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26. Week in Review 2/22/15

This week just flew by. Of course, a holiday on Monday does absolutely nothing for winnowing down the To Do list; meetings, events and out of town guests don't help either. This whole weekend will be devoted toward work if I have any hope of starting Monday with anything less than the entire to do list from last week.

Monday's blog post on whether reviewing books would hurt a writer's chance to connect with an agent brought up something I had not considered previously:   MB Owen wrote

"Do you review as a Reader (taste) or a Writer? (technique)."

I think that's an interesting distinction. I like to think of myself as a reader first, everything else second, but when I don't like a book, it's often for some bad technique like plot holes or raging black stallions being suddenly rideable by naked titian-haired virgins (thank Julie Weathers for that hilarity.)

The books not to my taste are often the books I don't read at all (books on child abuse etc.) I'm trying to think of a book that I've read recently that just didn't appeal to me at all on a taste level and I'm drawing a blank.

A Valez asked a good question in the comments column: "Would any of this apply to simply rating a book (through the Goodreads star system)? I don't write reviews, but I almost always rate them. Would an agent really care if I had one-stared one of their client's books?"

Oh hell YES I'd care! And the problem is that simply rating with stars doesn't even explain the reason. I would just assume you are dunderhead with no taste of any kind. (Yes, I can be a little over the top on these matters.)

Ardenwolf made a good point: "Imagine being a literary agent. You look someone up, and you find tons and tons of nasty, scathing reviews that blast the author and the author's work." If I do see your Goodreads profile and there are a lot of nasty, scathing reviews even if not of my clients, I'm going to think twice about working with you. That kind of mind-set is not one I find attractive.

But let's all remember that I do not actively search out reviews on Goodreads or elsewhere if you're querying me. I do not set the Private Detective Shark on your trail to make sure you are properly respectful of all I hold dear. Mostly I just hope you write something so fabulous that I can't wait to start talking about it to other people.

And Terri Lynn Coop pretty much summed up how to write good book reviews: use an alias and talk about the book.

On Tuesday the topic turned to querying a previously published novel without full disclosure. I pretty much had a heart attack about that idea. Lots of Capital Letters Were Involved.

What was really interesting was that most of the ensuing comments were hilariously, joyously and COMPLETELY off topic. In other words, the best kind.

First, it seems as though there's a start time for comments since Colin was tapping his toe, waiting for Susan who apparently has been watching Downton Abbey until the wee hours.

DLM mentioned we need a new label for questions like this. I rather like her suggestion: Query Shenanigans. She also confessed she is an "unrepentant fan of a certain trash TV program even I can't name because it's that shameful. :)"  Which of course makes me intensely insanely curious what it could be?

And of course, as Terri Lynn Coop pointed out Julie Weathers wins the internet for her summing up the blog topic:

It's kind of like saying you'll volunteer to be the virgin sacrifice to save the village even though you did it with Eddie Finklebottom once. It wasn't very good, so that really doesn't count, does it?

Which was followed by Donnaeverhart asking: "all I want to know at this point is, does Eddie Finklebottom know Felix Buttonweezer?" and that made me laugh so loud I think I scared the pigeons on the window sill.

DLM told us "I've been clicking the profiles of all the users I don't know as well, and saving those who have blogs" which reminded me to tell you that having contact info for your commenting name is really important. On occasion, I remove comments made by regular posters. I WILL email to let you know why if I have your email address. A lot of you are contest winners, so I have emails from you, but if I don't, I click on your profile. You should be reachable for lots of reasons, just add this one to your list.

Between the weather, the cats, and the nuts (both human and food) Tuesday's was a comment string for the ages.

On Wednesday I used an email to talk about speculative fiction and why I don't represent it. And that pretty much sent everyone into an apoplexy when I said "just ignore category, send everything." It was really rather fun to see you guys work yourselves up into a lather.

DLM made me laugh so hard with her courtroom drama, that in fact, I'm still laughing on Friday night as I write this recap.

Colin's courtroom drama had a couple lines that I think I need to tattoo somewhere. This is one of them:

DENA: How do you explain, Ms. Shark-for-brains, the sudden spike the number of queries submitted to you over the last month?

QOTKU: I don't know. My charm? My people skills?

Jenz said "So all this time, as I've been hunting for books with sci-fi elements but set in the contemporary world, Janet has been handling them and hiding them under the thriller label." Yup, guilty. Start with Patrick Lee's The Breach series and then try Jeff Somers' Avery Cates series. Patrick's new series starts with RUNNER, and Jeff's new series is WE ARE NOT GOOD PEOPLE. That should keep you reading for a nice long time. And yes, I love those books with a passion that makes that untamed black stallion look like a pony ride in the park.

And Colin's punch line "Or just query Janet. She'll take anything. ;)" reminded me of this great ad.

RE Journey asked "I did query Janet during a Chum Bucket, with a lovely rejection saying "DO query onward." (Yes the "DO" was capitalized). I have fretted over this. Is it a typo or strong encouragement that my ramblings could be something..."

Which of course is highly insulting to think that I, ME, the Queen of the Known Universe would have a typo, GADZOOKS, a typo!!! in any of my emails to writers. Heaven forfend. *swims off in a huff*

In other words, don't assume it's a typo if it's encouraging or I will come to your house and beat you over the head with Amy's nuts(which now include melons, so this is a threat of epic proportion. Or epic fantasy, you choose.)

On Friday the topic was lack of communication from an agent to a prospective client. I suggested the writer keep querying but also not just write off the prospective agent. We're all behind, all the time, and some of us have learned (the hard way) to keep people posted on that kind of thing.

Dena mentioned "According to the CA state bar, the number one complaint the public has against lawyers is “my lawyer never communicates with me.”" Years ago I heard that the number one reason patients sued their doctors for malpractice was that the doctor didn't talk to them about problems they were having with treatment/procedures or wouldn't answer their questions.

Many of you took me to task for not recognizing that the agent missing phone calls was a bad sign this early in the relationship. As Julie Weathers pointed out "some time back [Janet} mentioned this is a wooing period. When the agent has decided they want the client and are putting their best foot forward. Am I dreaming this? Anyway, if this is their best foot, what happens later when they aren't wooing?"

Julie's not dreaming, I did say that. And it should be true, but I just hate to have a writer slam a door when she doesn't have to. More than once I've gotten an exasperated email from a non-client writer who wonders if her agent is dead/fled/taking vows at the local convent, only to have the situation resolve nicely with a phone call.

Jennifer R. Donahue gets a gold star for getting "murder of crows" into a blog comment.

On Friday the blog post was on whether to sell a second book to a small publisher or wait for "something better"

Colin Smith wrote the best description of agent versus non-agent and I'm going to steal it shamelessly and hope I remember to credit him for it when I use it from now on:

From my reading (not from experience) I would liken the difference between being agented and being unagented to traversing the jungle with or without a native guide. With a native guide you're not as likely to get lost, bitten, or attacked, and the guide will also be able to point out things along the way you may not have noticed on your own. On the other hand, without a guide, you're free to take your own path, you can detour and perhaps see things the guide might not have thought you would want to see (or maybe missed), and you get all the credit for making it through. Without a guide you have to be more savvy and you probably work and worry a bit more, but you control your journey. With a guide, you feel safer in the hands of someone who knows the terrain, but you lose some sense of control.

Pros and cons. It's really about career choices, not good vs. bad.

CarolynWith2Ns (and some odd items in her basement) revealed her strategy for connecting to an agent:

Anyway, I have held out for years for an agent and unless I kidnap and hide one in my basement I'm about ready to go small-press or on my own, double ugh. So the question is what do I feed the agent in my cellar, Doritos and whiskey or kale and Icelandic glacier water?

which is a very strange question because everyone knows lettuce is the food of the Devil, and that includes kale. Since we already have glacier water here, I'm going with whisky and Doritos.

Donnaeverhart demonstrated her desire to join Colin Smith in the The Great Pit of Carkoon by just mentioning Lima beans.

On Saturday the topic was what do you need for your second book if an editor buys the first book which quickly became a discussion of pantsers versus plotters. It looks like a bunch of you are pantsers. I heard Jeff Somers give a GREAT talk on using BOTH strategies to get over plotting bumps in the road. He did it for Writers Digest about a year ago. I have no idea if they recorded it and you can access it, but if you can, DO. Jeff may sound like a drunken bum at times but he's hiding a very keen mind and writing strategy behind that liquor cabinet.

And donnaeverhart wondered how agents "query" publishers or editors: Or maybe calls them and shrieks, "you gotta read this NOW!"

Generally I don't use the word query about what I do for sending client's work to editors I use the word pitch.

I write a bunch of pitch letters just like you write a bunch of queries. I revise it, say it out loud, recite it in to my phone so I can hear it read back to me on voice mail, and then I call editors and give them a quick phone pitch. Then I send the longer pitch by email.

So far, so good.

I have indeed called favorite editors and said "read this now or die" but I have a hard time not bursting into gales of laughter when I do.

And the cat and dog pictures were fabulous. Just the thing for a snowy afternoon.

Over on my Facebook page, I posted a link from the Bloomsbury Review with a list of words that have become obscure or outdated.

I'm pretty sure you'll see one or two of those in upcoming flash fiction contests! Slugabed seems to be the one most people know. I was in fact surprised to see it listed as outdated. It's a word that I use a LOT here, particularly on cold winter mornings.

A Facebook post that generated quite a big of discussion was the writer who "personalized" her queries but then just forwarded each one to the next person on her list. I'd never seen anything like it before. It was horribly hilariously wrong. I sure hope she figures it out soon.

This week I also read the new Lyndsay Faye novel The Fatal Flame. On-sale is May 2015. I'm a drooling devoted Lyndsay Faye fan as you should be too, and this one does not disappoint in any way.

I also finished Cop Town by Karin Slaughter, nominated for Best Novel at the Edgars. This is an absolutely stunning novel. All crime writers should read this. It evokes a specific place and time better than almost anything I can remember. The plot moves right along too. My hope is that Stuart Neville wins the Edgar cause I know him and adore him, but Cop Town is fierce competition.

I also read Uncle Janice by Matt Burgess and it too is a book every crime writer should read. It was pitched as a cross between Catch-22 and The Wire, which is a terrible set of comps until you realize it's exactly right. There's almost no plot to this book but I couldn't put it down.

And for those of you reading this who have manuscripts waiting for me to read, you might wonder why I'm reading these other books and not your manuscript. That's a fair question. I need to read published books, and particularly books that are really good so I can recalibrate my eye after reading a lot of manuscripts on submission or, worse,  queries. If the only thing I read are submissions I lose perspective. It took me a LONG time to learn that let me tell you.

Same with writing this blog and posting on Facebook. Sometimes people say "how do you find the time" and/or "shouldn't you be working?" Writing this blog has taught me a lot about good writing, how to get better, how to be clear and how to revise (oh god, some of those older posts!) All of that is very useful for my "real" work with authors. Besides, the comments column is the best part of my day. As for Facebook, it's a whole lot easier to help writers build a fan base of readers on Facebook if you've actually tried to do that yourself. Knowing how hard it is to build platform is a pretty key part of my job.

And just cause it's so weird, here's my favorite news story this week.

Next week's forecast is for more cold and more snow. I'm seriously considering moving in with Amy Schaefer, coconuts or no.

Why I am not there now, I do not know.

0 Comments on Week in Review 2/22/15 as of 2/22/2015 12:25:00 PM
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27. Query Question: "next work" outline/synopsis/nothing!

I have a manuscript on submission now that's getting requests. It's part of a series. I've started working on the second book, but I'm also working on a second, entirely different book. I always have two projects going and it's possible project one will never sell.

What I wonder is, being a woodland creature, what happens if I get interest in the manuscript and they ask for an outline on the second one in the series or the second and third? I spent ten days trying to force an outline and my brain just doesn't work that way. I see scenes and write them. I know how the books start and end and some things in between, but not everything. Things just sort of fall into place at the right time. Are agents or publishers going to take a chance on an airhead who can't plot out a book?

Yup. I've got a bunch of 'em here taking up real estate on my client list. I tend not to think of them as airheads however as much as pantsers.

When you get an offer on the book on submission, the editor will often ask "what else does the author have?"  You don't need an ouline or a synsopsis, but it does help to have a concept statement and something about what the book is about.

That said, if you don't, you don't.  I've sold LOTS of books that no one knew anything about (including the author.)  Most of the time it works out just fine.

Stop worrying about this. Worry about how cold my toes are and send cat pictures to warm me up!

0 Comments on Query Question: "next work" outline/synopsis/nothing! as of 2/21/2015 7:57:00 AM
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28. WD Poetic Form Challenge: Gogyohka Winner

Thank you to everyone who submitted a gogyohka! I’ve been sitting on the winner and already have the erasure winner ready too (look for that next week).

My initial short list included nearly 50 poems, so it was crazy competitive (like usual). But I did cut it down to one winner and 10 finalists. This time around Marian O’Brien Paul won for her poem “Parsing Autumn,” which was actually a gogyohka chain.

Here’s the winning Gogyohka:

Parsing Autumn, by Marian O’Brien Paul

In our courtyard
two locust trees
one drenching us
with gold
before the other

Slate-gray lake
beneath the sky
mirror image:
a selfie

On the ground
a dead squirrel
its tail still bushy
body curled
as if sleeping

Pumpkins piled
into mounds
at markets
promising pies


2015 Poet's Market

2015 Poet’s Market

Publish your poetry!

Get the most trusted guide to publishing your poetry: the 2015 Poet’s Market!

Edited by Robert Lee Brewer, this edition of Poet’s Market includes articles on the craft of poetry, business of poetry, and promotion of poetry. Plus, interviews with poets and original contemporary poems. Oh yeah, and hundreds of poetry publishing opportunities, including book publishers, chapbook publishers, magazines, journals, online publications, contests, and so much more!

Click to continue.


Here is the Top 10 list:

  1. “Parsing Autumn,” by Marian O’Brien Paul
  2. “Two Big Herons on a Little Pond,” by William Preston
  3. “Lump,” by Marie Elena Good
  4. “(When I misplace),” by drnurit
  5. “Envy,” by J. Lynn Sheridan
  6. “Dying Embers,” by Tracy Davidson
  7. “Landlord,” by Jessica Cummins
  8. “(the moon),” by James Brush
  9. “Trouble in Paradise,” by Daniel Roessler
  10. “lost,” by Nancy Posey

Congratulations to Marian and everyone in the Top 10! And thank you to everyone who took the time to participate and comment on each others’ poems.

As mentioned above, an announcement on the erasure challenge is coming soon. In the meantime, watch for the next poetic form and poetic form challenge.

Also, be sure to read through all the comments from the gogyohka challenge. Click to continue.


roberttwitterimageRobert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of the poetry collection, Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). He edits Poet’s Market, Writer’s Market, and Guide to Self-Publishing, in addition to writing a free weekly WritersMarket.com newsletter and poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine.

He loves reading and writing the various poetic forms and can’t wait for the next April Poem-A-Day Challenge (not far away now).

Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.


Find more poetic posts here:

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29. Query Question: Strategy for second book

A little over a year ago, I published a noir novel with a small, but known crime publisher. It got good reviews, but not huge sales. Still,  I was hoping to parlay that into getting an agent for my second book, but, alas, even the shark has not bitten yet.

Now the publisher is asking about my second book. I'd like to get another title under my belt, but they don't really have the resources for marketing. My question is, should I go with a second book with them, and build my list, or keep holding out for something better?

There is no hard and fast rule to answer this question, I'm sorry to say.  The first thing you need to ask yourself is what you want your career to look like. You can stay happily published for years with a small press, selling at "not huge sales" numbers.  If you move to a traditional press, you need good sales, and then more sales. And they are generally not going to give you any more help on that than your small press did unless you're one of the top five books in their catalog. They may tell you differently; don't believe them.

What bigger publishers can do very well is make sure that trade accounts know about your book, and libraries too. What bigger publishers do NOT do very well is build a community of fans.  That is your job (whether you have it done for you, or you do it) and would be with any publisher.

One thing you do need to know is how many books your small publisher can print, and if they can print MORE if you need them.  Returns can kill a small press so they are not likely to print huge numbers without huge orders before hand.

There's nothing wrong with building a successful career with a small press. A lot of very fine writers have done that.

If you dream of moving to a bigger league though, you'll need to have an established community of readers to take with you.

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30. Melissa Cutler's Cozy Reading Corner

My favorite place to read is also my favorite place to work longhand on my books: the beach. And not just any beach. I’m lucky enough to call San Diego, California, my home, with nearly a hundred miles of coastline to choose from for a cozy reading place. What makes a great reading beach for me? No crowds, easy parking, and a daily buffet of surfers to watch. Ahem.

Anyhow, I found just such a spot at the literal southwest corner of the USA—the southernmost beach in San Diego, where I can look to my left and see details down to the individual windows in the charming Mexican beach resort across the Tijuana river mouth, it’s so close. I like to chill at this beach at least once a week, so I always keep a beach chair in the trunk of my car, along with a beach bag filled with sunscreen, a notepad, pens, and a water bottle. Toss in my Kindle and I’m ready to go!


Melissa Cutler knows she has the best job in the world writing sexy contemporary romances and romantic suspense. Her latest release is UNDEFEATED, a contemporary romance featuring a hockey-playing ex-soldier and a yoga teacher. You can learn more about UNDEFEATED at Melissa’s website

Melissa was struck at an early age by an unrelenting travel bug and is probably planning her next vacation as you read this. When she's not globetrotting, she's enjoying Southern California's flip-flop wearing weather and wrangling two rambunctious kids. She loves hearing from readers at melissa@melissacutler.net, or on Facebook and Twitter. Visit www.melissacutler.netto learn more about Melissa and her books and don’t forget to sign up for her newsletter: http://bit.ly/16mkpCs

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31. Snow Shovelling Showdown

You’re outside shoveling your own driveway when you decide, as a kind gesture, to shovel your neighbor’s driveway too. Just then a group of teenagers with shovels show up and threaten you, claiming that this is “their turf.” What do you do?

Post your response (500 words or fewer) in the comments below.

writing-promptsWant more creative writing prompts?

Pick up a copy of A Year of Writing Prompts: 365 Story Ideas for Honing Your Craft and Eliminating Writer’s Block. There’s a prompt for every day of the year and you can start on any day.

Order now from our shop.


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32. Query Question: I think I have an agent but she's not responding

Over my couple of years querying (had one agent I left because she never sent out my book as promised until I nudged and then never passed along the editor response until I nudged--four months apart) I have seen agent behavior deteriorating. I have had probably six agents recently who never responded to a full request, even to polite follow-up nudges. This used to seem shocking, now it's rapidly becoming standard.

And now--this agent offered rep, we talked, I accepted (no contract yet) and she has blown off two follow-up calls. I mean saying are you available tomorrow afternoon and then not calling or sending a note to cancel. This leaves me in a very uncomfortable spot. I am a consultant who always follows up with clients. I understand busy, also being a workaholic who has multiple projects at one time. If I'm in the middle of something, I send a note to let someone know.

My instinct is to pull the plug but not having a full understanding of "agent" protocol, wonder if I am alarmist and maybe she just has an extremely casual approach. I mean, if my daughter did that I wouldn't think she didn't like me or something or was a flake. But this woman supposedly wants me as a client. Not a good impression. I feel as important to her as sidewalk debris. Not a nice feeling!! 

Five years ago you would have gotten a good rant out of me about unresponsive agents and how disrespectful not answering emails etc is.

Now, not so much.

Here's the thing it's helpful for authors to remember, and it was one of the hardest things for me to learn AND figure out how to accommodate:  no matter what I plan to do today, something will come up that knocks that plan into a cocked hat.

It can be that a description of a client's book on Amazon reveals too much of the plot. I need to get in touch with the editor, make sure they get new copy written and put into the system and most important, that I have a calender item that says to follow up in a week or ten days.

I sometimes think my entire job is writing notes on my date book about things to follow up on.

It can be the arrival of a batch of royalty statements, all of which need to be scrutinized. I know I'll be writing at least one or two emails for every five pages of royalty statement I receive. Some of my clients have 35 page royalty statements. And that's just for ONE of their series.

And right now it can be clients calling with questions on their 1099 tax forms. Those questions go to the head of the line, trumping even royalty statements.

You wrote that you have "multiple projects at one time" which means you're busy I'm sure. Do you have 36 projects going not just at one time, but all the time? That's my workload. And that's just authors. Most authors have multiple books, and multiple deals for each book (translation, audio, film.)  That puts my number of multiple projects just north of 100. And that doesn't count queries, answering questions on the blog or what most other agents try to do: have a life.

Some people are better at balancing this kind of deluge than others. You might have queried an agent who isn't. It doesn't mean she's not a good agent, or will be scattered in her business dealings. It just means that when her inbox tops 100, she's not writing the kinds of "hey, I haven't forgotten you emails" that would ease your mind.

Sure, we all wish she would. But, before you pull the plug on an agent you think is a good fit, give her some time to get caught up. Continued polite nudging is OK.  Don't read more into it than she's got a lot going on.

And one of the main reasons people (not just agents) don't reply to nudging emails: it generates MORE email.  On the days I send status reports to clients or queriers I know my inbox will flood. If you're trying to get your head above water, that's daunting.

Right now, you should be querying since you don't have a contract and the agent hasn't said why that is.  You query until you have an agent, and right now, you don't.

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33. The Publishing Job Search

I was emailing with a former intern recently and she was asking for some advice on finding a job in publishing. It's a conversation we have almost every year with our interns, at least with the ones who are smart and ambitious.

The one tip I gave her about the search for a publishing job is that the trick is knowing what genre the editor/agent specializes in. For example, if you're interviewing for a job with a romance editor that editor/agent is going to want an assistant who has a love for romance, or at least reads it. The applicant who says the last books she read were for school or only YA is probably not the right person for that job.

On my first job interview, 400 years ago, I was about 9 months out of college and had spent my summer reading everything I could buy off the drugstore rack. It was the summer of The Bridges of Madison County, John Grisham, and Michael Crichton and I was devouring them all. When I interviewed for my job, the editor seemed noticeably impressed when I told her what I had been reading (I was applying at Berkley after all) and we had a long discussion about Bridges of Madison County. I got the job.

So for anyone looking to find a job in publishing read what you read and apply for every job you can, but remember that when talking with the editor knowing your stuff as it relates to her stuff will take you far.


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34. More on how to figure out what agents represent

I have finished Signal (loved it), but am left puzzled by one thing. How is it you think you don’t rep speculative fiction? Oh, I know Patrick Lee and Jeff Somers write a fast-paced story that you could nudge over to thriller/suspense, but seriously. People are going to start putting two and two together, you know. If you sell it they will come – the queriers, I mean. Heck, I might even lead the charge.

Well, I don't represent speculative fiction cause I'm not really sure what it is.  I signed Patrick Lee for a book that I think of as a thriller. I pitched it as a thriller. It got published by an imprint of Harper that does science fiction. We sold enough copies that I know it sold to people who don't read science fiction.  Same with Runner. I pitched that as a thriller. It was marketed as a thriller.  If you think it's speculative fiction, I'm ok with that as long as you buy many many copies of the book.

And Jeff Somers was signed for a book called CHUM that isn't speculative fiction (whatever that is) and when I sold Electric Church I thought it was science fiction, or a dystopian thriller.

I make jokes about this by saying I sold dystopian by mistake, I thought it was something else.

Which is of course really funny until you're a writer trying to figure out what the hell I want to read.

Well, here's a suggestion: ignore category. Just send everything. I don't particularly care. I'll read pages from enticing queries no matter what category you place it in because I've learned that what I call it can be much different than what the editor calls it, or where it gets shelved after the marketing people take a whack at it.

This is why you do NOT start a query with "here's my speculative fiction novel." You start with the name of the protagonist and what's at stake. You reel the reader into the story FIRST, then close with what you think is the category (and half the time you're wrong, but I don't care about that either.)

The reason most people who write what you might call speculative fiction won't find a place on my list though is cause I've already got Patrick Lee and Jeff Somers, and those guys keep me pretty damn busy. Fortunately Brooks Sherman likes that kind of writing too, and he's got more room on his list than I do.

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35. Short and Sweet on Queries

A Blurb might be painful and I think every author would prefer she could skip the blurb and just get the agent, editor and reader to read her writing. But that blurb is the only way you're going to get people to read your writing. It's not just agents who need the blurb. It's editors, and it's readers. 

Before a reader will even consider opening the book to read the writing they are going to read the back cover blurb. Often the back cover blurb is taking directly from the author’s initial query.


0 Comments on Short and Sweet on Queries as of 2/18/2015 9:53:00 AM
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36. Query Question: I need a mulligan!

Part of your response to a blog question recently was: “And book publishers don't always see "previously published" as a problem. Lots of books have second, even third, lives in book publishing.”

I am thinking ahead to querying literary agents for my soon-to-be-completed second novel. In 2009 I came close to getting representation for my first novel by the fact that several agents had requested the full. Though I was not offered representation, I learned what I needed to do to improve my work.

Back in 2009 – 2010 the publishing industry seemed to be in upheaval because of the proliferation of digital publishing and the ease with which writers could become self-published. I did my best to avoid self-publishing, but I wanted to get my work out there for the world to see. I found a small publisher that offered what I considered a “hybrid” model—a POD arrangement with Ingram using my company name as an imprint of their publishing company. In essence, I was still self-publishing but under the guise of an actual publisher. For that reason, an earlier thriller author who had done the same thing with the same small publisher, got the ITW to place it on the ITW approved list. I therefore gained status as an ITW author-member. That was in 2011.

So, to my reason for contacting you. I envisioned the possibility of my future agent selling my second novel, and also getting a publisher to publish my first novel as a paperback because it had been published in hardcover. But yesterday, another potential option hit me. Since lack of marketing is what caused low book sales, what about querying agents about that book now, but under a different title? I am convinced that what I had done to improve it in 2010 will garner even more interest now by literary agents.

Do NOT do this under any circumstances. You should NOT query a book that's already been published without telling the agent at the query letter stage.

Oddly, I've had this happen to me more than a couple times recently. Somebody, somewhere must be advising writers to do this. It's BAD advice.

Here's why: If I don't know this book has already been published, and I pitch it to editors as a brand new book, someone is going to find out and then it's going to be a true shitstorm.

And here's how someone is going to find out: they're going to buy the "new" book and remember they read the first book, and they're going to write a one-star review on Amazon saying "this author is trying to sell old hats for new."

If a book is published, and then re-published, you need to say so on the copyright page. "This book was previously published as SharkJammies for Kittens" in 1995." 

If you think readers aren't going to make the connection, you're gambling a whole lot on your readers being stupid. 

I learned the hard way to check those copyright page notices because a lot of old time authors get re-pubbed under different titles, particularly if they have both UK and US editions.

You also really really really do not want to start what we hope will be a long term, mutually beneficial relationship by lying. Lying by omission is lying. Don't do it.

Here's what you should do: query the second novel. Tell your agent about the first novel. Decide together how to proceed.

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37. Co-Authoring Agreements

In a recent email a writer asked for advice on finding a publishing lawyer. She and a friend have been in the process of writing a project that's under contract with a small publisher. Her concern is that the project is, in her words, "far from a normal co-authorship" and they've never had a formal contract between them.

First let me clarify that there is no such thing as a normal co-authorship. In fact, I'm always willing to tell you that there are few things in publishing, or life for that matter, that are "normal". How an arrangement is made between co-authors is many and varied. I've seen all sorts of things, and I've seen no actual real arrangement. It's the latter that scares me.

If you ever make the decision to enter into a co-authorship with anyone (friend, critique partner, lover, spouse, child...) my first bit of advice, before anything else is written, is that you write up some sort of contract. If you have an agent it's something your agent can help you with. If you don't, feel free to get a lawyer, or write up something yourself, but something you can both agree to. The agreement should include, among other things, how to handle due dates, the split of ownership of the property as well as money, what happens if one person wants to quit writing and what happens if one of the partners dies.

Writing a book together is a business arrangement from the start. When Jacky Sach and I first made the decision to start BookEnds we immediately met with business advisors and other agents for their advice. And we made a business plan and a partnership agreement. We wanted to know, should anything horrible happen, that we could not only protect ourselves, but protect our friendship. I think it worked. Fifteen years later and a dissolved partnership and we're still friends. Having things in writing from the beginning made it easier to know how things would end, without hurt feelings.

The tricky piece of this writer's email is that they probably have some of these terms defined. If they have a contract with the publisher the contract is in either one name or in both which would mean either one author owns the material and the rights (as defined by that publishing contract) or everything is split 50/50.

I hope this duo is able to firm up an agreement quickly. I hope that anyone else starting such an arrangement does the same immediately.


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38. Query Question: Can reviewing books hurt my chances with an agent

One issue that keeps me up at night—aside from school, plot holes, and oh-my-god-did-my-skirt-go-with-my-top-today—is whether being a Goodreads reviewer will affect my chances of being picked up by an agent. I NEVER bash an author in negative reviews, but I do have never-reading shelves for writers that I perceive to be rude to reviewers/bloggers (e.g. Kathleen Hale). What if an agent comes across a negative review of her client's book and decides not to rep me? Should I stop reviewing altogether?

well, no, but you're right to be thinking about this. 
I've mentioned this before but it bears repeating: trash one of my client's books and we're done.

Now by "trash" I do NOT mean a well-thought out, well-written review that points out plot holes, or unbelievable characters, or lack of tension.  Those are legitimate things to criticize about a book. I may not agree with your opinion, but I'm not going to add you to my fecal roster for writing them.

Where the line gets murky is exactly what you mentioned: never-reading shelves. Or "Authors I don't like" shelves. Or "Rude authors" shelves. Or "Authors who have spouses who should just shut the hell up" shelves.

Here  you're not talking about the book. You're talking about your perceptions of an author's behaviour. You'll want to be VERY careful about that because as we all know from the Justine Sacco Twitter fiasco, things get taken out of context, or someone doesn't pick up on irony, things go viral, and soon bear no resemblance to reality. You don't want to be on the wrong side of that. 

I think writing about books is an excellent way to hone your writing skills and get practice in how to talk about books. Stay on the right side of the professional line, avoid temptation to label any author with "will never read" and you'll be fine.

If you want to see what a good review that has some well-made points about one of my clients, here's our very own Colin Smith writing about Crashers by Dana Haynes. Colin is not a client, but he's a regular blog reader. Sadly, he was banished to The Great Pit of Carkoon last week, but I think he was rescued and returned.  He was NOT banished for this review.

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39. Week in review 2/15/15

And what  a week it's been, mostly due to the weather. I'm not much on snow and ice and we've had enough of that this week to last the rest of the year. Of course, readers farther north are getting hit much harder, so I should probably remember "it could be worse!"

Last week's WIR found Colin Smith suggesting a dedicated blog for the flash fiction contests.  Flying monkeys descended on Colin's house and he was summarily freeze-fried, then transported to the Great Pit of Carkoon, where if he very lucky, some droids might come along to save him.

A dreadful typo on John "Ol Chumbucket" Baur's name had to be fixed. Baur like Reid, Kristin and Sean has a million spellings but only one is correct for each person. Honest to Godiva (only one spelling) you'd think I of all people would remember that.

Jenz has one of the best lines of the week here, continuing the discussion on suspense and tension: "Ah, the hardships of writing first person. You can't just stick a bomb under the table."

Monday was the flash fiction contest results.  Kitty pointed out that the writer with the "best typo" erased the entry (which is a shame, but it's the writer's choice, can't argue)  The typo itself was tomb for tome.  I loved it.

One of our winners was Amy Schaefer and many of you know Amy does not live in the cold dark north. In fact, the only way to get real books to her involve hand-offs at the airport and secret passwords.  Because the prize (the ARC of SIGNAL by Patrick Lee) would have been both an arm AND a fin in postage, I sent her an electronic copy.

And she replied with this.

Yea, me too.

Tuesday's blog post was a follow up from a reader's question last year. I really love follow-ups in case any of you are wondering about sending them.

Tuesday's comments included this from our own TLC: 

"Lawyers have been known to use their powers for good. I got a guy custody of his son that wasn't his biologically (he'd been in prison when the deed occurred,) but that he accepted and raised as his own. When she started making noises about the whole thing, saying he wasn't the dad, I told him to give her a copy of the divorce and say, "Bitch, I've got a receipt."   

A perfect 72-word almost-story.

Wednesday's post was on exclusives. I debated about posting this question since I've ranted about the evil of exclusives for so long I'm starting to bore even myself. But I thought, this really wasn't about an agent asking for an exclusive, so much as asking about the competition, so I thought it might be useful.

Colin Smith (rescued by droids it appears) asked
 "Is it okay for an agent to ask who else is reading a ms? If I queried you and told you Barbara Poelle, Darley Anderson, and Ellen Geiger were also looking at my ms, how would that matter? That may be an impressive list, but surely what matters most at this stage is that YOU love the query and ms, not which of your colleagues/competitors are looking at it?"

Mostly I want to know how serious the competition is when I ask who else is reading it.  If Barbara Poelle is reading, the competition is pretty stiff. My only advantage here is that I read faster than she does (sometimes) and I can sometimes divert her attention from matters at hand with a case of Polish vodka. 

If a writer tells me it's an agent in Crawdad, North Dakota that I've never heard of and hasn't made any sales, and her website mentions how much she loves writers, well, that's competition of a different sort.

And frankly if it's an agent I have serious reservations about, I've been known to reply that research is the author's friend. Even if they sign with Agent Trouble, I've at least told them how to avoid that. Some people can not be diverted, and I feel bad for them, but that's the state of the world.

Thursday we sauntered over to the prologue aisle and had some fun. Diane (DLM) asked a question that I'm sure many writers wonder: 
"As to formatting ... dropping images into Word is super easy. I may not be understanding whether/why that isn't an option if .doc is preferred?"
For me, images can make a word .doc so big I can't actually open it. AND it screws up spacing  and page count.  This is an ironclad rule of querying: leave OUT images unless the agent has expressly said ok.  In other words, at the query stage, it's text only. No exceptions. At the requested manuscript stage it might change, but don't count on it.

On Friday we were talking about how to interpret requests for "next work" when Diane realized that Gossamer has become the face of the Chum Bucket.

Funny story about how that happened:  Google sent me a notice saying I was running out of space. I futzed around in my Google account and couldn't figure out why there were so many pictures. I looked at a couple of them, and couldn't even remember why I had them.  Soooo… (insert ominous noise here) I deleted them. All of them.  And only later, and very slooowly did I realize I'd erased most of the images from this blog. All of the hilarious pictures…gone. And the Chum Bucket image, gone.  When I realized this, I just used Goss's picture, cause really, Gossamer is the best thing to look at when you're feeling very very stupid.

Saturday's blog post on "unpublishable" topicsREALLY hit a nerve. It generated the most comments of any post other than contests in quite some time.

This is the comment, from CarolynnWith2Ns, that tugged my heart:

I thought about this post all day today at work. When I left at four I had NPR on the radio in the car and listened to The Moth, their storytelling show.

Coincidence is a strange beast and it rode with me on the way home.

The first story told was by Paul Knoll a school guidance counselor. (800 Heros)
In a quiet voice he gently told the story of what happened at the school where he worked four years before Columbine. When he started to speak I thought God was playing a cruel joke on me, why this story, why today. God wasn’t joking, he was teaching me, (a person who always has an answer for something), a lesson.

As the story continued I was riveted. I had never heard about this incident and yet it seemed so familiar because of all the other incidents which have ripped at my heart.

It was snowing when I left work so I was driving slowly. As I neared home, and the story came to a close I drove even slower, not wanting to miss the ending, even though I was sure what it would be. It was not.

My comment this morning was a knee-jerk reaction to grief. I’m not apologizing for that. I do stand by my words BUT…to the questioner I say this:

If you can write your book, like Paul Knoll told his story, you will see it published. I’d read it and I never thought I say that…ever.

And this line from Julie Weathers will haunt me forever: "The salesman kept apologizing for not having more caskets, but business was so good they couldn't keep baby caskets in stock."

If the tone of the comments turned a little down, that's  ok with me. I respect that readers are willing to talk about things that aren't puppies and kittens and unicorn rainbows here.  The only comments that get deleted are those that attack other commenters (particularly for grammar or spelling) or are seriously off topic.

While reading your comments keeps me occupied, I have had time recently to finish a couple books. 

I'd been working on Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst for a long time (it was my SudsYerDuds reading for weeks.) I'm a rabid drooling fan of Alan Furst, and writers who are interested in historical fiction would do well to read him closely. He's a master at creating suspense (or tension!) in a world where we know the outcome of large events.  And he evokes time and place better than almost anyone I can think of.

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawson was on my shelf for a while. I picked it up cause I needed subway reading.  I picked at it for weeks, finally finished it. This is a really good example of three different points of view (all written in third person) to tell one story. The precipitating event is the disappearance of Judge Crater which is an old New York mystery. 

Meet Your Baker by Ellie Alexander is a delightful new cozy set in Ashland Oregon. Well, I'm a sucker for bake shops, and Oregon, and when I got this I dove right in.  Cozies can set my teeth on edge if they're too cute, and too removed from reality, but this one hit all the right notes.  Plus, I was SHOCKED to find out who the culprit was. That does not happen often at all.

On Thursday I was delighted to get an ARC of the new Lyndsay Faye novel, The Fatal Flame.  I wrote about how it arrived here on my Facebook page.  Not much work got done on Saturday cause I was busy reading.  Let's just say if you want a good book, read Lyndsay Faye. The first in the series   [GODS OF GOTHAM] was nominated for an Edgar.  What I admire most is how she's developing her characters in the series.  This is definitely a book I'd recommend to writers. This one, the third, goes on sale May 15.  I think you can count on a flash fiction writing contest.

On Wednesday night I attend an author event for Sandra Newman's THE COUNTRY OF ICE CREAM STAR. The book is written in "future patois." Interestingly Lyndsay Faye's characters also speak a kind of patois called "flash." I thought it was interesting that I ended up with two books using a kind of special language as a device within a few days of each other.

And last of all, I've been reading the first three installments of my client Michael Bassin's trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Harrowing is just about the only word I can think of.

And of course, like everyone who reads crime, I'm watching the new Amazon series BOSCH based on Michael Connelly's novels.  Are you? What do you think?

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40. Query Question: what if my subject is "unpublishable"

I just received your rejection letter from you which is no surprise after receiving 56 other rejection emails. By this point I don't feel anything and I guess that is okay. But it makes me question something that has been in my head ever since I finished the novel. What if the writing is good but the subject is unpublishable?

My novel deals with the mass shooting in a community college, and while I've seen other novels deal with the issue I would guess that the subject itself is controversial. While googling the subject I just discovered the story about a Stephen King novel that I didn't even knew existed: Rage.

Originally published under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman, the book has been linked to several shootings and even the author wanted it out of print which is something that I didn't know when I started writing the novel. So my question is: Are there subjects like these that act like a drawing of Mohammed for publishers? Is there a list out there?(1)  Or it really just depends on the literary agent?(2)

I was thinking in putting my query to the query shark to refine but I guess no matter how much I refine a query, they would probably end up rejecting it.(3)   

If the only book you can find about school shootings is Rage by Richard Bachman, you haven't done the most rudimentary of research.  I can think of several books on this topic off the top of my head, no Googlemonster required, one of which won the Booker Prize in 2003. And if you do google the topic, you'll find lots of them.

So, it's not the topic. There are lots of books out there about this.  It's the treatment of the topic or more likely, the writing.

And no, agents don't keep a list of things that are unpublishable (2).

And yes, agents have particular likes and dislikes (3)

And if you assume rejection (4) you should stop writing now. Rejection should motivate you to work harder, not quit.


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41. Happy Valentines Day 2015

I don't do Christmas cards (too swamped in December) or Birthday cards (too forgetful) -- but a tradition I DO uphold is to send out a Valentine each year. Hey, we may not have construction-paper covered mailboxes on our desks anymore, but it's still fun to get pretty mail on a winter's day.

The Literatentines are always drawn by one of the terrific illustrators I represent. This year, Sergio Ruzzier brought the magic with some adorably bookish little cheepers.

Much love, friends. May you have heaps of joy and excellent reading in 2015!

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42. Susan Furlong & Lucy Arlington's Cozy Reading Corner

At our house, we call this the Reading Chair. I've spent a lot of time here with children snuggled close while they listen to their favorite books. They're all too big for that now, but it's still my go-to spot for a little time out with a good book and a cup of tea.

Played by the Book - releasing Feb. 3rd

Also watch for the Georgia Peach Mysteries - 7/2015

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43. Query Question: the next next

My question is a variation of the “next work” one you answered. I received a rejection from an agent who asked me to query other work if I didn’t find representation for the story I sent her. I don’t plan to continue to look for an agent for that one and think I may allow a m/m rom press to publish it.

However, I would like to find an agent to represent another story and wondered if it would be permissible to query that agent even though this wouldn’t fit in with her asking me to do so if I didn’t find an agent for the story I sent her. 

What the agent meant was come back with your next project if you haven't been snapped up by one of her competitors.  She likes your work, that first project wasn't right for her, but she thinks you've got potential.

It's absolutely fine to query her even if you stop looking for an agent for that first book.

This is another example of writers over thinking the query process and underestimating their own value.  All agents are looking for good work. You write good stuff. Trust me that she'll be glad to hear from you even if this second project isn't a good fit.

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44. Two New Middle Grade Novels

I'm excited to tell you about two new middle grade novels from my authors!

Somewhere between the delicious charm of Wicked and the gothic romance of Jane Eyre, COTTAGE IN THE WOODS by Katherine Coville is a spellbinding fairy tale that will surprise and delight.

Ursula is a young bear of modest means who has come to work as governess at the Vaughn estate. She’s never been so far from home, and she is frightened. Inexplicable things happen in the huge house after dark. The attic is full of odd noises and items vanish in the night. Ursula is sure she has seen a ghostly child with golden hair lurking in the shadows. And as if all this isn't bad enough, certain servants seem to hate her for no reason at all, the mistress of the house is full of secrets, and there is an uprising of violent anti-animal activity in the enchanted forest surrounding the estate. As Ursula works to unravel the mysteries of Vaughn manor, she finds herself facing ever more challenging complications from both without and within. The forest is enchanted, yes, but also threatening, and Ursula will have to grow up fast if she is to navigate her new world. 

Buy COTTAGE IN THE WOODS from Book Depository or wherever fine books are sold.

is straight-up hilarious -- a little bit Westing Game, a little bit Gilmore Girls -- about an over-the-top flighty mother and her sensible daughter, who have the opportunity to win a relative's fortune... but there are just a few strings attached. They'll have to win a contest first.

Whoever can survive two weeks in the Archibald Family's colonial manor will inherit the property. The catch? Contestants have to live as in colonial times: no modern conveniences, no outside help, and daily tests of their abilities to survive challenges of the time period. Tori thinks it's the perfect answer to their debt problems, but she and her mom aren't the only ones interested. The other family members seem to be much more prepared for the two weeks on the manor--and it doesn't help that Mom doesn't seem to be taking the contest seriously. Do they stand a chance?

Buy COLONIAL MADNESS from Book Depository or wherever fine books are sold.

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45. Query Question: why are agents asking if they're reading exclusively?

I've recently received requests from agents for full manuscripts (yay!)
The last two have asked whether they would be looking at it exclusively.
What are the getting at? Do they think I'm querying agents one at a time? Do they only want to read my ms if they know that other kids are reading it? Are they stuck in an early century?
I replied to each that other agents were also reviewing the manuscript, and they could let me know if they had a problem with that. But honestly? It just felt so strange, and as though I must be missing something.

My thoughts on exclusivity are widely available (they stink.)  That said, sometimes I do ask a querier if I'm the only one looking at something.

My intent is not to ask for exclusivity (cause we all know that stinks) but simply to assess where we are in the query process.

If a querier has sent out 200 queries and I'm the only agent reading, well, that gives me some good intel on where we are.

If the querier has sent out 3 queries, and I'm only the first to respond, that's intel too.

Mostly this happens with non-fiction for me. When I read a proposal for a non-fiction book there's often a lot of revising and editing and shaping to come. I'm reluctant to start offering up all these suggestions if an author hasn't narrowed his search down a bit. Some of that is concern for time management: writing up all those ideas about revisions is time consuming. Some of it purely proprietary: I don't want the author to take all my ideas for revision, improve the proposal and then sign with someone else.  

I think you can assume that all agents assume you are querying more than one agent at a time. Asking about exclusives is a bit different than asking FOR an exclusive (which is good, cause we all know those STINK.)

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46. Setting Boundaries

I was talking to an author recently who was complaining that she could never get anything done at home (in regards to her writing). She was telling me how if she goes to the library she can get a ton done in a very short time, but if she tries to write at home she's constantly pestered and bothered by someone needing something. Unfortunately, she can't necessarily commit to going to the library daily.

So being the kind and sympathetic person I am I told her that was her own fault.

Somewhere along the way she never set boundaries with those around her and with herself. She never made them see her writing as a job and a priority. In truth, she never treated it as a job and priority herself.

If you really want to get serious about your writing, to make it your job, then you need to treat every aspect of it that way. If you are lucky enough to find a place in your home that can serve as an office then make it that way. It means when you are in your office, the door is closed and you are at work. Unless there's blood and a 911 call involved no one can bother you. Not should bother you, they are not allowed to bother you.

When you first establish this rule it's going to be tough. It's likely your kids will bother you because they can't get the top off the milk or your husband will need help remembering his Facebook password or the dog will need to go out. Again. If you help them, they'll keep coming. If you adamantly state that you're working and they will have to wait until you're done they will eventually get the picture. Better yet, don't respond. You are in your office, you can't hear them. You've stated the guidelines so ignoring is probably the best response. It will take some adjusting for everyone, but once those boundaries are set you will be able to get writing done.

One of the things I also mentioned to this author is for this to really work she also needs to respect the boundaries of her family and others around her. In other words, if she has established "office hours" than she needs to respect the time that are "unoffice hours". In other words, that means if you're ignoring everyone while you're in the office, then you need to pay attention to them when you're not. It means you can't decide that today you're going to work at the dining room table, with everyone running around, and get annoyed when they are asking for a glass of water or the wireless login information. You need to need to take that time to be present. It will make it a heck of a lot easier when you ask them to leave you alone.


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47. Dentist Disaster

You go in for a rather complex dental procedure and the dentist has to put you under in order to complete it. When you wake up, though, you are no longer in the dentist office. You are on a train with a briefcase handcuffed to your wrist. Just as you are soaking in this situation, a man walks in with a gun and points it at you. What happens?

Post your response (500 words or fewer) in the comments below.

writing-promptsWant more creative writing prompts?

Pick up a copy of A Year of Writing Prompts: 365 Story Ideas for Honing Your Craft and Eliminating Writer’s Block. There’s a prompt for every day of the year and you can start on any day.

Order now from our shop.


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48. The Utility (and Trappings) of the Novel Outline

I’ve been selling books for more than fifteen years and learning to write novels even longer. Of all the author readings and Q&A sessions I’ve hosted (and attended), one of the most common questions among beginning writers, even curious readers, is this: Do you start with an outline?

You’ve heard the pros and cons. An outline helps organize your thoughts and prevents you from spinning your wheels and traveling down dead-end storylines. The flipside, of course, is that constructing an outline boxes you in and limits the possibility of discovery, which is the most creative and rewarding part of writing.


Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 9.10.17 PM   Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 9.09.58 PM

Column by Jamie Kornegay, author of SOIL, to be released March 10,
2015, from Simon & Schuster. The book, a combination of literary suspense
and Southern gothic, was called “gripping” and “haunting” by Kirkus Reviews.
He lives in the Mississippi Delta, where he runs an independent bookstore,
Turnrow Book Co. Connect with him on Twitter — @JamieKornegay.


First, it’s important to note that there are no ironclad rules to novel writing. Every writer works differently and stumbles upon his or her preferred method through trial and error. The novel, rather than writing advisers, should tell you what it needs.

The traditional term paper outline, with its Roman numerals and letters, is helpful to organize a finite amount of information, but a novel is more amorphous. I couldn’t begin to collect a novel’s potential in an outline, though I certainly understand the impulse. There’s something terrifying about the blank page and its stark white emptiness. What could you put there that anyone would want to read?

It’s only natural that a writer would wish to escape such a daunting task. If an outline is a way to get the paper dirty, then go for it. Just remember that those first scratchings are exploration. Don’t lock yourself into a story that you haven’t discovered through hard work. The wheel-spinning and dead ends and wasted time are part of discovering what your book is about, and if you bypass that, you’re opting for ease and convenience over depth of storytelling. Nothing worthwhile comes easy.

After the spark of an idea, the fuel for your story is character. If you don’t yet know the character as intimately as you know your best friends, then how can you decide what that character will do when matched with the conflicts of the novel?

While imagining your characters, you will naturally develop scenes and storylines and bits of history. Once these begin to accumulate, then you have something to attach to an outline. For me, an outline is an expression of the novel’s structure, which gradually reveals itself, like hacking a totem out of simple log.

My first published novel, Soil, began like many other books – with a single image. I was driving past flooded farmland and saw a stump sticking out of the muck. For a fleeting moment, I thought it was a corpse. What if it had been? That would be a nightmare to deal with. I began to imagine a landowner happening upon the body, growing scared and paranoid.  He might worry about becoming a suspect. What if he didn’t tell anyone, just got rid of it? How would he cover it up completely, taking every precaution so that no trace of it would be discovered? This kind of morbid daydreaming is the stuff of novels.

I reasoned out creative answers to my own tough questions. I slowly began to understand the main character, his motivations and obsessions. I wrote wasted pages and dead ends galore. Eventually I found the right path. I could feel the story gaining traction as new characters arrived and ideas poured forth. It was time to make the outline.

I kept my outline informal, intuitive. I used the outline almost like flypaper to trap scenes and ideas that were coming quicker than words, as my characters were finally alive and could make their own decisions about the story.

The outline helped me negotiate the tricky framework of Soil, which is told somewhat out of sequence. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the book. The structure came out of a desire to maintain that initial sense of mystery I felt after discovering the “body” in the field, all the hows and whys and the slow discovery of my characters’ secrets and motivations.

The novel is divided into five sections comprised of several chapters each. Each section opens with a strange, hopefully compelling episode, and then goes back in time to reveal how the characters reached this point. I thought this looping effect generated a nice suspense, and it also informed the deeper themes of Soil, specifically the cycles of nature and our inevitable return to the earth. If I did my job right, then the complicated structure should not present a stumbling block to the reader. It took careful planning, and my own specially designed outline.

The book I’m currently working on has a linear structure, told over the course of a week. Each chapter is a day, and understanding that from the outset allows me to work out of sequence easily, depending of what inspiration strikes me or what I find during my day-to-day life to steal and apply to the novel.

Just remember that an outline shouldn’t decide the story, your characters do that. An outline is where you string up the pieces to see the big picture and make your novel is a coherent whole.


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49. Query Question: unusual prologue

My novel has an unusual prologue and I'm wondering how (or if) to present it when I get requests for pages.

My novel involves a sitcom, and the first chapter takes place during the taping of an episode. The book begins with four pages of the teleplay for that episode. These pages have a photographic look to ensure they are understood as intentional and not weird screenplay formatting in a novel.

This four-page scene sets the reader up with what's supposed to happen on stage. Then the actual chapter shows how that all goes wrong.

I know a prospective agent isn't going to care how well I can write sitcom pages, but how well I can write a novel. So my instinct is to never submit the pages (which can't even be pasted into the text of an email, as many agents require). But to read the first chapter without seeing the teleplay pages feels like watching the second act of "Noises Off" after skipping the first. I worry that the comedy pay-off doesn't pop without the setup.

How would you suggest I handle this?

Exactly as you did here. In your query, you tell the agent that the first four pages are the screenplay and the first chapter is how everything goes horribly wrong. The reference to Noises Off! is good because I can instantly see what you mean.

Email formatting won't allow proper script formatting as you've pointed out.  BUT you CAN simply change the format and label the first four pages TELEPLAY and then write it as dialogue with stage directions.

The point of a query is to entice an agent to read the manuscript. No agent is going to let a little thing like format stand in the way of reading a good idea, as long as the format is clean and legible.

When the time comes to submit a full manuscript, you might inquire about submitting as a PDF. I generally do not like PDFs because I can't make notes on the actual manusript or mark anything with track changes. Also, most editors I work with require mss in .doc style format so it's better to get that at the query stage rather than discover the author has no clue about that format later in the game.

This is yet another instance where meeting agents in a face to face situation will be a good thing. Actual pages will solve this problem and get you to the real question: is this a novel I want to read.

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50. The Many Hats of Being an Author

Occasionally I'll reject a query with a little extra advice to the writer. Recently I was really vacillating

between requesting more material and rejecting. In the end I decided to reject. The query letter was just missing something and if the blurb was missing something often the book is too.

The writer responded to my rejection with a thank you, but also added: 

I wish my writing could speak for itself rather than trying to pitch it like a used car salesman, but I guess that's how it's done. 

Let me clarify. The writer was super kind and thankful. She saw my point and agreed that her query needed some work. She was not at all acting defensively or arguing. But I think this line says volumes about how discouraged she must be feeling and I would bet almost every writer who has ever queried has felt this way at some time or another.

But here's the thing about the query blurb. It is a different style of writing from fiction writing (something else the author said), but it's also something you all need to learn. Writing the query is a part of honing your craft.

In any job we all get to do the things we love, and need to learn how to be better at the things that might be a struggle for us. An agent doesn't just read submissions and send them to her buddies. She also needs to learn to write a compelling blurb, she needs to sharpen her negotiation skills, learn how to edit and revise, and occasionally hold a hand along the way. Not all of these are going to be an agent's favorite task, but she needs to learn to do each of them well.

The job of an author has a number of similar tasks. It's not just writing a great story, but also learning basic grammar, how to sell that story (to agents and readers alike), master social media (or hire someone who will do it for you), and how to sell yourself as the author.

So hate the query all you want, but spend some time learning how to perfect it.


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