QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Cooling Off Period: Handling Criticism Effectively

Photo from Dodog
My dad had a favorite saying that I'm sure most parents have in their arsenal: "Think before you speak or act." I say the same thing to my own children. I also say it to myself--every single time I receive a critique or editorial letter.

Writing is personal, but if you are pursuing publication, it's important to realize it is also a profession. Sometimes, pushing aside feelings is essential in order to succeed.

You've labored on a project that obviously is dear to your heart or you wouldn't have invested the time and effort to write it. Then, you turn it over to someone who doesn't hold it dear. Sometimes they don't even like it--heck, sometimes they hate it. The thing I always keep in mind is that just because someone doesn't like what I have written, it doesn't mean they don't like me. It's totally separate. Maintaining this separation is difficult sometimes.

Here's my strategy for handling critique:

1. Read the critique notes (or editorial letter) carefully without responding at first. Send a brief thank you note to let them know you received their suggestions. Nothing specific. Same with oral critique in a live critique group. Listen. Really listen. Say nothing. When you've heard them out, thank them for their suggestions. If you are unclear on a point they made, ask questions without any explanations or defensiveness.

Do not explain why they didn't like it or "get" it. If they were confused, perhaps it is a valid point. As a writer, I know exactly what I mean. If the reader doesn't get it, it is probably my fault.

2.  Give the information time to cure and your emotions time to cool down. This is the most important part. When I receive revision suggestions from my critique partners, agent, or editors, I read them several times and then set them aside for 24-72 hours before I respond or begin revising. (Of course, I send an immediate "Got it. Thanks!" but nothing else.)

This curing time enables me to recover from my initial reaction, which is always more dramatic than necessary. After one to three days, I've had time to process the suggestions logically, rather than react emotionally.

My editor for Shattered Souls sends hard copy editorial letters. She once told me that she has a client who puts the letter in the freezer after reading it so that it isn't sitting out. After a few days, she pulls it out of the freezer and is ready to go. Both letter and author have had a "cool down" period (the letter, literally).

I don't have to lock my revision letters out of view, but I do keep myself from responding or making changes right away.

3.  Consider the source.  Enough said, probably, but I'll elaborate. Who gave you the critique? Is this the first time you have received suggestions from this person? What is his or her professional writing status: new writer, established writer, published author, published author in your genre, agent, editor?  The way you handle your response should be the same, regardless (calm, genuine gratitude), but the weight you give to the suggestions will be different.

4.  Decide what fits your vision for the project and what is necessary to meet your professional goals. You don't have to make every change, even for your publisher, but your decisions should be logic-based and not emotion-based. Once again, as a writer, it's hard to step back and be objective about our "babies." I've made quite a few changes at my editor's request that I didn't object to, but didn't wholeheartedly buy into either.  After making the changes, I realized how brilliant the suggestions were, so for me, there is a bit of a cool off even after the changes are made.

5.  After cooling down and making the changes that resonate with you, send another genuine thank you. You don't need to explain why you didn't make all of the changes (Unless it is your agent or editor, then sometimes it's necessary).  You don't need to discuss the changes in-depth. I try to thank critique partners and beta readers for specific suggestions I found most helpful. Personalizing it makes the person who took the time to read and remark on my project feel the time spent on me wasn't misplaced or unappreciated.

I'm sure there are folks who can jump right in without a negative reaction to criticism, but most writers aren't like that. Those words in that manuscript came from deep inside and are personal. So, give yourself a cool down period. Rushing into revisions or reacting immediately when you feel defensive will not only make your revisions less effective, it will potentially alienate you from the very people trying to help you become a better writer.

Do you have any tricks or tips for keeping it cool? Share them in the comments. 

Wishing everyone a fabulous week.


Mary Lindsey (Marissa Clarke) is a RITA® nominated, bestselling author of novels for adults and teens. She lives on an island in the middle of a river. Seriously, she does. When not writing, she wrangles her rowdy pack of three teens, husband, and a Cairn Terrier named Annabel, who rules the house (and Mary's heart) with an iron paw. She's a founding member of the QueryTracker Blog and is represented by Kevan Lyon of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

For more info on her books or to connect on social media:
Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest | Teen Website | Adult Website

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Don't play it again, Sam!

"Authors who love their books too much" isn't a topic you're going to see on a talk show, but I think we need to visit it.

You love your book. I love my books too. That's good and healthy because you and your story are going to spend in excess of a hundred hours together just writing the thing, and then you have to account for revisions, edits, discussion, and the sheer time you spend thinking about it while you're washing the dishes or driving the car. Some people in romantic relationships don't even spend that much time together.

And then you factor in the time spent querying plus the time spent angsting over the queries you just sent and the time writing the dreaded synopsis: it's a lot. At the end, it would be great if we all ended up with a published book, but sometimes that doesn't happen. You do everything as you ought, and the book goes nowhere. Either you don't clinch an agent or the agent doesn't broker a book deal. You and your book are left together, looking at one another. What's to be done?

Maybe you've learned a bit by this point, and you see where your story could be punched up a bit. Maybe your main character could be more active or your sentences shorter. Maybe all that backstory can go, and maybe the ending screams of deus-ex-machina and could have been better wrought. Maybe you rewrite.

Maybe the rewrite also goes nowhere.

And now you're tempted to rewrite a second time. Or a third time.

Allow me to step in please: don't do it.

It's okay to love your story. It's okay to lavish time on it to the extent that your family gets worried and your friends are sure you've lost your mind. To some extent that's normal and healthy for writers. What's not normal and healthy is to keep rewriting the same novel for twenty years. Or in some cases, the same two or three novels, cycling through the same rewriting/resubmitting process for decades. And in the most heartbreaking cases, writers have taken the work off submission, self-published, and then unpublished it and gone back on submission with the piece touched up and dusted off just a bit.

The hallmark of this kind of wheel-spinning is that the writer most often doesn't even have solid feedback on which to rewrite. S/he is just rewriting and revising every few years and hoping for better results.

I understand the urge. You worked hard and want it to succeed. But I've seen writers in some of my writing groups stuck in the same story for decades, hungering to bring them to the world and unsure why they're not getting anywhere no matter how often they work on the story again. It breaks my heart, so let's look at three reasons to move on.

1) After you've queried the thing twice, everyone has seen it, and now they're going to remember it. The first re-query might have been viewed with a charitable eye if you explained your extensive revisions. A second one won't be.

2) Agents and editors want a writer who can craft more than one story. A career isn't built on one excellent novel (To Kill A Mockingbird being the exception that proves the rule.)

3) You've probably outgrown that first novel, or even your first and second novels. Many times, there's a factor in your early work that renders the work unsellable and is simultaneously a factor you refuse to let go.

Let me expand on #3 for a moment. As a new writer, you knew what you liked to read, and you set out to create something just like it. But without the skills to do so, you cobbled together the story as best you could. Many times, that story is going to have some kind of major flaw that keeps it from fully inhabiting the world it could have. You set out the foundation of the story, but the foundation itself was limited.

Years later, maybe you have the skill to build mansions, but you can't build a mansion on the same foundation as a tool shed. Sometimes you've got to jettison that first story just to escape the boundaries you set for yourself.

Maybe you've developed the ability to write incredibly nuanced characters, but if the main character's motive is nothing more than simple revenge, the story may feel flat.

Maybe you can craft intricate and elegant sentences, but overlaying them one at a time is going to give your work a choppy feeling.

These are the reasons I've heard for continuing to rewrite/requery a novel seven or eight times:

1) I've put so much work into it already.

2) I know so much more than I did the first time around.

3) I'm afraid I'll never come up with anything this good ever again.

Do you hear one of your critique partners in this? Do you hear yourself? If so, be honest: have you outgrown your story like a little kid whose ankles and a good deal of his calves are sticking out beneath the bottom of his jeans? And isn't it really fear holding you back like an anchor, whereas if you cut the chain you could really fly and really see what you're made of?

Are you afraid that if you try again, you'll fail again, and it's just more comfortable to fail with what you already have in your hands than to maybe succeed with something entirely new?

Let me encourage you: set it aside. Lay out a new foundation, new characters, new motives. Bring your new skills to bear. Move forward. Love that old manuscript, but love it fondly the way you still feel kind of giddy about your first crush (even though you never so much as made eye contact).

You're not giving up on your old story by moving ahead. Rather, by moving ahead, you're not giving up on yourself.

Believe you have more than one or two stories in you. Explore and fall in love again with a new set of characters. It's never a failure as long as you've learned

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Making Your Characters Round

For a reader to invest upwards of 80,000 words or more into a character, there must be something worth following. Flat characters spell doom for a book. Even if your novel is a plot-driven mystery, the characters should be as developed as possible. Every character should have a backstory that gives nuance to her actions, or reasons for her choices. Supporting characters deserve the benefit of a personal history too, and for a writer just beginning the process of writing a manuscript, a set of character details can enhance the story even if the reader never necessarily finds out every tidbit that you used to build the character.

It's easy and often tempting to start with plot points, beats within a scene, or crafting dialogue and then dive into writing with a few sketchy character details (he's an innocent man unjustly accused running from the police, etc.) . But the characters' experiences shape their decisions, which translate into conflict. Their personal history affects how they speak, or whether they speak at all in any given situation. Here are some ideas on making your characters more round.

Start with some of the things a person may answer on a dating profile, or in a job interview, or even if they were writing an autobiography. Everyone had parents, foster parents, a father/mother figure, a teacher who influenced him. Who were they? Did they shape the character for better or for worse? Where did your character go to school? Or did she drop out? This affects self esteem and socio economic status, which drives the characters' choices, which in turn, will feed into the novel's conflict. And your book needs conflict. Lot of it.

What's your character's ethnic, racial and religious background? It's a great big world out there and your book should reflect it. What are their spiritual and political beliefs? Not having either is fine because that can also explain how people behave, how they react to the world, and how they treat others. It's easy to have a cookie cutter "stern librarian," or the familiar beleaguered police sergeant who keeps saying he's "too old for this," but dig deeper: Did the librarian have a childhood dream to become an actress that was squashed by an abusive parent? Does the sergeant have a sick spouse at home and is only on the job to keep his insurance benefits? Just picking a character's name, gender and occupation isn't enough. You should know why they have the job they have, who they love and who they lost, and how they view themselves in the world. Do they drink scotch or beer?

Does your character have a secret? Even if the "secret" is as benign as a corporate executive being a Star Trek cosplay nerd, this gives him depth and makes him realistic, and ultimately more interesting. If she has a body buried in the backyard, bonus!

What is your character's dream/goal? If he has an unfulfilled dream, and is stuck in a job he hates, that again gives him curves and edges. It's easy enough to describe a rather overweight person eating fast food.  But if you have that character looking at the food in disgust even as he eats it, alone, in his car in the parking lot of McDonalds, your reader knows this is a lonely, sad person who uses food for comfort. You, as the author, already know that his adult kids hate him, he hates his job, and he used to be a college athlete who has let himself go. You don't necessarily put all that into the narrative, but just knowing that will help you craft a few sentences that give him some texture, and that makes him come alive for the reader.

Some enterprising authors make a spread sheet with all of the characters that lists all their relevant information. You don't have to necessarily go that far, but remember that the plot still has to be carried by people, and the reader must want to read about these people dealing with that plot. Rounding out your characters will make the reader stick with your story because you've created people worth caring about.

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, September 6, 2016

Is Your Story Structure Working?

I love story structure. It's my go-to tool for planning a novel, and the first thing I look at when it's time to revise that novel. As long as everything is in the right place, I can focus on the story and characters and trust my plot is holding all the pieces together.
What makes story structure so valuable, is that it provides solid, proven turning points that can help you decide what events need to happen when to get the most out of your story. It also helps you find holes in the plot, and places where the stakes might need to be raised, allowing you to find potential problems before you stumble across them.
As valuable as structure is in the writing process, it's critical in the revision process. Your structure is your guide to tightening weak areas, adjusting your pacing, strengthening your goals--the entire foundation on your novel is built on its structure. A weak structure creates a weak novel (and nobody wants that). Analyzing these points helps you craft a stronger novel.
A note about story structure: As you go through these questions, keep in mind that the terms used are meant in a general, conceptual way. For example, the “final battle” doesn’t have to be an actual battle, or even a fight, it’s the final moment when the two conflicting sides (protagonist vs. antagonist) resolve the conflict.
Look at your story and ask:
Are all the pieces in the right places? Key turning points in the plot keep the story moving forward. Put the right piece in the wrong turning point, and the novel can drag, or feel rushed if things happen too early.
Does the opening scene present an intriguing problem or mystery to draw readers in? The goal of the opening scene is to pique readers’ interest and make them want to read on. Is there something interesting happening on page one that makes someone want to read page two?
Is there an inciting event within the first 30 pages (or 50 pages for longer manuscripts) that puts the protagonist on the path to the rest of the novel? In every story there’s a moment early on that changes the protagonist’s life forever by putting her on the plot path—if it hadn’t happened, the plot wouldn’t unfold as it does and the story wouldn’t have happened.
Is there a moment in the beginning where the protagonist makes the choice to pursue the story problem? Near the end of the beginning (around the 25% mark in a traditional Three Act Structure), the protagonist has the option of saying “no” and not pursuing the core conflict goal, but makes a choice to move ahead with the plot and venture into the unknown.
Do the stakes escalate at this time? Good story structure provides opportunities for the stakes to escalate at major turning points of the plot.
Does something happen in the middle of the book that changes how the story problem is viewed or approached? The middle of the book often shifts things for the protagonist and plans start to fall apart—whether she realizes it or not. Or things might be revealed which change how the entire story thus far has been viewed or understood.
Are the stakes raised again around this time? Stakes typically become more personal and the risks get higher at the midpoint, and the protagonist is now more invested in resolving the problem.
Is there a dark moment or set back just before the ending starts that raises the stakes again? As things get harder and tougher for the protagonist, it becomes uncertain if she can win. Shortly before the ending (around the 75% mark in the Three Act Structure) everything is (or has been) stripped away, and the protagonist loses all hope and doesn’t see a way out of the problem.
Are the stakes raised yet again? Often, this is when the highest, most personal stakes come into play—an all or nothing, do or die consequence.
Does the protagonist make the decision to continue the fight despite the risks or sacrifices? This is a critical moment that triggers the climax, sending the protagonist to face off against the antagonist to resolve the novel’s core conflict.
Is there a clear win for the protagonist at the climax? Something that must be done in order to succeed? The final battle uses everything the protagonist has learned so far, and what must be done to win is clear (though how is often still a mystery).
Does the ending resolve itself in a way that satisfies the story questions posed in the beginning of the novel? Not every loose end needs to be tied up, but the core conflict and the major plot threads should be answered to reader satisfaction.
Is the ending satisfying? A satisfying ending frequently equates to a great novel, since it’s the last thing readers see. It’s the ending readers have been waiting for, and gives them what they wanted (though not always in the way they expect).
Story structure is not a template, so don't feel you have to follow every step exactly. Turning points can shift or change to suit the novel it's supporting. Use it as a guide to a stronger story and a reminder of the storytelling moment most novels use.
What story structure do you prefer?

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.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my new book Revising Your Novel: First Draftto Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released PlanningYour Novel Workbook

Janice HardyJanice 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 upcoming 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 Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft

Sunday, September 4, 2016

QueryTracker Migration

We did a little house keeping this weekend and moved QueryTracker to a new server. Unfortunately, there may be some residual effects that are keeping some people from seeing the new site properly.

The number one culprit is that your browser is trying to show an older, cached version of the site and getting things confused.

The easiest fix for this is to reboot your computer.

If that doesn't work you may need to delete your browser's cache. Here are some instructions for clearing your cache.

Thank you for your patience and sorry about the inconvenience.

If you continue to have trouble, please post below with a description of the problem.