For New Writers
Time to write. It’s something you have to do, but perhaps you have no idea where to begin. Or maybe you’ve been writing for a while, but had little success impressing others. So what’s the big picture? What are the things you need to think about before putting keystroke to screen?
As ex-president of a writers group, I have frequently been asked by new writers to help them get their toes in the water. I’ve pulled together my talking notes and drafted the article below, distilling the many issues into sound bites that have proven useful to local new (and used) writers. Maybe this list will help you, as well.
Query Letters & Other Writer Aids
Writing Query Letters
Once the novel is finished (that’s utterly, completely polished, proofed, line-edited, and, oh yeah, perfect), most writers seek an agent. Yes, they’re worth it, both to get your manuscript into editors’ hands, and for later contract negotiations. But where to find one? In addition to traditional sources like Writers Digest, two of the handiest online search tools are:
And to watch out for the dubious ones, check out your choices on:
Plus, there are sites that are just plain useful, even if you sometimes have to pay to join:
http://www.waenetwork.com/ (another forum/discussion site)
http://www.bksp.org/ (“Backspace” organization, connecting writers and agents; has annual dues)
http://www.guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog/ (frequent agent interviews)
Then comes the query letter. Many sites by agents and writers point out that queries are hard and time-consuming, but “there’s no excuse to get it wrong” since there’s so much guidance available. What none of them point out is that some of that guidance is contradictory, and what one agent expects is the bugaboo another agent hates.
Writers need to research not only the basics, the various opinions on what makes for a good query letter. We also need to google everything we can regarding the specific agent we’re submitting to. Info on their agency website, their personal blog, interviews they’ve done with online magazines — all these can show up with a search engine. And we need to read it all.
I won’t try to repeat all the excellent query advice that’s out there. Just want to highlight below some of the better sources I’ve seen lately. And I’m more than willing to update or correct this page whenever I hear of additional good information. (For feedback, try www.twitter.com/@CharleyPearson)
Ok, everyone — Write On!
Blow-by-blow critiques of samples letters, reflecting this reviewer’s opinions; extensive and extraordinarily useful.
“You’d do better to focus more on plot and less on character in this query. It’s very very difficult to reduce complex motivations and situations to enticing descriptions for a query.”
“A query letter is NOT the place to reveal the ending of the book. You want to entice me to read it, not tell the whole story.” Yet she says elsewhere: “And if he can’t find the culprit, what’s the climax of the book?” which sounds sort of contradictory. The lesson, of course, is that we have to be careful not to confuse or lose the reader. Be intriguing, logical, intriguing, clear, and intriguing.
“This query runs 413 words. The discipline of writing within a 250 word limit forces you to focus and hone. If you look at word count as an arbitrary hoop to jump through, you’re missing the value of what it requires.”
“Log lines are the worst thing publishing has imported from the film industry.” (12/5/2010) (note the contrary opinion on the agentquery.com website below)
“A query letter has three concise paragraphs: the hook, the mini-synopsis, and your writer’s biography.” (Good advice, maybe, but not what “winners” selected by QueryShark and other advice-givers look like. They like “white space” — split up your paragraphs into smaller pieces so it’s easier to read.)
“A hook is a concise, one-sentence tagline for your book. It’s meant to hook your reader’s interest, and wind them in. The best way to understand how to write a hook is to read the loglines of the titles sold by agents.” — direct opposite reaction to loglines from QueryShark’s
This agent had some contrary viewpoints:
“One of my major peeves is when a letter starts by talking about a character as if we were in the middle of a conversation. No letter should start by saying, ‘She was hot, it was a balmy southern summer day….’ Some sample letters out there actually condone this. Please don’t do it.”
“The letter is just that, a letter, and so it should flow as such.” This appears to mean contact info in a header, like a paper letter, vice under name at bottom of letter (QueryShark hates this). More importantly, this agent wants the book’s basics (genre, word count, target audience) up front, not down later after the hook & description like some others do.
Check her May 3, 2010 blog post.
Another useful compendium of advice for writing query letters.
Lots of links to further advice. Take your time, and good luck!
By the way, another thing you need to prepare is the “elevator speech.” That 30 to 60-second spiel you can pitch if you catch an agent or editor in a tight situation (lucky you!) and have a shot at interesting them in your work. This could be your memorized query letter, but more likely it’s different, shorter and sharper. Think of the two standard questions they’re likely to ask you: What’s it about? How is it different? Or define your world with a “what if” question, like: “What if a cyborg travels back in time to assassinate the mother of humanity’s savior?”
In that personalized situation, where they see your enthusiasm for the project and you don’t have to project that via the written word, you might get away with “telling” vice “showing.” For example, “It’s about desperate medical researchers resorting to unethical means to fight a plague. It’s about a Gypsy woman teetering between principles and clan loyalty, falling off both sides of the fence, before a doomsday virus gives her a shot at redemption. It’s about the abuse of powerful new technology in the absence of regulation. It’s a love story between two nerds with no idea how to read each other.” And yes, that means describing the different aspects of one story.
How is it different? “The bioengineered virus spreads and attacks differently from anything seen before in nature or fiction; deadlier than AIDS and faster than flu. The computational chemistry technology to both create the virus, and craft its cure, is original, yet a portent of things to come. A character-driven story, Stacy’s journey towards atonement, surrounds a plot-driven story, the race to find a cure.” Again, all the same story. And no, I’m not saying these are great examples, just examples.
By this time they’ve likely figured out your genre (e.g., medical thriller), so confirm that and hit them with the word count, and perhaps comparisons to other works (NOT “this is the next Harry Potter,” but something more modest and believable, such as “subject matter like Robin Cook and pacing like Michael Crichton.” Offer them a card or other contact info if they look interested, and leave them alone if they’re not. If they invite you to send them anything (query letter, synopsis, partial), be sure to send them what they asked for right away. But they’re busy, overworked people. Don’t expect them to remember you very clearly, and write the first sentence of your query letter accordingly. (Note: In this situation, you definitely start with a sentence about meeting them, and their asking for material. You don’t start with the story in this case.) And unless they say you can use an attachment, put whatever they ask for in the body of the email (ok, yeah, if they ask for a full, that sort of implies they’ll accept an attachment).
By the way #2: If you’re interested in forming a critique group to improve your writing (highly recommended), some advice on how to go about it can be found at:
(try googling “critique groups writing” or some such, to find more)
Promoting Your Work
Both before and after publication, much must be done to get the word out. People tend to not buy your book if they’ve never heard of either you or the book. Go figure.
One agency website has the best single compilation of things to do, or at least consider doing, that I’ve seen so far:
Recommend you check it out.
More Writer Resources
Various agents/editors/writers and commercial sites have useful info on a regular basis, and are worth bookmarking and checking out (or subscribing to). Examples follow, and let me know if you find another great worth listing here!
http://blog.janicehardy.com/ (writing advice and news)
http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ (writing advice)
http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/ (writing advice)
http://writerunboxed.com/ (writing advice)
http://www.rachellegardner.com/ (info on the writing industry)
http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/ (writing resources and aids)
http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ (writing industry news; sign up for either pro or reader free e-newsletters)
http://www.themillions.com/ (interesting articles/essays/columns on the writing industry)
http://www.thecreativepenn.com/ (advice on writing, publishing, and selling; includes commercially available help)
http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/ (this one looks rather costly to join, but it’s the pro standard for keeping up on the writing industry)