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 So if you’re unpublished, good luck.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!

Another Project Bites the Dust


The setup for NaNoWriMo at home, if I need to ...

Getting ready for NaNoWriMo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This past week was the big deadline: after June 30th, the CreateSpace coupon code for two free copies of my NaNoWriMo novel would expire. As a perfectionist, I found it difficult to call my novel good enough. But then I realized that not only had a written a novel – from scratch – in just a few months, but I had also fully revised it a couple times. That’s a record for me – and quite an accomplishment, considering I’m so picky.

Now, if you’re reading this and wondering, What in the world is she talking about? What is NaNoWriMo?, I will tell you. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) comes around every November. Why November? I don’t know. You can read more at All I know is that it’s awesome. And it’s also for crazy people. Like me. Even some really successful novelists participate in NaNoWriMo. Like Sara Gruen, who wrote Water for Elephants, and Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus.

While brainstorming my last blog of October – the one in which I would list all the reasons why my sorry butt wouldn’t participate in NaNoWriMo, yet again – I had an idea of novel-sized proportions. So I figured, What the heck? I just had a couple days to wait, so I held off until November first, then started writing like… what did I say earlier? Oh yeah – a crazy person.

A novel, as defined by NaNoWriMo, is 50,000 words. I wrote over 80,000 in November, so I “won,” but I wasn’t finished with the book. I kept at it until I finally finished in early February. Then I sat back and let it rest for a month – something Stephen King recommends (maybe I read it in On Writing – can’t remember).

When the month-long waiting period was over, it was time to start editing. I usually enjoy editing just as much as writing. Sometimes it’s the joy of discovering a detail I forgot I wrote. Sometimes I realize I really screwed something up, and I feel liked I’ve accomplished something after I fix it. And I always, always try to cut extraneous words and make the manuscript as clean as possible.

Now, I know this will sound gross, but the first draft is kind of like diarrhea of the pen (or keyboard, whatever). Many – way too many – writers leave their first drafts pretty much alone, so consider how awful it is for editors to read diarrhea-on-the-page. One of the goals of NaNoWriMo is to just plow straight through, so there’s going to be lots of crap. It’s necessary if you’re going to write so much in such a short time. But if you want to have a chance of the success that Sara Gruen, Erin Morgenstern, and authors like them have enjoyed, you have to return to that original draft and pull out your ax. After all the useless words are cut, you pull out your chisel and try to make the story as close to its intended shape as possible.

One great goal to help achieve this is another that Stephen King recommends (which I read in the same place as “wait  a month”): he says to cut the manuscript by 10%. I have tried this with other novels and short stories – always to no avail. If you haven’t figured out by now, I’m wordy. I mean, I almost always break the blogs-should-only-be-500-words rule. And I had new scenes that I wanted to add to my book. How in the world would I cut a 148,000-word book down to a little over 133,000? (A double-spaced page in a word processing program has 250 to 300 words, so that’s like cutting 50 to 60 pages.)

My mom's amazing cover art.

My mom’s amazing cover art.

But I did. And for once in my writing life, I surpassed my goal. A couple days before the deadline, I trimmed it to just over 129,000. I even managed to design a cover. I got the basic outline done, told my mom (who is an amazing artist) what I really wanted, and then she waved her magic wand, and BOOM! Cover, done. It’s wonderful having a talented mom.

I sell my children’s book through CreateSpace (shameless plug – buy it here!), so I knew I needed to submit my story one day early to make it through the reviewing process. Hero is an illustrated book, so I had to submit it as a PDF. Like a dummy, I assumed my novel needed to be a PDF, as well. It was only after I submitted it that I saw they would also accept .doc or .docx.

Sure enough, the morning of the 30th, I saw that they had rejected the PDF – it cut off all my pages numbers. So I resubmitted it as a .doc, then waited. And waited. I went to sleep and set my alarm to wake me a few minutes before midnight, so I could still order my copies before my coupon code expired. But at midnight, July first, my book still wasn’t approved.

Grr. By the time I woke up the next morning, the book was approved. Isn’t that how it always goes? Part of me felt like giving up and continuing to edit my book to supposed perfection. But I’m enough of a realist to know that that will never happen. The whole reason I even considered sending it to CreateSpace to begin with was because of the two free copies, but I was already planning on buying a few more. They’re not expensive, and I wanted to have something nice to give my beta readers. So I went ahead and ordered them anyway.

My books should arrive early next week. I am both excited and nervous. If you had told me this time last year that I would have a sudden brainwave and write an entire novel in just over three months – and edit it and print it for its first critique-ers within eight months – I would have thought you were nuts. I had no idea that I would love NaNoWriMo. Even though I had to write ridiculous amounts every day, it wasn’t a chore. Maybe it’s just that serendipitous magic of the right story coming to me at the right time. As is my goal every time I write fiction, I created the story that I wanted to read. My only hope that my beta readers agree and won’t give a unanimous, What was she thinking? This is terrible!

Either way, my third big project of this year is done. I’m currently living in a bit of a fiction-writing vacuum. Yes, I still have plenty to do. But at night, when the kids are in bed and I’d usually be revising, I sit around and think, What do I do now? It’s hard to adjust back to a normal life, whatever that is.

There is, however, one consolation. I know that when my beta readers get done – even if their comments are miraculously positive – I’ll have my work cut out for me again. And I look forward to that day.

Punctuation: It’s More Than Emoticons

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day (Photo credit: DavidErickson)

In Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, she has a particular problem with emoticons – you know, the colons and parentheses that make sideways smileys, as she calls them. I admit that I use them, but only for fun. I certainly don’t include them in cover letters or resumes. But there is a whole generation of kids right now who, without proper education, might never know that the colon has an actual use within a sentence.

Anyone interested in punctuation has a dual reason to feel aggrieved about smileys, [Truss writes,] because not only are they a paltry substitute for expressing oneself properly; they are also designed by people who evidently thought the punctuation marks on the standard keyboard cried out for an ornamental function. What’s this dot-on-top-of-a-dot thing for? What earthly good is it? Well, if you look at it sideways, it could be a pair of eyes. What’s this curvy thing for? It’s a mouth, look! Hey, I think we’re onto something.

: – (

Now it’s sad!

; –)

It looks like it’s winking! (193)

Why should we care, though? Why bother continuing to fight what seems a losing battle? Truss puts it pretty well early in her book.

The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart. Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play. (20)

As a musician, I get it. Anyone who’s ever read lines from a script gets it, too. But what about everyone else, those who consider punctuation so much debris on the page? Think about ancient Hebrew, in which there was no punctuation, nor were there spaces between words – not even vowels! There have been nasty fights over translations of the Bible because of this. But by the time we began printing, we’d devised ways to help readers decipher the meaning of what they were reading. All these little marks, the periods and colons and dashes and hyphens, are aids; they’re here to help us.

When did things begin to fall apart? Truss gives her opinion on the matter, one well worth noting:

But to get back to those dark-side-of-the-moon years in British education when teachers upheld the view that grammar and spelling got in the way of self-expression, it is arguable that the timing of their grammatical apathy could not have been worse. In the 1970s, no educationist would have predicted the explosion in universal written communication caused by the personal computer, the internet and the key-pad of the mobile phone. But now, look what’s happened: everyone’s a writer!

[. . .] People who have been taught nothing about their own language are (contrary to educational expectations) spending all their leisure hours attempting to string sentences together for the edification of others. And there is no editing on the internet! (16-7)

That’s right; there are a lot of people claiming to be writers – educated people! – who make absolute fools of themselves online. Since anyone with access to a computer could be a virtual writer now, it is more important than ever to know the rules. How many times have you misread an e-mail because it’s just so hard to decipher tone and meaning via electronic communication? At least if the punctuation is right, that will go a long way toward making the meaning clearer.

After we learn the rules, we can flex our artistic muscles and enhance our writing with the stylistic uses of punctuation, as Noah Lukeman points out in A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. As I mentioned two posts ago, the only form of punctuation that he doesn’t cover is the apostrophe. He even considers paragraph breaks as a form of punctuation. And the way you apply (or don’t) all the different forms of punctuation tells something about you, the writer.

The semicolon, for instance. Aside from the winky face, what good is it? A semicolon separates two independent clauses when a comma and conjunction just don’t do the trick, and when two sentences separate those thoughts a little too much. But writers could choose one of the alternatives I’ve just listed and still be technically correct. Truss says that newspapers don’t use it,

[T]he official reason being that readers of newsprint prefer their sentences short, their paragraphs bite-sized and their columns of type uncluttered by wormy squiggles. It’s more likely that the real reasons are a pathetic editorial confusion about usage and a policy of distrusting contributors even when they demonstrably know their onions. (110)

Ouch. And Lukeman’s take is that

Artistically, the semicolon opens a world of possibilities, and can lend a huge impact. In this sense, it is the punctuation mark best suited for creative writers[. . .]

We use the semicolon for the same reason we trade cement floors for marble: cement floors are equally functional but not as elegant, not as aesthetically pleasing as marble. The semicolon elevates punctuation from the utilitarian (from punctuation that works) to the luxurious (to punctuation that transcends). Business memos do not need semicolons; creative writers do. (70)

It follows that creative writers are artists and might decide to get flowery with their punctuation, but I can easily imagine academic writers turning up their noses at such a notion. There are, however, necessary punctuation marks that everyone has to use, so it’s important to learn about them – and how to keep from overusing them. Lukeman subtitles a portion of his last chapter “Use Sparingly,” and included in this section are the question mark, exclamation point, italics, ellipses (you know: . . .), and the hyphen. Most of these make sense, but the question mark? It’s supposed to come at the end of a question, right? I mean, it wouldn’t be right to end a question with a period (although that doesn’t stop people from trying). In the publishing world, Lukeman says,

[A] publishing professional is looking to reject a manuscript as quickly as he can. [. . .] And an abundance of question marks in the first pages  [. . .] nearly always indicates amateur or melodramatic writing. For some reason, the poor question mark gets seized upon by the writer who is desperate to immediately hook the reader in a cheap way. (184)

Likewise, the exclamation point

[C]an be painfully misused. Like the question mark, it can be used as a crutch to create a heightened sense of drama, can be transformed into a screaming car salesman. As a rule, if you need an exclamation point to make a scene come alive, then you better reexamine that scene. (187)

I do like an example that Truss cites, however, that wouldn’t be possible without these two marks. She mentions “the French 19th-century novelist Victor Hugo, who – when he wanted to know how Les Miserables was selling – reportedly telegraphed his publisher with the simple inquiry ‘?’ and received in the expressive reply ‘!'” (136).

Those of us who care enough to properly and painstakingly choose between semicolons and colons must first learn the rules (and when to break them) and unite with fellow sticklers. I’m waving my electronic hand here, trying to catch the attention of anyone else who cares. As Truss says,

[M]y personal hunches about the state of the language were horribly correct: standards of punctuation in general in the UK are indeed approaching the point of illiteracy; self-justified philistines (“Get a life!”) are truly in the driving seat of our culture; and a lot of well-educated sensitive people really have been weeping friendlessly in caves for the past few years, praying for someone – anyone – to write a book about punctuation with a panda on the cover. (xix-xx)

Truss’s book has a lot of answers, as well as Lukeman’s (and he covers much more than I’ve been able to do here). Three other books that I highly recommend because they have greatly helped me with the craft are the old standby, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (4th Edition), Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and (believe it or not) Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft.

And I’ll let Noah Lukeman have the final word on making the case for proper punctuation:

[L]et your punctuation unfold organically, as the text demands. Punctuation should never be forced on a text, never be brought in to rescue you from confusing sentence construction. It is not here to save – it is here to complement. This is an important distinction. The sentence itself must do the work. If it does, the punctuation will coexist seamlessly, and you will never  have an awkward struggle to squeeze in a dash, or make a semicolon work. If you find yourself having a struggle, reexamine your sentence structure, your word choice. More likely than not, you will need to rewrite, not repunctuate. [. . . I]n the best writing the punctuation is seamless, invisible, at one with the text. It will never stand out. You know you are punctuating the best you possibly can when, ironically, you don’t even know it’s there. (200)