Hunkerin’

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Dorian, where are you?

I got married in what I call the Year of the Hurricane (2004). Within a few weeks that fall, four hurricanes hit Florida, devastating mainly the central corridor of our state. Where I live, we were lucky to be tucked away in a spot that rarely receives a direct hit. Still, we received wind and rains from the outer bands of those storms, resulting in loss of power for days on end. How did we fare? Pretty well. In our early 20s, Thomas and I weren’t concerned about water bottles or extra batteries. We had everything we needed in our tiny apartment: doughnuts, pizza, sodas, candles, and Scrabble. We played endless games of the latter until we decided it might be nice to have A/C and a warm shower and relocated to his parents’ house, where they never lost power.

Fast forward to the last few years. My kids think that hurricane days are an adventure, but talks of school closing put me on edge. As someone who works at said school, I know that days off don’t come for free. And then there was the time that the kids and I actually evacuated. The way Hurricane Matthew’s track looked, we thought we would get a direct hit. We pulled all our pictures off the walls and put valuables on top of our beds in case the house flooded. The boys and I headed to central Florida, where it was sunny and hot, while Thomas had to stay put, due to his job. He had everything staged for if he had to abandon the house and head for a shelter, but the worst thing that happened was that A/C unit outside flooded, so he went without air for a couple days.

Thank goodness for modern technology that (usually) lets us know when major weather events will happen. But that still doesn’t remove nature’s unpredictability factor. A few months after Hurricane Matthew, a microburst struck our side of town out of nowhere. Listening to wind and hail beat all four sides of the house, I thought it was a tornado. Thomas was just down the street at the time, and a tree fell right in front of his car. When I left for work the next morning, our neighborhood looked like a war zone. Every house had lost at least a portion of fence, not to mention trees and large limbs.

Hurricane Dorian 2For Dorian, we never considered evacuating, but we did prepare for our neighborhood to flood and for an extended power outage. A hard rain can back up our storm drains, and our power has been known to go out when it’s not even raining. But it hasn’t flickered once, and today there was hardly any wind and just light, drizzly rain. We cancelled our Labor Day weekend vacation and stayed in town, and… nothing happened. At least not here. I feel for the people of the Bahamas, and I’ve since heard that cruise ship lines are responding with aid to those devastated by this slow-moving storm.

I started grad school (online) last week, and with that added activity, I now have at least one obligation every weeknight (and sometimes I’m double-booked). But since last Friday, my schedule has been clear. So what have we done? Thomas and I taught the boys how to play Scrabble. Our back patio got a top-to-bottom cleaning. And we’ve read. A lot. When I realized that we would have so many days at home—and there’s no guarantee I’ll get such dedicated reading time again for a while—I decided that the boys and I would finish the books we’re reading together, and I would try to finish my own novel, as well.

One of the greatest joys of being a mom is sharing my favorite books with my kids. Over a year ago, I started on the Artemis Fowl series with Peter. We’ve had to take breaks to fit in required reading for school, but we’re now just a few pages away from finishing The Time Paradox, the sixth of this eight-book series. I was determined that we’d finish the series before the end of the year when I wrote this year’s book list (read that post here). After that, I want to pull out some of my favorite historical fiction; Peter’s begun to take an interest in World War II.

Ian and I started reading Harry Potter just before the school year started. He’s in the Harry Pottersecond grade, and that’s when I read them to Peter. These are the first longer chapter books Ian’s read, and I worried that they might bore him; after all, he’s my ADHD kid who could never sit still for me to read to him when he was a baby. It does help that we have the beautifully illustrated Jim Kay versions (for the first three books), but even on the pages without illustrations, Ian is rapt. Many times, he’s asked me to read just a few more pages, or he’s carried the giant book to me, singing the Harry Potter movie theme. I feel like I’ve done something right because he told me a few days ago that he thinks the books are better than the movies because they made more effort with the books.

I feel guilty for getting so much time off when there was absolutely no reason for it. But how can you know? Not to mention that there are many people in my area who live in flood zones and aren’t as lucky. So the whole community has to abide by this schedule (and pray we don’t succumb to cabin fever). So I’m off now to read another chapter or two. Four books to go until I finish my 2019 book list!

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I Shouldn’t Have to Say This

Reading RainbowWhen I was a teacher, I was perplexed when a student refused to check out books on our weekly trips to the library—until I learned that the books went home and were never read. I told her I would be glad to read them to her, but she refused. She had already learned that non-technological pursuits had less value than flashy apps. And even though some of these apps were “educational,” they couldn’t make up for the parent-child interaction that comes with reading together. This is a battle all parents of the twenty-first century are fighting. Or, rather, it’s a battle I wish we would all fight. Too many of us have already waved the white flag, assigning reading the status of optional.

This is something that’s hard to wrap my mind around, considering that reading is like breathing to me. I went through a short period during which I didn’t want to read on my own—and I’m sure it was due to learning to read and spending my energies on deciphering the language rather than taking in the story—but I got over that pretty quickly. When I started reading novels, I soon had no more books to read at home and then discovered the wonders of my elementary school’s library. I plowed through Beverly Cleary and Little Women and every book of mythology I could get my hands on. In middle school, my dad introduced me to Michael Crichton, and then I discovered the vast catalog of Agatha Christie titles. When I met my husband, I was on a Stephen King kick, and he soon started reading my books when I finished them. Over the years this evolved to Harry Potter and many others. Other couples may hire a babysitter and go on dates. We sit around and read and then bug each other to read the books we’ve just finished so we can talk about them.

Naturally, this has extended to our children. When our elder son was little, we read Go, Dog. Go! to him so much that he had the book completely memorized and would act out the scenes. There have been some nights recently when our activities have necessitated getting the kids to bed way past their usual bedtimes, and for the sake of sleep, we have foregone our usual reading-together-before-bed ritual. And let me tell you: the kids don’t like it. “Can we read [book of the moment]?” Peter will ask. And I’ll feel horrible for having to turn him down.

I was recently reading on a Friday night, and with absolutely no reason to get up early the next day, I kept going until past midnight, finishing the last 90 pages of the book. (For someone who gets up at 4:40 every weekday, that’s quite a feat!) Devouring a book because it’s too good to put down is an amazing feeling. Ordering the sequel on Amazon is a close second.

Unfortunately, many people labor under the mistaken belief that novels are only for “escape” or “fluff.” On the contrary: I’ve learned all kinds of things from my sojourns in fiction, from new vocabulary to customs unlike my own to truths I may not have pondered had they not been presented to me in a unique, fictional light. Not to mention that all writers should read simply for the exposure to another writer’s perspective. For every age, not just children, books provide an excellent avenue for learning and growth, and a great example for children is to see people to whom they look up reading.

When I learned my elder son was dyslexic, I was distressed, worrying that the child who loved to be read to would hate books once he had to read them on his own. And although he still struggles, he loves books—and there are wonderful apps out there to make books accessible to those who do have reading problems. There is absolutely no reason why everyone should not be able to enjoy books in some form or fashion. (Books aren’t available to everyone, you may argue. Click here to read a blog that addresses this very issue.)

I’m not saying that other activities are without merit. I’m also a baseball/musical theatre/piano/visual arts/LEGO/Marvel Universe mom. I pride myself on offering my kids multiple outlets for their talents and interests, but I believe I would be robbing them of a great opportunity if I didn’t share my love of books with them. I shouldn’t have to make this argument at all, yet so many people harbor the notion that reading is only for people with oodles of spare time or who have a nerdish personality. For example, if you saw a muscular dude reading a book in the park instead of engaging in some form of physical activity, would you be surprised? If yes, it’s because popular culture has created a stereotype for the typical “reader.” But it shouldn’t be that way. Books are for everyone.

Maybe it’s corny, but I think the Reading Rainbow theme song states it pretty well:

Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high.
Take a look, it’s in a book, a Reading Rainbow!
I can go anywhere.
Friends to know,
and ways to grow.
A Reading Rainbow!
I can be anything.
Take a look,
it’s in a book.
A Reading Rainbow.

Summer 2015 Reading

Magical books

Magical books (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My last blog was all about the writing I’ve done this summer (and since then, I’ve achieved my Camp NaNoWriMo goal – yay!), but as any worthwhile author will tell you, you can’t write if you’re not reading. So I’ve been doing what a good writer should do, naturally.

The reading list that I set for myself this year is an ambitious one. (Read it here.) On it are 27 books, including several series. Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle has been on my to-read list for three years now, and I finally finished it. But those books are dense and ate up a lot of my reading time. As I approached the halfway point through the year, I wondered how I was doing.

I’m happy to report that as of mid-July, I’ve finished 13 of the 27 books. Maybe Inheritance didn’t set me back too far, after all. Of course, I read a lot during our two-week vacation. I worried I was being overly ambitious when I packed the entire Divergent series, as well as a book that a friend lent to me a few months ago. But I read the whole borrowed book on the plane trip from east coast to west coast (Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss – I highly recommend it, particularly if you’re a fan of British humor), and I plowed through all but a couple hundred pages of the Divergent series over the two weeks.

Ahead of me, I still have at least one doozy (Diana Gabaldon’s Written in My Heart’s Own Blood – all of the books in her Outlander series are formidable), plus Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series. I know I re-read it last year, but I want it to be fresh when the final movie comes out this fall. Also, I’ll start reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to my seven-year-old in the next week. I’m excited that he’s finally old enough to comprehend the story – we may have another Potter geek in the making.

Other than my non-fiction books (which I rarely list here, unless it’s what I consider entertaining non-fiction, such as Talk to the Hand), I’ve stuck to my book list pretty well. Early on, I decided to read Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone because I’d seen the movie and was interested in seeing what kind of extra character developments happened in the book. I’m glad I did. Woodrell’s use of language is unique, and as a writer, it’s always helpful to mix it up with a different style from time to time.

The only other detour I’ve made was Lisa Genova’s Still Alice (also a book-turned-movie). This was a book I had to read. I’m going back to teach full-time in the fall, and the faculty at my school has a summer reading list. Still Alice was the only novel on our list of choices. I’ve jotted down the titles of several non-fiction books that interest me, but I wanted a good story – and I got it. But frequent criers, keep your tissues handy.

I’m sticking to my list and loving it. I hope to finish Lois Lowry’s The Giver series by the time the kids go back to school (I’m halfway through the second book, Gathering Blue), and then I’ll keep plowing ahead.

And never fear – if I actually make it through this whole list, I already have several new books waiting. (She rubs her hands together and cackles with glee.)

What’s in a Title?

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Recently, when speaking with a group of kids about being an author, one of the questions was how to come up with the perfect title. Good lord, I wish I’d been able to give an adequate answer. Instead, I pointed out titles of books I knew they’d read, like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. It started the conversation, at least, but it didn’t give them a fool-proof formula. Such a thing doesn’t exist.

I used to keep a list of what I considered brilliant titles. The problem, of course, is that they have nothing to do with anything I’ve ever written. And even tougher than coming up with book titles was deciding what to call all those pesky chapters lurking between the covers. (It never occurred to me until recently that I could just use “Chapter One” or simply “1.”)

It’s not just the little people like me who deal with this. I’m re-reading Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, and while the book titles are decent, the chapter titles are inconsistent and often the pits. Yes, this is opinion speaking, but whenever I read some of them, I think, This guy was trying way too hard. Other times it seems like he just gave up. The first couple times I read these books, I didn’t give the chapter titles much thought, but this time around, I’m in a pickier mood. (Recently, I heard of a scholar who criticized the Bible for using subtitles for the various sections. It gives away what’s about to happen, she says. While I discounted her argument at the start, it’s niggled me enough to make me write this post.)

Unless you’re writing cookbooks or some other form of non-fiction, in which you need chapter titles and subtitles for quick reference’s sake, why bother with fiction? At first I thought it might just be a young adult thing, but then I remembered an adult series, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which uses chapter titles throughout. While these are great books, the chapter titles leave a lot to be desired. Sometimes they’re melodramatic (“I Shall Go Down to the Sea”), and sometimes they kind of act as mini spoilers (“In Which Jamie Smells a Rat”). Other chapter titles read like throw-away lines that simply reminded the author what she was writing about in this particular chunk.

What I find most helpful are chapter titles that place the reader. For instance, in Rick Riordan’s The Heroes of Olympus series (great books, by the way), the chapter titles are simply characters’ names. Although narrated completely in third person, this tells the reader whose perspective is represented in each chapter. (The only problem I see with this is when you accidentally open to the last chapter and see that it’s narrated by a character that the author wants you to believe is dead. Whoops.)

Both Stephenie Meyer and Veronica Roth used this character-name approach in books later in their series (Twilight and Divergent, respectively). This is especially helpful, considering these books are both narrated first person. Paolini tries it once in Eldest. It’s the first time he switches to a perspective other than Eragon’s. Instead, it’s his cousin Roran, and the oh-so-imaginative title of Roran’s first chapter? Right, it’s “Roran.” Which I would be fine with if other chapters weren’t titled “Requiem” or “The Beginning of Wisdom.” Like I said, sometimes he tried too hard, and others, he didn’t try hard enough.

I know, for someone who admittedly can’t write a good title unless she just lucks into it, why am I complaining? I guess I’m really not. I’m just wondering aloud (or in print). Chapter titles are convenient if you have a table of contents. And there are some brilliant ones out there. “The Boy Who Lived” comes to mind. (Please tell me you understand that reference – but just in case you don’t, it’s from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. What a great chapter title to pull you right into an amazing series.) So I guess they can’t all be bad. I’d just like some consistency, please.

Until reading Outlander and re-reading Eragon, I never gave chapter titles much thought. Some books have them, and others don’t. But now that I’ve started thinking about them so much, I know I’m going to scrutinize everything I read. Do I make predictions when there are titles, or do I forget the titles as soon as I finish reading them? Out of curiosity, I’ve picked a few books, different genres, different time periods, a diverse range of authors, and here’s what I’ve found:

Books with Chapter Titles:

Books with Only Numbered Chapters:

Books with Part Titles but No Chapter Titles:

There are other books that defy these kinds of categorizations, such as John Green’s Looking for Alaska and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. To see their unique chapter distinctions, I guess you’ll just have to check them out.

After looking back at all these books, some of which I’ve enjoyed multiple times, I realize that the chapter titles (or not) aren’t what I usually take away. Only when they get in the way are they problematic, such as with Outlander and Eragon. Yet with The Heroes of Olympus and Harry Potter, they actually helped orient me in the fictional worlds I was visiting – and sometimes even encouraged me to keep turning the pages. (She’s finally going to tell us about horcruxes! Oh wait, she isn’t. Darn, I guess I’ll just have to read another chapter…)

There isn’t a right or wrong way – or even one type of book that must follow one particular format. If I could, this is what I’d tell that middle school girl who asked me about titles: write what feels natural. If coming up with a creative name for each chapter feels contrived, don’t do it. But if titles are your thing, give them a try. At the end of the day, writing your story is the most important thing; fiction titles really should be secondary.

It seems that authors pick what they deem right for whichever books they’re writing at the time. After going over all the different types of chapter designations on my shelves, it’s obvious that I can’t just throw out one or another; there are some pretty awesome books that I don’t want to miss out on just because their chapter titles might put an idea in my head about some possible outcome.

Besides, you never know when an author is trying to trick you. Sometimes they can be pretty sneaky.

Spring “Cleaning”

Inheritance Cycle

Inheritance Cycle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I really wish I could tell you that I spent a good chunk of spring break getting rid of toys and clothes and giving my house the overhaul that it needs. Sadly, while I did the usual laundry and daily upkeep, I didn’t spend a lot of much-needed time cleaning.

My hope for our spring break, after returning from a few days at Disney World, was to catch up on my freelance projects and recreational reading. Any cleaning that happened in addition to that was gravy.

But would you believe it? My kids actually expected to do fun stuff for spring break. I know – can you believe the nerve? Really, they were little troupers. I had a lot of not-fun-for-kids stuff packed into those five weekdays. Now, they did get to stay up later than usual and watch movies and play outside, but there was still tutoring and the dentist and grocery shopping. I finally took them to the park last Friday, where they could just be kids.

It didn’t leave a whole lot of time for all that catching up I’d planned to do. I should have known better, but when spring break is on the horizon, it looks so sweet, has so much promise.

I did make some good progress on my biggest book project (and absolutely zero on another). I edited a bunch of my novel and only had a little left when school went back into session. In all honesty, I was happy to get any of that done.

But what I didn’t do much of was read for fun. Granted, I’m reading Eldest (sequel to Eragon). Not only is it close to 700 pages, but they’re a very cumbersome almost-700 pages. There’s a reason these books are on my book list for the third year in a row – and there’s also a reason I’m tackling them early.

For the first couple months of the year, I stuck to my 2015 book list, but to get more titles under my belt and break up the pace a little, I decided to read shorter books in between the Inheritance Cycle books. Aaaaand… well, I may have fallen off my book list wagon and bought a new book.

It was a shorty, I promise, and it was a really good one – a new-to-me author with a unique style that I admire, even if I can’t emulate it. (It was Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, in case you’re wondering.) The only problem was that I made a sort-of promise to myself that I wouldn’t buy any new books until I read through all the other new books that I already own, and this was a new book.

But after that little detour, I’m back on track again. Except…

One of the other things the kids and I did on spring break was to stop by my favorite local bookstore, and because the owner knows what a sucker I am for books, she reminded me that their 40% off spring cleaning sale was coming up.

You should be proud of me. I only bought four, two of them chosen by my elder son. But I have to say it makes me happy to know that there are more books for next year’s list if I don’t get to them this year.

New Books!

New Books!

Plus, I also have to say that sometimes you get a nice surprise where you don’t expect it. That book on the top left – The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore – is amazing. I highly recommend it if you love books; you don’t even have to have kids to appreciate it. I likely would not have bought it on my own, but Peter was excited to see it because he’d heard it before in his school’s library. I’ll have to say I’m pretty proud of my little bibliophile.

Despite not checking one thing off on my to-do list, I’m pretty happy with my spring break. It’s the little things.

How Do You Know What to Cut?

Last year I asked a number of beta readers to read my 120,000-word NaNoWriMo 2013 novel. After receiving an excellent critique from one of these beta readers, I shared with him how annoyed I was that I was somehow supposed to cut my word count in half. “What would you cut?” he asked. He understood that the novel had issues that needed to be fixed, but he didn’t think length was one of them. He couldn’t fathom how I could drastically cut yet keep the same story.

But I’ve done it. (Well, I haven’t cut it in half, but I’ve cut over 40,000 words.) When he recently offered to read the edited version of my novel, the question changed to, “How do you know what to cut?” My friend is simply curious and fascinated about the writing process, but many writers want to know the same thing. Lost, they wonder if they can cut and still keep the integrity of their stories.

It comes down to more than just correcting typos. Typos I can fix all day, and in fact, I was the queen of clean copies back before I took my first fiction workshop. Clean copies that weren’t all that great to read, as it turns out.

After my first story was critiqued, I discovered that I wasn’t the prodigy I’d always imagined myself to be. I assumed, at first, that people just didn’t get what I was trying to say. It was their problem. It was humbling to realize that they didn’t get me because my stories were a mess.

The credit goes to Ari, who led those fiction workshops. Much of how I write and edit today goes all the way back to those seven semester-long workshops that I took from 2002 to 2005.

Reading others’ stories and discussing them brought to light so many issues that are common among many writers, not to mention learning a lot of tough lessons when my own stories were critiqued. Ari has all kinds of pet peeves, and to this day, I don’t think I’ve written a sentence that starts, “As he went to the fridge” or “As she tied her shoes.” That particular type of sentence drove Ari nuts, and I guess it’s because it shows up so often. The point isn’t to avoid that one kind of sentence but to be intentional. Don’t fall into the trap of using the same sentence structure over and over again. You’ll find yourself on the slippery slope to lazy, sloppy writing.

Showing instead of telling was another biggie. (You can read more about that here.) I used to be the type of writer who had to describe the layout of every room and the outfit of every character. Was this necessary? Nope. That’s not to say that all descriptions are bad, but what you write must add to the story.

For instance, Harry Potter’s lightning scar, green eyes, and trademark glasses form a quick mental picture, and the scar and eyes have their own stories. But is it important to know what brand of jeans or what color shirt he wears? Do we need to know every single item he keeps on top of his dresser? Only the ones that may come up later. Why? Chekov explains it so well: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Eragon and its sequels are popular young adult novels that run to excess when it comes to descriptions and scenes that don’t move the story forward. Each book could easily be cut by tens of thousands of words. Some descriptions are helpful. We’re dealing with a fantasy world, after all. But too much bogs down the text, gives it a plodding pace. I enjoy these books, but I know I have to invest a lot of time when I want to read them. Not because they’re thick books but because there’s a lot of unneeded padding packed into those pages.

You may have heard the phrase, “Kill your darlings” (attributed to just about every well-known writer, and it’s because they all know it’s true). Does this mean that I need to cut every word, every line, every scene that I’m proud of? Well, not quite. But what it does mean is that writers often get attached to bits of prose that ought not be included in the manuscripts where they currently reside.

Ugh. But I worked so hard on that scene. The words flow beautifully. If there’s one thing I won’t cut, it’s that line…

I’ve been there and cut that. My trick to save myself from writer’s remorse is to save all major revisions as separate documents. Then I don’t feel quite as bad about nixing a line or scene when I know I can go back and paste it in again. Which I’ve done.

It takes a certain willingness to cut any- and everything that is not essential to the story. It takes a thick skin when you realize what you cut the first time wasn’t enough (even if it was a lot), and you have to go back and perform major surgery again. It also takes a certain editorial know-how, which may mean that you’ll either have to hire an editor or babysit your favorite reader’s kids for the next five years. Even if you’re a proficient editor, I highly recommend beta readers. (Just be ready to read their stories, too. It’s only fair.)

As Stephen King recommends in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, temporal distance also helps. Take a month off; then come back to a manuscript with fresh eyes. You’ll be surprised at the number of throw away scenes that seemed brilliant at the time but are really just filler – and conversely, the number of excellent scenes you’re surprised you actually wrote. (And while we’re talking about On Writing, which I highly recommend you get, King also gives an excellent example of a block of text before, during, and after editing, so you can see the actual process.)

You may notice, after coming back to your story after a break, that you don’t like your opening chapter. You don’t even need that first scene, in the grand scheme of things. Or maybe it belongs much later. Be open to not just cutting words out of sentences, but restructuring completely. We’re not just talking a face lift or a nose job. We’re talking vivisection. It’s going to be messy, and it’s not going to look like the story you started with, but as I reassure everyone who’s read my beta novel and liked it, I haven’t changed the content, unless I improved it.

Last, please read your text aloud. I know it’s difficult if you have a full house and little privacy, but you really need to do this. You will be surprised how good something sounds in your head but how terrible it sounds when spoken. You’ll notice where you start to bore yourself. Or if you read aloud to another person, you’ll see where you lose your audience.

In all of these ways, you can transform a story, for instance, that opens with a girl thinking about how scared she is and how much she misses her old life (and why) to a story that puts the thing she fears on her doorstep and makes her take action.

It’s Query Time

Sometime between 2004 (when I first started querying literary agents) and now, there have been drastic changes in the publishing industry. When I first started, e-queries were a no-no. In fact, they were hardly mentioned on agents’ websites (if they had websites). I snail mailed every query with an SASE, which I wasn’t guaranteed to see for months, if at all (which always drove me nuts – I paid for the stamp, so please send it back). Very few agents accepted simultaneous submissions, and every query how-to that I read stressed the author bio part. Like the more creditability you have, the better your chance of landing an agent. So if you’re unpublished, good luck.

For a while, I didn’t change anything about the way I queried. I took time off to have a baby. Then I wasted almost two years with a scam artist for an agent (read about that here). After that, I didn’t much care for agents for a while and quit looking.

Then I immersed myself in the world of e-publishing – writing articles online for people I’ll never meet in person, publishing e-books that will never be printed. I felt up to braving the sea of rejections again and began researching query letters, figuring that I had to do something different than before.

Lo and behold, many of the “standards” of query submission from ten-plus years ago are now the exception rather than the rule. Most agents prefer e-mail submissions, and only a handful ask for exclusive submissions. In fact, more than one agent I’ve read about has said exclusive submissions are ridiculous because you could easily spend years and never get anywhere. Well, I’ve been there and done that.

With all this talk about querying, you can guess what I’ve been up to lately. Yep, I finished editing my 2013 NaNoWriMo novel (again), and I began looking into agents this week. Querying is one of the most challenging aspects of the writing process. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about the agents and imagining how great it would be to work with this or that one. Except that imagining is as far as it’s ever gone. (The scammer that I had met exactly zero of my expectations, but I was so enthralled with the idea that I HAVE AN AGENT that I kind of pushed all that aside.)

As I’ve heard various agents say numerous times, it’s not the query that wins the contract but the book. The problem is, of course, that if you bomb on the query, your book may never even get a cursory glance. So I’ve always felt that pressure to write the perfect query letter. I’ve done my best to make them personal. But not only did I have exactly zero positive responses last time I queried (no surprise), I didn’t even get responses from the majority of them. One was an agent with whom I’d worked before. I queried her twice. Nada.

So this time, after stressing more than I should have about what to write and how to write it (and coming up with a great hook but forgetting to write it down), I went online to brush up on Query Writing 101. There are more good resources out there than I can count. Many of them agree on the basics (like the order of the paragraphs doesn’t matter, but when you do talk about your story, it better have a great hook), and they usually give examples of both good and bad queries. The bad ones are great (read one here). Not only will you laugh at the sheer stupidity of some writers, but the number of real, terrible queries gives me hope that one of these days, I may stand out from the masses.

The problem is that it doesn’t matter how many good queries you read, you can’t just switch out the words that apply to your book and call it good. Every writer and every story is different. I remember feeling hopeful when I read Stephen King’s On Writing because he uses a great query example, but I could never make that format work for me.

The absolute best resource I have found for writing queries is in literary agent Mary Kole’s book Writing Irresistible Kidlit. As the title suggests, it’s mostly about the writing process for middle grade and young adult writers. But as an agent herself, Kole does her readers a favor and devotes an entire chapter to query do’s and don’t’s. She also gives an example of a real query letter that worked, with lots of commentary about why.

The part that helped me the most is the section in which she boils down how to write the novel summary by answering five questions. I’ve done this exercise with two novels now, and not only does it show where your story has holes (if you can’t answer the questions easily), but it also gives you an easy way to summarize and not go on for pages and pages. Even if you don’t write kidlit, I would recommend this book just for the query chapter.

So I wrote a basic query for my novel that I will customize according to the agents I choose. I cannot stress enough that reading submission guidelines is an absolute must. Not only do you want to make sure you send exactly what the agent wants, but sometimes one agency may want you to include something in your query that you haven’t used before. This happened on my latest query. The agency wants to know why I’m the best writer for this book. It gave me the opportunity (although a very brief one) to explain how my story came to me.

It also seems that literary agents are less concerned with your credentials (for instance, some say that you should minimize publications that aren’t related to what you’re querying). Of course, if you’ve won an award, that’s always good information to have on your side. What they would rather hear is that you have a good grasp of your market. Although they don’t come out and say it, I believe this is because writers are expected to do more marketing than ever before. And if you don’t know your audience and what they like to read, you have little chance of selling your novel.

At the same time, it’s an absolute no-no to write a wizard book and then send a query saying you’re the J.K. Rowling of the next generation. I scanned my bookshelves and was surprised to find a number of non-Harry Potter books that had elements similar to my own story. My husband even made a great suggestion about a book with a character who shares some of my protagonist’s strengths. More than ever, the idea that you need to read voraciously in order to write is very important.

So that’s what I’m going to do: read, write, edit… and query. Wish me luck!