QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

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.

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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.