QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Art of Giving and Accepting Critiques

"Be kind and considerate with your criticism. It's just as hard to write a bad book as it is to write a good book." 

Writers' stories are essentially their children. Sometimes they are incredibly proud of their offspring, other times they find them cringeworthy, and yet, when someone else dares to point out their flaws, the author/parent feels compelled to leap to their defense.  It's hard not to take it personally when someone doesn't "get" your protagonist, or reacts with a "meh" to a scene you agonized over for hours. Giving and accepting critical opinions is a tool that should be in every writers' arsenal.

There is a point in your own writing career where you become more comfortable offering advice to people just starting their publishing journey. Maybe you've obtained an agent, or a publishing contract, or have found an indie niche. You realize that you do have answers to many newbie questions (never send attachments with a query- don't nudge after a week, etc.)  The writing community in general is supportive and kind. Writers understand the special pain of pouring your heart and soul into something only to have it ridiculed or dismissed. Yet, sometimes a writer who is just starting out is making some basic, rookie mistakes, or perhaps the writing is just... bad. It's easy to tap out an anonymous one-star review with snarky gifs. It's quite another to offer constructive comments with suggestions for improvement. So, if a writer asks for input, remember this:

Be Nice. You serve no purpose being snide, condescending or rude. And don't kid yourself that you're just a "straight shooter" who is "blunt, but fair" or whatever phrase people use to justify being a jerk. It's a tough enough business when writers get form rejections on full requests from unpaid interns and twitter hashtags exist only to ridicule unpublished writers. Don't contribute to an already demoralizing process by picking on the new kid.

Be Specific. Maybe the story in question is full of Mary Sues, assorted tropes, hackneyed dialogue or stereotypes. It's easy to just say, "This is a cliche-ridden story with boring characters and no plot."  But the writer can only improve if he understands the root problem.  Identify the plot hole, the character who needs fleshing out, or the well-worn plot device that holds back the story from reaching its full potential. If it can be identified, it can be fixed.

But be nice.

Find Something Positive to Say. Yes, even if it's just, "Hey, you wrote a book! Congratulations on that achievement." Often, an otherwise solid theme (jealousy, love, loss) is simply not well-executed. But acknowledge if the author has the bones of a good story, or if she used a particularly lovely phrase or had a piece of dialogue that made you laugh. 

Offer Advice on How to Improve. "Write it better" is not advice. Remember all those form rejections you got that said something like, "I just didn't fall in love with the story" or "Ultimately, I didn't engage with the characters"? Give the author something to work on. "If you're writing historical fiction, the characters shouldn't speak like 1980's valley girls." That's advice. And it's direct, but polite.

And on the flip side, you've asked for a critique and now you've got it. And it stings. A lot. What to do? Here's your checklist.

Put It Aside For At Least 24 Hours. Early on in my career, a mentor told me that whenever he was tempted to write a nasty letter, he'd write it, put it in the drawer overnight, and if he was still mad the next morning, he'd consider sending it. Alas, the advent of email and the instant gratification of typing whatever pops into your head makes this system a bit of a dinosaur.  Let the initial hurt subside a bit so you can look at the critique more objectively.

Don't Tell The Reviewer She Is Wrong. Don't bother arguing, complaining or justifying. You asked for feedback and you got it. Thank the person for their time and move on.

Be Nice.

Take Off Your Writer Hat and Put On Your Reader Hat. These characters are your babies. You know them. You know why you made them, and how they evolved as you wrote the story. But a reader has no skin in your game. He either likes the story, doesn't like it, or is a bit indifferent.  You don't love everything you read. It doesn't mean the writer didn't agonize over every single word.

Make a List of The Most Critical Comments. Assuming they are constructive (see above) ponder them carefully. Have you fallen into a writing cliche? There is a fine line between an archetype and a trope. You might not decide to gut and rewrite the whole manuscript, but you may find that you do need to make some changes.

Categorize The Problem Areas: Characters, Plot, Conflict and Writing. You can fix things like using crutch words or having overly flowery descriptions. You can tighten up plot holes or issues with world-building. You can round out flat characters. You can raise the stakes or make them clearer. But you can't write someone else's book, SO,

Go With Your Gut. This is your story. And, as we so often hear, this is a subjective business. You have one person's opinion. Do with it, or not, as you wish. We can all think of a bestseller that we hated. Am I wrong to think Pride and Prejudice is overrated? Maybe. But I stand by my opinion. And at the end of the day, it's your name on the cover so write the book you want.

But remember. Be Nice.

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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Revising When You Don't Want To

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an author's feelings toward her manuscript fluctuate in degrees that would give a roller coaster envy. And yet authors, for all their points in creativity, tend to have selective memory.

I'm neck deep in revision for my third novel right now, and revision is almost always my favorite part of writing. The words are down, and it's time to make them perfect. But recently I've wanted to do almost anything except work on it. I sat down last night with a journal, after distinctly spending all day doing Anything Else, to figure out what was wrong.

And, it turned out, I was in a stage of hating every word I've written, sure the story wasn't working, that it was stereotypical and flawed, and that I could never make it good enough. Then I reminded myself that I was revising, and revising a first draft, at that. The story didn't have to be good enough yet. Still, getting back to work was difficult, but I did it, working through two more scenes.

When you feel like the work you're doing isn't good enough, isn't there yet, isn't anywhere near as good as what so-and-so is writing, remember that writing is a process. No one claims to write good first drafts. An author I know (Cathy Lamb, who writes women's fiction) goes through fourteen revisions before her book makes it to press. And that isn't a typo. Fourteen times, and by the end, she's sure it is all drivel and won't sell and no one will like it. Which never ends up being true, of course.

What separates authors from people who think they'll write a novel one day isn't the first draft. It isn't the second draft and sometimes isn't even the third draft. What separates authors from those who don't make it is getting to the end of their rope and writing anyway. So if you're in a tough spot right now--written into a huge plot hole in the first draft, struggling through revisions like me, or having a tough time with querying (or submission, or wondering if people will like your ARCs), remember that feelings fluctuate, and what makes you an author is that you keep going anyway.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Book Hangovers: The Pain You Love to Hate ('cause It Feels So Damn Great)

Yep. That was a pretty confusing title. Mostly because it's paradoxical and logical and completely relatable in all its horrific ridiculosity.

Let's consider the term: book hangover.

Two nouns. One word is one of the most amazing words ever written. The other word represents a syndrome of withdrawal and physical ache and dejectedness that has nothing positive about it whatsoever.

Put them both together and you get blessed, wonderful, hair-pulling complexity. You hate it. But you want it. And you chase it down, again and again.

What's a book hangover? asks the person who's been living in a bubble in the middle of a no-signal book-free wasteland of Why Do I Even Continue to Exist Because Obviously I Haven't Learned to Truly Live Yet.

For those poor, unfortunate souls, I say this: a book hangover is the syndrome a reader experiences after having become completely immersed in a book's world only to be ripped mercilessly out of it by the words "The End".  Two crueler words have never been uttered. Look what happens when they show up.

Lovers break up long before one is finished loving. Knitters run out of yarn long before they are done knitting.  Toast butterers find themselves desperately scraping out the thinnest smears because half their bagel is still naked but it's no use. They will have to choke down that dry crust because the butter dish has cried "No more!"

And readers are forced to close a book and put it down because the author said The End. Now there are no more pages to read but those characters live in your head. The feels aren't done. You can't sleep because you still see those scenes played out, over and over. Work/school/everything is impossible because you can't stop thinking about that damned book.

Hydration and naps and Alka Seltzer can't fix a book hangover. But there is a cure.

Kind of.

Hair of the Dog That Bit You
Alcohol creates hangovers because as alcohol is broken down in the body, it gets converted into aldehydes. Unlike fun alcohol, aldehyde is a miserable old sod, which is why being drunk is a lot more fun that being hungover. It's just science.

But add a little water and those aldehydes undergo the miracle of transformation and get turned back into alcohol. Bye bye, misery! We got the fun stuff back!

Bloody Marys help, too, because you get hydration, electrolytes, and a liddle bit of something-something to ease off on the aldehyde attack. Plus, you get celery to crunch on, and celery is widely if mistakenly believed to be considered a health food.

So, what's the cure for a book hangover? Not water or terrible-sounding cocktails, obviously, but there's definitely a need for some hair of the dog.

Pick up another book.

Yes, it leads to a viscous cycle that leads to memes and Instagram barrages and new merch at Hot Topic. But let's be honest. There are no subsequent underage fines, no nights in the tank, no drunk dials leading to awkward avoidances of eye contact later on. That should automatically make it a good thing.

Prevention isn't Key—It's Condemnation
Of course, you could avoid the whole book hangover thing by never reading anything ever again.

But, a word of caution. Nobody ever says Boy, oh boy, abstinence! Do you know why? Because book abstinence is an unthinkable exile, an unjust condemnation. Why would you even think about doing that to yourself?

You did nothing wrong. You innocently picked up a book so you could engage your mind in a pleasing way to pass time. It's not your fault the characters came to life and rose up from the pages. It's not your fault their stories were so complex and emotionally riveting that you not only identified, you lived through them. You cried. You laughed. You highlighted your favorite passages and made quote art on Pic Monkey and I am here to tell you that none of it's your fault.

It's the author's.

That author did this to you. She may not have put the book in front of you and turned each page while you helplessly consumed her passion and craft but she may as well have. She concocted that wonderful elixir of plot and personality and perfection. She dreamed up those characters who haunt your every thought like the sweet echo of a beloved ghost. She's responsible for the way you see that book now everywhere you look, every time you go online or walk into a bookstore.

She's the one who cast this sheen of her book over every aspect of your life, so that you tear up when you run into Walmart because you see strawberries in the cooler as soon as you go in. Strawberries. That character had strawberry-blonde hair and she died of diverticulitis because of a strawberry smoothie she shared with the boy she loved but could never have because he had to move to the opposite side of the world, like the exact opposite, as in drill straight down and there he'd be so you know he couldn't get any further from her so better diverticulitis than a broken heart. Next stop is an ugly cry in front of the packaged salad cooler. Oh my God, the feels

So, blame the author for your book hangover.

And then blame the next one because he is going to do the same damn thing to you because you will never, ever learn. You say "never again" but it's just a matter of time until you're standing in the bookstore, cracking open another heartache. Book hangovers are part of a vicious cycle of love-hate-miserable joy...and I hope there will never, ever be a cure for them.

Just as I hope there will be no end to the supply of authors who cause them.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer. 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, is a Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”.

Currently, Ash is getting ready to launch CHARM CITY, a book about exorcists and angels and addiction to magic. Here's hoping a new book hangover is headed your way.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Getting revenge on an agent who rejected you

Recently a rude writer blew up Twitter by posting a nasty takedown of a wicked, wicked agent who somehow failed to perceive his brilliance. Her crime: he paid to pitch to her at a conference and yet she wasn't interested in his manuscript.

He retaliated via a blog post in which he called her frumpy and "pear-shaped" and all sorts of insults of equal sagacity.

Don't do this. Ever. EVER.

Why? Because there are far, far better ways of getting revenge on an agent who failed to perceive your brilliance. I mean, seriously, guys, you're writers. How can a writer be this bad at exacting revenge? Use your imagination. Come up with a revenge that sparkles with brilliance. I've compiled a few suggestions.

Are you ready? Take notes.

1) Send a "revenge query." A revenge query is a query you send within an hour of getting any rejection that leaves you feeling bitter. You send the query to an entirely different agent at an entirely different agency. You in no way mention the rejection that caused your sending of the query. (In fact, you should never mention that you've been rejected by anyone at all; let every agent think you're querying him or her first. Why begin your potential business relationship with the taint of previous failures?)

In effect, you're querying on the rebound. This achieves a few important goals. First, by spending a bit of quality time on the main QueryTracker site, you will find there are plenty of fish in the sea, and you may even find an agent who's better than the agent who rejected you. (Wait, did I say may? No, you will. As my husband muttered the first time he heard Adele's Someone Like You, "No, I want to find someone better than you." But I digress.)

Secondly, you'll cool down a bit while you're spending time researching this much-better agent, and you'll cool down even more when you're assembling your query to match this better agent's submission guidelines. Use your angry energy to attach the one-page synopsis rather than the five-page synopsis.

Third, you'll be spreading your hopes out a bit among the agenting pool rather than focusing your intensity on just one. Once you know your query is working, you should always have about ten "live' queries floating about out there, or maybe as high as fifteen. (That's in addition to any submissions you have "live" with agents.)

2) Work on your next piece, something so brilliant that no one can possibly reject it. They think you're not marketable? Well, you can show them. You can go read other books in your genre and analyze them for their marketing appeal. You can work on improving your characterization or your story structure. You can work on building your platform too. You can network with other writers and maybe find an awesome set of critique partners.

As they say, "Living well is the best revenge." I strongly suggest writing well is just as good a revenge. Think about the day that agent sees your work again on the NYT bestseller list and recognizes you as the querier he or she spurned. Imagine yourself saying, "Yeah, actually, because you rejected me, I worked on those issues I had with dialogue, and now I'm a better writer. I guess I should thank you."

What this type of revenge accomplishes is that it forms you up as a better person. You know you have literary potential, and it burns to think the agent missed it. Well, develop that potential. After all, it's much easier to snag an agent with achievement than with potential.

3) Never contact that agent again. You want revenge? This is an awesome revenge. Go ahead and write a work of scathing brilliance, something that scintillates with imagination and the lushness of the human experience. And then, when you have that glittering masterpiece in your hands, don't share it with that agent. Query other agents instead.

The whole point of a snub is silence, so don't tell the rejecting agent that you've in turn rejected him or her. Let that agent figure it out for himself when other agents are having drinks and sharing knowing looks because they all have their hands on a splendid novel while he doesn't.


These are the tactics a professional uses to get revenge after rejection. Rather than directing that anger outward at the agent, it's far better to direct you energy inward toward your career. Because remember, the instant you decided to query, that's the instant you became a professional with the need to behave in a professional manner.

Professionals do not write venomous blog posts about agents who declined the opportunity to represent them. Professionals do not attack an agent's appearance as though that pertains in any way to her intelligence or work ethic. Professionals do not burn their bridges by thinking everyone with a computer wants to see them having a tantrum. A high-vocabulary tantrum is still a tantrum, and readers will associate your name with someone who acts like a two-year-old.

And agents. And editors. And you yourself, eventually, when you realize how you acted and feel ashamed of yourself.

Your goal is to become a better writer and bring your stories to as many as you can. That takes discipline. That takes focus.

And yeah, sometimes it takes getting rejected and dusting yourself off, figuring out what went wrong, and making corrections.

Your professional growth never, never, never, never, never, under any circumstances, involves telling off the other professional who rejected you.

Write well. Sell well. That's the best revenge.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Where to Find Ideas for Your Novel

I'm thrilled to launch my Better Fiction Blog Tour from right here at Query Tracker.

The following is part one of a series of guest posts by Janice Hardy, the founder of Fiction University, a website with "over 1,000 articles to help you take your writing to the next level!"

Where to Find Ideas for Your Novel 

Janice HardyBy Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Although ideas may come to us at any time, creating a novel idea on demand is often difficult. No one can truly tell you where to begin—they can only offer only suggestions on where to look for inspiration. I know what works for me, but if you're the type of writer who always starts with characters, giving you a plot point to brainstorm with will probably get you nowhere. If you build up from a premise, giving you ways to create cool characters might muddle your brain.

One thing is consistent though. No matter how you develop an idea, something triggers that first spark of inspiration.

Here are some common activities that can spark inspiration:

Do Some Research

Try reading newspapers, blogs, magazines, or web sites. Look at material that supports the type of novel simmering in your mind. If you think you might try writing science fiction, look at science magazines or science websites. Even gaming or comic sites could work.

Explore newspapers or news sites if you’re considering a mystery or police procedural. Unsolved crimes could also spark ideas, or even famous crimes with well-known criminals. What might have happened if a few key details had changed?

Totally stuck on what to write? Try the weird news sites, or humor sites that collect funny or odd posts from all over. When something piques your interest, keep exploring it until an idea forms in your mind, or you decide that’s not the way you want to go.

Do An Image Search

Look for photos of characters or places for inspiration. An unusual emotion on a portrait might make you wonder more about that person, or a beautiful or unique setting might feel like the perfect place to set a novel. Images can be powerful triggers since they can draw us in the same as a novel draws in a reader.
Even cartoons or memes can spark ideas. Create a file of images that appeal to you or bookmark them online. Mix and match characters and settings, emotions and moods, until an idea forms.

Play With Names

Naming a thing has power, and the perfect name can make a character blossom in your imagination. Search through baby name sites for names that inspire characters. Street signs can also be fun places to find names. Exit signs on highways often put two names together that could become a person or an interesting place.

People Watch

Find a seat and watch the world go by. Malls, stores, and parks are common areas where people of all types gather, and some of them might catch your eye. What about them is intriguing? Make up stories about them, or imagine how you might turn them into a character. While you don’t want to eavesdrop on private conversations, listening for dialogue or snippets of conversation can also spark ideas.

Play With Poetry

Poems can inspire ideas as well as emotions. Look for themes or imagery that you might want to explore, or even consider the type of character who might read or feel a connection to that poem. Think about what cultures or societies might be created if you used the poem or something within it as a foundation.

Listen to Music

Music can be powerful for a lot of writers, creating moods, inspiring imagery, or even creating a character. Pick a random song and imagine the type of character who would use it as her theme song, or pretend it was the first song a couple ever danced to.

Riff Off Favorite Books

You don’t want to copy someone else’s work (that’s plagiarism), but a favorite book—or even a book you disliked—can be used as a jumping off point to your own original idea. There might be something about that book you find compelling and want to explore in a different way, or maybe you would write that same idea from a new angle. You might even take your three favorite books or movies and pick one element from each to create your own plot.

For more inspiration, here's an exercise from Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure:

  1. Pick three news articles or blog posts that intrigue you. What about them do you find compelling?
  2. What location have you always wanted to visit? What secrets might it be hiding?
  3. Pick your top ten images. What about them do you find captivating? Why?
  4. What are your favorite names? Why? What happens when you turn those names into ones that would fit another genre, nationality, or ethic group? 
  5. What are your least favorite novels, TV shows, or movies. How would you write them differently? 
  6. What random conversations or person caught your eye recently? What about them was memorable? Why?

Next, list five combinations from these six questions you might want to explore further. Mix and match and put together the story types you enjoy with the topics that interest you. Use as many or as few as you’d like.

For example:

  • If you want to write a thriller, try picking a news article that sounds intriguing, then set it in the location that most appeals to you—such as a medical thriller about stem cell research set in Taiwan.
  • If you love heist capers, pick your favorite art piece and figure out how your character would steal it—such as an art thief tries to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. 
  • If you love stories about redemption, try choosing a news story about a truly despicable person and come up with a way for her to redeem herself—such as a woman who killed her children tries to make amends by saving a family in trouble. 

For those really stuck pick:

  • One genre or novel type that most interests you (For example, a fantasy)
  • One type of plot you most enjoy (For example, a heist)
  • One type of character you’re most drawn to (For example, a dark hero)
  • One theme that appears most often in the stories you enjoy (For example, a personal sacrifice)
  • One setting you’d most like to write in (For example, the Arctic)

Then put it all together:

A fantasy heist plot set in an arctic environment, with a dark hero who will have to make a personal sacrifice.

And brainstorm away! Keep mixing and matching until the right idea gets you so excited you can't help but dive right into planning it.

The struggle for ideas hits everyone at some point, at all stages of their career. If you're banging your head against the keyboard and feeling like a hopeless newbie, know that somewhere, some bestselling author is doing the same thing.

Where do you get your ideas?

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. One entry per blog, but you can enter on every stop on the tour. At the end of each month, I'll randomly choose a winner.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Looking for tips on writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.

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, and the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook.  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.