Friday, November 30, 2007

An Example in Style

By Josi S. Kilpack

People talk about it all the time: I love their style! The style of their writing was so unique. The style of the writing left me a little cold.

So what is style? What does it mean and how do I find it?

Style is one of those things that is rather vague and transitory, it's very difficult to define and sometimes hard to pick off with absoluteness. J.K. Rowling has a style, as does Tom Clancy and Amy Tan, it's not what they write--it's how they tell the story. If J.K. Rowling every writes an action packed spy novel, you can bet it will sound very different from Tom Clancy. Even within genres with similar story lines, the stories will sound different, enough that a reader might love Danielle Steele and hate Catherine Coulter even though they both write romance. It's the style that brings the author behind the words to life. They way they use the words and share interpretation and sensory information is what makes their story stand out.

In addition to the fact that every author has a style, most authors struggle to find it. They want to sound like Mary Higgins Clark, but kind of like wearing you're big brother's pants, it doesn't fit and therefore it's uncomfortable and unflattering. They are sure that if they sounded like Ken Follett they would get published. Wrong. You will get published when you find out what you sound like, and when you find the place that you are most comfortable. That's not to say you won't have room for improvement. One of my style points is to avoid description, and I've had to work on that because description is an important elements of writing fiction. But because I know my base, I can move out from that part and incorporate new elements that make my voice stronger, richer, better understood.

I'm sure this is still clear as mud--it's taken me years to understand style and yet two weeks ago when a teacher in whose class I was presenting asked me to talk about style I froze. It is a very difficult thing to "teach". However, there are some great books that can help you discover your style: The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron and The Elements of Style by William Strunk, jr. and E.B. White, are two of my favorite resources when I find my own style slipping through my fingers as I'm seduced by the idea that if I sounded a bit more elegant, or intense, or dramatic--more like THAT author--the writing would be better overall. But my style is mine, and when I try to ignore that I sound mechanical and well, not myself.

To illustrate this, I've included a report my daughter wrote for her health class. She had me read through it for editing purposes and I was just tickled by the style behind her words. It sounds just like her and somehow she made Lung Cancer an entertaining topic. I could read every report in her class without names and know this one was hers because of the style she has when she writes. And that is our challenge, to find out how we best sound like us:

Lung Cancer

#2 Kilpack

Your lungs, like all of your other organs and body parts, help you stay healthy and alive. Your lungs are located in the chest area. Your lungs are a big organ, so it takes up most of the room in the chest area One thing that I thought was interesting was that your lungs aren’t the same size, crazy! The left lung is a little bit smaller than your right. So there’s room for the heart. You probably already know that the lungs help you breathe, inhale air, exhale air, and talk. So their a BIG deal. But if your lungs stopped working, BOOM! Your gone for good. So of course you want to keep your lungs healthy. But how can you damage them?

One of the ways is smoking. Everyone knows that smoking and taking drugs are bad, even if people do those things, they still know it. Drugs are very scary things. They don’t only ruin your lungs, but also your skin, teeth, fingers and toes, fingernails, toenails, and of course the way people think of you. Some reasons why people take drugs are because they think it makes them cooler (only makes them less cool ), to relieve stress, they get offered and addicted, etc. What can it do to your lungs? A lot.

It causes lung cancer. You may think it’s just another of those cancers. But every cancer is dangerous. Lung cancer is one of the most deadly cancers. Lung cancer kills more than colon, prostate, lymph and breast cancer combined! That’s a lot of deaths!

Most cases of lung cancer could’ve been prevented by NOT SMOKING! 90% of cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking. Every cigarette increases your risk of getting lung cancer. Lung cancer also may cause fatigue, loss of appetite and weight loss.

Because lung cancer doesn’t cause signs or symptoms in it’s earliest stages, its often advanced by the time it's diagnosed, but when there is a symptom, the most common way of knowing is a cough.

Also be alert for:

Smokers cough that worsens

Coughing up blood

Chest pain

Shortness of breath

Hoarseness that lasts for more than two weeks

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The First Page: Kleenex & Chocolate

By Heather Moore

Can you tell if you like a book from the very first page? What makes you continue reading to the second page?

Readers are different from agents and editors. Most readers will give a writer a fairly decent chance to pull them in. In fact, I can remember several books that I’ve recently read that didn’t fully pull me in until 50-100 pages. But I kept reading because someone had recommended the book to me. So I gave it a chance.

But what about an agent?

They don’t give you a chance if the first page doesn’t pull them in. This may seem like an almost impossible feat. But if you go around your house and gather your favorite books, then read the first page—ask yourself what compels you to keep reading.

Recently I finished a manuscript. I emailed the prologue to Josi, since she had included an excellent prologue in one of her books. She read it and promptly said that I needed to drop the first three pages. Not that the writing wasn’t good, or the story, but she wanted to be drawn in from the first page.

The competition is crazy out there. Write your novel. Then get someone who will be exceptionally honest to read it. Finally, get out the chocolate and Kleenex and start editing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Mighty Dollar

by Annette Lyon

Take a guess at what type of letter I recently received that included the following phrase:

"You are a fantastic writer"

No, it wasn't from a reader (although I've certainly welcomed the few letters like that when they've arrived). It was a rejection letter.


The reason this particular publishing company gave for passing on the project is the bane of many writers’ existence. Regardless of how the reason is phrased, it all boils down to the same thing: Money.

Publishing is a business, and if a company thinks that they’ll likely sell 15,000 copies of a book that’s moderately good and only 1,000 copies of a darn-tootin’ amazing piece that just isn’t quite as marketable, take a guess on which they’ll pick.

Some presses do take on the occasional book that they know won’t sell much—but they’re only able to publish it out of love because they’re making enough money on the cash cows they’re already selling. It’s the best-sellers that essentially finance the work of the occasional little fish they give a chance to, regardless of quality.

In my case, the target demographic was deemed too small to make the financial investment viable for them.

In your case, it could be any number of other things:

  • The genre is currently saturated.
  • The genre is no longer "hot" and sales are declining
  • A book very similar was recently published (by them or a competing house)
  • A similar book was recently submitted by a best-selling author (guess whose they’d rather take, a big-name author who will sell thousands just by having their name on the cover, or an unknown writer?)
  • The target audience is unproven as eager book-buyers
  • The publisher is unsure how to market the book and reach its target readers
  • The manuscript is too long to make a profitable product with an unknown writer (Note how short the first Harry Potter book was. There’s no way anyone would have let even JK Rowling get away with a 700+ page tome her first time around. She wasn't the mighty JK then.)
  • The book has lots of sub-genres, making it difficult to classify
  • You don’t fit the publisher’s typical tone/voice/style
  • And so on.

None of those mean your book isn’t well done or publication-worthy. It just means that the publisher isn’t ready to take a financial risk on a project that may or may not throw them into the red.

What do you do? Study the markets. Find where you belong. Revise your manuscript if need be so you can fit those requirements. Or find another market that's a better fit.

What you don’t do is throw it on the garbage heap.

Sure, indulge in self-pity and some Rocky Road for a little while. Then get back out there, keep writing, and submit again. And again.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

some blog tests are just cool

I confess to not be as grammatically inclined as many other authors out there. I have issues with lay and lie. I commonly leave out commas. But I know enough to be bugged by awful grammar (though, in spite of the test findings, I really do not critique people's blogs. Blogs are informal enough to not require a red pen).

I took a test and invite you all to do the same. I may not be great . . . but I got an A :) Mrs. Brown would be so proud!

You Scored an A

You got 10/10 questions correct.

It's pretty obvious that you don't make basic grammatical errors.

If anything, you're annoyed when people make simple mistakes on their blogs.

As far as people with bad grammar go, you know they're only human.

And it's humanity and its current condition that truly disturb you sometimes.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Monday Mania: First Page

One of our readers submitted the first page of a children's book she's writing. Feel free to make comments, but please keep them constructive.

Critique Archive 0012:

Hannah was a princess. She was not an ordinary princess. She lived in a regular house, but to Hannah it was really a castle.

Each morning she made her royal bed and lined up her dolls on the pillow. “You must protect the castle until I return,” she commanded a soft white bear.

Hannah changed into her shimmering pink gown. Then she took her place at the grand balcony, which was really her bedroom window. “Hello, royal subjects,” she called to the children riding bikes below.

She moved to her mirror or “looking glass” as she lovingly called it. After brushing her hair, she carefully fixed a fancy silver crown on top of her head. Then she stepped into her sparkling slippers and did a ballerina twirl in the middle of the rug. Pleased with her outfit, Hannah began to feel hungry.

She tiptoed to her mother’s room.

“Oh Queen,” Hannah whispered. “I’m hungry.”

Unfortunately, her mother didn’t always look like a queen, especially in the morning. “In a minute,” her mother said with a groan.

Hannah went to the kitchen and waited. And waited. She waited at least one-hundred minutes, and still her mother didn’t come. It was just too long for a princess to wait.

She climbed onto the counter and took down the prettiest bowl. Her dress snagged the drawer, and ripped. “Uh oh,” she muttered. But that didn’t stop her search, and she found her favorite cereal. There was just enough for a hungry princess.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Monday Mania

Our on-line critique forum will be back after Thanksgiving.

If you'd like to submit a FIRST PAGE or QUERY LETTER for Monday Mania, please email us at:

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

(Remember, there is no bad drama at family dinners . . . just good writing material.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Should I Give Away the Ending?

by Heather Moore

When I was a newbie, it would have killed me to give away the end of the book in a synopsis. As a reader, I never read the end first . . . so combining the two together, it seemed that if I gave away the end of my book in a synopsis I was going to ruin the reading experience.

But agents want to know the end. Recently I read a blog written by Nathan Bransford, an agent with Curtis Brown Literary. Bransford recommends that a synopsis be 2-3 pages, double spaced, unless otherwise specified by an agent or editor.

Bransford’s excellent advice includes:
“A synopsis is not an opportunity to talk about every single character and every single plot point in a "and then this happened and then this happened" fashion. A synopsis needs to do two things: 1) it needs to cover all of the major characters and major plot points (including the ending) and 2) it needs to make the work come alive. If your synopsis reads like "and then this happened and then this happened" and it's confusing and dull, well, you might want to revise that baby.”

Bransford also said, “A good place to start for a model on how to write a good synopsis is to mimic book cover copy, only also include in the synopsis what happens in the end.”

As a published writer, I understand that it’s important to be able to write a concise synopsis of your novel. Once you have a synopsis nailed down, it’s easier to write a hook or a pitch, and of course that query letter.

With my publisher, I turn in a synopsis to the editor after the book has been accepted. This synopsis goes to the committee and gives them the insight they need to position and market the book. Also the backliner and marketing blurbs are easier to put together with a handy synopsis. Like Josi, I write the synopsis after I’ve finished the manuscript. Too many things can change if you write it while your book is still in progress. Josi also cautioned writers against holding back what happens at the end of their novels.

So, to make a long blog short. Go ahead. Spill the ending.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

When No Criticism Is Bad News

by Annette Lyon

As I judged a writing contest this last week, several commonalities struck me about the entries.

A few things cropped up over and over again:
  • Point of View issues: No point of view. Or poor execution of point of view. Or some funky version of an omniscient narrator. None of which worked.
  • Telling instead of showing, which is especially weak when it’s during moments that should be tense or emotional.
  • Punctuation mistakes. Not only were sentences punctuated incorrectly (which editors hate), but a lot of the time the wrong punctuation made the text plain old hard to decipher. Good punctuation acts as sign posts so the reader knows what belongs where, who’s doing what, and where the pauses belong. It’s worth learning how to do it right.
  • Awkward or stilted dialogue.
  • “It was all a dream” cop-out endings.
  • Starting in a boring place—often way too early—and including lots of extra back story and other elements that didn’t belong to the core story.
  • Padding sentences with extra baggage, like the piece that used the term, “a forest of trees.” (As opposed to what, a forest of pretzels?)

As I made my way through the entries and jotted notes in the margins, I found a pattern: The worst entries had very little red ink, while best ones were covered with my scribbles.

At first that made no sense.

After a little reflection, the reason dawned on me: The best entries were ready for polishing. I could indicate redundancies, awkward sentences, or motivation issues. I could make concrete suggestions for improving a paragraph or a description. These authors knew enough to take such suggestions and run with them. They have the basics down and just need someone to point the way down the path and give them a nudge to get going.

What I’ll call the “non-winning” entries were on a different level altogether, and not in a good way. The majority had major problems—problems that went beyond what I could suggest or help with in a quick margin note. With these writers,“Show this,” “Begin with the moment of change,” or, “Be sure to keep a consistent point of view,” would be like speaking a foreign language to them.

So I had to sit and stare at those stories to figure out what to say to their creators. Where do you begin to point out a path to someone when they aren’t even on the map? To use a different metaphor, I can’t suggest how to decorate a house when the foundation isn’t even in place.

I tried to give some kind of constructive suggestions to everyone, but it was tough. The non-winning folks got a lot of “fun image”-type comments and have large sections with no red ink at all, while the winning entries almost look like I bled on them.

I feel bad about that; I hope the winners don’t get discouraged but instead see the feedback as a chance to grow and improve as writers.

Next time you enter a contest or get feedback from an agent or editor, keep this in mind: The more specific the criticism, chances are, the better writer you are. If you stunk, there would be no way to point out every weakness; the judge/editor/agent on the other end wouldn’t know where to start.

The moral of today’s post: Never look at feedback as merely cutting you down. Instead, open your arms and let it in. It only goes to show that you’re already good, and weighing the suggestions carefully will only make you better.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Know Your Audience

I was running the register in our store a few weeks ago and the last customer had just left when my husband came in from the back door and joined me behind the counter. A thrill of that high-school-girl-in-love shivered through me when his hot breath on the back of my neck turned into a soft lingering kiss.

I turned, anticipating a romantic interlude, but what I got instead was triumph. His eyes glittered with knowledge. "THAT," he said. "Is why Stephenie Meyer's Twilight is a best seller."

I blinked. "What?" I wanted to slap him outright for making me think romantically when he was only using me as a test market.

Then he pinned me to the counter and ran his finger down my jawline and kissed me again. Dang, but he's good. I almost did slap him, but had to catch my breath.

He laughed. "See?" he said. "She caters to the romantic inklings of every silly girl in America." Then I raised my fist. A slap wouldn't be good enough. He needed to be punched since I was one of those silly American girls. He grinned. "Not that I don't like kissing you, babe. I do, but I listened to the audio book of Twilight and found that the plot is lame, and nothing happens except for some girl living out her fantasy of having a superhero type guy smother her in soft hormone-inducing kisses."

My husband is all detached logic, and I really was fuming by this point since I really liked Twilight. I told him it had a brilliant plot.

"Ah, but what is the plot?" he asked.

"A young girl falls in love with a vampire and . . . and . . ."

He's making fun of me now. "And what?"

"Well, there's that other vampire that tries to kill her . . ."

"Not until the end, and she passes out for that--which is one of the lamest things ever. The story finally gets exciting and the main character sleeps through it? No, babe. The book sold well because it caters to female hormones."

I see his point of view. And as much as I still want to punch the man . . . he has a good point. But I don't think this is a bad thing. If you're writing a best seller and you cater to the audience for which you write . . . that's still brilliance in my book.

And the fact that each girl reading the book felt as if Edward's kisses were on her neck, is proof in the power of "show--don't tell."

We can all take a lesson from this and know the audience we're catering to, and make the book riveting enough that our audience feels that they--personally--are experiencing it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Monday Mania: Query Letter

One of our readers submitted her query letter. Feel free to make comments, but please keep them constructive.

Critique Archive 0011:

Dear Agent,

I hope you’ll find interest in Queen, a 120,000 word thriller that brings together a lethal plot, captivating history, and one toxic legend of the Queen of Sheba.

Undercover Israeli agent, Omar Zagouri, is a man who hates his job and wants to kill his boss for stealing his girlfriend. When he stumbles onto a tomb in Northern Jerusalem, he unknowingly discovers the final clue in the legend of the Queen of Sheba. Omar is thrown into the heart of deception as wealthy collectors, seedy government officials, and ruthless archaeologists scramble to find the queen’s tomb. Will Omar be able to prevent the greatest discovery of the century from becoming the most deadly?

Woven in this modern-day thriller is the story of the Queen of Sheba in ancient Arabia. Drawing on my own experience of living in the Middle East as well as extensive research, this novel unites myth with possibility.

My publishing credits include a four-volume hardcover historical series set in 600 B.C. Arabia.

I’ve enclosed the opening pages of Queen. I appreciate your time.


Friday, November 9, 2007

Mystery Vs. Suspense

By Josi S. Kilpack

A couple years ago I started writing what I called a suspense novel. About 75 pages into it I decided maybe I ought to read up on writing suspense novels, since I'd never done it before. I got the book "How to Write Killer Fiction" by Carolyn Wheat and I realized that I was not writing a suspense after all, instead I was writing a mystery.

Now, I freely admit that suspense and mystery have seemed a bit interchangeable to me in the past. They are both a kind of Whodunit, and they are both intense and fast paced, however there are some specific differences that need to understood a so that you can pitch your book correctly and fulfill the 'contract' with the reader that picks up your book expecting a specific experience. Here is a summary of what I've learned.

*Crime to be solved happens offstage
*Reader is two steps behind Main Character (MC)
*MC usually a detective or sleuth
*MC uses skills already possessed
*Intellectually stimulating
*Intellectually satisfying ending
*Danger already took place
*Story is about what happens to someone else
*Central question: Who did it?

*We see the action that begins the story
*Reader is two steps ahead of MC
*MC can be anyone
*MC learns new skills and grows
*Emotionally gripping
*Emotionally satisfying ending
*Danger throughout the story
*Story is about what happens to MC
*Central question : Will the Hero survive?

In the book, Wheat compares a mystery to a carnival fun house, where the floors shift and things aren't what they seem, you have to pay close attention to find your way out. A suspense, on the other hand, is compared to a roller coaster ride, intense, heart pounding, pervaded with fear of survival.

There are some cross overs, books that use both elements but it's usually pretty easy to determine which type overshadows the other one--calling your book a mystery suspense really won't work.

Through reading this book I learned that I use a lot of suspense elements in my books, but not so much mystery. It helped explain why writing this book was different and harder than anything else I had written--it was totally new.

I recommend the book How To Write Killer Fiction to anyone that would like a crash course in either mystery or suspense as Wheat offered great information on both genres. I'm still working on my mystery--it's been a slow process and I'm still learning a lot but it's been fun to try something new.

Happy Writing!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

3 Point of View Pitfalls

by Annette Lyon

I recently pulled out an ancient manuscript of mine and read through the first few pages. At first I was pleasantly surprised; the writing and dialogue weren't too bad. I still thought the language was fresh and fun.

One big problem, though: the point of view was nonexistent.

While some of my favorite authors, like L M Montgomery and Charles Dickens, could get away with either not having a point of view or using an omniscient point of view (where the narrator can see into everyone's head--and DOES, at any point), that method is far less likely to get your work into print today.

Readers and editors expect a clear point of view. Who's head are we in? Whatever is seen, thought, heard, felt, experienced, and (most importantly) interpreted, is through one person's eyes in that particular scene. You can have a few points of view in a novel, although more than 3-5 can get cumbersome.

Below are three pitfalls to avoid so your readers aren't getting dizzy trying to keep it all straight.

Pitfall #1: Hopping heads
As I said, you can have more than one point of view per book. Just don't hop between them willynilly. Don't switch even in the course of a scene. And absolutely never do what an author I recently read did by switching points of view at paragraph breaks--at nearly every paragraph break. It was hard to connect with the characters' thoughts and reactions when every few lines we're seeing the story through a different lens. The experience was flat at best and jarring at worst.

Pitfall #2: The Boring POV
Don't pick a random POV for each scene, showing the story from one person's head just because they happen to be there. Maybe another key person in the scene would provide a different--better--angle for the story.

Think about who has the most to lose. Often that's the right POV to pick. Maybe there's someone who has the possibility for misinterpretation of what's happening. Pick that POV. Who will react the strongest to the conflict in this scene? Latch onto that. Whichever POV you pick should help the scene be the most effective dramatically.

Pitfall #3: The POV Intrusion
This particular pitfall is so easy to fall into and not even realize it. The POV Intrusion is when the author is being so careful to stay inside one person's head that they get a little too carried away with pointing it out.

If we're in Sally's POV and she's waiting at a crosswalk, we don't need to be told that she sees a red car drive by. If the red car drives by (and we're in her POV), we can easily assume that she saw it. Same goes with all the other senses. Don't tell us that she heard the car's engine or noticed the cloud of exhaust. Just describe the sound of the engine, the smell of the exhaust.

This may sound like a little thing, but it's not: Every time you use a POV Intrusion, you're throwing up a flag to your reader that says, "POV Alert! Did you see it?" That pulls the reader out of the story.

Worse, it makes your reader less connected to your character. If Sally sees or notices something, the reader doesn't. It effectively keeps your reader one step away from the vicarious experience you're trying to create.

On the flip side, if you describe Sally's experience without the POV intrusion, the reader will feel it too, almost as if it's happening to them. In short, you've shown instead of told.

Point of view can be tricky, but it's a skill that's worth learning, especially if it gets your readers so entrenched in your story that they forget they aren't your characters.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Because you deserve it!

I met a writer the other day who has yet to complete a novel. He has several beginnings and even a couple of endings (though the endings don't go to his already written beginnings). He asked me for advice.

It seems to me his problem is not one of ability. He writes all the time. I believe his issue lies more with motivation and very likely, a dash of fear.

At a recent conference I learned a little about goal setting. I already do most of what the instructor told us we needed to do in order to have successful careers, but my goals are thoughts in the back of my head, never written down . . . not really.

Never before had anyone explained to me the fine art of good organization and the importance of goal setting with rewards.

It isn't enough for the would-be-writer to say, "I'm going to write a book." Because at the end of that sentence remains words left unsaid. The sentence really is this, "I'm going to write a book SOMEDAY."

Someday always seems so distant. We always have time to worry about things SOMEDAY. But what happens if your someday doesn't come because you never sat down and decided on a concrete goal?

Kay Lockner suggested that first off you need to define a career goal such as: I want to be a best selling author. Best selling is a pretty subjective goal so she suggests you narrow it down into something tangible. Give you concept of "best-selling" a number. In some markets 2000 books is considered best-selling. So you need to determine what best selling means to you.

Next she suggests you consider what this goal will do to your life. Will it offer you financial security? Will it offer you truckloads of fan mail? Will it offer you time to spend with your family? Will it offer you the chance to live a career you love? When you figure out how you want this to impact your life. Write that down along with your goal.

Next you need to do some "snap" planning that will push you along the road to your ultimate goal. Along with the goal you need a target date for completion. If your goal is to finish a novel, then you need a date by which you must complete the novel. Then you need to have three milestone goals so that you can check your progress along the way.

The milestone goals are dates. For example my goal is to complete "the Nightmare Givers" by December 31st. My first milestone is the full introduction of all main characters by October 31st (which I've met. My second milestone is that I must come to the middle of the story where all issues are introduced and all obstacles in the way by November 31st. By December 31st, all obstacles must be removed and they live happily ever after (or happily until the sequel).
You need to set three smaller goals in order to achieve the larger one. She breaks it up into "goal-genre" if you will.
  • Production goal--this is where you create the product. This is the "how many words am I going to write a day" goal.
  • Marketing goal--this is where you plan on how you're going to get the manuscript read by others.
  • Wildcard goal--this can be anything (hence the name). You can have a goal to establish an internet presence or read a few books on the craft of writing.

What I really really love about this is you get to reward yourself when you achieve small goals and reward yourself even more when you achieve the big ones.

So if you meet your target date for getting to chapter ten, you get a movie night, or a manicure, or a new miter saw. You cannot reward yourself with stuff you're going to do anyway. If you get a manicure every week, then what point is there in using that for your motivation?

For me, a simple reward isn't good enough. I take away things I love, and only return them to myself when I achieve my goals. For instance I love to read. I love love love to read. I love to read in a way that could be considered an unhealthy addiction. So, in order to get my writing done, I buy new books that I desperately want to read, then set those books on my shelf at my writing desk so I have to stare at them, knowing I cannot have them until I achieve my goal.

Whatever reward you pick for yourself, make sure it's one that is properly motivating as well as properly accessible. Don't make a Caribbean cruise your reward if you know there isn't a snowball's chance in the hot place you can afford it. But do make sure it's something that will put a fire in your belly. Because whatever your reward for reaching your goal . . . you totally deserve it!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Monday Mania: Query Letter

One of our readers submitted her query letter. Feel free to make comments, but please keep them constructive.

Critique Archive 0010:

The Carrot Skin Factor
(YA novel—approx. 53,000 words)

Tomorrow night, Yankee Stadium will be attacked by a group of rebels known as the Gaddi-Anons. Can four teens and a whacky inventor discover the meaning of ‘Crying the Neck’ in time to save thousands from disaster?

Fifteen-year old Zack’s life sucks. His divorced parents have no time for him. Following a creepy midnight encounter, Zack and his three friends find a mysterious gadget called DINGO (Delivers Information, Navigates, Goes Overseas) belonging to a British inventor and secret agent, Hunter MacMurray. It's weird the things DINGO can do and foresee using holograms, known as Dingograms. One snag—the operator must be crazy about carrots.

A mysterious clue (Crying the Neck) takes the four from Connecticut , USA , to Cornwall , England , transporting by DINGO. Will Zack's fears let everyone down? Is Libby’s faith the waste of time Zack thinks it is? Suspense builds to a surprise ending—not only do they win the fight, but it turns out Hunter is Zack’s mom’s lost brother.

I decided to contact you after researching many literary agents as you have found homes for exciting YA books in the past. Enclosed is a synopsis. I have completed the entire manuscript—a fast paced suspense with mystery and science fiction for readers age twelve to seventeen.

As for my qualifications, I have three published books, one of which is short stories for Young Adults; and over seventeen years of published magazine articles and fiction for both youth and adult readers.

Thank you for your time. If I am a writer you can represent, please may I send the full manuscript? I enclose an SASE for your response.


Sunday, November 4, 2007

Facing Your Audience

by LuAnn Staheli

Sometime in junior high, I decided to be a writer. I wrote poetry and short stories, but I looked forward to the day when I would grow up and write novels. It took me several years to get there. Only eleven years ago I completed my first, the story of my mother’s childhood. My second novel was born three years later from a random idea. It was followed two years ago by a book based on my own teenage years, then last year I completed a historical set in the time of the Aztecs that I had been working on for nearly twelve years.

So, four complete novels reside on my computer hard drive. All have been through my critique group, revised, and prepared for publication. And that’s where the problem lies. Despite the fact that I’ve queried several editors and agents, I’ve not yet sold one of these manuscripts. Like many want-to-be authors, I could just give up and set my dreams aside, but after all these years and the amount of work I’ve already put into them, I don’t want to.

I decided to face my audience. All four of my books are meant to be read by teenagers, and every day I see over one-hundred teens in my Honors English classrooms. Copies in hand, I approached several of my best editors. “Would you be willing to read and critique this for me?” The response has been overwhelmingly positive. At last, the chance for the student to tell the teacher what they need to fix.

With delicious glee, the students were off, taking their task seriously. I’ll admit, I was nervous. Sending my babies off to faceless readers was one thing, but knowing I would see my new editors face-to-face every day for the rest of the school year was frightening. “What if they don’t like it? What if they think I’m a terrible writer? Will I be able to fix anything they don’t understand?”

As manuscripts started to come back to me, I discovered that sending them home with kids was the best thing I could do. The responses have been positive; the comments specific and helpful. As I’ve started revision based on my target reader’s input, I feel my manuscripts will be better than ever.

Writers need feedback to improve their work, and no response is as constructive as that from a real audience. Sure, agents and editors may hone my work, but the kids—they are the ones who will really matter when the books finally get published.

Friday, November 2, 2007

A Writing Schedule that Works for you.

By Josi S. Kilpack

Earlier this week my friend Anne Bradshaw forwarded some advice from Dave Wolverton, a very successful and well published author. It was full of wonderful information about things that might interfere with your writing such as medication, depression, too much caffeine etc. I found many very valuable things in what he had to say. Hopefully Anne will let us know how we can get on his "Kick in the Butt" e-mails, as I couldn't seem to find his website in the 47 seconds I allotted to research for this blog.

Amid the info were some suggestions on how to find what works best for you. He mentioned things like finding what time of day you're most creative, and then working out a schedule so you can write at that time. For just a moment I closed my eyes and fantasized I was a single, non-mother that was either a) an heiress or b) so successful in my writing I didn't have to work another job and could treat my writing as if it were my only Dependant. Then I opened my eyes to a cup being shoved in my face followed by the words "I need a drink", my desk piled with homework, the phone ringing, and someone announcing that the cat had peed on the carpet again.

Fact is, I have no idea what time of day I'm most creative because I have not yet reached a point of being able to schedule my writing--it is still fitting into the nooks and cranny's of daily life where my family and home responsibilities keep it terribly suppressed. However, the way I write has changed a lot since I started writing and the last few days have allowed me to think of things that have worked for me. My life, as is any writer's--even those that do have a schedule--is a constant work in progress and one thing to keep in mind about the beauty of writing is that it is so flexible. I can write at 1:00 a.m. or 11:30. I can write at home, or on the bus, or in a plane or on a train. I can write both here an there, I can write most anywhere!

The key is being able to evaluate what works NOW, this week, this month, this year, and then making it important enough to do.

Things that have worked for me:
*One day for me, one day for them--If I can spend one day catching up on laundry, phone calls, bills, vacuuming and running errands, the next day can allow all those things to slip a little. Often having three hours of total writing time in one day is more effective than one hour every day because I can stay more focused. I tend to work harder on my days 'off' writing so that the days 'on' can be more effective.
*Planning in advance--By looking at tomorrow's calendar I can see where my free (ha, ha) time lies and can often determine where I can fit my writing in. Knowing this in advance helps me stay on target.
*Setting a timer--this is especially effective when I'm feeling blocked and don't want to write, or I'm super busy. I'll set the timer for 10, 20, 45 minutes and write for that amount of time. When it dings I'm able to feel proud of making the commitment and go on to other things.
*Take it with you--I find I can write in the car for about 30 minutes without getting sick. I can write on a plane for hours (my husband loves that). I have both a laptop and an Alphasmart that are very portable. Whether for trips or just really busy days, I can take my writing with me.
*Goals--sometimes I just want to get a certain amount of writing done. I either want a word count to applaud my efforts, or a time commitment. Shooting for a specific target often sharpens my aim, whether my goal is 3,000 words a week or 5 hours of writing. You can use a stop watch to track it, write it down, or challenge a friend. Either way you have a bigger reason to write than just to say you've done it.

What's worked for other people, but not necessarily me:
*Getting up earlier than the rest of the house and using the alone time to put your words down--this doesn't work for me because we're up at 4:45 anyway.
*Staying up later than everyone else, when the day is behind you and all else is washed, asleep, folded, or put off until tomorrow--this doesn't work for me unless I have a GREAT idea. seeing as how we get up so early, bedtime can't be pushed off for long.
*A set schedule is something I drool over. The idea of having a set time every day that you always right truly makes me heart all aflutter, however, it's not my life. . . yet. If you can discipline this kind of structure into your writing you don't have to work so hard to fit it in which would just be heavenly.
*Blocking out huge chunks of time, or even days, to focus only on writing is another dream I have. Brandon Sanderson wrote an entire book in 16 days, and Jeff savage worked a more than full time job and wrote a book in I think 40 days or something insane like that. It takes cooperation from the other people in your life, for sure, but if you can get 5 hours to yourself, or even a weekend--wow! One day, this will be my life. I'm sure of it.

The point is that what works for one person won't necessarily work for another--even if you're lives are very similar. I know many stay-at-home-mom's that find writing time in completely different ways than I do. But remember the plane, train, box thing--you can write any way that works for you.

Got any ideas I didn't mention? I'm taking notes.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

What Are Agents Looking For Right Now?

by Heather Moore

This is a tough question. You can browse Writer’s Market, subscribe to Writer’s Digest, search through, read submission guidelines . . . all great sources. But lately I’ve found many interesting tidbits on BLOGS. Yes, there are some agents who run blogs and they have fabulous information.

On October 25, Johnathan Lyons of Lyons Literary said he’s looking for the following three books:

“A serious treatment on the rise of cable television, filled with behind-the-scenes interviews with both the suits and artists who made it happen. Journalism credentials necessary.

American history in the 19th century. The issue chosen needs to be specific, but with enough umph to carry a whole book. I also think that there's room for more history books focusing on a single year or even a few months (April 1865 is a great example).

A gritty, hard-boiled urban fantasy mystery series. Imagine Lehane or Connelly, but paranormal. Must be set on earth in the present or very near future.”

On October 8, the agents at BookEnds Literary said they are looking for:


“I would love to add some really strong and scary romantic suspense to my list, and when looking at paranormal I have been gravitating toward work that leans to fantasy. I’ve also noticed an upswing in the historical market and I’m very excited about that.

I’m most actively looking for suspense and thrillers—books that make my heart race and my eyes widen with excitement. I would love to find a fresh new voice that could be compared to Karin Slaughter, Lisa Jackson, or Barry Eisler.

Women’s fiction is probably one of the harder genres for me to break down. What do I look for in women’s fiction? I think it’s the relationship. I love Elizabeth Berg, and Jennifer Wiener for me has been hit and miss (I did like Good in Bed, but not In Her Shoes). I like characters who are obviously flawed but who we can all relate to. I love stories about friendship and women who break out of a mold. Either way I want to see the heroine grow and change throughout the book.

For those writing nonfiction the key is platform, platform, platform.

And as for YA. I don’t represent it. I believe I’ve gotten on some YA lists so there’s obvious confusion, but it isn’t something I’m actively looking for at this time.”


“I am looking for fiction with a strong hook and voice, including mysteries of all kinds, romantic suspense, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, thrillers. I am open to seeing young adult fiction that is edgy, hip, or topical. I haven’t represented any Christian fiction, science fiction, and spiritual fiction. I look for highly commercial books that will appeal to a wide market. I prefer a brief email query to see if I’d like to take a look at more. I’m attracted to fiction on the dark side; however, I represent a number of cozy mystery writers whose stories are light and often humorous.

In nonfiction I am looking for health and wellness, business, psychology, parenting, career, finance, self-help.”


“I represent a wide range of genres, including westerns, romance, women’s fiction, crime novels, cozy mysteries, true crime, and pop culture. However, the areas in which I’m currently interested in expanding are women’s fiction and romance.

I gravitate toward the more serious women’s fiction in the vein of Jodi Piccoult. I’d love to see more great Southern fiction. I’m also in the mood for great romance. Lately, I’m hungry for more terrific historicals.

I, too, would love to find a great romantic suspense author. I love Lisa Jackson and Sandra Brown. I think the “ultimate” book for me would be a romantic suspense that’s reminiscent of those old gothics I loved by Phyllis Whitney, but modern enough to succeed in today’s market.”

(If you are interested in submitting to these agencies, please read their submission guidelines in their entirety)