QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Listen. Listen.

In exchange for tuition to get my MA in English, I tutored at the college's writing center. Tutoring is a bit like editing, and I discovered I loved it. Every day I'd show up for three hours. If no students came, I was free to work on my coursework or my own writing. When students showed up with papers, I would read their essays with them, point out mistakes in grammar or spelling, make sure they addressed the question, and suggest areas for improvement.

Over time, I picked up "regulars," and I got to know their quirks. One in particular was a young man battling dyslexia, and if I had no other students waiting, we would talk after his essay review. He had a difficult home life.

One afternoon he brought me the second version of an essay about "a vivid experience." He'd attended a sporting event locally, which I understood to be one of the rare ways he connected with his father. While there, the action on the field had gone terribly wrong, resulting in the death of one of the spectators. My student had seen it happen.

We went over his essay, taking care to read it aloud for sound, rearranging the paragraphs for impact ("You'll want to delay saying she died until afterward, to raise the tension") and experimenting with different words that better fit the description.

He said to me, "This is so tough."

I shrugged. "It is, but you have something important to say, and I want to make sure you know how to say it the best you possibly can. Like in this paragraph, where just by inserting a line of dialogue, you draw us into the story a little more."

I looked up and the kid was staring right at me, his mouth trembling, his eyes shining. Tears.

I stiffened. "What's wrong?"

He swallowed. "You really think I have something important to say?"

And there I sat with this college freshman, a guy who worked hard for every word he wrote and who could hardly talk to his family except about a sport that had left him traumatized, and I realized he'd made it through thirteen years of schooling without anyone telling him he had something worth saying.

Why do we teach people to write except that we think they have something important to say? Why was I the first person in this young man's entire life to make sure he knew his perspective was important?

You're writers: you want to tell your stories. For Christmas or whatever holiday you celebrate, give yourself the gift of believing you have something important to say. Give your message the gift of saying it as well as you can. That's why you're reading blogs about getting published. Believe in yourself. In the end, the only reason writers persevere against the odds (and the rejection and the critique and the blocks…) is that we believe our stories are worth telling.

And then pass along the gift -- the gift of making sure those around you know they've got something worth saying -- because everyone has a story, whether they're writers or just human beings living their daily lives. Give the gift of listening, the gift of affirming, the gift of letting others know their voices should be heard.

(This is a repost from 12/2010.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

When should I give up?

Over on the QueryTracker forums, someone has asked us when is it time to give up. What happens if you've got a manuscript you love and the agents just don't love it the same way you do? How many queries do you send and get rejected (or get nothing but silence) before you stand down? How many times can you hear an agent say, "I love this, but I just don't know any editors who would take it"?

I'm kind of an expert on that, so I wanted to weigh in.

Giving up sounds really fatalistic.  We're in the business of communicating, so let's change that wording. Giving up implies there was winning and losing instead of the whole spectrum of successes and fallings-short that encompass the drive toward publication. I'd say it's more like "standing down" than giving up. If it happens, it happens, but you're no longer tense and expectant, no longer swimming against the current.

Being sick of the querying process is a sign that you need to stand down for a while in order to protect your emotional and mental health. Publication is grueling and it's a long haul. If you were training for a marathon, you wouldn't run on a sprained ankle; you'd rest and give yourself time to recover before lacing up the sneakers again. This is the same thing. As soon as you start hating the process, or before if you can catch yourself, cut yourself off. Stand down. Lower your weapon. Let any queries still out there come back, but don't send any more.

Why? Because you'll make yourself bitter. Think about a guy who's asked four people to the prom and been rejected each time. He starts going lower down his list of prioirities because all he wants is "a date," not a particular person's company, and probably starts showing it in the way he asks. Then when he's turned down (because he's asking indiscriminately, or because he's asking with an eye toward the coming rejection) he becomes bitter and says dating sucks. Don't let yourself get to that point. You don't need a date to the prom, and you don't need an agent.

When you're getting regular feedback along the lines of, "I love this, but I can't sell it," that might be time to consider that you're not writing blockbusters, and publishers are looking for blockbusters. They need money, and their first two questions are whether the book will pull them out of a debt hole and whether the book is safe enough not to lose money. The agent is looking at your book to evaluate whether it's similar enough to something popular that it won't lose money and different enough to stand out, that way the publishers she approaches will feel comfortable looking at the book.

In other words, your book could be amazing, but editors "aren't sure they can break it out in a big way." (Ask me how many times I heard that rejection.) And maybe, "I love it, but it's kind of different." (Ditto.) And here's my favorite: "This would be a great second novel, but not a debut."

That's my favorite for two reasons. My sarcastic side says that's the editor or agent sticking a bookmark in you. They don't care to nurture your talent or give you a chance, but on the other hand, they don't want you to go to someone else. So they tell you to just, you know, spend another couple hundred hours writing something else in the hopes that maybe they'll take both books.

The other side of me says, "Second novels are how careers are made." You'll only have one debut, but having a string of solid follow-up novels is how you develop a following and end up with checks to deposit every year for the rest of your life.

So when should you stand down on querying your manuscript?

1) The minute you start to feel bitter, give your querying a vacation.

2) If you're hearing a lot of the same feedback, examine your novel and decide whether it's accurate.

3) If you keep being told this is a great second novel, rejoice, for you have it in you to turn out many solid novels that will keep your fans happy.

And your alternatives once you stand down?

1) Give it a rest and try again when you have your energy back. (Speaking for myself, though, I have gone to a permanent stand-down.)

2) Look into small publishers that aren't as intent on earning a billion dollars right out of the gate. They may well love your solid novel that "isn't a debut."

3) Read up on indie publishing, where you can nurture your back list so that when you do write a blockbuster that would make a billion dollars, you have the option of querying again, and the blockbuster will feed sales of the prior books.

Never give up on writing itself. Your stories are still there. Give them daylight, and let them breathe.

If you push when you're feeling bitter, the bitterness may transfer to your writing itself, and that will choke your stories. Please don't let that happen.

And finally, never give up on yourself. YOU are not the problem here. YOU are not "not good enough." You just didn't create a product they thought would sell. That's not a statement of your worth.

Keep writing. Put down the queries and take a break -- stand down if you must -- but always keep writing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Don't Let NaNo Ruin Your January

There is a board on the NaNoWriMo forum dedicated to reaching 50,000 words. A noble goal: after all, isn't that what we're all there for? But some of the suggestions that I've seen (not necessarily in that forum) seem counterproductive at best to me. What I love to see in that forum are threads for encouraging one another,

We've reached the final stretch of NaNoWriMo, the last seven days in which everyone will write like crazy, trying to reach 50,000 words. There's even an entire section of the NaNoWriMo forum dedicated to reaching that elusive 50k. However, I've seen suggestions there and elsewhere that seem counterproductive at best. Sure, they'll get you closer to that beautiful purple bar on your profile, but will they really help your book?

Tricks that Almost Never Work

Spell out all your contractions

No, just don't. It may add lots of words to your word count in a semi-legitimate way, but it won't be much fun come January when you have to go back and decide which ones need re-contracted.

Rehash the plot to a new character

Sometimes the plot needs to be rehashed for believeability. But in the final draft, you know it will suffice as, "I told my sister everything that had happened since she left for France last week," rather than a whole conversation.

Have a flashback to the beginning of the book... and copy-paste the first scene

No. Pretty please don't do this. This doesn't help you find the story. It doesn't help your editing process. It doesn't help anything at all.

Give characters really long names/titles

Imagine if every reference to Voldemort in the Harry Potter series was "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named." An extra five words every time someone mentions him. Five words you'll probably delete later. How many times does that full phrase appear in the million-word series? Not many. Even worse if you do this at the end, using find/replace to beef up a character/place name just to hit 50k.

Write Every. Single. Line. of dialogue

Obviously, you should write all the dialogue that belongs in the book or gets you closer to understanding the book. What I'm talking about are the pleasantries and small talks that happen in real life and never, ever happen in novels (unless they're used as foreshadowing, but that's a topic better suited to revision). It will add words to your story if you write, "Hello." "Hi, how are you?" "Fine, you?" "Good I guess." "So what did you do today?" "Not much, just played video games. You?" "Well my sister's in the hospital." That's a given. But in the final book it will almost certainly look like two characters approaching each other and one of them saying immediately, "My sister's in the hospital."

When all else fails, add aliens/a zombie apocalypse/a meteor crashing/etc.

The further along you are in your novel, the worse an idea this is. I often see it advertised as prompts for sprints or for people who are stuck, "just to shake things up." There may be a few times it's worked and prompted the story to go in the direction it was always meant to go. But for the love of revision in January, don't go adding these things to a contemporary just so you have the words. What's the point of writing them when you know without a doubt they'll be deleted the moment you re-read?

Tricks that Can Work

Write a scene from a non-POV character, or outside the timeline of your story

This is the kind of suggestion you should take if, for instance, you're having a hard time getting to know a character, or want to explore a character's history to see how it would be affecting their present. There is a lot of value in this, even if it is the kind of thing you're going to immediately cut come January. (You are going to cut it immediately, right?) The catch lies in not getting so distracted from what you actually want to write that you can't get back on track. This should be a quick troubleshoot, a diagnosis... not the new program.

Add a fight

Fights are always appropriate in books, regardless of the genre. You have battles, fist fights, gun fights, cat fights... all of them can not only add words but conflict to your novel. The trick here is to keep it organic. It's important to be true to your characters and the story, but you don't have to have best friends being besties all the time. It can be useful to think about a verbal fight in terms of "What's the worst thing she could possibly say right now?" and then, of course, have her say it. Even if the fight doesn't stay in the final book, you may have learned something about their relationship dynamics.

Relentlessly describe everything

Unlike including every bit of dialogue you possibly can, this can be useful. There are two ways in which I mean it, too: first, describe all aspects of the setting and make sure you're using all five senses (assuming your character uses all five senses). Make sure you personally know the setting and the layout so that the scene begins to come to life around your characters. Second, if you aren't sure which way to word something, use both. I know there are times I have to stumble through a paragraph of description before I hit on the perfect two- or three-word phrase I was looking for. The way to make sure you ease into January here is to make sure you cross out the words you know you won't keep. Don't make your future self do more work than s/he has to.

If a scene isn't working, try again

Sure, you're not supposed to edit during NaNo, but what about a do-over? Wondering what that scene would be like if a different character were present? Thinking a witty line of dialogue might have sent the plot off in a completely different direction? There's no use not trying. In the end, one or both of the scenes will have to go, but you should be closer to finding your story in the process.

The Litmus Test

In my opinion, whether these methods of padding your word count are "good" or not comes down to one question: Does this further my story and/or my understanding of the story? If the answer is yes, then do it. If the answer is no, you might want to rethink which is more important to you: winning NaNoWriMo or eventually having a polished novel that you're proud of.

What are some ways that you power through the last week of NaNo?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Surviving Submission

For aspiring writers, climbing out of the query trenches and finally getting an agent can seem like winning the lottery. But then what? Obtaining representation gives you an advocate and a foot in the door, but what actually happens when your book is on submission? Or, what if you're on submission directly to a publisher and frantically refreshing your inbox every thirty seconds? To help navigate the process, I asked Gina Panettieri from the Talcott Notch agency to answer some questions about surviving submission. 

Do agents submit to editors via query letter like authors or by phone call or other method? Do you agonize over queries like we do?

Gina: Agents pitch projects to editors in a variety of different ways, and sometimes the same agent might pitch your project in a letter, on the phone and in person, depending on who she's pitching to and what opportunities arise. I think most of us take the time to carefully craft a very winning pitch letter, and I know that it's not infrequent that I find the book's description that I created for my pitch being used by the publishers as the back cover copy and the catalog and website copy for the books that I sell, so I know they must feel it hit the spot, too. So, yes, we agonize over what to write! We realize the value in conveying the important properties of the story to the editor quickly and convincingly, and often tailor the letter to the specific editor we're addressing, knowing her specific interests.

What advice can you offer to an author on submission? 

Gina: First and foremost, check the website of the agent or publisher you're submitting to to find out what they want you to send and in what format and follow the instructions. 
Don't send hardcopy when they want electronic and vice-versa. Send proper size SASE if you want material returned.
Don't send submissions by registered or certified mail (everyone hates that). If you're worried about whether it got there, just ask for delivery confirmation, which doesn't require a signature on the other end, or you can send it priority, which includes tracking.
Observe formatting instructions. I know editors who won't read something if it's not formatted correctly. 
Don't fudge and say something was requested when it wasn't in order to submit to a publisher or agent who only reads solicited work. We know. 
Include information on your platform and marketing with your submission, even for fiction. It may push your submission over the edge into a 'yes'. 
Don't call to check on your submission! This is true everywhere. 

How long does submission usually take? 

Gina: That can range wildly, but a few weeks to several months, depending on the editors, their backlog and reading pace and what other events are taking place (like sales conferences, book expos and vacations) that can slow down responses. But agents (and authors) often do multiple rounds of submissions,  and it's not unusual for it to take a year, eighteen months or longer to sell a book. It takes patience, perseverance and faith in the book in many cases!

If an editor is interested, what happens from there if the MS gets to acquisitions?

Gina: If the editor is interested, she may ask other editors to read it for their feedback, and she may get additional input from other departments. The editor will create her own pitch, perhaps drawing from the pitch given by the agent, and compile her own materials for the book, requiring competing titles and sales data, to pitch it to the editorial board and determine what could be projected for the sales potential for the book. The editor has to win over the rest of the editorial board, who may raise objections to the book based on other projects which haven't done well, or perhaps concerns over a book being too similar to another one the publisher has done, or issues with the book don't being on-trend or being too niche. The editor has to come in prepared to counter anticipated arguments, or present her pitch tailored to address those concerns pre-emptively and be prepared to fight for her book. It isn't always that easy! I often call the acquisitions board The Board of Sales Prevention! It's important to give your editor as much ammo as you can to bolster her. A great platform and marketing statement, great comp titles, good data on why your book is trending, and any data you can give to overcome objections (perhaps a poor performing comp title did poorly for a specific reason and you can show why your book is different).

What's hot and not right now with publishers?

Gina:  You know there are always the exceptions to every rule, of course! Mythology- and folklore-based YA continue to get immediate requests. Both YA and MG are getting darker and edgier so that's getting attention. Sweet....not so much! Sci-fi action-y YA is selling well. Mystery series for MG, boy-friendly fiction (everyone asks, but it's hard to find), and ghost stories (hey, they're bringing Goosebumps back!) are very welcome. Anything King of Thrones-y would get a look. Vikings are hot. There's a big push for diversity in publishing (yay!), so diverse casts of characters are encouraged. Cozy mystery series are always popular, and if you can add an animal character POV or cute paranormal quirk, all the better!  YA editors are all asking for nonfiction (and you'll see a lot of YouTube stars books topping their lists, but let's hope that's not the extent of it!). Coloring books for adults are all the rage, too, so if you can come up with a unique concept for one, go for it!

Many thanks to Gina for taking the time to demystify the process. Good luck to all you folks on submission!

Kim English - A native Floridian, Kim is the author of Coriander Jones Saves the World and the upcoming Coriander Jones On Assignment at Sabal Palm Academy. She lives in southwest Florida with her family and an ever increasing number of rescue pets. You can learn more about Kim and her books at CorianderJones.com

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Truth Amongst the Lies: Why Fiction Needs to be Factual

NaNoWriMo is a blasted challenge for me. See, I don't actually get 30 days to write—I get just a little over a third that number. That's because I'm slavishly devoted to my day job, which is fraught with 12-hour computerless shifts. Horrid, horrid thought for a writer to be cut off from the ebb and flow of words for such long stretches of time.

I suppose it's a writer's saving grace that writing is mostly mental: I believe that writing is only 10% typing and 90% thinking. It just seems more apparent to me during the month of November. This time of year, I tend to quantify my writing efforts and, like every other good little Query Tracker enthusiast, I obsess with the numbers.

As a writer with limited screen time, I have to work very hard to make sure I make the most of my typing time—usually by using my thinking time to fullest advantage. Sometimes, though, that turns against me and I start to overthink the story.

And that's almost as bad as not writing at all.
Truth in Fantasy
I'm a speculative fiction author with definite fantasy leanings. My favorite genre to read is high fantasy, the stories that make you work to unlock every storyline, every character, every unique world element. I love complex family hierarchies, social and ruling systems, and unique magical theories and arts. I thrive in those worlds where there are no limits beyond the authors' imaginations.
But when I stop reading and start writing, I find myself thinking about the facts in fiction. A lot.
Research takes up a huge chunk of my thinking time. Historical periods, locations, events—accuracy is important to my story telling craft. It's not enough for me to spin a tale—the story must have strong, believable feet upon which to stand. Truth is the structure that suspends my disbelief.
"Suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Suspension of disbelief often applies to fictional works of the action, comedy, fantasy, and horror genres." Wikipedia, the font of all wisdom (and probably the number one cited reference for high school term papers)
A "human interest and a semblance of truth" can mean so many things: an honestly-portrayed emotion, a genuine personal experience, an accurately described setting, a relevant recounting of an historic event. Our stories must ring true enough so that the reader may become one with the story, a part of the telling itself.
Someone who doesn't read fantasy may believe that the very nature of fantasy would be at conflict with truth. Not so. Fantasy begins the moment a writer frees himself from the bound of reality, the point where he utters "what if…?" and takes the first step of discovery.
And what could be more truthful than capturing that journey from an honest emotional perception or an accurate portrayal of the setting?
That journey— whether through outer space, deep under the earth, or entirely within the realm of a character's psyche— must always have a truthful element, even if the character is completely alien. If not, the human reader may not connect to it. 

As for me, my word count is balking at the moment because I'm neck deep in Civil War maps and regiment muster dates and the Pennsylvania Bucktails. I'm trolling historical society websites and getting really close to hitting up a history professor or two. Why? Because I need a setting for my NaNo story. The book isn't about the Civil War or soldiers or battlefields. But there's a house, next to an unmarked cemetery, which a character believes may have been a Civil War regiment's temporary camp.

It's not a huge part of the story. It's only a vehicle to explain what happened in the backstory.  It's not the most crucial element of the book.

But it needs to be right. It needs to be plausible. It needs to be something that could possibly have happened 150 years ago or else I'll just feel like I slapped something in there to fill a space.
I can't do that. I need that element of truth in my possibility.

What I should do is shut off the Internet, pick a non-threatening place in my manuscript, and get back to writing. I can skirt the truth for now and avoid the places where I'd have to make open declarations. I can focus on the characters and their relationships and their trials, seeking the human interest and the truth of their discoveries. Just because there's a ghost or two in it doesn't mean it has no base in reality. There is still a lot of truth to be told.

But I know that sooner or later, I'll go back to flipping open one of my books on Gettysburg and looking for a hint so my characters, human and ghost alike, don't remain homeless forever.

Thanks a lot, Coleridge. First Xanadu, now this. You know to really make a girl overthink everything.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

How the QT Database is Kept Current

QueryTracker is proud to be the most up-to-date database of literary agents available anywhere. But, as anyone querying agents will know, things are always changing. Agents are constantly opening and closing to queries and changing their query preferences or genres of interest. Trying to keep up with the 1,400 agents listed on QT is a daunting task. So how do we ensure our information is current?

QT uses two highly effective methods to stay on top of the agent data:

  1. User feedback: We encourage QT members to let us know whenever they find information about an agent or agency that does not match what we show. Upon receiving a notification, we will first confirm the information and then, if necessary, update the agent's profile accordingly. This gives us an army of 100,000 authors, scouring the web looking for changes.

    To notify QT of changes found, members can use either the Contact Us page on the site, or post the information in the comment section for the particular agent.

  2. The QT Crawler: QT has created an advanced automated crawler, much like the program used by Google and other search engines to index websites. QT's crawler is a program which visits all the known agency websites, looking for any changes from the last time the crawler was there. When changes are found, the program highlights the change and then notifies us of what it found. Each site is visited twice per day, so when an agent changes anything on their website, we know about it almost instantly.
Other online databases depend on the actual agents to sign into their websites and make the changes themselves. Though we happily receive information from agents when they want a change to their profiles, we don't rely on this. We don't think this is the agent's job—they're too busy to do it and shouldn't have to. Using QT's two-pronged system, all they have to worry about is their own website; we'll take it from there.

So it is through use of advanced technology and a large and involved membership that QueryTracker maintains its role as the most trusted database of literary agents.

Patrick McDonald is the founder and creator of QueryTracker. Though maintaining QueryTracker keeps him too busy to write anymore, back when he did he tended to write in many different genres. Not because he was eclectic, but because he was still trying to find his niche. Though he never discovered his genre of choice, he did find his home at QueryTracker, a place where he could spend time in his two favorite worlds: writing and programming.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

When the Publishing Business Just Isn't Into You

A few years back, a hugely successful book spoke the blunt truth that sometimes the object of your affection just isn't that into you and there's nothing you can do about it. It's a simple, yet profound notion that neither of you has a fatal flaw and the universe hasn't conspired to keep you apart. As the saying goes, it's not personal.  Every writer meets that moment when the question must be asked: Is it time to move on?

Before you decide to shelve your manuscript though, ask yourself some tough questions.

Did I query the manuscript too soon? Every manuscript deserves a break before a final edit and polish. That nay be a month, or a week, but if you haven't let your book simmer for awhile, you'll regret it later when you see a dozen ways those first five pages could have packed a better punch. This is easier to fix if you query in small batches. Yes, you've blown the opportunity with those agents that already rejected you, but there are plenty of agents out there.

And speaking of agents, did you research the agents before you queried them? Did you look at their favorite books, their current clients and their stated areas of interest? Was your query concise, professional and did it plainly lay out the protagonist and the stakes in your story? Did you do something gimmicky like writing the query in the character's voice or leading off with a hypothetical question? (If so, please proceed to "Query Help" on QT the forum right now)

Is your manuscript in a genre that's currently saturated? It really stinks if no one will touch your dystopian YA right now, but market trends have ebb and flow and you can't control it. Write something else. There will always be a place in bookstores for vampires and romance and sci-fi and a year from now, maybe you'll get a warmer reception.

Are you a tad bit whiny/needy/bitter on social media?  Being a part of a supportive community doesn't necessarily mean you have to share every indignity you've suffered while dealing with rejection. Many agents do check you out on line before making an offer of representation or a request.Make your on line presence an asset.

This is the hardest one: Is your writing just not up to par? Have you tried to objectively compare your writing to other published works in the same genre? Try reading passages out loud, which is a huge help in identifying awkward sentences.  Has your manuscript undergone scrutiny by beta readers (not blood relatives) critique partners, or published authors? Have you done a full content edit, looking for clich├ęs, crutch words, tropes and pacing issues? It's never easy to admit that something you've created may not see the light of day in traditional publishing, and yes, great books do get rejected, but sometimes the common denominator is simply that this manuscript isn't the right one.

Every writer gets rejected. Every. Single One. Good queries and bad queries likely get the same form rejection. Before you give up your dream, try as best as you can to objectively assess the reason for your failures. Most of the time, you can fix what is wrong. Writing improves with practice. Queries can be polished. About the only thing you can't control is market trends and the wildly subjective tastes of people in the industry. Press on and never let the fear of failure stop you from pursuing your dream.

Kim English - A native Floridian, Kim is the author of Coriander Jones Saves the World and the upcoming Coriander Jones On Assignment at Sabal Palm Academy. She lives in southwest Florida with her family and an ever increasing number of rescue pets. You can learn more about Kim and her books at CorianderJones.com

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

7 Things Every Query Letter Must Have

I’m no agent, but I do see a lot of queries, and I’ve noticed that many of them tend to be missing some very basic, yet necessary information.

So I made a list of the seven most important things I often see left out. Some of these items will only relate to queries for fiction, but if you write non-fiction most of them will still apply.

1. Genre 
You have to let the agent know the genre of your book. Be precise. Calling it a “time-travel mystery with horror, erotica and western elements for women” only tells the agent that you don’t really know what you’ve written. Pick the one genre that most accurately describes your book and stick with it.

2. Word Count 
This detail is important because it can tell the agent if your book is it too long or too short for the genre. Make sure your word count is within standard lengths for your genre.

Word count refers to the WORD count given by Microsoft Word or whatever word processor you’re writing in. Do not include PAGE count. You should also round the word count to the nearest thousands. For instance, if your book is 87,872 words then call it 88,000 words.

3. Title 
This one is simple enough. Don’t forget the title of your book.

4. A Hook 
I know, coming up with a great hook is easier said than done. But there must be something about your book that makes it different and intriguing. Now all you have to do is wrestle it down to one or two sentences. Simple.

5. Summary 
This is the most important part of your query, yet you’d be amazed by how many query letters are sent without a real description of the story. You don’t have to be precise and cover the entire story arc. In fact, you shouldn’t. But you need to give some idea as to what your story is about. What is the conflict? Who is your protagonist and who or what stands in his way?

Think of it as the description you’d like to see on the back of the book jacket.

6. Brevity 
Your query should be one page long, single spaced. That’s about 300-400 words. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions where much longer or shorter queries were successful, but this is a recommended guideline for a reason. Don’t break the rules unless you absolutely have to.

7. A Target
Maker sure you’re targeting the right agent(s).  Don’t waste time (yours and theirs) querying agents who don’t represent your genre or aren’t even open to queries.

Do your research and always address the agent by name, so they know you didn’t just mass email your query to 200 agents.

If at all possible, state why you are querying a specific agent. Maybe she posted somewhere that she is looking for a particular type of book and yours fits perfectly. Or maybe she represents other books that are similar to yours, but not too similar.

Don’t just say, “I saw your name listed on [some agent list].” That’s not a real reason to query, and if that’s all you have to say then don’t say anything at all.

[Shameless plug] And of course, you can research literary agents using QueryTracker.

8. Biography 
I know, the title of this post is “7 Things Every Query Letter Must Have,” so what’s with number 8? You can include number 8 only if it matters. A bio isn’t necessary because not everyone will have something worthwhile to say.

If you have past publishing credits or have won some writing contests, then you can include those in your bio.

If your novel is about a man on trial for a crime he did not commit and you happen to be a trial lawyer, then it is worth mentioning. But if you’ve written that same book, but have never worked in the law field or even stepped into a courtroom there is no reason to point that out.

In short, it’s okay to leave the bio off if you have nothing to say that is related to writing or your book. And don’t apologize for not having writing credits or other experience, just leave the bio off. If nothing else, it leaves more room for your story summary.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Unleashing Your Creativity: Five Ways To Switch Off That Internal Editor

A writer has two main signals in the brain: create and edit.

The creator, well, creates. Stories grow and bloom and take on life. The editor and her red pen prunes and cuts and shapes. But there's a reason why I'm a writer, not a farmer, so let's lose the gardening analogy and think of this another way: think green light and red light.

Green light, go—the words flow. Red light—stop. Stop and fix, stop and think, stop and just plain stop.

And stopping isn't going to help you get your first draft done.

First drafts need to be green light, all the way. Any time your word flow hesitates, it's an opportunity for the editor to take over. You'll re-read those last lines and tweak them. You'll pause, mentally discarding phrase after phrase because they're just not good enough. The writing stops. The cursor blinks, wondering if you got up and left. Red light.

But you don't have to live at the mercy of a red light. The writer controls the signal. Like every other element of writing, it's a piece of craft to be learned.

Pro-level Green Light
One way to bask in the glow of the green light is to attain a level of competency that lets you self-edit on the fly.  In this article, Sean D'Souza discusses how writing competency leads to writing fluency, where editing happens so quickly we don't even know we're doing it. The red light is only the briefest of flickers in a stream of green.

How does a writer become competent? You write. And you write. You make the mistakes that come with learning a craft. You learn from those mistakes and you get better. Each mistake and its subsequent lesson is one step closer to competency.

But learning a craft takes a long time. In the meantime, we still set word count goals and deadlines, long before we attain this nirvana called fluency. How do we keep ourselves writing forward instead of deleting backwards...or stalling because you can't get past a sentence just because you can't get it down right?

Do everything you can to keep the red light from coming on.

I have a few tricks I use during first draft writing and each one contributes to green light streaming in its own way.

1).  Go Analog
Notepads don't have delete keys. Plain and simple.

Writing longhand gives me a change to simply write. My handwriting is smooth enough that it all blends in my periphery--I tend not to look back over the last lines as I write. If I do need to change something, I strike it through. Unlike deleting, the original word is there so I don't obsess that I made a mistake by erasing one.

Plus, I love the flow of ink. I'm a very visible-art kind of person so writing with an ink pen is akin to painting words. Best of all, I get to choose the ink color that inspires me. When I was younger, my pen of choice was a purple Pilot ballpoint. Today, I'm partial to blue ink. So much of what I read is in black and white so the mere sight of blue taps into my creative side.

Blue is also my ideal color for meditation. Calming, serene blue. Did you know that writing is, in itself, a form of meditation? Google it sometime—when you're not supposed to be writing, of course. Which leads me to another red light reducer:

2).  Remove distractions
Distractions create pauses. If you are not actively submerging in the creative flow, typing out words, focused on the story, then your brain will flip the switch to editor mode.

I have a lot of cool junk on my desk. There's a lovely collection of ravens and skulls (thanks to my endless devotion to Edgar Allan Poe) and a bunch of Dr. Who and Sherlock and Supernatural collectables (because I will go down with that 'ship) and a bunch of other nifty writer things. In fact, my desk is the reason why I don't write at my desk. Ever. Too much to play with... and if I'm playing, I'm not writing.

If I look up from the page, I might toy with a sonic screwdriver. My brain might then toy with something I'd already written. The red light comes on and the editor comes out. And that's not what I want when I'm trying to get that first draft written.

Take the time to make a list of your worst distractions. Internet. The telephone. Your hair, if you're a twister-tugger-fidgeter like me. Identify those distractions and do what you can to limit them. The less you look up from the page, the less likely you are to staunch that green light flow.

3).  Plan Ahead by Plotting
Some writers love the freedom of watching a story bloom and unfold right before their eyes, with each sentence taking them further along a path toward a new undiscovered word. That's a beautiful thing, that quicksilver taste of creativity—and it's the reason many of us enjoy writing as much as we do.

But how many of us actually sit down in from of a blank screen without at least thinking where the book is going to go? Precious few, I'd wager. At the very least, we have an idea. A hook. An anecdote. Something.

But if that something isn't big enough for a pantser to go on, it's easy to bang heads with writer's block. (Pantser? Writer's block? If that's the main problem for you, read this.)

So, plan ahead. One easy way to do that is to create your plot outline.

Seems like contrary advice coming from a pantser like me but just hear me out. If you know where the story is going, you can write more freely than if you have to come up with each and every element as you go. A little planning goes a long way in illuminating the path ahead so you don't go bumbling in the dark.

4).  Allow Necessary Roughness
A first draft is often called the rough draft. However, writers forget that they are allowed to be rough when writing them. Sometimes, we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and our writing and feel pressured to make the first draft the only draft.

When I was in college, my freshman lit professor told me she loved my first drafts. I wasn't a budding writer or an English major. I had no thoughts about writing novels. I was a first year pharmacy student who felt more at home in the humanities department and I simply loved my reading and writing assignments. Lit classes were a brief escape from chem labs and white coats.

These days, I still haven't escaped the white coats, but I do still try to put out competent first drafts. It's a weird way to pay homage to my old mentors back in Philly—the pharmacist who writes as if her freshman lit teacher was watching. But these days, there is a big difference.

I'm not going for a grade. I've given myself a lot of breathing room. I allow myself to write imperfectly. I permit roughness in my drafts.

For instance: I use brackets (like this article describes.)  If an element makes me stumble, I close it off, skip over it, and keep going.

Skipping the unwritable parts keep the green light going. You can go back and write those spots later, after you've had time to work them out. (That's what second drafts are for, right?)

In fact, I love skipping things. In my current WIP, one chapter has only three words: SOMETHING BAD HAPPENS. The next chapter picks up the narrative once more, with actual scenes and sequences. I'm able to pull this off because of the previous tip about plotting. I know where the story is going so it doesn't matter if I have trouble somewhere.

I just gun the gas and speed past it, blasting through that potential red light. Skipping stuff can be such a rush.

5).  Avoid Criticism
It's not enough to allow myself to write roughly in a first draft. I know what I'm writing is not the final product. I know it's going to get better, and deeper, and less riddled with thinly-developed ideas.

But would someone else know that?

Beta readers and critique partners are a writer's best friends. Seriously. We all need a set of impartial eyes on our stories to see the flaws we can't. But a first draft is no place for that kind of critique.

Not only is the story not yet at a place to be properly critiqued—neither are we. A first draft is a place of discovery and experimentation, a place where creativity needs to flow unimpeded. Criticism, at this point, slams the writing light to full red. It forces us to rethink our work, to go back and change. It intentionally switches us to editor mode.

It also does something to our confidence. Even when the critique is gentle and constructive, it makes us doubt ourselves and where we thought our story was going. You might think a critique is necessary at the beginning, that it will save us unnecessary work down the road. I think that's premature. I think that there's a bigger risk of squelching a good idea before it has a chance to be fully developed. That's the worst kind of editing—it's censoring.

That's why I keep my first drafts to myself. I might give a sneak peek of a scene to one of my inner-sanctum betas, just for a taste of what I'm writing. But I never give enough to inspire criticism and I never hand a red pen over with it.

Green Light... Go!
The next time you find yourself stuck in first draft traffic, don't despair. The writer in you has the power to switch that signal and turn that red light green again. You don't need a miracle. You just need to learn how to take back that control.

The switch is all yours. Learn to use it to your advantage.

Click to Tweet one of these and share this article:

Five Ways To Switch Off Your Internal Editor

Red light, green light: Editing vs. Writing

Improve your creative flow with these 5 tips

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Importance of Being Edited

It's never fun to read a critical review, but even worse than a reader who simply didn't like your book is the critique that says something like "And on top of it the typos and punctuation errors on almost every page really made me cringe." How can this be when we pour hours and hours revising and editing, running spell check and combing through our manuscript searching for mistakes?

 I liken it to housekeeping. Ever walk into someone's house and think, "Oh, my, how many dog/cats do they have?" Walk into your own house, though, and you are far more likely to overlook the dishes in the sink or the Eau de Fluffy because, hey, it's your house and you clean on Sundays and it's only Friday, right? Same with your manuscript, which you know by heart. You know you meant "you're" not "your." But without a fresh set of eyes, one that doesn't already know every plot twist, you will miss things and people will notice. This is where an editor comes in handy. Even if you don't plan to self publish, an editor can be an invaluable tool along with your critique partner and beta readers, in getting your manuscript in the best shape possible.
 Let's define some terms. I conferred with fellow Floridian and freelance editor Becky Stephens to help understand the different types of editing services a writer may use. (Disclosure: portions of the information provided by Becky appeared on my blog earlier this month in an interview format, so I am using quotation marks to ensure her comments are properly attributed) "Although the terms can vary from publisher to publisher and editor to editor, generally speaking, the 'copyedit' editor ensures that the prose is smooth and the style consistent. She provides line edits with the focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, verb tense, word repetition and usage, and all the minute things."
 But, you say, in the word processing age, won't the almighty spell check will catch all my mistakes? "No. The word processor’s spellcheck is never enough. It can't differentiate between “your” and “you’re” or to spot “in” when “it” was correct, for example." This is where your beta readers comes in handy. And speaking of beta readers, if you use them in lieu of a professional edit, ask yourself what you expect from them. "Do they read simply for overall plot? Will they spot an inconsistency, such as a character walking barefoot on a cold floor, but suddenly is wearing shoes two pages later? Will your betas notice the missing or incorrect punctuation before the closing quotation mark in front of a dialogue tag? If you aren’t 100% sure they will spot these types of things, consider bringing an editor on board."
Back to defining terms. "A 'content edit' (also known as a developmental or substantive edit) starts with the editor helping an author develop ideas. In the case where a manuscript is already completed, a substantive edit is a significant restructuring of a manuscript. The content editor helps an author organize, sharpen, and tighten a manuscript so that the characters and dialogue are believable, the plot is coherent, and the setting appropriate."
So, the big question. How much is this going to set me back? According to Becky, the rates vary considerably from modest to budget busting. Do your homework. The ranges of common editorial rates set by the Editorial Freelancers Association will give you guidance on what to expect.
Once you decide you want to hire an editor, how do you find the one that's right for you? Ask yourself these questions: "Are you looking for someone who follows all the rules laid out in the Chicago Manual of Style, an editor who is willing to bend–or even break–the rules, or someone somewhere in between? What you want is an editor who meshes with your style and genre(s). Don’t hire the first editor that pops up on a Google search. Talk to other authors. Ask your author friends and their friends for references. Find a Facebook group or Goodreads group where you can inquire about editors. Authors who are happy with their editors are willing to brag about them. It’s up to you to do your research. Once you find a few potential editors, get in touch. Ask about her portfolio, what genres she is most passionate about, whether she specializes in content or copy editing, and about her other clients. Due diligence on your part is critical."
I was curious what are the most common mistakes/problem areas that editors see. The winner is: Incorrect dialogue tags and punctuation. Becky provided these examples:
“Maggie, darling. You’re here!” Jonathan cried out. In this case, because the dialogue tag says he cried out, the exclamation point is overkill. A comma is all that is needed.
“Jonathan,” Maggie breathed. In the example above, an incorrect dialogue tag is used. Breathed is a body function, not a dialogue tag. Maggie probably whispered his name.
I admit it. I've had characters "shrug" words. I've used all caps in dialogue. Everyone occasionally messes up putting a comma instead of a period. But with the assistance of an eagle-eyed editor, the world never has to know we didn't get it right the first time.

Kim English - A native Floridian, Kim is the author of Coriander Jones Saves the World and the upcoming Coriander Jones On Assignment at Sabal Palm Academy. She lives in southwest Florida with her family and an ever increasing number of rescue pets. You can learn more about Kim and her books at CorianderJones.com

Saturday, September 12, 2015

How to Edit a Synopsis

First, a confession: I finished my book sometime this summer. As of Thursday, I had not finished a synopsis. I had a book I was excited about and a query I didn't hate, so I didn't want to tackle a synopsis because, let's face it, synopses are hard. Then, in a series of fortunate events, I needed one. Quickly.

I've read lots of posts on how to write a synopsis (I have this one bookmarked for its ease of use, and this one is good, too, especially for longer synopses), and my handwritten ideas notebook is full of the starts of synopses for this novel (five of them, if you wondered).

It took me a long time to get to a draft that I thought was complete. At about 800 words, I was satisfied that it was short enough to qualify as a "short synopsis," and happy enough about the plot points it covered. I read it over several times, patted myself on the back for finishing it, corrected some sentence flow stuff, and sent it off for critique.

My synopsis went to two different people. One has read the novel, the other hasn't. Here's my tip of the day: always have someone who hasn't read your book critique your synopsis.

The synopsis I was so pleased with a few hours before was completely ripped to shreds. It was fantastic (for the book; not for my ego). "Wait, how can this happen?" "I thought they were there?" "Is this even relevant?" There is a temptation to get defensive and say, "Well it makes sense in the book..." When that happens, it's important to remember the point of a synopsis: to tell the story to someone who hasn't read it. If the person critiquing your synopsis is confused, Amazing Agent X will be, too.

The goal for synopses isn't to write pretty sentences or make the reader infer anything. Its goal is to quickly tell someone (an agent or editor, probably) what happens in the book. Your job is to make it obvious what that is, so make sure that people who haven't read it are clear.

Rochelle Deans sometimes feels like the only writer on the planet who rushes through the writing so she can start editing. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and young daughter. Her bad habits include mispronouncing words, correcting grammar, and spending far too much time on the Internet.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Five Query Mistakes That Make You Look Like An Amateur

A query letter is a declaration, of sorts. It says your book is ready for the world and that you are ready to be its author. Whether you query agents or editors, the query is going to tell its recipient two things: whether your book is worth reading, and whether its author is professional enough to back it up.

I know this sounds intimidating, but it’s got to be if we're going to listen. Many of us writers are still trying to make our debut. We've written our books out of passion, rather than obligation to a creative writing degree. Quite simply, many of us are simple folk who dream of seeing our hard work, our literary sweat and tears, our home-schooled writing craft bear publishable fruit. We came into this game as amateurs.

But amateurs don't become published authors.

Professionals do.

That doesn’t mean that home-schooled writers (such as myself) can never break into the ranks of the published. It just means we have to work all the harder to school our brains to the business side of writing…because the query letter is our final exam.

And as with all final exams, there is the risk of failure.

Your query must speak for both you and your book, a single shot to garner a second, deeper glance at your work. One thing is for certain: if your query appears to be the work of an amateur, it gets a rejection. End of story.

Here are five query mistakes that will make you look like an amateur. These mistakes may keep you from making the grade—and that final, big step towards publication.

1) QUERYING MORE THAN ONE BOOK A query is a pitch for a single product. It’s not a peek at your entire collection of unpublished manuscripts. I’m not an agent, but I imagine agents would have a list of opportunities and publishers and editors constantly circulating in their heads. As they read queries, they scan their internal list of possible markets and decide whether or not each book fits their current connections. Your first line—containing genre and word count—helps them sort your book against their outlets. If they think they can pitch the book, the query makes the first cut.

Pitching more than one book messes with that flow. Small wonder why this reason shows up on a lot of agents’ pet peeves lists. It also pegs you as an amateur because who writes a dozen books and doesn’t publish any of them? A professional would have either sold them or kept quiet about them until they were ready to sell.

2) QUERY IS TOO LONG A rambling query tells the recipient that there’s a solid chance your book rambles, too. You’ve probably spent twice as long editing as you did writing, so don’t let your query give the wrong impression. A query letter template is the perfect place to start—it will make sure you include all the requisite info about your product and yourself.

If this is your first query, follow the template. (See this classic QTB post here for a great example.) Unless you are touched by the hands of the writing gods, a template will suffice. You don’t need to be brilliantly unique; you need to be concise and professional. A query needs to tell everything the agent wants to know at a glance. Remember--they are professional skimmers. Be a professional author who helps the process instead of hinders it.

One page query. Intro, pitch, bio, thanks. That’s it. No conversations, no anecdotes, no bribes. Short and sweet is all you need to sell it.

3) BLANKET QUERIES Imagine: your dream agent receives hundreds of queries a day. You want yours to stand out, right? You want your book to be THE ONE that an agent cannot turn down. Why wouldn’t you give an agent the same consideration?

Don’t start with “Dear Agent.” You know how much you hate getting form rejections that begin “Dear Author”, so don’t inspire an immediate reciprocal response. Don’t query every agent in the company. If an agent gets a query that might be a better fit for one of their partners, they’ll pass it on because no one wants the Next Big Thing to get away. And don’t send one email to a slew of cc’d agents. If an agent doesn’t deserve their own query, your query doesn’t deserve individual consideration.

A professional author will send an individualized query to a single agent because ultimately, that’s who goes into a contract: one agent, one author.

4) NOT FOLLOWING GUIDELINES Every agent has guidelines. What they want in a book. What they want in their submission. How they want it sent. Don’t assume that one query package fits all because it doesn’t. If you want a particular agent to look at your work, show them what they want—no more, no less. Only an amateur thinks they don’t need to play by the rules. Are rules annoying? Sure. But they are in place for a reason.

A hallmark of professionalism is the query that shows you’ve read the guidelines and put effort into following them. Would you want to work with someone who thinks they are above the rules? Me neither.

5) NOT BEING READY And by ready, I meant completely ready.

Is the book ready? Is it finished? If not, DON’T QUERY. Remember that queries are marketing tools—and if you don’t have a product ready for market, you’d better not waste the salesman's time.

A query isn’t a cotillion. It doesn’t announce you and your nearly-complete wonder to the world. It’s not a proclamation that says Here I am, get ready for #mindblown. A query says I have a book, this is what it’s about. Can you sell it for me? Nothing about a query screams amateur louder than the realization that the author doesn’t even know what a query is for.

Not only that, is your query ready? If not, tweak it. Critique it. Run it by the other writers in the QT forum. And for the love of all that’s holy, proofread it.

And still not only that, are you ready? Because if an agent says yes, you’d better be. Everything changes. You don’t want to be the guy in his pajamas typing and fooling around on Twitter. You want to be the professional author, ready to debut.

A query letter tells an agent that you have a great book that’s ready for the market. It also tells the agent that you are a professional author who’s ready to promote it. Those are the two things that an agent is looking for—a product to sell and the professional client behind it.

Are there other mistakes? Goodness, yes. However, a slip-up may be overlooked if you present yourself and your work in the most professional way possible. A great book with a pro behind it won’t be passed over for the sake of a mere infraction. A great book with an amateur might be because, despite a great product, an agent wants to work with someone who is willing to make themselves easy and professional to work with.

And it’s important to remember that even when you present you and yourself in the most professional manner, you may still get a form rejection or three. It’s not you. It’s them.

And it’s okay, because you want a champion to say yes to your query. You want an agent that is the perfect match for your book and for you. Taking care to stand out from the amateurs will make sure that you avoid those amateurish first impression rejections.

If an agent or and editor is going to say no, make them say no for all the right reasons. Being an absolute professional makes it harder for them to say it.

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Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Sometimes, it’s hard to be genuinely, selflessly, happy for someone else’s success, especially when you have been striving and failing to meet the same goal. In the querying trenches, writers can fall prey to the belief that getting an agent is a zero sum game. In game and economic theory, this term refers to a situation where each participant’s gains or losses are exactly balanced by the gains or losses of the other participants-- essentially, if one player obtains something of value, that means another player has lost that same item. There comes a point in every writer’s querying journey where the virtual claps and hearty congratulations we offer our fellow writers comes with a healthy dose of “Why not me?”

Why do we harbor this notion that when someone else gets an agent, your chances of getting an agent necessarily decrease? Perhaps because we know that agents reject up to 99% of queries they receive, including the good ones that they just “didn’t connect with.” (Raise your hand if this ubiquitous critique makes you want to scream) This is the reason we obsess over a typo in a query that can’t be un-sent and slap our heads in frustration at “blowing my ONE AND ONLY chance.” With that mindset, it’s no wonder that we battle with inner jealousy when our friends hit a career milestone: We assume that their success is not just their success, but also our loss. Conventional wisdom, also known as Twitter, reinforces the belief that only a select few will ever breathe the rarified air of traditional publishing. Naturally, with so many talented writers in the world, there just can’t be room for everyone, right? So if someone else gets a spot, that means one fewer spot for you, right?

In my opinion, this mindset is wrong and counterproductive. A writer connects with an agent because of timing, market trends, personalities, and a million other variables, including luck.  And that’s just the first stop. An agented writer doesn’t always get a publishing deal. Books often don’t earn back their advances.  Some writers get three book deals and some get digital-only one book deals. There is simply no point in equating another writer’s success with a commensurate failure on your part because everyone succeeds differently and at different times in their life. So if your “dream” agent picks up a new client, that new client hasn’t taken your spot any more than your promotion or pregnancy announcement means someone else is going to get demoted or be childless.  It stinks that publishing is not always a meritocracy but still, you’ve lost nothing by the fact of someone else’s success.  When your path to traditional publishing seems to be a series of dead ends, don’t be tempted to buy into the zero sum mentality and miss out on the celebrations.

Kim English - A native Floridian, Kim is the author of Coriander Jones Saves the World and the upcoming Coriander Jones On Assignment at Sabal Palm Academy. She lives in southwest Florida with her family and an ever increasing number of rescue pets.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Saving Grace of Brackets

I really really suck at writing endings. I rush into them, and the conflict that built so well through the Black Moment just... disappears. And boom, happy ending. Or at least, I stop writing. I have hated my first draft ending for everything I've written in the three years that I've been writing seriously.

So when I got close to the ending for the manuscript I just completed, I decided to do something different: I didn't write it. I knew I was going to get stuck writing the conclusion, and that whatever I came up with would suck, so I got 2/3 through the story, wrote a terrible ending that was way too fast-paced for the story, and started revising.

As I revised, I was better able to understand my plot and wrap my mind around which of the three different endings I'd thought of would work best with the story. I planned more conflicts for the second and third acts as I rewrote the early parts, and by the time I wrote the ending for real, I was pleased with it.

I realize that not everyone sucks at endings like I do, but I think everyone has their own Achilles' heel. Even the best writers have the part that they're least-awesome at. Maybe it's witty dialogue. You know you need some, but when the moment comes to write it, it always falls short. Maybe it's scenery—you see it in your head, it just never makes it onto paper. Maybe it's sentence rhythm. No matter what you do, your sentences fall flat when read aloud.

My advice: skip it. Even if it were beginnings or middles that I struggled with, I still would have skipped my weakest part (with only a vague sketch to get out my worst ideas) as I wrote my fast draft. If you really need witty dialogue, but slowing down to think of something will take you a few days, just write "[insert witty dialogue here--Karen zings Horace]" and come back to it later. If you can't picture a scene, but you need your reader to, write "[insert fitting description of room]" and then keep going. That's the important part: understand why you're stuck, make a note to fix it later, and keep going.

In my most recent book, I had so many brackets--research I needed to do, names I couldn't remember offhand, dialogue I couldn't get right the first time... and missing scenes after the midpoint. When I did my first revision, I could just search for opening brackets and look at what I needed to fix. With my editing brain on, I was able to come up with a solution that I wouldn't have managed during the original drafting.

When I remember that not everything has to go down perfectly in the first draft, and give myself permission to save research and "hard stuff" for later, then the most important part of the process happens: I get the book written.

Rochelle Deans sometimes feels like the only writer on the planet who rushes through the writing so she can start editing. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and young daughter. Her bad habits include mispronouncing words, correcting grammar, and spending far too much time on the Internet.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Best Writing Advice: Sometimes, You Just Gotta Throw Darts

I once had a good friend named Carolyn.

We met through QueryTracker, talking informally through the forum. Turned out, she worked closely with the site's captain and moderated the QT blog. One day, she invited me to write with them.

It was a huge opportunity. I thought, what a great gig. This could really pan out for me. What I didn't know was I'd be getting a dear friend and mentor in the bargain.

Carolyn was bright—no, brilliant—and funny and innovative and she had a charm about her that was far too humble to accurately portray her innumerable talents. One of those talents was giving advice. And over the years I'd turned to her quite often for guidance.

Once, I was lamenting being stuck for a topic for my upcoming spot on the blog. After a lot of sympathizing/grumbling on both our ends (because writer's block doesn't discriminate), she shared a few of her tactics for treating Topic Absentia. Then she added:

"I've also been known to flip through writers' books and just put my finger on a page and write about whatever I end up with."

As offhand a comment as that seemed at the time, it stayed with me. Frankly, it was good advice. For one thing, this nifty little trick actually worked. I've got a pretty sizeable writer's library, so every time I've resorted to this, it worked like a charm. It was an innovative way to harness the elusive muse and her inspiration.

Apart from the simplicity of the advice, there was a deeper takeaway message.

And, like just about everything else Carolyn said, it was light-hearted and poignant and brilliant, all at the same time.

Sometimes, you just gotta throw darts.

Ready, Aim...
Picking a random topic out of a writer's book is like throwing a dart. Close your eyes and pick one.

It's a stress-free way to make a decision and it pretty much takes you off the hook for it. Fate determined the choice. Now, all you had to do is make something of it.

These days, I find myself with more options than opportunities to see every single one of them through. Sometimes, it's just too hard to choose…and we waste valuable time waffling. If you've ever faced a deadline, you know how desperate lost time can feel. And what if we pick the wrong option? In a profession where doubt can do serious damage, anything that makes a decision a lot less guilt-ridden is a commodity.

In moments like these, you need to close your eyes, center your spirit, and lift a dart.

That sounds scary, I know. (And it would qualify for Jane's advice to do one scary thing every day.)

But it doesn't have to terrify you. You already know that, no matter where the dart lands, it's going to be a choice that you had already considered. It was on the table. It was something you wanted to do. And, if any one of those choices is a scary thing in and of itself, tell yourself this: you control that fear, because you had already been willing to face it.

Knowing that you have a table full of things you'd like to do doesn't mean it's easy to choose one from amongst them. Maybe you want to do all of them with equal intensity. Maybe they've divided themselves into categories like Easy, Necessary, Impressive (or Fun, Feels Like Work, Would Look Awesome in A Bio). But if you didn't think they should be done, they wouldn't be on the table in the first place. There are no bad choices.

So, feel the dart in your fingers. Weigh it. Envision its flight path. Imagine the satisfying thunk it will make when it hits home. Let fate make a decision, for once, and revel in that tiny fleeting moment of blameless freedom.

Then open your eyes, see what life has next in store for you, and smile because your aim is true.

You made sure of that before you even picked up that dart.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Received: Rhythm in Writing Makes a BIG Difference

There are lots of questions we ask ourselves while we’re creating or revising a story. Is this scene flowing? Are my characters speaking in believable ways? Is this chapter about a three-legged poodle joining a street gang engaging enough? As careful and crazy diligent writers, we break our stories into tiny parts and investigate each one. The minutiae of choosing the right word or a strong sentence can consume us.

Ultimately, we want to know if we’re communicating effectively and if people “get” what we’ve written. Considering the rhythm of our words is one critical step. It can be the difference between someone reading your book in one day or in one month…same characters, same content.

And by “rhythm,” I’m referring to the combination of three things:

1) How Words Sound in Your Noggin – When the majority of people read, their brains reproduce the same sounds as if they were reading out loud. Crazy, right? This means one VERY important and albeit obvious thing… your writing needs to sound good when spoken. If you can, get a friend and read it out loud to her. Encourage her to tell you when something is confusing or sounds squidgy. While you’re reading you’ll come across all sorts of sentences that stick in your mouth like peanut butter. Change them. If you can’t even read them well, and you wrote them, what do you think they’ll sound like to others? Reading out loud is your first line of defense against suckage.

2) The Effect Sentence Length Has on Reading Ease – When all of your sentences are short, they sound choppy. When they’re all long, they become increasingly difficult to understand. Vary those puppies up. Sentences that are all one length have the sound equivalent of monotonous tones. And boring isn’t sexy. Monotonous sentences can kill your exciting content.

3) Writing the Way Humans Actually Speak – Most people worry about dialogue having a good “flow” and sounding realistic. We phrase our dialogue to be easily understandable and to roll off the tongue. But what about all the other sentences? In my opinion, every single sentence should be approached the same way dialogue is. They should be easy to say, interesting to listen to, and have a voice.

As far as I know, “rhythm” (in the way I used it) isn’t writing jargon. I made it up. But if I’ve explained it in a way that you could both easily understand and easily read out loud, then I’ve done my job. I’ve created something and convinced you of its viability and importance. I’ve told you a story.

Happy writing, everyone!!

Adriana Mather is the 14th generation of Mathers in America, and as such her family has their fingers in many of its historical pies – the first Thanksgiving, the Salem Witch Trials, the Titanic, the Revolutionary War, and the wearing of curly white wigs. Also, Adriana co-owns a production company, Zombot Pictures, in LA that has made three feature films in three years. Her first acting scene in a film ever was with Danny Glover, and she was terrified she would mess it up. Her first young adult novel, HOW TO HANG A WITCH, is forthcoming from Knopf/Random House in Fall 2016. In addition, her favorite food is pizza and she has too many cats.