Five Things: That Make Me Want to Write

Writing isn’t always fun nor easy, but there are some things that help me to get a jump-start on my words.

  1. Reading something really bad. No, honestly, when a story hits a sour note with me, it sparks about a thousand things that I want to fix or that I would do differently if I were writing the story. That’s actually where several of my favorite stories got their start.
  2. Reading something really good. Or, really, reading in general. Inevitably, it shakes something loose in my imagination. Sometimes it helps me work through a plot tangle or opens a storyline I hadn’t previously thought of. Words in = words out.
  3. Mood music. I actually keep separate playlists for each story, often for each character or mood that I’m trying to channel. It helps to keep me in that character’s mind and body.
  4. Feedback. Especially from my critique partner, my writing kiddo, and my wife. I find that I work better and quicker if I can share bits and pieces as I go. Knowing that someone is enjoying my work makes me much more eager to keep churning it out.
  5. Time of day. I seem to focus better late at night than I do during the day. I’ve tried getting up early to get my work done before the stresses of the dayjob get to me. All I do is stare at the screen. But once I’m home, in my comfy pajamas, with my puppy and my heated blanket and nothing to do but write for the rest of the day? Ah, bliss.

Be sure to also check out my sister blog, written by Rachel Serbicki.

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Query Letters #1: The Basics

Hello, all! My plan for the next few weeks is to do a series of posts about query letters, AKA how to lose your mind (figuratively, I hope) in three hundred words or fewer.

First of all, you’re probably wondering what the heck a query is. Simply put, a query is a letter that you send to an editor or literary agent to introduce them to your story. It’s basically a cold call, and you’re the telemarketer, which means that you have one page at the most to get the agent or editor in question interested enough in your book that they give it a read. It’s your foot in the door.

A query letter has five basic parts to it: the salutation; the pitch; the “housekeeping” (which is to say the nuts and bolts—genre, wordcount, etc.); your biography; and the closing. We’ll go into each of these parts in more depth later.

So, how do you craft a query letter that’s going to get your story the attention it deserves? Here are some general tips, and later we’ll start looking at some more specific things you can do.

  1. Be professional. You’re not writing to a close friend; you’re addressing someone who works in the industry you’re trying to break into. Make it sound like you know what you’re doing. Though, on that note, you also want to sound personable and comfortable in your writing. Aim for the sort of language you might use if you were writing to a prospective employer or colleague, because that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re trying to enter into a business partnership.
  2. Open your letter with Dear Mr. or Ms. Use the full name of the person you’re addressing (Dear Mr. Alex Warner or Dear Ms. Jennifer Green, for example). Once you’ve spoken a little and you have a feel for the kind of person they are, you may be comfortable using simply their first name or a less formal greeting. Always take your cue from them.
  3. Never query more than one agent per e-mail. Under no circumstances send a mass communique or start your query with “Dear Agent”. If you do, it will probably be deleted without being
  4. Read Query Shark. There’s a couple conflicting opinions on what actually goes *in* the query, what you can safely leave out, and the order that it should go in. I’m fond of the Query Shark structure (go check out her blog for examples), which goes immediately from the salutation to the pitch. Some people prefer to put the housekeeping first, but a lot of agents just skip it and go straight to the pitch, anyway. That’s what tells them more than anything else if they’re going to like your story, so you might as well save them the time skimming to it.
  5. Write your pitch in present tense, third person. This is true no matter what tense your story is written in. For example, “When Jamie’s car breaks down, she knows she’s in trouble.”
  6. Break your paragraphs into bite-sized chunks. No more than two to three sentences per bit. It will feel counter-intuitive, but most agents read queries on the bus or subway or at lunch or on their phone late at night. Big wads of text blur together and make it unreadable.
  7. Keep your sentence structures short and simple. It’s tempting to be creative and use long, complex sentences. Remember, though, a lot of the time agents skim these things very quickly or when they’re tired or in between calls to their clients. You don’t want them to waste time trying to figure out what the heck you meant. A simple subject—verb—object structure is best.
  8. Practice good word economy. You’ve got a small amount of room to make an impression—300 words, maximum. Make sure that everything says exactly what you want it to without any additional fluff.
  9. Spend most of your words—about 150 to 200—on your pitch. Since this is the part that actually wins agents over, it’s important not to skimp on it but also to get right to the point. We’ll talk about refining the pitch later, but keep in mind for now that while it’s the heftiest part of the query, it should still be pretty lean. Your housekeeping and biography should both be shorter, maximum 100 words
  10. Your closing and signature should also be professional. It’s tempting to say that you’re looking forward to hearing from them or hope to hear back soon. Resist! Simply say thank you for your time and consideration and then close with your name. Under that, put your mailing and e-mail address and your phone number. If you have a website or blog, include the address. This is important in case they decide to contact you about representation.

Birth of a WordWitch

I grew up in a house where fantasy was forbidden. My great aunt and uncle gave me a boxed set of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was seven, thinking that they would make a great gift for a child who already loved to read. I lost them just as quickly as I’d received them, though; my stepfather tucked them away on top of the bookshelf and said that they made people go mad. I didn’t want that to happen to me, now, did I? Because I didn’t really know any better, I agreed. Better to stick to safe reading, like Sweet Valley Twins and fairytale retellings.

I experimented a little with my restrictions the older that I grew, straying a bit into horror. Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark filled my grade-school shelves. Around middle school, though I eventually decided that, just to be on the safe side, maybe I shouldn’t read anything that wasn’t required for class. This idea was only cemented in my mind after I saw my mom get in trouble with him for reading Harry Potter to my younger brother. Still, he couldn’t police the things that I wrote, and so I began to create stories.

That changed come high school. A thing once forbidden becomes nigh-irresistible as the teenage years approach. This inclination, coupled with my mom’s impending divorce from my restrictive stepdad and my desire to distance myself from him in any way that I could, made me pull those books off the shelf soon after my fourteenth birthday.

From then on, I was hooked. Fantasy had bitten, and it was in my blood. Hyper-detailed worlds and engaging characters, but I also wanted plain prose, and a clean and compelling story. From Tolkien, I moved on to Eion Colfer and Tamora Pierce. Before long, they were joined by Mercedes Lackey, J. K. Rowling, and Lynn Flewelling. It would be years still before I noticed the common thread between them all: they were writing for the young adult audience.

With these examples running through my head, I started to write. My own ideas were slow in coming, and I didn’t have much confidence in myself, so I joined a fan-fiction writing group, creating my own characters and plots derived from someone else’s work.

I didn’t know it, but the fanfic board would basically shape my entire concept of writing and, by extension, my adult life. I met someone there, and she would eventually become one of my best friends. Later, she would grow to be my sounding board, beta reader, and, before too long, my co-writer. I’d like to think we helped each other, but in actuality she probably did most of the heavy lifting, at least at first.

With her support, I branched out into original fiction, weaving worlds and characters of my own creation. And the more I read, the more I wrote, and the more I questioned. Why is it, I would think, that all fantasy feels the need to be based in medieval western Europe? Why is it necessary that the long-lost heir to the throne is always tucked away in a backwater village, or, more to the point, that every orphan from a backwater village needs to be the long-lost heir? Why does the author feel the need to rescue the viewpoint character before he really gets himself into trouble?

I let these questions influence the way I structured my stories. I let the characters’ actions have dire consequences. I started feeling more sympathetic for the everyman character, someone who is nothing special at the beginning but, with a goal and some hard work, could become something more. But, while they may find their happily ever after, it’s always at a cost.

By then, I’d entered my undergraduate program, newly started at my local university. I began to flesh out some of my fantasy stories, writing vignettes, and eventually to start putting more details into the setting. But I never managed to finish a draft. I would finish a chapter or two and then polish them again and again, never advancing the plot, never daring to go any further in the story.

After some hesitation, I wrote out another first draft of another first chapter and brought it with me to an in-class workshop. It came to a whopping twelve pages, my idea of a long chapter in those days, and I handed it over to my classmates and my instructor. I left class the day of the workshop feeling validated. The people in my workshop group had  loved the character and the story. The things they wanted to see fixed, I figured, I could do in a night. Who knew writing was so easy?

I ran straight home to read my teacher’s thoughts. I curled up on the couch, pulled the pages out of my folder, and felt my heart drop into my stomach as I read the first line of her comments. “You have good instincts,” she’d written, “but I wish you’d write something worthwhile.” She went on to say that the fantasy market was shrinking, first of all, and that it wasn’t a challenging thing to write because absolutely anything goes.

I didn’t let her attitude deter me from what I wanted to write, but I didn’t take as much joy in it as I once had, either. The first chapter sat on my hard drive, virtually untouched for the rest of that semester. The next teacher that I had in that program dismissed any form of popular fiction out of hand and wouldn’t let it be workshopped. I made myself work on something else, letting my fantasy stories gather dust.

The next semester, I had my first writing teacher back again for my 300-level fiction workshop. While she didn’t say that we couldn’t write fantasy, she strongly suggested that we not. I dusted off the first chapter, cleaned up the prose, and submitted it to my classmates. This time, they hated it.

I pushed my heart to the side again and tried to focus my efforts on something that the people in that community would consider marketable. I spent the rest of that semester and the next working on the opening chapter of a different young adult novel that the creative writing students and staff didn’t like any better than they had my fantasy work. Over the next year, I finished about twenty pages of it for my capstone project and gave it to my adviser, which she accepted as the final step toward graduation.

I sent those same twenty pages to the Master’s program committee, and to the Stonecoast admissions staff. The people at the University of Southern Maine contacted me within the month to offer me congratulations on my acceptance to the program. I wanted to wait and see if EMU would do the same, but I started to compile my first workshop packet for Stonecoast anyway.

This was a good idea, as it turned out, because my alma mater rejected me immediately as a candidate for their Master’s program. Due to the competitive nature of the field, the e-mail explained, they couldn’t offer me a place in the program. They would, however, encourage me to apply to their literature curriculum, with maybe a few creative writing cognates. I told them no, probably a little less politely than was strictly necessary, and shipped my workshop materials off to the east coast. Nestled safely among the pages, the first chapter of my fantasy novel. If I failed there, I decided, then obviously writing wasn’t the magic I thought it was. If I couldn’t get that spark back, I’d let the stories fade.

At that first workshop, my heart in my throat, I listened as people much like myself gave me a list of things that would improve the story. But not out of meanness. My classmates made observations on things that my literary-minded peers from undergrad had missed or ignored. They saw potential, both in the pages and in me. I knew that a smile must have plastered itself to my face, because there was a bit of gold in every comment.

Feeling renewed, I committed myself to working on the story. All that semester, I cranked out chapter after chapter, quicker than I ever had before. It was like magic. Thirty pages and then fifty and then a hundred. I was thrilled and, more than that, I was unstoppable.

Then I switched mentors at the start of the next semester. I showed the new adviser my existing pages. With his suggestions and a few long talks with Jesse, I came up with a number of new and extended scenes, began to round out the world, and bumped my page count to about a hundred twenty or so. Still, my mentor said that the story needed more urgency, a reason for continuing to invest in the characters. So, just one short month before the end of the semester, I made the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make in my short time as a writer. I started over.

I completely refocused the story. Relationships changed, goals shifted, and the characters seemed to come alive. Just twenty into the draft, I could tell that it would work much better than the trajectory that it had been on. I spent the rest of my time at Stonecoast working on that story, developing my skills and my tastes. Not long before I graduated, I completed my very first draft of anything. Ever. And, just like that, the spell was cast.

It’s been a long road, full of naysayers, edits, and hours of staring at a computer screen until the image of a blank page has burned itself into my retinas. In hindsight, I suppose that my stepdad may have been right. Fantasy is in my blood; it’s driven me mad. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

I have a sister blog run by Rachel Serbicki at https://undivinelight.wordpress.com/  We plan to write similarly-themed posts at least once a week.