QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

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.