So You Think You're Ready to Query...

When I wrote my first novel, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could finish a whole novel. After 4.5 years, I did, and when my one of my two beta readers said, "I can't believe you wrote a novel! And it's good!" I thought maybe I could actually publish it.

It took me 8 months, 52 queries, and 0 requests to realize I wasn't ready. This is the post I wish I had read back then (though I probably would've ignored it and queried anyway).

Is the story basically the same as it was in the first draft? I don't mean prose and grammar. I mean big things: motivations, characters that need to be cut or added, scenes that need to be rearranged. Have you deleted/rewritten entire scenes and chapters? I barely scraped the sentence structure with my first novel, and it showed in my rejections.

Of course, it's possible you wrote something good enough the first time, but it's unlikely. I'm the most obsessive planner I know, but even I have yet to write something where I didn't delete whole scenes and rewrite entire chapters.

Do they love it yet? If not, it's possible they might be wrong, but chances are they're not. Revise it until most of them can't put it down.

And who are your betas? Are they friends and family, or are they writers who are trying themselves to get published? Friends make fine betas, but nobody knows the business like those who have already gotten their butts kicked by it. Network. Swap critiques with people who aren't predisposed to like your work.

I thought I did. I'd read books like Left Behind and Randy Ingermanson's Trangression and Oxygen and thought, "Hey! Christian sci-fi is a thing!" I was wrong.

That doesn't mean you can't write what you love, but know what you're getting into. If Christian SF was my one true love, I would've focused my attention on that market and figured out how to become the exception. But I'm easy. I shifted my focus to secular SF/F and ultimately to YA. I'm still writing what I love, but my chances have greatly improved.

This is assuming you're going the traditional publishing route (although a lot of book bloggers require query letters too -- can't escape, can you?). Have you written one? Have you revised it a bazillion times? Have you read hundreds of examples, both good and bad, and then revised yours again?

Have you had any of your stuff (query, opening pages, etc.) critiqued online by anonymous strangers? It's scary, and you're likely to get conflicting advice and people that don't get it. But this is a good way to see how agents or the general public might respond to your stuff.

If I could do it all over again, I'd join an online critique group and milk it for all it's worth, critiquing and getting critiqued until every beta said, "I can't see anything wrong with this! I love it!" I'd spend hours at Query Shark, Evil Editor, Matt MacNish and JJ Debenedictis' sites reading queries and submitting my own until people were saying, "This looks good! I'd request this!" I'd do it right.

Ah, who am I kidding? I'd do it exactly the way I did. I was so excited. I couldn't help it! I just hope one of you will learn from my mistakes without making them yourself.

Veteran writers, what would you have done differently the first time around? (Assuming you got rejected. If your first novel got published, I'm not sure I want to hear it!)

Web Design Tips for the Cheap, Lazy, or HTML-Challenged

Everyone says you need a professional-looking website, but a professional setup and design can cost hundreds of dollars and a monthly hosting fee. If your website is making you money (for example, by selling books), that can be worth it. Otherwise, you want something that's both Free and Good Enough.

Whenever I tweak things on this site, I have four goals, many of them conflicting: (1) Make my blog nice to read/look at, (2) Differentiate it from every other blog out there, (3) Rarely mess with the template (HTML, CSS, and other scary acronyms), and (4) Spend little or no money. If that sounds good to you, read on.

Blogger is my favorite. It's relatively reliable and gives me a decent amount of control (though those qualifiers are important). You could also go with, LiveJournal, or many others.

None of them give you total control, of course. For that, you'd have to buy your own webhost and deal with your own technical setup and issues, which defies goals (3) and (4).

As far as free templates go, Blogger has only 27 (at the moment). is better with 148. But since there are a few more than 175 blogs out there, your blog will very likely look exactly like someone else's. That's why you customize the crap out of it:
  1. Get a custom background. Especially if you're good with a camera/live somewhere pretty.
  2. Make a custom header. Free fonts and your local Paint program can surprise you. Photoshop and a little design sense is even better.
  3. Tweak the heck out of it. Blogger, for example, lets you change the format, fonts, sizes, and colors of almost every little thing. Take advantage of it.
Fancy fonts and wacky colors will definitely make your blog unique, but don't go crazy. Everyone's screen and color resolution is different (some folks are even reading you on their phones!). The text needs to be big enough and plain enough to be readable. And the text color should contrast as strongly as possible with the background.

Here's where I tell you to use dark text on a light background. I know people disagree with this, but white-on-black burns my retinas like those creepy Jesus illusions. I won't say don't do it, but at least think twice before you do.

People come to your blog for two reasons: (1) to read your latest update or (2) to find specific information about you/your blog. Every blog makes the former easy -- it's right there in the middle. It's your job to make the latter easy to find.

Static pages are a good place to put professional stuff. The kind of stuff agents come looking for. Pages put that info right at the top (usually), give you space to write as much info as you need/want, and keep that stuff (which is usually old news to your regular readers) from cluttering your sidebar.

The sidebar is the second place for it. People like to throw everything they can think of in their sidebars, and that's okay, but know this: Visitors will not scroll down past the first screen unless they are looking for something specific. (I will entertain arguments on this only if you've read my blog footer or clicked on the Carpe Editio flag down there. I'll bet money none of you have (until now, of course -- now you're curious...).)

Think about what you want readers to see, and put that on top.

Free hosts insert their brand everywhere. Search bars on the top, mandatory attributions in the footer, and of course the domain name. You can usually get rid of this stuff, but it requires either messing with the template or paying money.

But often, it's not hard either. Removing the Blogger search bar is a single line of CSS, for example, and a custom domain name costs only $10-15 per year. It's up to you whether that's worth it.

Many of you already have beautiful blogs (I know, I've seen them). So tell me what decisions have gone into your blog? What other tips would you offer?

What the Agent-Author Relationship Actually Is

I have to follow-up Wednesday's post for a sec, because Natalie Whipple clarified a critical point that I had trouble getting in my head until now. From her post:
It seems the vast majority of querying writers are of the opinion that the "no response" policy is rude. There have been comparisons to agents being employees, and that writers have the power even if it may not look like it at times. There have also been comparisons to "customer service," and the fact that it's just bad business not to respond to a customer.

I think writers are kind of missing the point.

Because the agent/writer relationship is NOT an employer/employee relationship. The agent/writer relationship is a partnership.
Natalie does a great job laying out what that means in her post, and I'll try not to repeat her (though repeating her makes me sound so smart, so I might a little).

A business partnership is fundamentally different from the producer/consumer or employer/employee relationships we are used to. It is symbiotic and -- here's the most important thing -- EQUAL.

Not equal as in both sides have equivalent abilities; that would be pointless. Equal in terms of power. Each side wants something the other has and is willing to give something up to get it.

The agent gives up their unpaid time and the writer gives up a percentage of their profits. That sounds like one is paying the other, but there's a subtle and significant difference. In a partnership, neither can tell the other how to do their job. And if either one fails in their job, neither gets paid.

Writers query specific agents because they believe they would make a good partner. The agent has expertise and connections you want, and you like the way they work. If "no response means no" means you don't like the way they work, then (as I've said many times before) don't request their partnership.

Agents take on writers because they believe they would make a good partner. The writer has skills and stories the agent can sell, and they like the way the writer works.

This is why there's "a call" when an agent offers representation. It's not about the book (they've read that already). It's about the person and whether or not both of them feel they can work well together.

Business partnerships don't work well if one partner believes they are better than the other. They can (it's still business, after all), but eventually one believes -- rightly or not -- that they don't need the other and they part ways. Sometimes badly. Sometimes so badly that other agents hear of it, and the writer finds that nobody wants to work with him at all anymore.

Don't laugh. It happens.

So this sense of entitlement I keep railing against just closes doors unnecessarily. It reduces your chances of finding a partner who will work with you. You probably wouldn't want an agent who treats his authors like sweatshop workers. Guess what makes most agents not want to work with you?

Okay, I'm done now, I swear.

What Do Agents Owe You?

Last week, a number of agents weighed in on whether "no response means no" is a good policy. I have some ideas for making the whole rejection process easier on everyone, but ultimately I think it doesn't matter. Querying is hard. Rejection sucks. And agents can do whatever they like; I'm still going to query them all.*

* Well, maybe not the snail-mail-only agents. That's really difficult from out here.

I agree with all three agents linked above. Rachelle says not responding allows her to get through more queries (agreed). Janet says setting up an auto-responder and a simple form reject is not that hard and is better business practice (agreed). Nathan says agents don't owe authors a response (big agreed).

That last one is today's topic. Because while the agents involved have been very nice and logical and wise, a number of writers have commented with something along the lines of, "How dare you not respond to every query. That's just common decency! It's rude to treat your customers this way."

I once talked about the sense of entitlement readers have towards authors. This is kind of the same thing.

Here's the thing: Unless you have a contract with somebody, that somebody owes you nothing.

A contract, in this case, can mean many things. And we, the unrepresented, do have a contract with the agents we query, but it's not what you think. Even the AAR canon of ethics -- the closest thing there is to a moral standard for agents -- barely mentions "potential clients," saying only that agents shouldn't charge them for anything.

We are not their customers. We are not even their clients. We are, to all purposes, applying for a job.

It's just like sending out a resume, or giving a girl (or guy) your phone number. If they're not interested, they may or may not call. It's up to us to move on.

Most agents state clearly on their websites what to expect. For example, "We accept unsolicited queries, but unfortunately we can only respond it we're interested."

There's your contract. By sending an unsolicited query to an agent (the first half), we implicitly agree to no response unless they're interested (the second half). It's not legally binding, no, but if they say they don't respond, what right do we have to get mad about it?

If you don't like it, don't query them.

But what about common decency? Well, I would argue that common decency demands we look at it from their point of view and not make a big stink about it. Just accept the no response and move on. It's not like our chances of getting published are dependent on whether or not we get that form rejection from everyone.

Janet Reid points out that writers are also readers, and that it's better for business to be as polite as possible at all times. I agree, and you know what? Agents are readers too. When writers publicly complain about how agents are snobbish and arrogant and have poor taste, that's equally bad business. Probably worse.

What do you think about "no response means no"? Do agents owe us anything?

A Letter to my Son

Dear Isaac,

I would like to apologize for your DNA.

Not that you aren't awesome. You totally are. But,'s because you're part of me that you get upset when you don't excel at something the first time. I will spend my whole life trying to teach you what I learned only a few years ago: that you can do anything if you work hard at it. But it won't make you feel any better when you fail, and I'm sorry for that.

It's my fault you can't sit still. I know, I know. Daddy is the most inert, quiet, non-silly man you know. But as a boy, I was exactly like you. When you get in trouble for it as much as I have, you'll learn to keep it inside too.

And it's my fault you feel everything must be in perfect order. That's why you have to put your Go Fish cards back into pairs before you can count them. That's why each piece of your orange peel must touch none of the other pieces. In the future, you will straighten stacks of cards every time you take a turn, and your friends will mock you by knocking things out of place (see #4).

It's okay. They still love you. And I'll help you fix it.

Keep in mind that for all our faults, you are still an incredibly handsome genius. Most of the credit for that goes to your mom, of course, but at least I didn't screw it up.

Though if you grow to hate your widow's peak, well, I apologize for that too.

Love you, buddy.


Books I Read: White Cat

Title: White Cat
Author: Holly Black
Genre: YA Urban Fantasy
Published: 2010
My Content Rating: PG-13 for violence and sexy situations

Cassel comes from a family of curse workers--people with the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, with a mere touch. Curse work is illegal, of course, so they're criminals. Except for Cassel: he hasn't got the touch. He discovers his brothers are keeping secrets from him and suspects he's part of a huge con. He has to unravel his past and his memories to outcon the conmen.

I loved this (and thank you, dear readers, for recommending it). I loved the powers, LOVED the cons, and thought the characters were great. If any of that sounds even remotely interesting to you, read this book.

There were only two things that kept the book from being perfect for me. The first was a possible-but-minor plot hole near the end. (If you've read it: when did Barron have time to read his notebooks?)

The second was the cover. It's a very cool cover, but when I read descriptive hints like this, I had to take a second look:
"Your grandfather told me that someone in your family was descended from a runaway slave," she says.... People are always coming up to me on trains and talking to me in different languages, like it's obvious I'll understand them.
Maybe it's just me, but the guy in this cover doesn't look ambiguous in his racial ancestry at all. He looks white--Italian, maybe--but not like somebody who obviously speaks a foreign language. It didn't ruin the book for me, but it surprised me that someone thought this guy fit the descriptions.

If you've read it, what do you think? About the story, I mean, though we can talk cover in the comments too.

Converting from MS Word to Plain Text

Nearly every agent out there wants sample pages--sometimes multiple chapters--pasted in the body of an e-mail. Unfortunately, not all e-mail programs handle fancy text the same. What looks beautiful in your Word doc, and even in your e-mail draft, may come out unreadable on an agent's screen.

The answer is plain text, but converting to it is not always as simple as copy/paste. You can try telling your e-mail program to use only Plain Text, or you can copy from Word and paste into a txt file, but you still might get text with no paragraph breaks or questions marks where there should be quotation marks.

Hopefully this post will help you get past that.

Before you follow any of these steps, go into your Word doc and select "Save As...". These steps will make your beautiful Word doc plain, and you still want the pretty version to send when agents ask for your full MS.

Plus, we're working with global find/replace, which is easy to screw up.

Also, keep in mind I have Word 2010. I'm fairly certain all features mentioned here exist in older versions of Word, but they might not be where I say they are. If yours works differently, please say so in the comments.

If you let Word do your paragraph indents (which you should, it's easier), then converting straight to plain text will not only remove the indents but leave you with one giant block of text. You need paragraph breaks. Here's how:
  1. Find/Replace (Ctrl-H).
  2. Click "More >>" and look for Special or Special Characters.
  3. Put the cursor in the Find box, and choose the Paragraph Mark special character. It should enter "^p" into the Find box.
  4. In the Replace box, put two Paragraph Marks: ^p^p.
  5. Click Replace All.
Now you should have an extra line between every single paragraph. When you paste it into plain text, the automatic line indent should go away (if it doesn't, it means you're manually spacing/tabbing your paragraphs; see the next section). You should be left with text that looks like every blog you've ever read.

You might want to skim through it to make sure there aren't too many line breaks anywhere. For example, I had to remove some of the extra lines around my chapter headings, because it was just too much.

Some folks manually space their paragraphs. That's okay, but it might not paste the way you want it to. Tabs and spaces aren't the same width in every font. In some cases, tab is treated as a single space, making your manual indents all but disappear.

To fix that, follow the Find/Replace procedure for paragraph breaks above, but instead of a paragraph mark, choose the Tab Character (^t) and leave the Replace box empty.

This is tricky. Special formatting usually disappears in a straight conversion. Sometimes that's okay (your chapter titles don't need to be in bold), but sometimes that italicized emphasis can change the entire meaning of a sentence (i.e. "You did?" vs "You did?").

The official way to represent emphasis in plain text is with the underscore (e.g. "_You_ did?"), though you can tweak these steps to suit your needs:
  1. Find/Replace (Ctrl-H).
  2. With the cursor still in the Find box, click Format-->Font.... Under Font Style choose Italic (or whichever style you are searching for), then click OK.
  3. Put the cursor in the Replace box, and select the Special Character "Find What Text". It should enter "^&" in the Replace box.
  4. Put underscores on either side of that character: _^&_.
  5. If you also want to remove the italics (pasting to plain text will do that for you, but there may be other reasons to do this in the Word doc), then with the cursor still in the Replace box, click Format-->Font.... Under Font Style choose Regular, and click OK.
  6. Click Replace All.
Now all italicized words and phrases should have underscores around them. But if there's a sentence where the spaces weren't in italics (you can't see it, but Word knows), it could change from: "I hate you!" to "_I_ _hate_ _you_!" To fix this, do another Find/Replace:
  1. In the Find box, type: "_ _" (underscore space underscore).
  2. Click "No Formatting", since you're not looking for italics anymore.
  3. In the Replace box, type a single space.
  4. Click Replace All.

By default, Word converts a lot of otherwise normal characters to special ones. The special ones look pretty, but they don't always work when pasted into plain text.
  • Quotation marks are converted into fancy quotes (“ ”, also called smart quotes or curly quotes) which in plain text sometimes come out as boxes, question marks, or other things. Apostrophes and single quotes are converted the same way.
  • A double-hyphen (--) is converted into an em-dash (—) or an en-dash (–). In plain text, this sometimes is converted back into a single hyphen.
  • Three periods in a row (...) are converted to a single ellipsis character (…). In plain text, this can come out as boxes or question marks, or as a very compressed ellipsis character ().
I recommend you stop Word from doing all of these. To do that:
  1. Go to AutoCorrect Options (in 2010, File-->Options-->Proofing; in older versions, it's in the Tools menu).
  2. Go to the "AutoFormat As You Type" tab.
  3. Uncheck the options you want it to stop (e.g. "Straight quotes" with "smart quotes", Hyphens with dash, etc).
  4. For the ellipsis, you may have to go to the AutoCorrect tab. Under "Replace text as you type," remove the entry for the ellipsis.
If you already have these special characters in your MS, you can use Find/Replace to get rid of them. Copy/paste one of the fancy characters into the Find box, then Replace it with the regular one.

Phew! Did I miss anything? Get anything wrong? Let me know in the comments.

What If You Don't Fit Neatly Into One Genre?

If you're not sure what genre your novel is, read this post by agent Jennifer Laughran. It's a fantastic breakdown of the (current) standard genres agents are looking for when they read your query.

So what if you don't fit neatly into one?

(An aside: The post on name pronunciation has been updated with the correct answer. Not surprisingly, most of you got it wrong. Don't worry, I still like you.)

Not fitting neatly is kind of my problem. Not just with Air Pirates, but with most things I write. I like to straddle the line between sci-fi and fantasy (apparently). Everything I've written so far--and most of my future story ideas--take place in the real world, but different. Sometimes there are time machines and immortal beings that can travel outside time. Sometimes there are steam-powered airships and stones that tell the future. Sometimes there are Burmese refugees that start fires with their minds. Sometimes there are mechs and dragons.

I generally fall back on fantasy, but that's potentially misleading. There isn't always magic, and what "magic" there is usually has some sort of science behind it (even if I don't always explain it). And only one of my stories has mythical creatures. (Although Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a fantasy magazine, so I guess Air Pirates counts).

They're not science-fiction because they're not strictly about technology or a "what if." In fact, most of them feel like fantasy (what with the dragons and overall low technology).

They're not dystopian because, although many of the worlds are in the future, it's a future that's not terribly bleak. (Though I guess the lack of food and the oppressive dictator would put Travelers in that category).

I would call them science fantasy, but that's not on the list and nobody really knows what that is.

I call most of them steampunk (for the mixture of technology in a low-tech society), but they're way out on the edge of that subgenre. There's nothing Victorian about these worlds, and I never use the word "corset."

Technically, it's all speculative fiction, but I've always found that term too broad and boring.

But I certainly can't say it doesn't fit into any genre, or it's a genre all it's own, because that's pretentious (and wrong).

People are more interested if you can give them a precise genre. I read Perdido Street Station because I heard it was steampunk, but it's a little bit of everything. I'd rather pick a genre that's close enough than have an agent skip it because they don't know what it is.

Have you ever had a problem categorizing what you write?

Pop Quiz: Name Pronunciation

[UPDATE (9/12/11): Believe it or not, my name's pronounced Hyna (like Heineken, the beer). Remember that when I'm famous and you do a vlog or podcast about me. (Also if you call me Hiney in public, I may use your own mispronunciation stories against you. I'm looking at you Matt MacNish!).]

A silly poll for the weekend. These are the five most frequent pronunciations of my last name, but only one of them is correct. Note that if you know me in real life, you are TOTALLY ALLOWED to vote. I'll update this post with the correct answer on Monday.

  • Heinz (like the ketchup)
  • Hine (rhymes with brine)
  • Hane (like the underwear)
  • Hyna (like Heineken, the beer)
  • Hiney (like the word for butt)

So, I had this speech class my sophomore year in high school. I hate speeches. Before HS, I sometimes intentionally took a zero just so I wouldn't have to give a speech. The teacher was a good guy. He was funny, but he had no inhibitions when it came to student humiliation (as befits a speech teacher, I guess).

Because the class was a general requirement, the students were a cross-section: nerds, jocks, actors, cheerleaders, popular kids, everything. I only had one friend in the class and was in constant fear of what the others thought of me or when they would laugh.

So the worst moment comes; the teacher calls me up for my turn. "Adam..." He squints at the role sheet. "Hiney?" Then he laughs and says, "A damn hiney?"

I laughed it off, but really I wanted to crawl into a corner and die. What's your worst name pronunciation story?

First Draft

I want to make my first draft perfect, but that's impossible.

So I try to make it decent, so it will be easy to fix later or for beta readers to find the flaws. But that's impossible too. I don't know what "decent" is.

So I try to write something interesting, so beta readers will like it and (hopefully) put more effort into making it better. But every beta reader likes different things.

Anyway, that's just a different kind of perfect.

So I try to write the best first draft that I can write at this moment. But I don't know what that is. I always doubt if what I wrote is my best, then I delete it and have to start over.

So I settle for just writing a first draft. I can worry about all that other stuff later.

(Honestly, I usually get stuck on paragraph 2. How do you approach first drafts?)

Why Haven't You Self-Published Yet?

A couple weeks ago, blog reader Lexi left this comment:
I'm interested in why you guys aren't self-publishing.

It needn't stop you querying agents, if you're set on that. Meanwhile, you could be making money from your writing, and if you do well enough, agents may approach you. Win/win approach.
 It's a totally valid question, and I answered briefly in the comments, but I thought it deserved a bit more explanation.

Understand, of course, that this is just why I haven't self-published yet. I can't speak for anybody else.

(1) I still believe I can make it traditionally. I got zero requests for my first novel. The next novel got five requests -- it was rejected, but three of those agents said they wanted to see revisions and/or my next novel. This round (which is really a revision of the second novel), I've already gotten significantly more interest than last time.

That tells me I'm getting better and leads me to believe I will continue to do so. Until I hit a wall (like where the statistics are no longer going up), I'll still believe I can do it.

(2) Self-publishing is still, statistically, a lot of work for not a lot of gain. I have no doubt the numbers have increased since I ran through them a few months ago, but I haven't seen a lot to encourage me. I'm still not convinced that self-publishing should be more than my last resort.

(3) Pursuing traditional publishing stretches me. I talked about this a couple of years ago, when self-publishing still wasn't quite legit. I think one of the reasons for the growth curve of (1) above is that I've actively gotten feedback and tried to get better. I might still do that if I self-published, but I know myself. More likely I'd revise less and sacrifice quality for churning out novels.

(4) Poor sales on a self-published novel could affect my chances of getting traditionally published. At least according to Rachelle Gardner. I'm inclined to agree with her. For me, making a little money now isn't worth killing the dream. Speaking of which...

(5) Self-publishing isn't my dream. I once had a friend who tried to shoot the moon on every round of Hearts. He lost points most of the time, but he won overall (and won big). But he didn't change his strategy even when I started sacrificing points just to take him down. When I asked him why he kept doing it, he said, "The game's just not fun otherwise."

I kinda liked that.

Traditional publishing is changing, we all know that. But it hasn't actually changed yet. It's still here and larger than life, and so is my dream. So I'm going to keep shooting and see what I can hit.

Besides, what's the worst that could happen?

For you, have you self-published or are you still shooting for traditional? Tell us why in the comments.

Ideas and French Cooking

(Remixed from an old post. Hm, that's kind of appropriate, actually.)

Madeleine L'Engle once wrote a book called Walking on Water. It's an interesting look at how faith and art overlap. In fact, to hear L'Engle tell it, the two are far more intertwined than most people realize. I'd strongly recommend this book for artists who are Christian, but I think it has something to say to non-Christian artists and Christian non-artists as well.

This post isn't about faith though. There was a passage about how L'Engle turned ideas into stories. Her method, it turns out, is a lot like mine, though she describes it much more eloquently:

When I start working on a book, which is usually several years and several books before I start to write it, I am somewhat like a French peasant cook. There are several pots on the back of the stove, and as I go by during the day's work, I drop a carrot in one, an onion in another, a chunk of meat in another. When it comes time to prepare the meal, I take the pot which is most nearly full and bring it to the front of the stove.

So it is with writing. There are several pots on those back burners. An idea for a scene goes into one, a character into another, a description of a tree in the fog into another. When it comes time to write, I bring forward the pot which has the most in it. The dropping in of ideas is sometimes quite conscious; sometimes it happens without my realizing it. I look and something has been added which is just what I need, but I don't remember when it was added.

When it is time to start work, I look at everything in the pot, sort, arrange, think about character and story line. Most of this part of the work is done consciously, but then there comes a moment of unself-consciousness, of letting go and serving the work.