Friday, March 30, 2012

March Madness: It's an Informal Formal Business

I once said that the query is not a business letter. Apparently I confused some people. Because the query letter is a formal introduction of oneself to an unknown but desirable party, and one must impress. But it's not super formal because... well, I'm betting most of you don't get out of your pajamas until the kids come home from school.

By nature of not personally knowing the person you are querying (like cold calling), you must be respectful. Which leads to formal. So, business formal (like business casual, but with better pressed pjs--er, pleats).

But I don't want to talk about queries. I did that in January (if you missed it, this dandy little thingy over here ---> has an archive of past posts, so look for January Query topics).

What I love about this business--the wonderful world of words--is that it is rather casual. At what other sort of conference will you be stopped on the way to the bathroom to be pitched? (by the way, May's topic shall be conferences, but as forewarning, please try to refrain from stopping agents on the way to the bathroom--and don't pitch in the bathroom)

We are all equal parts artists, business men and women, and fan girls (yes, boys, you too). The trick is to balance all three, to know when to bring them out and when to reign them in. Queries, Twitter, phone calls, conferences, blogs, chat boards, etc. You are always being watched, and judged. If you are too formal all the time, seeing every connection only as a means to the top, you won't be well liked. If you're only a fan girl and way too silly all the time, you won't be taken seriously. If you only care about your art, feeling that it will sell itself and therefore you don't have to put any effort into marketing it or yourself, you won't be noticed and probably tossed aside as, again, un-serious.
So this is really what I mean when I say that a query isn't a business letter (though it is) or that conferences are really casual (even though we're all conducting business). 

Strike the balance. Play the game. Find a happy harmony. And take a really long nap when you get home.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

March Madness: All the Little Things

Even the tiny things can reveal SOOO much.

The tiniest things reveal nuances about your character. These nuances make your character unique. These are the small things that your readers may never, ever in a million years realize you're doing. The simple way your character swears in their head or out loud. Do they say "God" in situations of stress or brilliance? Are they saying it because they were raised in a religious household and their first reaction is to begin praying? Or, the other end of the spectrum, they use "Oh God" as a blasphemous swear because they weren't raised in a religious household? Or does your character use it because she's a teen and that's what teens do (in which case, she's crossing dangerous territory into normal rather than being "normal")? Or are you being a lazy writer and didn't realize that you use it as a filler, empty calories, wasted space that could otherwise be put to great use?

For example, consider the below passage:
The boy before her was the most beautiful hunk of man meat she'd ever lay eyes on. My God, she thought, as her eyes traced his broad shoulders, and settled on those heavy brows over intelligent green eyes.
Ignore the man meat--if you can--and the ridiculousness of this passage (felt like writing a bit of romance rather than YA like I normally do for examples. Go with it). Okay, we get that she's a lusty woman and the "Oh God" is as much a physical response as her brain stuttering. But consider:
The boy before her was the most beautiful hunk of man meat she'd ever lay eyes on. Good Cosmo Lords, please save my loins from what I might do. Her eyes traced his broad shoulders, and settled on those heavy brows over intelligent green eyes.
And immediately, you know who the woman is, and that she's not just a silent observer--she's a woman of action and Christian Gods have absolutely no place in her life. Or bedroom.

Language shapes your characters, setting, world, absolutely everything about your writing. Consider John Green, any of his works. You won't find a single misused word. Any swear words are carefully thought out and, in the case of An Abundance of Katharines, use Frack instead of F*ck. Because they're nerds and it's awesome.

You notice that I'm talking contemporary novels rather than SciFi, Fantasy, etc. That's because I didn't want to get hung up on the intense world building that goes into those genres. But it needs to be stated. Loudly. Your special worlds need special vocab. It can be simple as substituting a swear like "Oh God" for "Oh Gods" or "Oh Goddesses" or getting really specific and going for "Good Leopold and all names of good that spring forth from your fingers", Leopold being a king or god or creator of the universe. Or heck, an artist the main character admires greatly.

I don't think The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson gets enough attention, so I'll direct your attention to a single character who really is rather minor. But memorable. Each time he mentions the King, whom the band of rebels on the fringes of the kingdom are ultimately protecting against invaders without his knowledge, he references great deeds, offspring, and usually compliments his loins. He includes it in his speech as easily as breathing, as a substitute for "In the name of King George" sort of thing. (I apologize, I cannot remember the character's name--my copy is lent out at the moment.)

Which gets us into characters. If your main character is a good Catholic girl, she probably isn't going to swear. Maybe she'll say a quick prayer or involuntarily reach for her rosary or cross her heart. Your love interest is a badass biker boy who uses creative swears because he grew up with a senile grandfather who never had an end of them (most are about fifty years out of date as well). The best friend character often switches to chat speak so she can say more in a shorter period of time. The brother character speaks in short, slow, to the point statements because he is a man of few words (cliche of course, but all us girls have a soft spot for the caveman).

I'm mainly talking about swearing, aren't I? It's one of the most telling aspects of voice and dialogue. But it extends, as I briefly touched on with the best friend characters in the example above, to speech, mannerisms, how a character processes information before doing something with it.

My advice, as always, is to read and pick apart a successful novel, or one that you admire. Watch movies even (not all, of course, they're not all equally successful in this). Star Wars you have people who believe in the force using "May the force be with you" (and that great scene in A New Hope when Han tells it to Luke for the first time, imparting so much respect into that simple line) and Yoda of course with his awesome speech patterns, and so many little things like Leia telling Han she'd rather kiss a Wookie (as opposed to a dog or pig on Earth).

And pay attention to your own characters. What do they do in times of stress? What do they do during their Eureka moments? How do you, the narrator (whether in first or third person) convey that to us, the reader? Is there anything you can do to be more successful?

The danger is, if you continue to use your stalk phrases (as original as stock photos), your work is going to be passed over as a pale imitation of greater genius. In contemporary, your characters will come off unoriginal and bland. In SciFi and Fantasy, I won't believe your world building, and even question if your setting is in fact another world, rather than dystopian or a weak version of Earth's medieval era.

Remember, it's the little things that count.

The key word is "little things." Don't overuse them. Don't make them blatantly obvious. Weave these things into your story so well that the reader won't know what's happening until they get to the last page and scream "Merlin's pants!"

Happy writing!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

March Madness: Querying Agents and Small Pubs

Agents expect writers to submit to multiple agents at the same time. Unless otherwise stated on our agent sites, we allow for multiple submission.

But what about submitting to both agents and small/e-publishers at the same time?

There are so many conflicting opinions on this. I asked a couple agent friends and they all had a slightly different perspective.

Agents and small/e-pubs are apples and oranges. Agents will sub you to the bigger publishers, generally more money and more exposure, plus you get an agent advocate helping with contracts and helping guide your career. Small/e-pubs are generally less money and less exposure, but it can be a more intimate experience with editors working directly with you and they may have more time to concentrate on your career. Many authors are happier with small/e-pubs than they ever would have been with bigger pubs. But many authors aspire to the big pubs, seeing the smaller/e-pubs as a last resort. Some writers may not know what they want, just for someone to recognize them and tell them "yes" amid all the "no."

I, personally, suggest that all writers decide what they really want, the big press, or the small/e-pubs, and concentrate in that area. Imagine you get offers from both an agent and a small/e-pub at the same time. Now you have to decide what you really want--a chance at the "big time" or the sure thing and immediate publication? If your answer is "I'd take the agent offer," then concentrate on subbing to agents. If your answer is "I'd take the small/e-pub," then concentrate on those.

I understand the other side of the fence too. As a writer, you need to explore as many avenues as possible, and life is too short to spend so much time on only one opportunity.

So to sum up? I'm not personally of the opinion that you should submit to both, but I will not discriminate against you and the decision is wholly up to you (and many writers, agents, editors will encourage you to do both). My advice is merely to know what you want out of this business. There are so many options for you in this day and age, you need to educate yourself on all of the avenues and go after what you want--otherwise you're likely to get trampled in all the noise.

Has anyone had personal experience with this? What is your advice to other writers?

Happy writing!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

March Madness: Are you a victim of the Duh Factor?

The Duh Factor is something that, when read, can be answered by a rolling of the eyes and the teenage favorite "duh." Generally speaking, you do not want the Duh Factor in your query, ms, or pitch. Duh Factors can also be spotted if, when someone reads them, they can make a snarky comment that completely nullifies everything you were building up. For example, if your hook begins, "If a genie offers you three wishes, would you use them?" I can answer "No," and that's it. Your entire premise is bunk.

Examples of the Duh Factor:
  • Rhetorical questions:
    • What would you do if the fate of the world rested on your shoulders?
    • If you were given a time travel machine, would you use it?
    • If you had a choice between what you wanted and sacrificing everything you've ever known, would you do it?
  • Inane statements:
    • Stephanie never asked to be given super powers
    • Lucas never wanted to be King but fate intervened
    • Things never went Susan's way
  • Vague statements or questions:
    • Imagine what would happen if a young boy is suddenly transported to a world unlike he's ever known.
    • Rocko's life is about to change in a really big way, and he won't see it coming.
  • Obvious dialogue:
    • Brian walked into the room. Sue was surprised to see him. "Brian," Sue said. "I'm surprised to see you."
    • "I see you are drinking coffee with sugar. I know you always need your coffee in the morning before work."
    • "Darcy, meet my friend Liza. We've known each other since second grade. She really likes cheese. You will like her."
  • Redundancy:
    • Dark Moon is a YA fantasy that will appeal to adolescent readers who like being transported to new worlds
    • Red Desert is a NA mystery that will appeal to older teens 18-24 who enjoy mysteries
    • Teddy Bear Gruff is an easy reader targeted towards kids 3-6 just learning how to read
  • Normal (not "normal") characters:
    • Becky is a sarcastic, bitter 17 year old girl
    • Edgar is a quiet but sensitive bad boy who isn't interested in any of the shallow girls at school, until Amy, the pretty new girl, shows up
    • Paul will do anything to save his family from the corrupt government, even if it means sacrificing himself
Even as I was writing these, I was making snarky comments, snorting through my nose, and prepared to smash my own screen in frustration.

I know I'm missing some. So, please, share your own!

Happy writing!

    Thursday, March 15, 2012

    March Madness: Chapter Titles

    This post applies mainly to YA and Adult. Not middle grade, chapter books, nonfiction, etc.

    Confession. I hate chapter titles. I think it comes from when I was younger, reading chapter books, I could predict what was going to happen in the chapter based on the title and picture. Honestly, snotty child that I was, I felt like they were insulting my intelligence. So, to this day, I tend to ignore everything about chapter headings--chapter number, quotes, title, POV shift (part of the reason I have issues reading POV shifts). I've only allowed one of my clients to retain chapter titles, and that's because they're awesome, relevant, and give nothing away about the plot (that I can tell, maybe there's a whole other layer I don't get--I'm okay with that).

    Because I feel like being cheeky

    Here's another thing about chapter titles. When reading, I get so totally absorbed into a story that I completely forget that I'm even holding a book. So chapter titles, and anything that draws me out of the story, is super annoying.

    Of course, there is always a time and a place.

    POV shifts, especially first person POV shifts, do need a designation. However, make sure the voice helps the reader shift. If your two characters sound exactly alike, there's a bigger problem going on.

    Part 1, part 2, part 3 with titles while chapter titles just have numbers. When this is done well, and the Part titles are clever, relevant, and make me go, o okay I get it, I'll go with it.

    If you do have chapter headings, or even just the chapter numbers, do not make them fancy in your ms. There is a chance it'll get lost in translation. Set them either to the left or center, same font as the text, bold or italics if you must.

    And that's my very personal opinion on the subject. It is, as many things in this business are, subjective. Some other may have differing opinions to mine, or even no preference at all. If you want to keep your chapter titles, be my guest. I will not discriminate when considering your ms. If I sign you, I will, in all likelihood, make you scrap them.

    Happy writing!

    Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    March Madness: Queries are final... hands off!

    I'm not trying to call anyone out with this post. And if you find you've done the no-nos in this post, no need to follow up with another email or comment of apology. Your intentions were good, and I do appreciate it. This is more of a "keep in mind for the future" sort of post.

    I'll set up the scenario.

    I write a blog post about particulars of the query process. You're reading and reach a particular faux pas and scream "Noooooo!" at the screen like a bad horror movie. Because you queried me two weeks ago. And committed the faux pas. You rush to your email, dig up our email thread, or start a new one with the subject "correction to query submitted Month/Day", and hurriedly (but not so hurriedly you don't forget to be diplomatic or check for grammar and spelling errors) write me a note apologizing for not knowing I prefer my queries a certain way and to please overlook the error or accept the new query. I see the email in my inbox, smile to myself, give you an e-cookie (warm, gooey, chocolate chippy, zero calories--it's an e-cookie, go with it), think "oh, you adorable dear," and delete it (not your query, I'll still answer that, non-biasedly). [query no-nos can be found in my January Query posts such as this one on What Not to Include]
    Look familiar?

    This entire process is unnecessary. And you're cluttering my inbox. And wasting your own precious time.

    Most things that you're wanting to correct are tiny things, things that will not sway my vote from yes to no. The exception may be if you realize you get my name wrong and catch it just after sending the email. Go to that email thread, send me another with a quick apology. I completely understand that mistakes are made. And it is nice to know you were actually (mostly) paying attention.

    When you send a query... hands off! No resubmitting, no do-overs, no minor or major corrections, no additions to your bio.

    Move on to a new project. Do not rework your query or ms (unless you're submitting to new agents or contests) until you've received all the feedback from your first/second/third round of querying. And since you've been concentrating on something else, you can go back to it with fresh eyes and incorporate the changes.

    The only reasons you should be bugging an agent after submitting a query are 1) following up after the agent's preferred time frame to be sure they've received the query; 2) following up after the agent has had your ms for a preferred time frame; 3) to inform an agent of another offer of representation; 4) to withdraw the query/ms from consideration for a myriad of reasons including shelving the project (not suggested--get as much feedback as you can--it'll help you, if not for this project, then for the next) or accepting another offer.

    And now that I've gotten half of you fretting over the tiny imperfections of your query, and the other half fretting that I hate you because you did this, I'll leave you with a reminder--

    I'm not trying to call anyone out with this post. And if you find you've done the no-nos in this post, no need to follow up with another email or comment of apology. Your intentions were good, and I do appreciate it. This is more of a "keep in mind for the future" sort of post;


    Happy writing!

    Thursday, March 8, 2012

    March Madness: It's not me, it's you

    As heard in conversation between Query and MS:

    MS: It's not you, it's me.
    Q: I thought we were doing so well together, I complement your themes perfectly!
    MS:  You do, it's just that I'm missing something in my plot.
    Q: I'm flexible. I'll change. Anything you need, I'll reflect your brilliance.
    MS: I need to find myself. I need to fill the holes, complete my characters before I'm worthy of you.
    Q: What will I do without you? I can't function without you! I have no purpose but to tell everyone about you!
    MS: I'll be back, and when I am, you and I will be better for it. I promise, I'm doing this for you.

    Some queries get rejected, not because they're poorly written--on the contrary, they can be the best representation of your ms possible--but because something is lacking in your characters or plot. For all I know, your query may not be representing your ms to the best of its abilities and the ms itself is golden, perfect. But I--and many agents--tend to take the pessimistic view and assume your ms is probably lacking the same elements as your query.

    Often at conferences, I'll ask a writer to describe the main character. They will then proceed to tell me what happens to them in the plot. No, no, no. I asked about the character. Who is your character? Why should we care? What makes them tick? What will draw readers to them?

    For example, try describing your best friend. Would you start by telling me about how, in the ninth grade, she went on this epic journey across the state to meet her biological father? That's a really cool story, one I'd like to hear from her if I ever meet her. Or would you tell me, a perfect stranger, about her bubbly personality and perseverance even when things seem bleak? Does she dress as a goth but always accessorizes with pink because of a girly streak she's proud of? Does she have this super quirky habit of writing people's names on her arm in sharpie when she meets them so she can remember their name better because she has a poor short term memory and she's determined to improve?

    Now that's a character worth reading. And writing.

    And when I read a query that begins, "Jessica was a normal teenage girl until the new kid at school starts paying attention to her and before she knows it, she's sucked into a werewolf clan," my eyes glaze over and my right pinkie toe starts to twitch.

    Honestly, I don't want to read about a normal teenage girl. I want to read about an extraordinary character who experiences extraordinary things. In fiction, normal does not exist. Every character needs quirks, issues, a past to overcome. Think Sarah Dessen, Jennifer Echols. No vampires. No werewolves. Contemporary. And, arguably, "normal" characters. And, arguably, rather "normal" lives and events. But something about the "normal" girl and the "normal" events is off--something sets off a chain reaction, rippling not only to the plot, but to her personality and emotions. Suddenly, the tiny little things we knew about her--a fissure in a parental relationship, an OCD tendency, a drug habit--is magnified tenfold as she clings to anything she can while the plot ravages her life.

    (I'm not knocking paranormal--you all know me, I love me some vampires. But I feel like talking about contemporary today. All of this can, and should, be applied to all genres.)

    Let's have some fun.

    "Jessica, a normal teenage girl" suddenly becomes "Jessica, a girl who obsessively buries herself in her garage band and mastering guitar riffs rather than deal with the reality of her mother's death and her father's drinking."

    And the new kid at school? Let's give him a makeover too. Turn him into the boy next door, Chris. Chris and Jessica used to play in the sandbox together, but Chris's perfect family unit made Jessica uneasy as she watched her mother go through round after round of chemo, until she finally drew away from him--and his tone-deafness--completely. Are you tempted to make Chris an A-plus student who will tutor Jessica so her grades will improve so the school and child services don't start asking questions about her home life? Now, where would the fun in that be? As an agent, and a reader, I'm looking for intriguing and unique characters all around. And plot. Yes, plot. So make Chris a football star. No football, you say? Now you're thinking. Okay, hockey (cuz I know as little about hockey as I do football). Chris's own grades are slipping. They may be next door neighbors, but they don't pay attention to each other (and no, Chris has not been holding a candle for Jessica since sixth grade when she started to pull away from him; he's moved on) until they're stuck in study hall together.

    "The new boy at school" becomes "an old friend" and the "werewolf clan" becomes "Chris's big Italian family who starts to pay way too much attention to Jessica's problems, and empty refrigerator." The implied "needing to stay away from the werewolves to save her own life" becomes "needing to keep the whole family at a distance to keep them from discovering her father's dark secret, a penchant for too much booze and losing his temper on the only other person in the house--her. But Jessica is beginning to realize that just because her family is falling apart, doesn't mean she can't have one, and losing herself in music has cost her something more important--warmth and friendship. But Chris isn't at all eager to welcome Jessica into his big noisy family or rekindle their old friendship--he wants out of it all." Because he's a werewolf and no one knows it. Just kidding.

    Holy crap, see how much more fun that would be to write? And pitch? And read?

    So, at a conference, when I ask WHO your character is, be prepared with quirks, maybe a tiny (like, five words) backstory, and her true personality.

    Another example? Let's!

    <Disclaimer: I honestly hate picking on Twilight, I do. But nearly everyone has read it so it makes for a good bad example. And I am nit-picking, deliberately overlooking the good so I can make a point. I'm not beginning an argument here over the qualities of Twilight, because there is actually a lot of good that can be said. But for today, go with it. And I am getting a little tired (ok, not really) of always talking about Anna and the French Kiss or Lola and the Boy Next Door. They're just too awesome for their own good. But, since they are so awesome, they'll go in the "good good example" category.>

    Describe Bella Swan.

    ...I'm waiting.

    She's a decent looking girl who is forced to move in with her father in the rainy Northwest. She's pale, despite having moved from Florida. She's never had a boyfriend. She's independent (wants to get her own job, pay for her own things). Book smart.

    Ya. That's all I've got. She's normal. I want "normal."

    Describe Twilight's plot.

    The mysterious boy at school who has never paid attention to another girl, suddenly starts paying the new girl attention, even though it will endanger her because he's a vampire and can easily kill her, and his enemies will use her to their advantage for their sick games; but he involves her anyways because really he's just a horny teenage boy.

    By the way, I'm 98.2% sure I would have rejected that query.

    Describe Lola.

    She's a budding costume designer and never wears the same outfit twice. Her passion for creativity outweighs any teasing she might get at school. She is so dedicated to the idea of being creative, worldly, and mature that she forgets sometimes that she is still just a teenager--which makes dating an older man hard for others to understand but makes perfect sense to her.
    I want her hair

    Not only do I want to read about her--I want to be her.

    Describe Lola's plot.

    When Lola's next door neighbors move back in after two years away, her confidence is severely tested. Her childhood friend, and one time love interest, Cricket is suddenly back in the picture, as wonderful, nice, nerdy, and caring as she remembered. Her parents see this as an opportunity to show Lola how much better it would be to date someone like Cricket, rather than her older musician boyfriend--but her boyfriend doesn't appreciate, or understand, Lola's sudden insecurities, a reminder that she is, in fact, much younger than him. Lola must discover who she truly is under the extravagant makeup, wigs, and costumes.

    I'm 99.993% sure I'd have requested that query. And I haven't even mentioned the biological mother or quirky best friends or Lola's monstrous costume project.

    So if your query, decently written, isn't getting the hits it should be, you may not have to (only) rework your query. It may be your ms. Same advice applies if you're getting comments on your ms along the lines of "I didn't connect with your characters; the plot didn't pick up fast enough; I liked your characters, but the plot wasn't solid or new."

    Happy writing!

    Tuesday, March 6, 2012

    March Madness: What to Expect from the Madness

    Hope everyone enjoyed the January Query Month and February Requests Month. This month, the topic is: No Topic! AKA, March Madness. I'll be talking about things that don't really fit into my planned Topic Months. Not exactly a Q&A sort of month, more like me rambling about "important" things. Also, I'm taking a reprieve from Wednesday Reads this month (I apologize profusely to your TBR stacks). I've had too much on my plate/Kindle the last few weeks and haven't read anything besides manuscripts lately. Not to worry, Wednesday Reads will be back with a vengeance in April (I apologize profusely to your TBR stacks).

    In April, the topic will be Offers of Representation. What to do when that offer comes. What to do when multiple offers come. Etc.

    In May, the topic will be Conferences, to get you ready for a summer of awesome, er, conference season.

    In June, I'll be taking a much needed blog hiatus (yes, I just had one in December, but to keep the blog fresh, and my inbox happy--read empty--I'll need another one).

    Meanwhile, don't forget that this month is NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month) (who is participating?). I wrote an article on Self-Editing you can check out here. Also, Cupid's Literary Connection is having an awesomely awesome event that you will want to stay tuned for (you may be seeing my name pop up somewhere--you just never know) so keep your eyes out for more info on that right here. 

    Anything else we should be keeping our eyes peeled for this month?

    Happy writing!