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A Visit from Published Author, Stacey Kennedy

  Writing the Dreaded Query Letter…

No doubt, the query letter is scary! How are you able to sum up your book into one page to snag the agent’s/editor’s attention? Lauren’s blog has been so fantastic at showing examples of queries, explaining what works and what doesn’t. I wish I had this resource when I first started out. When I sent out my first query, I had no idea what I was doing…so today, I’m going to share what I’ve learned to maybe help an author who is staring at their computer wondering what to do.

I’ve seen some queries from Lauren’s postings that, in my opinion, are too long. As authors, we want to put as much as we can on the page to show our story’s potential. But the truth is, you don’t need to. Too much information can work against you and only confuse the agent/editor. I saw a perfect example of this from a query posted on SlushPileTales where it read like a synopsis. The problem with this is, unless you can give a full synopsis of your story—4-5 pages—then avoid this type of thing. What happens is you can only give minimal details, which makes it then seem like your story has plot holes and is all over the place. If you leave the agent/editor scratching their heads, wondering how to figure out your story, they’re going to reject it.

Here is my advice to you:

Start out with a hook—a tagline that sums up your story.

Example :

Love is born between strangers, yet built upon a bond soul deep―one Alpha’s vow to protect his mate from looming danger, all the while, mending her soul and stirring her wolfish desires.

By doing this you have summed up your entire story in just a few lines and have set out clearly what your story is about. It’s punchy, bold, and clean.

Next, don’t summarize your entire story, such as every plot point. You want the agent/editor to be excited over your concept, not confused by it. How do you do this? Exactly like you would with a reader. Back cover blurb it, baby! Write something that jumps off the page and snags the agent/editor to ask for more.

Example:

A vicious werewolf attack in Plymouth, Minnesota leaves a young woman violated, bitten and now, transformed into werewolf. But Rynn Murphy doesn’t have to face this transformation alone—she has her mate by her side. And the charming Briggs―Beta to the Patriarch, Valor―is eager to ease her into this new life and mend her battered soul.

With only weeks to adjust to her new fur, Rynn, follows Briggs while he assists in locating the daughter of the Montana’s Alpha, who was abducted from her home.  But this journey is not without danger. And soon, they discover the ones who have taken this young wolf do not want her found and will stop at nothing to keep her hidden. Or so it may seem, as bodies begin to drop around them, the murderous attempts start to appear more as a hit than a smoke screen—leaving only one question, who is the intended target…

So, the opening intro to your query so far is your tagline and blurb. Bam—you’ve hooked the agent/editor from the first line and kept up the interest highlighting your story. It’s clean, which shows the agent you’re style of writing is organized, and that if they request a partial, what they’ll find in the story is much the same.

Next, you move onto the book information. How many words is your story? What genre does it fall into? Who is your target audience? What publisher are you aiming to sell to? All of this is necessary for the agent to see if they are a good fit to represent you.

Lastly, the agents/editors want to know a little about you—and I don’t mean your journey to becoming a writer, anything about your personal life, or that your story has been compared to a Nora Roberts book—all it needs is a one paragraph bio. Exactly like you’ve done up above, you need to make it pop off the page. What makes the agent and editor want to work with you? Are you involved the writing community? Have you won any awards? Have you taken a course? Has your work received some great reviews?

Even if you’re a brand new author, there are still things you can say. You want to show the agent/editor that you’re serious about your writing. Try to get involved as much as you can. Join the RWA (for romance authors), volunteer, get your website up and start blogging. Do anything and everything to show that you are promoting yourself, and that if an agent/editor picked you up, you would work hard.

Always remember, the point of a query is to get them to ask for more. I know how tempting it is to want to put in as much as you can, to give all the information about your story, but it’s not necessary. They will learn all the fine details once they read the opening chapters and synopsis. At this stage of the game, you only want them to send that email requesting a partial or a full.

Of course, this is only my opinion, and there are many ways to write a query letter. Good luck and I hope my experience with queries assists one of you in your journey toward success!

Thanks, Stacey!

The Writer’s Crescendo

You’ve queried widely. You’ve re-written your book a few times. No one wants to read it and no one’s listening to you. You’re shouting as loudly as your tiny voice allows, but the din of everyone else’s voice drowns your words. So what do you do? Hide your book under your bed and blame everyone else for not seeing your art? Give up? Maybe. Or maybe you become weathered to the tough world that is book publishing and you slog.

Recently, I received a comment on this blog from an author who was angry and hurt by the world’s failure to notice him. My heart sank for this author. I thought about that comment during my work day as I wrote rejection letters and joined my authors in their joy of getting published, during my 2-hour commute home, as I worked toward my master’s degree, during dinner and even as I put my kid to bed. I’m entirely too busy to let something that small irk me, but I couldn’t get that author’s frustration out of my mind. I can’t do much to help authors in this situation because the truth of the matter is, an author is the only person who has the power to amplify his own voice. My advice to aspiring authors: do all of the following to the absolute best of your ability and you will find success.

1. Love your work. Love it so much that you can’t not do it. Be obsessed with it. Live, breathe your work. Make it your devout religion. If you don’t passionately love your work so much that it defines who you are, stop.

2. Read. Read at least 30 novels (50 is better) in your exact genre. Make sure they are the best of the genre. Read them critically. What do they have that your book doesn’t? What does your book have that these don’t? What do neither of you have, but could? Then, read a few of the worst. Is yours better? Read as many relevant blogs as you can. Agent blogs, editor blogs, author blogs, blogs, blogs, blogs. Read Publisher’s Weekly. Check out Publisher’s Marketplace. Haunt the publishing industry by devouring every word written about it.

3. Write. Write part of your novel every single day, even Sunday. Blog. Tweet. Constantly.When you’re done with your novel, query agents with it. When you’re done writing your novel, write another.

4. Connect. Online, collect Twitter followers like nuggets of gold. They are. Tweet interesting things that others will want to re-tweet. That means don’t tell people your dog just got neutered. No one cares. When they do, all their friends might too and other people might be interested in what you say and follow you themselves. Then, when you need to market, you’ll have a captive audience of 1,000 people who share your interests. Write blog posts for others’ blogs, let other bloggers guest-post on your blog. Run a contest on your blog to spark interest. Then Tweet about it. Away from your computer, attend every writer’s conference you possibly can. Join a critique group and participate heavily. Submit your work to contests. Then tell everyone about it. Join every writer’s association, group and organization you can. Take every class you can on all things publishing and then network with all the people there. Attend all publishing events you’re able to. You should be able to find out about them from all your reading.

5. Improve. See opportunities to make your work better and let them sail. Always ask yourself how your work could be better. Because just when you think it can’t get any better, it can. Take criticism as seriously as you would a medical diagnosis. Because it is, to your book. Don’t discount the opinions of others. They are all expert opinions, because each critic–even that weird guy in your critique group whose own manuscript sucks–is the expert of his own tastes, and you have to market your book to wide tastes. Don’t hold on to what isn’t working. Trash what needs trashing, even if that means your whole book. Cut what needs cutting. Somebody (Faulkner? Twain? Both?) said, “Kill your darlings.” So, kill them if you need to. You’ll get over it and get stronger because of it.

All of the above, along with a day-job makes for a pretty busy person. And that’s okay. Because if you love what you’re doing, you’ll love doing it all the time. If you don’t love what you do enough to put that much energy and time into it, then put all of that time and energy into doing something you do love. Do all of the above and your work will get stronger and stronger, your voice louder and louder, until some agent hears you.

 

No Response Means…Wait Longer

The debate over the “No Response Means No” policy many literary agencies have adopted has been buzzing over the literary blogosphere for days now and—I just can’t help it—I have to add my two-cents worth.

Some agents are defending their right to simply not respond to queries that don’t interest them (you can catch two of their blog posts here and here.) And, if we’re going to keep objective about it, it is, after all, their right. You, as the author, are not their client. They don’t actually owe you anything. There’s no law or decree binding them to even read your email.

I can appreciate their reasons for deciding not to respond. 1.) It takes time out of the day, time that is better spent with clients or, as one agent wrote, kids 2.) It opens the agent up to receive angry responses 3.) It creates a very negative frame of mind to deliver all that bad news.

I respect these agents. I read their blogs and think almost everything they say is super-awesome. I do have a mind of my own in here somewhere, though, and I have to respectfully disagree with them. Here’s why:

It’s not that hard to write rejection letters. This is a process that could be long and drawn-out, if I didn’t do it so often that I’ve streamlined it into a mindless, automatic, quick process. Mine’s a bit longer than others’ because I have a compulsion to obsessively track everything that crosses my desk. Here’s how I do:

  1. I ask authors to place the word “query” somewhere in the subject line of their e-query. This prompts my email program to automatically place the email in my “queries” folder and send the author an automatic response to let them know I’ve received their query and what to expect from me as far as response time, etc. Time: 0 seconds.
  2. When I get around to reading queries (every day, at some point), I log each query in my giant Excel spreadsheet of every query I receive and my response. I do this so that Excel’s autofill feature will tip me off if I’ve received a query from an author more than once and so that when authors say, “Hey, I queried you and…” I’ll know what they’re talking about at a glance. It also helps me compile statistics so that I can have fun making blog posts about them. Time: 5 seconds
  3. When rejecting, I simply hit “reply,” select a pre-written and preformatted signature from the drop-down menu, remove the word “query” from the subject line so if they respond it doesn’t go in my query folder and hit send. Time: 5 seconds.
  4. Update my spreadsheet with my response: 2 seconds.

So the total time I spend on each author to reject a query is 12 seconds. The total time I would really need to spend on rejection letters is probably closer to 7 seconds, without my obsessive logging.

I don’t mind angry attacks from rejectees. And besides, I’d get angry responses from those I ignored if I never responded, anyway. I get it. I totally do. Their whole family told them they’re a brilliant writer, their high school guidance counselor sent them off to college with a request for a signed copy of their future first novel, they’ve sent their query and their high hopes to a bzillion agents only to have them dashed. And now I’ve broken the camel’s back by saying I wasn’t hooked. I’m sorry, angry rejectee. I’m not being sarcastic; I really am sorry that things didn’t turn out the way you expected. I hate when that happens too.

I would not want to be the author who gets no response. I would imagine that sending your brain-child out into the world and receiving no response would be agonizing. After putting myself in the author’s shoes, I cringe at what I know my mind would do to me. I’d jump and squeal at the response and then I’d feel really stupid when I figured out it was an auto-confirmation. Doh. Then, I’d obsessively check my email all day long for six weeks, just waiting to hear that response. I’d peruse the agent’s blog and twitter account, hoping to catch a glimmer of something or imagining how great it would be to be the client of this agent. I’d re-read my submission until I had no perspective at all. Then, when no response came, I’d drive myself nuts wondering if the agent got it at all. Maybe it was in her spam folder. Maybe she accidentally deleted it. Should I follow up? Is that in poor taste? Will I be blacklisted for being annoying? Maybe she…well, maybe… This would be my own personal version of a long, drawn-out hell.

If I can spend 12 seconds and rescue authors from that, I will.

A caveat: I sometimes delete queries without ever reading them. Yup. I do that. If the author sends me an email with just a link that I have to then click on, or a Word document attachment as their query, I’ll just delete it because it will take longer than those 12 seconds, taking time away from all the authors who did follow the guidelines.

Finally, what do you think? Would you rather get no response at all or a form response? Would you rather wait something like six months and get a rejection letter that had lots of feedback or only two weeks and get an email that just read: “no?”

>Literary Agencies: Great Information!

>Students who are looking to break into the publishing industry tend to pigeon-hole themselves into the editorial job functions. But there is a wealth of information to be gleaned from literary agencies and writers groups, too! I’ve lately gotten into the habit of reading a particularly information-laden blog, written by a literary agent in New Jersey. Not only is the blog a wealth of knowledge about what works in publishing, what is acceptable as far as etiquette goes and how to critique mss, it is also, at times, entertaining! For those who want to check it out, don’t forget to read the archived posts. I find that reading the responses to the agent’s posts is also very informative. I’ve really gotten into the minds of writers, which I expect will be valuable when it’s my turn to write rejection and critique letters. Here’s the URL: http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/

>Inadequacy

>11/13/08

I can’t say that I feel completely comfortable here at Touchstone/Fireside. I’m surrounded by wonderfully intelligent people which is a welcome respite from my usual days surrounded by immature students giggling about boobs and pot. For a while, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the source of my discomfort, but this week, I’ve finally realized it: I’m inadequate. All of the people I work for here are infinitely smarter, more diplomatic and more accomplished than I am. They use words that I don’t understand, like “writerly” (according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the definition of this is of, relating to, or typical of a writer. Now that seems really obvious.) and they are all so darn graceful. I often feel like I’m working with a bunch of Jackie Os! But despite how stupid and childish and clumsy and awkward they make me feel, they are all so wonderful. They are each a personification of a quality I wish to have. The editor-in-chief is power and influence, Danielle is intelligence, Michelle is grace, Lauren is style, Shawna is friendliness and tact, Zach is this accomplished coolness (if there exists such a word), Alex is composed competence. My problem, of course, is that I see these people not for what they are, but for what I am not. This must stop. I’m sure that these people have insecurities and shortcomings they have filed down along the way. I imagine them at home. I see Michelle crying hopelessly on her sofa, watching Sleepless in Seattle while eating ice cream in her pajamas. I see Zach standing in front of his fridge eating lo mein out of the carton with his fingers. Not because he’s a slob, but because he’s a guy. I see the EIC, the mega-editor, gardening on her hands and knees. I see Danielle in a very ungraceful fit of giggles while shopping with her friends. I see them all in situations that do not involve books and intelligence. Does it help? No. I’m still the one who didn’t go to Wesleyan or Columbia or wherever. I’m still the one who turns red anytime someone speaks to me. I’m still the one who knows nothing.

Where, you ask, do these feelings come from? Zach read my reader’s report on that awfully offensive manuscript with the trashy sex and unbelieveably cheesy dialog. In the email to which I attached my report, I told Zach that I found the entire manuscript incredibly offensive. I also wrote that despite my scant knowledge of the legal intricacies of book publishing, I didn’t think it was legal to publish something that offensive to that many groups of people. That was seven days ago, exactly. Today, Zach called me in to Michelle’s office to talk about my report. Nervously, I stepped into the office and had a seat. Michelle sort of sat and watched while Zach very diplomatically attacked what I had to say about the manuscript. Zach said if I was offended by what I was reading, I should not have read it. I told him it was my first project and I didn’t want to be a complainer. He then proceeded to say that before I deem something “illegal to publish” I should check my facts. The first ammendment is the foundation of journalism and publishing. Of course, he’s right. I was once the news and features editor of my school newspaper. Why hadn’t I considered this most basic of publishing tenets? Now, I feel incredibly stupid. Now, I can’t believe that I actually thought something would be illegal to publish. I wanted to jump out the window into Michelle’s beautiful and well-earned view. What an idiot!
Then, he told me that many published books contain profanity and are offensive to different races and different types of people. He had brought books along with him to show me. One was a joke book that was full of racial humor and profanity. Another was a book about lesbians. I wanted to tell Zach and Michelle where I was coming from, but I thought it would probably be in poor taste to argue with two senior editors. I still feel sort of bummed out, though, so I’ll just tell my argument here.

To me, the offensive manuscript was unacceptable because it wasn’t very obviously supposed to be offensive. The book Zach showed me, and other humor books of its kind are not offensive exactly because their covers and titles say to the reader, “Hey! Looky here! I’m a book that’s going to say offensive things in order to be funny!” The offensive manuscript’s title, as an example of how it’s not supposed to be funny, refers to one part of the book in which the children of the main character learn about decorator crabs and how they use pieces of their environment to cover up their sameness. The title is a metaphor for human behavior. That’s not funny. The book was about one man’s journey from uncaring attorney to avenger of social injustice. Also not funny. The profanity and offensiveness that peppered the manuscript, and probably amounted to at least half of the book, was out of place and therefore offensive. To exemplify my point here, let’s use a non-book-related example. If someone said “fuck” in a show like South Park, which is designed to be offensive, I can’t say I would be offended by it. In fact, I love South Park and own eight seasons of it. However, if I went to court for a parking ticket and the judge said “fuck” during the proceedings, I would absolutely be offended and confused, just like I felt while reading that MS. Damn! Why couldn’t I find those words? Where were they when I was stupidly nodding my head and mm-hmming while Zach looked down his nose at me and forced Michelle to watch?

Of course, later on, when my embarassment has cooled, it will occur to me that this experience is valuable. Next time I write a report – and Zach said he would send some my way – I will keep these things in mind and write a smarter, more educated and informed report.
Of course, my learning experience here – what Zach was trying to teach me – is that an editor can’t worry about his own personal feelings when reading a manuscript. He can’t let that sway his decision to publish the book because ultimately it doesn’t matter if he thinks its entertaining or stimulating or whatever. What matters in the end is whether or not it will sell. That’s why Zach brought the other books with him into Michelle’s office. Because he wanted to say that profane and offensive books absolutely do sell – to a certain audience. An editor, I’ve learned from this experience (thanks, Zach!) has to be completely objective, just like he would be on jury duty. If you’re part of the jury on a case in which someone is accused of rape, and you’re a rape victim, it is not appropriate for you to be on the jury and you most certainly will not be allowed.
Although this experience was embarrassing for me, I have to say I would not have it any other way because I’ve learned more in those five minutes than I have learned during my entire college career. And I hope all of you don’t make this mistake!

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