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.

Friday, September 9, 2011

On anniversaries.

(Query critique will have to be next week, guys; we had a power outage here yesterday for 12 hours and I'm scrambling to finish the most urgent tasks on my list before the weekend. Sorry for the delay!)

I've never said so in so many words on the blog, but I'm now an ex-New Yorker, having relocated to my home state of California over the summer. It feels especially strange, not "being there" this weekend, even though when I was there I usually just put my head down and tried not to think about it too much.

I'm not going to say much about the Big Anniversary that's coming up, in part because it's hard to imagine I could say anything here that would usefully contribute to the media glut that's been underway for what feels like ten years already. Suffice it to say, I have my own "where were you" story, just like everyone else, and just like everyone else, I have my own complicated relationship to the anniversary's observance.

This morning I was filling out a bio/questionnaire for a writer's conference I'll speak at this fall, and there was a section in this questionnaire for me to write down any special preferences I have. I never quite know what to write for that sort of thing: too vague and I come across as wishy-washy, too precise and I sound like a terrible curmudgeon. I successfully fought the urge to write "no [you-know-what] stories," but it got me thinking about who "owns" a given narrative, and why.

If it literally happened to you, of course you have the right to write about it. If your experience was featured in People Magazine, you'll probably get a book deal out of it, complete with possibly-optional ghost writer.

But what about the all the (in)famous Law & Order episodes "ripped from the headlines?" Why does true crime, or lightly fictionalized versions thereof, always feel so tawdry? Why is it even more grotesque when the writer tries to claim a tangential, minor, over-eager relationship to the events being described?

Who owns a story? How do you tell a story that you're not sure is yours to tell?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Writing Prompt: Labor Day Edition

My morning run took me past the local middle school this morning. I have rarely met anyone who regards those years (age 11 to 14, or thereabouts) as the happiest of their lives. Okay, I've rarely met anyone who thinks all the money in the world would be enough to make them revisit that time.

This may be why the age group is one of the toughest audiences to write for, but that's a conversation for another blog post.

At any rate, the misery and trepidation on those young faces inspired this week's writing prompt:

The Worst Day of My Short Life

No contest for the moment; this is just for fun. But I still promise to read your entries, if you post a link in the comments.

We'll start another contest soon; meanwhile, stay tuned for our summer contest winner's query critique in my next post!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On finding time for your goals.

It's the first day of school here, and even though it's still pretty warm outside, it's overcast and a little rainy; it FEELS like a school day. I'm channeling my first-day excitement into a new copy of my to-do list, which is less daunting than I'd feared, and plotting out my next steps and my priorities for the next few days.

I talked a little in my last post about my desire to create more structure for my days, especially to carve out more time for reading manuscripts during "the work day." It's a real job hazard of working in publishing that the work-reading can take over all of your leisure time. An editor whom I follow on Twitter posted today that among her plans for her "day off" today was to finish editing a manuscript. Most (acquisition/line) editors do most of their editing at night and on the weekends, so this is not at all unusual, but I was struck by it all over again: editors use their time off to do the work that most people think of as their primary task.

Editors, at least at the bigger houses, spend an incredible amount of time in meetings, and when you add in emails and phonecalls and lunch dates with agents, there really isn't much time left in the day to read or to edit. But I, as an agent, have a lot more, um, agency to set my own work-day agenda. I attend far fewer meetings, and at least most of the time I can schedule my phonecalls for a time of day that's convenient for me and my workflow.

Thinking back on my two hours of reading goal, I'm reminded of a close family member of mine, who upon her retirement a few years back, took up exercise in a big way. She is diligent about it, seven days a week, unless she's got a terrible cold or is traveling, and I think both the exercise itself and the routine make her really happy. We talked about it recently, and she told me, "I have to make it a priority, or it doesn't happen. I start inventing excuses."

This, it strikes me, is true of a lot of things in our lives. I love watching TV, and can easily while away the entire evening that way. But when I spend a lot of time watching TV, I have (deliberately or not) made my TV time my priority. (Remember NBC's slogan, "Must-See TV?" And how many times have you heard the phrase "appointment viewing" or "appointment television" applied to this or that HBO or critically acclaimed drama?)

So even in the face of a to-do list full of a million other tasks, I've decided to make my manuscript reading a priority today.

How about you? How do you carve out time for the things you care about?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

New Year's Resolutions

School starts here next week, and even *cough* years after my high school graduation, Labor Day still feels like a new beginning. I miss having the excuse to buy school supplies. Especially pens. Are you guys obsessed with pens, or are you all devout computer-only types?

My all-time favorite is probably still the Pilot Precise (V5, black or blue ink), used in conjunction with a spiral-bound notebook, unlined, with paper thick enough that the ink won't bleed through. My thoughts seem to unfold differently (better) when I write by hand instead of typing. I often compose first drafts of my submission letters that way; it's as if my brain keeps up with my hand/s better when the mechanical process of writing is slowed down.

I'm a serious list-maker, as I think I've mentioned here before. I often have multiple versions of the list going in different places (not always a great idea) because I derive so much satisfaction from writing things down, but it's really not the same if I'm typing the list-- too sterile, and too detached. It's harder to remember the items on the list, too, somehow, if they're not in my handwriting.

Most of my lists are of the to-do variety. I'm currently experimenting with the Auto-Focus system, which Erin Doland at Unclutterer linked to a few weeks back. It's working pretty well so far, but I find I still need a secondary list of the day's "musts," to make sure nothing slips through the cracks. But I do like it, and it's worth trying if you are looking for a new technique for keeping track of all the different parts of your life.

But I also love making lists of other things, and one of the most satisfying (personal) things I've done in the past several years is to do the "101 in 1001" project. There's a link here to a fancy sharing website, but I just made my own without getting all high-tech or social media about it. Part of what the "deadline" did for me was to encourage me to make time for all the "someday" items on my list.

I'm sorry about all of the "unnecessary" "quotation marks" today, guys. I'll move on to the grocer's apostrophe in my next post, I promise.


I didn't come close to finishing my 101 in 1001 list, but it got me out of a rut, and reminded me that weekends are not just for laundry and the grocery store. I'm thinking I'll do the project again soon.

Right now, though, with the new school year upon us (or already begun, in many places), I'm itching for some New Year's Resolutions. Here's a couple of mine. If you're inclined to join me, I'd love to hear yours as well.

-Get faster at responding to queries, especially the ones that I'm excited about! Too often, I set aside the really good ones because it's easier and faster to deal with the quick no's.

(An aside: Jill Corcoran of the Herman Agency had a thoughtful post a couple of days ago about why she doesn't send rejection letters-- I assume she refers here to rejecting the initial query, not a manuscript she's requested from the author. I try to at least write a "this isn't right for me" form letter, so at least the author knows the query didn't vanish into an electronic black hole, but I'd really like to hear how you feel about all of this, being on the other side of the table.)

-Impose more structure on my work day so that I don't spend all day on email or phonecalls. Block out at least two hours a day just for reading, both client work and prospective client work. Get back to prospective clients while my thoughts on their manuscripts are still fresh in my mind.

-Find or DIY a notebook and pen combo that will fit inside my e-reader case, so I can keep better notes as I'm reading. Maybe then I can stop wondering what I meant by a Kindle note that reads like this: "I want to knww moe abt the crmny pls... also why j said hat in the last ch"

-Develop a more realistic sense of what can get done in a given week. Make a good list of the "musts," work through them diligently, and stop beating myself up about anything that has to be shoved to the next week.

-Twitter every weekday.

-Blog at least three times a week, unless I'm traveling. I am, as always, open to requested topics!

What's on your fall list? Tell me all your secret plans.