Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I'm not dead yet

...just swamped with client-related work, unusually so for the post-Thanksgiving "lull."

But here's your chance to tell me all about your NaNoWriMo experience: did you win? (Let's talk soon about "winning" NaNoWriMo and why I have mixed feelings about it -- remind me.)

What was your word count?

Did you meet your personal goals?

Are you pleased with the outcome and/or the work in progress?

When will you start revisions?

What advice would you share with a would-be NaNo-er, based on your experience?

Tell me, tell me.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

NaNoWriMo: The joys of measurable goals

I'm on Day Four of Crazy Week and, I have to say, pretty delighted with my progress. (If you've queried me recently, sorry to say that's been the bottom of the priority list lately, but the inbox is getting some attention this afternoon.)

I posted, half-jokingly, on Twitter yesterday that I just bought a book called LEARN TO MANAGE YOUR TIME, but wasn't sure when I'd get to read it. I love books like that (shameless plug here for my client Erin Rooney Doland's UNCLUTTER YOUR LIFE IN ONE WEEK), where it feels like a book can provide all the answers to your needs.

But I can't be the only one who sometimes confuses buying the book with reading the book, can I? As if the book's purchase would osmotically impart all of the book's wisdom to me. Sigh.

One major thing (of many!) that I have in common with anyone who strives to make money from their writing is that I have to figure out how to organize my time. There's nobody to tell me what my priorities should be, though there are quite a few people who would like a say in the matter, and I am the only person who gets to decide what goes on the day's to-do list. All my deadlines and all my work projects are more or less self-imposed.

That's scary sometimes, and there are certainly days--weeks--when I have to dig deep to find my motivation.

My mom would tell you that I've always worked best under pressure, which might help to explain why despite the stress, I'm having a really good week as I crank through as many list items as I can. Deadlines, even when they're pretty arbitrary and of my own making, are really, really good for my productivity.

I think the connections to NaNoWriMo here are pretty obvious: nobody makes you sign up, and nobody makes you produce the word count. You've all done this to yourselves. But signing up for something like NaNoWriMo is a way of publicly stating that what you're doing is important to you, and worthy of the time and attention it demands.

If you can't make time to write, you can't write anything.

Here's a post from the amazing Neil Gaiman giving his NaNoWriMo pep talk; it's well worth the read.

Check in in the comments and let us all know how you're doing (and what your word count is)!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

NaNoWriMo: What are you so afraid of?

Here's a quick prompt for anyone who needs a NaNoWriMo (or other) boost:

What's the one thing your protagonist most fears?

Make that fear come true.

What happens next?

Monday, November 14, 2011

NaNoWriMo: Almost the halfway point.

Hi everybody!

November's a busy month around these parts, too-- I try to get as many things wrapped up before Thanksgiving as I can, so this last full week before the holidays is a mad rush of sending out submissions, wrapping up contract negotiations, and general desk-clearing.

It's tough to get a lot of people's attention between Thanksgiving and New Year's. There's a lot going on outside of work, and even though publishing doesn't party at the holidays like it used to--a friend of mine tells stories of champagne fountains ("tell me again about the rabbits, George!") at a publisher's holiday party-- it's still challenging, at most publishers, to get enough people in a room to make a decision about whether to acquire a manuscript. This presents the risk, from my perspective, of an editor's enthusiasm for a project cooling off before the bosses have had a chance to weigh in. So, with some carefully-thought-out exceptions, the tenor of my job changes quite a bit at that time of year.

But if things feel hectic for me, I can only imagine how the NaNo participants among you must be feeling, staring down the barrel of that 50,000 word count, with a little over two weeks to go. (Okay, that was mean. Sorry.)

If you're proceeding "chronologically" through your manuscript (writing page 1, then page 2), as a client and I were talking about this morning, then you should be near the novel's half-way point. Given the pacing of NaNoWriMo, it's not a great idea to do much editing as you're cranking out the pages, but if you can avoid switching your "inner editor" all the way on, you might give some thought to the pacing in this part of your story.

I wrote, briefly, in my first NaNo post about what I and a lot of others call the "flabby middle," that plague of writers everywhere, the primary symptom being that the story runs aground for some chunk of time. Imagine an Agatha Christie novel in which Miss Marple stops searching for clues for a little while, and instead describes her current knitting project for ten or twenty or thirty pages. (I might actually like that, but I am a knitter, and I have eclectic taste.) The knitting part might be pretty interesting, and it might be beautifully written, and it might be true to the character, but if it's not moving the story forward in a meaningful way, it should be frogged.

Here's a suggested first-draft technique for avoiding the flabby middle: write a one-sentence summary of each of your chapters. Simple as you can. Doesn't matter if it would read as very cryptic to someone else. If you get to a chapter description that reads like "Character goes away and thinks about what just happened for a while," then that's probably going to read like a flabby middle, unless that character makes substantial progress of some sort during the scene, and unless there's no other (more active!) way for that progress to take place.

Do you have any techniques for avoiding the "flabby middle?" Got any battle-of-the-bulge horror stories? And what's your word count?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

NaNoWriMo: useful links

Day Two!

I'm hoping you're not actively procrastinating on your NaNoWriMo project just yet, but if the excitement's starting to wear off and the panic's starting to set in, here are some useful links to take a look at. There is a TON of great advice out there; here are a few of my favorite pieces.

I'll share more in a week or so, if these are helpful, but here's my big piece of advice: turn off the Internet. Get off Twitter. Install a browser add-on like LeechBlock if you have to. Limit your distractions so you can focus on what you really want to get done: 50,000 words of a novel.

But once you've met your word count goal for the day, come back here and tell me in the comments section what that word count is.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NaNoWriMo: It Begins!

Today's the day! How's everyone doing so far?

Post your word counts in the comment section!

Monday, October 31, 2011

NaNoWriMo: How do you get started?

Tomorrow's the day: the official start of NaNoWriMo 2011. All over the country (really, the world!), writers are sharpening their pencils... or charging their laptops, hoping to start tomorrow with a bang.

NaNoWriMo, as you no doubt already know, has all kinds of "rules" about how far into a work you can be before it's "cheating" to use it as your NaNoWriMo project. Fair enough. The idea is not to end the month of November with something super-polished (ha, ha), but to get some words-- a LOT of words!-- on the page.

The official NaNoWriMo organization website says that the only things you're allowed to have done before beginning your novel on November 1 are outlines, character sketches, and research. All well and good.

But here's the thing: I know a lot of you don't work from outlines, maybe CAN'T work from outlines. I know because I've seen the look on your face when I ask you to write an outline or a synopsis. Even when you've already written the manuscript, outlining the plot feels incredibly daunting and unpleasant.

I had the privilege of attending a terrific breakfast panel at the RWA Nationals convention in New York back in late June. The speakers were Steve Berry, Diana Gabaldon, and Tess Gerritsen: incredibly successful, incredibly prolific writers all. And guess what: none of them really write from outlines. Diana Gabaldon, I seem to recall, doesn't use them at all. (She is just as funny as you think she's going to be, by the way.) Tess Gerritsen, who seems extremely organized and "together," doesn't use them either. She wrote an interesting post about her process here, if you want to take a look. But it was Steve Berry's remarks about using outlines that really stuck with me: he said he's used outlines in the past, and it's an effective way of making sure you've got your structure in place from the first draft, but it really sucks all the joy out of the writing. Working on the book became a task to be dreaded, rather than something to look forward to.

This is the opposite of the way I'd always figured I would try to write a novel myself (which might serve in part to explain why I've never actually "gotten around to" it)-- but for all three writers, surprising themselves with what comes next is an important part of the writing process.

Maybe this all comes down to a question of what you're more scared of: a creativity-squelching outline or the ominous and terrifying blank page.

But basically, either way you go about putting your manuscript together, you have my blessing.

Here's a little pre-NaNo reading for you, though, so (regardless of your stance on outlining) you can be mindful of some key points in creating a successful and satisfying novel. I expect you're already familiar with Cheryl Klein of Arthur A. Levine Books; here's a talk she wrote a few years ago called "A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

NaNoWriMo: Getting Started

The response on the last post was pretty overwhelming-- yay!-- it sounds like a TON of people are gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year.

So let's do this! From now until the end of November, I'll theme my posts here around NaNoWriMo. I'd love to hear from newbies and from past NaNo participants alike: what sorts of information would you like to see here? Basic cheerleading, writing prompts, stories of NaNo successes, useful links? Funny, unrelated YouTube videos?

I'll be back here soon with lots of good NaNo stuff-- but in the meantime, have you completed your official sign-up yet?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

NaNoWriMo: a quick survey

According to the countdown clock on the official website, the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is only five days away!

I've written about NaNoWriMo before, here, but I'm curious: how many of you reading this plan to participate this year?

Let's do a quick survey in comments. Here's the rundown on what I'd like to know:

1) Are you planning to do NaNoWriMo this year?

2) Have you done NaNoWriMo before? If yes, how many times?

3) What genre would you say best fits your planned NaNoWriMo project?

Provided we've got a good number of people participating, I'm thinking of "theming" the November posts on the blog. I'll do a combination of my own advice and a lot of helpful links from around the internet.

I'm going to spend this NaNoWriMo on the sidelines (alas), but would love to cheer the rest of you on in the process!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bio Critique #3: Jo Eberhardt

My apologies to all for disappearing! I’ve just gotten back from a week of traveling on business—and I was swamped for several days before that with trip-related details. I hate it when bloggers go on about the “guys, I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while,” but I felt I owed a bit of explanation for leaving our third contest winner, Jo Eberhardt, waiting on her bio critique for so long!

Without further ado, let’s jump in. Here’s Jo’s original bio paragraph:

I live on the outskirts of Brisbane, Australia with my husband and two young sons. My greatest ambition as a child was to grow up to be the lead singer of a heavy metal band. Sadly, by the time I was ten, the whole neighbourhood knew I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. So I took my love of entertaining and inspiring people, and turned to storytelling instead. Earlier this year I had a story shortlisted for the Stringybark Speculative Fiction Award and subsequently published in the anthology A Visit From the Duchess. Over the last two months, I've won two of Chuck Wendig's weekly Flash Fiction competitions, as well as this competition on your blog. I'm a member of the local Writer's Group, am an Emily contest judge for the West Houston RWA in the Futuristic, Fantasy and Paranormal category, and blog about life, the universe and everything at

Overall, Jo, I really like this one—the “I’ve always wanted to be a writer” bit is kind of clich├ęd, but you’ve nicely turned it on its head a bit with the joke about wanting to be the singer in a heavy metal band (especially because it’s often unclear whether a metal singer can, in fact, sing!).

Generally speaking, you’re covering all my usual points here: where you live, your professional (writing) credits, your professional (writing) affiliations, a link to your blog, and a funny detail that gives me a stronger sense of your voice… and proof that there’s a real person behind the sometimes-dry details. This is a solid start.

Now, then, where to improve?

When I get a bio like yours, I often find myself doing a lot of googling to learn more about the credits the writer lists. It pains me a little bit to admit this so publicly, but I am definitely guilty of assuming that if a credit doesn’t have an Internet presence (no Google hits whatsoever), I, um, assume it’s fictional.

However, that’s not the case with yours! Here are links to Jo’s credits, for anyone who is less…what’s the word? DILIGENT, I’m sure that’s what you were thinking, right?, than I am. (the anthology, on Smashwords) (Chuck Wendig’s blog-- I leave it up to you whether to point the link to a specific post announcing your contest wins.)

To sum up this point, which has gotten a little ramble-y, if you were querying me and included the links in parentheses after the description in your bio paragraph, I'd be grateful, and your chances of my giving your sample pages a thorough and careful read would go up.

The “life, the universe, and everything” moment: My geek cred is often called into question, with good reason, but I can certainly recognize this as an homage to Douglas Adams. Given your involvement with FF&P RWA, even without any details about the project about which you are querying, I’m guessing that any agents and editors reading your query are also supposed to “get” the reference here.

I have some concerns, though, about leaving this phrase in. It’s cute and it’s clever, but it also means that you’re encouraging any and all readers of the query to directly compare your work to that of Douglas Adams, who has more or less achieved nerd sainthood at this point, I’m pretty sure. The publishing industry’s full of direct comparisons to other people’s work, but we usually phrase it as “This Famous Book meets That Other Famous Book” or “will appeal to fans of This Famous Book and The Other Famous Book,” so that you’re never inviting a situation where you’re asking someone to decide whether your work is better or worse than the work to which you’re comparing it.

Your work may well be as good as Douglas Adams’s—and far be it from me to say otherwise!—but it should be the work itself which encourages this comparison, not the query letter. Yours is a very mild version of this phenomenon, but I can’t tell you how many query letters I’ve seen which asserted that the novel in question was better than Harry Potter, Twilight, or The Da Vinci Code. Seriously. I’m not paraphrasing here.

My best advice on how to fix? Swap out “life, the universe, and everything” for a line elsewhere in the query that says “my novel TITLE will appeal to fans of Douglas Adams and [this is my geek cred failing me again, because I cannot think of another example of humorous SF that’s not Doctor Who, which just seems like too obvious of a reference].”

Otherwise, if the novel is half as good as the bio paragraph, I think you’re in very good shape here.

Thanks for your patience, and thanks again for playing along with the contest!

I’m open to ideas for a new contest—should we do another writing contest (in these waning days before NaNoWriMo begins)? A randomly selected winner from comments? What should the prize be?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bio Critique #2: Christi Corbett

I'm delighted today to offer my critique of the bio of our second contest winner, Christi Corbett.

Christi actually sent me two pieces: the bio paragraph that appears in her current query letter, in which she seeks to emphasize her "business and marketing" side:

I spent three years as the head writer for a weekly television show and have written over three hundred broadcast television commercials. My connections in the television industry will be helpful in publicity and marketing efforts for my work: I currently have interview agreements with thirteen television stations and thirty-two radio stations with a total combined audience reach of over five million.

And here's the bio she wrote for her blog:

From a young age, writing was an integral part of Christi Corbett’s life. It was a skill she further developed during her career as a television writer. Now, Christi continues to broaden her writing horizons with the completion of Along the Way Home, a historical fiction about the Oregon Trail.

After graduating from Western Washington University with a degree in Communications, Christi took a job with a CBS affiliate in the Creative Services Department. Over the years her lifelong love of writing was put to good use; in addition to writing over three hundred television commercials, she earned the position as head writer for a weekly television show. Furthermore, she was responsible for writing over one hundred press releases detailing the station’s various special events, community programs, and news department awards.

During her time with the television station, Christi was awarded with multiple American Advertising Awards (ADDY) and recognized by the March of Dimes with an award for providing “Outstanding Communications Support”.

Sharing the power of television has always been important to Christi, both professionally and personally. Through television station partnerships, Christi repeatedly managed advertising and publicity for large scale events with agencies such as The Salvation Army, the United Way, the American Cancer Society, and the March of Dimes.

Nowadays, Christi looks forward to putting her experience in public speaking and marketing to use during the promotion process of her novel,Along the Way Home.

Christi is a member of Willamette Writers, and also participates in a critique group.

Currently, Christi lives in a small town in Oregon with her husband, and twin children. The location of the home holds a special place in Christi’s writing life; it stands just 600 feet from the original Applegate Trail and the view from her back door is a hill travelers looked upon years ago as they explored the Oregon Territory and beyond.

This is a lot to take in, so let me say first of all, Christi, that I think you're right: the first one is too dry and the second one is too wordy.

Since you've given me so much to work with, and since I went into such detail about my "rules for bio paragraphs" in the previous post, I'm going to try a judicious cut-and-past effort here, to give you a sense of where I'd go with this.

I spent three years as the head writer for a weekly television show [CMC: name the show and the network! Local or national, this is a nice credit to have.] and have written over three hundred broadcast television commercials, for which I received multiple American Advertising Awards (ADDYs) and was recognized by the March of Dimes with an award for providing “Outstanding Communications Support.” I’m an accomplished public speaker, and my connections in the television industry will be helpful in publicity and marketing efforts for my work. I’m a member of Willamette Writers and a critique group, and I live with my husband and our twins in a small town in Oregon, in a house just 600 feet from the original Applegate Trail.

This final detail is a nice touch, don't you think? I love knowing about people's personal connection to their writing (Christi's novel is a historical about the Oregon Trail).

Christi, because you've already got a lot of other information in your bio paragraph (at least as rewritten by me), you can probably safely leave out the blog and Twitter-type info-- but make sure it's in your contact information at the end of your letter.

But to make some more general, sweeping comments about hypothetical situations:

Shoshanna (hi, Shoshanna!) asked in comments what I would consider a "good number" for Twitter follower purposes. I've been thinking about this a lot, because I hadn't tried to put an actual numerical figure on what I meant by that. But here are some of my theories:

-A thousand Twitter followers is a lot for someone who's never published before, or has "only" self-published, or published with smaller houses where they've never been assigned a publicist. I assume that with 1,000 Twitter followers, you've proven that you've got an interesting voice online, and that you "get" this particular social media venue.

-A LOT of bestselling genre fiction authors have between three and five thousand followers. If you're tweeting to an audience of this size, and a decent percentage (please don't make me define "decent percentage!") of your followers will buy your book, you are in great, great shape.

-If you have 10,000 Twitter followers or more, chances are you are a household name at least in certain spheres.

-The most Twitter-popular author I could find in my ~ ten minutes' searching was Neil Gaiman, with well over a million followers. Margaret Atwood has about 260,000. Joe Hill has about 120,000. Jodi Picoult has about 38,000.

Regarding your blog, if your blog is important or fairly well-known in one of the following situations, be sure to mention it in your bio:

1) you are a book blogger, who regularly writes book reviews or discussions about the publishing industry on your blog. You know you fall into this category if publishers contact you offering to send you books (via NetGalley or otherwise), or if your posts get picked up in industry link-roundups from time to time.

2) your blog has become an authority on a topic that's related to the book you're querying on.

Note: this is true even if you don't have academic credentials in the topic. If other people have come to consider you an authority on the topic because of your website, that is itself a kind of credential. If you're writing Jane Austen sequels and you're a webmistress on the Republic of Pemberley, for example, that detail is going to help sell your book. So mention it!

One more bio critique to go. Any questions or thoughts? Leave 'em in the comments!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bio Critique #1: Ms. Snip

image (c) Kevin Connors. url:
I'm experimenting with using images more frequently in my blog posts-- okay, ever. I'd love your feedback. Do you like blog posts to have a picture, always, or do you care? Is it worth the few extra minutes on my part?

Today, I'm delighted to say, we begin our three-part series of bio paragraph critiques, from the winners of last week's writing prompt contest. I'm going in the order in which I received these, so first up is Ms. Snip.

I've edited out some of the personal information, mostly for privacy reasons, but I hope it's still legible enough to be useful to everyone.

Without further ado.

[TITLE] is a 77,000-word YA Paranormal set in [Really evocative town name], Ohio and my debut novel. A native Ohioan, I grew up not far from [Really evocative town name] and the setting is largely based on my childhood hometown. I started out writing Appalachian ghost stories in high school, and was the editor of the school's literary journal. I now live in [City], Texas, where I work for a small, private university as a Residence Hall Director. I am a member of several critique groups and online writing communites, such as the [professional writers' group, details relevant to the novel but not to my critique].

Courtney's critique: You're doing a lot of things right here. I like that you open the "bio paragraph" with the novel's specs, rather than jumping right into the personal details. Based on the rest of your query (which I haven't included here, obviously), it's clear that you've got the genre right-- a plus. The length is also appropriate for the category.

From there, you launch into your personal connection to the story (good), a bit about your writing history (mostly good-- on which more below), and a bit about your non-writerly life (which I always like to see).

My main concern about this as a bio is that it's a little bit bland, and given the way you've structured the rest of the query letter (this is basically the final paragraph), that's not really the impression you want to leave me with.

Caveat: most of what I'm about to say applies only to novels.

I think there are as many "right" ways to write a query letter as there are agents to read them (we are a rather, ahem, opinionated bunch), but when I'm reading a query from a would-be client, I want the query letter to convince me of several things:
1. This is a book I want to read.
2. This is a book I'd like to sell.
3. This is an author who's got a great career ahead of her.
4. This is a person I'll enjoy getting to know.

I think you can tell from my list that the bio paragraph carries a lot of weight. So let's concentrate, for now, on #3 and #4, as they specifically apply to your bio paragraph.

#3 is covered mostly by your professional (writing) credentials: those critique groups and that online professional writer's group. These are good, but you can go further. Even if you're really, really new to blogging and Twitter and Google + and all those other ways of avoiding your WIP, mention that you do them in your query. I'm still a total n00b at all that stuff, but it's clear to me that if I kept at it diligently for a year (about the period of time it's likely to take a publisher to publish your book), I could raise my platform considerably, particularly on Twitter. So don't worry about your blog's clout or your number of Twitter followers or any of that stuff (unless it's good news, in which case YES MENTION IT).

You're not telling me that you blog or tweet in order to brag; you're telling me that because it's a shorthand for "I understand that I, as a 21st-century writer, will be expected to participate heavily in my publisher's marketing and publicity plans. I intend to be a Team Player in this regard, and I'm doing what I can to educate myself about social media marketing even before a contract is signed."

So that's #3. We know you have a blog, or you wouldn't have been able to participate in the writing prompt contest-- so go ahead and mention it even if you generally only post pictures of your cats. Because we all know how the internet feels about pictures of cats.

On, then, to #4. This is where I would put the detail about your adolescent interest in Appalachian ghost stories. (Can we talk sometime about how messed-up it is that "adolescent" is a derogatory term in American English? Because it is, it's messed up. I of course don't mean it in a derogatory sense here.) Ms. Snip, I think you've successfully walked a fine line here, offering evidence that you've been interested in writing (and in the paranormal) for a long time, without making the mistake I once saw in a real query, where the author told me he/she was 29 years old and had been writing for 24 years. Um...

I haven't read the manuscript, obviously, but one way I would tweak this is to say something like "Parts of the novel stem from a lifelong interest in Appalachian ghost stories, which I've been playing with in my writing since my days as editor of the high school literary magazine." (I ran the lit mag too! Nerd girl high five.) This statement, if accurate, is the kind of thing that would show up in professional reviews of your novel (Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal), and interviews with you after the book is published. It also hints at a body of source material that you can draw on for your future books (aha! we're back to number 3!).

I'd also try to work in one more detail about yourself. I can't tell you what this should be, because of course I don't really know you yet-- but if this were my query letter, I'd be trying to recapture the quirky, humorous tone you've used in the plot summary paragraphs of the query. (Which I haven't included here. Sorry, everybody.) You don't need big achievements or crazy hobbies, either. Something that ties it back a little bit to the novel would be nice. If I wrote a sports novel, for example, I'd note in my bio paragraph that the only "athletic" trophy I won in childhood was for a beanbag toss in the Brownie Girl Scouts. (True story. And don't think I didn't display that trophy proudly in my room for years afterward, too.)

It's not always about the "wow factor," in other words. Sometimes it's just about impressing me with the quality of your writerly voice.

If I get to the end of your query impressed with both you and with the pitch for the book you're querying me about, you've done everything right.

Up tomorrow, schedule permitting: Christi Corbett's bio critique. See you then!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

We have a winner!

I'm delighted to announce the winner of the Query Bio contest (I need to do a contest to name my contests, clearly)!

And the winner is...

Oh, what the hell. I loved all three, and it's great blog fodder anyway. Everybody wins.

Here are the links, in no particular order:

Congratulations to all of you! Email me your query bio paragraphs (please put "blog contest" in the subject line) and we'll do the critiques on the blog next week.

(Aside to Kim: I couldn't find your post! Send me a link, or post in the comments, and we can do yours as well.)

Happy New Year to those celebrating! I'll see you all back here next week.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Banned Books Week

(image via the ALA website)

It's Banned Books Week here in the U.S.-- an annual celebration of intellectual freedom in this country. I've long been a fan of the ideals behind BBW, not to mention its slightly-sassy, contrarian underpinnings.

OK, I might be projecting a little bit on that last part.

I find myself feeling a little inarticulate (I just wrote "unarticulate") when I try to express how much this all means to me. Books should be a safe place for people everywhere to explore new ideas, learn about the world, and come to understand themselves better.

In the grand tradition of "putting your money where your mouth is," I'm a big, big fan of purchasing as many books that appear on the Frequently Challenged list as I can. It's hard not to notice that an awful lot of the books on recent lists deal with LGBT issues, along with many other tough subjects I care a lot about. Buying these books is a good way for me, as a reader, to communicate that to publishers-- and to help ensure that publishers will continue to take a chance on these "difficult" issue-driven books.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Reminder: today's the contest deadline!

Hi all,

Just a quick Monday stop-in to remind you that today's the last day to enter our mini-contest. Win a query bio critique, here on the blog, by posting a response to last week's writing prompt.

As with the previous contest, I'll leave the comment section for the prompt open until first thing tomorrow morning; assume that if you're able to leave a comment there, it's not too late to enter.

The original post (where you should post your contest entry) is here, and if you have any amazing stories from your weekend, I hope you'll share them in the comments for this post.

Happy Fall (in the northern hemisphere)! I'm off to have more coffee.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Writing Prompt and Mini Contest: The Best Money I Ever Spent

Here's another writing prompt for you.

The Best Money I Ever Spent

I'm really eager to hear what you come up with for this one, so let's do a MINI CONTEST: pursuant to this week's blog post about how to write a bio paragraph in your query letter, winner gets a bio paragraph critique here on the blog.

As before, post your response to the prompt on your own blog, and put a link to the post in the comment section below. Let's give this one a deadline of Monday, September 26.

Tell your friends. If I get at least 20 contest entries, I'll post my own response to the prompt next week.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How to Write a Bio Paragraph in Your Query Letter

I'm trying out a new technique in the blog post title today-- the "On" was starting to get a little cutesy, and maybe this will help SEO results, or something. (I have no idea what I'm talking about there.)

Ms. Snip asked a great question in the comments on last week's post about Brian's query letter: what do you put in a bio paragraph if you have nothing relevant to say? In Ms. Snip's case, she writes SF/fantasy/paranormal, but without any credits to her name yet, it's hard to come up with much that's really going be "pertinent" for query letter purposes.

You still need a bio paragraph, though. So what do you write?

Start by looking at your bookshelf (or the "About the Author" section of the book's page on the B&N or Amazon site, if you're a power Nook or Kindle user. [I have a Kindle but I am e-platform agnostic.]) What do your favorite authors in your genre include in their bio?

Brian Selznick's new book Wonderstruck happens to be sitting at my elbow as I write this (a carrot for finishing enough of my work-related reading!), so let's take a look at his bio. I'll skip the stuff about his Caldecott medal and other awards, since if you had a Caldecott to your name you wouldn't need my advice on what to put in your bio. But after the description of his books and awards, it says:

"He has worked as a set designer and a puppeteer. When he isn't traveling to research and talk about his work all over the world, he lives in San Diego, California and Brooklyn, New York."

If you know Selznick's work, you know the puppeteering actually is relevant, but in any case it's a compelling detail, don't you think? That's the kind of thing I want you to include.

I got a really terrific query last year which included the detail in the author's bio that she had attended clown college. No, really. It had nothing to do with the novel, but doesn't that make you want to know more about the author as a person? That's your goal. Get me interested in you, so I get interested in your work.

You're probably getting the idea that I want everybody to have something really out there or circus-related in their bios. You don't have to take up stilt-walking to impress me, but a detail that really makes you stand out in a crowd is a great thing to have. That pun in the last sentence was unintentional but I am leaving it in anyway. Sorry.

Other ideas: if your novel is historical fiction, and you have some relationship to the material (my author Pamela Schoenewaldt lived in Italy for ten years before writing the immigrant novel When We Were Strangers), tell me that in the bio.

If you're a member of a professional writing organization, such as SCBWI or SFWA or the Historical Novels Society or RWA, tell me that in the bio. Note that not all of these organizations require you to be published before becoming a member, so it can be a good way to underscore your ambition and your sincerity, as well as your professional commitment. It can also be a great way to find a local or online critique group of fellow writers. (Disclaimer: I am an associate member of RWA, but I am not involved in the governance of any of these organizations, and nothing I say here should be taken as an endorsement of any of them. Do your own research and make your own decisions.)

I mentioned critique groups in the previous paragraph. If you're a member of a critique group of writers in your genre, tell me that in your bio. The critique group says to me that you're serious about your craft. In the case of picture books, for example, I can't tell you how many queries I receive from people who made up a story for their children/grandchildren/kindergarten class and decided to publish it-- and all of that is great, but a critique group or an SCBWI membership would hint to me that the author has done his or her homework on what's actually selling in the picture book market right now. (The butterfly who learns to share her toys? It's been done.)

Do you live somewhere? Tell me that in the bio. If and when your work finds a publisher, there will always be a built-in local audience for the work. The local papers will feature you, the local bookstore will probably want to do a reading, the local writing groups will want you to come and tell them the story of how you "made it." Furthermore, there are several cities in the U.S. that are reading meccas, with a high concentration of book buyers. Seattle is one. New York is another. San Francisco, L.A., Denver, Portland OR, Atlanta, and Chicago also all make the list. It is no bad thing, from a publisher's perspective, if you live in or near one of these places.

About your pets and your kids: use your discretion. I think a lot of people really like this detail in their favorite authors' bios, because it helps to humanize the author in their minds, but I also think this can cross the line into weirdsville. I admit to shuddering a bit when someone refers to their "furbabies" (though I've always adored my own pets), and if I learned that someone had seventeen kids, that's probably moved me from "I can identify with this person" to "I can't IMAGINE" territory. I say mention it if you want to, especially if you don't have a lot of other things to say in this section of your query. But if you have a pet capybara, you better send a picture.

Monday, September 19, 2011

On social media marketing.

I'm still pretty new at this whole blogging thing, as you know, though I'm pleased that (so far!) I'm sticking to my resolution to post at least three times a week. Yay, me.

I'm also on Twitter (@millercallihan) and Facebook (though I only "friend" people I actually know personally or professionally), and I'm starting to use Google Plus a bit as well. Link is here; let me know if you'd like an invite and don't have one yet (whether I "know you" or not).

I use LinkedIn but have never found it particularly helpful in my line of work. A friend of mine gets head-hunted at least once a week via LinkedIn, though, so I think that one depends on your industry.

What other social media platforms do you use? Have you found anything else that's useful for self-promotion? What's the next big thing going to be?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday Writing Prompt: Things would have gone very differently

For your weekend enjoyment, here's this week's writing prompt. We're not running a contest at the moment, but if you post a link in the comments section, I promise to read your piece.

Things would have gone very differently, had Renee told her sister the truth that day.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Please send me LGBTQ manuscripts.

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments on the headache post, guys; I'm going to try a bunch of that stuff and will report back on what's working. E., the no-caffeine thing is a good idea but I don't see it happening-- but we'll see.

I wanted to put this post up ASAP, rather than waiting any longer; there's an awful story going around the internet about literary agents telling authors to take gay/lesbian/bi/trans characters out of their novels. The link I have is here.

I don't have a lot of time today to get creative with this, but I wanted to go on the record as saying (and here I'm going to blatantly copy and paste from the link!)

I would love to see books whose characters are diverse in all or any respects, including but not limited to gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, and national origin.

The words may not be mine, but the sentiments are.

I can't speak to the veracity of the story (EDIT: see link below), but I'm happy to say I don't personally know anyone in the business who would counsel such a change. The publishing industry is always struggling with diversity; it's an industry that tends to be overwhemingly white/European-American, college educated, East Coast (specifically NYC), and with a slight female majority. But that means that there are many, many points of view that are less familiar to the industry as a whole, and those points of view tend to be underrepresented.

It's up to all of us, whatever our part in the process, to work to overcome that. I hope you'll help me bring more diversity to the books that are published.

EDIT, a bit later: The industry is still swirling about the post I linked above; in the interest of fairness and not stirring the pot, here's a link to another blog post giving the other side of the story:

I still absolutely, really believe that the publishing industry needs more diversity, but I also don't want to get dragged into finger-pointing or anything of the sort, on this or any other issue. As a colleague of mine just Tweeted, one of the best things we can ALL do is to vote with our wallets. Here's a list that Malinda Lo put together of recent LGBTQ YA novels.

On headaches.

I've been getting a lot of headaches lately-- eyestrain, mostly, I think. I've been a migraine sufferer for about 25 years now, and I get occasional sinus headaches and weather headaches as well, so I am pretty good at telling the difference.

Having a headache makes everything a little more difficult. I move more slowly (literally), I get irritable more quickly. It takes longer to accomplish even fairly simple tasks, and it wreaks havoc on my attention span-- especially bad on days when my big plan is to power through a bunch of manuscripts, or when I'm redlining a contract.

I thought all of this would be easier to juggle when I was finally free to make my own schedule and set my own agenda (as I am now)... but I find that I'm really hard on myself on days when I haven't accomplished as much as I thought I should, or as much as I planned to.

Why is that? Having had headaches for most of my life now, I'm actually pretty good about not leaving things till the absolute last minute, because I know I can't assume I'll be in any state to do them at said crisis point; there's always a chance I'll be laid up with a migraine, where a dark, quiet room is the only thing worth having in this life. In other words, I KNOW what headaches do to me, and I KNOW a headache is always a possibility.

To get to the real point of this post, then, I have two questions for you guys:

1) Do you have any amazing headache remedies? Here are some things I'm already doing: getting enough sleep, drinking lots of water, maintaining my caffeine intake (I usually drink 2 cups of coffee in the morning), exercising, taking Excedrin or acetaminophen for an especially bad headache. I had an eye exam less than two months ago. I'm pretty bad about taking breaks from the computer, so I know that's a big one to work on.

2) What do you do when you fail to meet your own expectations? I know a lot of you have word count goals and the like; what happens when you don't meet them? How do you cut yourself a little slack when you need it, without lowering your standards?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Query Critique, at last!

At long last, I’m delighted to post Brian Buckley’s prize for winning my summer writing prompt contest: a public critique of his query letter, here on the blog. (The delay is on my end, not Brian’s, I hasten to mention.)

Here is Brian’s letter, with my comments rather obnoxiously posted in bold throughout.

Dear Ms. Miller-Callihan,

You’ve spelled my name right and used my preferred form (Ms. Miller-Callihan). Ten points to Griffindor.

I've enjoyed your blog from the very beginning, but I never queried because you don't rep science fiction. Then you said "Send me your query letter," and my keen writer-sense just knew, somehow, the time was right. Here's what I've got:

This is funny and clever, but unless someone specifically encourages you to query them in a category they don’t represent, don’t do it. Still, I like the tone here; it’s confident and charming, and doesn’t read like a form letter you copied out of a book called How to Write a Query Letter. I also like that you mentioned the blog, as it shows me that you’re not planning to spam everyone in the industry indiscriminately. Telling the agent why you are querying him or her, in particular, is a good way to try to forge a connection. I’m more likely to put in the time reading a query if I feel like the author’s done their homework.

Petras Fairburn is clueless when it comes to politics. Too bad he's Emperor of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Witty and concise. The short paragraph is a great strategy here, and you’ve got me wanting to learn more about your story.

Petras didn't want to be Emperor, of course, but he has very persuasive friends. There's the Star-Witch, for one: the most wanted criminal in the universe, near-omnipotent and nearer-immortal. For reasons all her own, she befriended him way back when he was a twelve-year-old nothing on a backwater colony world. He didn't ask for a friend like her, but it's hard to say no to the Star-Witch.

A lot of good detail here, but I’m starting to worry that Petras is too wimpy or passive a figure to carry the story. Readers want active characters that do things, not characters to whom things just happen. You might be better off cutting this paragraph and jumping directly into a description of the main plot of the novel, instead—I feel like this is probably mostly backstory.

And there's Karmindy, his wife, whose sweet homemaker smile conceals the virtuosic mind of the shrewdest tactician in the Empire. He didn't ask for a wife, either, but it's hard to say no to Karmindy.

You’ve got a nice echo of the previous paragraph—“it’s hard to say no”—which is starting to give me a sense of Petras as a character. But again, I think this is mostly backstory, and you might want to cut it.

When Karmindy unleashed a plot to put her husband on the Gardenia Throne, the Star-Witch was only too glad to help. When it actually succeeded, they told him not to worry: they'd handle everything. He'd just be a figurehead.

Backstory. Combine these three paragraphs into one short paragraph—remember that we don’t necessarily need all the character names upfront. Just give me the barest possible outline of what I need to know.

Now Karmindy's dying of a ripgun wound, the Star-Witch has disappeared, and a quintillion human beings are looking to Petras for leadership. They certainly need it. The Empire is one stray shot from a civil war, and the Sagittarians – a billion-year-old race of reclusive, telepathic methane-breathers – seem less friendly every day. But worse than the Sagittarians, worse than the seemingly inevitable war, is the doubt in Petras's mind that whispers: it's impossible, you're in over your head, you'll never, never be good enough...

Some good world-building going on here. I like “quintillion,” I like “reclusive, telepathic methane-breathers,” and I like the humor of the twist at the end, that this is really a story about a character’s anxiety about his inadequacy. I’m still worried that he’s too passive a figure, though, so make sure you’re able to include something showing that he is in fact a hero (I assume this is the case?), so the reader knows this is a story that’s going to be fun to read.

With a novel, the query letter should read like the copy on the back cover of the book (or the hardcover jacket flaps). You’re trying to convince someone to read the book.

True confessions time: when I’m working with a debut author, I often crib heavily from the author’s original query when I’m putting together my cover letter to send to editors. I figure if the query was good enough to catch my eye, it’ll likely do the same for the editors to whom I’d like to sell the manuscript.

At any rate, Brian, I think you’ve got a lot of these details nailed, but I can’t shake the sense that most of your query consists of the things you think the reader needs to know before turning to page 1. Try recasting it instead like a movie trailer, where you’re giving away some elements of the plot in order to entice the reader. You don’t have to give away the ending, but you do have to give me a sense of where the story is going. Tell me enough that I’m eager to find out the rest for myself.

You don’t have a bio paragraph here, which I think is a mistake. Even if you feel like you don’t have much to say, I like to know if you have a blog, if you are on Twitter or Google + or anything else of that ilk, who your favorite authors in your genre are, whether you’ve won any blog contests, that sort of thing. Tell me where you live and one detail about you that would be fun for the game “Two Truths and a Lie.” This is a chance to make yourself memorable, to help yourself stand out from the maybe-100 other queries an agent gets that day.

The Counterfeit Emperor is science fiction, complete at 111,000 words. Thank you for your consideration.

Concise, detailed, a solid and professional wrap-up. Were this a “real query” to me, I’d want you to include somewhere a line like “Per your submission guidelines, I’ve included a synopsis and the first three chapters of the novel.”

Brian D. Buckley

Mailing Address

Phone Number

Email Address

I’ve edited Brian’s personal details here (except his website!), but I always want to see all this stuff included. If I love your query, you want to make it as easy as possible for me to get hold of you to tell you so. Leave it up to the agent how to communicate with you; give them all your contact info.

SUMMARY: This is a solid query that could just use some fine-tuning. If this were a genre I know anything about (I admire SF but don’t get to read much of it), I’d read the first three chapters with interest.

Well done. Thanks to Brian, and thanks to everyone who participated in the contest! Let’s do this again soon.