Monday, March 29, 2010

The Do's and Don't's of Connecting with a Writing Mentor

I have a soft spot in my heart (some would say in my head, as well) for new writers. Anyone who wants to chart a path in a career that by definition includes more rejection than acceptance deserves both my sympathy and my support.

[Publishing industry joke:

Q: How does a book get into print?

A: Someone forgets to say "no."]

Though I hardly think I've "made it" -- primarily because my mantel is entirely devoid of a single Oscar statuette and the Pulitzer people never call -- I'm happy to be of assistance to those who want my humble help.

I believe it is important for writers to find their place in a community of like-minded people. Ideally, members of that community should be at varying levels of career accomplishment.

• Some should be your peers – people with whom you share a common bond of reaching for a common goal.

• Some should be promising writers whom you can assist with advice and encouragement. We teach what we need to learn and I subscribe to the belief that we should help others avoid making our mistakes.

• And some should be patrons who are in a position to help and encourage you. This not only ensures the ongoing realization that one person will never know it all, but it also paves the path we take with pearls of gratitude and makes us more willing to mentor others when the opportunity arises.

When I conduct writing workshops, I am often surprised at the number of people who either a.) mob me and expect me to be their single shining source to All Things Published or b.) are terrified to voice a single question.

People in the “a” camp are delusional. I’m not an agent or publisher. I’m not going to take their manuscript, edit it on the spot, sell their magnum opus, or publish their book. And though I make a special effort to be approachable and available, I really don’t appreciate it when the “a people” follow me to the bathroom… Boundaries, people. Boundaries.

People in the “b” camp, however, do themselves and their writing a disservice. I realize that talking to people you don’t know can be scary, but putting yourself out there is part and parcel of the writer’s world. You might as well start by asking your question and getting an answer.

If you find a mentor – someone who is willing to offer advice and suggest ways to improve your craft, there are some do’s and don’t’s of making the most of their goodwill.

To illustrate the “DO’s,” I present an exhibit from this morning’s in-box (an update from a writer I've been offering advice to for the past several months):

Flattery Works

"I love following your Facebook fanpage. You always have the most informative links. Thanks.

Color me pleasantly pleased right off the bat. There’s no need to grovel or shovel heaps of unnecessary accolades, but a few words that lets your mentor know you are invested in what he or she is doing makes that person willing to spend a few more moments to listen to what you have to say.

It’s OK to Brag a Bit
Today I had my first "assignment" from the [local paper] printed. I did the local story on wedding receptions for the bridal pull-out. It was a big comprehensive project, and I loved the challenge. I have been steadily writing, mostly for [redacted]. What is nice is that I write one article and sell it to other markets which increases my pay. I have completed the rough draft of my YA novel and am in the editing stages.

Bragging is especially relevant if your mentor has helped you break into a market or has given you specific advice that has furthered your writing career.

Make Them Feel Useful
I am excited to attend my first SCBWI conference in Lansing in May. I hope to … find out as much as I can about the [agents and editors that will be there] first, as you suggested. Anyway, just giving an update. Maybe you're tired of them, but I really do count you as a huge influence on this new venture in my life. Thanks again.

Tell your mentors that you’re listening to what they advised and explain how it’s working out for you. Don’t go overboard, but we all appreciate validation.

Keep it Short
Whether you drop a line of appreciation or a request for information, brevity is always appreciated. This particular writer e-mails me only on occasion. Sometimes she has a word of thanks for something I suggested that panned out. Sometimes she asks a question about the industry. She never wears out her welcome, however, and her messages are always brief -- so I always enjoy hearing from her.

When you find a mentor who is willing to work with you (or who is at least willing to open your e-mails or take your phone calls), be sure to avoid these “DON’T’s”:

Don’t Get Greedy. Don’t expect the person giving you advice to personally recommend you to her agent, to set you up with his manager, to read, comment on, and edit your manuscript, to write back immediately, or to invite you over for a pajama party.

Don’t Pimp Your Mentor. Guard your mentor’s contact information as if your life depended upon it. Always ask permission before passing it on to other people.

Don’t Send Spam. Inundating someone’s in-box with what can only politely be termed “crap” is a sure way to lose any goodwill you may have gained in your initial contact.

Don’t Whine. Working in any creative field is difficult. I guarantee that for every bad experience you have, your mentor has at least 10 that can top it. Whine to your cat, your dog, your spouse, or your Imaginary Friend. But when it comes to your mentor: don’t.

• Oh yeah – one more thing: Don’t Follow Her to the Bathroom. Really. Let her pee in peace. I’m not kidding.

Do you have any mentors who have helped you in your writing endeavors? Comment below and publicly thank them. What is the best thing that someone ever did that made a difference in your dreams? I'd love to hear about it.

Friday, March 26, 2010

After the Edit: Using "Gallbladder" Text

When I was in college, I had a friend who developed gallbladder problems after giving birth to her first child. She had the offending organ removed and then, because one doesn’t lose body parts every day, brought it home with her in a little jar.

It served as a conversation piece for quite some time. “What is that? A mummified kiwi?” We used to ask her what she’d do if she had a hysterectomy. And I don’t want to think about how she’d have handled our family’s bout with brain surgery…

Some writers approach cutting text with the same attitude. They can’t bring themselves to permanently get rid of anything they have created. Often, this results in interesting snippets and oddities cluttering up their desktop because, though the information didn’t belong in one project, it was just too good to erase.

Now that NaNoEdMo is drawing to a close, it is quite possible that there are other writers like me who have a file folder full of “gallbladder text.” If so, here’s a kick in the butt to put it to use.

Some suggestions:

• Develop article ideas that utilize some of your longer items. You may find you simply need to add a few current nuggets of information to create salable article-length pieces.

• Compile short sidebars and blog posts of interesting factoids, trivia, or insights. Sell them to markets you have already developed OR use them to establish ties with new online venues. They can help garner new readers and fans and increase awareness of your Big Project.

• Stretch your craft. Try something new with the cut bits: develop a short story or try some flash fiction. Use the bite-sized edits to improve your hook, structure, or introduction of plot points.

• Use especially wordy, pithy, or convoluted "just bad writing" text to give a distinctive voice to a character. Often, it can be useful to help establish a speech pattern that is quite unlike your own.

Getting paid for (or, at the very least, using) words you have already wrestled onto the page always a good thing. It certainly beats printing them, pickling them, and preserving them in a jar for posterity.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Imagine Reading Your Rival's Work

a Shameless Secret for Reveling in Self-Editing

In my humble experience, nothing frees me from the bondage of being in love with my own prose as much as imagining that Someone Else wrote it and has brought it to me, begging for my expert advice. It's amazing how quickly the story holes, plot flaws, and character weaknesses present themselves...

When the fun of writing ends, the reality of editing begins. Editing is where the rubber of the creative muse meets the asphalt of craft.

Every writer knows that editing one's own words can be brutal. It can cause heart palpitations, migraines, divorces, and weight gain. Many writers have a deep and abiding love for every ember that has issued from their creative depths. They approach an edit looking for a reason to retain every single word.

On the other hand, editing the words of someone else (read: A Lesser Writer) can be a rewarding experience that unleashes all the pent-up snarkiness and sarcasm of one's Inner Curmudgeon.

So -- why not make that work in your favor?

The next time an edit rears its ugly head at you, read your words as if you were reading your rival's work.

"I don't have a rival," you might say.

Of course you do. Every time you read a query that caused an agent to sign a new writer and think "I don't see what's so great about that," every time you read an award-winning short story and nit-pick it to shreds, every time you make snide comments about a bestselling author's work, you are naming your rivals. Of course, rivalry can be friendly. But even more importantly -- rivalry is tough.

Pretend your writing rival wrote the draft of the manuscript sitting before you. Narrow your eyes. Pull out that red pen. And indulge in a gleeful edit to your heart's content.

Reading Your Rival's Work is Step 1 of A Three Step Process of Self-Editing, my article that Missy Frye featured in the Incurable Disease of Writing today. Thanks, Missy!

That's how I begin to tackle a self-edit. What's your favorite tactic?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Publisher's Perspective on Professionalism and Promotion

or, Q & A with Managing Editor Martha Cook, Pt. III

(On Monday, in Part I, Ms. Cook discussed writer's platforms. Yesterday, in Part II, she explored the art of pitching.)

Our interview concludes with Ms. Cook's advice to writers about how to make the most of their careers.

Q: What should a first time author know about contract negotiation?

A: As a first time author, you’re unlikely to be in the driver’s seat. Don’t put yourself in the position of having a publisher think, “The book sounds interesting, but the author isn’t worth it.” You may have to give up some of the things you’ve read in books about negotiating your first book contract, but remember that publishers are taking a risk on first time authors--especially ones with no platform.

Publishers of color-illustrated books generally are investing $15,000 to $30,000 or more to get your book into print. We are not trying to take advantage of authors. Publishing is a business and the finances need to work. You may concede a little on your maiden book contract, but you won’t be a first-timer next time and if you did a good job and your book sold well, you will be rewarded in the future because publishers know you have a track record.

Also, remember that an advance is just that. An advance that sounds lower than you hoped for only means that you will get royalties sooner, if the book is successful. If you have written a good book and it sells well, the advance is really beside the point.

Q: How useful is a list of magazine credits to establishing an unpublished author's viability?

A: It helps. We like to see perspective authors who have had bylines appear in magazines. They may have earned name recognition among the magazine subscribers who are likely to be the audience for a book on the same subject. Furthermore, it’s useful to have magazine credentials to list in an author bio.

Q: What do you expect a writer to do in order to increase his or her book sales?

A: Nowadays, a serious writer should have an online presence that includes a website and blog or regularly posted content in some other online venue. Collect email addresses of anyone and everyone who is a likely buyer or promoter of your book. Promote yourself for speaking engagements, personal appearances, interviews, and related activities. In short: actively talk about and sell your book!

I had an author tell me point blank after her book was published that she found it too uncomfortable to take her book to judging and speaking engagements to sell. It made her feel too much like a self-promoter. Wrong answer to your publisher!

No one is a better salesperson for a book than the author. If you want your book to be a success and become a perennial backlist seller, don’t have the attitude that your job is done upon delivery to the publisher.

Constantly look for ways to generate awareness of your title and to increase sales. Not only will you move copies and improve your bottom line, but you will also make the publisher much more willing to contract you for another project!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Publisher's Perspective on Pitching Projects

A Q & A with Managing Editor Martha Cook, Pt. II

Managing Editor Martha Cook often works with unrepresented first-time authors who are experts in their field. She also evaluates the project proposals that Trafalgar Square Books receives.

Trafalgar Square is very proud of its many talented authors. Those who have joined the Trafalgar Square list over the years include: Jane Savoie, Linda Tellington-Jones, William Steinkraus, Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, Mary Wanless, Clinton Anderson, Charles de Kunffy, Conrad Schumacher, Sylvia Loch, Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling, Geoff Teall, Dr. James Warson, Betsy Steiner, Kyra Kyrklund, Alois Podhajsky, Paul Belasik, to name but a few.

In the first part of Ms. Cook's interview, she discussed the importance of a non-fiction author's platform. Here, she comments on how to get the publisher's attention with your pitch:

Q: How much should a writer know about a publisher before pitching a project?

A: I’m often taken aback by how some writers sending us submissions seem completely unfamiliar with us. At the very least, before you submit anything, visit the publisher’s website and familiarize yourself with the books published. Also, visit a bricks and mortar bookstore to look at the publisher’s books and take note of the design, photos, art, and price.

There is no excuse for a submitting writer to ask me if we put color photos in our books – yet this happens all the time. Questions like these only tell me that the writer didn’t bother to do the most basic research for the proposal. They certainly don’t encourage me to take a chance on offering the writer a contract.

A final note about pitching: You should know what books the publisher publishes that may be in direct competition with yours. Be ready to field a question like, “We have a book by XXXX on the same topic. How is your book different?”

Q: Do publishers generally look for projects similar to books they already publish? Or is it better to avoid pitching a project that is in direct competition with something already in a publisher’s list?

A: Again, be familiar with the publisher’s list. Be prepared to say, “I know you recently published XXXX, but my book is different because it approaches the topic from another perspective,” or “…because it explores the subject further.” I definitely notice during a phone call or in a submission letter if a writer is on the ball enough to be up to speed on what we’ve recently published.

One of the big slip-ups I see more than I should is a writer who makes a laundry list of competitive titles, noting all the things wrong with the books (many published by us!) and explaining why his or hers is better. The first thing that pops into my mind is, “This author didn’t do the homework.”

We are niche publishers so we don’t expect to receive proposals that are wildly different – they all have to have something to do with horses – but your chances of getting a further look are much improved if you have something unique to say, without disparaging the books to which we have already committed.

Q: What are the hallmarks of a “perfect” proposal?

A: A great proposal includes the following:

1.) A well-crafted introductory letter that demonstrates writing proficiency, shows a solid command of the subject, states why the topic proposed is a necessary addition to what’s already published on the subject, and offers a short overview of the writer’s experience and qualifications.

2.) A thorough outline that shows the writer has given careful thought to the book’s organization from start to finish.

3.) Two or three polished sample chapters. (Don’t say, “I’m sending you a couple of rough chapters.” Put your best writing forward! This is your chance to convince the publisher your work is worth publishing.)

4.) A bio or CV.

5.) A concise market view. List books you see as direct competition, state who you think is the customer for the book, mention connections you have that may help promote and sell the book and what you can do to aid in sales or promotion, include suggestions for outlets that will sell the book, etc. Nothing in this section needs to be explored in great detail, but it is essential to demonstrate that you have done some thinking about how the book will be sold.

These elements are the best way I know of for an unpublished author to get the attention of a publisher, and to convince a publisher to take a chance on him or her.

Q: What are some common mistakes you see writers make that ruin an otherwise interesting pitch?

A: Sloppy, shoddy work that doesn’t deliver as promised is an instant turn-off. As mentioned above, don’t send anything but your very best writing and well-organized, relevant, high-quality supporting materials.

Always inquire before you send an entire manuscript and never send original photos or art without first asking the publisher.

A couple personal peeves: Don’t start off by telling me you have a bestseller. Also, beware of telling me that your idea is so unique that it has no competition. If you say nothing like it has ever before been published, you’d better be sure because from my position, I probably know if it’s true or not.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Publisher's Perspective on Platforms

a Q & A with Managing Editor Martha Cook, Pt. I

I'd like to say a special word of thanks to Martha Cook for her frank and enlightening discussion on what helps authors distinguish themselves and what recommends a new author’s project to a publisher.

Martha Cook is the managing editor of Trafalgar Square Books and Horse and Rider Books. She is the liaison between the publishing company and the authors the company publishes. She works directly with authors on each book project from development through production and distribution.

Ms. Cook often works with unrepresented first-time authors who are experts in their field. She also evaluates the project proposals that Trafalgar Square Books receives. She generously gave of her time to answer some questions that new non-fiction writers have and to share an editor’s perspective on how a writer can attract a publisher’s attention.

Her comments regarding an author's platform are essential for all aspiring non-fiction writers to comprehend.

Q: I keep hearing about a “platform.” How important is having one? What do you look for in a platform when considering an author’s book proposal?

A: A platform – a significant, credible, sphere of influence – significantly improves an author’s chances of getting our attention! If we have a choice between two projects similar in subject and the writers have equal qualifications, we are always going to go with the author who has worked to gain recognition among people who are the audience for his or her book.

Authors who present at expositions, write articles for magazines, participate in online forums or have joined associations or groups that build their reputations make the publisher’s job of promoting and selling a book much easier and generally more profitable.

Q: I don't have a platform. I'm not a celebrity--but I can write. Is there any hope for me to get my books published?

A: I can only answer this question from the perspective of a non-fiction publisher of specialty instructional books. There is hope for you to get published if you write really well and IF you are very well versed in the subject about which you wish to write.

As specialty horse book publishers, we will only consider an author who obviously knows his or her subject very thoroughly. Furthermore, in this day and age, the writer needs to be willing to work to create a platform to help promote and market both the book and him- or herself.

While we may contract a well-known horse training star who cannot write (we will find a proven author to ghost the writing), in order to get our attention, an unknown or lesser-known author must be a good writer who shows an excellent command of the subject matter and who is willing to put effort into self-promotion both during and after the writing of the book.

Tune in tomorrow for Ms. Cook's comments on Pitching and Proposals...

Monday, March 08, 2010

Awards Season

or, Thoughts on Having "One Lovely Blog"

Since I was not nominated for an Oscar this year, I assumed that the early-March awards season would pass me by. Thanks to Karen at the always interesting Fiction for Dessert, I was mistaken.

Karen has bestowed my humble blog with the One Lovely Blog Award. Thanks! I'm touched. I really am. I don't know Karen. I've never met her. To think that someone other than my mother reads my posts and finds something to appreciate about them is exceedingly gratifying.

I researched the 1LBA to find its origins and -- after a brief, but targeted search online -- I couldn't. I did discover that other recipients have also failed in the task, so at least I'm not alone in my search-engine shortfall.

Accepting the award comes with certain responsibilities. One must:

1.) Post it on your blog and include the name of the person (and a link to his or her blog) who bestowed it upon you.

2.) Pass the award on to 15 other blogs you have recently enjoyed. [This one changes, depending upon the blog you check. Some say "10 other blogs." Some say "another blog." It's a sort of chain-letter approach to alerting the world to blogs you like.]

3.) Contact the awarded bloggers and let them know that you have awarded their work.

Now, I am all for telling people that I like their work. However, I have several minor speedbumps to address as I wend my way down the road to award acceptance.

Some of the blogs that I follow are -- well -- HUGE. Their writers certainly don't need lil ol' me telling them that I love their work.

Others have decidedly masculine writers who, I daresay, may not be all that thrilled with having a veddy, veddy pink, flowery award flung in their direction.

Still others are maintained by personal friends. Awarding them smacks of nepotism. Kind of like my Mom sending me kudos.

Ah, but where would the world be without flowers, little people thanking big ones, and supporting our friends? With this thought in mind, I hereby bequeath the award of "One Lovely Blog" to these gems (in no particular order):

1. Red Headed Quilter by writer & avid quilter Kelly Smith.

2. Author & educator Trudy Morgan-Cole's Hypergrafitti.

3. Barbara Simpson's funny, poignant, introspective comments on a life in which she is Never a Barbie.

4. Christian writer, book reviewer, and Nashville-to-Michigan transplant Janet Morris Grimes' Pursuit of Sappiness features reviews, devotionals, musings on parenting and writing, & more.

5. The prolific and poetic agent Suzie Townsend's Confessions of a Wandering Heart.

6. Agent's assistant Rayna Erlick's transparent and articulate Rayna Reads.

7. Stuntman and dedicated freerunner Paul Darnell's Live Free or Die is a motivating, energetic, behind-the-scenes look into an athlete's life.

8. The indispensable blog of uber-agent Nathan Bransford.

9. Missy Frye's Incurable Disease of Writing. (Snapshots on this blog can be annoying, but Missy is very transparent about her writing struggles & she regularly features guest posts.) [Truth in advertising -- sometimes she features Yours Truly...]

10. The amazingly versatile and prolific Cherie Burbach's Working Writers & Bloggers blog is packed with writing advice, guest posts, & interviews. [More truth in advertising: she featured an interview with me in December, 2009.]

11. The technically gifted Terisa Green writes a brilliant blog that is chock-full of tips to strengthen the writer's craft.

12. Trucker and aspiring adventure writer Daniel Audet writes lyrical posts about the roadblocks that all writers struggle with on The Writers Road. He only writes occasionally, which makes each post resonate even more.

13. Literary agent Chip MacGregor's regularly answers reader's questions about the publishing industry on his blog.

14. Adrian-Luc Sanders -- eternally interesting and hyper-opinionated -- discusses writing and editing in great uncensored detail at Kowloon by Night.

15. The charming Australian-by-way-of-NZ YA writer Karen Healey (not to be confused with the amazing equestrienne of the same name) chronicles her life in Chocolate in the Fruit Bowl. She is also the guest blogger / Writer in Residence at Inside A Dog for the month of March.

Thanks to all of you for enriching my reading, expanding my understanding, or just making me laugh! For those of you who are unfamiliar with the blogs I've mentioned: I encourage you to check them out at your earliest opportunity. Happy reading!

Friday, March 05, 2010

Playing the Query Game

or, Learning to Swim With Sharks

I have recently suggested that all the writers I counsel (as well as myself) play a little game before they send out a single query. To wit:

1.) Go to agent Janet Reid's Query Shark Blog.

2.) Copy the text from several random submissions into a Word .doc and delete all of the agent's comments without reading them.

3.) Read the original query as if you were the agent to whom it is addressed. Cross out unnecessary things. Comment on things that strike you as just *wrong.* Edit the crap out of it.

4.) Based on the original query, decide whether or not you would pass on the proposed project or request a partial.

5.) Compare your comments & responses with the actual agent's.

6.) Repeat with new queries from the archives until your instincts match the agent's.

7.) NOW -- write your own query for your own stuff... Engage in Steps 3 and 4 until you (the Agent) would ask to see more of the project.

8.) Research agents (fodder for another post, another day). Send that query out and put it to work for you.

** NOTE: When you have finished playing, be sure to delete all the copied files from your computer. They're not your words. Give them back to their rightful owners...

Though I have several non-fiction books in print, I was able to do so without the help of an agent. Fiction, however, is a different ballgame. A different game requires different players, and like other serious writers, I believe that an agent will be necessary in order for me to play to win.

The process of playing the Query Game has been invaluable to me, personally. It has also helped the writers that I work with make enormous intuitive leaps in understanding how an agent approaches the query process. I am eternally grateful to Ms. Reid for the time she has spent making such a learning tool available to the ranks of we humble hopefuls...

Good luck! All the best in your writing.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Dead Horse Edit

or, Thoughts on Making Major Changes

A good friend of mine is the equine manager for a facility whose owners delight in buying the saddest, most broken down horses imaginable in an effort to “save” them.

One mare is currently in need of a merciful end. Knowledgeable horse people and at least one reputable vet have said so. Yet the mare’s owner balks at the decision – not because she has philosophical issues with playing God, but because she clings to the hope that the experts are wrong and that the arrival of Spring will somehow cure the horse’s irreparable neurological issues.

The owner has mandated that she will “wait and see what happens.” Which translates to hoping that the mare will simply die a quiet, natural death.

Earlier this week, my friend categorically stated that she refuses to be held responsible if the horse goes down for the final time in her stall and dies.

“Oh,” said the owner, processing this. “Why?”

“Because,” my friend said, “the tractor with the bucket on it doesn’t fit into the barn aisle.”

This was not explanation enough. My friend tried again. “If the horse dies in its stall, they don’t tear the barn down…”

Ahhh… Eeewww!

Suddenly the mental tinder lit and the seriousness of the situation became clear.

Exploring the Big Bag o’ Editing Excuses

Wanting to save starving and abused animals is commendable. I’ve been involved in multiple rescues. I sympathize. I really do. Sometimes, though, the most humane thing to do is to allow an animal’s misery to end -- which means making tough decisions and big changes.

March is NaNoEdMo: National Novel Editing Month. To some writers, editing is akin to self-mutilation and they approach it with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for being flayed alive or doing one’s income taxes.

During an edit a writer will often encounter significant blocks of text that should be sacrificed for the ultimate good of the book. Knowing that something needs to go and actually making the cut, however, are two very different things. Writers who look at their words with an editor’s eyes can bring a bottomless bag of excuses to the task.

Sometimes a writer feels a misguided need to champion the things that need cutting. Those words have originated from the Creative Muse! What might the Muse think if they were simply cast aside on the rubbish heap of superfluous prose. She might never visit again…

On occasion, laziness is the reason the tough cuts aren’t made. This is a woefully weak scene, but it’s where I introduce the enzyme that saves humanity. If I cut the scene, I’ll have to rework at least a third of the book… Nooooo!

And sometimes a writer’s ego interferes with the editing process. Sixteen agents have passed on the material. My mother AND every single person in my writing group thinks my main character is two-dimensional. But I’m brilliant. I wrote it. Ergo: it is brilliant. Anyone who suggests otherwise is a mental midget.

Don’t Tear the Barn Down

When conducting an edit, keep in mind the important thing: The Story.

Review your structure and make certain it is sound. Every single thing that remains after the edit should contribute to your story's strength. If it doesn’t, it has to go.

A “dead horse edit” is dispassionate, objective, and necessary.

Regardless of how much you loved the words when you wrote them, if you notice that a scene, a chapter, an act, or a character weakens or detracts from the story, then do the humane thing for your writing career and get rid of them.

Your characters won’t resent you for cutting them.

The Creative Muse will not go on strike if you ax 20,000 words.

Your ego will not suffer a fatal blow. (And if it did, would that be so terrible?)

The DHE forces you to deal with a project’s major issues – even if you don’t want to – because, ultimately, it’s the responsible thing to do. All that remains afterward is to polish the remaining prose until it reflects your soul.

Monday, March 01, 2010

10 Query Tips

by Guest Blogger Kelly Smith: Writer, blogger, Writing Practicum member, and quilting aficionado.

As a writer completing my first novel I've been doing a lot of reading and learning about how to query literary agents. While each agent has his or her own minor likes and dislikes (one might like to be referred to formally as "Ms. X" while another might say, "Hey, call me Bill," for example), and while those are important points to note, there are some general things that nearly all agents agree on.

1. Get Straight to the Point.
Agents may only look at the first line or two of your query, especially if they're reading it on their iPhone or Blackberry. Don't clutter the top of the e-mail with anything other than your query.

Don't belabor how or why you wrote the book. Don't tell them your bio or life story. They don't care. Just get to the point. What is the story?

2. Hook Them.
Jump right into the world of the novel. Don't give them back story, engage in world building, or plunge into character development. Just fling them headlong into the story. For example:

Dear Ms. Agent,

Romeo and Juliet are in love, but their families are feuding. Casting aside allegiance to their parents, and fighting against their fate to be sworn enemies, the young lovers sneak off to marry with the help of a friendly friar. Juliet's father, not knowing about the marriage to Romeo, arranges another marriage for her. A catastrophic misunderstanding ensues.

ROMEO AND JULIET is a 100,000 word novel set against a backdrop of feuding nobility in fourteenth century Verona, Italy.

Thank you for your consideration.

William Shakespeare
Somewhere in London

3. Give Enough Information, But Not Too Much.
Agents receive hundreds of queries a week. You will have less than a minute to make a good impression. Don't send enormous chunks of text. Keep sentences short, simple, and direct.

They don't care why you wrote the book. They don't care about this cool new species / planet / secret weapon / etc. that you've created unless the entire plot turns on it. Even then, keep the description short; one sentence, maybe two.

Don't introduce them to every character. Just tell them the good guy and the bad guy and the conflict. (Or, the main character and the situation he or she is fighting against, which is the same as "the bad guy.")

Leave them wanting more so that they will request pages or, if you are supremely lucky, the whole manuscript. In other words, don't spill the ending.

4. Give the Right Information.
Tell them the protagonist, the antagonist and the conflict. (There is a conflict, right?)

Tell them something that will make them like the protagonist. If they hate the characters they won't want to read it anymore than readers will.

Tell them the title, genre, and word count.

Tell them if you have published anything or won any awards, but be selective. Winning a contest is great - if they've ever heard of the contest and if it is a prestigious one. If you won a writing prize in high school, they won't care. If you won an O. Henry award for a short story, that's probably worth mentioning.

5. Don't Tell Your Life Story.
The query is about the novel, not about you, so make sure to keep the focus on the story. Also, anyone can write a novel -- you don't need qualifications. You're not applying for a job, so don't send them the equivalent of a resume, or worse, your whole bio. That comes later, if they choose to represent you.

6. Just as in Writing Your Novel, Show, Don't Tell.
Be specific. Don't write something like, "Frodo and Sam went on an epic journey where their lives were endangered numerous times, but eventually Frodo dropped the ring into the fires of Mount Doom." That's dull and leaves out all the specifics that made the journey in The Lord of The Rings so amazing.

Try something like, "Frodo and Sam walk for weeks, led by the treacherous Gollum, through swamps full of dead people, up the steep steps at Cirith Ungol until they are exhausted and starving. Gollum tricks Sam into leaving. Soon after, Frodo is captured by a giant spider, stung and wrapped in her web. Sam thinks his friend is dead, and to avenge him, charges ahead into certain death at the hands of the Orcs, only to discover that Frodo is still alive."

Details like "swamps full of dead people" and "giant spiders" show the danger Sam and Frodo were in instead of just telling it.

7. Don't Claim that Your Book Will Be a Blockbuster.
Chances are you are not the next J. K. Rowling or Stephen King, no matter what your mother thinks. Spare the poor agent your fantasies of being the Next Big Thing. Just tell him what your book actually is and let him decide if it's something he wants to represent.

Be especially careful of comparing your book to other new books that have not been published yet. On her blog, Query Shark had a message from a colleague that said, "He can't have read any of the specific books, two of the authors hadn't been published yet and one of the books will have a different title when it IS eventually published. And I may be the ONLY thing those books have in common."

Don't be the person to send a query like that.

8. Show That You Are a Professional (Even if You're a Newbie).
Be polite. Address the agent the way he or she wants to be addressed. You have researched that on their blog, right? Some are formal, some not.

Make sure each query is designed for that particular agent and not just "generic agent."

Use proper grammar, spelling and punctuation. If you can't do that in a simple letter, the agent will never believe you're capable of writing a novel.

Don't include any personal achievements or accomplishments that are not directly related to being published.

9. Sign Off Gracefully.
After you've hooked them, introduced them to the main character and described the central conflict there's nothing left to do but sign off. "Thank you for your consideration," is a nice closing.

Some agents hate to be told what to do, so something like, "I look forward to hearing from you soon," although innocuous can set some teeth on edge. It sounds like you're telling them to hurry up and get back to you. Simple is better.

10. Avoid Attachments.
Finally, don't attach anything unless the agent specifically asks for attachments. In general, agents want the query included the body of the e-mail. If they ask for pages, they often want them included in the body of the message as well. Always follow the specific instructions for that specific agent.

For some great advice and to see examples of many bad (and a precious few good) queries, visit the Query Shark blog of agent Janet Reid. She takes the time to not only critique the queries people send her, but does it publicly on her blog so we can all benefit from her expertise. It is worth the time to read over her entries and use what you learn there.

Good luck!


Kelly Smith is the author of Open Your Heart with Quilting: Mastering Life Through Love of the Patches (Dreamtime Publishing 2008).

She also writes about quilting for and was published in Quilter’s Home magazine’s November 2008 issue. She is working on her first novel and will soon publish her second non-fiction book.