QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Day I Got Tired Of Failure

Back in 2004, I decided I was tired of being a failed writer.

I didn't really know how to turn it around, but for years I'd been a has-been writer, one novel published when I was a wee bairn and then a few scattered short stories since then. Editor-orphaned. Still writing, but everything sitting in a drawer. I was attending a writing group, but I'd kind of gotten used to failure as a steady state.

In 2005, when the new year hit, I decided I was done with that. I'd gotten good at failure, but it didn't have any appeal. Yes, I was a mom with small kids and sure, it was understandable, and of course the market was tough blah blah blah. I was tired of making excuses. I was tired of failure. Time to change things.

So I set myself a goal, and I made sure it was possible to achive through sheer effort. Ready?

I had one year to make my goal. I had to get either 12 acceptances or 100 rejections.

That was it. Either I had to get twelve pieces accepted, and it didn't matter how or where, or I had to get enough rejections that I could accept that I was not and never would be a successful writer. Period. There was no middle ground, and the glory here was that if I worked hard enough, I was going to make either one or the other.

Do the math: if I submitted 111 times, one or the other condition had to be reached.

The grind of publishing is that you cannot force success. You have no idea if you're really writing at peak performance, and you can always do better. You can't control whether your work gets accepted. You can't control how well your work will sell. You can't control your reviews. You can't control whether an agent will request sample pages or whether an editor will send your book to the acquisitions committee.

You can control you.

You can control the number of words you write every week (within limits -- build in a cushion for things like illness and unexpected emergencies.)  You can control what kind of pieces you're working on. You can control how much you learn about the business. You can control how often you submit your work.

In my case, I decided that was the way to go. I knew my writing was good enough, and I knew just barely enough of the business to get started freelancing. (I read two books to learn more about it so I stood a chance of hitting the twelve rather than the hundred.)

My overall goal was to earn a living via novels. I knew that wouldn't happen right out of the gate, though. I'd already done fabulously with one novel, but that had been ages ago, and then nothing. It was more realistic to send out small pieces. So I started scanning calls for submission and looking at what I already had. I worked on short pieces. I looked at the guidelines for magazines I read on a regular basis. And I learned how to write an awesome query.

From a career point, it was probably laughable. I queried a novel to agents and another to editors while simultaneously pitching nonfiction articles, poems, satire, and how-to pieces. It was a flurry of literary activity with no discipline. That's not how you build a career. Careers require focus. They require intense knowledge of one area.

But you know? Along with the rejections, the acceptances started coming in. I even got a couple of checks out of it.

I went to a writer's conference and pitched a magazine editor, and instead of being nervous, I realized I didn't care if she rejected me because even if she rejected me, her rejection got me one step closer to my goal.  (She didn't like that, by the way. I think I was supposed to simper, and I was all out of the need to simper.)

Sometime in November, I hit my goal. I'd made contacts and had money coming in, and I had my first two pieces with a magazine that eventually would list me on their masthead, and I had short stories awaiting publication. Twelve acceptances. I don't remember now how many rejections. Maybe seventy? It didn't kill me.

So for 2017, set yourself a goal. Make it something you can reach without having to control anyone else. Don't worry about doing it wrong. If you need to get yourself started, do something that will get you started and correct your course later on, once you're in motion.

I was tired of being a failed writer, so I changed it. As the year draws to a close, what are you tired of? What can you do to change it?


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Great Holiday Query Dilemma

With the holidays soon upon us, many agents are taking the month off and closing to queries. Still others will remain open, but probably won’t be doing much reading. But some will stay open and active.

So, as a querying author, what do you do? 

Do you hold off querying until January when the agent’s inboxes are exploding? Or do you query in December and hope you’ll stand out in a (hopefully) diminished crowd?

What’s the answer? Sorry, I can’t help you much there. It’s a judgement call. But QueryTracker can provide you with a little helpful information. As we learn of agents closing for the holidays, we’ll add them to our update list at querytracker.net/updates.php#updates so at least you’ll know who not to query. 

What’s your Holiday Query Plan? Let me know in the comments below.

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, November 29, 2016

How to publish your NaNoWriMo novel

Don't! Not yet!

Okay, let's back up a step. If you've just completed National Novel Writing Month for the first time (http://nanowrimo.org) you're probably riding the crest of your success, thrilled with your book, and already thinking of what to wear at your first book signing.

I get it. Even though I'm a jaded old lady who knits socks on cold nights, I get it. Right now, you love your book. Love it with every last atom of your heart, and you want it in the hands of readers who will love it just as much as you do and sketch pictures of your favorite scenes to post on their tumblr pages where they tell all their friends to buy your book. You can't even think "my book" without thinking πŸ’œmy bookπŸ’œ. I've been there.

Do not try to publish it yet.

1) Your book needs time.

Let your book "rest" a bit so you have time to come down from the endorphin rush. You're in love. You're producing so much oxytocin that you could singlehandedly power a rocket to Neptune and then ride a gravity whip out to Pluto. That's not the time to make any kind of judgment about your book.

Go read someone else's book and force yourself not to look at your manuscript for a little while. Later you can come back to it and be a little more objective about the main character, the plot, the setting -- you know, the small details people tend to want to hang together in a story.

If you have a nagging concern in the back of your mind about one specific part of the story, it's probably correct. Even if you don't yet know how to fix it.

2) Your book needs feedback.

Find a few avid readers who aren't afraid of tears or screaming, and ask them if they'll read the first draft of your book. You might have to look online for what's known as a "beta-reader" but do find one, someone who will read through the story and be unafraid to voice all those repeating concerns you had in the back of your head. You know, about things like the main character, the plot, the setting...  It has to be someone who's not afraid to say things like, "I didn't care what happened to your main character" and "Why didn't he just get in his car and leave the house full of spiders?"

(Yes, even if neither of those things apply to πŸ’œyour book.πŸ’œ A beta-reader must be tactful but fearless.)

It doesn't feel good to get negative comments, but trust me, when the book is published, no one will hesitate to bestow them upon you by the crate-load. And if you're going to publish traditionally, agents and editors also won't worry about your feelings. If you get a negative response at all, it will be along the lines of, "Not for me." You'll need actual feedback.

3) Your book needs detailed critique and an editor.

Once you've gotten through some beta readers, you want a critique partner to go over the book with you on a much more detailed level. Ideally this should be another writer, that way the two of you can chew on different solutions to complex problems. A beta reader might know the plot is confusing but a critique partner will be the one to point out that these three characters could be combined into one character without any damage to the plot, or that the main character's stakes should be raised in Act III (and then make a suggestion on how to do it.)

4) Your book needs a sharp query and an interesting synopsis

Get both of those ready before you start pitching to agents. Make sure you know exactly how querying works and what to expect when you approach agents. Learn what agents do. If you're going to approach small publishers, you'll need to know what they do too, and the kinds of things they want to see. Get other eyes on your query to make sure it's a tantalizing sales letter for your book.

5) Your book needs not to fall prey to scammers.

The larger NaNoWriMo gets, the more predators are going to try making money off it. Before you even consider publishing your book, you need to learn how publishing works, both traditional and independent. The QueryTracker blog is a good start (this site, if you got here by googling "publishing my nanowrimo novel") but you should also find guidance in writing groups. Double check that any service you use is not a scam.

Traditional agents do not charge money to read or represent your manuscript. Traditional publishers do not charge money to publish your manuscript. You should not be bound by contract to purchase a certain number of your own books. You should not have to earn back the publisher's net expenses before receiving royalties. You should be the owner of your own copyright. You should not be forced to sign a non-compete clause. You should have a lawyer review any contract you sign and be prepared that every sentence of any contract will be leveled against you in the worst possible way. If you can't abide by the strictest interpretation of the document, don't sign the contract.

Many writers are desperate to get their stories out there, but if you try too soon, you will undercut your book's success. Your story...I mean, πŸ’œyour storyπŸ’œ deserves the best you can give it. That means time, editing, and honest business practices.

You finished! Congratulations! Now give πŸ’œyour bookπŸ’œ a huggle and tuck it in to rest for a little while.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

NaNoWriMo for the rest of us...

The QueryTracker Blog Crew are busy getting ready for this week's holiday. In the spirit of the real Reason for the Season--by which I mean NaNoWriMo--I'm sharing a past article on my own NaNo misadventures. Enjoy, and Happy Thanksgiving to all to celebrate! ~*~ Cheers, Ash

I have a confession to make: I’ve NaNo’d. And I’ve NaNo’d badly.

I know the rules for National Novel Writing Month. It’s all about the word count. The aim is to bar all excuses and get that first draft down. Goal is 50,000 words in the thirty days of November, during which you mark your progress in your NaNo profile.

For the past three years, I’ve used NaNo to plump up the word counts of my side projects while working on my Demimonde series. But I’ve never hit my 50k goal. Not once.

The biggest obstacle to getting my first draft down isn’t writer’s block or inspiration or ambition. Plain and simple, it’s time. I work full-time outside the home (as well as inside the home, thanks to my wonderfully over-active family life). My writing time is at a premium: solitary mornings between school bus and work, waiting time while kids are at judo, a few hours on my days off.

I’m willing to try any system that forces me to sit down and write. This summer, I participated in a Fast Draft with a group of writers, during which we wrote in sprints with support from each other. I had a major deadline to meet and the week-long event fueled my drive to meet it. (For more on my experience with Fast Draft, read this.)

The annual NaNo is another tool I try to use, but I always feel like I join in with a handicap.

Think thirty days is too short a time to write a novel draft? Try ten. That’s all the time I have to participate. I suppose if I could write 5k a day on each of those ten days, I’d have it made. Although I have never actually managed that, it does provide me with a theoretically plausible goal. That’s why I NaNo each year—there’s always hope.

NaNo: The Winners

I envy those writers who win their NaNo. I see their proclamations and their nifty I WON badges all over the place and I invariably end up scolding myself for not trying harder. But I don’t scold very hard or very long because, while I was never a definitive winner, I usually got good work done.

And NaNo’ing isn’t just designed to give writers an exercise in endurance or inspiration to get those latent stories written. Our WriMo books aren’t always meant to hide away in drawers and on hard drives. I’ve read accounts where writers went on to finish the books and get them published. You can see the lists of books that NaNo participants have published, many by traditional houses.
Stuff like that is inspirational. More so, it's intimidating for the rest of us.

Sure, there are loads of NaNo winners, and heaps of success stories for the books that made it to the light of day. But I was never one of them. I’ve never hit 50k in a month. I’ve never ended up with a first draft by November 30th. That’s why I feel like a bad NaNo’er.

My project in 2011 fared pretty well, with just over 30K for the month. I might have actually written a little more, but I was doing final edits on the first Demimonde novel, which came out the following March. NaNo 2012 was completely abysmal by comparison; I simply wasn’t committed to the project because I was busy promoting the first Demimonde book while editing the second, which was due out in six months. I think I spent more time revamping my NaNo profile than I did writing.

This past November, my edits on the third Demimonde book had been submitted early and I was between projects. I had space to breathe and think about an unfinished project that had been brewing in the back of my head. Although I only spent six days on NaNo 2013, I managed 15k words, plus a synopsis. (I think the synopsis impressed me more than anything because books are easy, by comparison.)

Three years, three projects, and none of them “winners”.

The Rest Of Us

But I didn’t lose. Not by a long shot. Despite my shortcomings, I think there may be hope for me yet because I decided NaNoWriting doesn’t have to be limited to a single “Mo”.

The project from 2011 didn’t just evaporate in the ether. I pulled it out this past summer and read through the unfinished book. I still loved the idea of the story and decided those 30k words were too much to let languish. In August, I resurrected the file and enlisted the help of a professional reference/fellow author/good friend and began investigating the details of the psychology in the story. I went on to finish the first draft in early October and revised over the next two months. Bugged a few beta readers, entered a few contests, revised some more…and today it’s ready for the eyes of an editor.

It took two years, but my NaNo ’11 book got written, got edited, and got submitted. Hopefully, it’ll get published, too.

Two years to a complete first draft. Not thirty days. And I don’t feel bad about it.

The True Spirit of NaNoWriMo

In the meantime, I carry a bit of NaNo around in my writer’s soul every day. I look forward to the NaNo emails that arrive throughout the year.

Right now we are in the "I Wrote a Novel, Now What?" months. A recent email addressed helpful topics for all writers, including tips on editing, participation in writers’ communities, and an invitation to a program on the subject of self-publishing.

Writing a novel isn’t a dash. It’s more like a relay race, and your novel is the baton. The first leg of the race is the first draft. Then, you pass the baton on to the edits and revisions, which make several more laps. The race still doesn’t end there; you hand the baton off to critique partners or beta readers. Perhaps you’ll pass it to an agent or the editor of a small press. Then the edits and revisions do a few more laps before reaching the finish line, where your readers await.

Does it sound like a lot of running in circles? Sure it does.  But never for one moment think you aren’t going anywhere. Even a spring can be straightened into a straight line—and the length of it may surprise you.

Some writers can get the first lap done in thirty days, during NaNoWriMo. I’m not one of them. But I do encourage every writer to participate. Don’t miss out on a fabulous program just because you can’t write for thirty days or because you’re sure you can’t get that word count down. You may not make the 50k goal and you may not earn a Winner’s badge, but you’ll have a new reason to sit and write, a source of encouragement and support, and access to helpful resources throughout the year.

In the long run, you just might finish that book, and edit it, and publish it. To me, that’s a huge win.

Author's note: out of the four books I started during NaNo, two are now published. One is through The Wild Rose Press and has won several awards...the other became my indie-pubbed international best seller.

Do not underestimate the power of the work you do during NaNo. Start writing, keep writing, and don't slow down! Good luck, everyone.

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” (and NaNo project), is now available.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

For When Things Aren't Working Out

Ash had a wonderful post last week about the bravery and necessity of creating plans. Unlike her, I am and always have been a planner, not a pantser. I have made new year's resolutions without fail since I was 17 years old. For something like the past 5 years, I've broken those resolutions into quarterly, monthly, and, ultimately, weekly goals. I like check marks. I like seeing my progress. I will argue to a stalemate with anyone who tells me lists aren't important.

But, as Eisenhower says, "...I have always founds that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."

We've talked about how indispensable planning is, so I want to focus on how useless the plans themselves can be sometimes.

In 2011, I had some ambitions new year's resolutions. Already a resolutions veteran, I knew I had to make actionable, measurable goals if I wanted to get anywhere. So I did. And one of the things on my list was to be able to run two miles without having to walk. I was getting married that September, and though I wasn't out of shape, I certainly wasn't in shape, either. So I joined a gym and got on a treadmill. I followed my plan.

By early summer, I still couldn't run two miles, and I'd learned something: I hated running. I didn't enjoy that time in the gym at all. I had to focus on anything else to keep me on the treadmill. My knee, which has a stress injury from doing gymnastics as a kid, was hurting me again. Instead of looking forward to meeting my goal, I was looking forward to lifting weights, which I did after my dreaded time on the treadmill.

That goal, and many others in 2011, I never met. But I learned a lot about myself in making them. At the time, I was frustrated that I didn't meet my goal, instead of happy that I learned something.

Fast forward two years to when I decided to write a novel. I made a plan: write it, edit it, query it, publish it, profit. Simple. I planned on the whole process going quickly, so I edited as little as my CPs would let me get away with. I started querying long before the book was ready. I wrote another book, edited it, queried it. I saw some small problems with how the plot was going, and knew my word count was on the short end. I decided the agent who would inevitably fall in love with my book was going to help me fix it, so why bother.

When 2016 started, I had 40,000 words of novel #3 and no agent. My goal for this year was to finish my third novel and be querying before the year was out. I finished my first draft at the end of May, but unlike with my previous novels, I decided to take the advice of basically the entire writing world and set it aside for a month. So I did. Then, as I revised, I was determined to do the best I could by this book, because it's one I really believe in. So it's the middle of November and not a single critique partner has seen my novel yet. I'm not going to be sending out my first query by the end of the year.

I need to remind myself that it isn't a failed goal. It isn't something I stopped working toward, and it isn't a story I gave up on. The unchecked box on my Resolutions page represents not giving up, but hope. I believe in this book, so I'm going to take the time I need to make it as good as I possibly can before I query it. I'm going to send out the most polished writing I can muster.

Without my plan, I would never have gotten as far as I have on this book. Every week, I write out a new micro-goal that will push me closer to sending this book to my critique partners, and ultimately to agents. Every week, I fail that micro-goal but make progress. I am not defined by that box I won't check at the end of the year, because that goal is the reason I am as far as I am, and the unchecked box is my hope that this book, with enough time, will succeed.

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 two kids two and under. Her bad habits include mispronouncing words, correcting grammar, and spending far too much time on the Internet.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

When Your One Year Plan Looks Nothing Like It Had On Your Five Year Plan Four Years Ago

When I was a freshman in college, I met an upper-classman who had a Five Year Plan. One day, he let me see it.

I got hives looking at it. Not only did his planning make me feel like a useless, going-nowhere ingΓ©nue, it made me worry that I'd never know enough or be good enough at anything to actually be able to plan anything the way he did.

I suppose all freshmen feel like that. I outgrew it, to some degree, but never got over being intimidated by the idea of a Five Year Plan.

If you're like me, you hate the idea of planning things out but know that without a plan, you'd collapse into a pile of useless click-bait clicking and Candy Crushing.

I once called myself a die-hard pantser. Give me pantsing or give me death! was my battle cry. (Not to confuse pantsing with "a pantsing". Moving right along.)

When I started writing seriously more than ten years ago (gah, wrinkles pop out just by writing that), I had no plan. I had a dayjob and two young children and a bossy dog that stole entire loaves of bread off the kitchen table. Writing was my escape from that. The hour or two that I spent a day thinking about my first novel were respite. It was legal daydreaming. The only plan was to see what would happen next.

I wrote my first novel in a series of vignettes, scenes and conversations and fun little action-packed sequences. There was no outline. There was no formula. There was no plan for what I'd do if I ever got to the words THE END.

Imagine my dismay when I did type those words and realized I had a novel staring back at me. Like bringing a first baby home from the hospital, I knew I had to do something with it, and I'd better learn how to do it--FAST.

Thus, the first plan was born: I had a book. I had the choice to do something with it or let it get forgotten in a Word folder.

My first One Year Plan was super-sketchy. I mean, if it hadn't been safely home-schooled, it would have dropped out when all the other One Year Plans made fun of it. (I also had a secret Five Year Plan, which only included World Domination, but, honestly, who doesn't have one of those?)

The OYP had vague things like Edit Manuscript, Enter Contests, Join Writers Group. They were doable. Baby steps, right? And, unlike a FYP, a OYP didn't give me hives.

There was also an addendum to the OYP that I referred to as the "After OYP", vaguely time-framed because I had no idea how long anything would take to do. Heck, the term ONE YEAR Plan in itself was vague because I never specified if it was an Earth year. (I still won't and you can't make me.) The AOYP included Seek Representation, Finish Book Two, Finish Book Three, Develop Platform, Write and Publish Poetry and Short Fiction.

I still can't say that, at the time, I considered any of this stuff an actual "plan". There were more like goals. The difference between plans and goals is that a plan has a timeframe or completion date. And there was no way I would pin myself to something like that, because I was still learning how to be a writer. I was still learning the craft and the business. You can't make a stable plan when you're still pantsing your way through it all.

So I pantsed along, making goals and changing them with things didn't go the way I'd hoped, and waded through a series of non-concrete OYPs. No failures, just redirections, and eventually, successes.

My first novel was published by a small press in 2012. It had been signed in a three book agreement the year before, after having a string of big accomplishments in the RWA chapter competition scene. The book and I had come a long way since I typed the words THE END in 2007. So had the ever-changing OYP.

No legit FYP, though, because I was still intimidated by them. OYPs were fluid and had more goals than deadlines. One thing, for sure, was that I never had a Five Year Plan that included See First Novel Published. (World Domination seemed like it had a better chance of happening first.)

Prior to 2007, I didn't have a FYP because I had no plan, just a hobby. That hobby evolved as I began placing in writing contests, getting poetry and short fiction published, and actually earning money from it all. Basically, the hobby was becoming a job.

And when you have a job, you need to have a plan. I had to get over the whole FYPs-give-me-hives thing.

We plan because if it's a job we like, we want to keep it. A lot of authors get lucky with their first book, getting it to the right place at the right time. But even those cases of serendipity had a plan behind it, as super-sketchy as it may have been.

People get lucky, but not so lucky as to have kept their work to themselves, done nothing to improve their craft, and bumped into a random stranger in the frozen food aisle who remarked, "Tater tots? I bet you're a novelist. I just happen to work for the biggest of the Big Five. Sign this, here's your advance. Oh, I also have an extra coupon for those tots. Here you go."

So I saw my first book published in 2012. I also wrote my first FYP. It was time.

Next year will be Year Five. I decided to crack open the vault and take a look back to way back then (another wrinkle just exploded somewhere, I can feel it.) In 2012, my FYP looked like this:
• Promote Book #1.
• Complete revisions on Book #2 within 6 months.
• Be ready for publication of #2 in 12 months.
• Finish Book #3 within 6 months.
• Begin revisions on #3 in 12 months.
• Attend conference within 12 months.
• Arrange library visit within 12 months.
• Plan and write new story idea out aiming for 1 new title each year.
• Get 10 poetry/short fiction pieces each year years 2 through 5.

And that was it. Some of those goals, to me, seemed pretty darn reaching.

Like, super-reachy. I mean, a new novel each year? For an emerging writer? With a full time dayjob and two middle-schoolers and a bossy dog who learned how to steal the butter while she was stealing a loaf of bread off the table?

Sure, why not? Because, although I'd pantsed my way through a slew of OYPs up to that point, I'd accomplished some pretty neat stuff.

So, now to the big question of the day: Am I following my plan?

Actually, yeah. No one is more surprised than I am.

I did see books #2 and #3 published in 2013 and 2014. I did get many short pieces published, well over the goal I'd set. I did a con and a few library appearances. And that novel a year thing, that super-reachy over-the-top goal? I did it. I sat my butt down and I wrote those books. If it wasn't for all those Plans, I might have dribbled away all my writing time on BuzzFeed and Netflix (I just discovered Royal Pains. #Boris!)

But there is a huge difference, now. I rely on yearly plans to keep going. I don't even need anti-histimines to keep the hives away when I think of a FYP. My system stopped rejecting the idea of structure when it realized structure makes me productive.

Another difference is that my OYPs are a lot more specific. In particular, my OYPs looks nothing like the vagueness of 2012's FYP. Here's why:

I've grown as a writer, indie author, entrepreneur. I learned how to network and I have a wonderful professional pool of writers and publishers who share camaraderie and resources. I'm neck-deep in the business. I can make plans because I know what I'm capable of getting done.

But I also know I'm not done learning. I'm pretty sure my OYPs are going to get more and more detailed as I learn more about publishing, promotion, marketing, and yes—writing. Writers never stop learning how to write.

And new opportunities for authors never stop coming. I listened to a podcast in August that really had the gears turning in my head. In fact, that same day I added "Participate in NYT-worthy box set" to my FYP.

Super-reachy, I know.  Especially with two teen-aged kids, a fuller-than-ever full time dayjob, and a dog that needs things reached off the table for her because she's not a puppy anymore.

But the world changes around us every day...The least we can do is develop plans that can change in time with it.

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, October 25, 2016

Filler Words, Grammar Nerds and Fun with Line Edits

As the saying goes, I don't necessarily like writing as much as I like having written something. The editing phase should be easier, right? After all, you've just written a whole book. You dreamed up characters, gave them dialogue, threw in some plot twists and probably did it all while holding down a full-time job. So editing, in theory, sounds less time consuming, maybe a bit tedious, but not hard.

Au Contraire.  Exit out of your spell checker and come sit a spell. Let's talk editing strategies. I like to think of editing as sort of a food pyramid (before USDA went to the whole My Plate thing, which I don't get). At the bottom of the pyramid are these basics:

Start with spelling and punctation. Have handy your CMS or whatever style manual you use. Don't trust your computer. The programs can be wrong, and they definitely won't fix your homophones. So if you typed "brake" instead of "break," you will have to catch it by hand. Other things to look for on this level of editing include getting your capitalizations and commas correct in your dialogue.  While you're already looking at your dialogue, scan the dialogue tags to make sure you haven't used overwrought phrasing like "terrifyingly shrieked" when a simple "yelled" will do.  "Said" is always a safe bet because characters can't shrug or snort words.

Moving up the pyramid are high-end items, such as, is high-end hyphenated? Is it anyone or anybody? Is that participle dangling? Now is the time to weed out phrasing like "Barreling into the room, I thought he looked like a tiger ready to pounce," when what you mean to say is that he was barreling into the room, not you. This is the time to look for one of my downfalls: the "flying eyes." I can't stop writing characters whose eyes fly open, or dart around the room, which obviously, they can't do.

Next stop on your way to the top is elimination of filler words.  Your Find and Replace function will assist you weeding out useless words like just, then, about, almost.  Make your own list of filler words, and words or phrases you tend to overuse. For me, my characters roll their eyes and shrug constantly. By using find and replace, I can either substitute a different gesture or delete it entirely.  Look for other useless phrases like, "I could see." We know you could see it because you're telling us. Just saw "I saw" or better yet, just describe what is being seen. As the earlier QT blog on adverbs mentioned, searching for "ly" words will help you weed out excessive adverbs.

Scan the page for repeated names and words. If your main character is "Joe," it stands to reason his name will appear often. But have you started nine paragraphs in a row with his name? Did you use the same word multiple times in a single paragraph? Here is where you fix it. Despite my best efforts at writing the best first draft I can, I still find words repeated in close proximity to each other. That's why it's a draft.

Watch those gerunds. This is another of my first draft frequent offenders. I often have draft sentences such as "Raising her glass, she thought of her absent friends." These predicating "ing" clauses make editors twitchy and, when oft repeated, really make your writing come across as uninspired and amateurish. Find and Replace is your friend here. The sentences can easily be polished and tweaked.

Now were are getting past the nuts and buts and into content. Here is where you make sure you haven't gone from Tuesday to Wednesday and then back to Monday over the course of a few chapters, or called a character Kate and then called her Karen. If a character had a beloved pet in chapter one, did it disappear for the rest of the book?

Themes, plot, and clues and backstory. If revenge is the driving force of your story, it should be woven in throughout the story. If your villain is revealed at the end to be a master counterfeiter, is there some small hint of this earlier or did you just drop it in, deus ex machina? Is your backstory spewed out in a multipage information dump, and if so, can you take bits and pieces and spread it out with a mixture of dialogue, flashbacks, action, and narrative? Is there a massive plot hole about how a character could possibly have known a piece of information? Do characters disappear for large chunks of time and then re appear for no apparent reason, or worse, never get mentioned again?

Next up: How is your pacing? Do your action or high conflict chapters pack a punch, only to be followed by pages of mundane dialogue and no conflict? Identify where your story sags and be merciless cutting out the parts that don't work. Conflict should be present on every page, even if it's internal.

Voice. Ah, Voice. What do agents and editors mean when they say, "Voice"? My take is that it is the narrator's unique way of telling the story.  John D. McDonald's Travis McGee had a bohemian philosopher's way of describing his adventures. Holden Caulfield  practically leaps off the page with his disdain for phonies. Ginny in A Thousand Acres is both resigned and defiant. Whatever your storytelling style is, keep it consistent. Darkly funny is great. Don't let your edits turn your darkly funny story into a faux literary tome.

Finally, time to fire up the printer. I really recommend doing this instead of relying on your computer because a book in hand is a different reading experience. You can read it all and make casual notes, or comb through it with a ruler, or both. But having the printed word in hand should reveal only minor issues, since you've already eliminated plot, pacing, and grammar issues.

I now use the Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam Webster Dictionary, and occasionally Strunk and White when I do this pyramid editing.  Don't hold me to editorial perfection on this blog because I am dashing it out at the last minute (sorry, Patrick)  and it's likely got a few errors. Keep in mind that this article is geared toward those who are doing their own editing and not relying on a content or copy editor. Getting your manuscript in the best shape possible will help set you apart from the crowd.

And mind those gerunds.

Kim English - is the author of the Coriander Jones series and the award winning picture book 'A Home for Kayla.' Her latest picture book, 'Rolly and Mac' will be released in 2016. Her website is Kim-English.com. She is represented by Gina Panettieri.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Titles, Titles, Titles!!!!

In a query, the first thing your future agent sees is the title. Think about it:

Your title needs to do a lot of heavy lifting. Make it strong.

(Yes, in theory the agent sees your name before the title, but unless your name is Nora Roberts or James Patterson--both of whom I assume have agents already--you're not really going to make an impression with your name. You could make a lousy impression with your name, but it's harder to make a positive impression.)

Your title, however, is the first place your book gets to show off, and it needs to be awesome. It needs to fit the story. It needs to convey genre. It needs to be intriguing.

Titles aren't like naming your baby. Titles are marketing tools. That's all. And in some ways, the title is the last thing the author gets to say about the story.

I'm a lousy titler. I know this, and it was only confirmed for me after an agent wrote me a long email requesting pages but asking for a new title please along with a bunch of suggestions as to how I could go about this. She didn't know this was the fourth title the story had already gone through. She also didn't know I'd see it two days later when she posted a cleaned-up version of that letter as a blog post. (Minus my name, which as we've already said is nonmemorable.)

Two of my novels have come right down to the last minute where the cover artist couldn't proceed because she kind of sort of needed the title before she could design the cover. That's Olympic-grade lousiness. (And we're not even going to talk about the face that two of my children didn't have names for the first 24 hours of their lives. "Honey, she's bringing the birth certificate paperwork. We really need to decide.")

I'm a lousy titler, and therefore you can assume I'm a pro by now at picking out ineffective titles.

1) Does the title fit with your genre? Occasionally you can make a title work across genres, but that's for later in the game, when you're an established crime writer and want to throw in a fantasy-esque title for flavor. Right now, reserve your fantasy titles for your fantasy novels.

2) Can this title work for half the books in your genre? If it's "To Love Again" or "Magical Lineage," try again. You need something specific enough that no one else's story truly fits your title.

2A) Does Amazon already have five pages of novels using exactly this title? This especially happens when someone uses a cliche or a quote as their title. Your title needs to stand out.

3) Is your title incomprehensible? I hate asking this, but sometimes in the heat of the moment, we latch onto a tiny element of the story; it becomes outsize in importance, and it makes perfect sense after you've read the book. Unfortunately, everyone else is seeing the title before reading the book, and the title gives us enough of a "huh?" feeling that we don't then read the book. I've seen this happen a lot in critique groups, where I'm obligated to read the story, and generally someone will tactfully raise the idea that perhaps the title needs an adjustment.

Keep in mind that the first thing an editorial board does is decide whether to change your title, so unless it's spot-on, you may not keep it. But that doesn't mean you should avoid doing the work.

My suggestions:

1) Go to Amazon and look at the top hundred titles in your subgenre (free and paid.) Read the titles and nothing more. If there's a series name, look at that too. Just get a flavor for how the books indicate their genre in rough strokes.

2) As you edit and re-read your novel, look for a key phrase that encapsulates the through-line of your story. This is my favorite way of finding a title, although it doesn't always work.

3) Write down twenty ideas, good and bad. In fact, make sure you include plenty of bad ideas just to get the juices flowing because sometimes the fear of "getting it wrong" means we freeze up on our creativity. Instead, do what Gavin DeBecker suggests: make one of the qualifications for success that you have to be wrong more often than you're right. Once you've got that, you can brainstorm properly. Make sure to laugh at yourself.

And as a corollary: these are just for you, so go crazy. Try that twenty-word title. Use just your main character's first name and call the book John. Title it in French even though you don't know French. Pull out Roget's Thesaurus and derive alternate versions of ho-hum titles. Make puns. Make lots and lots of puns.

4) Draw up a list of themes underpinning the book and see if any of those resonate with the titles you've already played with.

5) Call your friend who always has awesome titles and sob into the phone for twenty minutes, hoping she'll say, "Well what if you turned the title backward and called it Half Missing?"

It's only a few words, or maybe even only one word, but the title carries the first burden of selling your work. Ensure it's a good one.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Truth About Adverbs

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs” – Steven King

“I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ‘full of rape and adverbs’” – Elmore Leonard

What’s an adverb? Adverbs are words that modify other words, typically (hehe) verbs, to show degree or circumstance or provide more explanation about the word. Adjectives are basically (hehe) the same thing, with respect to nouns. That’s not a technical definition, it’s my shot at a good-enough definition to understand the issue.

Adverb usage is something worth looking at in our writing, because they tend to be overused. If that’s where the conversation began and ended, I’d probably just send out a bunch of bookmarks that say, “Adjectives tend to be overused” and call it a day. As the above quotes indicate, however, some people adopt a more orthodox (which is to say jihadist) view. The tongue-in-cheek advice above stems from a general truism. When I edit a first draft, I cut at least half of my adverbs, often replacing them with a stronger verb. Counting the adverbs I auto-edit between the first glimmer of a thought and my fingers touching keys, it’s safe to say that I avoid adverbs most of the time. I have no doubt deleting every one of those adverbs makes my writing better. After all, that’s the point behind editing – to make one’s writing better.

 Here’s the problem: Even looking at every single adverb as a target for deletion, fully (hehe) intending to get rid of every one that does not make the writing better, I still leave about half of them in. I have no doubt that including every one of those adverbs makes my writing better.

At best, if I were to try to formulate a “Rule” with respect to adverbs, it would be this: We should look at each adverb to see if it’s necessary. About half the time it will be. Get rid of the other half. Sensible advice, right? It’s probably (hehe) true.

So, what’s the big deal? Let’s start with the reason the advice "avoid adverbs" is right half the time:

  1. “Show don’t tell.” Many writers, particularly novice writers, lean too heavily (hehe) on adverbs to convey emotion and emphasis that they should convey through stronger verbs or better dialogue. “She angrily hung up the phone” is no substitute for “She threw her phone against the wall.” The verb phrase “hung up” does not come close to showing the woman’s fury at the end of the conversation. 
  2. “Stronger verbs.” One of the easiest ways to see your writing improve by paying attention to adverbs is to look at sentences where the adverbs are masking the need for a stronger verb. “He quickly jumped from the carriage” says the same thing as “he sprang (or leaped, flew, vaulted, etc.,) from the carriage,” though not as well. Getting rid of those is like giving your draft a tune-up. 
  3. “Makes no difference.” This group includes at TON of the adverbs we can lose. It’s a little embarrassing, because they’re just sitting there, not really doing anything. If a bell is clanging, we don't need to know it's doing so noisily, and if a burglar is creeping across a rooftop it goes without saying she's doing so quietly. 

 Then why is there a problem? Like all zealotry, the problem comes from taking a good premise (we should use adverbs sparingly, making sure they strengthen, rather than weaken, our writing) and proclaiming a stupider, simpler form of that rule as irrevocable truth (“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”). That last quote came from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, often referred to as the Writer’s Bible. I’m on a bit of a jihad of my own against Messrs. Strunk & White, but that particular quote, and those from Elmore Leonard and Steven King, lay out the basic problem.

King and Leonard were somewhat tongue in cheek about their absolutist advice--first throwing out advice that looks quotable and can be put on T-shirts and faux motivational posters, then clarifying with more accurate advice that explains why there are a reasonable number of adverbs in their books. Unfortunately, people often read the T-shirts and internet memes, ignoring the fine print.

Strunk & White, on the other hand, were more than happy to proclaim absolutist rules like “do not use adverbs” and preach them as gospel. By the way, the following sentence in The Elements of Style uses two adverbs. The title of the first chapter of the book has an adverb in it. In fact, the second word in the book (in the first sentence of the foreword) is, you guessed it, an adverb. This gives me heartburn on a few levels.

  1. The bad advice makes the good advice impossible to follow. The mere fact that Strunk & White couldn’t go one sentence after pronouncing the prohibition against using adverbs without using an adverb shows where trying to follow their advice will get you. It’s impossible. So don’t sweat it. White certainly didn't -- a linguistics professor did a study of white’s work and found that it contained more than twice the number of adverbs as the average work of that time. A whopping thirteen percent of White’s words are adverbs. 
  2. The good advice, while less sexy, is extremely important. It is so important that I need an adverb to explain its degree of importance. OK, maybe I could have used “imperative,” but you get my point. Any part of speech that you get rid of 50% of the time (often by using stronger descriptions and verbs) is critical to our writing. 
  3. My personal favorite: They're awesome editing tools. On my first draft, I regularly throw an adverb I plan to get rid of later into a sentence I know will need fine tuning later just to keep the writing going without agonizing over the best way to show my burglar "silently creep." It's like writing "Note to Self: show this better" without leaving the text to write myself that note. 

I make every adverb in my writing beg for its life. I try to look at them with a presumption they should be axed. Even when I think I’ve done that, I use the search function to look for “ly” (because adverbs have a lovely habit of ending in “ly” a majority of the time) and look at each use again. As I mentioned, I end up getting rid of half or more of them. That strengthens my writing. The fact that I got rid of half also makes the remaining adverbs twice as powerful.

More than anything, I’ve made sure that any adverb that remains is the best tool for the job in that particular sentence. Not with religious purity, but with common sense.

One final note: If I were looking for an absolute prohibition, I might be able to find it in sentences where the adverb modifies a dialogue tag. If an adverb modifies a verb associated with dialogue (usually “said,” but including “yelled,” “asked,” “admitted,” “panted,” or anything else), there is almost certainly a better way to structure the sentence. When I see that in my writing (and it's not uncommon) I know I've done something wrong with either the dialogue or the actions accompanying it. Since I don't believe in absolute prohibitions against anything in writing, I almost hope someday to find the exception to that rule.

Michael McDonagh lives outside Boise, Idaho, with an assortment of barn cats, chickens, turkeys, and horses, as well as a cadre of stray dogs and daughters who melt his heart. A charter member of the Humor Writers of America, his personal motto is: I write dystopian fiction, but everybody else thinks it's contemporary fiction. That's what makes it satire.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Stop Explaining Your Story (And Start Showing It)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
At some point, nearly every writer struggles with show, don't tell. It's just one of those aspects of the craft that's integral to good writing and difficult to explain well. Which is funny, since explaining is part of the show, don't tell problem. The more you explain, the more told your story feels. 
Anytime you stop the story to explain why a character is doing what she’s doing, or how something came to be, you’re probably telling. People rarely halt their actions to think about the why—they just do it. This is why simply putting the information into an internal thought doesn’t work.
Not only does explaining risk telling, it frequently kills the tension of the scene because you’re not leaving anything for readers to figure out on their own. Rare is the person who will watch a sporting event after hearing the final score.
Writers frequently add explanations for fear their readers won’t understand why the characters are acting or what something means. But more times than not, if you have to explain it flat out, you haven’t laid enough groundwork for that reason to be clear. That’s an issue with the writing, not the told prose, so just "fixing" the told prose doesn't always fix the problem.
For example:
·      When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she slapped him.
·      Kim ran from the room because she didn’t want to see him with another woman.
These explain the situation and reasons behind the actions, but it wouldn’t take much to show enough details for readers to understand what’s happening and why. Let's add just a few details to show what we're explaining: 
·      Stop it. Stop it stop it stop it. She trembled, the words a mantra holding back her fury. “Enough!” she screamed, slapping him.
This allows readers to see the character's frustration build until she "couldn't take it anymore" and acted. They don't have to be told that's how she feels, they can figure that out by what she thinks, says, and does.
·      He stood by the fountain, smiling at the woman who’d replaced her in his life. Kim frowned and turned around. No way was she walking in there.
This shows Kim acting like a person struggling with seeing an ex with a new girlfriend, and letting readers figure out why. It also allows you to show Kim's emotional state and use that to connect with readers. The emotional impact of, " she didn’t want to see him with another woman" is much different than Kim's defiant refusal to look at the new couple. Readers can wonder what she's feeling and what will happen next.
Storytelling is all about dramatizing, while exposition is about explaining, which is why you typically find a lot of it in the beginning of a story. Exposition is necessary to tell a story, but it hangs out with some pretty unsavory characters—infodump and backstory. Unless handled carefully, they can be story killers.
The basic definition of exposition sums up the pitfalls nicely: writing or speech primarily intended to convey information or to explain.
That’s also a solid definition for told prose. In writing terms:
·      It’s when the science fiction protagonist gets into an anti-gravity car and the story stops to explain how it works and what it looks like.
·      It’s when the romance protagonist has a bad date and the story stops to explain why this guy was particularly rough on her due to her past.
·      It’s when the young-adult protagonist visits her dad at work and the story stops to explain how unhappy he is in his job and why this is upsetting her.
Notice the key phrase in all of those: the story stops. When the characters stop acting like themselves and your author-ness sneaks in to make sure readers understand some aspect of the scene, you’ve probably dipped into the telling type of exposition.
This is so easy to do (and so common) that Mike Myers even named a character after it in his Austin Powers movies: Basil Exposition, whose job is to come on screen and explain the relevant plot information in that scene. Need a summary of what the bad guy’s been up to? Just ask Basil and he’ll explain it all. While this is a clever way to spoof the clichΓ© in the movies, it doesn’t work the same for a novel.
In the worst cases, explaining the story can insult your readers' intelligence. It can look as though you don’t think they can “get it” unless you explain it, and that can be a little condescending. If you’ve ever had someone explain a joke to you, you know how annoying that is. Trust your readers to get it.
However, sometimes you do need to explain things to readers so they can understand and enjoy the story, and there’s no natural way to write it without spending pages dramatizing something you could just explain in a line or two. In these cases, there's no harm in a little telling. Just make sure it's the best thing to do for the story.
Knowing when to show versus tell can be a challenge, but if you look at what you're explaining, and think about what character actions and thoughts get that same idea across to your readers, you avoid a lot of unintentional telling.
Do you struggle with show, don't tell? Have you ever explained too much in your story?
Check out my new book, UnderstandingShow, Don't Tell (And Really Getting it), and learn what show, don't tell means, how to spot told prose in your writing, and why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work.

Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win. To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I'm going on a three-month blog tour--and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me. It's easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. At the end of each month, I'll randomly choose a winner. a Rafflecopter giveaway

Janice Hardy
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). She's also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.
*Excerpted from Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)