Resource Roundup – Querying Your Masterpiece

You’ve finished your book, you’ve revised, you set it aside, and you’ve reread it (revised some more ad nauseam) and decide it doesn’t suck. Now what? Well, if you want to be traditionally published, you start looking for agents. Someone who loves your book as much as you do and will shepherd it through the publishing process. But to find the right agent, you need to query them, and not just any old query will do.

As in previous posts in this series (Finding the Right Word, Conjuring Up Titles, Crafting Dialogue, and Opening Your Story), I focused on online resources. There were a ton of posts out there, many of which I’ve gone through and evaluated for their usefulness. But if you’ve come across other valuable resources, please tell me about them in the comments, and I’ll include them when I add this to my Resource Roundup links on the sidebar.

So let’s get started. And remember, I’m talking about full-length novels. Not non-fiction, not short stories, as those both have different query letter elements that I don’t address here.

Is Your Work Ready? Are You Ready?

This is a huge question. You can feel like you’re ready. You can envision your name in print, see your novel on the bookshelf, have already made a list of the celebrities who will play your characters in the movie version. But what about your book? Is it ready?

Alternatively, your book may be ready but you aren’t. You keep tinkering with it, hoping for perfection, while days, months, years tick by along with any chance of breaking into the marketplace. In one case, it’s the cart before the horse. In the other, it’s insecure writers holding themselves back.

Not sure if you are ready? Take a look at Jody Hedlund’s How Can Writers Know They are Ready for Querying? where she talks about things writers can do to determine whether they should be querying or not.

Your Story and the Marketplace

It also helps if you have a sense of where your story fits in the marketplace. This is why you must know your story’s genre (what section it should be in at a bookstore). It is also why some agents may ask you list comparable titles in your query letter. Not sure where your story falls? Book Country has a great genre map that displays all the different subgenres within genres like Romance, Mystery, and Science Fiction.

What about the line between literary, commercial and genre fiction? Miss Snark provides a great overview of the distinctions here. Nathan Bransford’s What Makes Literary Fiction Literary? is also worth a look.

Then to make things more complicated “upmarket” fiction is also on many agents’ wishlists these days. Chuck Sambuchino of the Guide to Literary Agents Blog says it bridges commercial and literary fiction in What is Upmarket Fiction? Defining the Classification. Another blogger calls Upmarket Fiction the Non-Genre Genre.

Different genres have different story conventions, different word counts, etc. For a great overview of word counts for different genres, take a look at Mystery Writing is Murder- Word Counts and Colleen Lindsay’s Word Counts and Novel Length.


Submission Checklists

Still think you are ready? Then take a look at these checklists (ranging from micro to macro issues) to ensure your manuscript is up to snuff before you submit:

Preparing Your Pitch

The pitch section of your query letter is the most important element. Full stop. Not the credentials or the ass-kissing as to why you are querying this agent in particular, although that can sometimes help.

Note that for some agents, the sample pages might actually be more important than the pitch, so be sure to take a look at my earlier Resource Roundup post Opening Your Story, but in terms of the query letter itself (not your whole submission, which may include things like synopses and sample pages), the pitch is uber important to get right.

The pitch is the part of your query, generally up to three paragraphs (depending on who you talk to), where you describe your story. It is a sales pitch – you are trying to sell the agent on your story, convince them that it is the best thing ever and they want to see the whole novel right now.

Think of all the backjacket copy you’ve read over the years, and try to model your pitch on books in your genre, emphasizing in particular the main character(s) and conflict they’ll face in the book. The tone of the pitch should also match genre expectations and hint at your authorial voice.

It’s a tough order for just a couple of paragraphs. How do you distill a whole book’s worth of action and conflict into just a few lines? The answer is you don’t. As Roni Loren says in Single Best Piece of Query Writing Advice I Ever Received, you write your query based on roughly the first third of your novel. The query pitch is all setup. It’s that teaser trailer that makes you want to see the movie even more.

The more attuned you are to strong pitches, the better your query will fare out in agentland. The Miss Snark’s archives are full of query pitches and one agent’s brutally honest impressions of what works and what doesn’t. Query Shark and the BookEnds Agency’s Workshop Wednesdays also provide critiques to queries people send in for feedback. Valuable stuff if you haven’t nailed your own pitch yet.


Query Letter Basics

But let’s back up a minute. There are other elements of your query letter besides the pitch. Take a look at There Are No Rules’s 5 Elements of Query Letters and Guide to Literary Agents’s Breaking Down the Query to get a sense of how the whole letter should look. Nathan Bransford’s post How to Write a Query also provides a nice overview.

Have your query written? Make sure you haven’t made these mistakes: Rachelle Gardener’s Top Ten Query Mistakes and JM Tohline’s Biggest Mistakes Writers Make When Querying Literary Agents.

Knowing what your book’s comparative titles are is also important, especially for those agents who specifically request them in their guidelines. As agent Suzie Townsend says in The Art of Pitching:

Comparable titles tell me the targeted audience for a manuscript, it gives me a better idea of whether I might like it, it gives me a better idea of where I might sell it, how I might pitch it, how editors could pitch the book to their sales team. AND Comparable titles also tell me how well-read the writer is when it comes to their own genre.

Any way you can personalize your query for each agent can also help you stand out of the slush pile. But beware. As kidlit agent Mary Kole says, “Just like with citing comparative titles, if you’re not going to do [query personalization] well, don’t do it at all.”

Want to see queries that get results? Check out the Guide to Literary Agents blog’s Successful Queries series. Agent Rachelle Gardner also provides a nice overview in Anatomy of a Winning Query.

And remember, there’s always going to be contradictory query advice out there, as Nathan Bransford talks about in this post.

Do Your Research

One author claims that a well-written query, sent to well-researched agents should result in a high percentage of requested pages in How to Ensure 75% of Agents Will Request Your Material.

That may seem like an obscenely high percentage considering the number of literary agents out there, but one thing is true: The more research you do on agents, the better sense you’ll have of whether or not they’d be a good fit for you and your novel. And do yourself and agents everywhere a favor – if they don’t represent what you’ve written, take them off the list.

Writers in the Storm’s post Hunting Agents and Jill Corcoran’s post Researching Agents provide a great overview of how to find information on agents.

You could always purchase the current copies of Writer’s Market or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, or sign up for services like QueryTracker or AgentQuery. The Guide to Literary Agents blog also has series call New Agent Alert, which is a great way to stay on top of up and coming agents.

But no matter which agents make your list, be sure to cross-reference them with the list of agents at Predators and Editors to ensure they are on the up and up.

Managing the Process

You’ve got your query and your list of agents. You are ready to go. You could just go ahead and blitz all agents at once. No one is stopping you from doing that. However, for most agents, you get one shot, and you want to put your best foot forward.

That’s why most people recommend sending your queries in batches or waves. Pick a few agents and send them your stuff. Then wait to see what happens. This can be a long process, but it builds in time for the writer to receive feedback on their query or pages so they can then tweak them for the next round of querying. See Nathan Bransford’s definitive post The Batch Querying Theory and Agency Gatekeeper’s The Middle Way – A New Method of Timing Your Queries.

In addition to you query, agents sometimes want to see your opening pages or a synopsis of your work. A synopsis is an overview of your story’s plot, written in a specific format.Writer’s Digest’s Your Essential Synopsis Checklist provides a great starting place. Remember that some agents will want to see a long version or specify a shorter one, say two pages. I recommend having a couple of different versions of your synopsis ready to go for when you start querying.

It can get tricky trying to keep track of when you sent which query to what agent, especially when agents all have different response times (or nonresponse times as the case may be). The Writers in the Storm post Organizing This Mess – The Great Agent Search Part 3 provides an overview of using subscription-based tools like Writer’s Market or do-it-yourself Excel worksheets. PS. I’m using Excel and it’s going just fine.

Following Up, Requests, and Other Query Etiquette

When sending an agent a requested partial or full, it is a good habit to paste your original query letter into the document. That way if the agent is reading your partial away from their email – more and more true with the prevalence of ereaders – they still have all your contact and query information at hand.

Getting Past the Gatekeeper’s post On Checking In is a great resource for writer’s wanting to follow up with agents. This particular agent also believes that each writer gets one revision, if they go about it correctly (Getting Past the Gatekeeper’s “Here’s my revision, will you read it? How to Submit a New Draft). Follow her advice if you realize after much revising and hand-wringing you’d like to send a new version of your materials to an agent.

And remember, each email, each interaction you have with an agent, should be polite and professional, because at the end of the day, regardless of your dreams, publishing is a business.


The Call

What happens when you send the right query to the right agent? The agent will call the author and offer to represent them. Go ahead and cheer – after all this is a major accomplishment. But don’t let your joy overwhelm your common sense. There’s still work to do.

In fact, you should have a number of questions in mind when speaking to the person that will potentially represent you and your novel:

Most agents understand that they aren’t the only agent you’ve sent materials too, so do not be afraid to ask for references from current clients. You also want to give yourself enough time to contact other agents to see if they are interested in throwing their hat into the ring. BookEnds’s post You have an offer… is a good resource for this process.

Getting the call is a moment many writers dream of. But as agent Scott Egan cautions, Getting the Call Means Your Work Gets Harder, so be sure you are ready.


Don’t Give Up

The long query slog got you down? One blogger urges writers not to complain publicly, or stop writing, or get too impatient while waiting to hear back from agents in The Three Most Important Things Not To Do When Waiting To Get “The Call”.

Need help deciphering your rejection letters? Perhaps Adventures in Children’s Publishing’s The Writer’s Rejection Dictionary can provide some insight.

Alexis Grant’s post What I Learned from the Query Process provides a great overview of querying and ways you can learn from it.

What happens when you get close after countless rounds of queries and revisions? AuthorAllison Winn Scotch tackles this in Setting Aside a Beloved Manuscript.

Tinker with your query, trunk the novel and try something else, but whatever you do, don’t give up.

Other Resources

And as always, if you have any querying resources that you have run across, please share them in the comments. Thanks!
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Odds and Ends

Sometimes there are no themes, no ways to organize life. Things just are. Kinda like this post.

The Seven Year PenThe Seven Year Pen from Seltzer Goods is just flat out amazing. I bought one the other day, since I’m a big fan of ballpoints and writing longhand. According to the packaging, “100 million pens are discarded every day,” and this pen is designed to write 1.7 meters a day for 7 years. Sign me up! Um…literally.

Local Writing Group Resumes – Today, I’m meeting with the ladies in my local writing group for the first time since November. I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with everyone and getting back into the rhythm of critiquing and exchanging work. Taking December off was great for personal reasons, but now it’s time to get back to writing.

Fat Girl in a Strange Land ARC GiveawayCrossed Genres Publications is offering three advanced reader copies of the Fat Girl in a Strange Land anthology (which includes my story “The Tradeoff”) through Goodreads. Go here for your chance to win. I’ll also have an interview with the editors when we get closer to the anthology’s release in February.

Another Resource Roundup Forthcoming – I’ve just started to pull together a post on querying, which should be ready to go next week. Fingers crossed. I’ve been putting it off since these types of posts are so time consuming, but hopefully it will be worth the effort!

Taos Toolbox – I found out this week I was accepted to this year’s Taos Toolbox, a two-week master class in science fiction and fantasy writing this summer. It’s led by Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress, with Daniel Abraham as a guest lecturer. I’m really excited for the workshop, but now I’m already paranoid about what projects I’ll be workshopping, whether I’m well-versed enough in the genre (I’m not), and other feelings of unworthiness. There’s still time to apply to Taos and other SFF workshops this year – check out this great post by John Joseph Adams for Inkpunks breaking down the different options.

That’s it for me this week. Happy writing!
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Write. Revise. Rest. Repeat.

The four “R’s” of writing. Well, five if you count “rejection,” but let’s not go there today. Instead, we’ll focus only on the creative process.

WRITE

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But sometimes this can be the hardest thing to do. Butt in chair and all that. Dig in and draft, even if you are convinced that your story is crap. You must not only be willing to spend the time getting your story down but also find the clarity of thought that generates the words in the first place. Some writers love this phase, others don’t. Here are some links to help you make that oh-so-important first draft happen:

Love to write but don’t have ideas?

Don’t have time to write?

Get stuck at key points in your manuscript?

REVISE

Unless you are practically perfect in every way, chances are you will need to revise your work. Spelling- and grammar-check can catch a lot of sins (and introduce new ones), but most stories need polish at the story-level as well. Things like structure, character arc, the mix of external and internal conflict. Although revising is a topic worthy of its own Resource Roundup post, here are some links to get you started:

REST

Now that you’ve revised your story to the best of your ability, let it rest. This is always hardest for me – I’m usually so eager to send my story out into the world, convinced it’s as good as it can get. Whether this impulse is out of confidence or impatience, it’s almost always a bad idea. Set it aside, work on something else, send it to a trusted reader. But avoid the temptation to keep tinkering. Come to it with fresh eyes. Your story will thank you.

REPEAT

After you’ve taken a break and are ready to sink your teeth back into your story, you will be better able to objectively evaluate it. Maybe you’ll need to rewrite some sections or start over entirely. Maybe you need to revise some story aspects or revert to older versions. Make the changes. And then (and this is important) let it rest again.

This cycle can repeat indefinitely, but at some point you will either give up or decide you are done. Here are some resources to help you decide when you can put a project to rest:

Happy Writing (or Revising, or Resting, or Repeating…)!
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Things I Never Knew about My Writing

I’ve returned my attention to my historical romance novel, polishing it up so I can share it with a batch of new readers in my local writing group. One thing I’ve been paying a lot of attention to is Narrative Distance.

I’ve also been combing through my critique partners’ notes on my novel. I read their comments when they were finished with each section but never got around to making all the changes until now.

And it was shocking to find the same things popping up again and again.

For example:

  • I drop words. All the time. Especially pronouns and articles. My husband often catches these for me, but he doesn’t read every single version of everything I write. Maybe he should…
  • I rarely use commas after introductory clauses. Although there are some cases where a comma isn’t needed, for the most part you should include it. The Purdue Online Writing Lab has a great resource on this.
  • I have a problem with near words like where/were and think/thing. There’s probably more of them, but they are tricky for my brain at least to catch.
  • I am wordy. This is partly because I’m writing a historical, and partly because of all the years I wrote academic and technical papers. I’m working on it. Admitting the problem is the first step in getting better. Check out Kim Blank’s Wordiness, Wordiness, Wordiness List  and ensure your work is as lean as possible.
  • I use adverbs as crutches. I’ve blogged about this before, and I’ve gotten better. But I still use “finally” a lot. I’ve started to train myself to avoid it, with mixed results.
  • I recycle the same reactions over and over again. He sighed. She frowned. He grit his teeth. She cursed. You get the idea. I need to sit down and brainstorm other reactions and sprinkle them throughout the manuscript. The Emotion Thesaurus from The Bookshelf Muse will be indispensable for this process.
  • I still do a lot of telling, especially when it comes to emotions. Often I’m just not delving deep enough as to what my character think/feels and instead rely on shallow markers. Although Show and Tell is a topic worthy of it’s own post, here are some links to some resources: Janice Hardy’s You’re So Emotional, Kidlit.com’s What “Show, Don’t Tell” Really Means, and Adventures in Children’s Publishing’s Deciding When to Show and When to Tell.

This past week, I also ran across a great post on Ten Steps to a Clean Submission by editor Theresa Stevens. A must read if you are getting twitchy about querying.

And just this morning, Janice Hardy posted Five Ways to Kick Writing Up a Notch with some great tips anyone can do to polish up their prose.

So, what are your common writing mistakes? What have you had to teach yourself not to do?

Happy writing!
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Nefarious Narrative Distance

My name is Bluestocking and I have a problem with narrative distance.

Or at least that’s one of my problems. As I polish my historical romance novel, I keep finding sentences that just fall flat, DOA. Nothing’s wrong with them grammatically, but they simply aren’t doing enough work for my story. They are missed opportunities for character and voice, and as such, they keep reminding readers that yes, you are reading a story. Hence the narrative distance.

I’ve known for some time that this was an issue with my writing, particularly with this book, since it’s my first novel. I kept getting the agent equivalent of “I’m just not feeling it” and had to work out what that meant. Because I’ve been toiling away on this story over a period of years, it’s been subjected to the full range of my writing abilities — the good and the bad — and I’m at the point where I can finally see the bad and get rid of it.

This difficulty with narrative distance, especially in third person, is what led to my resolve to write in first person for any new writing projects (even those that will ultimately be in third person), and I’ve seen a tremendous improvement in my ability to capture my character’s voices and deepen the story’s immediacy. And while all that is great, it doesn’t help me go back and revise stories I wrote before I attained enlightenment on this issue.

So let’s hash out narrative distance.

Dave King (who co-authored Self-Editing for Fiction Writers) says narrative distance is “a more advanced use of point of view” particular to third person and “a continuum that measures how close your narrative voice is to your viewpoint character’s voice” (from Decoding Narrative Distance). Essentially, when handled poorly, it’s can be a more subtle, or shall we say nefarious, type of author intrusion (and Roni Loren has a great roundup in her recent post Author Intrusion: 12 Pitfalls To Avoid).

King also says:

When you describe details that aren’t appropriate to your character’s state of mind or history, you’re putting more narrative distance between your character and your readers. Another stylistic technique that controls narrative distance is how you handle your interior monologue. The more intimate your writing, the more the interior monologue starts to blend into the descriptions. The more distant your writing, the more you set your interior monologue apart through separate paragraphs, italics or even thinker attributions (“he wondered,” “she thought”).” (also from Decoding Narrative Distance)

Some stories will work more naturally with close, medium, or far distance. But as Jennifer R. Hubbard (author of The Secret Year) says in her post on Narrative Distance: “In general, a story with very close narrative distance must stay consistently close, or risk disorienting its reader.” In Character, Emotion, Viewpoint, author Nancy Kress suggests when using close third person, “start chapters with the more distant narrative you want to include, then move in closer to the character’s mind and stay there. This duplicates the movement of a camera in film as it glides from a set-up shot to a close-up” (2005, p. 187)

Like everything else in writing, the level of narrative distance must be balanced with other elements of craft. As Janice Hardy (author of the Healing Wars trilogy) points out in Keeping Your Distance, far narrative distance can make it feel like you are telling instead of showing your story, whereas close narrative distance can drag your story down with too much detail and reaction to every single thing.

Because narrative distance goes hand-in-hand with POV, it is important you understand those conventions, which are covered in any halfway decent book on writing. But if you are looking for a more technical examination of POV, check out Juliette Wade’s article on Point of View.

So what am I actually doing to remove the distance from my manuscript (and tightening POV by extension)?

  1. Making sentences as active and immediate as possible, except when passive is appropriate (ex. when something is being done to my viewpoint character).
  2. Which brings me to mimetic writing, where sentences mimic the action they are describing. This is especially important for action scenes or emotionally charged moments. Be sure to read Mary Kole’s post on this for a great overview of the concept.
  3. Removing filter words and (if necessary) recasting the intent of the sentence – things like “he felt/heard/smelled/tasted” or “she thought/knew/believed.” Chuck Palahniuk has a great essay on “Thought” verbs that is a must read.
  4. Ensuring worldbuilding, backstory, or other “infodumps” are incorporated as seamlessly and naturally as possible from my character’s perspective. This is hard to do in historicals and in speculative works (and I write both), where worldbuilding is so crucial to a convincing narrative. Anytime you stop the story to explain something to the reader, automatic narrative distance. Author Beth Revis recently pointed out the difference between “the door opened” and “the door zipped open” in her post My Best Tips with regards to seamless worldbuilding.

I’m sure there are more ways to improve things, but this is what I’m focused on during this pass through my MS.

What are your tricks?
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