QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What SYTYCD Taught Me About Writing

I’m going share a secret. I’m a huge fan of So You Think You Can Dance Canada. Here are a few tips I gained from watching it that can benefit writers.

Don’t be afraid to mix up genres and try new ones:
During his audition, Denys Drozdyuk (season three) wowed the judges by not only performing the Paso Doble on his own (something unheard of since it’s a partner dance), he combined it with a touch of contemporary dance. The result landed him a spot in the top twenty-two. He went on to win the competition.
All twenty-two dancers selected for the show had to learn and perform dance styles they had never studied before (contemporary, jazz, ballroom, hip hop, Latin dance). The dancers only had a few days to learn the routine, yet all did an amazing job.
As writers, we should push ourselves to try (or at least read) different genres, and see how aspects of them might combine to produce something more exciting. You might even develop a new trend. Isn’t that what we all want? To be on top of a trend instead of racing behind it (the latter which is never recommended).
Warning: Please try to limit the number of genres in one story. A paranormal thriller mystery romance literary novel will scare off most agents and editors. There is such thing as overkill.

Bring out the emotion:
At the end of each performance, the dance partners listened—sweat dripping down their faces, hearts pounding from the gruelling routine and nerves—as the judges critique the dance. Often the dancers were told to dig deep and bring out the raw emotion, which will take them to the next level. Those who managed to do that went far in the competition. There were a few routines that left the judges in tears, because of the emotional connection they felt with the dancer and the performance.
Same deal with writers. In order for the reader to connect with our characters, we need to dig deep and bring our characters’ emotions to life on the page. It’s not easy at times, but it’s essential if we want to get to the next level: gaining an agent or landing a book contract.

You owned that dance:
Each dancer had his or her own style (e.g. wild, kooky, etc).  The successful dancers applied it to their routines and the judges took notice. This style made those dancers memorable. Very important during the competition. 
Okay, writers. I have only one word for you: Voice!

Don’t give up because you were rejected:
Tara-Jean Popowich auditioned for the first season of the show but never made it into the top twenty. She went home and did everything she could to become a better dancer.  Her hard work and determination paid off. Not only did she make it into the show for season two, she won the position of Canada’s favorite dancer.
Like dancers, writers have to deal with rejections. It’s part of the package. But instead of bemoaning the unfairness of it all, take the rejection and use it to make your writing and/or story better. Maybe you need a critique group (or a different one). Maybe you need to enrol in a writing class to hone your skill. Do whatever it takes to push your writing to the next level.

Embrace the critique:
Winner Denys Drozdyuk (season three) couldn’t have said it better on the final show when he told the judges that praise is great, but the critiques were what had made him a better dancer. What more can I say?
It was amazing watching the show and seeing how much dance has in common with writing fiction. Both require determination, passion, skill, and the ability to tell a story. Do you have all of these requirements? Is there something you need to work on to turn your rejections into a reason to celebrate?

Stina Lindenblatt writes 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, November 28, 2011

Writing: It's a Numbers Game

As a past (and future) querier, I've spent a lot of time on the Query Tracker website.

Query Tracker is a database of the most trustworthy literary agents, packed with the tools I needed to track each of my submissions to them. Query Tracker became a valuable part of my novel's road to publication and, at the height of my querying, I spent several hours a week using the website.

Assembling an agent list was the easy part. The search functions narrowed down the group of more than 1200 agents to those who were appropriate for my material. The spreadsheet showed my progress and tracked responses as they came in. The individual agent files contained contact information and links to their online dwellings.

But, after a while, those amazing features began to pale in comparison to the tab so innocently labeled "Reports and Statistics." Like many anxious writers who used Query Tracker, I quickly got sucked in to the stats of the querying game.

Numbers. Everywhere. The Query Tracker database had information on every statistic a writer could imagine. Which agent had the highest request rates. How many days until my own request should come in(ever the optimistic one.) How many lucky writers signed. How many unhappy writers marked their own queries as a "no response". Hard figures and agonizing percentages. Nail biting numbers. Knuckle crunching numbers.

Nasty thing, numbers.

Despite the pretty clear delineation between the left and right hemispheres of our brains, numbers will always want to mingle with the words crowd (much to my math-hating daughter's chagrin.) Word counts. Page counts. Royalty rates. Fun stuff. Essential stuff.

Here's some more "essential stuff" to get your mind off the agony of staring down the query stats.

We'll start at the beginning with the 10 Most Important Things every writer needs to know: while simply stated, there is a lot of down-to-earth advice here. For example, did you know that "your friends and family are not your audience"? Nope, they're not--and knowing it might help you define who your audience actually is. A list like this helps to reset ourselves, gets us to pull away from the keyboard for a moment and try to remember the reason we sat down to write in the first place.

Got blog? Then you got numbers. Here's 3 things your blog needs and 5 things it doesn't. (The comments are noteworthy.) And every blogger wants a bigger audience, right? Average bloggers will appreciate these 8 tips to grab those coveted readers while the over-achievers may prefer a heftier 19. Go big or go home, I always say.

Heck, as long as we're going big, let's go Hollywood. Here's 10 things that may decide whether your book is good enough for the big screen.

Once we're done daydreaming about cinematic fortune and fame, the blog 365 Stories In A Year will give us this more realistic list of 10 things we probably do but would never admit. On the flip side, we still have our integrity as writers—and so we'd be better off sticking to these 10 basics, which includes Wil Wheaton's Law. (If you are unsure of just how tremendously powerful a chaotic neutral overlord Wil Wheaton has become, then you seriously need to catch up. He's going to rule the world one day.)

The numbers get even more serious over at Twenty Palaces, where you can find 10 things that might be the proverbial slap you need to stay focused. However, these 10 magic ideas will inspire you with a much lighter touch. (Read it if you *heart* Voldemort as much as I do.)

Want advice from an agent instead? No problems. Rachelle Gardner has loads of great tips and she gets a perfect 10 for her 10 things theme on her blog. She's got several helpful lists on a variety of topics--have fun with them!

And Rachelle isn't the only one who's got her numbers lined up. Janet Reid lists 10 steps to diagnose your query for a particular agent. Some of us will read this and say, really? You need to spell all that out? Give us some credit! while an equal number of us will say, Now, that's what I call *clear* guidelines. Finally. Why don't all agents do it? (Don't get any ideas.)

Lastly, I'll point out a lengthy 10 secrets you might not have known about agents. There is a very poignant message in this one--if you don't have time to read the entire article right now, take the time to scroll down to the bottom of page 22 and read the last paragraph or so. It may help put querying madness into perspective.

Look at all those crazy digits floating around up there. Can writers learn anything from playing the numbers game? (Besides the apparent fact that writers seem to love the number 10.)

Maybe if we extracted all these numbers we'd realize there is no single magic formula to good writing. Sure, we can obsess over numbers and drown in the QT data explorer. We can calculate and extrapolate and postulate but, in the end, it's the actual words on the paper that matter. Word counts and page counts won't matter in the end if the heart isn't in the story. The words and the numbers must work together to produce a splendid story and it's our job to bring it all together.

Perhaps treat yourself and listen to "Hemispheres" by Rush, with an emphasis on the song The Sphere. Just as the heart and mind must unite, so must our right and left brains. Write the words but don't forget to enjoy the numbers…

And look forward to getting that single, most beautiful number: 1.

One "yes" is all it takes to win the writing game.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who resides in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region, where she keeps the book jacket for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" in a frame over her desk. Visit the Spec Fic Website at www.ashkrafton.com for updates on the release of her debut novel, Bleeding Hearts, forthcoming in early 2012 through Pink Narcissus Press.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Publishing Pulse: 11/25/2011

QueryTracker Success Stories

Congratulations to our latest success stories:

Around the Internet

Via the SCBWI blog, the Life Cycle of a Book (Publishing Trendsetter) is a fascinating look at how publishing works. It has an awesome flow chart that shows all the varied path a book takes on its way to publication, as well as some videos that represent each facet of the publishing industry.

Publishing Trendsetter also has a helpful lexicon of publishing terms.

Author Patricia C. Wrede has some great posts for making your book more solid--her advice on obstacles in the middle and how to make your scenes have the greatest impact possible. She also has some great advice on dealing with fear.

On Fuel Your Writing, Icy Sedgwick has some awesome posts on the three parts to every story: beginnings, middles, and endings. She has some great advice on how to handle each part and how to make sure they each work.

Some excellent links by Porter Anderson on current events in publishing this last week including information about some e-books being pulled from libraries and experimenting with online handselling via the subscription method. 

And, last but not least, an excellent guide by author Rachel Aaron on how to increase your daily word count. Definitely worth checking out!

Have a great weekend!

 Danyelle Leafty (@danyelleleafty) 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.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

You and Your Readers

Our US-based readers are preparing for Thanksgiving Day, and for our non-US-readers, I'll just say it's a day when we nurture our gratitude by engaging in gluttony. If you go to sleep without having to worry about rats, freezing to death or having nothing to eat when you awaken in the morning, consider yourself blessed because you've got a leg up on most human beings through recorded history.

Writers have a special need for gratitude, and I'll put it bluntly: we're a little demanding. We have a hobby that consumes vast amounts of brain power and time. But our stories are not complete until they find a recipient. A listener or a reader. Neither listening nor reading are quick undertakings.

My step-father creates oil paintings. Their creation also consumes vast amounts of brain power and time, but when he'd call me over to take a look, my look was maybe five minutes. Here, come see what I did on this leaf -- see how the light plays on it? I would dutifully look at the leaf, note his technique, file away the information (I can actually discuss paintings as if I know what I'm talking about) and then I could squirrel back to my room to write more stories about angels.

Five minutes to look at the painting.

How long does it take to read your novel?

The commitment someone shows in order to read your work is intimidating. Moreover, if they're reading an early draft, it will have errors and possibly plot issues. A thorough critique might double or triple the amount of time they're investing. You can skim a crappy novel enough to say a couple of nice things about it. But a real read-through? That's huge. There's a reason book doctors charge a thousand dollars for that kind of editorial work.

We don't just owe that beta-reader a thank-you. We owe a huge thank-you.

What should that thank-you look like?  Well, a verbal thank-you is a start. But here's the way to let your early readers really know how much you appreciate them:
  • Consider their advice.
  • Engage with their advice. Ask questions.
  • Don't make a big deal of places where you disagree with them. Forgive them if they missed something obvious in the text (but do look back at your text to make sure it's obvious.)
  • Offer to critique their work.
  • Send them an email mid-edit to let them know you found something particularly helpful.
  • Carry those single edits out into the entirety of your work.
  • Improve. That's the reason they put in all that work in the first place.
After working with your manuscript, your beta-reader or critique partner wants your book to succeed as much as you do. Improving your writing is a terrific thank-you.

Most writers will do this naturally, but I've also given feedback and got nasty backlash in return: obviously I didn't understand, and they meant it that way, and on the next go-around, that same problem would be right there again. Not listening to your readers means not improving your writing. (I'm not saying you need to take every bit of advice you're given. Your work would be a pitiful mess. But however briefly, you should consider it all.)

Moreover, pitch a fit like that in a public forum and you've earned a one-way ticket to The Land Of Not Getting Any Further Feedback. To paraphrase my hero Weird Al Yankovic, most of us have "a personal policy not to waste our stinking time."

Sometimes an agent gives advice during a rejection. This is contentious, but I always sent a brief "Thank you so much for your feedback" after a personalized rejection. (Well, almost always. I didn't when the rejection seemed to address a different book.) Some say it adds to the agent's workload to have to read your line or two of gratitude. Personally, I think it's healthier for us as writers to keep in mind that editors and agents didn't need to give us any feedback at all. Humility leads to gratitude. So let's be grateful. 

This weekend I had the privilege of buying a friend's book. I'd worked with her on an early draft, so I turned to the acknowledgements hoping to see my name. She mentioned two other writers who had worked with her, but not me, and I admit I felt a little crestfallen. 

Then I looked to the top of the page, and there's the dedication. Three names, one of them my own. And I just sat, stunned, while that sank in. 

Be thankful for your readers. Be thankful for them all: the early readers who flinched at your ninety-six-word sentence but also talked you through that rough spot near the end; the later readers who pointed out your overwriting and places where the emotions were unclear; the agents and editors who let you know your character needed spark or your setting was just perfect; the editors who worked on your novel to polish it until it glowed; the readers who opened their wallets in order to buy your work. Be thankful for them all because without our readers, our writing wouldn't feel complete.

Lastly, to my own agent, to my early readers, later readers, and the writers who have generously allowed me to critique them -- I've learned so much from all of you. Thank you.


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.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Believability or Bust


What is one of the best ways to kick a reader out of your story? Write a story that pole vaults over the bar of believability and lands in the mud of “I don’t think so.”
This summer, I took my kids to see the newest Winnie the Pooh movie. At one point in the movie *spoiler alert*, all of the friends (minus Piglet and Tigger) fell into a deep pit. Their only hope of escape was Piglet. At one point my seven year old asked (loudly), “Why doesn’t Owl fly out?” This echoed what everyone else in the theatre was thinking. A few minutes later, Owl did exactly that. He flew up and gave Piglet a motivational speech, so that Piglet would brave the scary woods, looking for Christopher Robin. Owl then flew back into the pit to face the shocked expressions of his friends. Only they weren’t shocked that Owl flew out of the pit. They were shocked at what he had said to Piglet. The friends applauded and the audience laughed.
I recently read a story in which a character had a football hurled at his face. What happened next threw me out of the story because it defied the laws of physics. After the ball hit the guy’s nose, hard, the ball fell to the ground. The nose didn’t break or bleed, but a large zit on it exploded like a volcano and shot pus across a distance of several feet before it landed on someone’s face. Impossible. If pus had come out of the zit, more than likely it would have come off on the ball when it made contact. It certainly wouldn’t have waited a few seconds then spontaneously flew out of the zit, and it certainly wouldn’t have been able to travel that far, not at the trajectory it would have had to travel. As a result of the lack of credibility, I quit reading the story.
So why didn’t I have a problem with the scene in the Winnie the Pooh movie, but I did with the football story? Because as early as the opening scene in the movie, it was made clear that the animal friends lacked for intelligence. Due to the sequence of events that happened between the opening and Owl flying out of the pit, we could easily believe that none of the friends would have questioned why Owl didn’t just fly out and get help. If the football story had taken place in world filled with magic and humor, and this was established in the first chapter, then I would have found it believable. But since it was set in our world, a world where the laws of physics rule, it didn’t work for me.
To avoid the issue of lack of believability, always ask yourself: “Have I given enough set up to the story so my readers are able to believe this event can happen this way?” If you’re not sure if it is feasible, ask someone who knows the answer. For example, if your protagonist is caught with drugs in his school locker, ask a police officer what would really happen to the character. Don’t make things up and hope for the best.
Has lack of believability thrown you out of a story? What do you do to make sure all aspects of your story (and characterization) are believable?

Stina Lindenblatt writes 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.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Publishing Pulse for November 18, 2011

New At QueryTracker:

We're pleased to announce that Ash Krafton will be joining our blogging team for the long haul! Let's give Ash an enthusiastic QT-blog-mistress welcome, shall we?

Congratulations to our newest success story, Elle Jean-Charles

Nine agent profiles were updated this week. Please make sure you double-check every agent's website or Publisher's Marketplace page before querying. If you're a QueryTracker member and want to be notified whenever an agent or publisher is added or updates their profile, check out these instructions.

Publishing News:

This week saw the announcement of the National Book Award winners. 

Barnes and Noble announces a cashiering system that will allow purchasers of a hardback book to also purchase the Nook version.

The Authors Guild expressed its outrage about Amazon.com's Kindle lending program.

The SCBWI expressed its own take on children's book publishers adopting the no-response-means-no policy, explaining the negative impact this will have on the publishers' submission process.

Around the Blogosphere:

Rachel Stark points out a disturbing trend in YA book covers.

Agent Natalie Lakosil responds to a question about at what point an agent gives up

Literary Quote of the Week:
The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.  ~Ana├»s Nin

Thanks for reading, and until next week, keep those queries flying!


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.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Facing Your Fears

Courtesy of johnnyberg
Being an author isn't for the faint-hearted. Putting yourself and your work out there can be hard. Terrifying. Nerve-racking.

Especially now, when it's more important than ever for an author to have a public persona on the Internet. As a shy introvert, public speaking ranks right up there with impaling myself in the eyeball with bamboo skewers.

My fears, for the most part, divide themselves into two categories: not being enough and being too much.

Not Being Enough

I am made of dragon hide when it comes to getting critiques back from my beta readers and crit partners. I prefer the crits that highlight what I need to fix, because those kinds of crits give me a clear game plan for making my story shine. So I love red ink.

For manuscripts, that is.

Before I put my novel up, I never truly realized how scary it is to have a novel available for anyone to read. As a writer, I know that no novel is perfect, and that no single story is going to appeal to everyone. As an author, my nails are raw because I just *know* that every single wrinkle, blemish, and imperfection is now going to be magnified, and everyone will see it and know that I have failed somehow as a writer.

Sometimes the writer side of me wonders about this new author side. ;-)

So what can you do when you don't feel like you're enough?

Have a good support system. I can't stress this one enough. These are the people that remind you to breathe, and that everything is going to be all right. They can believe in you when you're jar of belief is empty. Some of these people will be cheerleaders, while others will not only be able to sympathize, but empathize as well. Where can you find likely candidates for your support system?
  • writing forums
  • blogs
  • other social networking places (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
  • family
  • friends
  • colleagues
  • neighbors
Not feeling like you're enough is natural, but like those insidious dandelion/sticker patch combos, it's a good idea not to let them take over your emotional yard. How to combat the weeds?
  • have a good support system ;-)
  • don't base your self-worth on external factors over which you have no control
  • forget about numbers (as much as you can)--they'll only make you crazy
  • find a hobby that relaxes you
  • exercise
  • do something you enjoy
  • reset your mental tapes
  • get good sleep at night
  • do something nice for someone else
  • read a good book
  • meditate
The number of things you can do is endless, but the important thing is that they fill you up somehow. It is very true that we are our harshest critics, and now is as good a time as any to learn how to be more gentle and kind to ourselves. I've learned that when my feeling of inadequacy has me crawling out of my skin, it's time to take a break from being an author so I can go back to being a person. :)

One of the greatest tools I've discovered in combating the I-stink-and-who-was-I-really-kidding-anyway doldrums is to make sure I'm managing my expectations. I need to reevaluate to make sure that I'm only worrying about the things I *can* control. Like pushing myself to write to the best of my ability. Editing, editing, editing, and editing. I can't control sales, and I can't control reviews, but I can make sure I'm putting in the time and effort necessary to make the novel the very best I can.

Being Too Much

And then there's the flip side of the coin--being afraid of being too much. I'm not talking about the fear of dazzling every reader and reviewer out there with my sparkling wit and scintillating stories. No, I'm talking about the putting-myself-out-there-so-you-know-I-exist part of being an author, otherwise known as marketing.

As a writer, I just want to appease the voices in my head and get their stories down on paper to the best of my ability. As an author, I want to let people know those stories exist. The trick is finding the balance between becoming a hermit in a cave (although this can sound very tempting) and broadcasting yourself like a commercial. It's a bit like tightrope walking on a planet whose gravity hasn't made up its mind as to which direction it prefers to pull in.

Some things I've discovered that help me find my balance:
  • Institute a 5:1 tweet/fb ratio (I get to talk about myself every 1 in 5 tweets.)
  • Don't go it alone--group blogs are becoming ever more popular.
  • Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is my writing career. Take a day at a time, instead of expecting instant fame and success.
  • Understand the nature of social networking. The people I love to hang around with on Twitter or Facebook are people I've been able to get to know, because they're human on their feeds. Not commercials.
  • Dare to say something. It's okay to ask for help whether it's advice you're seeking or trying to schedule a blog tour. The writing community is filled with awesome people who like to help each other out. But they can't read minds, and can only help if you ask them.
  • Don't be afraid to take a step back when you need to. Being both a writer and an author can be draining, so it's good to step away from the Internet when you need to in order to replenish yourself. I've been away from all my Internet networking places for about two weeks, and can promise you that they don't disappear and you won't be forgotten if you need to take an extended vacation to preserve your sanity.
  • Be a hand that helps lift others. This kind of goes along with not being afraid to ask for help. I love good stories, and am always looking for gems that I can share on my blog or through Twitter. Sometimes, instead of waiting around for the party to come to me, I try to seek out the authors so I can host them and help spread the word about both them and their novels. Don't be afraid to ask if you can help others. I've met some incredible people this way.
So there you have it. Putting yourself out there as an author is hard, but can also be incredibly rewarding. What are some of the things you do when you're wearing your author hat?

 Danyelle Leafty (@danyelleleafty) 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.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Forensics Q&A: Not All Explosives Are Created Equal

By Kristy Lahoda | @KristyLahoda

Disclaimer: The information provided in this post should not be used for malicious intent unless it is in the form of crime writing. The author is an explosives expert, not a crime scene expert. While every attempt was made to ensure the accuracy of this information, for security purposes, some details may have been withheld.

QUESTION: I am writing a thriller and my antagonist is planning to make a pipe bomb.  Does it matter what type of explosives she uses?  For example, could something like TNT be used as an explosive in the pipe?

ANSWER: It does matter as not all explosives are created equal.  TNT is not an explosive typically used in a pipe bomb—it does not need to be contained to cause mass destruction.  Explosives are generally grouped into two categories: low explosives (LEs) and high explosives (HEs).  These are differentiated based on the speed of explosion.  LEs deflagrate, HEs detonate.

High Explosives (HEs)

Detonation occurs when the reaction front propagates (i.e the reaction proceeds) through the explosive at a speed greater than the speed of sound,  Detonation occurs at velocities above 3,300 ft/sec (2,250 mph).  For detonation to occur, the assistance of a primary explosive is required.  To provide sufficient energy for the high explosive to begin its energetic decomposition (i.e. the breakdown into chemical components as a result of the energy of the reaction), only small amounts of the primary explosive are needed because they are reactive to shock, friction, or heat.  Detonation results in a rapid release of energy and an accompanying shock wave.

Types of HEs

High explosives are categorized as primary or secondary based on ease of initiation.  When comparing the two, primary explosives are more sensitive to heat, friction, and shock and have less energy, and therefore less power, than secondary explosives.  Secondary explosives are less sensitive to heat, friction, and shock and are more powerful.  Primary explosives are used in detonators and initiation systems.  They can be used to ignite secondary explosives.  Secondary explosives are used in large quantities relative to the primary explosive and are typically used as the main charge.

Primary Explosives

Two common initiating explosives include lead azide and lead styphnate.  Lead azide is very sensitive to initiation by friction, heat, or shock.  The velocity of detonation for lead azide is around 17,500 feet per second.  That’s just over 11,900 miles per hour!  Lead styphnate is sensitive to static electricity and fire, but is less sensitive than lead azide to friction and shock.  Its velocity of detonation is similar to that of lead azide.

Secondary Explosives

Trinitrotoluene (TNT) is one of the most universally known HEs.  Cyclotrimethylene trinitramine (RDX) and pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) are two favorites of terrorists.  In fact, PETN was the explosive that Richard Reid, aka The Shoe Bomber, had concealed in his shoe in an attempt to blow up American Airlines Flight 63.  Another example of a high explosive is ammonium nitrate-fuel oil (ANFO, used by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Low Explosives (LEs)

Low explosives are propellants that burn in open air, but deflagrate (burn rapidly) when initiated in confinement.  LEs might not sound that dangerous since they burn, but they can be extremely perilous when used improperly.  In fact, they can even “act” as high explosives upon deflagration given the proper conditions when initiated, such as containment.  Simply stated, deflagration = explosion when confined.  When the LE deflagrates, the burn is faster than in open air.  However, it does not burn as rapidly as detonation occurs.  The reaction front propagates through the low explosive at a velocity less than the speed of sound.  As a result, low explosive deflagration reactions occur at a lower reaction front pressure, velocity, and temperature than HEs.  

Types of LEs

There has been a strong emphasis in counterterrorism literature on high explosives analysis, but the majority of incidents in the US have been due to LEs such as black powder, smokeless powder, improvised explosives, and fireworks. These are the types of explosives that are used in pipe bombs.

In summary, low explosives require containment to deflagrate.  High explosives require primary explosives to initiate detonation of secondary explosives, but are destructive without containment.  After an explosion, there are a number of law enforcement activities that are launched at the crime scene and crime lab including an investigation, a crime scene search, evidence collection, sample preparation, and forensic analysis on the decomposition products of the explosives—called post-blast residue analysis.  The wealth of forensic information obtained post-blast is amazing and should give pause to anyone considering bomb construction.  

For more information on these topics, stay tuned for the installments in the upcoming months of Forensics Q&A.

Kristy Lahoda, Ph.D., is an explosives analyst contractor in a crime lab as well as a science content editor for a major educational publishing company.  She writes Christian forensic suspense and discusses forensics on her blog called Explosive Faith.  You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

If you have a forensics question for Dr. Lahoda that you'd like to see answered on the QueryTracker Blog, send your question via Carolyn Kaufman using the email link under Contact Us in the right-hand column of the main QTB page.