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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

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Novel Writer’s Playlists

I cannot write in silence!

A quiet work environment causes my brain to send out little stimuli-seeking tentacles that grasp at any, and every, other noise in the world. Once I’m distracted by the guy with the leaf blower, the birds, the plane flying overhead, the lady walking the corgi and my own dogs shifting their position (noisily, I might add!) on the hardwood floor I’m far too distracted to write.

I’ve found that a well planned playlist keeps me in the “zone”. I set up a playlist for each of my projects and listen to them while writing. Each of the songs I add to my playlist helps me set a tone, be absorbed by my character’s world, or dwell on an emotion that’s crucial for the story I’m trying to write. Sometimes my novels, or some aspect of them, are actually inspired by a song.

For my novel A SHINE THAT DEFIES THE DARK my musical inspiration & playlist go back several years to a trip my husband and I took to New Orleans. After dinner one night we asked the waitress for a recommendation on one thing we should do while in the French Quarter. She told us about Preservation Hall, a small venue on a cross street. “You probably won’t even see the sign. You’ll just see people standing against a building. Get in line behind them.” And so we did. And it was one of the most amazing live shows I’ve ever seen. It was a small place, standing room only, hot and humid and amazing! After the show (we stayed for all three sets) I bought a CD and set it aside, knowing I’d want that someday.  I used several of the songs on that disc for my playlist.

I also discovered a band called The Civil Wars. Several of their songs are very raw and gritty and had the perfect emotion for a character I was creating: one who was making very wrong decisions, but for the right reasons. Here is the link to Devil’s Backbone by The Civil Wars, which ended up being my “theme song” as I wrote.

A SHINE THAT DEFIES THE DARK is set in 1930 in southern Louisiana. If you’d like to listen to the playlist I shared it to spotify:  https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/22gnz77drieouoye7mjr6hzci/playlist/011GFzuXFwlNBLwxxTUFrQ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>My playlist for A SHINE THAT DEFIES THE DARK (releasing Winter 2017 from Changing Tides Publishing).

 

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When It’s Okay to Not Write

Every writer has hit some sort of a writing slump. Maybe you’ve lost your momentum, your excitement for a project, or maybe you just don’t know how to progress or where your story is going.

There is no limit to the number of tips and articles to help you get past a period of writer’s block. While many of them are very helpful there is also something to be said for putting your project aside for a while.

On each of my novels (including my current WIP) I’ve gone through a period when I’ve put the project aside for several weeks to several months. Sometimes I began another project or worked on editing another. Most of the time though, I used those breaks to really think about my novel. I reviewed my character’s background stories, motivations, I imagine interactions they might have with each other and with strangers. Sometimes I let dialogues be carried out in my head. I even planned a birthday party for a character during one of my writing breaks.

But as “unproductive” as each of those breaks has been something miraculous happened during each one: I discovered a mind-blowing plot twist or element that I hadn’t considered before. And each one of those revelations led me to a renewed and productive writing period.

For my YA medieval I discovered that an integral character would die (okay…there were two beloved characters who died and both came from a similar non-writing period). I also realized that a minor character, one who seemed to have pulled along by the devious plot of another, is actually quite strong and manipulative in her own right. She’s actually been the driving force of a major plot and is about to become the main character’s most formidable opponent. Until I set aside my writing I’d only ever recognized her as a mousy, subservient pawn in the game that was being played.

For my YA bootleggers story I solved two problems through a writing sabbatical: how to bring my character’s best friend back into the story line and whether a main character was going to die (yes, I do spend a lot of my non-writing time determining the death toll of my books).

My current WIP (a YA martial arts fantasy) is still very much in the early stages, but I’ve already taken a break from it to discover that someone I least expected is going to become the new Oracle. There is one potential death pending, but I haven’t gotten a divine answer on that one yet.

I’m not suggesting it’s ideal to stop writing entirely. Sometimes working on another project can push your current one from your mind, making it more difficult to resolve that which was preventing your progress. Taking a break and using the down time to ruminate on your project (or obsess without writing) can open up answers that you’d never imagine when sitting at the keyboard forcing the story onto the page.

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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.

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NaNoWriMo Day 30: Survival Tip of the Day

Like many of my friends and acquaintances, you might be 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!

This is it! Day 30. You may have noticed that I disappeared for several days. Between work, Thanksgiving, a business trip and having some fun with my husband for his birthday I missed several NaNoWriMo days. So now I find myself in the same position as a lot of my fellow NaNo’ers: trying desperately to hit 5oK before the end of the day.

So, my tip of the day is: WE CAN DO THIS!!!!! Keep at it. We have the rest of the day, don’t give up. Push yourself and get as far as you can. You’ve already written more than did last month, right? This is not the time to give up. Write away, my friends, we can do this.

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NaNoWriMo Day 21: Survival Tip of the Day

Like many of my friends and acquaintances, you might be 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!

We’ve reached day 21. Congratulation. Whether you’re right on track, way ahead, or struggling to catch up the fact is that you’ve been doing an amazing thing. You’ve been writing your ass off for 21 days!

If it hasn’t happened already you might find that your story is veering off course from where you thought it was heading. Maybe your characters are proving to have different personalities than you thought. Todays tip is: follow your character’s lead.

You may have reached that point where your unconscious–and very creative–mind has kicked in and recognizes things that you had never anticipated about your project. As you’ve been writing you’ve also become more familiar with your characters and setting. As a result of your increased awareness and familiarity more options have opened up and there might be something better for your novel. Feel free to let go of your outline–or veer slightly off course for a short period–and see where you end up. You might just be surprised at the result.

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NaNoWriMo Day 20: Survival Tip of the Day

Like many of my friends and acquaintances, you might be 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!

You’ve done it! Day 20! There are only ten days to go. I have to admit it, my brain is tired! I’ve just passed 40k words and I’m exhausted. My tip for the day is simple. No matter how many words you have right now: keep going! It’s hard, it’s exhausting, but it’s such an awesome accomplishment. Don’t give up now.

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