“350 Queries to Read . . .” Make yours stand out!

You probably read that title and fainted, right? 🙂

Sad fact:  it’s totally a true story. 

This weekend was the Rose State College Writer’s Conference in Oklahoma City. Along with the OWFI conference in May, it’s one of two that I get to attend every year (if I’m lucky!). I picked up some great tips (and, small brag, the first chapter of my work-in-progress Ghost Hunt took first place in the Fiction category in their contest!).

I attended a lot of great sessions, which I want to talk about in subsequent posts. But one of the best was from author Tamara Grantham on how to write great query letters. Let’s face it:  agents get too many submissions. WAY too many. In fact, from Word One, they are looking for a reason to reject you and move on to the next query.

And to tie back to my title, Tricia Skinner (an agent with Fuse Literary) said she knew for a fact that she had 350 queries waiting for her when she gets back home Monday. Yup. Three Hundred and Fifty. 

That’s the competition. That’s your competition.

Tamara gave us great hints from agent Janet Reid, who runs queryshark.blogspot.com , which has more than 250 query letters, ripped apart for your benefit. She will also rip apart yours, if you’re that brave! Here’s what I learned:

1.) Do NOT talk about ‘theme’ in your query letter. Your job is to entice the agent, not beat them over the head with a freshman Literature class.

2.) Why? Because you’ve got 250 words to get your novel across to the agent. That’s it.

3.) So how do you pull that off? Simple. You basically get 2 paragraphs to pitch your novel. Paragraph 1 should include:

  • Who is the MC?
  • What does your MC want?
  • What’s keeping them from getting what they want?
  • What will they sacrifice to get what they want?

4.) Your second paragraph should be your inciting incident, and where that leaves your MC. That’s it. Leave it there. Don’t tell the agent how the book ends. Don’t give them all the things that will happen in the middle of the book. Make them demand your full manuscript in order to find all that out!

5.) Don’t include backstory. Ever. It will waste your 250 words.

6.) Here’s another way to look at it: 

  • Your MC must decide whether to ____ .
  • If your MC decides to do ___, the consequences will be ____.
  • If your MC decides NOT to do ___, the consequences will be ____.

(Hint:  this is a great way to check that you’ve actually got a pitch-able story. If you can’t answer these three questions, it’s time to revisit your story arc.)

7.) Have others read your query letter. Give them specific things to look for:  eliminate redundancy; strong vs. weak words; and most of all, that hook. Do they want more after reading this?

8.) This is not an overnight process! Tamara recommended drafting your query letter, then putting it away for about 4 weeks. Then, before you read it again, write a second query letter. Look at them together. Is one better than the other? Can you combine elements of both to create something even better?

Now, of course, sometimes our minds just don’t work the way we wish they would, and our novels may not fit into this rubric. If not, don’t fret. Remember the basic information you’ve got to get across. Then, shake it up a bit. As long as you get the agent hooked, you’ve done your job.

Practice with this. I’ve been mentally going through novels I know well, making them fit into these molds to see if I can do it for my own manuscripts. Take my favorite novel, Outlander, as an example:

  • The decision:  Claire Randall must decide whether to return to her own time in 1945, and her husband there.  
  • If she does:  she will lose her new husband, Jamie, forever. 
  • If she doesn’t:  she will risk her life, and will lose her old husband, Frank, forever. 

Or another – let’s say, The Hunger Games: 

  • The decision:  Katniss must decide whether to volunteer to take her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games. 
  • If she does:  she may die, and her family will starve as a result. 
  • If she doesn’t:  her sister will definitely die. 

It’s all about the craft. Crafting your query letter is no different than crafting that first page. If you’re like me and nearing the end of rewrites – boy, there’s a scary thought! – then this is a great way to double-check your plot structure.

If you can’t get your novel across in this amount of space, then maybe you don’t know your story as well as you think – or maybe your story needs some tweaking. 

If you can – then congratulations! You’re on your way to writing a great query letter. 

Again, here’s the link to Janet Reid’s site:  http://queryshark.blogspot.com/

Tamara Grantham’s website:  http://www.tamaragranthambooks.com/


Outlining for Pantsers – or How to be Organized When You’re Not.

You may have heard the old “plotters vs. pantsers” thing. Plotters outline. They have detailed notes on chapters and characters before they ever start to write. They have notes on their bulletin boards and when they’re done with a novel, it’s done. They don’t take random road trips; they take their car to the shop for an oil change and new tires first, and not only do they have AAA maps, they’ve also got a GPS and fully charged cell phones, and an itinerary planned down to the hour.

Pantsers, on the other hand, say screw that! Let’s take this road, it looks interesting. Hope there’s a gas station soon, because we’re sitting on a quarter of a tank, but hey! If not, we should have cell service. Wait. Where’d the signal go? Oh well! Keep going! They have a character, or even a scene, in mind, and they just write until they either finish the novel or the novel finishes them.

Guess which I am? 🙂

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in edits and rewrites to a manuscript. It’s changed considerably in the past months, and I’m having trouble keeping up with it all! My friends think I’m so organized. I haven’t got the heart to tell them it’s all a ruse, a clever illusion so complete that even Penn and Teller would be fooled.

There’s a saying among writers:  “You can either plot it before you start, or after you finish.” Pantsers often end up with a novel that’s a bit of a hot mess – the characters are often fantastic, and a lot of the scenes are engaging and surprising because pantsers have this ability to let the characters do whatever the hell they want to do. But they may not flow well, and some scenes may be extraneous. Some plot ideas are just dead ends. So when they finish that first draft, they have to put the work back into it to turn that hot mess into something coherent and cohesive. Been there, done that. Want my spare T-shirt? 🙂

Last year at the Rose State Writers’ Conference, I attended a workshop on “Outlining Your Novel.” I took those notes out this morning to see if there was anything in there that I could use for my current predicament.

  • The presenter argued that you should outline ahead of time, even if you don’t follow it. This is because when you start, you should at least have an idea of where you think you’re going. And if you get stuck, or start to go down one of those scary roads, you’ve got that outline there to maybe bring you back.
  • For her own novels, she makes a list of 10 key scenes she wants to see in the story, scenes that she’s really looking forward to writing. Three or four of them are what she terms “money shots” – scenes she really wants to get on paper, scenes she’s dying to write. The others are going to be good too, but not quite as gripping. These are jotted down in no particular order.
  • As we all know from reading and writing, stories often fall apart in the middle. She suggested looking at the three-act storyline (which I admit, I’ve never truly understood and still don’t). For me, the best way to do it is to think about it this way:  what does your character want? What are they going to do to get it? And what can do you do to stop them from getting it?
  • Every scene should lead to the next one. Your character has a setback? Let her rebound in the next scene. Your character’s in trouble? Leave that chapter on a cliffhanger and continue that scene to the next instead. Keep the reader reading! Likewise, each ‘act’ must build towards something. (Truthfully, I think this is where pantsers sometimes have an advantage:  we just follow the characters, so when they get in trouble, we follow them to see how they get out of it.)

HOWEVER. This presenter admitted that outlines change. You may start out knowing precisely where you want this novel to go – let’s say you’ve got a heroine who is fighting against her evil older sister, a queen. But then you get into the novel more. You start to figure out who these characters are. You realize that the queen’s not evil at all – she’s just frightened and misunderstood. And that love interest you created for the heroine? He’s not as nice as you thought he was. Voila! You’ve just written Frozen. Congratulations. As you spend time with  your characters and get to know them, they’ll start to do things you didn’t imagine. And when they do that, your story takes on a life of its own. That’s one of the reasons why outlines can be tricky – if you get too attached to them, refuse to follow that interesting dirt road your characters insist on going down, you could stall out.

Another way to keep stories moving – and another good reason for outlines – is that there’s never just one plot. There’s your Main Plot, the Big Picture if you will. Take Harry Potter #1, for example. The Big Picture is Harry finding out who he really is, and preparing to go against Voldemort. But how many smaller plotlines are there? His friendships with Ron and Hermione. The Quidditch team. His rivalry with Draco Malfoy. The classes he’s taking. Do they all tie into the Big Picture? Yes. They all help to create that Big Picture, don’t they? But the smaller plots can get lost. Outlining can help you plug them in.

Outlines needn’t be great big things with Roman numerals and huge chapter synopses. Where’s the fun in that? But let’s say you’re like me, and you’re a pantser who’s rewriting a novel. Where can that take you?

What I’m doing is creating a to-do list for the novel (which I discussed earlier this month). I know what scenes need to stay and which are going to have to go; I know what scenes I need to write. My job now is to figure out where they go, and then tie them together. I can’t worry about tying them together at the moment; we’ll get to the flow and confluence of the scenes later. Since I’m adding a character, I have to weave in his story line to the original manuscript. And along the way, figure out where scenes go for maximum buildup to the end.

So my outline is, I guess, a work in progress. I know it will help immensely once I get it done. And there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Like I said – Roman numerals are not necessary! For examples of this, see the links below.


http://www.betternovelproject.com/blog/series-outline/ – Deconstructing J.K. Rowling’s Series Grids.

http://michelleboydwaters.com/handwritten-outlines-of-famous-authors/ – Some great images of ‘plot outlines’ by famous authors, including Joseph Heller and Sylvia Plath.

Getting to know you . . . Research and Characters

Have you ever had one of those ideas for a novel – or even a character – that sort of teases at the edges of your mind? There one second, gone the next. Coming just close enough for you to get a glimpse of it. To get an idea of what it might be about. But it never does more than that, and it’s frustrating as hell.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s had that happen . . . !

A few years ago, when I was taking my course on Young Adult Fiction from Oxford, I had an idea in my mind about a book. I thought it might end up being a series, in fact – maybe not open-ended, but maybe a trilogy. I’d written about it in our discussions, in fact, but I never got a good solid sense of who this character was and what he was about. His name was Chase; he was about fourteen; he was living in the 1930s; and he had an interesting side gig. But every time I tried to write about him, it was like trying to get a stray cat to come close enough to be petted – he just stood there and stared at me, with this sense of Really? I’m not that easy. 

But then Nicky came along in all his full-fledged, hotheaded glory, and Chase tipped me a nod and said, “We’ll meet again when you’re ready for me.”

Well, hell’s bells, I wasn’t ready for Nicky! But I’m beginning to understand why, although Chase and I have danced around each other a bit over the past few years, we’ve never connected.

It’s because I need to know more about how and what he is. And about his world.

Nicky, I knew. Nicky was easy to get to know. Not only did he come with a full set of operating instructions and a mouth bigger than Texas, but I got him. I knew all about the 1920s and rumrunning, and what I didn’t know, I could easily find out. But Chase was different. His story was different, and the things he knew were different.

Sometimes characters come to us, and because they’re like us, or because they’re already part of something we know, it’s easier to relate to them. Maybe they have the same outlook on life, or hate or like the same things we do, or grew up in the same town – or at least, the same kind of town. But those characters who come knocking, nodding shyly, holding everything back until they’re absolutely 100% sure you’re The One? Those are the ones that elude us sometimes, that make us worker harder than we’ve ever worked before.

So last year, I ordered books. Lots of them. I do this a lot. Most historical writers do. We need to know something specific, so we go buy everything we can. I’ve got books on 17th century witch hunts, bootlegging, the KKK, every ghost legend in England, and more. But I realized I had nothing about Chase and his life. So I bought books.

I’m reading one now, in fact, and not five pages into it, I started to get ideas. Started to hear Chase talk to me, just a bit. Not a lot, but enough. He knows I’m here. I know he’s listening.

Yes, I can hear some of you now – But I don’t believe characters talk to us! So what does this have to do with me? 

Glad you asked!

If you’re researching a historical novel – or any novel for that matter – you have to remember that personality only goes so far. Environment shapes character. It shapes you and me and the cat in the tree, and it shapes your fictional characters, too. It’s just a fact of life. Take the 1930s, for example. A farmer fighting to keep his land in the Dust Bowl is going to be a far cry from Joe Kennedy, ex-bootlegger and now Ambassador to England. They had different upbringings, took different paths, made different choices. Knowing about the Dust Bowl will help you see how your farmer should behave. You know he keeps plowing his fields, even when all common sense says not to – why? Research into the farmers of the era will tell you why. And while your farmer may have other reasons, I’m guessing he shares a lot in common with the others.

Or let’s take a common trope:  a historical novel with a woman fighting for her rights in any era – let’s say the 14th century. That’s grand, but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum; she exists in a real world, full of real laws and real consequences. She resists an arranged marriage? Then what are her legal, realistic options? And is she ready to face them? (Now, if you want to put this young heroine in the midst of the Black Death and its aftermath, this might work – lots of opportunities opened up in Europe once 1/3 of the population was dead. But before that time? No.) So your research would naturally need to include all the jobs available to women in the time period, any women who were like your heroine, the laws pertaining to women, etc. This will help you get a better sense of who this character really is and make her much more three-dimensional and believable.

That’s what I needed with Chase. He resisted every attempt I’d mentally made to put him into a cubbyhole, a place I thought he should go. I had to go to him. I had to get into his world, see things through his eyes, first.

No, we’re still not quite talking – but the researching is really opening my eyes to all the possibilities. And I know that when the time’s right and I’m ready, he’ll be there.

Just like Nicky. 🙂

Can We Make Writing Conferences Better?

There are two writing conferences I try to attend each year:  the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Conference in May, and the Rose State Writing Conference in September. Both usually have fantastic lectures, workshops, meet-and-greets, and it’s a great excuse to hang out with other crazy people who have invisible friends in their heads all the time. 🙂

But there’s something that’s been lurking in the back of my mind for a while:  how much can you really ‘get’ from a writing conference?

I truly believe you can learn something in almost any situation. But take this year’s Rose State conference as an example. As I looked around at the other attendees, I saw one of two things:  they were either much younger than me or much older than me. But they were all beginning writers.

In one session, a YA discussion, the presenter mentioned that her first novel had gone through nearly two years of overhaul between her agent and editors. TWO YEARS. I really couldn’t wrap my mind around that, even though I’ve seen it firsthand! I’ve seen the slaughtered pages, dripping red ink, returned from the editor in a FedEx box. Heck, I do it to myself for fun. 🙂 But I could see the other audience members . . . and that number wasn’t sinking in. Maybe because I’m a teacher, I could see that they weren’t ‘getting it.’ In fact, you could almost see them thinking Wow, well, that won’t happen to me. 

So I raised my hand and asked the presenter to explain just what kinds of rewrites were required of her. She noted that her agent had requested some, and then her first editor had read it and said, “Look, there’s too much supernatural stuff in here. Cut all that.” And when she did . . . it gutted her book completely. She had to start over and restructure her entire plot. And you know what? I still walked out of there with the sinking feeling that most of the writers still had that it won’t happen to me mentality.

Which makes me wonder . . . is there a better way or a different way to approach this idea of writing conferences?

Lots of conferences have 1 or 2 people giving the equivalent of an hour-long lecture. Some have panel discussions, where audience members ask questions and the 3-5 people on the panel answer them. That limits how many questions you can have.

For some people, a writing conference might be their only chance to interact with other writers and talk about their craft. Maybe they belong to online writing communities; maybe not. Maybe they have a local writing group; maybe they don’t, or maybe it’s rubbish. So should writing conferences do things differently? Rather than two days of lectures, should we have more workshops instead?

Rose State does this a little – they have the fabulous First Page Panel during lunch on Saturdays – but this year, I think we only read 12-15 of the 55 submitted first pages.

I understand that workshops would, by their very nature, require more time and fewer participants.  I also know that there’s a lot of people who would be very reluctant to submit their work – and conversely, those would submit their work and reject any and all criticisms. That’s just the nature of the workshops. Plus, how would you run them? Have everyone read some of their work aloud? Provide ten minutes to read a page or so?

Well, that’s if you workshop items. But what if you did it the other way around?

I attended a writing workshop many, many years ago (don’t ask how many), in which we were required to do things like “give synonyms for ‘said'” and write a first paragraph based on a few items. It was great because it gave us something to do. We weren’t passively receiving the information; we were being guided in our learning.Think about it:

  • First Page panels could give way in the afternoons to First Sentence and First Paragraph workshops. Now that we’ve seen the need for attention-grabbing openers, how can we tweak yours to make it better?
  • ‘Creating Character’ lectures could give rise to ‘here’s ten minutes, and here’s your scenario:  create a character that doesn’t belong here, and then explain why he/she does.’ Or working on attendees’ own characters. What works, and what doesn’t?
  • Explaining why dialogue needs to actually work could give way to a page or two of published examples – and then attendees could bring along their own manuscripts and start to look the over with partners, figuring out where their own dialogue needs tweaked, rewritten – or scrapped altogether.
  • Or, attendees could be given the same page from a manuscript (real or not) and asked to identify why X and Y (dialogue, let’s say) does’t work – and then have them rewrite it so that it does work.
  • Research – why not? Everywhere has wi-fi these days. Have attendees bring laptops and tablets, and put them to work researching. Have everyone bring a list of things they need to know, and then work with them as a small group to figure out how to research it.

Workshops could be easily ‘ramped up’ and ‘ramped down’ to adjust for experience and expertise. You could even have two tracks – one for beginner writers, and one for experienced writers who have a manuscript they’re polishing. Maybe the same workshops could be offered both days – so let’s say the mornings could be the basic lecture-type sessions, and then the afternoons would give way to the workshops. Allow attendees to do two workshops a day, at 1 1/2 hours each, and voila! You’ve given them something to do. 

And before you ask:  NO. I don’t for one second think that conferences should charge more for those workshops. Writing conference are, frankly, too expensive as it is.

If most writing conferences are attended by beginning writers, then it stands to reason that this sort of workshop would work best for them – a solid block of time for guided exercises, giving them a toolkit they can take home and put to work.

Would it be easy? No, of course not. For one thing, most presenters at writing conferences are agents, editors, and – of course – published authors, and for good reason:  they’re the ones in the know. And I don’t for one second think they should be scrapped from the program. Not at all. We love picking their brains and hearing their experiences. We need that. But not all of these presenters would necessarily make good teachers for the workshops. They’d have to be chosen carefully, to ensure that they have the ability to lead those sessions. But can it be done? Of course it can.

Anyway, these are my thoughts. I’d love to hear from writers who’ve attended conferences and see what you think about them. Do you have further suggestions? Other ideas? Let me know!

Notes from a First Page Panel

Let’s face it:  first pages are hard work. Half the time you start your first page without knowing where your novel’s going; many times, those original first pages end up getting heavily edited, if not actually deleted. Been there, done that! And what might seem fine to us just isn’t fine to agents and editors.

The Rose State Writers Conference was in September. One of my favorite parts of this conference is what’s known as the ‘First Page Panel.’ Attendees bring the firs page of their manuscript and drop it into a box when they arrive that morning; at noon, the box is brought into the main auditorium, we all gather with box lunches, and the panel – composed of the guest agents, writers, and teachers – tell us what they like and don’t like. Each page is read aloud; anyone on the panel has the right to stop the reader at any time.

At first, the panel’s nice. After they get through about 10 pages, they start to get a bit tougher. 🙂 Here’s some notes from this year’s panel:

First – not too much backstory or dialogue. A lot of the pages broke this cardinal rule. In fact, one agent went so far as to say this:  No backstory. No exposition. Start with the character and their problem. You can fill in everything else later. Otherwise, it’s lazy writing. 

Don’t start with dialogue. Especially when there’s no speaker delineated, or grounding for the reader. There’s no context; it’s just wasted words. And contrary to popular belief, it generally doesn’t incite curiosity in the reader, unless it’s the right dialogue. Most isn’t.

While I’m on the subject of dialogue . . . Dialogue cannot be used to get information across. “As you know, Bob . . .” Just don’t. Agents will throw your manuscript across the room and curse you forever. Well. Maybe just for a bit. 🙂

And before we leave the subject of dialogue . . . Give us an idea of your MC in your dialogue. Age? Speaking voice? Dialect? (Not too much of that, though.) Remember, show us what they’re like. That means the voice, too. What words they use. How they structure sentences. What they talk about.

Make sure you set the time and place, and let the reader orient themselves. Don’t set them adrift! This is one of the reasons why starting with dialogue is bad – because there’s no context. Think about your favorite movies. Do they start with dialogue? Or do we start with a few opening scenes that let us know when/where we are?

But:  Choose your details carefully. Watch the pacing. Too many details will slow it down and the reader will walk away. This is NOT an info-dump. This is not backstory. Setting is never separate from the story. Choose your details well. Give just 1-3 telling, specific details; the reader will do the rest. More, and the reader will start to skim, or even get resentful. If you describe a house as a “pink Victorian,” for example, the reader knows what that should look like, and they’ll fill in the rest with their own imagination. And this gives them buy-in! The house they imagine won’t be like yours, and it won’t be like anyone else’s, either. It’ll be theirs.

Create conflict from the get-go – or at least, create interest intrigue for your readers. Hook them with a question. As I’ve said before in other blog posts, that’s the job of the first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first page – to lure the reader in by asking questions they must know the answers to. 

The first page should ask questions. Questions should be asked throughout the book. Picture these as stepping-stones, leading the reader from one to the other, until they are done. But don’t lay down your questions in a way that confuses the reader! Lay them down in order. Answer one, raise two more. Sure, we’ve got this solved – now what conflict arises because of that?  Or, as author Katherine Center put it so eloquently,

“The readers are in your roller coaster. Lock them in and take off!”

BUT . . . There’s a subtle line between making people curious and overwhelming them. Once they’re confused, they’re lost. Don’t pull them out of the story! And don’t let them put the book down.To hook readers, give them one little thing that’s out of place. Set up questions for them. One example from the conference was this gem:  “When I got home the door was locked – and I never lock the door.” Doesn’t that put a question in your mind? Maybe two or three, even?

Emotions:  make the reader feel them. Show, don’t tell. Every single word needs to be there because it’s important to the story. Make sure the reader knows what they have to know. Give the basics – that’s it. Description kills the urgency. The pace of the story should reflect the characters’ emotions.

And on that note, watch your writing. The first page may be all you get to entice agents, editors, and readers. Do. Not. Use. Adjective and Adverbs. Too many adjectives make agents and readers ‘too aware of the writing.’ They notice and stumble over it. Make the words disappear. Never pull them out of the story. And don’t make them think about the language. Or again, as Katherine Center said, “Thinking is hard. Stories should be easy!”

One tidbit I learned is that agents have what they call the ‘modifier zone’ – the point at which agents stop reading because the author is putting in too many modifiers (dapper, plush, etc.). Just tell us what’s what. Tell us what we have to know to move forward. Picture the first page as the opening scene of a movie. Do we need to know everything? No. Should we have some hint, some clue, as to the central conflict and characters? Yes.

Prologues:  it’s hard to gauge a novel on the prologue, especially if it’s about 5 pages long and the agent or editor has asked for the first five pages. It’s often written differently than the rest of the novel, and usually it’s info-dumping. Get to the story.

More importantly, ask yourself:  why am I starting the book here? What is the purpose of this scene? If the answer has anything to do with backstory, you’re not staring in the right place. Backstory = prologue, in most cases. Get rid of it.

We weren’t able to get through very many in an hour and twenty minutes – of the 50+ submissions, I think we read about 15 aloud. But those 15 bold guinea pigs helped their fellow attendees, and I hope they may have helped you. 🙂 I do, however, want to leave you with just one more tidbit from Katherine Center:

“Anyone who writes has to know what they LOVE to read.” And then they should be writing that. Not something else. That. “Write the story you wish was out there in the world. If it’s romance – great! Whatever it is that lights the reading fire in you is what you should be writing.”


Katherine Center’s website:  http://www.katherinecenter.com/




Keeping It Real

At the OWFI conference this year, there was a workshop on “Keeping it Believable,” which I think should be mandatory for ALL writers. Not just sci-fi and fantasy writers (though it was geared towards them) but EVERYONE. I mean, seriously, how many times have you watched a TV show or a movie and suddenly screamed That can’t happen! He can’t bloody drive a car with two broken arms, a broken femur, and no fingers! Or something similarly ridiculous?

So here’s the top things I took away from that session:

Do your world-building in advance – but don’t info-dump! Readers need to be grounded in Something. Does that mean we jump in with forty pages of description about your alien world and all the flora and fauna and the lack of gravity and the technology and the purple panda bear-type things that the locals call kumquats? NO!!!!!!!  It’s up to YOU to figure out how to work your world-building into the narrative. The more you know about your world, the easier that will be. No info dumps!

Start with the story. You have a character and he has a problem. So what if it’s set on an alien planet? The reader will get that soon enough. It’s the character and his problem that are going to draw the reader in first – and keep them reading. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is a good example of this, and here’s a link to the first few pages of it:  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/sep/06/childrensprize.patrickness

See how Ness deftly weaves the subtle hints about Todd’s world into his narrative? There’s no two-page lecture on how fissionbikes work, or a five-paragraph discussion of talking germs. He lays a trail of crumbs, and lets the reader follow it. That’s what a good world-building is all about.

You have to consider everything. If you’re writing a fantasy that’s set on a world like Earth, your work is easier than if you’re writing a sci-fi novel set on an alien planet where the gravity is different. Gravity – whether there’s more or less of it in your fictional world – affects the physiology of everything in that world. It’s up to you to research how. If you’ve decided to put two moons in your sky, both have to exert a gravitational pull on your world – which will affect tides, which will affect weather patterns and climate, which will affect where people can live and agricultural patterns . . . see? And before you think that your readers won’t care – they absolutely will, and they won’t be your readers for very long if you don’t care enough to do the thing properly . . .

Because everything matters. If you say the shirt is cotton, then where did they get it? If you mention oranges, but you’re on a frozen planet, where do the tropical fruits come from? Can your five-foot tall, 90-pound MC wield a broadsword with one hand? Probably not. But she might be using a rapier. Why have the animals of your world evolved as they have? Remember, gravity affects physiology. Climate affects everything. Cause and effect. Everything matters.

Your aliens, particularly if your protagonist is an alien, should be human-like. What the presenter meant was that you need to think about emotions, religion/spirituality, ceremonies and rituals, worries and concerns, family life, etc., so your reader can relate to them more easily. If you have a YA protagonist, make their lives as much like a human teen’s as possible. Are they worried about fitting in? Being popular or as good at something? Do they worry about living up to their parents’ expectations? Think about How To Train Your Dragon – it’s pretty hard for us today to relate to the Viking way of life, so we had to have a protagonist that didn’t fit in. 🙂

Language, language! Just for a minute, think about the last sci-fi or fantasy book you read. Or, if you haven’t read one lately, think about this:  Cthulhu. HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE THAT NAME?????? I worked with the Lovecraft stories for two solid months and I STILL have no idea!!!

Bottom line:  If you can’t pronounce your characters’ names, place names, or ANY of your made-up words, change them. Readers have no patience for it. (I hear you:  Tokien made up his own languages! Yes, and he was a trained philologist. He was allowed.) And yes, J.K. Rowling had made-up words – but they were simple. Muggles. Apparate. Expecto patronum. Even her spells were loosely based on Latin words, which – since we get so many English words from Latin – is familiar to most of us. So. Keep it simple. 🙂 And for the love of all that’s holy, NO APOSTROPHES IN YOUR NAMES.

Writing fantasy and sci-fi isn’t easy! WRITING isn’t easy. Every genre has its own rules and problems and pitfalls – and rewards. And no matter what the genre, you have to keep it real. Your historical has to be accurate; your murder mystery has to have all the forensics stuff right.

But. If you’re willing to do the work, your book will stand out.

(Next week:  keeping it real in magic!)

Starting Over

I’ve always been a pantser. Sort of, anyway. I used to be able to sit down and pick up where I’d left off the day before, confident that my characters would guide me down exactly the right path. (Sometimes, they detoured down Really Bad Paths, though, and I’d have to turn them around.) My writing is a little different today, but I still need to “go with the flow.”

The sad thing is, I’ve been a pantser in my life as well. Go with the flow. No plans. Do this. Do that. Happy to not have a 9-5 job and still be able to support myself and my 13 cats and 6 horses.

And that’s coming back to bite me in the butt.

Because I am about to become a cliche.

I’m almost forty. My job has evaporated before my eyes and I have no idea what I want to do with the rest of my life. I have roughly a month to locate Something Else To Do. I do have an emergency fund – thank you, Suze Orman! – but it’s also pretty much my life savings because my life hadn’t been about fiscal responsibility until recently.

I teach history. And Anthropology. And Geography. And American Government. At least, I used to. I used to be the most valued instructor at my school. The one you could always trust to take as many classes on as possible, to avoid having to go out and find someone else to do them. The go-to person. Now? Now I’m a used Kleenex. Not the kind you use to wipe make-up off your face, either, or the kind you use to dab at your eyes at a wedding. No. That would be okay. I’m the one full of green slime that you hold with two fingers as you drop it into the nearest trash can.

It’s not my fault, actually. It’s the fault of the Affordable Health Care Act, and colleges that are too cheap to hire more full-time instructors and/or give health insurance to at least a few valuable adjuncts. No one is complaining about my teaching. It’s circumstances.

Doesn’t matter. It still sucks.

So I’m the cliche. In middle age – God, I can’t believe I’m even writing that about myself! – I have to totally restart my life from scratch. I have a degree in history, which makes me one of the most unemployable people on earth, second only to philosophy majors (and French literature majors, so maybe I’m at #3).

And the thing is . . . I have no idea what to do. I did a year ago. Two years ago. I dreamed of what I wanted to do. Write novels. Move to England. (If anyone knows how to make a living by just living in England, let me know!) I had a lot of ideas, but now . . . now they all seem very hollow and idealistic and unrealistic. Buy and restore houses. Write novels. Become a writing coach or a copy editor.

Now? Well, here’s my list.

  1. Win the lottery.
  2. Um . . .
  3.  ???
  4.  ???

How DO you reinvent your life? I have no idea. I’ve spent the past fifteen years building the life I have now. Besides explaining the rise of Hitler, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the function of the medieval Catholic Church, and the events leading up to both the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, I don’t have many job skills. Besides creating online courses that engage students and make them start to think about things they’ve heretofore avoided thinking about, like the ozone layer and other cultures and pollution and food distribution, I don’t have a lot to put on a resume.

But at the OWFI conference last weekend, I talked to two women who were once in my current position, and instead of rolling over and dying (which, I’ll be honest, has crossed my mind more than a few times in the last few weeks), they decided to pursue their passion – writing. One woman, Callie, said she quit her job at noon, walked home and told her husband, “I’m going to be a writer.” Four years later, she was making double his annual salary, just by writing romance novels for a smaller press. She even has a full-time assistant. An assistant! Another just retired from teaching, and is currently pursuing a career in writing – yes, again, category romance.

And then there’s author and presenter Mel Odom, who has written – get this – more than 140 published books, and that’s not counting his e-book only titles. Seriously.

The one thing Mel and Callie had in common was this:  they go with boiler-plate novels. Tropes. Category fiction.

YES, I hear you screaming in agony. Trust me, I understand! But let me make their point before you decide to put out your eyes so you don’t have to read any more. Their argument is this:  yes, it’s a trope. Yes, each book is a boiler-plate. Yes, every book is essentially the same. But – and let me make this clear – this is what readers of category romance, et. al., want. They know how the book will end when they pick it up. That’s WHY they picked it up.

I know, I know. I adore my lovely rambling urban fantasies, and my wonderful, snarky, smart-aleck young adult. I’m not giving them up for anything.

But – I’m thinking of giving it a go.

If it works, great. If it doesn’t – hey, at least I tried something new. And maybe trying this will help my other writing. And if it does work, then I can go from being one kind of cliche to another! 🙂 I totally get that it’s not for everyone – heck, I don’t even know that I can make it work! How do you create an entire novel that revolves around whether a guy and a girl will or won’t get together? I’ve read romance novels. I know how they go, and I still don’t know if I can write them or not.

In my next post, I’ll look at how they broke into this kind of writing, and how it works, and what you can do if you want to try it out, too. For now . . . just keep an open mind?

Agents, Authors, and Query Letters, Oh My!

This weekend, I went to the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation (OWFI) conference in Oklahoma City. It’s a good gathering of writers from all over – Kansas, Oklahoma (of course), Texas, and Arkansas (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few).

If you’ve never been to a writing conference, you should. It’s a great excuse to come up out of the basement, put on your sunglasses, and meet other writers. Plus, if your novel is nearly ready to query, you can pitch to agents and editors who might be interested.

There were several agents at OWFI this year, and they all shared their knowledge, experience, and opinions about the querying process. If you hope to get published by one of the Big Five – and even some smaller presses – you have to have an agent. No way around it. They’re the gatekeepers. (I will not make a comment about keymasters . . .) Anyway, they ALL want to find the Next Big Thing. They all want to discover that next Night Circus or Angels and Demons. Believe it or not, they want authors to do this properly so they know if this manuscript is a good fit for them or not.

So here’s some of the tips I took away from the conference. Some are pretty basic, and yet new authors always ignore them; some are more particular.

Follow the querying guidelines set out by the agent and/or agency. Every agent and agency has a different set of guidelines for querying them. Some aren’t even accepting queries right now. If they aren’t, they’ll say so on their website. Make sure you follow those guidelines to the letter. If they want a one-page synopsis plus the first twenty pages, send them exactly that. If they want a one-page query with a short author biography, and the first two chapters, send exactly that.

Never, ever say “Dear Agent.” This is a red flag that you don’t care enough about your project to do a proper query letter – or enough about the agent to even find out their name! At the very least, do that much. But you should go further. You should read interviews the agent has done. Follow them on Twitter. Look at the other novels they’ve accepted. Read their blog, if they have one. You can reference something in the query – “I read in your interview with Writer’s Digest that you’re looking for x and y. I’m hopeful my manuscript will be a good fit with you.” That shows them you care.

And on that note, never, ever query an agent who isn’t looking for what you’re writing. If they only represent Christian fiction, your vampire erotica is probably not what they’re wanting. (Although there is this sub-genre of Amish werewolf novels that’s sort of interesting . . .)

Be polite. Always. Something I didn’t know, but learned this weekend:  agents apparently talk to each other! Who knew? If a book isn’t quite for them, but they know someone who’s looking for something similar, they’ll pass it along (especially in their own agency). They belong to online groups. They follow each other on Twitter. They’re Facebook friends. If you’re nice and your project is good, they will tell others. If they reject you and you get nasty with them, they will tell others.

Make it appealing to the eye. Brent Taylor of TriadaUS Literary Agency was very, very big on this. He wants concise queries that get the point across and hook him in just three paragraphs. Three short paragraphs. The shorter, the better. Agents get 300 queries a week – sometimes, they get 300 queries a day. If they see huge blocks of text, they’ll skim. Because of that, they may pass on your novel. Be concise. Get to the point. Tell them the following:

  • Who is the MC?
  • What is the inciting incident (the one event that starts them on the path)?
  • What does the MC want (motive)?
  • What’s standing in their way of getting it?
  • What will happen if they don’t get what they want? What are the stakes?

And ideally, you’ll do all this in three short paragraphs that also provide the voice of the novel. According to Brent (and bear in mind, this is his preference; see #1 above), your three paragraphs should be structured like this:

  • Paragraph 1:  Introduce your MC, their voice, and their motives (what they want). Why should we sympathize with them? Voice:  If your book is funny, make the query funny. If your MC speaks with an accent, make that come across.
  • Paragraph 2:  Introduce the conflict and the stakes. What is the MC’s goal? What’s keeping them from their goal?
  • Paragraph 3:  What happens if the MC doesn’t get their goal? Don’t give away too much – definitely don’t give away your resolution! End it on a suspenseful note that makes the agent want to know more.

Do your homework about your genre and your competition. Agents often want to know (again, see #1 above) that you know your competition. They need to be able to immediately compare your novel to others, to quickly get across what it’s like. (Sort of like saying “It tastes like chicken!”) By comparing your book to similar novels, you give the agent an instant inkling of what it’s going to be like. In turn, they can use that to pitch your book to editors.

Spend time on your query. Lots of time. Lots. Draft. Revise. Edit. Rewrite. You’ve spent a lot of time on your novel. Make sure your query letter is just as perfect! And see #1 above. 🙂

Notes From a Small Conference, part 4: Character and Conflict (continued)

Last week, I started sharing notes I took at the 2013 Rose State Writers’ Conference. This week, I’ll continue with the rest of William Bernhardt’s great advice about character and conflict:

1.) The plot and the character have to be right for each other. How many times have you come up with a wicked good plot, but no characters ever stepped forward and said, “Me, me! I’ll do that! Pick me!”? It’s happened to me. Lots of times. I have this fantastic YA novel idea in my head about reincarnation, but every time I think about writing it,nothing happens. Why? No characters. Bernhardt made the point this way:  What traits does your character have that will enable them to prevail in this particular story? If none, then they aren’t right for each other.

2.) Did that one blow your mind? It did mine! But this point will emphasize why #1 is so important:  “Plot is the writer’s choice of events to tell the story of the character’s progress toward the goal.” Or, as Mr. Schumann said in the season finale of Glee, “It’s all about the journey.” So. This is why the seamless marriage of character to plot idea is so critical. Does your character belong in that world? If she’s a 14th-century woman with 21st-century ideas of sex equality, then probably not. Now, if she’s a 21st century woman transported back in time to the 14th century, then you might have a good marriage of character and plot!

3.) If that sounds a little mean, then you really won’t like this rule:  It’s not the writer’s job to be nice to their characters. In fact, it’s the writer’s job to let their characters get into as much trouble as possible. Things are going too easy? Throw something in their path. Remember, there’s a lot of conflict out there — natural, personal, person-to-person, between the protagonist and secondary characters, between the protagonist and the villain, between the protagonist and his desire for Starbucks. Whatever it is, add it.

4.) Therefore, your protagonist should fail before they succeed. Not only should there be setbacks, these setbacks should illustrate or illuminate your protagonist’s shortcomings. This is their journey, remember. Not only should they have external obstacles to overcome, but internal obstacles as well.

5.) Now, if you have to make your protagonist fail, then how do you make him likeable? No one likes a failure, right? Bernhardt gave us five surefire ways to make your protagonist likeable:

  • Make them good at what they do. If they are a trash collector, make them the very best one in the world. Or at least, the city.
  • Give them a sense of humor, especially a self-deprecating sense of humor. If they can make fun of themselves, readers will sympathize with them more — and pull for them. I just finished The Fault in Our Stars, and Hazel’s humor captured me on page 1 and kept me reading, even past the point I should have stopped. She has cancer; she can make fun of it.
  • Show them treating others well. Putting baby birds back into nests, or stopping traffic to get a turtle out of the road, or helping an elderly woman across the street. Whatever it takes. Think about Harry Potter, and the way he treats the house elves. We root for Harry because not only is he the underdog, he still takes time to treat others well.
  • Which is the fourth thing:  make them the underdog. Give them “undeserved misfortune or handicaps.” Again, Hazel’s cancer is undeserved, and yet she doesn’t let it stop her from having a life, traveling, and falling in love.
  • Have another character say, early on, that they like your protagonist. I think this is how Jay Asher gets around a total hatred of Hannah in his novel Thirteen Reasons Why. We know Clay was in love with her, and we like Clay; therefore, there must have been something good about her.

5.) I think this could be the single most important thing Bernhardt said, of many, many important things:  The protagonist’s story is only as interesting as the antagonist makes it. You MUST have an antagonist that is worthy of your protagonist. They must be of equal strength; it may be that your antagonist should be a little bit stronger, in fact. Should Harry have won the duel against Voldemort? Maybe not, because Voldemort was so much stronger. Voldemort drove everything in Harry’s life, from his parents’ death to that final conflict. Yet Harry prevailed.

6.) Readers hate coincidence. Never, ever do it. I know, it happens in real life, but remember, readers don’t want reality. And in fiction, coincidence doesn’t happen.

7.) Plot twists need to be “Holy crap, I should have seen that coming!” not “Holy crap, what the fruitbat was that? That makes no sense!” As anyone who’s ever tried to write a plot twist knows, they are devilish to write. You never want the reader to figure it out ahead of time (astute ones always will, anyway), and you don’t want it to be so obtuse that it makes no sense at all. One of the best examples I can think of is the play The Lady in Black. We know in the first ten minutes of the play that one of the characters had a daughter; it’s mentioned almost in passing. By the end of the play, we have become so immersed in the story that we’ve forgotten that tidbit — until suddenly, the play comes full circle and we are as horrified as the characters themselves.

Hopefully these have been helpful! The next Rose State Writers’ Conference is coming up September 19-21 at Rose State College in Oklahoma City. Here’s the link to the website:  http://www.rose.edu/shortcourse This year, Jacqueline Mitchard will be the keynote speaker and will be on the faculty!