Monthly Archives

May 2013

5 Best Blogs on How to Write a Query Letter

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Query Shark
by Janet Reid
You can read this blog, or you can get seriously interactive. The premise of Query Shark is that readers send in their query letters to be critiqued. Reid’s advice is blunt and straight to the point—and it’s very, very useful. Query Shark shows writers exactly what they’re doing wrong, and makes clear, practical suggestions for improvement. If you have a query letter that you’re looking for some feedback on, you should definitely think about sending it to Query Shark before sending it out to agents.

Author! Author!
by Anne Mini
Anne Mini is known for the length of her posts. This is not a breezy, five-minutes-of-info blog. However, reading Mini’s long posts counts as time well spent. She covers every detail of querying, how to work with agents, the fine print, and more. This woman is totally amazing and I highly recommend investing the time in reading what she has to say.

Nathan Bransford
Bransford used to be a literary agent, and he’s currently an author himself. He includes information on the query process, as well publishing e-books and what to expect these days from traditional publishers. He’s also friendly and down to earth. If you only have a few minutes a day to do your query research, Bransford is a good bet.

Rachelle Gardner
In addition to posts about agents and the querying process, Gardner includes helpful information about marketing and promotion, and the financial and legal side of things. She’s currently an agent with Books and Such Literary Agency so she has a true insider perspective. She gives readers the real truth about pursuing a career in writing, but she also comes across as a real person.

Absolute Write
Not technically a blog, Absolute Write offers articles and information for published and unpublished writers. The site is probably best known for its forums, where writers can discuss topics and ask questions of other writers. If you have questions about a specific agent, for instance, the forums might provide more information on him or her. But like any forum, it’s easy to waste a lot of time endlessly reading the discussions if you’re looking to procrastinate—something we writers are known for!

If you’re serious about getting your writing career off the ground, it’s time to bring in the experts. After you visit the blogs I’ve recommended above, do your own a Google search and dive into the results!

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Writing Out Loud

SAMSUNGA couple of weeks ago my writing group got together and staged a reading. We did it at the apartment of one of our members, and each of us brought a dish or snack to share. We each picked a bookstore or venue where it would be our dream to have our own author event. One of the other writers in our group introduced us and we presented our writing exactly as if our book had just been published and we were doing the book tour. Then we did the Q&A afterward.

It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.

This is what I learned:

Your writing is always different spoken out loud
Sentences that flow on the page might turn up clumsy out of the mouth. Dialogue that seems lackluster in written form can surprise you with how funny it sounds in actual conversation. Your writing takes on a different personality when you read it in front of other people (or even just yourself), and this difference can give you valuable information about the way you work your particular craft.

Reading in front of people builds your confidence
Yes, it is nerve-wracking at first. When it was my turn to get up and read my voice was shaking, my hands were shaking, and I even had trouble breathing! Every gland on my body that could sweat started sweating. But it got easier as I read page after page. The audience laughed at my funny stuff, and groaned at my embarrassing parts. I heard with my own ears how my writing was doing what I wanted it to do, and inside, I grew stronger.

Other writers are just as unsure as you
When you’re struggling to write your first novel, it’s easy to assume that other writers magically have their shit together and know exactly what they’re doing. This is simply not true. There are so many other writers out there who are just as uncertain about what to expect as you are. If we make the journey together and support each other along the way, it won’t be as scary. The energy we would have put toward fear, we can shift toward getting our work published and finding new readers.

So now that you know the benefits, who will be your audience for your very first reading?

How about…

Your Writing Group
If you’re part of a Reading Circle, you’re doing this kind of work anyway. But if you’re part of a Critique Group or a Timed Writing Group, it couldn’t hurt to propose a practice reading to your group, solely focused on encouragement and the art of public speaking. Your writing group should function as your sounding board and your local community; a practice reading will contribute to both of these functions.

Open Mic Night
If you live in the city, you can probably find an Open Mic Night at a local bar, bookstore, or community center. These are usually focused on poetry and spoken word, but sometimes you can present flash fiction too. This is a good option for more extroverted writers who like being in the spotlight.

The Stuffed Animal Brigade
If you’re an introvert, or just not ready to share your writing at that level, then the two options above might feel like too much for you. This is when you call in the troops—your favorite stuffed animals, ceramic figurines, Halloween masks—anything with a face! Assemble them all together as your audience and read your work loud and proud.

Reading your work out loud is a serious step toward finding your voice as a writer. You don’t have to agonize over which option to choose, just make the choice and start reading your week out loud, at least once every couple of months.

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The Beast of Self-Judgment

SAMSUNGWhat’s the number one thing that cripples writers?

Self-Judgment

No matter what kind of fiction we write, most of us writers have eerily similar personalities. We are sensitive and intelligent, and we have high standards when it comes to our creative work. So high, in fact, that sometimes our standards turn into the two-headed Beast of Self-Judgment that breathes fire with one head and drools poison with the other, usually all over our fragile dreams.

If you are writing your first novel, you will do battle with the beast of Self-Judgment over and over again. And you will even judge yourself on who’s winning or losing the battle.

Here’s how you know when you’re losing:

You hear that critical voice in your head that makes you feel terrible about yourself.
You inwardly call yourself names, or call yourself stupid.
Your chest feels tight, your throat feels tight, you feel like you might cry.
Your stomach sinks like a dead weight.
You get agitated and reach for any addiction—food, the remote, a drink, whatever.

If you feel any of these things while reading your writing, or talking about your writing, or even just thinking about your writing, the Beast of Self-Judgment is in the room with you.

It’s time to do battle.

But how do you fight the Beast? It has an argument ready for every point you debate. It digs up old secrets and memories that make you feel even worse. It hits below the belt, every time.

I’m going to give you a quick exercise you can do anytime, anywhere, and the results are huge. But if you want it to actually work, you have to put your whole imagination into it. No half-assing this. No “kind of” trying to do it. Close your eyes and really do it.

Picture yourself as you were when you were six years old. Remember how you looked, how small you were, how unsure of the world. Page through an old photo album if you have one. Really sit and settle into those six-year-old shoes.

Now picture another six-year-old kid—someone who is not you. Maybe you have a son or daughter that age, or a niece or nephew. Maybe you’re a teacher and you can picture some of the kids in your school. If you really don’t know any six-year-old kids, Google what’s going on at a local school in your community and look at the pictures of the first-graders.

Notice how small and innocent these kids are. How bright and hopeful. Sit with the feeling of being an adult, being a protector and a leader for these kids. Feel how much potential they have, how much joy they can bring to the world.

Okay—now that you’ve got all those feelings loaded and locked down in your psyche, go back to the space where you felt the most Self-Judgment. How would you react if you heard someone being as harsh as you are on yourself, to those six-year-old kids you were picturing? What if one of those kids was writing his or her first story and some mean crazy person came along and told them it was stupid?

How hurtful would that be?

Now go back to six-year-old you. Picture you as the kid sitting there writing that story. You’re excited and having fun, totally lit up from the inside out. The voice of Self-Judgment is the crazy mean person who comes along and tries to kick your story to pieces.

But now, there’s a difference. You are going to come in as the adult and protect you as the child. The six-year-old you writing that story is your little flame of creativity. It has limitless potential, boundless joy and curiosity for the world. You-the-adult understands that some things are worth protecting. That just because someone is small right now and still learning, doesn’t give anyone else the right to try to tear them down.

Anytime you feel that icky feeling of Self-Judgment, that snaky poisonous voice of self-criticism, you’re going to picture yourself as a child once again, sitting at a sunny table writing your very first story. And then you’re going to imagine yourself as the adult you are now, shielding that child inside and taking your creative power back.

This exercise truly can work wonders for you, but you must practice it earnestly. You must be serious about dedicating yourself to the protection and well-being of the child writer inside you.

Be brave—your six-year-old self is counting on you!

Do You Know the One Thing to Do Before Finding an Agent?

SAMSUNGBesides writing the book, of course.

Would you guess: Proofread your manuscript? Or, write an excellent query letter?

Yes, you should do those things, but there’s something else…the Secret Sauce that could make your cheeseburger into the next Big Mac.

Know Your Category

Most of us have a general idea, but problems crop up when we assume our general idea is specifically what agents are looking for. In this day and age the marketplace is filled with genres and sub-genres that didn’t exist ten, or even five, years ago.

For instance, if you’re a Fantasy writer you are probably already familiar with some of these sub-genres:

Urban Fantasy
Paranormal Fantasy
Steampunk
Sword & Sorcery
Epic Fantasy
Slipstream

Yes, they’re all similar but sometimes similar doesn’t cut it with agents. If an agent is looking for Urban Fantasy and you send them Sword & Sorcery, they’re not even going to look at it. That’s wasted time and energy for you.

Knowing your specific category is the first step in making thoughtful, targeted queries to agents.

Let’s say you’ve been using plain old “Fantasy” as your category, using this terms as you look for agents on Google. Lots of agents probably come up. Quite possibly, you copy and paste your query letter into 30 different emails using that particular list of results. But because you used such a broad search term, you didn’t realize that most of those agents you just emailed are looking for Urban Fantasy—a category that’s on fire right now and consequently at the top of Google’s “Fantasy” pages. However, let’s say your writing isn’t Urban Fantasy at all. Your story takes place in a medieval world full of knights and wizards.

Because your search term was too broad, you just sent 30 query letters to the wrong people.

But okay, let’s say now that you’ve nailed down your category. You are confident that you’re writing work that could fall into Arthurian Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, or Sword & Sorcery. But when you type such specific search terms into Google, you only get a few leads.

This is where we combine “knowing our category” with our writer-research skills.

Now you’re going to Google: Agent Interviews, Fantasy. This is where you will find agents saying what they’re looking for in their own words. So while they might not specifically mention categories like Epic, S&S, or Arthurian, they may very well mention that their favorite book is The Hobbit and they love anything with Gandalf-like characters in it.

Bingo. That agent should go on your list.

The goal of knowing your category through-and-through is to build your common-sense skills about which agents are the best choice to represent your work. Also, just because you feel your writing falls primarily into one specific sub-genre, doesn’t meant that everything else is closed off to you.

For example, I have a manuscript I’m about to shop around that has some magic as part of the main storyline. First I researched Magical Realism, a category with more of a literary bent to it than most Fantasy. That means action is not the central focus of the narrative. Magical Realism tends to deal with the inner world of the characters and their inward journey. Love in the Time of Cholera is an example of Magical Realism.

Then I researched Urban Fantasy, which is particularly centered on action and events. We usually find a battle of Good vs. Evil, and lots of sparks, adventures, and a healthy dose of romance in Urban Fantasy. And of course, one of the key elements is that the story takes place in an urban setting, somewhere in our Modern World. The Sookie Stackhouse series (which the TV show True Blood is based on) is an example of Urban Fantasy.

My story has a main character who takes an inward, mostly spiritual journey with not that much focus on action or adventure. There is a slight tint of romance, but it isn’t central to the storyline.

Obviously, I decided on Magical Realism as a category…but…I didn’t throw out Urban Fantasy. Because my story also involves magic happening on the streets of modern-day Seattle.  And Seattle is an urban setting.

So now when I’m researching agents and reading agent interviews, I’m mostly looking for agents interested in Magical Realism, but if I find an agent who says they’re scouting for Urban Fantasy but really love getting more into the characters’ heads than reading thrilling chase scenes—well, I know I might have a chance with them.

Know your category. Do your research. Keep a running list of agents.

Here’s your exercise for today: Sit and brainstorm on categories. Write down the category, sub-genre included, that fits your work the best (for example Fantasy: Swords & Sorcery). Then write down two more categories/sub-genres that could also describe your work. Post your list somewhere front and center in your workspace.

Look up your categories and agent interviews and do your research. Use the online tools at your fingertips to tilt the scales in your favor.

Now get Googling!

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5 Lies Writers Tell Themselves

SAMSUNGI Don’t Have Time to Write
This is probably the biggest lie writers tell. To be fair, most people tell themselves this lie at one time or another to make excuses about why they’re not following their passion.

The writer who stays up all night writing the Great American novel surrounded by crumpled balls of paper is a popular image, but it’s not very accurate. Some writers do stay up all night, but you don’t have to.

The Truth
All you really need is 20 minutes of focused, concentrated writing time each day.

It’s astounding how little time you need to practice writing. If you can make time to take a shower or drink a cup of coffee, you can make time to write.

I Need a Good Idea Before I Begin
I hear this one a lot. Some writers expect the plot of the Virgin Suicides to fall into their lap, with Kirsten Dunst signing up to play the lead role included.

Sometimes writers do get those brilliant epiphanies that come in flashes or dreams, but most of the time our ideas are shadowy and vague. We see a character, or the ending to a story with no beginning and no middle. Or a message we want to convey, with no clue how to express it. And we’re lucky if we even get these fragments. So how do writers like Stephen King do it? How do you get to the place where you’re cranking out novels every few months?

The Truth
You don’t need an idea to begin. You only need to begin.

If you really and truly don’t have one tiny fragment of an idea sit yourself down and write, “I don’t know what to write about” over and over until your hand starts writing something else. It sounds crazy, but it actually works. The more you write, the more ideas will come to you.

Writing Is an Isolating Activity
This is where we find those myths about writers cropping up again. The writer who stays up all night stays up alone. The writer in the room surrounded by crumpled balls of paper is in that room alone.

While it is true that the actual act of writing is something you do on your own, and that solitude encourages concentration and focus, writing is only one small part of your life as a writer. If you’re constantly holing up in a room by yourself and doing nothing else, you are probably going to feel isolated. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Truth
We live in an online world and never before have there been so many opportunities for writers to connect with each other.

If social media isn’t your thing, try joining a group that meets offline, out in the real world. You can make friends and get feedback through critique groups and reading circles. And if you truly hate writing alone, join a Meetup group for writers like Shut Up and Write to get those pages cranked out while in the company of others.

I Need an Agent to Move Forward
This lie makes me cringe because it’s a lie I’ve told myself countless times. Landing an agent can be a long and frustrating process, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve put my projects on hold because I’ve gotten wrapped up in waiting to hear from agencies.

Researching and querying agents takes time, but a writer’s first priority should always be the writing. Regardless of whatever else is happening in your writing career, if you’re consistently writing new stuff every single week then you’re making significant progress. And there are tons of other facets to your career that you can work on while waiting to hear back from agents—like your social media presence, best strategies for low-budget promotion, and revising those manuscripts waiting for representation.

The Truth
Telling yourself you need an agent to move forward is you setting conditions for your career goals.

Those conditions can fast become obstacles. And conditions and obstacles belong to the energy of resistance and fear. Shift into an attitude of flexibility and openness about things happening at their own pace and use the time you spend waiting to learn about the other ways you can become more of a professional.

Focusing on Money Will Make Me a Sell Out
This idea doesn’t just cause trouble for writers. If you’re a visual artist, a musician, a humanitarian—if you’re doing any sort of passionate work driven by your internal values—you are likely going to stumble on the money issue. Those of us with the artistic temperament are usually repelled by anything corporate, anything unimaginative, and anything that takes unfair advantage of others. Because big corporations and greedy higher-ups tend to embrace all of the above in the pursuit of more money, we tend to identify money with all of those things.

Money itself is neutral. Whatever we see in it are the ideas we’ve chosen to infuse into it. It is possible to do work that you’re passionate about, that expresses your gifts as a writer or an artist, and also make a decent living at it. But it’s never going to happen if you force money into carrying all this icky baggage. If you see money as covered in greedy slime, or weighed down with the pain of others, whenever it shows up in your life you’ll end up unconsciously pushing it away from you.

The Truth
Writing is work and you deserve to be paid for your labor.

If you’re able to welcome fair compensation for your work into your life, it will give you the freedom and space to create more awesome stories, and more brilliant art. Even if you’re not getting paid for what you do right now, make the resolution that your current financial situation can and will change.

To be the best writers we can we’ve got to stay honest with ourselves, even if it’s hard sometimes. What are some of the little white lies you tell yourself about your writing?

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