Finally! The Real Truth About Queries

 

Snoopy 2

Query. It’s the big F-word in the writer’s vocabulary.

It’s the ultimate eye-roll in the agent’s life.

Queries. They’re like taxes. A seemingly giant waste of time, but completely necessary to keep the world going round.

Writers don’t like queries because they take away from valuable writing time and it’s basically an email (or letter) that might as well just say:

PLEASE RESPOND TO THIS MESSAGE WITH A TOTALLY UNNECESSARY REJECTION LETTER TO BRIGHTEN MY DAY!!!! (insert: smiley face, smiley face, toothy smiley face)

Because apparently that’s what all agents read while glazing over your query letter while snickering and sharpening the spear on the end of their tail, right?

I’ve been writing queries for many years now and I’ve learned a few things not to do, and, having spoken with many agents, I’ve also gained insight on what they think about queries.

This post is to share thoughts on both sides of the battlefield. Just don’t shoot me, because I’m only the messenger.

What every agent wants to tell every to-be author:

Spell our names right

Don’t copy and paste your query – make each one personal

Get to the point

And stop saying you’re the next J.K. Rowling.

What every author wants to tell every agent:

Whether you like it or not, your message was copied and pasted and by the time I get your formal rejection letter 4-6 weeks later, I’ve already sent 200 other copy-and-pasted queries out. I’m an author, I don’t have time to write you a personal letter because I know you’re going to reject me anyway.

If you don’t want to read my book, don’t send me a rejection letter. I’ve moved on from you. I don’t need to wake up to your impersonal rejection letter to make my life as an author even more depressing.

And I would be the next J.K. Rowling if you’d just represent me!

What I want every writer to know:

Don’t strive to be the next J.K. Rowling. Strive to be the first you.

And what I want every agent to know:

On Writing: Write Awful

When most people think of writing, they associate it to writing an email or a letter: Articulate your thoughts, dot your i’s, and send it away to your adoring audience.

That might be well and true for some writing forms, but not so for books. You don’t just get an idea, jot it down over a length of time, and ship it out to a pristine publisher.

Unfortunately, many who share this false assumption are, in fact, writers. So this post is going to clear the air as to what writing actually is like. Some say it’s like sculpting, some say it’s like architecture, I’m going with the illustration that writing is like drawing a picture.

book 11) Write Awful – You’ve got your brilliant idea, you write it out in book form, and several months later you go back and read your first draft and you think, Wow. I’m a terrible writer. This book stinks! Like the old break-up adage: it’s not you, it’s the process. Trust me. The brilliant minds at Pixar even say that every one of their movies started off as the worst movie ever.

 

book 32) Fix it a little – So if you think your book is awful but you’ve still retained your original idea, then yes, keep at it. Read through it again and change all the “your”s to “you’re”s and all the “their”s to “there”s. Get it a little more readable, a little more articulated. What you’re doing in this draft is removing some of that access dirt around the good idea you’ve uncovered, like sweeping away the dirt to reveal a fully-formed fossil. A word of warning must be inserted here. If, in all the chaos of writing your book, you lost track of that great idea that propelled you to write it in the first place, you might want to start from scratch. I’ve done it, I’m sure Stephen King’s done it… it’s like talking to yourself; it’s more normal than you think.

book 43) Add some detail – Now that you’ve got your book cleaned up a little bit, the main idea shines and the typos are fixed (don’t be fooled, there’s still plenty of typos still hiding), you can now start adding some detail to the narrative by adding color to the sky, rust to the park benches, and acne scars on the misunderstood antagonist. And you can also start breathing life into the dialogue exchange between your characters. Suddenly, your book is going to start taking on a more defined and grounded form. And with any luck, people will actually be able to read it and make sense of it.

book 54) Critique it – By this time you’re so tired of reading your book, just the thought of it makes you want to pull your hair out. But you’re not done. You’ve got to read it again. Heck, put it aside for a few months then return to it with a fresh mind. But this time through, you’re reading it not as the author, but as the reader. Read it with the utmost objectivity. Be hard on yourself. Ask yourself the hard questions (“Why did he say that?” “Is this convincing?” “Does she have reason enough to do this?”). Email some PDFs out to some willing friends to read it, and don’t take their criticisms personally. I’ll tell you, my wife is my toughest critic, to the point that I’m afraid of giving her my work to read for fear of having to start over or make too big of a change. But a story won’t be any closer to perfection until you put in the hard work and ask the hard questions. And it’ll be worth it in the end. (And yes, there’ll still be typos hiding.)

I_Am_LionTreat yourself to a new book for your Kindle, my newest work, I Am the Lion

On Writing: Force the Conversation

Calvin and Hobbes

No matter how good of a planner you are, no matter how much you outline your novel, you’re going to get stuck at some point.

Telling a writer that he’s/she’s going to inevitably hit a writer’s block is like telling a whale that it’s going to eventually get beached, no matter how hard it tries to avoid it.

But it’s reality. And you’ll find pages upon pages and articles upon articles on how to avoid (or get through) writer’s block, and I almost feel like I need to apologize for contributing to the cacophony of mixed and mingled suggestions.

But I won’t.

I also won’t claim that my way is the right answer or even the best way.

I believe everyone has a different way of getting through writer’s block, just like we all have a different way of accomplishing our writing.

I’m simply just going to share my way of getting through it. And bare in mind, I’m writing three books at once, so I run into it pretty frequently.

How do I get past it and go to bed each night with yet another couple of pages under my belt?

It’s simple: I write.

On my teen book which I’m working on, now titled, These Great Effects, I had my main character sitting on her bed, flipping through her crush’s phone to learn more about him. I needed another scene with her interacting with her mom, so I had her mom enter her room (“Knocking as she entered, of course”), and… I hit a wall.

But how did I get through it? I forced the conversation. Sure, there’s a lot of awkward silences and hesitant comments as I struggled through the scene, trying to decide why mom had come into her room.

But the more I wrote the scene out, stumbling along, finding my footing, learning about my characters, I hit on a line that will eventually turn the book into the direction I want it to go.

(Mom asks Adele, the main character, to attend one of her dad’s campaign gatherings with him, which is where the plot of the story will pick up.)

The point is, you’ve got to struggle through those scenes when you just don’t know where it’s going to lead you. It might take a few tries; you might change it tomorrow or you might change it a year from now. The point is, you just built in one more step to get the rest of your book completed.

And even if it’s a little wobbly, you can always go back and fix it.

Remember, it’s a writer’s block – intended for writers, and if my baby’s aiqddKkiMpresence has taught me anything, it’s that blocks are pretty easy to pick up.

Get my newest book for your Kindle for just $1.99

They Risked All

The-American-Patriots-Almanac-365-reasons-to-love-AmericaThe following is taken from The American Patriot’s Almanac by William J. Bennett and John T.E. Cribb.

On July 4, 1776, delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence. The men who issued that famous document realized they were signing their own death warrants, since the British would consider them traitors. Many suffered hardship during the Revolutionary War.

William Floyd of New York saw the British use his home for a barracks. His family fled to Connecticut, where they lived as refugees. After the war Floyd found his fields stripped and house damaged.

Richard Stockton of New Jersey was dragged from his from his bed, thrown into prison, and treated liked a common criminal. His home was looted and his fortune badly impaired. He was released in 1777, but his health was broken. He died a few years later.

At age sixty-three, John Hart, another New Jersey signer, hid in the woods during December 1776 while Hessian soldiers hunted him across the countryside. He died before the war’s end. The New Jersey Gazette reported that he “continued to the day he was seized with his last illness to discharge the duties of a faithful and upright patriot in the service of his country.”

Thomas Nelson, a Virginian, commanded militia and served as governor during the Revolution. He reportedly instructed artillerymen to fire at his own house in Yorktown when he heard the British were using it as a headquarters. Nelson used his personal credit to raise money for the Patriot cause. His sacrifices left him in financial distress, and he was unable to repair his Yorktown home after the war.

Thomas Heyward, Arthur Middleton, and Edward Rutledge, three South Carolina signers, served in their state’s militia and were captured when the British seized Charleston. They spent a year in a St. Augustine prison and, when released, found their estates plundered.

Such were the prices paid so we may celebrate freedom every Fourth of July.

So You Wanna Write Part 10 – “Take That Step”

5If you’ve ever been to church in your life, chances are you’ve seen this movie clip.

It’s probably the most overused clip in all churches ever.

And if it happens to be a church that doesn’t have a movie screen or projectors, then the youth pastor or the hip young intern has referenced the scene on stage at some point.

And the funny thing is, all these years later, these guys still get behind the pulpit and reference this movie scene as though they’re the first ones to draw in a biblical connection to it.

Cracks me up every time.

You know the scene.

Indy’s father is dying of a gun wound and he, Indiana Jones, must retrieve the holy grail. But IndyAbyssone of the last tests is for him to make a leap of faith.

He takes that step into a deep chasm, and behold! His foot lands on an invisible stone bridge!

Well, I’m not going to make the obvious (though unintentional) connection to Christian faith (lest we forget that The Last Crusade was directed by a Jew?). But I’m going to make the connection between that scene and writing.

When I was younger and my mind wasn’t carrying the weight of bills, mortgages, and 2 A.M. feedings, I was able to shower, drive, or just fall asleep dreaming up my stories. I would watch them play out in my head like a movie, and the next day I’d get to work and write what I had played in my head.

I worry a lot now, so I’ve lost the luxury to be able to let my mind play out in that way.

The bigger problem is that it’s another excuse to not write. Well, I didn’t come up with anything for a new scene, so I guess there’s nothing to write today.

Well, if that’s you, you need to stop thinking that way. So do I.

Instead, we need to approach that blank Word document like a cliff that we must hurdle. The words are already there; we just can’t see them yet. We just need to take a step, and write.

The words will come whether we think they will or not.

So You Wanna Write Part 8: Knowing When to Stop

 

bone

Ever read the Bone saga by Jeff Smith? You should no matter who you are.

Years ago I was reading an article by Mr. Smith and he said something that changed my writing habits for life.

He was talking about his writing process while developing Bone. He said something like, “You’ve just got to know when to stop and skip a scene and come back to it later.”

That tip has done wonders for my writing. And, it’s a great tool to combat writer’s block. If you’re willing to skip a difficult scene and move on ahead of the story to construct something further down the timeline, then your book or story isn’t just sitting in limbo.

Be willing to skip scenes. Heck, on your first draft, be willing to be sloppy! I’m in the process of writing a young readers historical novel and it’s very sloppy right now – the facts are all wrong, the setting’s a mess – but that’s why I’m going to go back and fix all that.

When you buy a building for your business you don’t start adding up your funds right away or upgrading your product line. You’re focused on one thing initially, and that’s location.

The same with writing. Don’t worry about the details on your first draft. Worry about one thing only – story, story, story!

John Lasseter, CCO of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios says, “Every single Pixar film, at one time or another, has been the worst movie ever put on film.”

In fact, no animated movie has ever been filmed chronologically. They may even start with the third act, and the opening scene may be the last thing they work on. For my historical novel, I have the entire ending drafted already, and I’m not even in the second act!

Be willing to skip around, get messy, get scattered, and in the end, it’ll all come together.

So You Wanna Write Part 5: What to Write

Keyboard-fingersSo we started this series off with a blinking cursor.

We’ve learned that writing can be a chore, there’s a difference between writing and storytelling, we’ve figured out  why we want to write, and we’ve bragged to everyone we know that we’re gong to write a book.

Only to be brought back to that blinking, taunting cursor.

Blink, blink, blink…

What do you write? It’s like when you were in grade school and you had one sheet of paper and a Crayon. What was it you asked yourself or those around you? What should I draw? 

That was the big question of your young life.

And now as you sit before a blank Word document, you’re constantly asking yourself, What should I write. I love this comment Tylowery of the blog, “Secrets in the City” wrote in a previous post:

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You’ve heard it said to write what you know.

That’s true. But that also kind of stinks. Because what I know isn’t really all that exciting. I grew THE WONDER YEARSup in suburban America where I spent my time mountain biking and playing roller hockey just like every other boy in the country. And The Wonder Years has already been told.

And back when I was developing my first novel I worked as a bookseller at Barnes and Noble.

Nothing much exciting there.

Not to downplay my life – I love it, actually. But not much to write home about – or write a book about, for that matter.

So sticking with the theme of write what you know, I wrote about how I felt about my mundane and anti-climatical existence.

I created a character, Robbie, who’s just like me but about fifteen years older and still stuck in the same uneventful life I felt I was in.

And I gave him an out.

I provided him with a box that he could climb in and appear in a fantasy world of his making anytime he wanted. And honestly, my book became my box. I would escape to it when I needed a break from reality. (Luckily the characters didn’t start crawling out of my book and threaten to kill me and my wife like they do from Robbie’s box.)

dead-poets-society-04But here’s the thing you need to walk away with. Yes, write what you know. But make it interesting. Flip things on their head. Look at life from a different perspective. Or like Mr. Keating says in Dead Poets Society, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”

How did I come up with the idea for The Man in the Box? 

Well, as I said before, I worked at Barnes and Noble during the time. I was the head of the children’s department. And throughout the day I had to go back to the shipping room to retrieve more books to carry out on the floor.

I read a lot of those children’s books while I stood back there waiting for customers to walk past. So I was constantly diving into fantasy worlds during my dull job. And the shipping room was constantly full of boxes. So I put the two together.

Twain wrote about what he knew about the deep south. Dickens created fantasy worlds out of the slums of London. And I can’t imagine any scene duller than Depression-era Salinas Valley California, but Steinbeck used it in many of his beloved masterpieces.

If you’re creating a fantasy world that’s set far from our world, make absolutely sure to relate it tour world. Tie your personal life, feelings, emotions, to that world so that we can relate to it.

Write what you know. Take this advice with a grain of salt, then run with it. Don’t be afraid to simbatweak what you know. Simba only knew life in Africa. But watch the scene in The Lion King when he sings “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.” All the colors change, the style is dramatized; it’s a completely different, unique, and interesting world, because it’s Africa through his cub-like eyes.

Show us this old, tattered, familiar world through your eyes. How do you see life? What’s a hero to you? What makes a bad guy bad? What’s your biggest fear, and why should your readers be afraid of it, too?

If I may, think outside the box.

(Like my book The Man in the Box on Facebook for updates on the upcoming second edition, and earn a chance to win a free autographed copy.)

 

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