Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Query Letter Writing: There are No Rules (But Some Good Advice)

Although my book is nowhere near ready to send out to agents, I plan to write a query letter very soon. Based on my experiences last fall, putting together a query letter seems to be an excellent way to revise a book's large-scale issues. Do I have my themes lined up? Does my plot move forward with enough clarity that it can be summarized in a few sentences? Are my characters interesting enough to snare attention? Are the stakes high enough to be meaningful to anyone besides me?

No wonder after writing a few drafts of query letters last fall, I found a number of element in my story that needed rewriting.

Now the kicker: Last fall, I spent hours and hours researching online how to write query letters. I researched query letters in the indispensable Guide to Literary Agents. I studied Query Shark and other blogs with letters that had secured for their writers agents and, ultimately, publication.

No Rules! Complete literary anarchy! Oh, what to do?
And I learned something frustrating: There is absolutely no science to writing query letters. Just as there is no science to writing the books we have devoted ourselves to.

In my research, I found so many opinions on what goes into a query letter--as well as the order. There were absolute Musts. There were absolute Must Nots.

And yet something different worked for everybody--even those whose query letters led to publication. Especially those whose query letters led to publication. Some put their mini-synopsis first. Some put their author bio and credentials first. Some address the agent directly, mentioning a time they'd crossed paths, or specific reason why that agent was suited to representing the work. Others did not have any direct address to the agent at all. Some even committed Must Nots, such as pitching another book in the same letter. Or writing the letter in the voice of a character. Or mentioning that this was a first novel.

And yet the letters still somehow worked for those writers--and their new agent partners.

This field's blessing--and curse--is its objectivity. Getting published depends on more than simply writing the "correct" query letter. If there was a checklist of absolutes, everyone (well, most everyone) would be published. It's not even just about writing the query letter well. There's more to be said about matching your book--and your query--to the right agent, than I think most of us realize or want to admit.

But there is some help out there!

For me, the most solid piece of advice that I have received regarding query writing has been to write your book summary as it would appear on the back cover. Describe your book in a way that would keep it in a potential reader's hands, instead of being placed back on the shelf. (The upside of this advice is that there are so many examples to look at. Think about your favorite books: What intrigued you about them so much, that you brought them home with you?)

The other tip that has stuck with me comes courtesy of agent Jill Corcoran, when she caught me on the fly at a conference (when I was just 8 pages into writing my book): What is your story about?

If you can't answer that in one sentence, you have some more work to do.

Here's to all of us and our desperate need to tell stories--a need that keeps us writing late and chases us out of bed early.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Writing Tips: Start on the Day that's Different

In Lin Oliver's list of writing tips, number three comes from Susan Patron: Start on the Day that's Different.

What throws your characters' worlds out of whack? What pushes them out of their comfort zones, makes them ask questions about their world, their lives--even themselves? What makes them take action . . . and what stirs even more conflict into their increasingly troubled world?

Bilbo's story in The Hobbit begins when Gandalf unceremonious recruits him for an adventure--something Bilbo was not particularly seeking or hoping for. (This, of course, after a baker's dozen of dwarves crash his home, eat all his food, and admit that he may not return from his adventure, but they will arrange for his funeral appropriately, if necessary.)

Seraphina's story, in the eponymous book by Rachel Hartman, begins the day she defies her father's order to never play a musical instrument in public--and thus reveal her musical talents to their society. (Furthermore, she playing at a funeral, for a prince who was mysteriously and violently killed on a hunting trip.)

Verity, in Elizabeth Wein's novel Code Name Verity, begins her story the day she agrees to trade radio code, along with her story, to her Gestapo interrogators, in exchange for having her clothes back, as well as a chance to write.

Begin on the day that is different. What drives your character to make a choice and select a path to follow? What changes become so compelling, that your readers have no choice themselves but to follow your character and see what happens next?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Writing Tips: Follow Your Weirdness

Way back at the beginning of the summer, I said I would blog about each one of Lin Oliver's fifteen (really seventeen) writing tips that she shared at the SCBWI Wild, Wild Midwest conference. This is still the plan.

Tip #2 hails from Bruce Coville: "Follow Your Weirdness." Whatever it is, find it your niche, your personal insights, viewpoints, and creative threads, and follow them wherever they may lead you.

This newest book I'm working on takes a definite dive into some different territory. Last December, I got the notion: What if my dragon wasn't really a dragon? What if he was a nature spirit in disguise? And what if he wasn't alone?

So I set to work researching elemental spirits and pairing mythological creatures with them (including many off-the-beaten path creatures).

Realizing that my interest in anime and manga was influencing this world I was designing, I embraced that foundation, and also researched Japanese mythology and the very nature-based Shinto religion in my story. My intention here wasn't to cut and paste Shinto traditions into the cultural world of my book, but rather to learn more about the mindsets of people who live in such a world, as well as the perspectives they would have and the kinds of questions and concerns they would carry.
Some of my favorite animes & mangas include Mushishi
and Natsume's Book of Friends (Natsume Yuujinchou)

But mostly, it was just tremendously fun to consider a world that was so different from what I know in my life.

Back at the SCWBI Midwest conference, I was enthusiastically explaining my book's world to another attendee. After my description, she looked at me and said, "Now, do you believe in this nature world, or is this just a story to you?"

"Ehhhh?" I wanted to respond (in the vein of some manga characters I know).

I believe in this world as much as any author does in order to bring his/her book to life. If there is no passion demonstrated for that story world--whether it is a real-life setting, historical, or fantasy--then the story is nothing more than a bunch of ink smeared on a page. Do I literally believe that these nature spirits walk around the world and that I can see them from my apartment window? No. (Though I wish I could.)

As it turned out, this woman was taking alarm at what seemed to be my embracing of Eastern religion over Western. (At which I though: Hey, if I do, be respectful. And props to me, either way, if I was describing my book's world with enough detail and enthusiasm that it came off as my "real belief.")

So . . . my story is off the beaten path. So . . . the society I depict is different enough that it may cause some parents alarm for young readers. (It seems that most books worth reading have caused ire for parents for one reason or another.)

I embrace my weirdness as I write this story that can re-energize me at the end of the most draining days. Embrace your weirdness, too, and we'll all have a bit more to learn from each other every time we read.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

How I Spent my Summer Vacation: Writing 1000 Words a Day

So I'm a "grown-up" now, with a full-time desk job, and sadly do not receive a weeks-long summer break anymore. (Oh, how I miss those days!) But at the very start of this summer, way back in the beginning of May, I made a goal for myself that I would have a draft of my new book completed by the end of summer (or the beginning of August, when the hubby and I actually do leave for a bit of summer vacation).

To accomplish this feat, I made a goal that I would write at least 1,000 words every single day on my book--and at least 1,500 on Saturdays, if the day wasn't completely booked with other activities.

I felt confident in this goal, knowing it is a number that many other aspiring authors (and even full-time authors) aim for. When I would tell other non-writers about it, they were aghast: "One thousand words a day is so many! How do you do it?"

Discipline. Aside from my hubby and the day job, I made writing my number one priority. I completed my writing goal for the day before I let myself get carried away in whatever book I was reading. I completed my writing goal for the day before I practiced my violin. I completed my writing goal instead of watching movies. I completed my writing goal instead of goofing around on the internet.

Sometimes, the writing worked like magic. I could come home from the day job, completely exhausted and in bad spirits, write my thousand words, and suddenly my energy was back and all was right with the world. Other times the words came slowly or badly, and I'd have to fight to get each one down on the page. Or I'd be so tired and just want to nap and have to push myself to keep typing until my manuscript was at least 1,000 words longer.

And with the exception of a few days in the beginning of May, when I was still learning the ropes of my goal, I achieved it every single day this summer. Often, I even exceeded it. Making and sticking to a daily word goal has been one of the most beneficial things I have done for my writing. By writing consistently, every single day, I kept myself in the story and never had to waste time figuring out where I'd been and where I was going. My keeping my writing skills primed, the words flowed from my mind to the computer so much more smoothly. The notion of a thousand words daunted non-writers, but it became a very achievable goal for me.

And though my story ended up taking more words to tell than I'd anticipated, I actually finished the manuscript two weeks ahead of schedule! Hurrah for writing! Looking forward to editing this guy in a few weeks.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Writing Tips: Write the Book You Want to Read

At last week's Wild, Wild Midwest conference, SCBWI co-founder Lin Oliver presented us with 15 (actually 17) tips to improve our writing. Some of these points were her own observations; others she had borrowed from other writers. I thought I would borrow them again for string of delicious blog posts and add a bit of my own wisdom and insights [insert grin and\or eye roll here] to the fray.

Tip #1 hails from Judy Blume: "Write the kind of book you like to read."

What is missing for you on library or bookstore shelves? What have you not been able to find in recently published stories? Think of your favorite genre--what hasn't been done yet? Find those answers, and then fill in those gaps. Because unless you are truly strange (and we'll talk about that next time), there are likely a number of other readers feeling the same void. And as writers, we have the ability to do something about those empty spaces and untapped needs.

For me: I like young adult fantasy. I have since I was a teenager and I still like it now that I am . . . not a teenager. I love high fantasy (though I'm less crazy about the prophesy aspect too often deployed in fantasy stories. That is guaranteed to make my eyes roll). I'm enjoying steam punk more and more. I like dragons and other mythological creatures. I love stories based on folktales and I like fractured fairytales. Looking at a story from a different angle--especially a "well-known" tale--has always been exciting for me.

Here's what I don't like: Love triangles (you bet that's first on the list). Other romantic drama. Paranormal. Characters who are killed and then conveniently brought back to life. And when the villain does a gut dump at the end of the story and (also conveniently) tells the hero exactly how he/she did everything to bring about the evil plan.

Here's what is missing: I want to see more YA stories with less romantic drama. Yes, budding romance is a big part of teen life. But does it have to happen every freaking time a good-looking male or female enters the scene? I want to see more books with guys and girls who are friends, and are comfortable being friends, and then, if it's right for them, grow to a deeper relationship. Preferably one without all the agonizing angst and drama of "Does he love me? Or doesn't he? Or . . . does he love that other girl?"

I would like to see more stories with proactive female protagonists who are confident in themselves and make a difference in their lives and in the story around them, without having to pick up a weapon. More and more books are being published that feature female protagonists, but so many of them revolve around girls who contribute to the story as fighters. In fantasy, does the message have to be, "Girls as just as capable of leading a story as boys, because girls, too, can wield swords and shoot arrows and kill someone in the middle of the night?"

I'm not saying I dislike every one of these stories. It is fun to read them, and it is gratifying to see girls breaking through barriers in their world (and in our own) and proving that they are so much more than a pretty face to be saved at the first sign of danger. Because girls are fierce fighters and will defend the people important to them. But I'd like to see more stories where girls' strengths are demonstrated by skills other than martial combat.

And I'd like to see less stories laden with girls who melt into quivering puddle every time an attractive young man steps in to the room.

What is missing for you in the books you've been reading?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Sam's Book Bag: A Natural History of Dragons

Today I finished Marie Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons. This interesting book came to my attention via a Twitter post/blog article by Word for Teens. Initially, I thought this was an encyclopedia-type book filled with information about dragons. It seemed the perfect resource for my own writing endeavors, so I popped it onto my Amazon wish list and received it for a birthday gift.

The book is NOT, however, an encyclopedia by any means (as the subtitle rather obviously points out. In my defense, I didn't pick up on it during my quick reading of the blog). Rather, the story is a mock-memoir of the fictional Lady Trent, or Isabella Camherst, a natural historian who broke gender-barriers in her time (a very Victorian-esque setup) by becoming a dragon scholar in her own right. This book--perhaps the first in a series?--charts the beginning of her career, detailing her childhood interest in dragons and moving through her first expedition to study dragons in the wild. 

I was surprised at the contents, but happily not disappointed. Isabella's voice is astute and engaging. She could be your grandmother telling stories of her youthful escapades.
One of the many drawings in the book

I do feel the title of the book, however, could have been more aptly chosen. Granted, it does reflect the title of the text book that sparked Isabella's interest in dragons. But a quick peek at other reviews shows I wasn't the only one who came to the book with incorrect expectations. Others, for instance, complained that they expected an art book and were disappointed to find a novel. (Incidentally, the book does include a handful of very detailed and beautiful drawings that illustrate the creatures Isabella encounters. But this is by no means an art book, or a history of anyone other than Isabella Camherst.)

And, clever allusions aside, even those who know the book is a novel could be turned away because of the incredibly dry title. (Personal example: I'm having a hard time convincing my husband, who loves dragon stories, to read the book. No matter what I tell him, he won't believe the book has a plot.) 

Disclaimer: This criticism comes from a writer with little skill in titling her own stories. But I do feel I know an exciting title when I see one. And I know that a bad title can mar the success of a story. I hate to see it happen when the story behind it is good. 

Should you read the book? I'd say so, especially if you enjoy historical fiction. Even those who typically don't like fantasy may find this book enjoyable, since the story involves no magic, vampires, werewolves, wizards, fallen angels, curses, prophesies . . .  you get the idea. 

And lest you think this book still has no story to it, just pretend the front cover readers The Rock-Wyrm and the Firestone, or . . . well, I'll just stop while I'm ahead. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

When Books Go Awry: Getting the Story Back on Track

With another SCBWI conference approaching this weekend (Wild Wild Midwest! Whooo!), I'd hoped that I'd be in a different place with my writing. My first SCBWI conference back in February had me fired up to finish my novel and get it on the market. There were a few tweaks I'd wanted to make, as there is after any conference, but I'd hoped to get those patched up and send my book on its way to the editor contacts I'd made.

BUT!

I'd really wanted to get a solid, objective opinion on my book before sending it out to the publishing world for evaluation. If there were things that still needed cleaning up, I wanted those out of the way before sending the manuscript to an agent for review. So I enlisted the help of an editor friend of mine.

The end result was, for me, a rather alarming wake-up call. As the list of flaws in character development and plot continued to stretch longer and longer, the unfortunate conclusion became clear: my book was not ready to be published. It was not even close.

What followed were some very hard days--ones where I ate too many gingersnaps and spent a lot of time buried in other people's books (I burned through Cassie Clare's Infernal Devices Triology--thank goodness for Kindle Instant Download). Mostly, I was angry with myself. And extremely disappointed. I'd spent so much time writing and revising my story. And with the education I'd had in literature and writing, it seemed inexcusable to me that the story I was working on should flop so badly.

What it came down too was that I'd been working on the book for so long I could no longer see the work clearly. Add that fact that I'd developed the original premise before I'd enrolled in those writing and literature courses of mine, and it's obvious my book would need some work.

I could tell that I was at a crossroads with my story: either I needed to find a way to see the story in a new light and angle and write it in a way that ameliorated its many issues, or I'd need to scrap the story entirely and start something new. I hated the notion of giving up a project that I'd invested so much time and energy into, but I questioned whether I'd be able to obtain enough mental and emotional distance from the story to rewrite it in a new way without falling too heavily on what did not work before.

What got me moving forward was one of the more recent developments in my story--what if the dragon, Kvasir, was not a true dragon at all, but a spirit of nature? What if he was only one of many such spirits that were responsible for taking care of the natural world? What if humans had decided to exploit the powers of these beings? What if one of these spirits--Kvasir's brother, in fact--was stuffed into the Nivenrok, powering that evil stone and threatening the well-being of the world with it? 

I started toying with concepts for other spirits. What would the physical manifestation of the forest spirit be? The harvest spirit? The ocean spirit? How did these beings govern themselves? How did they interact with humans? Realizing that the spiritual world I was designing resembled the Shinto belief system of Japan, I researched Shintoism so I could understand how people who prescribe to such beliefs view and understand the world--so I could know what kind of questions I'd need to address about the world I was designing and how to best present them. 

Crafting these spirits was--is--immensely fun. And that was something I had also strayed from in the old version of my story. In a conversation I had on Twitter about this time, I mentioned "I think I lost sight of having FUN with my writing." And yet, once upon a time, that had been the driving motivation for working on my book in the first place! Worrying about every word I put down and how it would be received by someone else did not create a conducive environment for fun--or creativity, for that matter. And that will become the kiss of death for any story.

So here I am etching out a different story . Most of my thoughts consist of notes scribbled onto index cards and a small journal, and timelines sketched on oversized pieces of paper. For those of you who ask about my book: Thanks for your interest--really! But know that I am not being ornery when I say that there isn't a draft available for reading. Right now, the pieces of my book are stuffed in a folder or spread across the living room floor.

But a handful of scenes have been taking shape in my mind the last couple weeks. Which means, I think, that my story may graduate to the computer soon. :)