, send out five and see how it goes.

Jen Daiker writes humorous women’s fiction, where cupcakes and cocktails are always on the menu. She’s spends way too much time on Twitter and can be found on her blog Unedited.

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+!

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Safer Way To Get Noticed

Once again, if you're not following a few dozen agents on Twitter, you're missing the chance to hear how the ones reading your queries are looking at you.

This appeared last week:
Think about that for a moment.

An agent may receive a hundred queries a week. If these statistics hold true (and granted, it was a random sample from one agent's inbox on one specific day, hardly a randomized control trial) then only twenty out of those hundred queriers actually gave the agent the things the agent feels will make her job easier.

Some people say breaking the rules will help you stand out, but it seems to me that with the rule-followers in the minority, there's a safer way to get noticed.

If you were looking to fill a position in your company, would you look favorably on the job candidates you had to chase down to give you their references? Or the ones whose cover letters said "I don't have time to send a separate resume to every potential employer, so just visit my website at http://IDoNotFollowDirections.com"? How about the one who calls your office instead of sending a resume, "Because I'm sure you'd rather talk to me on the phone"?

Does an already-busy agent really want to chase you down in order to get your synopsis? Or will she look more favorably on the writer who gave her everything she wanted in order to make a good assessment of the work?

I checked this specific agent's query directions, and they're not difficult to understand. Query with genre and wordcount, and include the synopsis and the first chapter. Put QUERY in the subject line. But according to her tweets, eight submissions didn't include a sample chapter; five didn't include the synopsis; six went to the wrong email address; one was just an attachment.

To be blunt: if the above holds true, you'll be above 80% of queries if you just follow the directions and send what you're supposed to.

"But Jane! But Jane!" you exclaim, "there are so many agents, and they all have different requirements!"

You don't need to tell me that. I've looked at half the entries on QueryTracker.net (that's something like a billion because Patrick keeps updating them) but most agencies require a variation on the same things:

  • A letter detailing what the book is about. 
  • A paragraph in that letter about who you are, including your publication history. 
  • A completed manuscript (you have that, right?) from which you can include the first three to five pages, the first ten pages, the first fifty pages, or perhaps the first zero pages. (It happens. When an agent says "Please don't send pages," that's the correct number of pages to send.)
  • Some way of contacting you that doesn't involve pleading with online writing groups to pass back a message
  • A synopsis

You should already have all these things before you send your first query. Personalizing your query doesn't have to mean "Dear Ms. Fabulous Agent: My finger is trembling on the SEND button at the thought that Jane Doe's very own agent is going to read these words. I may faint." Personalizing may in some cases mean including the synopsis and the first ten pages.

Your working relationship with an agent should last (ideally) for years. It's worth the three minutes to double-check the agent's website or Publisher's Marketplace page. And as it turns out, I'm not alone in this opinion:
The agent's genres may change. Their requirements may change. They may open to queries or close to them. Find out.

Find out because if you can follow the directions, you're already above 80% of queriers.


Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Publishing Pulse: 8/19/2011

Happy Friday! First off, congratulations to the following for securing an agent:

Bethany Crandell
Noah Beit-Aharon

Editor Alan Rinzler has some great advice on how to thicken your plot to keep your readers awake and interested in your story. He also has an excellent article on breaking the rules of the narrative arc.

Agent Jennifer Laughran reveals a chart for the slush pile triage.

And if you haven't heard, this week has been a week of awesome with WriteOnCon. If you missed it, no worries. All of the many excellent posts are still available. From yesterday alone,  Agent Jim McCarthy talks about writing a great query. Author Amy Dominy details 10 traits of an author. Author Carrie Ryan talks about revising. And agent Sara Megibow chats about traditional vs. self-publishing. Those are just a few highlights from Thursday. (WriteOnCon went from Tuesday to Thursday.)

Danyelle writes MG and YA fantasy. In her spare time, she collects dragons, talking frogs, and fairy godmothers. She can be found discussing the art of turning one's characters into various animals, painting with words, and the best ways to avoid getting eaten by dragons on her blog. Her serial novel THE FAIRY GODMOTHER DILEMMA can be found here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

War of the Genres

We’ve all heard them. Those assumptions about the different genres found in fiction. 
Literary: Boring. Nothing more than whiny characters.
Thriller and horror: Cheap thrills for the intellectually challenged.
Romance: Smut. Nothing more than the flashing of body parts.
Picture Books: Coloring books with words.

You can probably add to this list of what you’ve heard for your favorite genre, but have you turned your back on a genre you figured you could never enjoy? Maybe if you give it a chance, it could open your eyes to a world of possibilities. Possibilities that could cause your writing career to leap into a whole new stratosphere.  

Some Benefits of Reading Outside Your Genre
Certain genres are character-based while others focus on plot. If you read predominantly plot-based stories, you’re missing out on an opportunity to see how others develop characters readers love to connect with. If they (and this includes agents and editors) connect with your characters, they’ll keep turning the pages. This is what you want. Romance, young adult, and horror are a few genres that rely heavily on emotions. Thrillers and suspense are perfect examples for solid pacing. By reading other genres, it will help you further develop your craft.
And let’s not ignore the ideas that might be triggered by reading outside your genre. Just don’t forget to make them your own and not a copy of someone else’s story.

Challenge Your Assumptions
Before you shoot down a genre, make sure your beliefs are based on education and not on assumptions. By education, I mean borrow books in the genre then actually read them. But make sure you do this with an open mind. If you’ve already told yourself the genre is a waste of shelf space, nothing short of a miracle will change that opinion.

Which Books to Read?
When looking for a book to read, find out what titles won the genre’s prestigious awards. You can read the bestsellers, but sometimes they aren’t the best representation of it. The books might have been heavily promoted because they landed the author an equally hefty advance.  On the other hand, you might love them as much as their fans.

Target Audience
Keep in mind the genre’s target audience. You might not appreciate Dancing Cinderella (a Disney Princess book); however, many six-year-old girls love it. It’s all right not to like middle grade or young adult novels, but remember, you weren’t their target audience to begin with.

Goals of the Genre
You might not think a genre is worth reading, but you might be surprised when you discover the goals it sets out to achieve. For example, many people assume erotic romance is nothing more than pornography. It isn’t. The sexual encounters between the heroine and hero are predominantly there as part of the character’s personal growth, for example, trust of the opposite gender. Another genre would utilize a different approach for the same goal. Each has its own purpose.

The common writing advice we hear is to read outside your genre. Have you recently tried one you’ve never considered reading? One you felt wasn’t worth your time? You never know, you might discover one you never expected to like. Maybe you’ll even write a novel in it and see your career take off in a direction you never expected. Now, wouldn’t that be worth it?

Stina Lindenblatt writes romantic suspense and young adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

I don't know if you are aware of this, but QueryTracker has a forum. I've been a member for years because sharing information takes a lot of the anxiety and fear out of all phases of the publishing business.

Since I've hung around the QT Forum throughout the entire process of my own road to publication, I've gotten to observe topics come up repeatedly--some causing more debate than others. What strikes me as peculiar is that the most controversial topics are the ones that should be lowest on the list of worries.

Some of these topics are font type, words per page, and how to determine word count. All of these are technical formatting issues. People get really riled up over this stuff. I say, calm down and focus on what is important: your craft.

An agent wants a well-written marketable book. In most cases, he/she won't reject you because of one of the issues I mentioned above as long as:

1) You use a traditional, easy to read font like Times New Roman or Courier New--use only black and 12-point.

2) You research your genre to determine an acceptable length range and using your MS Word word count, stay inside that range if it is possible to tell your story within those confines (Some books just don't fit that box, and yes, there are agents willing to take them on). As for the crazy formula to calculate word count, that came about when writers used typewriters. Spend your time revising and fine-tuning your manuscript. Don't spend it running your pages through a math equation.

How many words per page is, in the end, determined by the publisher. For example, my 75,000-word manuscript was 277 pages in MS Word with one inch margins and TNR 12pt. When it was typeset for the final printing, a different font was used and some artwork was inserted on the first page of each chapter, bringing it up to 336 pages. It all boils down to what the publisher wants it to look like, which is why the word-count in MS Word is fine for submission purposes.

If an agent or editor wants something different, they will specify that on their website, or will let you know. Do your research, relax, and focus on the content of your manuscript.

Of course, I'm only expressing my own opinion, which is that of a traditionally published debut fiction author. Authors who've been in the business a long time have different experiences... Heck, I read an article in which Anne Rice said she still writes in Wordstar (this might have changed since I read it), and her editor has to deal with that ancient word processing software. Would they do that for me? No way!

Perhaps it is because the business of getting published is so frustrating and inconsistent from one agent, editor, or publisher to the next, writers look for concrete rules. I believe this is what causes these heated debates on the boards.

"You MUST do this."

The only "musts" I've found are you must be professional, must produce a manuscript that format-wise follows industry standards (there quite a few options here that will work), and the manuscript must be the best you can make it.

Don't sweat the small stuff. The big stuff brings enough sweat of its own.

Wishing you a fabulous week!


Friday, August 12, 2011

Publishing Pulse for August 12th, 2011

New success story

Noah Beit-Aharon    

Querying Etiquette
If you’re not already following the Bookends Literary Agency blog, please take a moment to rectify that. Agent Jessica Faust not only dissects the queries of brave volunteers each week, she shares advice to help you avoid some horrifying mistakes. For example: what happens when you rudely respond to a rejection and why you shouldn’t mention in your query that “all published books are crap.”
Rachelle Gardner discussed the questionable practices by some literary agents. These are the types of individuals you want to avoid signing an agency contract with.

Social Networking
Author Roni Loren shared the ten things she wished she had done differently from the beginning regarding social networking.
Social media guru for writers, Kristen Lamb, explained the difference between author brand and being a spam toad. Take heed of her cautionary tales. I know many a potential buyer who refuse to buy books by spam toads.

E-Book News
National Book Awards is now accepting interactive ebooks.
According to new statistics from the American Association of Publishers, ebooks have seen a 1274% sales increase in the past three years.

Next week (August 16-18), the free online writer conference, WriteOnCon, will commence. You don’t want to miss out on the agent and editor talks, blog and vblog posts by authors, forums, etc, designed to provide insight into the industry and help you improve your craft. Although there is a kidlit focus, many of the sessions are appropriate for all genres. For more info, check out this link.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Stina Lindenblatt writes romantic suspense and young adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Figuring Out Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Courtesy of cobrasoft
One of the things I pay special attention to while I'm in the revision stage--including pre-revision--is what my strengths and weaknesses are.

I do this for two reasons. I pay attention to the things I know I'm weak at, the writerly version of bad habits, so I can fix them. I do this by either deleting them (repetitious words) or by changing them to make them stronger (showing instead of telling, restructuring sentences to reduce usage of to be verbs, etc.). I also keep an eye out for things I know I do well so I can knock them up a notch. For example, if I'm good at having a hook at the beginning of each chapter, I'd go through and make sure I have a hook in the middle and at the end of each page (as well as the beginning) as part of my evil plan to give my readers no choice but to keep on reading.

For me, the revision process is about taking weak things and making them strong, and taking strong things and making them stronger. All with the aim of polishing and shining the story until it's as perfect as I can make it.

So how do you discover what you need to work on and what you're good at, but could amp up?

Critique Partners/ Beta Readers
A good critique group/beta reader is worth their weight in gold--and then some. Often, they can point out bad writing habits you have that you weren't aware of, and they can also point out sections they felt were particularly well done. They may not be as specific about what you're doing right, but the information will be there for you to analyze.

Now. That being said, even the most brilliant critiquer isn't going to be perfect 100% of the time. It's important to sift through your critique and weigh each thing--especially when you're just starting out--with your gut. It's vital to be honest with yourself here. Do you disagree with what they said about X, because Y isn't their genre, so they don't understand the conventions, because that's what you were going for even though that particular reader didn't like it, because fill-in-the-blank, or do you disagree with it because your words are sacrosanct and what do they know anyway? 

(This can fall under the umbrella of pride, ignorance (in high school, I honestly couldn't see why my english teacher had such a dislike for adverbs), or laziness--wanting to squeak by, because you've already put so much work into it. To be clear, I'm not judging here. I think we've all been influenced by one or more of the above at one time or other.)

The reason why it's so important to be honest is that you can't fix something if you don't acknowledge that it's broken in the first place. And if you aren't, the only person you'll be cheating is yourself.

Continuing Education
A way to start to recognize your strengths and weaknesses is to keep learning. Go to conferences when you can, talk to people about craft (there are a lot of excellent online forums that you can use), read about it, and keep practicing.

Again, it's always good to weigh things you hear against your gut, but I've found all of the above to be very valuable as I continue to strive to grow and excel. Everything you hear from every person will not mesh with your writing process or your story, but I've found that I can learn something from any class so long as I go in seeking to learn. Sometimes what I learn applies to craft, and sometimes I figure out more about how my writerly process works.

The reason why continuing your writing education is so important--besides learning more about what you do well and what needs work, is the moment you start to believe you've made it, is the moment your work will begin to suffer. Brilliant writing, awesome stories, and incredible characters don't happen by accident. It's important to keep challenging yourself to reach higher and do better with each draft and each story.

Making Your Reading Active 

Most writers are also avid readers. We kind of have to be if we want to stay current on trends and what's going on in the genre we're writing in. But we can also improve--and identify more of our strengths and weaknesses--by actively reading. (And I'm totally guilty of being more passive about reading. I open the book and let the story sweep me away.)

Active reading means analyzing what you've read. What's working for you? What do you think could be strengthened? What do you like? Dislike? Why? What are some things the author's doing that maybe you've never seen before? How does this author handle dialogue, for example?

Color coding can be especially helpful when you're analyzing published text. Not only does it ensure you're mind's not wandering as you're analyzing, it also helps to have a visual representation of what the words on the page are actually doing and how they're functioning.

Then, after you've analyzed the published text, do it to your own and see how they compare. (And make sure the samples you're using are similar--ex: if you're focusing on action sequences, make sure both the published text and your sample have to do with action sequences.)

So how does this all apply to figuring out what you do well?

The most straightforward way is to have personal feedback from someone--readers, agents, etc. The others are a little more roundabout, but you can still figure out some of your things by analyzing them. Pay attention to what you're noticing in published books. Figure out why. Chances are, those are going to be areas you're strong in.
Go in to conferences, conversations, and writing books with an open attitude that's determined to get something good out of it. Look and things they suggest and compare them to what you're actually doing in your own writing. Chances are you'll be able pinpoint some of your weaknesses this way.

What about you? How have you figured out what you're good at and what you need to keep practicing?

Danyelle writes MG and YA fantasy. In her spare time, she collects dragons, talking frogs, and fairy godmothers. She can be found discussing the art of turning one's characters into various animals, painting with words, and the best ways to avoid getting eaten by dragons on her blog. Her serial novel THE FAIRY GODMOTHER DILEMMA can be found here.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Conveying Thy Characters in Queries

Everyone who has attempted to write a query knows the fear: We’ve finished the manuscript. We’re feeling awesome. We’re planning out who is going to be cast as the main lead and their love interest in the movie version of our stories.

It is then that we open up that blank sheet of paper and our eyes fill with fear.

How am I going to condense my amazing book into 250 words?

What will I include?

I’ve read many queries (some being my own) where an important character is missing and in their place is a random grocery attendant. Maybe you’ve done the same thing in your query, and now you’re looking at it and STILL can’t figure out what it’s not working. Why someone doesn’t understand your full story.

Think about this… Just like you need to understand the plot and climax, you need to understand your characters and who moves from point A to point B.

If your main character in a paranormal universe has a ‘protector’ and that protector doesn’t make it into your query, you’ll lose the key part of the story.

Sending it out only to have the agent reject you…and you’re still not seeing the main problem.

There are moments to capture and others that can be tucked in. The key points are the ones you want to share.

Which characters carry the story structure?

If you say the secondary character can be removed then you might want to go back and rework your novel because the secondary character isn’t important enough. Even in the movie Castaway, Tom Hanks is alone but his SECONDARY character is the volleyball, Wilson. Wilson would have made the query. He’s a critical part in the story.

Does a character have a power that’s not being fully utilized?

Did you mention your character has the gift of cleaning? Or the fact that with a single touch she can kill any human, which is why she always wears gloves? What about the fact that a shape-shifter loves a vampire? We must know more about your characters; those details are what bring the story to life.
A story about a character attending high school isn’t nearly as enticing as a girl who can kill with a touch of a finger… making high school that much more difficult. When you leave out key components, you leave the agent out on the juicy news.

Is your character in a love triangle?

Mentioning all three characters in the triangle is pivotal. The agent, as well as the reader, needs to know each person is important. Do you think an agent would have known about a love triangle between Bella, Edward, and Jacob if she’d left Jacob out of the query letter? I think not. It adds depth and it’s something that should be known.

If you’re writing a YA are the parents still alive?

Mentioning that the parents have disappeared or are still alive is a great way to show what developmental stage your character is at. If your main character is about to fight crime, a normal set of parents is NOT going to allow that (if they find out, anyhow). Making a quick comment about where they’re at can be very helpful.
Friends, Frenemies, and enemies, finding out who’s important.

If there’s a villain you’ll want to mention him or her. Adding tension to your query helps not only brings out the voice but keeps the reader (or agent) intrigued to read more. Only talking about those fighting HALF the battle will leave the agent figuring you didn’t finish your novel since the other HALF of the battle isn’t explained.
I should mention you don’t want to get carried away. Agents don’t want to read about 30 guys in a 250 word query. Make sure that who you’re sharing are the MOST important characters, the ones who make the story shine. As much as you don’t want the plot to outshine the characters, you don’t want the characters to outshine the plot. Be sure to keep it equal. Just don’t forget about the key points.

Excellent Examples from the QueryTracker Success Stories Files

Leah RaederFull Query

Leah leaves nothing to chance with her query. Right from the beginning you learn the two important individuals in this story. If she were to remove Ben from her query the whole story wouldn’t be the same. The whole reason Rosa is infected is because of him. Don’t you think he’s pretty important? She did, so adding him into the query helped her get requests.

Rosa Farrow didn't kill Ben Waters. She moved in with her brother to get away from violence: the alcoholic father who was behind the wheel the day Mom died. But she's the last one who sees Ben alive. When his body turns up brutally mauled—with evidence of human bite marks—everyone wants to talk to her. Cops. Social workers. Even her brother seems unsure of her innocence. Rosa's starting to feel like she's in some waking Kafkaesque nightmare.

Until Ben's body disappears from the morgue.

And he shows back up at school, bloody, pissed off—and with lots of murderous new friends.

That's when he does the one thing you shouldn't let the recently deceased do: he bites her. She flees with her brother, but something escapes with her, stows away in her veins. She's infected. Changing. Becoming something like Ben. Becoming a monster even worse than her dad.

Rosa's no killer. Whatever happens, she won't follow in her father's footsteps. But how can she fight something that's inside of her?

Ashlyn MacnamaraFull Query

Titles are something to watch out for. Aislinn has titled her novel A TALE OF TWO SISTERS. If her sister wasn't mentioned at least once within the query how many agents would pass it by? My money's on several. If you didn't take the time to show her in the query then you didn't take the time to put her in the novel!

Scarred by her governess' suicide, debutante Julia St. Claire must marry to save her family from financial ruin, so she seeks to guard her heart in a civilized, sensible union. When such an arrangement is offered by the man of her sister's dreams, Julia must either betray her sister or risk giving her heart to childhood friend, Benedict Revelstoke. But Benedict, a second son, fears he has destroyed her trust by revealing his love for her--until she turns up at his townhouse with a scandalous proposal.

Patrick GabridgeFull Query

In Patrick's novel we have the lovely Tyra and her Grandpa Rudy. She desperately wants to know what he is searching for in the woods when he goes on his many adventures. If the grandpa disappears from the query then Tyra really has no reason for an adventure and Patrick had no reason to write the story.

Eleven-year-old Tyra is stuck spending the summer with her irascible Grandpa Rudy in a lakeside town where she's the only black person (she's adopted). It's clearly going to be the worst summer ever. And a weird one, too. Every night, Rudy disappears into the woods, hauling tools and maps. He's searching for something, and Tyra desperately wants to know what it is.

One night, Tyra follows her grandfather and discovers him digging for an old bootlegger's buried treasure. He swears her to secrecy, but soon Tyra leads her new summer friend, Cory, to Grandpa Rudy's dig site. After being chased deep into the woods by an enraged Rudy, Tyra and Cory uncover clues that lead to Emerald Eddie's secret stash.

Grandpa Rudy isn't the only person in Spirit Lake obsessed with Emerald Eddie's legendary treasure, and it becomes a race to see who will find it first. Someone has been poking around the excavation site and has even broken into Rudy's house. Soon, Tyra, Rudy, and their friends find themselves in very real danger. Only a great sacrifice will allow them to escape unharmed. Through all the ups and downs of their treasure hunt, Tyra and Grandpa Rudy ultimately realize they need each other a lot more than they ever expected.

Jen Daiker writes humorous women’s fiction, where cupcakes and cocktails are always on the menu. She’s spends way too much time on Twitter and can be found on her blog Unedited.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fear, Rejection, & Writer's Block: Guest Post by Gene Perret

Today we're thrilled to welcome Gene Perret, a legendary writing authority -- he's won three Emmys! Gene was the head writer for the Bob Hope and Carol Burnett shows, and was also responsible for episodes of well-know sitcoms like Three's Company and Welcome Back Kotter.

More than most, Gene appreciates how important it is for a writer to be able to handle fear, rejection, and writer's block, and over time he's developed a system for starting and finishing great projects. Now he's sharing that system with you in a new book: WRITE YOUR BOOK NOW! A Proven System to Start and FINISH the Book You've Always Wanted to Write.

I have to tell you -- I'm pretty excited about this book. Even though I was lucky enough to see an electronic ARC, I rushed over to Amazon to order a hard copy for my library. As you'll see below, Gene is both upbeat and practical as a coach -- you'll want a copy, too!

Shakespeare once wrote, “Doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.” It’s one of the best definitions I’ve ever read for the phenomenon we call “writer’s block.” Fear, or doubt as Shakespeare put it, generates writer’s block. We fear that we won’t be able to write what we want to write as well as we want to write it. We fear that even if we do write it, no worthwhile agent or publisher would be interested in it. We fret that even if we did sell and publish our work, none of the readers would like it. Basically, we allow ourselves to be creatively paralyzed by a fear of rejection. We lose “the good we might win by fearing to attempt.”

Writers must realize that rejection is as much a part of writing as the space bar on your keyboard. To be productive we must accept, rather than fear rejection. Certainly a negative response is usually not pleasant, but neither is it catastrophic. It simply is.

One of my writing colleagues claimed that we writers were the only people so self-involved that we named an affliction after ourselves – writer’s block. He said, “Imagine that you’re taking a cross country trip. You fight the crowds and the security inconveniences at the airport. You sit in a cramped airline seat for four or five hours, you arrive at your destination, struggle to get your luggage from the conveyor belt, haul it outside, hail a cab, load the luggage into the vehicle, sit in the back seat, and say to the driver, ‘Take me to the Hilton.’ The driver then turns to you and says, ‘Gee, I’m sorry, Pal, but I’ve got cab-drivers block.’ You’d clobber him with your briefcase.”

There’s no such thing as cab-driver’s block, or plumber’s block, or librarian’s block. There’s only writer’s block because we’re the ones who sometimes begin our task afraid that it will be rejected.

Notice that most of the apprehensions we have concern events in the future. When the manuscript is completed it may not be as superb as we would prefer. Publishers may not want it. Readers may not like it. Why are we deciding now whether the book that is not even written has been written well or poorly? Why are we making management decisions for publishers about a manuscript that they don’t have so they can’t decide about? Why are we assuming what our readers will like before they have anything to read? Forget those fears-to-come. Write your manuscript now and deal with probably mythical roadblocks if and when they occur.

The word “rejection” does have a decidedly negative connotation. That “Thank you, but no thank you” letter or e-mail is unpleasant. It’s disappointing. It’s demoralizing. It’s depressing. It’s all of those and more. At least in our minds and emotions, it is. However, let’s analyze some of the myths about rejection and perhaps diminish the power of its sting.

First, you’ll always have to deal with it. That may not sound very encouraging, but if you as a writer are prepared for a percentage of refusals, they won’t come as a shock. If you’re ready for them they won’t be nearly as unpleasant, disappointing, demoralizing, depressing, or whatever.

Second, turn-downs are not necessarily a condemnation of your writing, your talent, or your potential. As a television producer I once had to audition performers for a single role in a single episode of our sitcom. Agents sent in 20 actors. The math is fairly obvious – one girl would get the role, 19 would not. That doesn’t mean that 19 of the actors were incompetent. It simply indicated that one performer would be hired and 19 would not. In fact, our staff debated for several hours over which performer to hire – many were that good.

There are countless reasons why publishers may refuse your submission. Their schedule is full, their budget is exhausted, they have a similar book in the works, your idea may conflict with the publisher’s established authors, it may be wrong for this specific publisher, publisher may not agree with your concept, they may feel their company is not suited to handle this type of book, or they may just hate the book. Most of those reasons (except for that last one) have nothing to do with your work, or your writing ability.

Third, a rejection is not personal. As they said frequently in “The Godfather,” it’s strictly business.

Fourth, a rejection can often turn into a blessing. Refer back to the case I cited above with the 20 performers all vying for one job. The following year, I produced another sitcom and needed a performer to appear regularly on the show. One of the “rejectees” was hired. Rather than getting a paycheck for one show, she received a salary for several years on the new show.

It can work that way for writers, too. One publisher rejected a proposal of mine, but suggested another book that he would like me to write. I had already written this book but had abandoned it because it had been rejected by several publishers. Now I got a sale through a rejection. Not only did I sell the book, but I didn’t even have to write it. It was already written. Is that not a blessing?

Fifth, no rejection can stop you from producing new writing, and you shouldn’t allow it to. Give yourself a few hours or even days of self-pity (and maybe even calling certain publishers or editors nasty names), but then get back to the keyboard and turn out more solid writing.

I liked the positive way that one writer handled rejection. At a party I overheard him discussing the negotiations for a book of his. He said, “We’re still working things out. I’m demanding a $200,000 advance, and the publisher is refusing to read my manuscript.”

That’s the positive approach we all should adopt.

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Thanks again to Gene for his wonderful advice!  If you'd like to check out the next leg of Gene's blog tour, he'll be appearing on Susan Perry's Psychology Today blog Creating in Flow tomorrow!