QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

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.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Best Writing Advice: There's No Such Thing As Talent

A writer's main activity is procrastinating. Sometimes it's useful procrastinating, like time spent letting a manuscript marinate before starting to edit. Sometimes it's the procrastinating that happens when you have a deadline (self-imposed or otherwise) that you really don't feel like keeping. I'm excellent at both.

Self-portrait in charcoal,
September 2008
Recently, I've gotten back into art as a form of procrastination. I enjoyed it when I was younger, though I was never particularly good and, like with writing, my teachers taught me how without the subject ever penetrating deep enough to matter. Thanks to a poor teacher in college, I barely passed my required art class. She noticed that I wasn't doing the techniques correctly but couldn't be bothered to teach me the right way. Didn't stop her from grading me down, though.

Thankfully, you don't have to be very good at whatever you do to procrastinate for it to be a worthwhile pursuit. So I looked up tutorials and got to work. It turns out, the writing advice I once received from a critique partner applies to art as well, and it's the most important advice I've ever received, inside or out of writing:
Flower in oil pastel,
circa spring 2009

There's no such thing as talent.

Sometimes things come easier for one person than another, but in every project you take on, something will come easier for someone else. And there is nothing that cannot be taught. A tall person might have the advantage in basketball, but tell that to 5'3" Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues, who played for the NBA from 1987 until 2002.

If something about your writing isn't working, practice. Find a critique partner (or several, or an editor) and learn what your weaknesses are. Work on them. Practice creating plots that are organic. Practice writing dialogue. Practice weaknesses in short stories until you master them, then move on to novels. Don't be afraid of writing something that is horrid and unsalvageable. Just learn from it and improve the next time.

Portrait of my daughter in colored pencil,
July 2015
The only thing that separates "experts" from "n00bs" is the number of hours put in. Sometimes those hours are spent learning. Concert pianists practice their scales and arpeggios daily. Sometimes those hours are spent on actual projects. When I paint my nails, I run the polish over my finger and move onto the next. When I get my nails done professionally, they mess up as much as I do. They just go back and remove their mistakes. They use more layers of polish to keep it on longer. When a child colors a pictures, they grab blue for the sky, green for the grass, and peach or brown for the person. When a professional artist colors a picture, they grab five different blues, three grays, a white, and a few purples for the sky alone.

The change in perspective is everything: lacking in talent means you're setting the blame externally. Lacking in practice, however, is something you can fix.

Don't use a "lack of talent" as an excuse for not reaching your goals. Call it a "lack of practice" and then get practicing.

Flowers in oil pastel
June 2015

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 9, 2015

Best Writing Advice: Do One Scary Thing Every Day

I was frozen. I'd done my research. I'd spoken to my agent. I'd checked my contracts. I'd even gone as far as getting a business license, but now I was stuck. I needed to buy ISBNs.

(This isn't just an indie-publishing post. Bear with me.)

For two days, I'd looked at my list and found other things to do, but really, I needed to buy my ISBNs. I had a business bank account. I had money in it. What I needed was to go over to Bowker and give them money in exchange for the numbers.

"I can't," I said to my Patient Husband. "Every time I get almost to that point, I freeze. Because buying the ISBNs is the point of no return."

Once I did that, I figured I couldn't double back anymore. I'd be committed.

My Patient Husband said, "You need to do one scary thing every day."

Of course I was scared. I'd prepared extensively because I was taking my writing career seriously, but that meant doing the things I'd prepared to do. I needed to be willing to fail in a very big, very public way.

The next day, I said, "Okay, buying ISBNs is scary. So I'm going to do it, and then I don't have to do it again."

I did it. And after I'd done it, it wasn't scary anymore. But I took the rest of the day off anyway.

The next day, I made myself an IngramSpark account. Again, it was scary to enter in sixteen-digit numbers (or longer ones) but after I did it, I was done. The day after that, I made myself a KDP account, but that was less scary than it had been the day before, so I went on to do something else scary instead.

When you're writing for publication, you're going to find yourself right at the edge of your comfort zone more often than you ever thought, sometimes on the wrong side of the fence. In the story itself you're going to find yourself writing deep and touching emotions you never wanted out in the daylight. Then comes editing. And getting beta-readers. And reading your beta-readers' responses. And making those changes. And asking for help with your query letter. And then sending your query to agents.

Eventually you have to open the responses you get from agents. Sometimes reading those is scary, especially when you really like an agent and hope she likes you back. How about phone calls with agents? Those will scare you too at first. Signing your first agency contract? Terrifying. And then going on submission. Going through the publication process. Reading reviews. Writing your next novel.

If you had to do all those scary things at once, you'd think your life was a horror movie. So instead: one scary thing every day. When you're terrified, motivate yourself with, "Good. This is my scary thing." The next time you face the same task, you'll find it's not so scary any longer.

(Except for reading reviews. Those are still scary. I get a friend to read them first.)

And then give yourself a little breather afterward. "I've done my scary thing. I don't have to be scared again for a little while."

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

No Such Thing as "Right Now" (Things I've Learned Along the Way)

I work full-time as a retail pharmacist. Over the years, I have developed a sort of mantra that I use to remind customers and coworkers that sometimes waiting is necessary. When there are more customers than staff, odds are someone will have to stand in a line. Sometimes, the lines are grumbly and complainy but I value safety over speed--and I'll find myself gently resetting their expectations.

Usually, I turn to the phrase "You can get it right or you can get it now. But you can't get both."

Rushing through a task increased the risk of producing faulty work. In my career, that could be dangerous. That's why I work at one speed—the RIGHT speed.

I owe it to the health and safety of my patients.

Eventually, I realized that this philosophy also pertained to my writing career. When it came to writing and producing stories, I needed to combine the correct combination of craft and time to ensure that the story is the best it could possibly be before releasing it.

After all, I owe it to the satisfaction of my readers.

You can get it RIGHT

By exercising your writer's brain, you improve your craft. By improving your craft, you write better stories. Those are the stories you want to give your readers: the stories that are crafted so well that it leaves a reader gasping. Stories that leave you gasping, knowing you could not have done it any better.

But stories like that do not spring forth fully-armored from the foreheads of most mortal writers. We deliver our book babies the regular way—slowly, over time. The idea gestates and builds mass and definition. We nurture the characters and allow them to grow and develop and mature. We ponder their stories and we use all our craft to create a miniature, perfect world.

And a story is not done until it's done, rightly so.

You can get it NOW

We all know there are extremely prolific authors out there who seem to churn out titles. Their names seem always to be in the spotlight, along with the words "new release".  It's ingrained into our writer's mentality that the first rule of success is: write a book, release it, write another. Making it big with a breakout debut is less likely than getting struck by lightning while winning the lottery. One of my favorite author mentors once said, in part, that you need 4 to 6 books before you can begin to reach critical mass.

A quick look at Amazon reveals that not every book is a 100k word magnum opus. Short works and serials are tempting outlets for authors looking to build their lists quickly. Readers are happiest when the stories they love keep coming.

And it's no hard thing to get your 4 to 6 books these days. If you have the time to type and the vision to get your stories straight, you can bang those books out.

But you can't get it RIGHT NOW

Most writers can't sit down and crank out perfection in a single draft--not even shorter stories. Plain and simple: good things take time.

Those prolific authors that turn out title after amazing title are professionals. Yes, many of us are tempted to try and keep up with them. Sure, it's possible for less-experienced writers to rapidly turn out titles—but often it's done for the sake of expediency or impatience. And those are terrible reasons for a writer to publish anything.

Many times, the proofing process is skipped—the editing stages, the critique stages, the sit-and-think stages. If an author plots and outlines a story and possesses a knack for clean, tight first drafts, this might not be a problem—but those people are the exceptional few.

The danger is today's ease in publishing: anyone can hit the PUBLISH button at any moment, and living in a world of demand and impatience and instant gratification, there's a misleading belief that there's no time like the present.

Did you ever stop to consider that the prolific authors may have spent a ton of time getting their stories perfected, waiting until they had a sizable product list before releasing them in more-or-less rapid succession?

And even that bit of advice from my mentor author—you need 4 to 6 books before you reach critical mass—wasn't entirely complete. She said it takes 4 to 6 books...and then 4 to 6 months before you can start to see a shift toward critical mass. It takes time.

An impatient author can easily skip that last part. Don't you do that.

Do the RIGHT thing. You owe it to your readers.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Things I've Learned Along the Way

When Mary assigned this topic, my first thought was: Wait, me telling someone else what I've learned? I know nothing!  Then I thought about my experiences over the last three years and it dawned on me that I have learned a few lessons along the way, only some of which pertain to the writing craft, but all of them were valuable in becoming a better, happier, writer.

When I finally sat down in the summer of 2012 and wrote that crappy first draft, it was after a lot of years kicking myself around mentally for not doing it sooner. Remember when you measured your success by your age? "I need to do _______ by the time I'm _____." Well, as far as writing an actual book, that didn't come for me "as soon as I finish finals" or "by the time I'm thirty" or "by the end of maternity leave." And each year and every milestone that went by, the crummier I felt about the piles of notebooks I stuffed in the nightstand drawer filled with scraps of dialogue, post-it notes and unfinished stories. When you start off early in life (third grade to be exact) proclaiming to the world that you're going to write a book someday, blowing out forty candles, then forty-five, on your birthday cake seems like an admission of defeat instead of a celebration of everything else you've accomplished.

But here's the thing. Everyone finds their voice at a different time in life. Yes, I always wrote. I wrote quite well in my career, which is not in a terribly creative field, but one that forced me to make every word count, which became a useful skill. By my mid-forties, I'd won a few, lost a few, and eaten crow more than I cared to admit. I softened up on some issues (just let the idiot in the wrong lane merge in front of you), and got tougher about others (no, it's not okay to tell a random woman on the street she should smile and I will call you out on it). And while I lived and collected life experiences, that nagging story I'd started scribbling about decades before bubbled back up in my mind. But while it simmered, I wrote the first draft of a book for teens. By then I had a teenager of my own who will bankrupt me if I let her loose at the bookstore. And she told me I should write that book since I always said I would someday. So I dug out my notebooks and started writing.

That summer, while she was in camp, and I had an empty house at night, I wrote. It was a total "seat of your pants"style authorship. And this time, I finished it. I learned a whole lot over the next several months about querying, publishing and how to critically edit your own work. That's when I discovered all the great folks at QT and found that the writing community is unlike any other as far as writers supporting each other.

But, still, that story from over two decades ago was still thumping around, so I sat down to finish it, figuring, Hey I'm a pantser, let's do this! Turned out, not so much. This book, an offbeat thriller set in a fictional town I'd thought up in 1990, wouldn't write itself like the first one. I outlined, wrote scene summaries on index cards, cut characters, added characters, changed the order of scenes, gave one character's dialogue to someone else, and re wrote it about three times. I ended up doing even more revisions when I finally made it to the querying stage, where I made fewer, and different, mistakes.

So back to the "What I've learned."It's pretty simple.

Stop beating yourself up about not writing sooner or not yet hitting whatever success milestone you've envisioned for yourself. Everyone blooms at a different time in their creative life. Grandma Moses didn't paint until she was a senior citizen. Maybe you have your voice when you're nineteen but probably not. (If you're nineteen and have already bloomed, I hate you, but mostly because you probably don't need a knee replacement) Maybe you won't be hailed as a genius in your lifetime. Write anyway. My first book had modest sales, but when a little girl at a middle school I visited asked me to "please hurry up and write the next one," it was better than a starred review in the New York Times.

With the second book, I've hit the milestone of obtaining representation and trying to think up a different author name for the adult genre. This book took twenty-five years to birth, but I had to live it before I could write it, just like having a teenager made writing for a teenager click. Instead of mourning our publishing failures, we should celebrate the things in life that inspire us to write in the first place.

Cheers to all those great books out there that are still being born. See you soon.