Query Please?

One of my favorite how-to-write authors, Noah Lukeman, has penned yet another terrific how to book for writers. Write a Great Query discusses the topic at more length than I have here, but I will try to distill into a few paragraphs what I try to put into my queries. Remember that I have now sold half as many books as I have written, which is three more than I would have done had I not written all of them — and written queries that got them sold.

Top Tips for a sucessful query:

1) Remember this is a professional correspondance. Be yourself — but use a professional tone. I just know one of my early queries was posted on an office bulletin board as a, “Can you believe this?!” example because I wanted to be funny. After I’d stamped it, driven over the post office and mailed it, I thought about it. I was horribly embarrased by what I had just done, but it was too late to correct my error. Write it. Read it. Sit on it. Reread it. Rewrite it. Sit on it. Have someone else read it. Rewrite it. Spell check. Grammar check. Fact check. Then stamp it, drive to the post office and mail it.


2) Don’t send a query about a fiction work that isn’t finished. Agents and Editors are not there to encourage you to complete your work. In order to get a read, they need a full manuscript available when they ask to see it. Cart. Horse. You understand.

 

3) Keep it brief. A query is a page. First paragraph: Introduce yourself. Second paragraph: Introduce the book you’re pitching. Third paragraph: Wrap it up.

 

4) Include why you are the only one who could write this book in the personal information you give in the query. In my case, it helped to be a master gardener to write mysteries about landscapers. The fact that the gardeners in the books were far more successful in their skills than I am at home doesn’t matter. I knew what I was talking about when I mentioned what plants should go where in the landscape.

 

5) Don’t hesitate to give a full synopsis of the book in your paragraph about the work. Really. I am not kidding. You need to be able to summarize your book — beginning, middle and yes, end — in a paragraph. You don’t want them to feel like they’ve seen it all before when they get to the manuscript pages.

 

6) Include more than one way for the person to whom the query is addressed to get in touch with you. E-mail, phone and physical address.

 

7) You do not have to mention copyright in the query. They’re pros. They understand you own the material.

 

8) Follow directions. If they want queries through the transom on an alternate Tuesday, then do it their way. They are looking for the next big thing. Don’t throw roadblocks in the way to their discovering that you are just what they’ve been looking for.  E-mail if they say e-mail. Snail mail if they say snail mail. Send only what they want, not twenty five of your best lines with a hot air balloon attached to lift it out of the box when they open it. That sort of thing is wasted on the mail clerk.

 

9) Allow them time to read the darn thing before following up to see if they got it. A gentle note dropped in the mail asking if they’ve gotten down to the part of the slush pile with your work in it (with a self-addressed post card) isn’t a horrible thing after a couple of months.

 

10) Don’t be afraid to multiple submit. Just let them know in the query that they are not alone in getting the material. Just please don’t say it in a threatening way. “Lots of people have this and you may be too late,” does not have the same ring as “I’ve sent this to several people and I especially look forward to hearing back from you.”

Happy Writing!

Julie

Read It Out Loud

Microsoft stock clip art

Better yet, get someone else to read it for you. I was reintroduced to this wonderful practice last month when I attended my second SCBWI-Houston meeting. I was pretty excited about finding a knowledgeable critique group and really wanted to hear what they had to say about my Middle Grade work. I’m used to working for adult audiences, and kids “hear” things very differently. It is important to get the voice, subject matter, and characters just right so that the audience for which the prose is intended appreciates it. If I’m not going to do it right, then I don’t want to bother doing it at all.

 

I’ve been part of nuturing critique groups and critique groups inhabited by the devil incarnate. Listen first to any group, then run if you feel wholesale bad vibes. Most groups are a mixed bag of people, and chances are that at least one person in the group will give you some valuable insight. One thing you absolutely must be able to to do before sharing your work with others is to be able to listen without being defensive. If you start defending each and every point, then you aren’t going to learn a darn thing. They’re trying to help you. (Well, most of them are. Some, like my long-ago devil, are simply blocked writers shedding their misery all over your manuscript. That’s easy to deal with. Don’t keep the pages that person held and/or scribbled all over. Burn that set with some ritual sage to clarify your creative passages and move on.) I have learned more from good critiques than I got out of an entire How to Write a Novel course. Thank your lucky Muse for these folk and listen with your heart as well as your ears.

 

The SCBWI group was one of the good groups. Each set of pages was read by a different person, but never by the author. This was a variation on the theme from my last critique group where we read our own work. I liked it. Hearing someone else stumble through what you thought was witty dialog or over a name that is difficult to pronounce is informative. Plus it leaves your hands free to take notes! There was a wide variety of material being critiqued, as well as a wide variety of skills being brought to the table to render critiques. Not everything said applies wholesale to everyone’s work, but you never know which of the points being made strikes a resonating worry you didn’t even know you were harboring over a sentence or wildly diverging plot point you’d snuck in your piece.

 

Finding a critique group is the hard part, but you can always start by attending a local professional writing organizations meetings. Houston is fortunate to have many active writer’s communities: MWA, West Houston RWA, NW Houston RWA, Houston Bay Area RWA, SCBWI, Houston Writer’s Guild, Houston Ritual SF BreakfastBay Area Writers LeagueClear Lake Area WritersFinal TwistHouston Writers NetworkInprint,  Scriptwriters, HoustonWhite Oak WritersWoodlands Writers Guild, and  Writer’s Ink. This is not a comprehensive listing, but a good place to start looking if you live in Houston and write.

 

Now sit down and get to work!

Losing Control

I am hanging on to my temper right now. Mad as can be and not a darn thing I can do about it. You see I am mad at myself. I haven’t taken the time to sit down and work for a week — instead doing family things, holiday things, everything and anything that would keep me from working. Not that this is bad, but it’s not as productive as I had promised myself I would be this month. There are compensations, my dad’s 80th birthday, my son and daughter both home at one time not once, but twice this week. The annual family gathering at the Galveston family’s home. It’s still hard to forgive myself the time spent celebrating when I should have been chanting, “Pages to go before I sleep.”

I wish I could say that this week was an anomaly. If the truth be told, I am easily distracted from getting my work done. There is always something requiring attention, be it the dog, the laundry, or some other itch I have to scratch. Even my daughter has figured out that working is hard to do. Her blog entry on procrastination shows that she has not learned from my mistakes.

How to cope with that horribly consistent urge to put off doing today what can be put off again tomorrow? Leave. Put on your walking shoes and pack up your tablet and paper or computer and go to whatever place stimulates your work ethic. Mine is the local coffee shop in the morning and the local community college library after noon. Neither one is quiet. Neither one is conducive to a meditative state. Both have the advantage that the only thing I have to do there, the only responsibility that belongs to me, is to write.

Letting go of that responsibility — the dishes in the sink (They’ll still be there when you get back…) the socks unmatched upon the bed (They’ll still be there when you get back…) the dinner you planned for your husband (He’ll still be there when you get back — and may have ordered Chinese takeout when he discovered you weren’t home and haven’t left dinner in the oven…) — is tantamount to saying that what I must do, long to do, but never give myself permission to consider first: write — is important.

That means that tomorrow rather than working outside in my fall garden, saddling up the mare to tool around the pasture, washing clothes or dishes or the bathtub, I will be a good little writer and sit down to write. Of course, even then I will not be totally free to lose myself in my work. While I’m writing, I’m always sure what I’m producing is dreck, and that there is little chance of editing it into usable prose. Picture me sitting in front a typewriter, ripping page after page from the roll as none of the sentences I create fit the scene I am writing. (Of course, I do this on my computer, so it’s a little more earth-friendly. Doesn’t provide the same physical relief of being able to rip up the pages — unless you take the time to print them out first, but imminently more practical.) But even being blessed with a particularly cantankerous internal editor, being a writer, I’m there in the chair with my muse and my will to stick with it. I pound and pound and pound until, eventually, joyously, I lose the urge to trash the words as they come out and I lose my sense of place and time — lose control — and get something accomplished. And it will feel glorious to be back at that wonderful place in my mind once again, hard at work.

NaNoWriMo

November is National Novel Writing Month, fondly known by those of us who have participated in this frantically fun-filled activity as NaNoWriMo. One promises to write a huge number of words (whatever your heart desires) during the month of November. Ostensibly, we write an entire book front to back (or whichever order happens) in a month. I assume they chose November because it contains a four day holiday so that we aren’t spending the entire month writing on company time and because it is so close to the end of the year that we can fit any unfinished business from this exercise into our New Year’s resolutions. Since my problem has always been that pesky internal editor who is constantly screaming, “Stop! That isn’t nearly good enough!” NaNoWriMo allows me to write what that IE would consider truly horrible prose, which I can then spend December sculpting into truly awesome work.

My NaNoWriMo pledge is to finish two novels that have dragged out far too long — both over half done with no good excuse for not seeing “The End” typed out in all its glory on the final page. I also hope to blog more, but fiction will take first place in my priority schedule.

To celebrate the kickoff of NaNoWriMo, I attended my second meeting of the Houston chapter of SCBWI. Bridgette Mongeon was the speaker. The topic, Marketing, is one which strikes fear in the very heart of every artist and writer. (Fear of Marketing resides right next to the Does-That-Look-Right? Grammar Center, my own personal meltdown instigator.) Her 100 ways to market includes many I’ve used — and many I had not yet thought of. The best part about attending this excellent meeting was the energy I took home with me. Getting together with other folk who get what I do is so very important. I’d stopped doing this — and thus had forgotten just how important this is to help feed my writing. If you are out there writing on your own — stop. Search for a writer’s group with members doing similar things — then attend. If there isn’t already a group in your area, then start one.

Now. Off to pound out 3,500 words to keep up with my NaNoWriMo goal.

Happy Reading!

Julie

Write to Life

I have lost track of the number of times I’ve quit writing over the last few years. I have a heck of a time motivating myself, which probably means I should hang up my word processor right this very second. I need an external cattle prod that promises mayhem in my life if I don’t finish up the work and do it right — and right now. So each time I quit, I vow abstinence. I will never write again.

But…I can’t keep away. Characters come out of the woodwork every time I try to quit. “Write me,” they say. “Write me to life.”

So I do. I wrote for a time about a knitter. She solved crimes in Ithaca NY, with the help of her knitting circle friends. The fact that there is a wonderful knit shop in downtown Ithaca helped with research — although I never told the owner why I was prowling her shop. I loved the excuse to go up there to visit my brother — and the fact that Ithaca is home to some terrific Independent bookstores in which I love to shop didn’t hurt either. This character had so much potential in fact that an agent took her on — only to find that Maggie Sefton‘s manuscript, Knit One, Kill Two, had found its way onto the very editor to whom the agent was pitching my book.  Knit One, Perk Two (because the shop where my book was set doubled as a coffeeshop) arrived on the editor’s desk the day after hers had been bought. I was pretty bummed, so quit writing again.

I have a wonderful character with whom I’ve worked on and off for twenty years. Charlotte is a daredevil artist/spy who also works as a Nanny. I had a brush with an agent with her too, but when the agent found out that I had queried her with an unfinished manuscript, that relationship died right then and there. Again, like a fool, I let it get to me and packed up my gear and put it away.

If you’re thinking about now that I am a writing wimp, then you are correct. But I am a writing wimp who evidently loves to come back for more punishment. If this makes me a wimpy masochist then so be it.

And so it has gone over the past seven years. Characters call, I work with them a time, then I pack them away into their files as if they had no merit.

This summer, after about the fifty-fifth time I’d quit writing, I pulled out a notion I’d had for quite some time and never allowed myself to tackle — a work for children. I wrote three chapters, liked it pretty well, but the Nanny was pulling at me and she seemed more likely to sell — if I got her book completed. I was close to finished with Charlotte when I attended a family reunion in Tennessee. While there I took the time to visit with Deb Adams and Mary Saums. We spent a great deal of time catching up during that visit. One of the topics we discussed was what writing we were doing. I shared about the progress I’d made on the long-awaited second Nanny book (the first one was written about fifteen years ago and is holding down the bottom drawer of my desk — deservedly so) and this long-shot idea I had about a children’s equestrian book.

Lo and behold, but my Wicked Muse Deb did it to me again. She mentioned the idea to a new start-up press and they made me an offer. Now all I have to finish the book, get an agent to rep it, and Bob’s your uncle. It is amazing what a boost a little deadline action can give your ability to stay in the chair and work.

Happy Reading!

What draws readers?

Have you ever wondered what makes people actually read blog posts? Me too. So I thought I’d try a catchy blog title to see if it picks up a hit or two. [The original title, Lose Ten Pounds in Two Days brought my regular readers, and no one else. It has been changed to protect the innocent.]

Of course, I have to stay on topic, so here goes:

If you want to lose Ten Pounds in Two Days, you can go on the starvation diet and hope for the best — or — you can write a book.

Yes! You heard correctly. Writing a book is a guaranteed way to lose weight.

You lose the weight of the hair you tear out in frustration when your characters refuse to go down the dark alley you told them to explore. You lose the weight of the fingernails you chew to the quick because you are ridiculously close to the deadline and still have half the book to write. You lose weight because you have no time for fixing a meal, no time to go to the grocery for frozen dinners, and since you’re still in your pajamas at four in the afternoon, you can’t tear through a drive-through for a food fix.

In addition, there’s the additional exercise you benefit from pacing the floor, flinging edited pages at the waste paper basket, and plucking the cat off your keyboard when she decides she’s waited long enough for you to notice that her food bowl is empty. (After all, that insistent meow says, she’s not on deadline, you are. She still needs to eat.)

Truth to be told I do lose weight when writing regularly. No time for snacks. Not as much television watching. More walking or gardening to work out plot snags. I drink much more water and far less soda. (The whole no time to go to the grocery store thing.) I will admit that during the editing phase, my manuscript loses more weight than I do. Much of what I write are things that I need to know, but that the audience for the actual book may not need or want to know. I write in a meandering path, so much of the extras have to hit the cutting room floor so to speak before the book is called done.

True confession: I’ve never managed to actually lose ten pounds in two days or even two weeks. Like everything else worth doing, losing weight — and writing books takes a little longer than two weeks.

Sorry — If only it was really this easy.

Walking on Alligators

Susan Shaughnessy’s book, Walking on Alligators, is one of my favorite writing inspiration books. It follows the format of a daily devotional,  featuring a daily quote followed by a short essay by the author. I found this book through a recommendation by Vikk Simmons, a local-to-me writing instructor and personal friend. I was in the process of trying to meet a deadline for the first book I’d sold — which had the dubious status of not being complete when I sold it. I had three months until D-day — deadline. I was terrified. I was pretty sure that the publisher had made a huge mistake in offering me a contract, that the book would too short, or it would be too long — that is if it ever got finished. Of course, I was equally certain that if it did get to “The End” it would be horrible. You can imagine what effect this had on my writing.

Still, I have a good work ethic, so each morning I’d hit the alarm, grab some form of caffeine and glue myself to my desk chair. I would open WoA randomly and find that the quote I’d opened to was perfect in every way for the day. The day I was feeling especially panicked — I mean, for goodness sake, what was I thinking saying I’d take these nice folk’s money to write a book? I needed to take a class or two to learn how to do this properly. That one book I wrote wasn’t that good — I mean, how can I expect to teach myself how to write a novel?!?! I opened WoA to “The arc was built by amateurs, the Titanic by experts. Don’t wait for the experts.” — Murray Cohen. I promised myself another class after I finished the manuscript.

On the day  after I wrote a predictable chapter that was duller than dirt, I found “The desire for safety gets in the way of every and noble enterprise.” — Tacitus. I have no idea who this guy is, but he knew whereof he spoke. I revised the chapter and moved on.

“A poet or novelist will invent interruptions to avoid long consecutive days at the ordained page; and of these the most pernicious are other kinds of writing — articles, lectures, reviews, a wide correspondence.” — Shirley Hazzard. I have no idea how Shirley knew this, but her quote showed up the day after I’d signed up to edit a newsletter. Sorry Shirley, a day late on that one — but I took Shaughnessey’s hint at the bottom to heart — “Today, I’ll see what nibbles into my writing time. And I’ll decide what my choices are going to be.” (I limited the time per month I’d spend editing other people’s writing for that newsletter.)

As I got further into the draft of my book, I became tired, rushed, and frazzled so got more obsessive about reading the book in order. And the quote was still spot on for the day on which I read it.

Thanks to Shaughnessy and her inspirational book and a huge group of supportive friends and family, I got to the end of that first draft, revised the heck out of it, and turned in what came to be a fairly sucessful book, Three Dirty Women and the Garden of Death — nominated for an Agatha and Macavity Award for Best First Mystery.

I’m trying to finish up a book I haven’t yet sold. I’ve struggled with making progress on this, putting it off to do other things, and getting more and more frustrated with myself — and more and more grumpy. I pulled Walking on Alligators down from my writing books shelf this evening. The first quote I read was “People are always good company when they are doing what they really enjoy.” — Samuel Butler.

Guess I’d better get writing.

What Really Bugs Me

Feeling a tad frustrated with my WIP, not able to keep the characters in line and make the scene I was working on actually work, I abandoned my desk for the garden yesterday.
I keep milkweed growing in a variety of spots so that any stray Monarchs can stop awhile at the Butterfly Cafe, sip some nector, then lay their eggs before moving along. I keep the plant for what it offers the Butterflies, but sometimes it attracts less entertaining insects. Snapped this photo while I was walking out my scene trouble.
I had worried day and night about this guy killing the Milkweed — or worse, traveling across the driveway to the kitchen garden where it would wreck havoc on my tomatoes. Turns out it can be easily identified as a common Milkweed Bug.
Big sigh of relief later, I went out to the tomatoes to tell them the good news. This reminded me to do Stink Bug duty, so I trooped over to the volunteer squash vine that popped up in my new veggie row, a gift from last Thanksgiving’s decorations resurrection via the compost. Curiously, the stink bugs have only showed up in any numbers on that volunteer vine, not the tender baby Eight Ball and Zuccini I’d nurtured from seed. Having them concentrated on the volunteer vine made it much easier to control them.
“Hey, Stinky, look at at this plant! Ignore the human-loved goodness over there!” Gloves; smush! Presto, no more bugs! Using this neat bit of garden misdirection, I have managed to harvest a bumper crop of tomatoes, peppers and squash with minimal damage from the stinkers.
Misdirection? Mmmmm. Eureka! Proving once again that gardening is good for what ails you, that little walk through my gardens allowed my mind to relax enough to come up with a solution to the troublesome scene.
Happy gardening!
Julie

Hurry Up and Wait

How many of us set goals, and then race through our days striving to reach those goals so that we can set newer, better goals toward which we can strive?

I used to be very goal oriented. I truly thought I could accomplish anything, 1 – 2 – 3. Next!
Then life showed me how it really goes. Moved to Texas. Married. Had children. I was 30 before I finished my first book, 40 before I completed my Master Gardner certification, and 50 before I had the time to put in my first honest-to-gosh kitchen garden.
Gardening has taught me a new outlook on life. I have to wait for everything. Wait for the seed catalogs to be posted. Wait to make up my mind what kind of vegetables to plant. Wait for the seed to come in the mail. Wait for the seeds to sprout. Wait for the seedlings to be robust enough to plant outside. Wait for the plant to fruit. Wait for morning to come so I can pick the vegetables and fruit at just the peak of flavor…then wait all day for my husband to get home so that we can cook dinner together. (Getting a few weeds and new pages for the work-in-progress out of the way while I wait…Blogging occasionally when volunteer duties allow.)
Philosophy of the second half of my life: Wait to hurry rather than hurry up and wait.

Alien Tomatoes

This week I am planting the last of my spring tomatoes. I found an amazing variety of tomato — the Vorlon. This variety is named for an alien species in one of my all-time favorite Science Fiction shows, Babylon-5. Can’t help but wonder what would happen if I planted them next to the Vulcans? (Or, as my good friend,Deb Adams, suggested — put the Vorlon tomatoes next to the Carbons and see if we don’t get Shadows.)

My next chore will be to assess the compost and turn the heck out of it because I will need to top off the beds currently planted in onions and garlic and get summer cover crop seed planted before the high heat takes over.

Just finished a combined business trip to the University of Central Florida’s Inaugural Book Festival and visit with my Florida cousins. What a wonderful time for a trip to the sunshine state! Glorious weather, beautiful beaches, and long talks with people who have known me since birth. Can’t imagine a nicer way to spend a weekend.

Happy gardening!

Julie