Showing posts with label query letters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label query letters. Show all posts

Three Things to Remember About Rejection

Have I talked about rejection enough? No? Good, I'm glad you agree (geez, you'd think I was querying a novel or something).

So that first post had some practical tips on what to do once rejection hits. But my the problem is, in that moment you realize what you're reading is a rejection, you don't actually feel like doing any of those things. There's no easy way around this, much as I'd like to think there could be. It just fricking hurts.

But after having gone through it so many times, I find myself repeating some of the same things. Sometimes they even help.
  1. The pain will go away. No matter how many times I've been rejected, no matter how much it hurt or how strongly I believed I would never get over it, I always did. I'm pretty sure that means I always will.
  2. It's not you, it's them. Rejection doesn't mean you suck. (I mean, it could, but you can't know that from a single form letter, and certainly if it was a manuscript that was rejected, it means the agent/editor saw something they liked.) The only thing you can know from a rejection is that it wasn't right for them.
  3. It's the internet's fault. Turn it off. The rejection isn't the internet's fault, but sometimes it makes the pain last longer. All those happy people retweeting new book covers and happy things their agent did that day. I love these people, but right after I get rejected is not the time I want to celebrate with them.
Is there anything you tell yourself when you get a rejection? Seriously, I want tips!

How Agents Can Make Rejection Easier (Maybe)

Querying sucks. There's no way around it. Tens of thousands of wannabe authors query a mere hundreds of agents, who submit to mere dozens of publishers. And we're not just querying ideas, but whole novels we spent months or years working on, only to be told no over and over again.

We all know rejections aren't personal, but they feel that way. It's an emotional process any way you look at it, but I think there are a few things that could make it hurt a little less.


Querying has enough uncertainty as it is. Some can be taken away with a short automatic reply when a query is received. Pretty much every e-mail program and service can do this.

The best part is the message can say anything you want. One agent I queried repeated their guidelines and the genres they represent in their auto-response, and I knew immediately that my information was outdated and they no longer represented what I sent them (whoops).

I know I'm in the minority on this, but I honestly think that -- emotionally -- no response is better than getting a form rejection. No matter how many times I get turned down, every e-mail from an agent sparks a tiny, misguided hope. Having that hope shattered hurts more than not getting any e-mail at all.

That said, this only works (emotionally) if the agent offers a time limit. Most agents who've opted for no response have something in their guidelines that says, "If you haven't heard from me after X weeks, you may assume I have passed." (This is a great thing to get in an auto-response message, btw). When the time limit passes, I still have that tiny, misguided hope ("Maybe they're just behind in their queries..."), but as the days pass quietly, that hope dies a gradual death that I barely even notice.

It hurts, but it hurts less and I don't try to read into it.

Not all form rejections are created equal. We all know not to read anything into the rejections, but there's a part of us that always tries. We can't help it. This is why I think no response is better, but for the agent that must send a form rejection, these are things I've seen that have taken a little of the sting out:

  • Something positive. Even the worst story can technically be said to "have potential" or "look promising." I know it doesn't mean anything, but small positive phrases like that help me trick my brain out of believing my work is crap and I'll never amount to anything.
  • Something hopeful. Similar to above, it can be said of any rejected manuscript that "it's not right for my list" or "it's not what I'm looking for at this time." The main thing we writers want to know is what did we do wrong? Agents don't have the time to tell us, but it helps me feel better about myself if I think it's not my fault.

Maybe these are misleading, especially for a particularly awful project. But honestly ANY form rejection is going to be misleading. I say it's better to mislead in a hopeful direction. It hurts less and makes us less likely to argue or ask for a reason.

Even a small personalization added to a form rejection takes a lot of time. I get that, but I wanted to mention that the very best rejections I've ever gotten were personalized (in one case, the agent said they recognized my name from the comments on their client's blog -- I don't care if it's true or not, it made me feel awesome!).

The few agents who personalize form rejections still say all the same things: "Your work has potential, but it isn't right for my list," "This is a subjective business and another agent might feel differently," or something equally nice-but-unenlightening. But that small personal touch at the beginning makes it different somehow. It feels like they mean it.

(Writers: this is also why you should personalize your queries, even just a little).

I'm under no illusions that this little post can change the industry, or even that my opinions are 100% correct. Even if I were right, I still expect silence from some agents with neither auto-response nor time limit. I still expect curt form letters that make me wonder if my ideas suck. And I still expect that, even for an agent who does all the "right" things, I will feel the sting of crushed dreams.

But, hey, it's my blog.

Have you ever gotten a form rejection that made you feel good? Terrible? Share in the comments.

    8 Stages of Querying

    NOTE: These stages are representative and are not indicative of any stage the author (me) is currently in. Although I have been in every stage at one time or another.

    1) The First Query is Sent. Subject spends most of their time refreshing their inbox and planning an "I Have an Agent!" blog post. A small amount of time is also spent researching what to ask when an agent calls, how much time to give other agents to make a competing offer, and how much the average advance is for a debut author.

    2) The 1st Rejection. Subject tells themselves everyone gets rejected. They try to remember what one is supposed to do to move on, but end up refreshing their inbox and staring at their query spreadsheet instead.

    3) The 5th Rejection. Mild depression sets in. Subject looks at their spreadsheet, and the as-yet unanswered queries, with despair. They wonder if the problem is their query letter or their story or their opening pages or that one comment they made on Twitter where all the agents could see or the fact that their blog is white text on black background...

    4) The 1st Request. Symptoms include an increased heart-rate and shaky hands, making it difficult to prepare the manuscript for the agent. Subject looks over the manuscript twenty times before realizing they're not paying attention to it because they were thinking about where they would do their first book signing. At this stage, the subject is completely incapable of working on anything new.

    5) The 1st Rejection of the Full Manuscript. Subject suffers severe depression. They may stop writing or querying for days. Some subjects stay off the internet while others stay on to research self-publishing.

    6) The 15th Rejection. Subject becomes resigned to rejection. They send out new queries reflexively, but don't really expect anything from them. Depending on feedback received and the state of the manuscript, subject may consider major revisions, a rewrite, or an entirely new novel.

    7) The 4th Request. Subject exhibits a timid hope, but continues work on the new project. When new query responses arrive, subject experiences brief excitement before reminding themselves it's just another rejection. Subject begins to see things in their new project that they like. They wonder if maybe -- just maybe -- they could fall in love with something new again.

    8) The Whateverth Rejection. Subject is excited once again. They have completely fallen in love with their new project. Rejections are noted in the spreadsheet but no longer obsessed over. Agents who express an interest in the subject's future novels are added to a new spreadsheet, and their blogs and Twitter feeds are followed.

    Subject tries not to think about what will happen if the old project is rejected entirely while simultaneously reminding themselves they haven't lost anything. Their life is as good as it ever was before they even started writing, except now they have a novel to be proud of.

    And hopefully, still, publish some day.

    Life After Rejection, or How to Pick Yourself Up Again

    One of the hardest things a writer ever faces is the fact that the novel they love so, SO MUCH is not good enough and must be trunked. Maybe you've gotten to the end of your agent list, or you have an agent but the publishers aren't biting, or you self-published, but after a year of 20-or-fewer sales per month, you realize maybe that novel is never going to take off.

    A lot of writers quit at this point, because they LOVE that novel, they put SO MUCH work into it, and they just don't think they could do it all over again.

    I'm thinking about that right now. Not that my current query round has failed -- it hasn't by a long, long shot -- but after 100+ rejections on two previous novels, even a single form letter can make me wonder if I'll ever get past this stage.

    So here's what I do (in order of increasing surety of failure):
    1. Take another step. If you got a rejection, send out another query. Another month of slow self-pubbed sales? Hit up some book bloggers, write some guest posts. Basically, as long as there's something you can do about it, get up and do it.
    2. Remind yourself what's good about the novel. Find the critiques where people told you how much they loved the humor or the dialog, or the comments on your query that said, "I would request this." Remind yourself that you DIDN'T write crap. You just haven't found the right agent/readers yet.
    3. Make a new plan. You love that novel a lot, right? So how can you revise it to be even stronger? What critiques did you ignore before that now, maybe, look like something you could do? Revise that novel you love so much, then try again.
    4. Find a new story you love. Maybe there are no more steps you can take. No more agents, no more revisions. That novel is done. This is hard to accept, but the best way through it is to find a new idea that you can love even more than the first. Believe it or not, you DO have more than one story in you. Everyone does.
    5. Take a break. Feel you have no more ideas, or the ideas you have just aren't big enough? Take a break. Remind yourself why you love your life, and why writing is NOT your life. If writing really is your passion, then the ideas will come, but don't worry about that right now. And don't write the first idea that comes knocking either. Give them time. Let them grow into something HUGE, and enjoy your life in the meantime.
    How do you pick yourself up after rejection?

    Hook, Hook, Where is the Hook?

    The hook is what you say when your friends ask, "So what's your book about?" It's how you tweet about your book. It is the fundamental concept behind the plot of your story, written in such a way as to make the reader say, "Cool, tell me more."

    But how the heck do you distill 100,000 words into one sentence of cool? It's not easy. The internet has some good tips already, but I'm going to throw my own version into the mix because with something as subjective as a novel hook, you can't have too many ways to think about it.

    I think there are 7 things the hook should have:
    1. Protagonist. Who is the story about?
    2. Antagonist. Who or what is against the protagonist?
    3. Goal. What does the protagonist want to accomplish?
    4. Stakes. What will happen if the protagonist does not accomplish their goal?
    5. Conflict. What is keeping the protagonist from accomplishing their goal?
    6. Setting. Where/when does the story take place?
    7. Theme. What is the story's main subject or idea?
    Figure out that information, then stuff it into a sentence. That's your core. The rest of your query, synopsis, and even your novel needs to be focused around that. For example:

    A cowardly bookworm receives a package from his supposedly-dead mother, so he joins a crew of air pirates to find and rescue her.

    This is the hook for Air Pirates. Can you see the elements? Some are weaker than others, but they're there:

    Protagonist: cowardly bookworm
    Antagonist: not specified, but implied in the word "rescue"
    Goal: to rescue his mother
    Stakes: his mother will be hurt or die (implied in the word "rescue")
    Conflict: he doesn't know where she is, and presumably someone doesn't want her to be rescued
    Setting: implied with "a crew of air pirates"
    Theme: a coward overcoming his fears

    As you can see, not everything has to be stated explicitly, but the more clear the 7 elements are, the stronger your hook will be. (There's a lot to be said for voice, too, but I'm not dealing with that here).

    Also be certain nothing else is included. The more you try to cram in, the more questions are raised. In the example, I didn't tell you about the future-telling stone in the package because, although it is important to the story, it raises a lot of questions. And as far as the hook goes, it doesn't matter what's actually in the package, just who it came from, and that he thought she was dead.

    So an exercise for you. Take a look at the (current) hook below for my Shiny New Idea,* and see if you can find the 7 elements in it. Which ones are weakest? How could they be made stronger? (I'm not asking you to do this in the comments, though you're welcome to, if you want).

    A fugitive ninja must convince a young con-artist to take the throne, before the nobles kill everybody in civil war.

    Then take a look at your own hook and do the same!

    * Post-Apocalypse Dragon-Riding Ninjas (with Mechs!). Don't worry. It all makes sense in my head.

    (This post is a remix of an older one) 

    How to Use Proper Nouns in a Query

    A lot of authors (myself included) love to tell you the names of everything and everyone in our stories. The people and places in it matter to us. I mean, when I talk about my wife and kids, it means so much more to me to use their names. I want them to mean the same to you.

    But to you, they're nobody--just names. It's a common problem in query letters, where the author figures giving you a name for everything counts as "being specific." But it's not specific. It's actually confusing. Take this, for example:

    Sam Draper needs someone non-threatening to consult a seer named Victoria, hiding among the monks at the Monastery of St. Jude -- he reckons Hagai Wainwright is as non-threatening as they come. Hagai agrees, intending to turn Sam in to Lt. Rafael Tobin at the first opportunity. But when Victoria says Sam is the key to finding his mother Anna, Hagai chooses Anna’s life over the law.

    Kind of a lot to take in, right? And that's only a portion of the query. Imagine 2-3 more paragraphs packed with names like that. After a point, it gets hard to keep them all straight. Result? Confusion. Form rejection.

    Using a proper noun is like taking a highlighter to your query. It can make important information pop out and your query easier to read. But used too much, it actually interferes with comprehension, to the point where it would be better to not name anything at all.

    So then, in true analytical fashion, I give you 4 tips to using proper nouns in a query:
    1. Any character, group, or place that is mentioned only once should not be named.
    2. If possible, only the protagonist(s) and villain(s) should be named. No more than 3 names in a query!
    3. For characters (etc.) that need to be mentioned more than once, but do not deserve a place of importance next to the main characters, try meaningful identifiers: "his mother," "a group of assassins," "her home planet."
    4. If you must give a character's FULL name, do it once at the beginning.
    Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on your story. But let's apply these tips to the example above:

    Sam needs someone non-threatening to consult a seer hiding among the monks -- he reckons Hagai is as non-threatening as they come. Hagai agrees, intending to turn Sam in at the first opportunity. But when the seer says Sam is the key to finding his mother, Hagai chooses his mother’s life over the law.

    If nothing else, it's more clear who the major players are now. If the seer came up again in the query, I'd probably give her name (but she doesn't, so I didn't). Otherwise, who cares about the name of the monastery she's at? And the specific officer Hagai goes to isn't important either, just that he goes to the law (or thinks about it).

    Anyway, that's just my take. What do you think?

    The Pillar of Skulls

    Near the gate between the first and second layers of Hell, there lies a grotesque monument of the damned. It towers over a mile high, howling and writhing with eternal torment--a terror to match any other in the Nine Hells.
    It is the Pillar of Skulls, and it seethes with the frustration and hatred of a billion souls, moaning and wailing in endless, hopeless agony.

    But it is also the greatest store of knowledge in all planes of existence. Among the Pillar's eternal prisoners lie great thinkers, world leaders, teachers, scientists... the entirety of the world's lore and experiences can be found within.

    Once in a great while, a knowledge seeker will brave Hell itself to speak to the Pillar. Should they survive--through the charred wasteland, past endless legions of Lord Bel's devils, beneath the watchful eyes of the five-headed Tiamat--they must still contend with the Pillar itself.

    Whenever a visitor comes, the billion skulls fight each other to make themselves heard. The surface of the Pillar billows and pulsates, one skull appearing--howling unintelligible obscenities--then disappearing to be replaced by another.

    And should the seeker find the right one--a soul who has the information they are after--there is always a price. For every skull on the Pillar, every soul doomed to live out eternity in the Nine Hells, wants only one thing. "I'll tell you what I know," they say. "I'll do anything you ask. Just, please, take me off this pillar. Please, I...

    "I just want to be published."

    Figuring Out Query Letters

    Every aspiring author, at some point, wishes someone would tell us how to do query letters right. Just tell me what to write, and I'll write it!


    But it's not that simple. For one thing, there is no Right Way to write a query. There are, however, a hundred wrong ways that agents see over and over. One of the best ways to learn, then, is to read other query letters -- hundreds of them, good and bad -- until something clicks and you get a sense for what works.

    What? You thought it would be easy?

    To help, here's a list of places where you can do exactly that. Many of these links provide free critiques -- both peer and professional. For most the wait is long, if your letter gets chosen at all. But the real value of these sites is not getting comments on your own letter. It's in learning from, and critiquing, the mistakes of others. Read enough of these, and you may actually figure out the answer to "How do I write a good query letter?"

    Even if you can't put it in words.
    Know any good places I missed? Share them in the comments!

    What Doesn't Have To Go in a Query

    On Monday, we talked about what must go in a query. Really only 3 things need to be clear: character, plot, and basic statistics. These are a couple of optional query items, commonly confused as required:

    This doesn't mean using the agent's correct name (you should always do that!). I'm talking about the little sentence at the beginning that says "I'm querying you because..." or "I've been stalking you and think you'd be a great agent."

    Basically, only personalize it if you mean it. "I enjoy your blog." "I'm a big fan of [client's name whose novels you've actually read]." Don't lie or even stretch the truth. It won't tip the scales in your favor, and it's a lot more obvious than you think (meaning it's more likely to tip the scales against you). If you don't know anything about an agent other than that they represent your genre, it's okay to say nothing.

    I know a lot of agents say they like it when writers compare their novel to others; it shows they know their novel and the market. But not every novel lends itself to easy comparison, and a bad comparison can make it look like you don't know your novel or the market.

    So like, if you set out to write "Twilight meets Survivor," and the finished story essentially matches what you envisioned, then it's probably okay to say so. But if you believe your story combines the writing style of Neil Gaiman with the characters of George Martin and a plot device you saw on Stargate...that's not really a good comparison.

    If you're not sure, don't say anything. Comparisons aren't necessary, and if you described the story well, the agent will make their own connections.

    Most aspiring writers have no credentials, but we feel we need to prove ourselves. So we mention our Christmas letters, our corporate status reports, or the fact that we've been writing since we were five.

    Writers higher up the tier want to believe that no-pay or very-low-pay gigs count because there was a submissions process, but the bottom line is if the agent hasn't heard of the publication, it probably doesn't count. And sometimes dropping the name of that 0.5-cent-per-word e-zine can look like you're trying too hard. Just like with personalization, stretching your credentials won't tip the scales in any good direction.

    That's just what I think. Your thoughts are most welcome in the comments.

    What Goes in a Query?

    Query letters can be frustrating, but I think they're much simpler than we make them out to be. Really a query letter only needs three things to be made clear: character, plot, and basic statistics.

    No more than three (and if you name that many, one should probably be the antagonist). More names than this becomes hard to keep track of. Of these, only one should be the main character. The novel may be about multiple people, but it's hard to tell all those stories in just 200-300 words. Choose the most important character and tell their story, starting with what they want.

    Now that you know what your MC wants, show how they try to get there. That means the conflict (what keeps them from achieving their goal) and the stakes (what happens if they achieve it? what happens if they don't?).

    Title, word count (rounded to the nearest pretty number), and genre.

    And that's it. I mean obviously you want to include more than that -- details that make your story unique, aspects of your voice, etc. -- but if the characters and plot are unclear, then your query will be unclear. So include those details, answer the obvious questions you raise (e.g. why does your MC want what they want?), but in doing so be careful not to lose the story.

    On Wednesday, I'll talk about a couple of optional parts of the query, commonly confused as required. In the meantime, got any query tips you wish you knew starting out?

    The Slow Death of a Literary Agent

    Average American
    You are an average American. You sleep 8 hours, eat 2.5 hours a day, work 40 hours a week, and commute a quarter of an hour each way.* The rest of your time is split pretty evenly between things you Have To Do (cooking, cleaning, fixing things, buying things...) and things you Want To Do (watching TV, reading, playing guitar, having a social life, etc).

    * Those last two are actually below average, but I'm being generous with the numbers in this post to make a point.

    No Response Means No
    You decide you want to be a literary agent. That means, in addition to your regular work hours which make money, you have to read query letters. Thinking a query letter is something like a resume -- you send it out widely and only hear back if you get an interview -- you adopt a "no response means no" policy.

    Still, it takes you an average of 3 minutes to read and make a decision on each query. Getting through 200 queries a week, plus partials and fulls, means 12 extra hours of work. Fortunately you weren't very good at guitar anyway. And you probably don't have to see a new movie every week.

    Form Rejections
    Writers, you discover, are needier than the average job seeker. Without a response, they pester you endlessly wondering if you've gotten to their query yet. After talking to your agent buddies you adopt a form rejection policy. Copying/pasting everything, including the author's name and their book title, takes an extra minute per query -- over 3 hours more each week. No big deal, but it does mean you have to stop watching those reality shows.

    Improved Form Rejections
    After a few years of interacting with writers on your blog (which you do now instead of going out Saturday night), you decide form rejections aren't enough. You're eager to give writers what they want, so you personalize your rejections -- not all the way, of course, but since a query usually gets rejected for one of a few reasons, you create five "personalized" form rejection letters.

    What you didn't realize was how difficult it is to stop and analyze every query for why it doesn't appeal to you. And some queries don't even fit into your categories. It ends up taking another 2 minutes per query, leaving you with only 4 hours of "Want To Do" time a week. You survive though, trading sleep so you can play Halo or read a book occasionally.

    Personalized Rejection
    It's still not enough. Instead of being thankful for your help, the writers are arguing with you over why you didn't like their story! Years later you'll learn it's just human nature, that it's hard NOT to defend your work even when faced with hard evidence. For now, you decide you'll write truly personalized rejections. It takes a while -- about 10 minutes per query, actually -- but it's worth it if it helps writers improve their craft.

    Of course everything you eat is ordered online now, weekends are something that happen to other people, and cleaning is right out (and you can't afford a maid, of course, because you're not getting paid for any of this). But finally the writers will be satisfied.

    Won't they?

    Form Rejections

    In honor of the Rejectionist's blog birthday, I give you a top 10 list of what form rejections REALLY mean:

    "If it makes you feel any better, getting this rejection means you're not on my blacklist. Yet."

    "My cat threw up on my keyboard, but I still have to answer these stupid queries."


    "Your query did not give my computer a virus. Good work."

    "Congratulations. You successfully bypassed my spam filter."

    "On the bright side, that query service you hired sent it to at least one real agent."

    "I can only request 1 partial per day. Today is not your day. Tomorrow doesn't look good either."

    "I'm only rejecting you now because the queries never stop. They just keep coming and coming and coming, there's never a let-up. They're relentless. Every day they pile up more and more and more! And you gotta get them out, but the more you get them out the more they keep coming in. And then your computer freezes and it's the last day of NaNoWriMo!"


    And the number one thing form rejections really mean...

    "This rejection means the same as if I said nothing. Except if I actually said nothing, you'd pester me with e-mails or (God forbid) phone calls asking why I haven't said SOMETHING. Even though you give your resume to hundreds of human resource departments without wondering if they received it. Even though you give your phone number to God-knows-how-many potential girl/boyfriends, yet never track them down to see if maybe they lost it. For whatever reason, those expectations do not apply to me.

    "So consider this your non-interview. Your fake number. I am turning you down in the nicest way I have available to me. Please, please, PLEASE don't e-mail again asking why."

    Happy birthday, Le R! Thank you for brightening our depressing, rejection-filled existences.

    That Thing Where I Draw: My Nightmares

    I also had a dream in which Jennifer Jackson told me that leaving my query letter in the bathroom for agents to read was not a good idea. "Think about what they're doing in there and how that will make them feel about your novel."

    Azrael's Curse

    Cindy and Anica are home now, which is totally awesome. It also means I'm alternately busier than ever and totally bored/napping (much more the former). And for whatever reason, I don't feel like blogging much about writing. Life just feels a lot bigger right now. Don't worry, I'll get over it.

    So I'm cheating today and pasting my query for Air Pirates, also known as Azrael's Curse. Feel free to fill the comments with criticism or praise if you like. Just don't be a meanie head.

    Dear Agent:

    For Hagai’s twenty-first birthday, his mother sends him a stone that gives visions of the future. But why did she send it, and how, since she was killed eighteen years ago? Hagai’s not exactly a hero -- the bravest thing he’s ever done is put peppers in his stew -- yet when the stone shows his mother alive and in danger, he sets out to find her.

    Air pirates and sky sailors are also after the stone, and Hagai soon loses it to a wanted sky’ler named Sam. Sam wants the stone to help him avenge his father, but it only shows him one thing: his own death. Hagai, he learns, receives many visions. So when Hagai tracks Sam down and demands he give the stone back -- politely, of course, because Sam has a knife -- Sam offers him a job instead.

    Now Hagai, who grew up wanting nothing to do with sky’lers, is crew to one and fugitive from both pirates and police. He’s not sure he can trust Sam, and the stone haunts Hagai with visions of his own death. Nonetheless, he’s determined to change the future and find his mother, if it’s not already too late.

    AZRAEL'S CURSE is a 90,000-word science fantasy novel, available on request. It's written to stand alone but has series potential. My short story, “Pawn's Gambit” -- set in the same world as AZRAEL'S CURSE -- is due to be published in BENEATH CEASELESS SKIES. Thank you for your time and consideration.


    Adam Heine

    I noticed at least one agent wanted the story described in one single paragraph. So here's the super-condensed version. I think I might like it better, but I'm still too close to it to tell (what with having written this version like 20 minutes ago):

    For Hagai’s twenty-first birthday, his mother sends him a stone that gives visions of the future. But why did she send it, and how, since she was killed eighteen years ago? Hagai’s not exactly a hero -- the bravest thing he’s ever done is put peppers in his stew -- yet when the stone shows his mother alive and in danger, he sets out to find her. Hagai joins a crew of wanted sky sailors, becoming fugitive from both pirates and police. He's not sure who he can trust, and the stone haunts him with visions of his own death. Nonetheless, he's determined to change the future and find his mother, if it's not already too late.

    What If?

    What if it's not ready?
    What if this is my last chance
    to have my favorite agent
    give it more than just a glance?

    What if, just like last go,
    I'm rejected forty ways?
    Am I forever doomed to
    tired prose and dead cliches?

    What if something's wrong with me,
    and I'm not meant to write more
    than the newsletters and blogs
    I've been doing since '04?

    If that's the case I'm sure
    to be more than just depressed.
    I'll have wasted seven years
    on a hobby no one gets.

    Writing asks more time than
    I can possibly commit.
    I probably should quit, but then...
    what if this is it?

    Only one way to find out.

    Dealing With the Funk

    Writing is hard, at least if you let other people see your work. There are three stages in particular that, for me, are harder than any others: beginnings, critiques, and rejections. I always get depressed about these, but I've learned some ways to get through them.

    I talked about starting new stories before. How the new story always seem so crappy compared to the polished perfection of the one you just finished. Ideally you want to push through until you find "the zone" again, but it's not easy.

    The solution that works for me is an alpha reader. The point of an alpha, as Natalie says in her own post on the subject, is "to love you no matter what and be wildly enthusiastic about your desire to write."

    Don't get me wrong. An alpha doesn't blindly say, "This is awesome!" no matter what you write. That would be mildly encouraging, but it would get old, and it is not helpful. A good alpha reader encourages what you're doing right without making you feel like an idiot for doing things wrong. They see the gold that, when you're starting something new, you just can't see for yourself. They help you through the New Beginning Funk (also the Sagging Middle Funk and the Can't See How My Characters Are Going to Make it Through This Climax Funk).

    An alpha reader provides a kind of critique, but you and they both know they're not reading a finished work. Beta readers (and other species of critters) are more critical than that. Sending work to a beta is like saying, "This is as good as I can make it without your help," and they respond accordingly. Sometimes harshly.

    I never like getting critiques. I'm not allowed to read them in the hours before I go to bed; if I do, I don't sleep. When I do read them, I need a good hour or two of space just to get over it. Nothing puts me in the funk faster.

    But getting out of the Critique Funk is even easier than the other kinds. I don't need an alpha, I just need myself. My solution is to make a plan and get to work. Nothing makes me feel good about my story faster.

    Here's the tough one. Alphas see potential. Betas see things to improve. But what do you do with agents and editors who say nothing except, "This isn't for me"?

    Some personalized rejections can be treated like critiques. Others are too vague ("I didn't connect with the character enough") or are simply form rejections which cannot be used to improve, no matter how much we wish they could.

    Rejection Funk is much harder to deal with, but there are two things you can do: (1) send the story somewhere else and (2) write something new. I recommend both simultaneously. Hopefully by the time you run out of places to send it, the new thing will nearly ready to send on its own.

    Of course there is also the time-tested solution of escape. Read a book, watch a movie, eat chocolate, get drunk... These are good, but they are not solutions in the strictest sense. They will help you feel better and can aid in emotionally preparing yourself for what needs to be done next, but eventually you have to do something. I suppose you could also give up and regret it for the rest of your life. But what fun is that?

    So what about you? What are the hardest parts of dealing with writing for you, and what do you do about it?

    Query Letter Upgrade

    Querying agents is hard. It's even harder for those of us whose credential paragraphs don't actually have any credentials. Like this:

    Azrael's Curse is an 86,000-word science fantasy novel, available on request. Thank you for your time.

    Now, I know agents pick up complete unknowns all the time. It's all about the story, right? Even so, I'll feel better changing that paragraph to read something like this:

    Azrael's Curse is an 86,000-word science fantasy novel, available on request. My short story, "Pawn's Gambit," is due to be published in a future issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Thank you for your time.

    Wait, what?

    My short story, "Pawn's Gambit" -- set in the same world as Azrael's Curse even -- is due to be published in Beneath freaking Ceaseless Skies!

    I'm not normally an excitable person but... Holy crap, this is cool!


    Beneath Ceaseless Skies is an online, pro-rate (i.e. 5+ cents/word) magazine dedicated to publishing "the best in literary adventure fantasy." Also, their cover art is AMAZING.

    Back to the Queries

    (Have you entered the caption contest yet? You still have two days to win a drawing or a critique. Go now!)

    It's been a while since I really talked about query letters. Of course, it's been a while since I've had to write them. But with Air Pirates in the gamma phase, and me ever-hopeful that I will not have to do any more major rewrites, I'm looking at my query letter again.

    Queries are hard. Personally I think they're easier than synopses(eseses), but the fact remains that I have to condense four thousand score words into ten score. And for many agents, those ten score words will be the only sample of my writing they ever see.

    So I do crazy things like read every single query critiqued by the Query Shark or all the successful queries posted on Guide to Literary Agents in an attempt to figure out what, exactly, agents are looking for.

    Nathan Bransford says the only things to really worry about are the overall look and the description of your work. That's certainly helpful in an anxiety sense (the last query I sent him started with a rhetorical question, for example), but it doesn't help me much with actually describing the work.

    There are lots of formulas (lots and lots) out there to help write a query, but in the end they're just that: helps. Just like "don't start your novel with the weather" or "don't start with the character waking up in a white room" are helps, they're suggestions for those of us who don't yet know what we're doing. But it's entirely possible to break these rules and write something great (though probably not by accident).

    So query formulas help, but they don't solve the problem. Worse, if you read those successful queries I linked to above, you'll notice many don't follow any formula. So why did they work? What are agents actually looking for? Here's what I think agents want to see in a query:
    1. A story they like and can sell. Believe it or not, the query doesn't sell the work. The work sells the work -- or at least the idea does. The very best query letter in the world won't sell a bad idea. Conversely, a great idea can (sometimes) carry bad writing.
    2. The ability to write. Credentials suggest that you can write, but your query shows that you can. It's not the little mistakes that will hurt you, rather the overall appearance that you don't know the craft or don't care enough to use it in everything you write. The query letter is such a short piece, there's no excuse for slapping it together without carefully choosing each word.
    3. Voice. Writing ability is to writer's voice as a common soldier is to a samurai (or a ninja). How you say it matters just as much as what you say. Your novel probably has a voice already. It might be funny, dark, matter-of-fact, dry, silly... whatever it is, it should come out in the query, not just the sample pages.
    4. A sane person they might like to work with. You need to come across as professional, intelligent, and not a jerk. Professional means no crazy fonts or cute gimmicks. Intelligent means you've done your research and understand at least something about the industry you're trying to break in to. Not being a jerk means being humble.*
    It's not a formula, but hopefully once you're done following the formulas and have a query put together, you can ask yourself if it has these things. OR you can win my caption contest, and I'll tell you!

    * Not in the commonly-understood sense of spineless or self-effacing, but in the dictionary-definition sense of "a modest estimate of one's own importance."

    Trust and Grace

    Gosh, that title sounds like it belongs on my other blog. Anyway...

    When we read something, anything, we want to know that we can trust the author. If we trust that the author knows what they're doing, we'll give them more grace when they make "mistakes" like using unnecessary adverbs or telling when they should be showing. We trust that eventually they'll explain whatever we don't understand.

    Conversely, if we don't trust the author, those mistakes will stick out like they were written in sparkly red ink. If we don't understand something right away, rather than say, "I'm sure that's there for a good reason," we say, "That's stupid. It doesn't make any sense."

    But trust is hard to come by, and worse, it's subjective.

    We trust authors whose work we've read and liked before. We trust authors sold at Barnes & Noble more than self-pubbed authors peddling their works online. We trust authors recommended by friends.

    We trust authors that we know personally. This is why referrals work. This is why agents and editors are nicer if you've met them in person. This is also why it's so hard to get honest criticism of our work, and why agents don't care if your mom and ten of your best friends said the manuscript was "better than Dan Brown."

    So if you're unknown, unpublished (or self-published), and you don't know the reader personally, how do you get the reader to trust you? All you've got left, then, is your first impression.

    Your first impression is your first sentence, first paragraph, first page, and in many cases, your query letter. This is why it's so important. It's not that the agent/editor won't read on if they suck, it's that they decide -- often subconsciously -- whether you're an amateur or professional based on the first thing they read. Everything they read afterward is colored by that.

    If they see amateur mistakes straight off, then the fancy prose they see later might be seen as "trying too hard" or at best "potential." On the other hand, if they decide they're in the hands of a soon-to-be professional, then occasional sloppy prose they see later might be interpreted as "mistakes I can help them fix."

    So don't tell them what your mom and ten best friends thought. Don't tell them you're the next Stephanie Meyer. Don't infodump. Don't try to describe every single character and subplot in a 250-word query.

    Do find a critique group. Do read Nathan Bransford's comprehensive FAQ on publishing and getting published. Do read as many of the posts you can at Query Shark, Evil Editor, Miss Snark, and any number of other agents' and editors' blogs around the web. Do whatever it takes to find out what first impression you're making.

    Then make a better one.

    Yet Another Post About Query Letters

    Chapters Edited: 11
    Scenes Edited: 29
    Words Murdered: 1915 (5.2% - I think I added some while rewriting)

    Times Hagai has been in a life-threatening situation: 6
    People who've yelled at Hagai for doing something stupid: 7 (oddly, never Sam)
    People who've fought with Sam: 9
    People who wished they hadn't: 6


    So, query letters again.

    If there's one thing I learned from Nathan's Agent for a Day contest it's that the perfect query letter will not make agents request your manuscript. "What?!" you say. Yes, I say. At best, the perfect query letter can tell the agent about your story. It's your story that will make them want to read your manuscript.

    That means your query letter must be a clean, logical summary of your story. It doesn't have to include everything, but it does have to read well, and it has to make sense. It can't get in the way of the story.

    I've been thinking about this because I've been teaching our niece (whom we homeschool) how to write a high school-level book report. The method is essentially the same. Here's what I told her:
    1. Focus only on the main storyline: one protagonist, one antagonist, one conflict, one climax.
    2. Be specific.
    3. Everything in the summary must answer the questions: What happens (main storyline only)? Why does that happen? What happens as a result?
    Example: Lord of the Rings (because you can't talk too much about LotR).

    Focusing on the main storyline means we're talking about Frodo and the Ring and nothing else. In a summary, or a query, that means we don't mention Pippin or Merry, Legolas or Gimli, maybe not even Aragorn or Gollum! Sauron gets a mention because it's his ring. Sam might get mentioned as "Frodo's faithful companion," but that's it.

    Being specific means mentioning the details that make your story unique. Frodo doesn't need to destroy the Ring; he needs to throw it into the bowels of Mt. Doom, located in the center of Sauron's wasteland domain. He isn't chased by evil forces; he is hunted by legions of orcs and tracked by Ring Wraiths - creatures so twisted by evil that they have no will of their own, only that of their master Sauron.

    Be careful though. Specifics can get wordy. Choose the specifics that make your story unique but at the same time don't clutter the summary with confusing details. In particular, don't name characters that don't need to be named.

    Flowing logically means that the query/summary makes sense to someone who has never read the book. This is the hardest part for us authors because we keep forgetting that things that make perfect sense to us wouldn't make any sense to fresh eyes.

    Often, in order to answer the 3 questions I mentioned above, we have to include bits that aren't part of the main storyline. I have to say that Frodo inherits the ring - from who? why? He sets off to destroy it - why? who tells him to do that? why does he agree?

    This is exactly why you must focus only on the main storyline. A query that doesn't make logical sense obscures the story behind it and gets rejected. If you include subplots and minor characters, you'll have to start explaining everything, and there just isn't room for that on a single page. Queries that try it become too long or make no sense - often both.

    There's more, of course. You don't just want to explain your story, you want to sell it. But if your query is focused, specific, and logical, it will go a long way towards selling itself already.