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 So if you’re unpublished, good luck.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!

The Year of Writing Dangerously

Novel Motto

From the time I was thirteen, I knew I wanted to be an author, and at that age, it seemed like such a reasonable dream. It’s a hard one to obtain, though. I went to college as an English major, despite people encouraging me to take up journalism or something that might actually be useful. I was going to be an author – why would I need to pursue anything else? You know, anything practical.

Then somewhere around my junior year in college, reality set in. By then, I’d found my university’s writing program and an excellent fiction workshop, run by my friend Ari. I think, if it weren’t for Ari’s workshops, I never would have been able to see the level of improvement that I’ve noticed in my fiction. Yes, I have good proofreading and editing skills – inherited from my proofreader mother – but my fiction was not worth reading until I experienced some first-hand criticism.

One aspect of the workshop was getting a story publication-ready. And Ari made no bones about the difficulties of publishing. It’s a cruel world, where editors who have bad days arbitrarily consign authors to the slush pile, no matter the worth of their stories. That’s why a group of us started our own literary journal, Fiction Fix, which is still going strong today. But as much as my editing credentials with Fiction Fix have done for me, they haven’t done anything for me in the greater world of novel publication.

The real world impeded on my dream to the point that I all but forgot it at times. After having my first child, I not only took a long hiatus from Fiction Fix, but I basically quit caring about writing for a while. Three straight years of rejection from literary agents can do that to you, and falling in love with my newborn son made my career-of-choice pale in comparison.

But the dream did not die, and I returned to my stories, often becoming lost in them for weeks or months before getting burnt out again. And then I decided that I would branch out and just get whatever kind of freelance work I could find. As long as I could have some sort of income from writing, that’s what I always wanted, right? Well, not quite.

I enjoy writing and editing, and I’m good at what I do, but the problem with freelancing is that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the assignments and forget the joy that I initially had when I just wrote stories all the time. And I am spoiled by having a husband whose job allows me the flexibility to write what I want to write. So why haven’t I been doing just that?

When I participated in NaNoWriMo this year, forcing myself to almost write full-time – and on a project with no guaranteed paycheck at the end – I finally fulfilled a little bit of my teenage dream. Never have I spent so much concentrated time writing, and never have I enjoyed it so much. This is what I had in mind (although being paid to do it would certainly be ideal).

I also regained some of that hope of someday writing a novel that people would pay to read. I had a lot of that hope when I was in college, before the harshness of life and the publication world fully set in. But after a while, I started to wonder why I kept trying if no one wanted to give me the time of day. And I was frustrated that I got older and still had nothing to show for all the stories I’d written. But the problem is that if I don’t submit, if I don’t get up every time I’m rejected and try again, no one’s just going to knock on my door and ask if I have a book that I would like to publish.

This is not a New Year’s resolution, first of all because it’s been in the works since November. But more than that, I’m not changing my ways, only to revert back to old habits within a few weeks. Rather, I hope that my rediscovered passion will give me that push to make this year the most productive I’ve ever been, as far as writing fiction is concerned. I’m already looking at contests and searching for new agents. I’m still working on the first draft of the novel I started with NaNoWriMo. And I’m determined not to lose my enthusiasm this time.

One day you’ll see me in print. And maybe – just maybe – it will be sooner rather than later.

Five Points to Hufflepuff, Please

English: Coat of arms Hufflepuff, house of Hog...

Coat of arms Hufflepuff (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every week, I read a number of submissions for the online journal Fiction Fix, and the authors’ cover letters are available, as well. Although I don’t always read the queries, I sometimes check them out to see if there is any kind of intro to the story. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started reading a piece, only to wonder if it was some sort of attempt at humor or just terribly written. If the author clues me in with something like, “This is a dark comedy,” at least I’ll have an idea of how I’m supposed to read it. One time, I had to re-write a critique when I found out that the current story was a lightly edited memoir, recorded from an elderly woman who had served as a nurse in WWII. There were still parts I thought should have been cut, but I could no longer argue that it was unrealistic; as subjective as the point of view was, the events had actually happened.

One other thing that Fiction Fix does is to award well-written or unique cover letters. The ones that are nominated by the staff for Fiction Fix‘s Gypsy Sachet Award are tagged, and I always read them. I’m actually quite disappointed, sometimes, when the cover letter knocks my socks off, and then the story that follows is just meh. I do understand that writing a great query does not guarantee publication, but it goes a long way toward warming an editorial staff toward a particular author.

When it comes to submitting queries for my own stories, I keep these preferences in mind. I want to include all the pertinent info, but I also want to do so in a way that doesn’t bore the agent or editor to death. They have to read this stuff all day, and mine shouldn’t be the one that makes them decide to take a lunch break at 9:00 A.M.

I keep a file of all the queries I’ve ever written to literary agents, and once I receive a rejection (or once it’s been so long that I have to accept I’ve been rejected, form letter or no), I change the font of the entire thing to red. So far, I have twenty-seven of these ugly red things, going back to late 2004. I know, in almost nine years of literary agent querying, that’s not very many, but if you consider that eleven are from this year. . . it’s kind of depressing.

Why do I keep the darn things hanging around, reminding me of my failures? Well, for one thing, I don’t want to send the same query to the same place that’s already rejected me. For another, I don’t want to make the same mistakes, and at least I can look back and see if I’ve improved.

Assisting me this with year’s queries was literary agent Mary Kole, whose advice I obtained from her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit. Kole gives a brilliant sample query from one of her own clients, although she is quick to point out that “even the most amazing query in the world can’t stand in for a brilliant book” (271, Kindle version). Too true. It’s also true that it’s hard to make a bad story sound good (while being honest, that is), but it’s also a sad fact that many agents request a query only – no sample chapters, not even a helpful synopsis. So while it’s easy for agents to say that they’re looking for a great novel, not a great query, if the only thing they ever see is the query, it has to be top notch.

There are two querying problems I’ve always had: boiling the plot of a novel down to a few short paragraphs and keeping it interesting. Brevity is a problem of mine, anyway (which you know if you’ve read many of my posts), and it’s especially hard snail mailing a query because all that necessary heading stuff eats up so many lines. With this most recent go-round, I’ve both e-mailed and snail mailed queries, and believe me, it was fun trying to cram the same info into two very different formats. But I did it, with Mary Kole’s help.

To digress for a moment, I’ve read countless sample queries, and I’ve written many more than the twenty-seven rejections currently on file. Plenty of how-to publications outline the proper cover letter format, and supposedly all the author has to do is fill in the blanks with her particular information, and the job’s done, right? Or, say you see a great cover letter that won an author a literary agent – I should just be able to swap out his info for mine. But it never works out so neatly. I find that successful letters have personal touches that simply cannot be copied. It’s all very well for an author to candidly admit that he and his wife blew the $500 he received for his award-winning short story instead of buying groceries, but I haven’t won $500; I don’t have a cute little story like that. Plus, since my published works were for adults, and I’m currently shopping a middle grade novel, mentioning my publishing history hardly seems pertinent.

So how to achieve just the right tone, find the perfect words to not only adequately say what I need but also win over an agent? Kole gives an excellent formula for coming up with what she calls the meat. “The best way to hook me into reading further is to make me care,” she writes (264). Good point. How does one do this? Well, by answering some very basic questions about the story: “WHO is your character?”; “WHAT is the event that launches the story (the Inciting Incident)?”; “WHAT (or who) does the protagonist want most in the world?”; “WHO (or what) is in the way of her getting what she wants (her obstacle)?”; and “WHAT is at stake if the protagonist doesn’t get what she wants?” (264). Put that way, it’s a lot easier than, “Tell us about your novel in three paragraphs.” For someone who’s known to ramble, specific parameters are a must. (Plus Kole answers her own questions using The Hunger Games as her example, which is awesome.)

After going through this exercise, what I had was bare bones, but I was able to succinctly state the most important aspects of my story. (This can also be used as a writing tool, to show how much a story still needs to develop and/or how much exposition needs to be cut.) At least the meat of my query was good.

As for the rest, ugh. I muddled my way through and was much more confident than in years past, but I was still missing that last bit of inspiration.

It finally came – late – from one of the agents way down on my list. (Actually, she was the last one, but the one before her was a snail mail query that I hadn’t yet sent, so I was able to tweak it, too.) This agent works for quite a large agency; she was one of twenty-one agents listed on the website. I love it when agents have bios because, otherwise, I’m unsure of how our personalities might mesh or collide (although that’s not a problem yet). This particular agent set the bar really high, asking for a “wonderful, personalized query letter.” And the kicker: “Five points to Ravenclaw if you can make me laugh out loud!”

I’m always afraid to admit that I love Harry Potter, especially since I write fantasy. Oh, it’s just another J.K. Rowling wannabe, I can hear them saying. But it couldn’t hurt, I thought, to mention that Harry Potter was my inspiration for getting into kidlit again. Or that the five points would do me more good in Hufflepuff than in Ravenclaw (and that has more to do with me being a Jill-of-all-trades than a Cedric Diggory groupie).

So I sent those two queries off, and my fingers are crossed. If one of them lands me an agent, maybe I’ll provide the letter as one of those useless samples that kind of (but not really) helps other authors. The important thing is to be yourself in your query, and this particular agent was one of the first to give me specific permission to do that. I suppose it’s only fair to let them know who they’re dealing with, anyway.

Good-Bye, Little Decade

English: Traditional Devil's Food Birthday Cake

Birthday Cake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I write this, it is the last day I will ever be twenty-something, and while I would usually rather crawl under a rock than draw attention to my birthday, this one’s kind of a biggie. I could not wait to get out of my teens. I started college when I was seventeen, the youngest kid in my orientation class. I was always self-conscious about my age and went to great pains to stay inconspicuous. Every birthday, I thought, “Well, at least now I can say I’m in my twenties,” “Now maybe I’ll get some respect, since I’m past twenty-five,” and so on. But even now, I know that most of you are probably rolling your eyes, thinking I’m still a baby. I reach this age with mixed emotions because there were things I always assumed I would do before I hit thirty. But here I am, as unpublished and anonymous as ever, at least as far as the brick-and-mortar bookstores are concerned. But is that what life’s all about, anyway? I’ve thought a lot about what did happen in my twenties lately, and it’s been a pretty eventful ten years, even if I didn’t accomplish every single goal.


Two months after turning 20, I set my wedding date and started planning. I finished writing my first novel and started the long process of revising. I graduated with a BA (English/Philosophy) six months to the day before my wedding. I hardly noticed that I was finished with school, so immersed was in the editing and typesetting process of the second volume of Fiction Fix.


Thomas and I got married two months after I turned 21. I was actually the breadwinner the first five months we were married (scary thought because my salary was not spectacular). We lived in a tiny apartment and loved it, although we were excited (and naive) about becoming homeowners in the near future. 2004 was also what I think of as the Year of the Hurricane. There were four big storms, at least for Northeast Florida, and we spent many a night playing Scrabble by candlelight. A couple months before my next birthday, Thomas and I put a deposit down on our condo.


Not wanting to go month-to-month on our rent, Thomas and I moved in with his parents the weekend that I turned 22. Then our condo complex’s original builders went out of business, and it turned into a huge fiasco. We were assured our condo would be ready by September—November at the latest. We should have just walked away, but the $4000 we’d put down seemed like too much to lose. Oh well. One cool thing I did that year was to travel to New York with a group of choral friends, where we performed contemporary British composer John Rutter’s Requiem in a mass choir in Carnegie Hall. Even better than singing in Carnegie Hall was being directed by Rutter himself.


In May of 2006, Thomas and I became homeowners. We tried to put the extra six months of waiting behind us, figuring that in a couple years, we’d make all our money back, plus some, then get a house where we could raise a family. Ha. Anyhow, we moved in and adopted our kitty Willow shortly afterward. That fall, I had gum surgery, in preparation for getting braces. But before filling my mouth with metal, I found out I was pregnant.


It was mostly the year of the inflating, pregnant belly (and everything that goes with it). I cannot forget that this was also the year the last Harry Potter book came out. My parents, Thomas, and I went to Barnes and Noble for the midnight release. I read it aloud all the way home and much of the next day. (Thomas read ahead while I napped—hey, give me a break, I was pregnant.) Sad to think we’ll never go to a midnight Harry Potter book release again. Our first son Peter was born a few months later. The middle-of-the-night feedings, colic, and reflux were a pain, but his first few weeks are still magical to me. It’s a time I also associate with the movie The Departed, which we watched almost constantly for a month or two. When Peter was four months old, I got braces. At that point, the economy had already tanked, and my job at my family’s small business started to disappear. I transitioned to bookkeeper, which is much less than full-time. If I’d known, then, that we would have to survive on little more than Thomas’s salary, I probably wouldn’t have paid $6000+ to fix my bite, but it was money better spent than the $4000 we wasted on the condo’s deposit.


For several months, my family focused on my maternal grandfather and his failing health. I’m so glad that he lived long enough to know Peter, whom he adored. We honored his 89 years with a beautiful memorial service. Just a few months after Grandaddy died, my church ordained me as a deacon (in the Presbyterian church, we’re the lay people who provide pastoral care for the congregation and staff), and I know he would have been proud. On the writing front, I took a break from Fiction Fix to concentrate on being a mom. And on the mommy front, Peter was more and better than I ever could have imagined. I worried I would never lose the baby weight, but constant exercise and an appliance installed in the roof of my mouth that made it almost impossible to eat helped me lose an extra 20 pounds. Never fear, my orthodontist fit me with a new appliance, and my appetite was back by the time we took Peter on his first trip to Disney World.


On my 26th birthday, we went to Disney again, and I became extremely sick. When we got home, I was diagnosed with double ear infections and tonsillitis. But the fun was only starting; the antibiotic I took gave me hives that covered my entire body, including inside my mouth. Ugh. It was also the year when we realized that we had already lived in the condo three years and would continue to live there longer than expected. A lot longer. But we cringed at the idea of selling it and only breaking even or maybe even taking a couple-thousand dollar hit. I wish we had. But I had high hopes for making lots of money and paying off the balance because I finally landed a literary agent. That means publication, right? Wrong. It took the better part of two years to figure out that she didn’t care at all about selling my book to traditional publishers.


We went to Universal Islands of Adventure the weekend that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened. (Very bad idea, especially when you have a toddler in diapers.) Later that week, Peter was ring bearer in my cousin’s wedding. The next month, Peter was potty trained, his incentive two more trips to Disney World. In between the trips, I finally got my braces off. By that point, people were bugging us about having another kid, and with the braces off, I was ready to entertain the idea. Less than two weeks before I turned 28, we found out we were expecting our second child. I was also in a writing funk. I was looking for a good reason to ditch my useless agent, so I told her I was pregnant and didn’t want to write anymore. That’s not exactly true, but I had given up on publishing. I’d thought about starting a website, but I was too depressed by the whole not-getting-anywhere thing to do much about it. When I found out I was pregnant, I spent my meager savings for my website on baby stuff.


I spent most of the year tired. A few months before we welcomed baby Ian, Peter started three-year-old preschool at the same elementary school I attended. Thomas also went back to school to finish his bachelor’s. Due to laziness, tiredness, and being pregnant, Peter and I ate at Five Guys a lot, which was probably a big factor in gaining more weight with baby number two than baby number one. Ian was born two weeks before Christmas, and things weren’t quite as magical as when Peter was born. It took us a while to adjust to a very different little boy, but we love our baby just as much as his big brother.


Without a doubt, this has been the busiest year of my life thus far. I kind of got my writing mojo back and started this blog and discovered Smashwords. I started working with Fiction Fix again, after a four year hiatus. I also started getting up at 4:30 every day to exercise; it’s the only time I can do it now that Peter’s in school five days a week. I joined three different committees at my church and also started taking Sewanee’s Education for Ministry four-year course. We took the boys to Legoland to celebrate their birthdays, then Disney World at the beginning of this year. We put the condo on the market in January, figuring no one would ever want to buy it, and within 24 hours, we had an offer (although for much less than we originally paid). It was a whirlwind, finding a place to live and moving so quickly. The condo days are finally behind us; we actually have a house big enough for all of our stuff, although we weren’t brave enough to actually buy again. Since I’m not publishing bestsellers yet, I decided to start substitute teaching at Peter’s school, and I’m earning an income, while still not having to work full-time. I’m once again searching for an agent. Maybe I’ll actually get published one day. And if not by a traditional publisher, I’m determined to make my book the best it can be and publish it as an ebook, if nothing else. I always thought, Well, if I’m not published by the time I’m thirty, I’ll just save a chunk of money and self-publish. When you start writing a book at nineteen, you think that ten-plus years is more than sufficient for perfecting it and going through the entire publication process. Well, guess what, thirty is here, although a hardback copy of my book is not, it’s not the end of the world. Instead of giving myself a timeline, I have a list of prospective agents, and once they’re exhausted, I’ll go to plan B.

As for my thirties, my boys will be adolescents by the end of this decade. I’m sad, on the one hand, that I won’t have cuddly infants anymore, but I love watching them grow and learn. Maybe during this decade, we’ll plunge into the housing market again, maybe not. At least now we’re much better informed. And maybe that miracle of publication will happen for me. My dream, one that I have every time I volunteer in Peter’s school library, is for a child to come in one day and ask for my book. Wouldn’t that be cool? But if not, the best thing about being forced into some semblance of patience is that I’ve discovered how many other joys there are in life.

Now, bring it on, thirties!