QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Finding The Humor: Because you can't argue with this

Dear Ms. Lebak:

Thank you for submitting to the Tiddlywinks List Of Excellence. You were declined for inclusion in our list because one judge indicated your piece was only 35 pages long, and we only list novel-length fiction. Plus, the last page had only "Chapter Three" followed by a couple of lines of unintelligible text that terminated abruptly. While many artists are able to carry off this effect, this is not proper manuscript format, so we feel your work would be better suited to a literary contest.

This decision may not be appealed.

Beatrice Smith


Dear Ms. Smith:

I'm sorry to hear about your decision, but the book is 375 pages long and has twenty-nine chapters. I believe your judge's ebook file was corrupted and would be glad to send him or her a better copy.

Thank you,

Jane Lebak


Dear Ms. Lebak: 

Our judges are consummate professionals, I assure you. I didn't want to give a laundry list of issues with your work, but that wasn't the only problem. Another of the judges indicated that in Chapter 25, your main character picks up her phone and consults the goddess Siri, and later on mentiones a so-called Book of Habakkuk. This puts your work firmly in the speculative or slipstream genres, and Tiddlywinks does not list works in those genres.

Thank you for your understanding.

Beatrice Smith


Dear Ms. Smith:

Of course your judges are consummate professionals, but as your second judge had issues with Chapter Twenty Five, clearly the full text of the work does not terminate at Chapter Three.

To clarify about Siri, if you pick up your iPhone and push the button that looks like a microphone, then speak into your phone, you can say something like, "Siri, what is the Book of Habukkuk?" and receive an answer. It has nothing to do with gods and goddesses.

Please reconsider your rejection on those grounds.




Dear Jane:

Thank you! I've been having so much fun with my phone now that I know what to do with that button! I'm very glad you've reached out to me about the Tiddlywinks list, but I'm afraid we still can't accept your piece for our list because you consistently mis-spelled Pheonix, Arizona, which indicates sloppy editing. 

Also, I know Catholics have all those extra weird books in their Bibles, but Tiddlywinks doesn't want to inclue Catholic books. It's nothing personal, but maybe you should look at one of your Catholic Bibles and see who has listed it in their catalog, then see if  you can be included in those lists.


Beatrice (and Siri!)


Dear Ms. Smith:

Siri would be more than happy to verify for you the proper spelling of Phoenix, and Siri will also tell you Habakkuk is one of the twelve minor prophets included in mainstream Protestant Bibles. I did as you suggested, though, and looked up awards won by my Catholic Bible.  Happily, I found one that will interest you. You can find it listed on page five of your Tiddlywinks List Of Excellence. 

Given that you've rejected my book for an alien technology you have on your phone, a corrupted ebook file, and a misunderstanding of both proper spelling and which books are in the Protestant Bible, would you mind reconsidering my book for the Tiddlywinks List of Excellence?

Gratefully yours,



Dear Jane:

My, you are persistent. The first letter did say this decision could not be appealed. 


Beatrice Smith

PS: Normal body temperature is not 37 degrees, and you need to watch your formatting because the degree mark kept getting a C added after it. I'm just telling you this as a friend.


Dear Ms. Smith and everyone at Tiddlywinks:

Live long and prosper.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Lighter Side of Business: Book Signings

You've been asked/allowed/we-won't-call-the-cops-if-you-show-up to do a book signing? Great! You get bonus points if it's indoors. I'll just say that outdoor events in the deep south are only bearable for three days between January and March, and no one knows when those days will fall.

My first "official" book signing was in the dead of winter in Michigan, so, naturally, I figured, Captive audience. It's frickin' cold outside!  When I rolled up an hour early just to get the lay of the land, I saw a young man perched at what would soon be my folding card table selling his self-published epic fantasy novel. And, I might add, they were selling briskly. I impatiently gnawed on my Styrofoam cup filled with hot chocolate until exactly ten minutes before my signing was due to start.

"Uhm, you've been in the store for like, an hour, right?" the clerk asked.

"No, that wasn't me," I replied, "Just got here. Had another event."

This was technically true. I'd had lunch with my sister in law and because I was on vacation and it was the holiday season, we could drink at noon without judgment.

I set up at the card table, exchanging pleasantries with the young man, who'd sold all of the books he brought except for one, which I purchased. Good karma, right? He wished me luck and went to the hipster coffee shop next door where I always felt like everyone's mother.

So I sat and smiled cheerfully at the holiday shoppers who bustled in and out of the store. For two solid hours I sat and smiled. A few people smiled back, a few glanced at the book and the display the store manager had kindly set up. No one stopped to pick up the book or read the blurb or notice that supplies were dwindling. So I tucked a few away so it looked like only two remained. I really wanted to take a restroom break after the wine at lunch and all the hot chocolate, but what if I missed the one customer looking for exactly the book I had? No, I had to stay strong.

And I did. With fifteen minutes left, I finally made a sale. To my mother in law. Who only reads biographies and Good Housekeeping. But with a fistful of dollar bills in hand from my sale, I went across the street to buy myself a cool cup of coffee.

And to tell those kids in the café that, for the love of god, they needed to bundle up!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Taking Care of Business: The Author Biography

When you’re an as-yet-unpublished writer, one of the most intimidating things you’ll face is your own author biography.

You’ve read countless bios of successful authors, with their lists of titles and bestselling charts and accolades. Then, there’s you, manuscript in hand, wondering how you can possibly get the attention of your dream agent when you don’t have what the others have.

You already know that the hook and blurb is vital to getting an agent to finish reading your query…so how do you keep their attention long enough to hit “reply”? What if they see your empty, unenthusiastic bio? Won’t they pass because no one wants to take a chance on an unaccomplished unknown?

Stop that right this instant. You’ll defeat yourself before you even get started.

You do have a bio inside you, even if you’re querying your first book. You are an accomplished writer who obviously has what it takes to go pro—because the act of querying is proof that you are ready to make this manuscript into a product. You are seeking a career. You are worthy of

You simply need to find the bio that’s waiting to be written.

Building a Bio

“This is my first novel.” Clean and simple. This statement is not a death wish. It’s simply the truth. Think of all the successful debut novels you’ve seen over the years. They were all first books. If you have nothing else to add, just leave it at that. Agents appreciate brevity. (And... just in case you have a trunk full of unsold manuscripts: nobody needs to know you have a pile of gone-nowhere projects. Just say it's your first novel.)

“I belong to a writer’s group.” This shows that you are already networking with other professionals and shows you have commitment to the craft. Join a local writers group at the public library. Join a state-wide group like Pennwriters (who have members worldwide). Join a national group, such as Romance Writers of America if you write romance.

“I have a platform.” Platform is such a lofty word, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to be. Platform doesn’t mean pedestal. Platform is simply the legs on which you stand. What experience do you have in real life that has inspired or supports your book? Writing about animals because you’re a vet or work for animal rescue? Bam—platform. Writing about Greek gods in contemporary settings because you’re a curator in a museum or have travelled to ancient archeologic attractions? Bam—platform. Writing a vampire love story because you are the Slayer and have been fighting the forces of the undead since you were a high school freshman and honestly believe that Slayers need love, too? Bam, bam, stake through the heart and bam—platform (as long as you can prove it.) Which brings up the warning—don’t make stuff up. Save that for your novels.

“I have previous work published.” Novels aren’t the only things that get published. So do poetry, short stories, and articles. Do you contribute to an established blog with wide readership? Have you been featured in ezines or print journals? If not, don’t despair—because those are things that you can start doing right now. You’re a writer. Publishing in smaller venues gets your name out there and builds a readership. And if there is one thing that agents love, it’s a writer that comes with an established audience.

“I’ve won a writing contest.” This is another thing you can start doing right now. Contests are perpetually being held, from local to online to national to worldwide. Just do a quick search and start picking which ones you’re eligible to enter. Since many contests charge fees, you’ll have to be choosy. Winning a contest or simply making finals is great for publicity and often a nifty prize. Personally, I value the blurb more than anything else. Calling my first book BLEEDING HEARTS a “Six-Time RWA Chapter Contest Finalist” is a huge deal for me…and that blurb went a long way to sell that book.

Chances are you already have an impressive bio inside you, just waiting to be written. If a job, an experience, an association, an accomplishment, or a skill is pertinent to you as an author or to your book, it may be bio fodder. Just be sure to state it succinctly and professionally—you don’t want to blow your honed-to-perfection hook with an inflated, irrelevant bio.

And remember…if you’re in doubt, just go with the clean and simple “This is my first novel”. If you’ve hooked the agent with your story, that’s all they need to know.

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, April 14, 2015

Taking Care of Business: Making Friends

Taking care of business and making friends may sound unrelated at best, but here's a secret: the dreaded term "networking" is basically just jargon for making friends.

Writing is a lonely business. You pull out your laptop, put on your headphones, and enter into a world that you created and no one else knows about (yet:  one day they'll be writing FanFiction in your world). If you're lucky enough to be writing full time (and don't all of us, somewhere, have that goal in the back of our mind?), that's pretty much all you do.

Write stuff: no human interaction required.

There are, of course, a few issues with that. For one thing, how do you write Deep Truth About The Human Condition if you aren't around other people? For another, writing is lonely. I know I'm repeating myself, but it's true. You write alone, you face writer's block alone, you revise alone, you read rejection emails alone.

Here's the thing: you don't have to. Making friends might be one of the key ways to keeping your sanity during the long and crazy process of writing and subsequently selling a novel. There are Twitter hashtags to follow (#amwriting is common; right now, #CampNaNoWriMo is a big one. And there's also #amrevising and #amquerying for other stages of the writing process); word sprints to join; and friends to be made.

If Twitter isn't your thing, writers love to blog. Search people out. Interact with writers on their blogs and through their Twitters, their newsletters, their Facebook groups... I do all these things, and I've made a lot of friends through the Query Tracker forum, too.

Besides keeping you sane and making friends from around the world (which should be all the motivation you need), making friends really is networking (which is a very scary word. Sorry about that.). Other writerly friends make great critique partners, ones who are willing to tell you, "You can do better than this. Don't take the easy way out." And you'll listen, and they'll read the revision, and they'll let you know they love it. You'll know they're sincere since they weren't afraid to tell you when they didn't love it.

When you get an agent, you'll want people to tell who understand what it means to actually have an agent. (I don't know about you, but this basically discounts my real-life family and friends.) When you go on submission, it's great to have friends who can send you pictures of cuddly animals to keep you sane and remind you that this, too, shall pass. And when you get the book deal you've always wanted? It's time to celebrate, and celebrations are always better with friends.

Twitter is full of now-published authors who have been friends since the days of querying. The most famous for their friendship is probably Susan Dennard and Sarah Maas, both now published successfully. And because they're writing BFFs, they get to blurb each other's books, and happily promote each other on Twitter, and collaborate on projects.

A quick reminder: Never treat someone like they're just a business deal waiting to happen, or befriend someone only because you think they'll help your career. It won't work. That's why I call it making friends, and not networking.

Befriend someone because you both have an undying passion for knee socks, obsess over Lizzie McGuire even though it's been off the air for 11years, and neither of you are sure what the big deal is about coffee. Oh, and you happen to both be writers. Maybe one of you rocks at dialogue and the other is excellent at filling plot holes. You'll make a great team, the two of you, with two books that both have killer dialogue, no plot holes, and obscure references to fancy knee socks.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Lighter Side of Writing is Heavy Stuff

Writing humor may be the most challenging, complicated, and difficult tasks we face. Difficult when it comes to execution, that is. Conceptually, there’s one key to everything that’s ever made anyone think something conveyed in written form is funny. One key that fits a million locks. A single element that every punch line to every joke ever told in any language as well as the broader, less “laugh out loud” humor found in Terry Pratchett’s comic fantasy and Kurt Vonnegut’s satire have in common.

A lot of it can be boiled down to a single word: Juxtaposition.

Note that a number of Different theories of humor have evolved over the past few centuries, the most prevalent being incongruity theory, relief theory, and superiority theory. The distinctions between them are philosophical in nature, not practical. Using a generic locker room sex joke as an example, incongruity theory will point to the structure of the joke, the thing that makes the punch line a surprise and therefore funny, and say humor stems from that. Freud would point to that joke as a classic example of relief theory, since, to him, we do nothing but walk around repressing sexual desires whilst sticking large cigars in our mouths. Thomas Hobbes’, the originator of superiority theory would say the humorous denigration found in the sex joke gives rise to a “kind of sudden glory” that boosts our self esteem (relative to whomever is the butt of the joke).

To simplify things a bit, one clear strain runs through all of them (as well as the less widely accepted theories). Without an unexpected outcome or high degree of contrast between the situation and the actor’s response, there is no joke.

My take is: incongruity theory wins. NOT because it was championed by the likes of Arthur Schopenhauer, Immanuel Kant, and Herbert Spencer three hundred years ago, but because everything we’ve learned since supports it. At the Institute of Neurology in London, neuropsychologists Vinod Goel and Raymond Dolan describe successful jokes as "a cognitive juxtaposition of mental sets, followed by an affective feeling of amusement." The “feeling of amusement” is the response (a hugely important part of any joke, for sure, but not one we can put on the page). That means when we’re writing, a joke is nothing more than a cognitive juxtaposition of mental sets—something out of place for a situation running into the familiar or expected. Like, for example, the punch line to every funny joke you’ve ever heard. Those words become a “joke” when the brain’s response goes from deciphering (reading the code in the joke to reconcile the incongruity) to rewarding the reader for doing so by activating an area of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, a reward center.

Love or hate any of those theories, Understanding this basic idea means understanding humor. Its importance cannot be overstated, which is why this post about “humor” is probably the least sarcastic most boring-ass thing I’ve written in my life. If you are trying to sprinkle humor into a serious book, the issue is mixing in the punch line in an otherwise serious situation. For a satirist like Pratchett or Vonnegut, the opposite is true, which explains the strong, slightly formal and authoritative voice their third-person, often omniscient narrators speak in. The tricky part is finding that balance, and the first step is knowing your end goal is juxtaposition, which can be achieved in a million ways.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Taking Care Of Business: Your rights

I've got a contract in front of me for magazine filler material. They want to publish it this September, and they'll pay me $15. In exchange, they want my signature on a piece of paper.

This is what the piece of paper says:

"I hereby grant to MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED and to its legal representatives, successors and assigns, a world-wide, perpetual, non-revocable, sub-licensable and transferrable right to do and to authorize the following, in all languages and in all formats, configurations, means and media now existing or hereafter devised, discovered or devloped (including, without limitation, physical copies, digital media, electronic transmission, "new technologies" and portable electronic devices): 1) to prepare derivative works based on the work…"

Wait, wait, wait. WHAT?

Don't let your head swim. When you get a contract from a publisher or a literary agent, you need to know what you're signing. So look at the above.

The magazine is, as best I can understand, only published in English. So why do they want rights in every language? The magazine is online, sure, so I guess I can see worldwide rights. But irrevocable? And sublicensable? And they want the rights to any derivative works they may be able to create based on my piece?

And they want to pay fifteen dollars for all that?

I'm not saying you shouldn't sign this contract. But you need to know what you're doing.

If this were, say, The New Yorker, I might sign it because I'd want to be able to say I'd been published in The New Yorker. But it's not. There's a 99% chance you've never heard of this magazine, so no prestige and exposure from this publication.

If they were offering me a thousand dollars for worldwide perpetual rights in every language and in every technology that may ever be invented, I think I'd take that too. But not for fifteen bucks.

Looking further into the contract, they're further specifying all this is for the life of the copyright, which means the writer will not outlive this contract. Even if they go bankrupt, the writer has given them permission to sell all these rights to someone else.

The contract also looks a little deceptive to me because there are places where it discusses ending the agreement on the date specified, but they don't specify a date. And another paragraph says these rights are exclusive to their magazine for one year -- but that only means you can sell non-exclusive rights to this work afterward, not that the contract terminates.

Here's the takeaway: when you get an agreement from a publisher or an agent, read it. Really read it. Make sure they're only asking for rights you're willing to sell, rights they plan to use. I would suggest looking for words like "irrevocable" and "perpetual" and really scrutinizing who benefits if you can't terminate the agreement.

Don't sign anything that doesn't specify how you can get out of it.

Don't sign anything you don't understand. Ask questions. Ask more questions if you don't understand the answers, and if you don't understand those answers, then maybe wonder if someone doesn't want you confused. And who benefits if you sign an agreement you don't understand?

If there's something you don't agree to in that agreement, don't sign it. Negotiate a change (agents are in the business of negotiation, remember, so if an agent hands you this agreement, negotiate it) and be willing to walk away. But don't tell yourself, "Oh, that will never come up," because it's pretty much a guarantee that the one thing you don't want to come up in a contract will definitely do so, and at the worst possible time.

In this case, I wrote to the magazine and withdrew my submission due to their contract terms. The editor wrote back and assured me these were the industry standard. (They're not.) I replied with a couple of parallel contract paragraphs I had agreed to sign (because they were fair and reasonable) and added that my agent also had issues with their contract. The editor never replied.

My takeaway? Know your rights and sign them away only for what they're worth. And if you'll pardon me, this contract has an important appointment with my shredder. Wouldn't want to keep it waiting.