Tag Archives: editing

8 Steps for a Focused Writing Plan, Fact and Fiction

Let’s say you’ve been ruminating over acreative writing project based on true facts, compiled research, or a memoir.
At first glance, you have a choice of two markets—fiction or non-fiction—but if we delve deeper, we see an emerging trend in publishing of successful combinations of truth mingling with fiction, offering readers information presented in an engaging, emotionally driven story arc. Publishing: it’s kind
of like life, isn’t it?

Author Terri Giuliano Long offers insight about how to make the right choice to execute an effective, focused writing plan. Below are excerpts from her post, 8 Steps for Focusing Stories.

At first skim, this info might look like Writing 101, but there is plenty of (mostly self-published–sorry) material out there lacking focus, a clear theme, direction and a point. I only post what rings true for me–which is to say I too once overlooked the importance of theme–and I’m here now to advocate against it.

1. Decide what form your story will take. This may seem basic, and to some extent it is, but there’s currently a great deal of crossover between fiction and nonfiction. Writers use the same techniques to craft narrative nonfiction as they use when writing fictional stories.

In the past, questions about form often came down to whether the writer preferred or felt more comfortable with expository writing or fiction. It’s no longer necessary to make that distinction. Frank
McCourt’s wonderful memoir Angela’s Ashes, for example, reads like a novel, with carefully rendered scenes, dialogue, description and so forth pulling readers into the moment. This flexibility gives us greater freedom, and also presents a confusing array of options.

2. Consider your purpose. What do you hope to achieve by writing this story? If your goal is to educate readers, you might consider a news or magazine article, in which you state your ideas in a straightforward manner, and then use concrete evidence–facts, examples, expert testimony–to support them. If your goal is to create a work of art or enlighten your audience by inviting them to experience a situation, choose narrative.

You’ve defined your purpose, you know what you hope to accomplish, now –

3. Brainstorm. Although most how-to articles offer specific suggestions –map, create bubbles, free-write –experience tells me that there is no one correct way to brainstorm. For some writers, mapping works, while others, like me, figure out what they want to say only after writing it down. Do whatever you makes you feel comfortable.

Let you imagination run amok. Try to get as much down on paper as possible. Allow yourself to digress. If you’re writing about parent-child relationships and suddenly find yourself writing about
baseball–let yourself go. That may be the perfect lens for your story.

4. Draft and assess. Write a draft of your article, essay or story. Now read what you’ve written. As you read, ask questions. What appeals to you? Why? What stands out? What surprises you? Why? What catches your attention? Where did you spend the most time?

Look for patterns. Which words, descriptions or snatches of dialogue have you repeated? The answers to these questions will tell you what interests you most in the piece.

If you have trouble answering these questions or finding a pattern –

5. Create a rough outline. If you’re like me, you have outlines and lists and details on everything. But, there is a growing and rowdy population pantsing it, writing organically. –RL. That’s
fine, says Ms. Long, but, “lie if you must. Tell yourself this isn’t really an outline.”

Go through, paragraph-by-paragraph or scene-by-scene–chapter-by-chapter, if you’re working on a book –and jot down the main point in each. No need to write in sentences, but each point must be
simple, precise, and clear. When you’re finished, read your descriptions.

After we’ve read and reread a piece, words tend to blur. Ideas that seemed perfectly clear in our head morph into confusing, amorphous blobs. This exercise does two things: first, it breaks the work into component parts. There’s a reason marketers write in bullets–they’re easier to see, read and absorb. It also creates distance. If you don’t have the time to put the work away, let it rest and look at it later, dissecting it puts you in a different frame of mind and enables you to see the piece more objectively.

6. Identify Meaning. A story may have a clear beginning, middle and end, yet lack focus. While the plot moves clearly from A to B to C, the meaning or focus is unclear. This is called an anecdote. Focused stories add up to something; they have a focused meaning, a theme.

We can tell a story in many different ways. Suppose you witness a fire: you can ramble, give a directionless accounting, listing any detail that comes to mind. Or you can focus on a single aspect of
the fire–the courage of the firefighters, for instance, or the way the community rallied around the victims. By shaping a story around one particular focal point, selecting and relating only those details that further the point, you convey meaning.

Consider the example of the parent-child story and the baseball details that emerged in your draft. Maybe to make your point about changing parent-child relationships, you tell a story about
baseball. The plot relates the events of a story; the focus divulges your meaning, also known as “theme.”

7. Select and weed. Now that you’ve identified your focus, reread your draft or list. Which of the details or your list relate directly to your main idea? Which digress? Be precise. Muddy thinking produces muddy writing. Retain only those details that have a strong, concrete connection to your focal point. Cut all loosely connected ideas. I know, you can’t bear to throw your lovely words
away. Don’t. Use them in a different piece.

8. Revise. Be sure each scene–every detail–relates directly to, or in some way clarifies or develops your theme. Emphasize the most important scenes or points – in other words, emphasize those sections that crystallize your meaning. In a story, develop key scenes or important details or
descriptions. In essays, emphasize, or spend the most time developing, key points. Emphasis provides direction, tells the reader when to pay close attention. These signals clarify focus and pull your meaning to the forefront.

What strategies do you use to focus your ideas?

Terri Giuliano Long’s debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, hit the Amazon and Barnes & Noble bestseller liststhis summer. (You can also visit IndieBound and order for pick up or delivery through your local bookstore.) She teaches writing at Boston College and blogs about writing and the writing life here. Connect with her on Facebook or on Twitter @tglong.

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Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts

Editing Fiction for Intelligent Readers (No Spoon-feeding Allowed.)

Kristen Lamb just hit me over the head. I’ve been contemplating an issue with my fiction writing lately, namely the balance between “poetic” description (of scenes, characters’ appearance, sex, etc.) and maintaining straight-forward clarity to allow my reader to build her own visual as the story unfolds.

Often I think I’m illuminating my reader, when merely I’ve employed “qualifiers”—See below why qualifying is akin to spoon-feeding the reader.

Sure, we’ve all been transported by lush, decorative (adjective-heavy) explorations of setting and of senses awakened (and wouldn’t we love to leave such a lasting impression on our beloved reader?)

And not so coincidentally, there have been fast-moving stories, tightly wrought and to the point, and when we put the book down, we walked away with a firm idea of character and place, without the author ever having spelled it out. How can we, as fiction writers, achieve balance?

As Lamb points out, “Editors are like engineers. We look at a writer’s race car (the manuscript) and look for parts that will cause drag, slow down momentum, or cause so much friction that a fiery crash or a dead engine is inevitable.” Those superfluous words slow the reader down—the adverbs and qualifiers, and nasty instances of showing instead of telling—amount to treating the reader “like a moron,” Lamb says in her post, Deadly Sin #7.

Lamb throws us a bone, bless her; “I would wager that most of us do not sit up all night thinking of ways to treat our readers like they’re stupid.  Yet, it is a common
problem, especially with newer writers who are still learning the craft. All of us can slip into these nasty habits, if we aren’t mindful.”

Let’s look at highlights from Kristen Lamb’s post:

Offender #1—Adverb Abuse

Here is a news flash. Not all adverbs are evil…just most of them. Adverbs are notorious culprits for stating the obvious. “She smiled happily.” Um, yeah. “He yelled loudly.” As opposed to yelling softly? To be blunt, most adverbs are superfluous and weaken the writing. Find the strongest verb and then leave it alone.

The ONLY time an adverb is acceptable is when it is there to denote some essence that is not inherent in the verb.

For example: She whispered quietly. Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly?

Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? The adverb conspiratorially tells us of a very specific type of whisper, and is not a quality that is necessarily implied by the verb.

Offender #2—Qualifiers

It is really unnecessary to qualify. We get it. Using qualifiers is similar to adding in needless adverbs. If we have just written a scene about a heated argument, trust me, our characters don’t need to “slam the door in frustration” (yep…got it) or “scowl with disapproval” (uh-huh) or “cry in bitter disappointment” (gimme a break).

The qualifiers add nothing but a cluster of extra words that bogs down the prose.  If someone slams the door right after a heated scene of arguing, the reader gets that the
character is angry, frustrated, upset.

Like adverbs, it is perfectly okay to use qualifiers, but it’s best to employ them very sparingly (and only ones that are super awesome). Allow your writing to carry the scene.

Dialogue and narrative should be enough for the reader to ascertain if a character is angry, hurt, happy, etc. If it isn’t, then forget the qualifiers and work on the strength of the scene.

What are your thoughts? What makes you put down a book? What methods transport you?

Kristen Lamb’s best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer. Lamb’s methods teach you how to make building your author platform fun. She helps writers change approach, not personality.

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Using Dirty Fighting To Escalate Tension In Your Story

Great books are filled with conflict, and great characters who learn important lessons.

Writer and all-around-funny Jenny Hansen’s clever tips for Dirty Fighting Techniques can be applied to your main character’s friend, family member or a significant other…whoever he or she is in conflict.
Hansen asserts, “Every entry on the Dirty Fighting List is guaranteed to make the other person see red.” If you’re writing fiction, anger and tension is a fantastic vehicle to move your story quickly and appropriately introduce backstory. The following are excerpts from her post.

One difficulty with reading about dialog is that every character is unique and, even though the examples may be excellent, your characters would not necessarily say those things. How do you think of creative things to say that would apply ONLY to your character?

One answer is to make him or her fight.

Since gratuitous fighting in a story is like gratuitous sex (kinda boring if there’s no real connection or reason for it), the author needs to find a great reason for the fight. The easiest way to pave the road is to discover what your characters really want. Then dig down for what they really, really want.

DON’T give it to them.
Or at least, don’t give it too soon.

Then flake away more layers to uncover what your character really fears. Then what they really, really fear. DO give it to them!

This is where things get interesting. You not only have characters who are upset, you’ve also found myriad ways to slide everybody deeper into your story. To do this, ask your character questions:

  1. What matters most to this character? (What is he or she most afraid to lose?)
  2. Who matters most? (This is usually the person they are most afraid to lose.)
  3. How did the character’s parents fight?
  4. How did the character’s parents interact with him or her?
  5. What does this character wish he or she had gotten in childhood?

All of these questions can provide you with cues about where your character is “broken” and give you ideas about fixing the broken part (i.e. Fix = Lesson).

Now it’s time to unleash that fight! BRING IT ON.

Below are Jenny Hansen’s top five Dirty Fighting Techniques for adding tension and plotting options to your story. (Get ready to flex your sarcasm muscle – which is always used in a dirty fight.)

#1 – Triangulating: Don’t leave the issue between you and your
conflict partner (could be a family member, friend or love interest), pull
everybody in. Quote well-known authorities who agree with you and list every family member whom you know has taken your side (and lie about the ones you haven’t spoken to, yet).

Uses: Triangulating is incredibly useful in fiction because you can expand the discussion to more characters and stir up some real drama. Let’s not keep this issue between just us, one character says to the other. Oh no, lets involve everybody.

If you have extreme Dirty Fighting Talent, you can stir the pot and then step back and play a new game called, “Let’s watch the other two people fight.” Good times.

#2 – Escalating: Quickly move from the main issue of the argument
to questioning your partner’s basic personality, and then move on to wondering whether the relationship is even worth it. Blame your partner for having a flawed personality so that a happy relationship will be impossible.

Uses: Excellent tool for keeping two love interests apart. But, the fight better be about something that really, really matters.

Escalating also allows for plausible use of Back Story. When you’re moving from the main issue to what the REAL issue is (often happens at the end of Act 2), escalating the argument will make someone lose control enough that they blurt out something juicy. Way to go, Author!

#3 – Leaving: No problem is so big or important that it can’t
be ignored or abandoned all together. Walk out of the room, leave the house, or just refuse to talk. Sometimes just threatening to leave can accomplish the same thing without all the inconvenience of following through.

Uses: My favorite use of this is employing it when the two characters really need each other. It completely ups the betrayal factor: I can’t depend on you, I don’t trust you, you’ve let me down.

You noticed how dirty those last three statements were, right? Not a clean fight to be found anywhere with “leaving,” which is fantastic for your story! The farther your character falls, the harder the journey is on the way back up, right?

#4 – Timing: Look for a time when your partner is least able
to respond or least expects an argument.

Uses: Think about this from a story point of view. A really great time to pick a fight is just before the main character embarks on a journey, has a new murder to solve, is called on to save the world. Anything
with high stakes. Be sure the character ambushing them is a likeable one so the reader REALLY gets drawn into the conflict.

#5 – Rejecting Compromise: Never back down.

Uses: This is a kickass Dirty Fighting trick to use on the main character. If there is only one winner, there is automatic conflict involved for the person who “loses.” The solutions are endless, but here’s some scenarios that come to my mind.

The main character could:

  • Realize the universal truth in fighting: the person who says “no” always has the power. Perhaps your MC will change their motivation so that the other character’s “no” doesn’t bother them so much.
  • Learn never to accept “no” from someone who doesn’t have the power to say “yes.” In other words, your MC could learn to stand up for they really want and find a way around their primary obstacle.
  • Find a way for there to be two winners. This a continuation of the point above

What do you think? What are some other ways you could use a good fight to help your character grow or advance your story? Do you use any of the five techniques in your own life…come on, you can tell! Let’s hear your fabulous Dirty (Fighting) Thoughts!

Jenny Hansen’s creative life is filled with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, and short stories. Find Jenny on Twitter @jhansenwrites, read her blog or look for her over on the Writers In The Storm blog.

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Fiction Writing: 7 Elements of the First Page

First pages are like first dates. No, worse. First pages are more like the ten seconds it takes your blind date to come into sight and walk toward your table. It’s often a make-or-break deal, and in many cases, a delusive representation of what follows in chapters behind.

Or am I jaded? More often than I care to admit, a book’s finely-crafted opening pages evoke lovestruck stars in my eyes, much as one too many nervous cocktails over tentative introductions. But when I dig deeper, get to Chapter Two–or the second date, as it were–the luster of those brilliant opening lines fades to a dull incompatibility. But, we can discuss second dates/chapters in another post!

The dating world and the publishing world share a urgent requirement to hook the bait from that first glance. Below, a guest post from  Linda R. Young’s W.I.P. It blog shows us the seven elements a first page should include. (I’m tempted to share seven first date tips, but then you’d have to “red-mark” me for digression.)

1. A distinctive voice. A unique voice is essential to capture the imaginations of the readers and pull them into the story. Voice will make your novel stand out above the rest.

2. A strong character. Readers will engage with strong and interesting characters.

3. A sense of time and place. This grounds the reader into the story. They should be able to recognise the story’s genre in the first page. These should be markers only. Avoid wads of descriptions.

4. Questions. Don’t answer all the reader’s questions at once. Don’t give them everything they need to know about the characters, the history, the setting. They don’t need paragraphs of backstory. They don’t need–or want–everything explained too soon.

5. Intrigue. More than simply holding the cards to your chest, tease the reader into wanting to know more.

6. The point of change. The story should start at the point of change. This
change should reflect conflict. Note: the conflict doesn’t have to be explosive.

7. No wasted words or throw-away lines. Keep it tight. Every word should have a reason for being. Try to avoid redundancies.

Can you think of other essential elements in the first page?
How many times have you rewritten your first page?

Lynda R. Young writes fantasy and science fiction short stories, and is working on two Young Adult novels. One is an Adventure Fantasy set on the High Seas and the other is a Steampunk Fantasy. She also writes Christian articles and maintain a Christian Devotional Blog: Fearfully and Wonderfully.
Also, please read this article, Something Has to Happen. (Seriously, this is important. Something HAS to happen in the first 250 words of your story.)
Let’s connect on Twitter? @TheRJLacko

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Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts

Critiquing Other People’s Writing: 7 Tips for Making Manuscripts Better

“Just shoot me now.”

A good critique may begin with this response, but soon the scolding red marks reveal overlooked obstacles to your work’s potential.

When you make friends with the red pen pointing out weak story points, redundancy or grammar errors, you give yourself the opportunity to grow as a writer and refine your final product. But is the job of the red pen wielder easier than that of the writer?

Mark Nichol of the Daily Writing Tips blog advises you make clear whether you’ve offered to evaluate a brief sample as a guide to help the person extrapolate what they should look for when they revise their draft. (If you’re asked to critique an entire book in-depth, Nichol says, you should do so only for pay or as part of a bartering arrangement, because you’re being asked to devote dozens of hours of your time.)

Let’s make one thing absolutely clear before we go any further: Critiquing is not the same as editing.  If your critique partner is “editing drastically,” the result is no longer a critique but a rewrite.

According to Nichol, the chief purpose of a fiction critique is to enable the writer to improve a manuscript by getting rid of:

  • unnecessary exposition
  • character inconsistencies
  • pointless dialogue

Thoughtful critiques from other writers can help the writer focus on essentials.

  • What exactly is the writer’s purpose?
  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What does the protagonist want?
  • Does each chapter advance the plot?

Here are seven tips for a positive, productive critiquing experience:

1. Tolerate the Task
When you write, you don’t have to be an aficionado or expert to produce an article or a story on a given topic. Editors don’t need these qualifications, either, and they don’t have to be enamored of the writer’s voice or technique. The same goes for someone conducting a critique: Don’t turn down a request for feedback just because you’re not interested in the subject or you don’t like the writing style. Help the writer succeed in reaching the audience they are writing for. (But don’t hesitate to express your opinion if you think the approach is flawed.)

2. General House-keeping
The manuscript sample you receive should appear exactly as it would look when it’s ready for submission to a publishing professional. Hard copy should be double spaced and must be free of handwritten annotations or emendations. An electronic document should be professionally formatted and at least mostly devoid of the writer’s notes to self.

  • If you’re reviewing an electronic copy, activate change tracking and edit it. Insert notes using the comment feature or by entering them in brackets, highlighted in boldface or with colored type or background, so they are easily located and distinguished from the content.
  •  If you’re working on hard copy, use a pen or a colored pencil for brief notes, and write or type your detailed queries and comments on a separate sheet of paper or in a computer document.

3. Evaluate the Writing, Not the Writer
Compliments and complaints alike should focus on the product, not the producer. Refer to the sentence or the section, the character or their actions, the narrative flow or the exchange of dialogue rather than to the person who requested your help.

4. Start — and Stop — with the Positive
Begin by lauding the strengths of the sample, and reiterate your positive feedback when you summarize your critique. Refer to strengths, not weaknesses, and use positive language: “stronger,” “more interesting,” “a better approach.” Be frank but diplomatic: Even people who can take criticism need to hear that they’re doing something right, and that’s what you should start (and end) with.

5. Craft Your Critiques
Be specific, not vague. Be active, not passive. Point out problems, but suggest solutions. Your goal is to clearly communicate to the writer about how they can more clearly communicate to their readers.

6. Invite Questions
Set up a time to go over your critique after the writer has had a chance to review it. Welcome the writer’s requests for clarification and discussion. If the writer becomes defensive, mention that you have offered your perspective, and that they are free to act on your critique as they see fit.

7. Know Your Limits
It’s reasonable for a writer to ask you for a second light look at the piece after they have made changes in response to your comments, or to request that you provide a general impression about a revision based on your in-depth critique. But establish boundaries about how much time and effort you intend to offer on the writer’s work.

Check in with the writer. No matter how careful you are about being diplomatic, the writer may feel a bit battered, and part of your unwritten contract should include a clause requiring you to keep in touch about the project.

Want to read more? Check out this article  at DailyWritingTips.com: “Critiquing” is not “Editing”. Mark Nichol is a freelance editor and writer and a former editing instructor for UC Berkeley’s Extension program, edits trade and academic books for various publishers and publishes occasional articles about the Golden Age of Hollywood at Yahoo!’s Associated Content.

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Reflections of an author’s year of revisions

This morning I stumbled upon Nova Ren Suma‘s refreshing blog post: The Year I Revised My Novel Seven Times. Is it simple enough for me to say that I’m touched by her tender and satisfied account of her hard work?

Like every writer, I want my finished manuscript to be my very best work, my heart, and if seven revisions is what I’m required to give, I will tip my hat respectfully to Ms. Suma and dig in. Cheers to her, and to every writer aiming to produce his or her own pride and joy. Here are excerpts form her post:

The first draft of Imaginary Girls was finished on January 1, 2010. I then went on to revise the manuscript over the course of this year SEVEN TIMES. One revision before showing my agent. One more revision after showing my agent. Then five more revisions with my editor. Some of those rounds of revision felt—and I think they were—pretty massive. I put my heart into that book. Then I tore it out and put it in again. I worked with an editor who really knew how to dig it all out of me, and the book that stands at the end is one I can honestly say I’m truly proud of… and I’m very hard to please.

All I know is that I’m going to look back on 2010 and be able to say—to myself, without any exaggeration—that I’ve never worked so hard on my writing in my life. I wrote the way Sugar said we should. For the first time ever in my life, I really did.

(I also started two new novels in 2010, which is miraculous now, looking back on all that time I spent in revisions.)

There’s more to this revision story, and maybe one day I’ll tell you why I ended up revising the book so many times. But I think the lesson here is that it is worth it to work hard to make the book as good as it can be. Even if you’re tired. Even if you think you can’t do it. (And I was tired, and I admit I thought I couldn’t do it.) It’s worth it to put your all into this again… and again… and however many times it takes. I have to tell you now, standing on the other side of it, it feels incredible.

Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls, her debut YA novel, is coming out from Dutton in June ’11, with a second novel to follow. She also wrote the tween novel Dani Noir, out now from Simon & Schuster.

What was the best thing that happened to you in 2010? And what was the hardest thing you did in 2010?

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The Biggest Mistakes Writers Make When Querying Literary Agents

Generally, I try to spare you overly lengthy blog posts. Most writers work from home and already have enough temptation to procrastinate from our craft with lame excuses such as folding laundry or taking the cat to the vet. This post is worth a sit-down. That is, if you’re serious about writing an excellent query letter for your manuscript.

Written by upcoming author JM Tohlin–whose novel The Great Lenore will be in stores Summer 2011–interviewed 50 agents about mistakes writers make when pitching a book.

The tips he has collected are invaluable. As Tohline comments, “You’ve (presumably) spent hundreds of hours planning, writing, editing and perfecting your manuscript. Now, it is time to treat your query with the same respect.”

He also recommends visits to Janet Reid’s Query Shark page, and to Rachelle Gardner. “Google agents and read every bit of advice they are willing to share. Study, learn, and practice! You already know that writing is an art. Now, it’s time to learn that query-writing is an art as well.”

Ready to be impressed? Here are the superb agents who contributed to this post:

Alice Martell * Amy Boggs * Amy Tipton * Annie Hawkins * Bree Ogden * Brian Defiore * Cameron McClure * Caren Estesen * Daniel Lazar * Danielle Svetcov * Don Maass * Elizabeth Pomada * Farley Chase * Gina Panettieri * Heather Mitchell * Helen Breitwieser * Helen Zimmermann * Janet Kobobel Grant * Jeff Gerecke * Joyce Hart * Kate McKean * Kimberley Cameron * Laney Becker * Liv Blumer * Lucinda Blumenfeld * Lucy Carson * Marietta Zacker * Maura Teitelbaum * Michael Murphy * Michelle Wolfson * Mollie Glick * Pam Ahearn * Rachel Dowen * Richard Curtis * Russell Galen * Sally van Haitsma * Sam Stoloff * Sean McCarthy * Sheree Bykofsky * Stephany Evans * and those who requested to remain anonymous.

In JM Tohline’s words, here are the mistakes these agents mentioned most often:

Mentioned 3x
“Go to my website for a sample of my work…”
“Find my query attached…”
Querying before your manuscript is ready

Note: “Before your manuscript is ready” does not mean “before the first draft is finished.” It means querying before you have written the first draft, allowed the manuscript sit undisturbed for a month, edited it multiple times – during which time you have begun to bleed from the head, due to the number of times you have pounded it against the wall in your pursuit of perfection – and handed it out to people to read, edited it some more, removed about half the manuscript and been tempted to throw the whole thing away, taken another break from it, come back feeling rejuvenated and edited it some more, had some more people read it…and edited it some more. After all this, your manuscript might be ready for querying.

As Donald Maass put it: “Granted, it’s difficult for newer writers to judge when their novels are in final form but I can say this: for first time novelists, 99.99% of the time when they begin querying agents they’re not really done.

Cameron McClure (of the Donald Maass Agency) added this: “Most writers query too soon – either before the book is really ready to be read by an industry professional, or with a book that is a learning book, or a starter book, where the writer is working through the themes that will come out in later books with more clarity, getting things out of their system, making mistakes that most beginners make, finding their voice.

Mentioned 4x
Talking about the book’s sequel, or…
…pitching more than one book at a time
Writing a query that lacks confidence

Mentioned 5x
Writing a query that is overconfident or pompous
Sending a query that has clearly not been proofread

Mentioned 9x
Queries addressed to “Dear Agent” (or anything similar!

Mentioned 10x
Vague query letters!

Mentioned 11x
Queries with more than one agent listed in the “To” field

Mentioned 14x
Queries that have no clue what the agent represents, or…
…that have no clue what the agent’s submission guidelines are

And there you have the basic breakdown. But your pot of coffee is still mostly full. Remember, your query letter is the first (and possibly only) impression you’ll ever make on an agent. Don’t slam the door on yourself – learn everything you can about writing a good query letter.

Jeff Gerecke – who mentioned both writers who send letters to him with a “Dear Agent” salutation and who query him regarding areas he does not represent – told me about a service that generates mass queries to agents. Let’s be honest – if you have not taken the time to find out what an agent represents (let alone to find out anything about them and address them directly!), why would they assume you took the time to write a worthwhile novel? As Jeff said in his email,I do expect writers to submit to lots of agents, but not blindly, so putting my name in the query doesn’t seem too much to ask.” Sally van Haitsma echoed with similar sentiments: “We assume you are sending out queries to multiple agents, and even encourage authors to do so since this is such a subjective business, but as a first impression it’s important to customize queries so they address us by name.

More specific thoughts on this topic came from Sam Stoloff:It might be a silly prejudice on my part, but I automatically discount queries that aren’t addressed to me personally. If the writer hasn’t taken the time to find out a little about me, to make sure that I’d be an appropriate agent for their work, and to put my name at the top of their query as a gesture of professional courtesy, then I am simply less likely to take the query seriously.

Are you starting to get the picture? As Mollie Glick said in regards to the “multiple agents in the subject line” problem:We like to feel special!

Sean McCarthy even took this one step further:I think the biggest mistake that writers make when querying me is not letting me know why I – specifically – would be a great match for their project. I know that it can be time-consuming to customize query letters, but even a simple sentence that references my taste, my background or projects that I’ve worked on will go a long way towards getting your pitch more attention.

After all, writing your novel was time-consuming, right? Editing your novel was time-consuming. Think twice before you send an anonymous query letter; the extra time is worth it.

Incredibly, this generalized sort of approach some writers take stretches itself even thinner than the basic “Dear Agent” letter.

Bree Ogden’s email gave an example of this that was embarrassing even to read (Point 1), and she proceeded to give two more suggestions (Points 2 & 3) that are very important to keep in mind! Her email looked like this:

1. If a writer isn’t going to research the right agents for their project, that’s really mainly hurting them, but at least don’t publicize it to the agent they are querying. For example: When I was a brand new agent, I would get queries that would say, “I am impressed with your sales and recent projects…” It was clear they had no idea who I was. So if you’re not going to do your research (which you absolutely should) at least try to make it look like you did.

2. This may be way more of a personal preference, but I do not like getting queries in which the author bio is the first thing on the page. In my opinion it should be last. I need to be hooked by the premise of the book in order to want to continue reading the query. And frankly, author bios can get a bit insipid. Instant query turn-off.

3. Loooooooong queries. There is an art to writing a query letter. And because the letter is an author’s key to the publishing world, learn that art. Writing extremely lengthy queries is a no-no and I usually stop midway through because I either lose interest or forget where the author was going. Agents have so much going on….an author needs to grab them with a concise, punchy, hard-boiled query.

One of my favorite agents, Michael Murphy (from one of my favorite agencies, Max & Co.) put it like this:
The answer to your question is an easy one.
The single biggest mistake writers make when querying me is sending manuscripts for areas I do not represent. On my website, in all my interviews, and I believe in most websites that list areas of interest for each agent, it is quite clearly stated that I do not represent YA, prescription (How To) nonfiction, nor genre fiction (SF, fantasy, romance, thrillers). Yet almost half the queries I receive are for these very categories.

I am dumbfounded by this. If I were applying for a job as a dental hygienist, I don’t think I’d apply to Jiffy Lube. Writers need to do a bit of research before spewing their query letters to every Tom, Dick, & Harry calling themselves a literary agent.

Normally, I reply with a simple note that I do not represent their kind of work. However, as these queries pile up, I am considering just hitting DELETE. Their lack of effort is wasting my time and their own.

Sorry to come off as a miserly bastard, but in this one area I feel like a miserly bastard.

In other words: If you are going to approach an agent – as Amy Tipton said – quite simply, “Do your homework!

Furthermore, send the query to the agents! Don’t post it on your website and send them the link. Gina Panettieri said,Don’t try to cut corners by simply referring agents to your website rather than writing a well-prepared query. It’s great to let us know about your website and we can check it out to get more info about you and your book, but we’ll only do that IF you’ve intrigued us with your knock-out query!” On this subject, Alice Martell put it like this: “If you’re asking someone to do something for you that they do not have to do, but you really want them to, you should make it as easy as possible for them.

Remember, agents do not have to read your query! In fact, most of them are not especially looking to add new clients. Don’t act like you’re doing them a favor by allowing them a shot at your work – put the query right there where they can read it, and give yourself a chance!

Several of the most in-depth insights came from Helen Zimmermann, who emailed a copy of the “What Not To Do In A Query” section of the lecture she gives at writers’ conferences…. Continue to read this post in its entirety for more excellent, thought-provoking advice, including nine less-obvious mistakes contributed by agent Liv Blumer.

You can  find Mr. Tohline on Twitter @JMTohline. Learn more about him and his new book The Great Lenore here.

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