QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Is Your Writing a Hobby or a Business?

A new year means a new headache for many Americans because it's the beginning of the dreaded tax season.

I use the word "dreaded" very lightly, though, because I actually enjoy doing my taxes. (Don't judge me. Statistically, I cannot be the only person to admit that.) I use tax software to organize and file my yearly taxes but, even so, it still takes a working knowledge of tax preparation to do it right.

This year, I am filing with a new occupation: a writer. Are you?

It all comes down to whether your writing is a hobby or a job. Hobby Writers file differently than Job Writers. There are benefits and downsides to each of those positions so it is very important to determine where you stand.

I do not pretend to offer professional advice: so, here is my champion disclaimer. *Ahem*

Don't take my bizarre love for filing taxes as professional advice because I am definitely not an accountant. I am still learning as a writer and, for me, this is just one more lesson.
Please refer to www.irs.gov and their publications for the rules and regulations that govern this topic and ask a real accountant for advice.
(Just remember--I write speculative fiction. I lie for a living.)
Okay, now that we've established that, I want to let you know there are a lot of things you can consider when trying to determine your own position as a Hobby Writer or a Job Writer.
Do You Operate Your "Writing Job" in a Business-Like Manner?

For several years, I've been "grooming" my activities in preparation of becoming a Job Writer. Like any business person I, as a Job Writer, should do things to promote myself and my writing. These are some of the things I did to show I wasn't scribbling only for the fun of it.
  • Joined a professional writing organization, such as Pennwriters, RWA, Pikes Peak Writers, the Maryland Writers Association, or the Science Fiction Poetry Association (to name some of my favorites.) 
  • Entered contests, either for the prize or for feedback.
  • Networked by distributing business cards, using social media, or maintaining a website or blog.
  • Kept a file of what I've sent to editors and agents--even the rejections.
  • Attended conferences, took online classes or seminars (even free ones), and read books on the craft of writing and publishing.
A Job Writer will keep records of all these things, often incurring expenses such as in the case of memberships and book purchases. A Hobby Writer may not be as interested in making substantial monetary investments or building a network.

Once you decide you are a Job Writer, you'll need to prove you can back up that claim. In the event of an audit, the IRS will look for key elements to determine your status. According to the IRS, an activity qualifies as a business if it is carried on with the reasonable expectation of earning a profit.

I pulled this from the IRS website:

In order to make this determination, taxpayers should consider the following factors:
• Does the time and effort put into the activity indicate an intention to make a profit?
• Does the taxpayer depend on income from the activity?
• If there are losses, are they due to circumstances beyond the taxpayer’s control or did they occur in the start-up phase of the business?
• Has the taxpayer changed methods of operation to improve profitability?
• Does the taxpayer or his/her advisors have the knowledge needed to carry on the activity as a successful business?
• Has the taxpayer made a profit in similar activities in the past?
• Does the activity make a profit in some years?
• Can the taxpayer expect to make a profit in the future from the appreciation of assets used in the activity?

Are You In It For The Money?

Do you write for the joy of it? Or because you want to see your work published and selling? Even if you are not yet earning royalties, you may still be a Job Writer. What it all comes down to is the time and effort you put into your writing--as well as a motive to earn a profit.

Before my novel was published, I was writing and submitting short stories and poems, while using Duotrope.com to track my submissions. Never knew it would come in handy at tax time, but it will--all because it shows nearly every submission and response I've ever sent. Likewise, my Query Tracker account is a record of all the agents I've approached. Both spreadsheets contain ample proof that I put serious time and effort into getting published.

Keeping a calendar will help, too, especially if you are big into events and activities. Mark the days and time for each activity you attend--and, while you're at it, mark off things like blog tours or days you devote to polishing your query.

Basically, keep a time card. Hobby Writers may not have an inclination to keep such records, but they provide valuable proof for Job Writers.

Do you depend on income from the activity?

I know I'm not ready to give up my day job yet, but that's not going to stop me from filing as a Job Writer. Every business starts off small and often incurs losses in the beginning--just as indicated in the next bullet point in the list. The point is, earning a living as a writer is my ultimate goal--and one day, I hope to support myself with my writing.

Losses and dry spells are to be expected, just like in any business. Besides, everyone in the publishing business starts off small. Think about that. Why would I be different?

Have you changed your methods to improve profitability?

What this basically means is: are you attempting to grow as a writer? Do you enter contests to obtain feedback? (Read more about that here) Do you take classes in person or online to improve your skills, learn new ways of promoting, or pick up new writing tips? Do you try different outlining or storytelling techniques, searching for a better method?

All of these things change the way we write and the way we attempt to get our projects noticed. If the ultimate goal is selling that novel, then those activities help you meet this requirement.

Do you have the knowledge needed to carry on the activity as a successful business?

Do not think this means you need a license or degree to be a writer. However, you do need to learn about publishing before you dive in. Lucky for you, there is a splendid place called the Query Tracker Forum, which is an excellent place to start toeing the waters. There is also a hoarde of fabulous publishing blogs and websites that help demystify the publishing process. The knowledge is out there, waiting for you.

You can also expand your knowledge through conferences, webinars, and reading newsletters from published authors. Even reading blog posts such as this one demonstrate your intent to learn more about the business of writing. (You're welcome, by the way. :D)

The last few bullet points discuss past, present, and future income.

These sound pretty straightforward to me.

I have yet to earn significant amounts from my writing, yet I have every intent to file as a writer. Why? Because I put a lot of money into my business last year--I went to conferences, I purchased tons of promotional swag, I paid for advertising, and I entered contests. What I spent far outweighed my income…and, hence, the day job comes in handy again. (Huzzah.)

If I was better informed before now, I would have filed sooner--I've been running a "writing business" for a few years now but I let my lack of reportable income keep me from filing as a Job Writer. I could have been deducting my expenses for as long as I've been a member of Query Tracker, because that was the year I decided I would pursue publication. Last year, however, the hobby officially became a job, so my own path was clear.

It's a tough decision that I had to make for my own reasons--and so must you, if you are still in the unpublished phase. You should become familiar with these IRS guidelines because you can get your "business" in order and look ahead to the future. Even if you aren't ready to declare yourself a Job Writer now, one day, you might. These points may help shape you as a professional writer and may even point you in a new direction of growth.

It's never too soon to get your business in order.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer. Visit Ash's blog at www.ash-krafton.blogspot.com for news on her urban fantasy "Bleeding Hearts: Book One of the Demimonde" (Pink Narcissus Press 2012) and the follow-up "Blood Rush" due May 2013.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Case Against Blogging

The advice recurs on forums all the time: authors must blog to accumulate "platform." I've heard newly agented authors say "my agent says I should blog."

But is it good advice?

Setting aside for a moment the fact that I'm writing this on, erm, a blog, the answer is that blogging is not for everyone. It depends on your goals, your life and your style.

Some authors receive fierce sustenance from blogging. These are the happy people who blog like they breathe--easily and without angst. And don't get me wrong--a personal blog can be a super way to build your audience. When I think of blogging success stories, I think of authors such as Elana Johnson and Hilary Smith. These two lovely ladies have for years thrilled their readers with a lively discussion of the writing life. Examples of blogging success abound.

But it would be a mistake to say that every author and prospective author should aspire to become a blogger too. Before you drink that particular glass of kool aid, ask yourself a couple of tough questions.

Can I Spare the Time?
To blog well means to spend quite a few of your precious authorial hours working on something which is not a manuscript. Not only must you spend time writing blog posts, it takes time as well to build up your following. That means time spent reading others' blogs, commenting on them, and becoming part of the greater blogging community. If the very idea of spending time on those pursuits makes you quiver with anxiety, you are not insane. Blogging is a commitment. And if you approach it halfheartedly, your readers will notice.

Also, a blog is like a pet, providing companionship and entertainment. But pet owners are often slow to realize that it also needs frequent walks, and special food. And if you want to fritter off and neglect your blog for awhile, its liveliness and readership will soon flag. (Blogs, at least, do not poop on the floor in anger. They merely wither, like neglected houseplants.)

Am I a Becoming a Feedback Junkie?
To blog is to receive quick feedback. Warning: those blog stats and that comments section can be come an addiction. If you write a successful blog post, and twice as many people read and comment than you usually attract, that feels great. It even feels productive. For an aspiring blogger, it is. But if your number one goal is to write and sell books, this can become a trap. It's easier to brainstorm blog posts than to try one more time to fix the things wrong with your pesky chapter 27. If your goal is to write books, don't give yourself new and pretty excuses to set that goal aside. A little self knowledge can go a long way toward answering this question.

Should I Guest Blog Instead?
When you launch a book, guest blogging is a must. When you guest blog, you are making an exchange: you provide free and interesting content to another blog in exchange for fresh eyeballs. For many authors, this is a terrific compromise--you build audience without the distraction of an ongoing blogging project. If you would like to try your hand at blogging, consider offering a post or two to bloggers you admire. It's a great way to experiment.

Sarah Pinneo
is a novelist, food writer and book publicity specialist. Her most recent book is Julia’s Child. Follow her on twitter at @SarahPinneo.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Publishing Pulse for January 25, 2013

New At QueryTracker:

Have you checked out the new look at QueryTracker yet? Go ahead! it's awesome!

We've added four agent profiles and updated ten in the database this week. Are you querying one of them? Always make sure you double-check every agent's website or Publisher's Marketplace page before sending your query.

If you're a QueryTracker premium member, then you can be notified whenever an agent or publisher profile is added or updated. If you're not a premium member, you can just check for yourself.

Publishing News:

Amazon names their two children's imprints: Two Lions and Skyscape.

Forbes tells us not to bother self-publishing unless we follow Guy Kawasaki's advice.

Around the Blogosphere:

Writing a memoir? Several memoirists share their advice.

Want to make life interesting? Seven ways your characters can screw up their decisions.

Chuck Wendig in his inimitable style opines on the state of publishing. 

Pay attention to the microunits of a story: bubbles and reveals. (Don't worry. I didn't know what these were either.)

Literary Quote of the Week:
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. -Benjamin Franklin

Thanks for stopping by, and keep sending those queries!

Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or ejecting stink bugs from the house. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Researching Your Novel: Dos and Don'ts

I always think writers have an interesting dilemma with research. 

On the one hand, readers want you to get the practical details right. There are few things more annoying than finding a glaring inaccuracy in a story. Not only does it pull you out of the story, it makes you trust the author less.

One of my favorite examples is from the original Terminator movie. After the psychologist in the movie interviews the soldier who came from the future, he goes back to his colleagues and says the soldier is delusional. Good so far – any psychologist familiar with psychosis (which can include delusions) would probably agree. But then the character excitedly remarks how unusual the soldier’s story is. “I could make a career out of this guy!” he crows. 

Every single time I watch that, I do a *facepalm.* Not only are the themes of the soldier’s “delusions” about a machine that looks human (i.e. the Terminator) not unusual, there’s actually a name that would probably fit them—Capgras delusions. As a result, the psychologist looks like he started practicing the day before when he’s supposed to be a seasoned professional. (Admittedly, his refusal to believe in the Terminators becomes an ongoing joke in the movies.)

On the other hand, there’s that glorious thing we call “artist's license.” Artist's license means we can play with the truth and bend reality to fit our purposes. Sometimes, to make a scene or story work, we really do need to use a little of the artist's license magic.

With those things in mind, here are a few dos and don’ts to help you figure out when to stick to the facts and when to fudge the truth a bit.

Do: Research!

Especially if you publish, your book will be read by all kinds of people – including people who are experts in areas you aren’t. Though it can be tempting to muddle your way through a scene by being as vague as possible, details are part of what bring the story to life.

I’ve researched everything from the bubonic plague to Britishisms to how to take apart a Sig Sauer. I bet you’ve got a list of bizarre things you’ve looked up, too. And the glory of the internet is that information on all of those things is readily available out there. 

Do: Use Reliable Sites

You can tell that one of my pet peeves is when people use psychology inaccurately in their stories. Unfortunately, there’s so much inaccurate information out there that it’s easy for writers to make the same mistakes everyone before them did. 

There are, for example, two types of websites on ECT (“electroshock” therapy): the ones that insist on perpetuating the idea that modern “modified” ECT is just like the old, torturous “unmodified” ECT; and the ones that have information based in modern practice. (This is not to say that ECT is an amusement park ride, only that it’s not what you usually see in the movies.)

My point here is that you need to choose the resources you rely on carefully. There’s a lot of bogus information out there, and an awful lot of people don’t know how to cull the wheat from the chaff. In fact, so many people fail to think critically about things they find on the internet that a man named Lyle Zapato decided to prove their gullibility. He created a convincing, professional-looking website encouraging visitors to “help save the endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus from extinction.” These days, it’s easy to find out that there is no tree octopus, but for a while a lot of people were fooled

So think about the website you’re consulting – what evidence do you have that the information on it is accurate? Remember, good misinformation is usually mixed with accurate information to make it harder to tell what’s real and what’s not. And just because a website looks professional doesn’t mean its content is any good. It just means the creator knows how to build a website.

Once in a while you’ll end up with egg in your face no matter what you do, so don’t kick yourself too hard if that happens. I’ve learned things in psychology textbooks, complete with research citations, that people later tell me are outdated or inaccurate. “But the publication date is 2010!” I cry, embarrassed. But even textbook publishers can forget to double-check their facts over the years. Something that was “true” when the first edition came out may no longer be true in the 12th edition…but nobody’s bothered to check.

Don’t: Use Research to Procrastinate 

Let’s face it, researching obscure facts can be fun. Anyone who’s ever started on a Wikipedia page with a totally benign topic and ended up three hours later reading about some obscure factoid on a page that has nothing to do with the first one knows that the web isn’t just a tool…it can also be a black hole. We get sucked in and can’t seem to find our way back out.

Some writers love to research. They love it so much it’s their procrastination of choice. Some writers are distracted by Facebook or the sudden urge to clean the entire house, but others convince themselves they’re doing something useful when they research. 

The reality is that when you keep researching far beyond the things that you needed to know, you’re not doing it for your story anymore. You may be doing it to procrastinate. If you find a goldmine of information you must plumb for new story ideas, bookmark it or print it and then go back to it later, when you’re not supposed to be writing.

Don’t: Put All of Your Research into Your Novel

We rarely find the factoid we need lying all alone, packaged up and ready to use. Instead, we have to dig through hills (sometimes mountains) of other information. Once you’ve spent all that time and energy learning about [insert your research topic here], you want to use it! That can lead to technical infodumps that bring your story to a grinding halt. 

Like perfume or cologne, researched facts should be used sparingly. We’ve all met people who have been wearing a particular scent for so long that they no longer smell it, so they put on more and more until the smell practically knocks those around them off their feet. Avoid doing the same thing to your readers. You don’t need to hit them over the head with every last thing you learned. 

Feel free to write a research-heavy scene like that if you really need to, but then save it in a separate file and pare the real one down so only the key information is there.

Do: Use Your Artist’s License When You Need It

If you paint yourself into a corner with your research and discover that what you need to happen isn’t likely, remember that isn’t likely doesn’t mean it’s impossible. That just means that your character is an outlier (someone who experiences something most people don’t). 

Other times you actually need to bend the rules. I recently worked with a writer who wanted her character to believe he was turning into a werewolf, but he had no other psychological symptoms. This would usually mean the character has what we call a delusional disorder, in which a person stubbornly believes in something that has no basis in reality, despite evidence and logic to the contrary. The problem is that people with delusional disorders only have “non-bizarre” delusions. That means the not-real things they believe are possible in the world as we know it. (Perhaps extremely unlikely, but possible nonetheless.) Non-bizarre delusions are usually things like believing someone who's not in love with you is, or that someone's following you when they're not, or that a partner is cheating when they're not.

Believing one is becoming a werewolf would qualify as a bizarre delusion – it is not possible in the world as we know it. And if someone is having bizarre delusions, they are diagnosed with schizophrenia, which usually has additional symptoms.

I told the writer she had two possible approaches she could take.

First, if werewolves are in fact possible in the world you've created, your problem is solved! The delusion is no longer bizarre, so a delusional disorder makes total sense. 
The other approach you could take is to call it a delusional disorder (if you're going to name it) and just ignore the fact that the delusion your character is having is technically bizarre. That's where the artist's license comes in.

Happy researching!

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

Monday, January 21, 2013

How Much Can You Really Tell From a Query?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It's the rare writer who actually enjoys writing a query (I'm one of those now, but that wasn't always the case). Say the word query around a group of writers and you'll most likely hear groans. Odds are, someone is that group will ask, "Why do we need to do this? It's not like an agent can tell anything about the book from two paragraphs anyway."

Would it surprise you to hear you can tell a lot about a book from the query?

As a writer, I've critiqued more queries and novels than I can count, and I don't even come close to the number agents and editors see every month. But I can tell what problems I'm likely to find in a manuscript after reading just the query.

Are you prone to passive voice? I bet I see several examples, and more than a few to be verbs. Are you fond of clich├ęs? Odds are there's at least one in that pitch paragraph, maybe even a "little did they know" or "things aren't what they seem." Does the manuscript need tightening? That'll show, too, with overwritten sentences and a repetition of words.  

Here are six common query problems that could be holding your novel back:

1. It Sounds the Same as Every Other Book in its Genre
This query might do everything right, but if the story isn't original, that's a good indication the novel itself doesn't offer anything new (even if it is well written). Fix this by finding what's unique about your book, or revising to add a new twist.

2. There's No Focus
This query rambles on and introduces five characters and six plots in three paragraphs. Multiple points of view, tons of subplots, and none of them connect to any one major storyline. This suggests the novel rambles as well, and probably doesn't know what it's trying to be. Fix this by pinpointing what your core conflict is, identifying you protagonist's goal, and being clear what the novel is truly about.

3. There's No Sense of the Stakes
This query can't tell you why the plot matters. Sure, maybe the fate of the world is in the balance, but why exactly should the protagonist (and the reader) care? This implies your characters are acting for plot reasons and not because they have a personal stake in this story, so the novel will likely feel pointless. Fix this by raising the stakes and giving the protagonist a personal reason to want to solve the story problem. And real consequences if she fails.  

4. A Weak or No Plot
This query spends more time talking about the idea of the story, or just lists the events that happen in the book. There's no sense of what the core conflict is or how the protagonist has to solve it. This suggests a novel that feels episodic, where the chapters seem disconnected from each other and there's no sense of a protagonist trying to solve a big problem. Fix this by pinpointing your core conflict and the goals your protagonist needs to take to resolve that conflict.

5. Not Edited Enough
This query will have extra words, repetitious phrases, weak nouns and verbs. There may even be misspelled words or the wrong word, like their instead of there. This suggests the manuscript is likely riddled with the same errors. Fix this by revising and proofing thoroughly.

6. It's Got the Whole World
This query spends most of its time talking about the world, the history, the backstory of the characters, but never actually mentions the plot. This suggests the novel will be filled with too much world building, excessive backstory and a lot of infodumps. Fix this by cutting what isn't necessary for the story, and focusing more on the plot and character development. 

The Good News
Just as the flaws stand out, the strengths also shine through. That's why a not-so-great query can still catch an agent's eye. A well-written, original story with a compelling plot can usually be seen even if the query stumbles a bit.

Queries can be useful diagnostic tools to help you find--and fix--problems before your manuscript is sent off to agents and editors. Take an objective look at yours and see if you're showing the best parts of your novel or letting the flaws sneak in.

What does your query say about your book?

Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, and BLUE FIRE. DARKFALL. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel. You can visit her online at www.janicehardy.com, chat with her about writing on her blog, The Other Side of the Story, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Publishing Pulse: January 18, 2013

New Success Story
Congratulations to another QueryTracker user who shared her success story with us! Best wishes go out to Rebecca Mahoney. Her story can be found here.

Agent Updates
A new literary agent has been listed this week. You can learn more about what Rachel Hecht is looking for in her new profile.

Guess how many agents updated their profiles this week? More than a dozen!

Ready to write your own success story?

If you're a QueryTracker member (membership is free) you can view the database of more than 1200 agent and publisher profiles. Premium Members can be notified whenever an agent or publisher is added or updates their profile, in addition to receiving access to several other enviable features.

The Week in Publishing

In a guest post written for The Creative Penn, Irving Weinman, author of "Write Great Dialogue: A Teach Yourself Guide" gives us 5 tips that should help improve our dialog techniques.

Ebooks are accounting for a greater percentage of book sales with each passing year…but why do the numbers vary from one report to another? An article at Digital Book World has an explanation--and it has to do with genre.

We Query Trackers LOVE to agonize over our goof-ups and dropped balls and missed opportunities…so commiserate with Brit Blaise when he shares his experiences with an editor at Kensington. Perhaps we can learn a lesson--when we are done cringing.

In an informative video, NYT Best Selling Author Brad Meltzer decodes success. In addition, Skip Prichard rattles off five "success factors" that describe Brad's writing philosophies to a T.

Do you read too much into a query rejection? Rachelle Gardner wants you to stop wasting your time.

Tom Young guest blogs on the Guide to Literary Agents blog with seven tips for researching a novel.

Have a grand weekend, everyone!

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer. Visit Ash's blog at www.ash-krafton.blogspot.com for news on her urban fantasy "Bleeding Hearts: Book One of the Demimonde" (Pink Narcissus Press 2012) and the follow-up "Blood Rush" due May 2013.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Why You Should Critique Other People's Queries

A Publishing Nerd is Born

I learned to be an editor by accident.

As a 19 year-old college student, I already knew that the world of publishing called to me. So the fact that students at my college wrote and edited an annual edition of The Insider’s Guide to Colleges for St. Martin’s press was a boon to me. I needed that on my resume.

Strangely, proto publishing nerds are not thick on the ground even at Yale. So the fact that I’d turned in five or six three-page college write-ups on time attracted attention. “Hey, you! Quiet girl in the corner—do you want to be an editor?”


I was wise enough to say yes, and my editing career was born. But I came to the task with a certain amount of trepidation. As I eyed that first stack of 800 word articles, I had no idea what it was I brought to the table. After all, the writer of each one had all the information, right? What use would it be to stick my nose in?

But then I began to read them. And before half an hour had passed, I was rearranging sentences and scribbling notes, asking for clarity. At least 50% of an editor’s job was simply to not be the person who wrote the thing. The job was to be unfamiliar enough with the material to know when things weren’t right. To not be blinded by my own intentions.

Fast forward *mumble mumble* years, and I found myself haunting the hallways of the Query Tracker Forum. At first, I critiqued queries on the board because it seemed like the helpful thing to do. Since I received assistance there, it seemed only right to chime in. But the critiquing I did there quickly began to strengthen my own query efforts. Any reader of the query critique threads will recognize familiar mistakes more easily than someone who labors only on her own work.

Whenever you step in, attempting to smooth out someone’s sentence—rescuing that sparkly description from drowning in adverbs, or untangling modifiers—you’re editing for yourself, too. It is the rare query which contains only mistakes I’m past making for myself. There’s always something to learn.

Last year, I heard a New Yorker Out Loud podcast on the subject of Twitter, in which the editors stunned me with their utter lack at horror over the idea of spending an afternoon trying to write the perfect tweet. Really? These masters of the long form would stoop so low? “It’s time in the batting cage,” one of them rationalized. And that’s what query critiquing can do for us all. Genre be damned.

And after you’ve read your 100th would-be query, a second layer of utility begins to form alongside all your new editing skills. By reading those threads, you’re putting yourself in the agent’s chair. Is this the fifth query you’ve seen which begins: “MC wants nothing more from summer vacation than a deep tan and an invitation to the beach jam, but…?”  Note to self! That opener, while perfectly sound, has been around the block a few times. I’d better not employ it myself. You will also start to spot common query ills—the dropping of too many character names, the compression of too much plot, the overly chatty bio ‘graf. Even if you’ve read up from excellent sources on the “Glamour Don’ts” of query writing, witnessing them in real time is starlingly educational.

Lastly, the art of critique is, in and of itself, an essential writerly skill. I have learned to start every critique by saying one positive thing. Even if the query needs buckets of work (and even if you suspect the manuscript does, too) there is always something encouraging to say.

At my children's school, the first grade teacher closes the day with a verse that the children stand at their desks to recite. The last two lines are keepers: "Every kind word makes me stronger. Every kind deed sets me free." What's true on the playground also works in queryland. Good luck out there!

Sarah Pinneo
is a novelist, food writer and book publicity specialist. Her most recent book is Julia’s Child. Follow her on twitter at @SarahPinneo.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Writing Your Tragedy

Over the years I've ended up mentoring in several capacities, and not just burgeoning writers. For years after my newborn daughter died, I moderated an infant loss support group -- and on that group, I met another writer who had lost a baby.

She was disturbed to find she couldn't write anything in the wake of her loss. I assured her it had taken four years after Emily's death to really feel like I could be a writer again. I was writing during that time, of course, but grieving robbed my brain of its inspiration.

Tragedy comes to all of us at some point in time, so be aware that it might impact your writing. There are two issues at play during and after a tragedy. The first is sheer overwhelmedness.

Let's play a game of pretend. Pretend Superman exists. He's out minding his own business when a school bus full of kids topples off a bridge, and he catches it. No problem. Then a Buick falls off the bridge, and he catches that too. He starts carrying them to safety when Spiderman swings by and says, "Hey, man, can you hold my sandwich?"

He can't do it. Not because he can't hold a sandwich (and not because one is Marvel and one is DC) but because he's run out of hands. This is what living every day is like when you're grieving. You've got both hands full of the weightiest object you've ever carried, and then you're supposed to write a novel on top of that? When you can barely write a grocery list?

The second is the issue of processing enough to write, and that's where this writer was stuck. I told her:
You can "scab over" the hurt, but it's still there, and the trauma hasn't been resolved enough that your inner self -- the introspective part that writes -- wants to handle it. You may at some level understand that it hasn't been resolved and that's what's keeping you from writing about it. Because it hasn't been resolved, you can't create a tidy little package about it.
Have you read The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner? In it she states that writers tend to keep a distance between themselves and the rest of their lives, as if they're observing their own lives. It means there's always a shell between a writer and his own feelings so that he can analyze himself even as he's experiencing something. 
Rather than just feeling hurt, a writer notes that he's feeling hurt and also how that affects him and what his hurt does to the people around him, and so on and so forth. Sometimes I wonder if that's not how I survived losing Emily at all -- by simultaneously living it and keeping some distance on myself. Maybe you've got that wall there too, and your unconscious knows it would hurt to have it come down enough to write about it.
From the perspective of time, I can see where I've coped with other difficult situations by doing the same. In fact, sometimes I find myself in the middle of a mess nowadays thinking, "I should blog about that."

But is that healthy? It is, and it's not. It's an examined life, but is it a life examined at the expense of living it? Are writers here-but-not-here when we dwell in the twilight between feeling and introspection? Are we effectively saying to ourselves, "That's nice, dear, but what have you learned?"

After a tragedy, I would categorize four stages of writeability. The writer:
  1. is able to record the details of the event; emotion may or may not be present
  2. writes for catharsis; an emotion-dump, primarily for himself or herself, and the details may or may not be present
  3. writes evangelistically because there's a Message. eg, "These were the stupid things people said when Emily died, so you the reader should not say them" (note this is outwardly directed, but because it's angry writing, it's still primarily for oneself)
  4. writes and lets the story tell itself without pushing a message

By Stage 4, the tragedy stops being an Issue and the writer stops having a Message. In Stage 2, I don't believe the writer has a Message yet, but s/he's coming toward one. Stage 3 is often unreadable because the Message (and many times an angry Message) dominates the writing. The writer is into consciousness-raising and the story takes a back seat to the Message. Unfortunately this phase is where the writer feels fired up and finally ready to write again, and therefore you get most of the writing about Issues, and hence why most issue-exploring writing has a Message.

My daughter Emily died during July, 2000 and I had her website up by September, but writing something deeper and more reflective took time. I don't think I fully explored in fiction the emotions of losing a baby until I wrote Winter Branches (in 2006) and even there, the feelings were translated away from a mother-baby couple. (I had written about an infant's death six months earlier in Damage, but while Damage centered on the same situation, the main character did no grieving. It's the frame of the house without the furnishings, the carpet, or the drapes.)

My point here is this: writers process tragedy using many of the same parts of the brain that create fiction. Writing in an effort to process the emotions is journaling, and that's fine. But writing your tragedy in an attempt to leap right to the end product -- that only leads to stalled-out writing and a burnt-out writer, or else it leads to a fake-sounding resolution. 

 If you want the processed, final product, those precious resolved feelings, you need to resolve them  first.  We write after a tragedy for many reasons, but there's a difference between writing to help yourself and writing to help others. Writing to help others in the same situation requires your feelings to have matured, so take a deep breath. As they say on an airplane, put on your own oxygen mask first. 

If you've endured a tragedy, give it time before you try writing professionally about it on the level you know you can.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or ejecting stink bugs from the house. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Publishing Pulse: January 11, 2013

Success Stories

Congratulations to our latest success stories, Nikki Stuckwisch, Laura Tims, and Suzanne van Rooyen! Click their names to read their attention-getting queries and to learn about how they landed their agents.

Downtime for Upgrade

The main QueryTracker site will be down for a few hours on Saturday evening for upgrades!

Around the Internet

Did you know that Facebook tracks negative feedback on your posts and makes them show up for fewer people? Find out how and what you can do about it.

Fellow blogger Sarah Pinneo wrote about why she uses Scrivener, and I wrote about why I use yWriter. This week another of our QTBloggers, Stina Lindenblatt, likes SmartEdit. Check out her review over on her personal blog.

Ever think about what the movie for your novel would be like? (Of course you have. You probably know just who you'd cast for each character!) Over on Novel Rocket, novelist and screenwriter talks about adapting your novel into a screenplay.

To reach your goals, you may need to set boundaries, or limits, by looking at the opposite of each of your goals. Lydia Sharp shows you how on Write It Sideways.

Staying optimistic about your chances of success as a writer can be pretty tough, but agent Rachelle Gardner  shows you how to rewrite doom-and-gloom thinking.

Have a great weekend and we'll see you next week!

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

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Fifty Shades of Editing

by Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL

 ©Stina Lindenblatt

Regardless of whether you’re pursuing traditional or self publishing, your book needs to be well edited. If it isn’t, agents and editors will reject it. If you self publish and the story and writing is weak, your writing career is pretty much doomed, unless you use a pen name for your next book. With so many options out there for readers, it’s tough to get a second chance if you blow the first one.

The point of this post is not to provide you with advice on how to edit your book after the first draft. Like everything else in this industry, it’s subjective. What works for one person might not work for someone else. A writer who plots and figures out characterizations first will approach his second draft differently than a writer who jumped straight into writing the first draft without much planning. Instead, I’m focusing on the edits you need to consider from an outside perspective. In all cases, you want to make sure you give the individual the best version of the story to date. That means, no sending them your first draft. You just waste everyone’s time when you do that.


This group of individuals is invaluable. They are your first line of editing and they are free. Well, almost free. When someone offers to give you feedback on your project, remember it’s not a one-way street. There is nothing worse than giving feedback on someone’s 130,000-word manuscript and they do not reciprocate. This group includes critique partners and beta readers. What it doesn’t include is your mom, unless your mom can be critical and give valuable feedback. A lot can’t. On the other hand, if your mom is overcritical about everything in your life, you might want to skip on her feedback. Same deal with your mother-in-law.

Critique Partners and Critique Groups

With these individuals, you usually send your novel to them in chunks. Some groups will meet once a month and exchange chapters. They focus on the here and now, and chances are they won’t remember what they read last time. Because of this, they tend not to see the big picture. They point out places where you could rewrite a sentence so that it’s no longer confusing, and point out things that don’t make sense story wise. These individuals tend to be writers. 

Beta Readers

Unlike the critique partner, beta readers look at the big picture. They will point out problems with your plot and when your characterizations could be stronger (critique partners can do this, too). Some give line edits, but it’s not part of the job description. Beta readers can be writers or avid readers. 


Professional editors tend to have a higher skill set compared to our beta readers and critique partners. But remember, not all are created equal. This depends on numerous factors, including their editing education and experience. An editor who works for Simon & Schuster, for example, will have a greater skill level compared to an author of several short stories who decided to make some extra cash on the side. 

Agents and Editors (with a publisher)

These are individuals are “free,” but they need to love your project and see a market for it before they will offer you a contract. Your book might be great, but if there’s no market for it (in their eyes), agents and editors will pass on your project. Are they right? Not necessarily. But if you’re planning to go the traditional route, you need to impress them first. 

Freelance Editors

These individuals are the ones you hire if you plan to self publish a quality book. This is a step you don’t want to skip. Even if you’re planning to pursue traditional publishing, it doesn’t hurt to have professional editing done before you query. In today’s competitive slush piles, this step might give you the extra edge you need to land a contract. I know one author who does this. The result is she has less editing to do with her publisher, which saves everyone time.


No matter which route you go, there are three levels of editing you need to consider. With traditional publishing, all three are typically done. 

Developmental/Structural Edits

These edits involve the big ticket items, such as plot, characterization, overall pacing, setting, story structure, etc. When you hear an author mention how they received fifteen pages from their editor, this is what they are referring to.

Line Edits

After the big ticket items come line edits. This is where the editor will make comments in your manuscript at the sentence level. She will point out sentences that don’t flow well and make suggestions. Remember, they are just that: suggestions. Be careful you don’t end up messing with your voice (unless you want to). 

Copy Edits

This level of editing is no less important that the others. A copy editor will point out typos, missing words, and inconsistencies. A good one will notice that your main character has blue eyes on page 30 and brown eyes on page 99. That is their job. I recommend you don’t skip on this one. A book filled with typos screams unprofessional. It also screams, “Don’t read my next book!”

The most important thing to remember is that the people giving you feedback need to share your vision for your book. If they don’t, you will end up ripping your hair out in frustration. When looking for the right individuals, see if you can get feedback on a few pages first. That way you can see if you are a good mix.

Have you used a professional editor? How many critique partners and beta readers do you tend to use for each project?