Monthly Archives: July 2014

Writing that Query Letter

A query letter is a one-page cover letter used when querying literary agents. It introduces your novel and yourself. There’s a hook, a blurb (not a full synopsis), and a little bit about you.

The query letter is very important. If it grabs an agent’s attention, that agent will request pages, possibly even a full, which may lead to an offer of representation.

When writing a query letter:

  • Address the specific agent you’re interested in. Nowadays, most queries are sent via email. Good for the trees and response times (sometimes), but there is a downside. Agents are bombarded with query letters. If you don’t take the time to address a specific agent, they’re not going to look at it.
  • Include your novel’s title. Don’t forget to include the title of your novel in your query. After spending weeks or months working on your query, you don’t want to forget something as vital as the novel’s title. Also, put the title of your novel in all caps.
  • Mention word count and genre. This gives agents a clear idea of novel length and targeted readers.
  • Cut to the chase. Don’t start your query with introducing yourself. You need to hook the agent right away, so dive right in about your novel. Some agents read all the way through the query. Many with stop reading immediately if you don’t get their attention right away.
  • Explain why you chose that particular agent. Let the agent know you’ve done some research and she’s not simply a random person you queried. However, don’t get carried away. Some agents like you to mention why you queried them. Others only want to hear about your novel. But if you met the agent in person or have been in contact with her, mention it.
  • If you’ve got a successful platform, mention it. If you speak at writing conferences yearly, have a blog with thousands of page views a month, a large Twitter following, etc. put it in the query letter.
  • Include your contact information. For a snail mail query, you’ll include that information at the top of the letter, along with a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). For an email query, include your information at the end, beneath your signature.
  • Revise. As you did with your novel, revise your query letter and have other people critique it. Typos are a huge no-no. Even if an agent is interested in your premise, if you’ve got typos, many won’t request pages.
  • Study. Read query letters that snagged agents. AQ Connect has a ton of examples of successful queries. Learn from what they did.
  • Keep it professional. Send only what the agent says to on their website. Some agents only want the query letter. Some want the query plus sample pages or a few chapters or a synopsis.
  • Include only what’s relevant. When introducing yourself, only include what’s pertinent to your writing. Having been published before, have a degree in writing, are part of a critique group, or having a successful platform are some examples. Don’t talk about how many cats you have or that you love long walks on the beach. If you find that you and agent so and so are both obsessed with Doctor Who, go ahead and say that.

The query letter is your chance. You could have written the next bestseller (don’t mention that in your query), but if your query is subpar, then no one will ever know how wonderful your novel is.

What tips do you have for writing a query letter?

Different Types of Character Arcs

A character arc is the process through which a character changes. Joe Bob starts off as some guy, things happen, which force him to change into a different guy.

There are two main types of character arcs: positive and negative. In a positive character arc, there’s a transition from a bad situation to a better one. A negative character arc is the opposite. It deals with a character’s situation worsening. Negative character arcs lead to tragic endings, whereas positive ones have happier endings.

Positive Character Arcs:

  1. Change- the typical “hero’s journey,” where the protagonist transforms from the average Joe to a hero. The protagonist tends to have some inner strength within him that allows him to rise up and become the savior. During this arc, the protagonist’s beliefs are challenged and he must overcome both external and internal demons. However, the external problems are focused on more than internal ones. This is the most popular and resonant type of arc.
  2. Flat- stories where characters are already fundamentally complete and don’t go through any substantial personal growth. These characters already have the inner strength to defeat the antagonist (Think James Bond or Sherlock Holmes). In this type of arc, the protagonist acts as a catalyst for change in supporting characters and the world surrounding them, as well as providing knowledge throughout the story.
  3. Growth- the protagonist overcomes internal struggles, while facing external ones. This arc is similar to the change arc, however, with the growth arc, at the end of the story the protagonist is still pretty much who he was at the beginning of the book. Think of the growth arc as the protagonist being upgraded, where the protagonist may not get a better end result but something different than before. For example, he may have started the novel working for a law firm he loathed. He was miserable. By the end of the book, he’s at a new firm. He’s not yet happy, but there’s the potential because things are different. He’s made a change.

Negative Character Arcs:

  1. Disillusionment- the character believes in something, discovers what he believes in is a lie and overcomes it, only to find out that the truth is worse than the lie. It’s like believing your father was dead for fifteen years, finding out he’s alive and successful, going to meet him, and learning he’s got another family and wants nothing to do with you. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is an example of a disillusionment character arc.
  2. Fall- the “tragedy,” where the protagonist dooms himself, and usually takes others with him. This “doom” could be falling into insanity, immorality, or death. Sometimes the protagonist will survive, but destroy a ton of other people along the way. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is an example.
  3. Corruption- the protagonist recognizes the truth, but rejects it and embraces the lie. The protagonist is lured away from the truth by the lie. He doesn’t cling to the lie like a life raft. He consciously chooses it, and the decisions that drag him into the darkness. Think of Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader from Star Wars.

As stories progress, characters change. That’s part of life. It’s the way in which these characters move that defines what type of character arc they’re on.

What type of character arc do you like?

Don’t Sweat It. Love Your Writing.

Often times writers worry about their writing. Worrying in itself isn’t horrible, but sometimes the anxiety and doubt a writer has about his writing takes over. Questions like if his novel is ever going to get published, if he’s going to be successful, or if everything he’s doing is just a big waste of time become predominant. And as those questions and doubt crowd his mind, he may never send out his manuscript or may abandon a work in progress.

Don’t stop writing. Don’t let anxiety and doubt take control. So much of the concern writers get stems from misconceptions.

Forget failure.

  • Failure isn’t the end of the world. Yes, it hurts, but you can move past failure and learn from it. Fitzgerald and Melville both faced multiple failures during their lives, but they’re considered two of the greatest writers of their age.
  • Failure doesn’t mean your work sucks. Just because not everyone loves your writing doesn’t mean you can’t write. There will always be people who love your novel, and others who don’t. Think of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Though Rowling got an agent quickly, twelve publishing houses rejected her novel. It was a year later when she got a publishing house, and even then she was told to get a day job because she’d never make any money being a children’s author.

Failure can sometimes feel like you’re never going to make it. Don’t let it stop you. Keep writing, go to workshops, join a critique group, etc.

Agents and publishers aren’t all knowing.

  • Agents and publishers like to believe they know everything. I’ve even seen some of them say they know what the next bestseller will be. The deals publishing houses make are pretty much a direct correlation with how well they believe your novel will sell. However, publishing history is filled with rejections and huge advances for novels that never sold well. Publishing houses guard their sales statistics, and tend to only share their success stories. The truth is, publishing houses lose money on books every year. And have you looked at some of the authors agents represent? Most of them aren’t wildly successful with bestsellers. If agents and publishers knew the market, they’d all be representing bestsellers.

The bottom line is that the market is unpredictable. Agents and publishers do have experience in the publishing world, but they can’t read readers’ minds and the market is constantly changing.

Every writer, at some point, doubts their work. Anxiety comes with being a writer. The key is to push through despite the worry, and to improve without letting uncertainty get in the way.

Perseverance is the key to success.

How do you deal with anxieties surrounding your writing?

What Makes a Good Writer?

There are a lot of people who want to write, whether it’s a novel, fiction or non-fiction, poems, scripts, or short stories. But what separates a good writer from someone who wants to be a writer?

First off, being a good writer has nothing to do with writing literary fiction over genre fiction (despite what many writing programs and the academic world tend to believe). It has to do with the impact your writing has on its intended audience.

Did your writing connect with your audience? Did it engage them?

Three ways to get better at the technical side of writing:

  1. Education. Learn the principles of writing. Study proper grammar and know when it’s ok to break the rules. Educate yourself about pace, tone, theme, and structure. Accept that no matter how much you learn there’s always more to know.
  2. Practice. Write. Rewrite. Write often, every day. Some days you’ll produce crap. Other days you’ll hit a goldmine. Sometimes you’ll have to let your friends go out and have fun without so you can stay home and write (making writing a priority).
  3. Comments and Criticism. Feedback is very important. It gives you views you wouldn’t think of. Your friends, critique group, teachers, family, etc. will point out what you need to work on, which, though might temporarily hurt your self-esteem, will help you improve.

However, there are some aspects of a good writer that can’t be taught.

  1. Imagination. This allows you to create fictional but believable worlds. It allows you to see problems from different and fresh perspectives. Imagination gives you the ability to be sitting at your desk and create things that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world, but are tangible in your make-believe one.
  2. Empathy. This is a big one. The ability to understand and share the feelings of others, and going beyond that, the ability to put yourself in the mind of your characters. Without this fictional characters wouldn’t be believable.

Imagination and empathy can’t be taught, but they can be gained. By living fully in the real world, your life experiences will fuel your writing. Find things you’re passionate about. Seek out new and invigorating situations, no matter how strange or uncool they seem.

Not too long ago I was in Canada and one of the people I was with started singing and dancing in the middle of town. A few of the guys acted all embarrassed and said they’d pay her to stop, but I thought it was amazing and joined in. Did we get a lot of looks? Yes. Were people making fun of us? Some, but others told us they thoroughly enjoyed watching us have a great time.

It was silly and has become one of my favorite memories. I have a character in mind based on that experience, and I would never have visualized that character if I didn’t do something ridiculous.

So, indulge in your passions and your imagination. Feel empathy. What you experience in life will spill over into your writing. Writing isn’t all about skill. A lot of it is about emotion and creating a world people want be in. Make a world people care about.

What habits do you have that help you be a better writer?

Picking the Right Genre

No matter whether you choose to self-publish or go the traditional route through an agent, selecting the correct genre for your novel is important. It can be the difference between your novel selling thousands of copies or falling into obscurity.

Genre is defined as the type of story you’re writing. Examples are romance, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thriller, etc.

Genre is important for many reasons. First, agents and editors tend to specialize in only a few genres. If your novel doesn’t fit an agent’s genre, it gets tossed. Second, genre is used to determine if you know what you’re writing. It focuses your writing for a target audience and aids in marketing your book. Third, readers use genre to find books they’d be interesting in reading. If you book is primarily a dystopian but is labeled under romance, you’re going to miss out on a lot of potential readers.

Here are some simple steps to help you choose the correct genre:

  1. Get familiar with the different genres. Go to a bookstore or Amazon’s Books page. Look at your favorite books, or if you were inspired by a certain novel or author, see where their work fits in. Another thing you can do is select a specific novel on Amazon and then look at the recommendations it has for other novels.
  2. Identify what’s most important in your novel. All novels have multiple plots, but they have one main plot. Your novel should go in the genre your main plot fits in. Also look at setting, whether or not you’ve got supernatural elements, etc.
  3. Know your target audience. Beta readers and critique groups can help you with this one. What gender are you targeting? What age group? What type of reader?

Choosing the correct genre will help will sales and give you readers who appreciate your work.

How do you choose the correct genre for your novel?