What Do I Really Know? aka- Queen of the Underqualified?

I opened my email and there it was. My first invitation to appear, as an author, and give a presentation.

My mind immediately filled with images of myself, microphone in hand, perhaps nestled into a cozy leather chair on stage as I gaze upon those who’ve come to listen intently to the carefully crafted bit of wisdom I have to offer them. That lasted about 3.5 seconds and then terror flooded through me. What wisdom?!

I’m finally comfortable calling myself an author, but what do I possibly have to teach others? What topic can I offer that won’t bore a group to tears (including my family, who I’m fairly confident would come just to ensure I do have an audience!). I’ve called all the authors that I usually badger with my neurotic–and endless!–questions (nobody answered, apparently they have lives!).

So my current list of potential topics is:

  • Pairing Snacks With Reading Genres
  • Reading To Escape Responsibility & Recreation
  • Writing: I Did It & You Probably Can Too
  • Hi, I’m An Author. Any Questions?
  • Ascertaining The Primitive Implications of the Transcendental Elegy on the Post-Modernistic Annihilist (but I think that’s for a very specific audience)

 

I’m still tossing these around, but I’m definitely open to suggestions.

 

Please follow and like:

Query Letter Basics

By this point in my writing life I should have earned some sort of certification in the art of query letters. I’ve spent countless hours obsessing over each of mine. I’ve written, revised, thrown out and rewritten each of mine at least a dozen times. I’ve researched query letters, read books, articles, watched videos and participated in group discussions about the basics of querying. And yet, the art of writing a query letter still feels like an elusive talent.

Don’t get me wrong, I think I’ve come a long way. My query letters are effective. I have an understanding about the structure and purpose of a query as well as how to write a decent one. What I lack is the innate ability to create a query that is pure artistry—and, I’ve decided that’s okay.

A few years ago I decided to learn more about what makes an effective query. I began looking for opportunities to read the kind of queries that are sent out on a daily basis. I participated in group query critiques, researched query letters for books I’ve read, took part in some early stage contest queries, and read a bit from the inbox of a small publisher. While I did have the chance to see which query styles and information made the greatest impact, I was also astonished to see some of the “queries” that are being sent out. While I understand some of the enthusiasm-based mistakes of newer writers, I feel it’s time I add my voice to the list of those who really, really—really!—want you to have the best chance at success. After the amount of time you’ve spent on your novel, you should do it justice by submitting it with a professional query.

To start, these are not query letters—ever!:

  • “Dear _______, I’m attaching the first chapter of my novel as directed on your website” (that’s the entirety of the communication. Also, the website stated no attachments)
  • “Dear ______, Category: Young Adult. Genre: Horror. Word count: 76,500.” (yeah…that was all there was)
  • “I have several fiction projects, all of which can be viewed at this link. If you find any interesting you can contact me and we can discuss publication” (I’m not following that link, nor is anyone else)

So, what is a query?

A query letter is a formal, professional, letter that writers send to agents, publishers, magazines, or writing contests that describes a project they’ve written (or are proposing) and are seeking representation/publication for.

The purpose of a query (which Jane Friedman so perfectly describes on janefriedman.com) is “to seduce the agent or editor into reading or requesting your work” (Note the word “seduce”! It’s perfectly used).

All the bits:

The following are all the bits & pieces your query letter should have. Some authors will change up the order (ie-book details first, personal info last). When I’m reading a query I’m not as concerned by the structure of the letter as in the work that’s been put in to making it interesting, but there are some traditionalists who prefer a specific structure—and some even list that on their submission guidelines!

  • The greeting. Be specific in whom you are addressing your query to. Do not send a “Dear Sir or Madame” or “To Whom It May Concern”. You should have researched this agent/publisher and have in mind exactly who your submission is targeted towards.
  • A brief and personalized paragraph that includes the reason you’ve chosen this agent/publisher to submit to. Did you hear them speak? Read other books they represent/published? Read an interview? Let them know you’ve done your research and why you’ve chosen them.
  • Your hook. This paragraph will include the details of your book: a brief description of the story (this is not a synopsis!), the word count and genre.
  • Your bio. Again, this is a brief paragraph. If you have published works, writing related awards, or anything else that’s literary related include that. If you have special training or skills that lead you to be specifically qualified to have written this book, please mention that. Do not mention that your mom, spouse, friend, or your cousin’s best friend’s neighbor loved the book.
  • Your contact information. Yes, if you’ve emailed the query letter your email address will be evident—unless it’s been forwarded from a first reader, to a follow up, distributed to a team, and back again. In closing your query—as with any other professional letter—be sure to include your name, phone number, and email address (and please, for the love of all things good in the world, if your email address is left over from your partying days consider a more professional one for writing correspondence—nobody wants to correspond with BigPimpDaddy69@getit.com).

 

Even with a perfectly crafted query it’s up to you to research agents and publishers to ensure you’re targeting your submissions appropriately and following submission guidelines. I’ve returned several unread queries, referring writers to the submission guidelines. In talking to publisher/agent acquaintances there’s a consistent practice in rejecting—or even deleting, unread—queries that don’t follow guidelines. You’ve spent so much time writing your novel, give yourself the absolute best opportunity by making sure your query letter shows the same dedication to quality as your manuscript.

 

Please follow and like:

My Path to Publication

As an aspiring author, I never passed a “How I Got My Publisher/Agent” article without scanning for a magic key. That one thing I was missing that would cast open the doors to the world of being a published author.

I cringed every time the interviewee said, “my journey didn’t come by traditional means”. I love a solid plan with clear direction. How could I possibly read, map and implement a plan of action based on happenstance? And so, I continued to query—and obsessively review interviews!

Then, one day, it happened. I received an offer of publication. How did it happen? Well…um, not by entirely traditional means.

My 2015 NaNoWriMo project was a young adult (YA) bootlegger novel. After revisions I began to query it and entered some on-line contests. In 2016 I was selected as an alternate and had the great opportunity to revise my manuscript and query letter with the help of two wonderful authors and an amazing editor. I’d become acquainted with one of the authors in online groups and the editor in another contest.

In the meantime, I met a local author who also worked for a small press. I went to her signings, asked endless questions at SCBWI events, and joined her book club (all of this was not nearly as stalker-ish as it sounds). Even though we became friends, I didn’t submit to her because I didn’t want her to feel I “expected” anything from her—except the information. During an online pitch contest she favorited my pitch and I submitted my YA bootlegger/romance to her. The publisher ultimately passed on my novel, but with good feedback.

A year later that publisher, Crimson Tree Publishing/Clean Teen Publishing, started a romance imprint. I was asked if I was still seeking publication for A Shine That Defies the Dark (I was!). I re-submitted my manuscript to the managing editor and—after a few changes to make my novel better suited for a new adult (NA)/adult romance—I received an offer of publication.

Getting the email of acceptance was a surreal experience. Although you dream about the moment, once it happens it really is like waking up from a dream.

So, for those of you skimming this article looking for the magic key, I’d say the important lessons I learned in my path to publication are:

  • Make real connections with people. Ask questions, support others, take an interest in their non-writing lives as well as their writing/editing/publishing/agenting.
  • Consider the advice/feedback you’re given. You don’t have to take it all, but you should consider it, especially if you’re hearing it from several people.
  • Reconsider your genre. With a few changes would your novel be marketable in another genre? I’d never considered my YA bootlegger novel to be an NA romance. And yet…
  • Query widely. Consider agents as well as small publishers.

The best of luck to all those who are still on their journey and a heartfelt “Thank you” to everyone who helped me along the way.

 

 

Please follow and like:

Do you NaNoWriMo?

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is just days away.

What is NaNoWriMo, you ask? NaNoWriMo is a yearly event in which writer’s set a goal to write an entire novel (or 50,000 words) in thirty days. I know, it seems insane. I think that every time I make the commitment to do it. But I keep signing up.

If you’re wondering if NaNoWriMo is for you–if you can really do it–the answer is yes.

There are still a few days left to prepare. I’ve found my best NaNoWriMo time is when I think about my novel beforehand. I do some research, plan my characters, locations and the general direction I want my novel to travel. I usually start with a loose outline that includes plot points and twists I want to follow. Depending on the amount of preparation time I have, my outline may be far more detailed, but all I need is a “roadmap” to keep me on track.

Some people prefer to use the “pantser” method (ie- fly by the seat of your pants, no outline, make it up as you go, write with the wind). I have “Pantsed” in the past, and while there is something exciting about working like that, I find it easier to keep track and progress in a linear fashion when I have an outline. I’ve also discovered it’s easier for me to revise (and there is a lot of revision to come after November!) when my initial writing had structure.

If you want to try NaNoWriMo the main things to keep in mind are:

  • Nobody judges. Its fun, its a challenge, its a supportive community of writers with a shared goal.
  • Don’t–I repeat, do not–edit your writing as you go. The goal is to get 50,000 words down. They don’t have to be pretty. They don’t even have to be spelled correctly. You’ll come back and make corrections later. You may spend months–or longer–revising this novel. Some people call this their “first draft”, some call it the “zero draft”. I prefer to use the Anne Lamott term “shitty first draft”. I even save my file as “.SFD”. To me, it’s the most basic way of owning and being okay with the horrible quality of this draft.
  • What’s most important is that at the end of the month you’ll have a completed (or nearly complete) first draft of a novel. Even if you don’t quite make it to 50,000 you’ll have a good start on a novel.
  • Save research for the revision phase. As soon as you go online to research something you’re going to get sucked into a vortex of lost time. Enter a place mark/reminder within the text, for example “Moss draped from the [find out what kind of] trees…”. (as a bonus…all those place mark words help reach the goal!).
  • Enlist your family to help you meet your goal. It’s one month. Meals can be easy, the house can be cluttered, the kids can watch movies or play video games and your spouse can freely watch whatever they want (for my husband it’s a month of all the sports he can watch!).

Most important is to keep in mind that this goal can be reached. On December 1 you’ll look back and realize what an amazing thing it is to have written an entire book in one month. And you never know where that book will take you. There are a number of best-selling novels that started as a NaNoWriMo project. My own 2015 NaNoWriMo project was A Shine That Defies the Dark, which is being released on 12/5/17.

For more information on National Novel Writing Month check out the NaNoWriMo website and, if you want to “buddy” up, look for me there.

Please follow and like:

Online Writing Contests: To Join or Not to Join?

There are no limits to the number and types of writing competitions you can join online. You can submit a 35-word pitch or submit a longer manuscript for a more in-depth contest. The goal of the contests is the same: to get your manuscript before an agent/publisher who will (fingers crossed!) love it.

In the past several years I’ve taken part in my fair share of writing contests. My contest experiences have been varied as my results. While I’ve heard of a number of authors finding their agent/publisher through contests I haven’t been so lucky (…yet!). I have entered pitch contests and more involved ones with varying results. I’ve had my manuscripts selected to go on to the agent round, I’ve been selected as a team member, an alternate and I’ve also been completely left out of the running. I’ve had several partial requests, some full requests and (*gulp*) zero responses during the agent/editor/publisher rounds.

While the constant highs and lows of entering contests can sometimes make you doubt yourself and your work it’s important to realize what you are winning with every entry.

First–and most important in my humble opinion–is the support structure that you’re establishing each time you enter an online writing contest. You aren’t alone in your endeavors and dreams. A simple Twitter search for any contest will show you the number of people who are in the same position as you. The conversations that take place, messages of hope, support, guidance and empathy go on all day long. The writers who enter will often follow each other and end up with enduring online support systems. There are a  number of people who I’m still in contact with that I met because we’d all entered the same contest (or contests!) and struck up conversations. We continue to beta-read for each other, offer query critiques, pitch critiques, and even opening critiques. Most important we are there for each other when one is feeling frustrated or when someone has exciting news to share. I’ve also made some lasting connections with people who have mentored me and my novel during contests.

Second, the feedback and help that you get is amazing. There are a number of “pop-up” pitch workshops in which contestants–and writers who just want to help–review each others pitches to make them stronger. There’s no shortage in the number of people who will put out an offer to help by reviewing your pitch, opening lines, query letter, etc. The online writing community is such a supportive one and those who have been helped often give back by helping others.As an alternate for one contest I was given a ridiculous amount of editing feedback/guidance. There is no way my manuscript would be as strong as it is now without that help.

Finally, you get an idea of your own determination and how much you can endure in order to meet your goal. Can you accept rejection, and use it to better your craft or fuel you further, so that you can continue this journey?

I’m not saying you should enter every contest. There are times when you’re not in a good emotional or creative place because of the number of disappointments we face as writers. Those are the times when you should sit out and tend to your creative/emotional self. But do keep in mind all the ways that you can “win” even if you don’t win a contest.

Please follow and like:

NaNoWriMo Day 6: Survival Tip of the Day

Many of my friends and acquaintances are currently in the midst of the sheer madness that is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  The goal: to write a book (yes, sir, that’s right a whole book) in (gasp) 30 days!

One concern that a participant mentioned today, and others may be feeling: After 6 days she still doesn’t feel like she has the character’s voice. That can be frustrating as it’s hard to push through when that inner voice just isn’t helping.

At some point we all rely on our characters to take over and tell us where the storyline is going and what their role in the events is (and if you’re not a writer, it’s true, we hear voices, but they tend to go away when the story is done, so don’t fear!).

So, what can you do to try an urge your character’s voices to come through. Some tips that were offered today:

  • Drop your character into a completely different scenario and write what he/she is like there.
  • Explore your character more: gather images (what your character looks like, where they live, a favorite pet, where is his/her saddest memory), listen to music that your character would appreciate, any details to make your character more multi-dimensional
  • Write a short story of something you have done, but through the eyes of your character.
  • Some people find benefit in quiet meditation with the character until they’ve reached a better knowledge of them
  • Write a letter from your character to you, or your readers. Start with “My name is _____, and these are the things you need to know about my journey.”
  • Continue to push forward with your manuscript but do everything from the perspective of the character you are trying to work out (if you have multiple POV or a different MC). If this is your MC include internal dialogue and reasoning as you write. It can help flesh out your character’s motivation and history, applies to your word count and can be deleted later during your edits.

Remember that anything you write during your effort to connect with your character can be included in your word count. It’s part of your process. You can delete it during revisions–at which point you’ll be more intimately connected with your character’s voice.

Please follow and like:

Research: Getting Lost in the Details

One of my downfalls as a writer is that I love research. I will research everything: world/geographic history, old photos, prominent people, music/movies, lingo, and even name meanings. I love research!

For my last novel, A SHINE THAT DEFIES THE DARK, I had the best time with my research. I studied everything I could find on Prohibition, the Great Depression, cajun dialect and 1920’s automobiles. I studied maps of Louisiana, native plants & animals, each of the parishes, local crops and how residents in 1930 made their livings. And I have to say, I fell in love with Louisiana from afar.

So, how is research a downfall? My problem is that I get so enmeshed in my research that my actual writing gets put off. With my last novel it didn’t become a major problem. My project was for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), so I had a firm November 1st start date. However, with my new novel I am having a big problem getting away from my research and moving into the actual writing phase. I have a notebook with an endless stream of notes, pictures and sketches. I have a playlist on my phone and computer. I even have a Pinterest board with images. God, help me…if only I can stay on task with the actual writing of this book! But first…I have a burning urge to make an image board (I really can’t think of any other research related thing I could do after that.

Except maybe theme recipes?

 

Please follow and like: