QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

When the "Show, Don't Tell" police come knocking

Every writer, at some point, has heard the phrase, "There is too much telling." Perhaps the critique came from a well-meaning critique partner, or even that rare agent who offered a personalized rejection. Unfortunately, that advice has become so common that it can be about as useless as the also-ubiquitous, "Passive voice is bad!" mantra.

So what exactly does it mean to show, not tell? And when is telling better than showing? Here are some tools I try to keep in mind when editing. To digress a moment, I don't recommend going through this process while you are churning out your first draft. It's called a crappy first draft for a reason.

When you see a long expanse of text with no dialogue, and no "short action" paragraphs to break up the action (like, "the cell door slammed shut"), ask yourself if the passage is lacking some description of a person's body language as well as other sensory elements, such as touch or smell that could convey the same information, or whether the same scene could be conveyed better with dialogue rather than description. If the passage if merely a character's backstory, does it read like an information dump or can you weave in some of the back story in later chapters if it doesn't have to be established up front?

By way of example, here is some "telling."

"Mary was very angry. Her husband was late for dinner again and despite several text messages and voice mails, he hadn't bothered to tell her if he was on his way home or not. To make matters worse, her teenage son had wolfed down a dinner she had carefully prepared from scratch. He had eaten quickly while standing up and then immediately dashed out, not even bothering to tell her where he was going. Mary wondered if she should just give up. She began googling divorce attorneys."

Here is how the same situation could be more "showy."

No new messages.
"Inconsiderate jerk," Mary muttered. She punched Joe's cell number with her thumb as she ladled the congealed remains of her signature lasagna into a plastic containers with the other hand. The remnants of fresh basil, oregano and garlic wafted through the air.

Straight to voice mail. Mary clicked End Call. She tossed her phone on the counter. The dog she hadn't wanted looked up at her hopefully with a leash in his mouth.

"Go walk yourself. I'm done being everyone's maid," she told him. "Jake, where are you going?

Her son barely looked up from his phone. He opened the side door. "Out."

"But you barely touched your din-"

The door slammed shut in his wake. Mary scraped the remaining food into the sink and put it down the disposal. She opened up her laptop, poured herself a glass of wine she'd been saving for a special occasion, and typed. A few minutes later, she clicked on Schedule a Free Consultation with one our Board Certified Divorce Attorneys.

In the first example, the writer is simply telling the reader what the reader needs to know about Mary. She feels unappreciated, put upon, and has simply had enough. The second example shows the reader things Mary does and says, and how she reacts to what other people do through action and dialogue. We don't need to be told how she feels because we can see it.

This is not to suggest that "telling" is always bad. Sometimes, telling is better than showing. Consider this "all tell" passage from Dress Her in Indigo by John D. MacDonald:

"T. Harlan Bowie had to be prybarred and torch-cut out of his squashed Buick, and there was so much blood the rescue people were in a big hurry. As it turned out, they would have done a lot better taking it slow and easy rather than turning him and twisting him and working him in muscular style out of the metal carapace. Nobody could prove anything afterward. The lacerations were superficial. But there was a fracture of the spine, and between the second and third lumbar vertebrae the unprotected cord had been pinched, ground, bruised, torn and all but severed. Nobody could ever say whether the accident had done it, or the rescue efforts."

You can't convince me that there is a better way to convey this information about poor Mr. Bowie than to just say it. There is no need to draw it out with "showing" techniques because the reader only needs to know Mr. Bowie's predicament in order to set the stage for actual plot, which doesn't really involve how he became physically disabled. Stephen King similarly introduces us to retired Detective Hodges in Mr. Mercedes by just telling us in straightforward, unembellished  fashion, about how he spends his days post retirement watching television and gaining weight.

So when to show and when to tell? That is often in the eye of the beholder. But say that Mary in our first example is a fleeting character in a slasher novel who gets killed off rather quickly at the beginning. Maybe a little "tell" works better because we don't really need to know the details of her lasagna and her kid. But if Mary is the main character in a chick lit novel, then yes, we need to be able to identify with the every day experiences of feeling overwhelmed and under taken for granted. In that case, the second example works better.

In your own writing, if you notice a lot of first-version Mary writing that goes on for pages and pages, this should be a red flag to ask yourself a few questions. Can I write this scene referencing facial expressions, glances, smells, or by use of dialogue?  Instead of  saying "Lady Macbeth was convinced blood was everywhere and on her hands and she couldn't get clean," show a character scrubbing an already immaculate surface until her knuckles bleed while someone pleads with her to stop.

The next step in editing is to identify  the filler words we all use  when we try to "show, don't tell."  My writing's  worst offenders are eye rolling and shrugging. But that topic has to wait until next month.

Happy show and tell until then.

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-

Friday, June 17, 2016

Hello! Again.

This is the second time I have made this introduction, but for those who have never heard of me (in other words, all of you except Patrick) I will do it again.  If you are so inclined, you can go all the way back to 2007 to view my first introduction.

My name is Jason Robinson, and I have been with Query Tracker in some form or another since its inception.  Pat and I have been through the pain of writing and mailing query letters.  Yes, actually putting letters in envelopes, sticking stamps to them, dropping them in a big blue box, and then waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting some more.  It was a trying time for us both, but pain accompanies every birth, and it was through this pain that Query Tracker was born.  No more would struggling authors have to keep handwritten lists of agents they had queried or run the risk of making themselves appear unprofessional by querying the same agent twice.  No more would they be stuck in query limbo, never knowing if their query had been rejected or if that full request had just been lost in the mail.  No!  We would create a tool to make this process less painful and less confusing.  We would give authors the resources they needed to first find literary agents and then target their queries to the right agents.  Ah, yes, we would bring new hope to the next Stephen King and JK Rowling.  Well, Patrick would.  I mostly just cheered him on.

It is important to note the motivation behind all this.  Patrick gets asked all the time, "How can you offer this for free?  What's in it for you?"  The answer is pretty simple.  We wanted to help people.  There were plenty of sites and services out there that were happy to take advantage of writers who didn't understand the industry, and in the beginning, we waded through all that muck and tried to figure it out on our own.  That wasn't fun.  We passed along what we had learned and at the same time tried to make querying just a little bit easier for those whose pain we understand very well.

So, I will be around here to present my musings, share my struggles, and offer advice.  I am excited to once again be a visible member of the QT team.  Lurking in the shadows was fun too, but that's a story for another post.

Keep rewriting,

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Plagarism and the Indie Author

Recently I read a disturbing article about an author who’d discovered that someone had plagiarized her book, causing such substantial physical and financial distress that she eventually pursued the offender in court.

Plagiarism is not a new concept (in fact, you can revisit Carolyn's article here) but it seems to be finding a new group of easy targets: self-published books on Amazon.

If a thief tries to steal a traditionally published book, you can bet that the legal team employed by the Big House will descend like bees on a honey-stealing bear.

But self-published authors don’t necessarily have that back-up plan. And Amazon is full of self-published books, ripe for the plucking.

This isn’t an article meant to deter writers from choosing self-publishing. Many writers seeking agent representation still opt to self-publish other work not deemed generally query-able: short stories, anthologies, or poetry books...

...and, yes, novels, usually those that failed to find their footing with agents or editors. Those books aren’t automatic failures—they are just projects that didn’t get picked up. That’s not necessarily a condemnation on quality. That's why many authors pursue publication for those novels on their own.

In fact, putting forth a great self-published book can be a stepping stone to finding a dream agent because it provides an opportunity to start building an audience. An established audience is a huge enticement for an agent.

So self-publishing, when done well, isn’t the kiss of death. But it does open up an author to the plague that is plagiarism.

The vast majority of self-published novels on Amazon is romance fiction. Needless to say, those books are often the most plagiarized. (That doesn’t mean that everyone else is safe, though.) The market for romance fiction is massively huge, making it easy for a copy-cat to find a niche and sell well without being discovered. And that’s the problem—those copies have to be detected, discovered, and decried in order for Amazon to take them down.

While Amazon will take down individual offending books, so far they do not have a policy in place that will take down an author’s entire list if any of their titles are plagiarized. It’s up to authors to protect themselves when putting their products out for sale.

Here are a few things an author can do to reduce the chance your work will be plagiarized.

  • Enable your Digital Rights Management (DRM). Kindle publishers should activate this safe guard , which limits the devices upon which the book can be viewed. By doing so, you limit the ability for a person to lift your book, drop it into a word processor, and use it as their own. (There is a downside to enabling DRM, as many readers like to read between multiple devices, so do your research before making the decision that is right for your situation.)

  • Register your work with the US Copyright office. It gives you legal protection and the ability to seek damages. It doesn’t keep your work from getting stolen, but it really helps deliver the payback by giving you a case in court. (I'll be discussing Copyright Registration in an upcoming post, so stay tuned.)

  • Use websites to find your lines online. There are a few sites that scan the internet for you, such as Copyscape and Plagiarism.org using the “check for plagiarism” button. What else can you do? Author Ally E. Machate recommends using Smart Google Search to be the watchdog. Simple enter in a few random lines from your text and, if a new page pops up with those words (or very similar), you get an alert.

  • Protect your blog! May authors use their blogs to provide fresh, enticing content to keep their readers on the hook between books. Post copyright notices on your web pages and disable the right click copy function to prevent easy lifting. Use Java code as discussed in this article or look at this Java-free method tutorial. The addition of such coding helps to deter a plagiarist from lifting your blog and copy-pasting it to their own document. You can also go so far as to register your blog with the US Copyright office.

  • Watermark your images on your blog and the pages of your review copies. Adding a transparent copyright notice catty-cornered across the pages of your PDF review copies will also make it harder for pirates to throw your book up on the torrentz.

Keep this very important thing in mind: there is no way to prevent your book from getting plagiarized. Deterrence and vigilance is key.  Authors must do all that they can to post copyright notices and to make it harder for work to be swiped. Monitor the internet periodically for evidence that someone is passing your work off as their own. Obtain copyright registration so that, if you find it, you can fight it and claim your damages.

Authors put in immeasurable amounts of time and effort into creating their work. The same should go into protecting it. It’s YOUR book. Do all you can to keep it that way.

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, June 7, 2016

Querying: What to Leave Out

I see over and over again templates and suggestions about what to include in a query. For instance, Carissa Taylor posted an excellent blog on pitch as story, including a template and links to other templates (all of which are helpful!). In addition to the pitch, a query can have comp titles and a biography (although whether they are necessary varies on the agent). There is plenty of information on what to include in a query.

But your novel is most likely between 50,000 and 100,000 words. That means a LOT will be left out. What exactly should that be?

As Taylor notes in her post, your novel probably has several moments that could be used as the final moment of decision, from the first plot point way up to the final climax. Which one you choose, Taylor says, should be a matter of which one is the most exciting. Another factor to consider is which one is easier to condense.

Novels are complicated creatures by design. Subplots should roll into the main plot for a satisfying conclusion, where something seemingly unrelated becomes the cornerstone, or the subplots and main plot echo each other in a thematically resonant way. By necessity, this can't all fit into your query.

So, what exactly do you leave out?

First, the logline. With few exceptions, if the first sentence of your query could be read in Movie Trailer Voice (you know the one), it can be deleted and it probably should be. Queries don't need to start with anything along the lines of, "For star-crossed lovers Qui-gon Jinn and Jar Jar Binks, the only thing separating them is 17,000 light years and parents who hate each other." or "Love. Loss. Growing up. In this epic tale of forgiveness and bittersweet romance..."

Instead, start with the characters themselves. Let the words of the plot and characters tell us about your theme instead of spelling it out.

Second, almost every single subplot. A general rule of thumb is not to name more than three characters in a query: the protagonist, the antagonist, and a sidekick or romantic interest. I fought this tooth and nail with the second book I queried. I was certain I needed the three above AND two more characters. I cut it down to three named and one mentioned but unnamed, and while I wasn't happy about it, I know my query was better for it.

Even when I receive the go-ahead on my queries from my critique partners, I usually find them woefully inadequate. But when I read queries for stories I haven't read yet, the effective ones get me excited to read the rest, and pleasantly surprised when the story turns out to be even more complicated and interesting than I had thought based on the query alone.

Instead, focus on a through-line that makes sense. Don't get distracted by details that don't relate to the main plotline. Additionally, keep in mind the third point.

The third thing you can leave out is the whole truth. I hate to be the one who breaks this to you, but queries sometimes lie. When you leave out subplots and characters, the way that something actually happens likely isn't exactly the way you're going to describe it. There is a fine line between including every detail of an intricate plot and only saying "One thing leads to another," but it's okay if that line doesn't say something exactly. If it's a minor character who shows your protagonist the key to solving her dilemma, you aren't going to introduce the minor character for just that moment.

Instead, use passive voice. I know. I'm crazy. But when it comes to simplifying things without being too vague, it can work. Instead of "The protagonist gives up and sits down for a meal at her favorite diner. To her surprise, the waitress mentions a hidden trail near the top of Mt. Hood that is just the clue the protagonist needed to set out toward the third act." Write, "When the location of the hidden trail is revealed, it's the final clue she needs. But at the top is a fork in the road and she must choose: go up and chance running into Bigfoot, or go around and risk the landslides that have been plaguing the mountain." This gets us to the important part--the choice she has to make--without bogging us down in too many details (Although the rough draft example I provided probably still has too many details.)

Finally, irrelevant biographical information. Unless an agent specifically asks for it, your biography can be nonexistent.

Instead, any information in your biography should be directly relevant to writing and/or the subject of your book. If you have an MFA or are working toward one, say so. No need to mention your five pet dogs or the amount of time you spend on Tumblr. However, if your character is a web designer and you spent ten years in the business, that's something relevant you can include.

What things are you tempted to include in your query that would be best left unsaid?