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We talk about a lot of things on Pub Crawl – writing craft, the submission process, the editorial process, the industry, and lots of stuff in between. We like to encourage writing by hopefully imparting insight and advice. Lots of people do; bloggers, writers, editors, agents. And at one time or another, you’ve likely seen this advice: Write Every Day. There are no excuses. Do it or you’ll never get better. Practice makes perfect – so practice every single day.
But for many of us, this advice can actually be detrimental to the process because we are going through a different kind of process: Healing. And sometimes, healing means not writing every day, or at all, for a long time. And the biggest key to this is understanding that it’s okay. That your pace may different. That even your writing routine may change. This does not make you less of a writer, nor does it mean you won’t still improve.
Full disclosure: I lost my father in March of this year. I say this not to garner sympathy, but to give some context. It was shocking in many ways, and completely unsurprising in others. But the thing I didn’t expect? How grief really felt, and still feels. How it comes out at strange times, making the rest of your day difficult to get through. It’s a daily struggle, and I am only just beginning to understand that it will be for a long time yet.
The worst of it was, I lost my will to write. For many years, I posted poetry and flash fiction on my blog a couple of times a month. In addition, I did write nearly every day, or revised finished projects, or dashed off a few lines here, a few lines there. A random scene. A conversation between characters. For a long time, I was lucky enough to be full of inspiration.
After March, I still tried to write. But I was dissatisfied with the words, with the content. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure who I was as a writer. What did I even enjoy writing? What stories did I have to tell? Everything was colored by this new way I viewed the world, however slight the difference might have been. I would begin a story, short or long, and see it through to 5,000 words before deciding I wasn’t into it. I’d sit down to dash off a line here, a line there, and end up staring at a blank screen instead.
I read advice that told me to keep writing, to keep doing, to keep practicing OR ELSE. So over and over again I attempted it, and more and more the anxiety over that command made it impossible. And you know what? It wasn’t until I finally allowed myself a break, some time away from the page to actually breathe, that writing finally started to be of interest again several months later. Now, I’m using NaNoWriMo to encourage that interest – but I’m not punishing myself when I don’t hit the word count.
This is not to say I am not still struggling. Every word is harder to write than it used to be, because I’m fighting to understand who I am now versus who I was then. This is the same for those struggling with depression, or even with physical illness. Sometimes the idea that a true writer is one who writes every day, despite the struggle, despite the emotional hardship, is more detrimental to a struggling writer than the idea that we are allowed some time off, or we are allowed to adhere to a schedule that works for us – even if it means not writing daily. We are allowed to back away for a little while, to regroup, to think, to fight.
There is only one “right” way to write, and that is whichever way empowers you as an individual. If the idea of writing is giving you anxiety, remember that it’s okay to take a break if you need one. Writing isn’t going anywhere – it’ll still be there when you’re ready.
I’m certain I’m not alone in this – if you’ve found a way to write through emotional hardships, tell me about it! I’d love to know what you’ve done, or are doing, to find writing in your life again.
Made this little sketch to celebrate the birthday of Joni Mitchell. My idol. My hero. My inspiration. I've pinched - I mean, been inspired by - her lyrics more than any other artist, to use in my work, as blog post titles, as life coaching. Happy Birthday Joni (her birthday was actually yesterday, but I did draw this late last night so it was kind of in time, although as my family and friends will tell you my birthday cards, presents and wishes are always, without fail, late).
A young Joni in, my new drug of choice, the Pentel brush pen.
A long time ago, before I was telling my stories with illustrations and words, I was a telling them through the use of moving pictures, I was an aspiring filmmaker.
It all started when a friend and I decided we would be the next Tarantino; break out filmmakers, creating cutting edge film. But instead of spending thousands of dollars on film school, we took what little money we had and we were going to do it guerilla style, the indie way.
In the next few months, we drafted a screenplay, auditioned actors, scouted locations, purchased equipment and started filming. We even came up with a hollywood sounding name for our troupe, “The Yuzzi Brothers.” And since we couldn’t take a few months out of our day jobs to make the movie, we wrote a story that took place at night. It would be one of the most intense times of my life. We typically filmed from 8pm to 3am, with just enough sleep to go to work that same morning. Caffeine had become my best friend. A year later, we finally finished our movie and showed it in theaters, in all its flawed glory.
Looking back at the romanticized version of those events, I could honestly say that it was one of the best experiences of my life. We learned a lot about ourselves and about the industry, yet it was not without its challenges. We had actors & crew members who dropped out, our equipment was stolen, myriad of technical issues, schedule conflicts and even injuries. And when you’re on the 8th month of a production, you start to question yourself and your project (or your spouse would). We could have easily given up at any point, but we did not. We kept telling ourselves that we needed to finish.
Starting something new is exciting & fun. And let’s be honest, it’s probably the easiest part. The endless daydreaming of a new project gives us a sense of euphoria. But once the tire hits the pavement and the daily grind of our life gets in the way, that’s when we’re really tested. Self-doubt begins to manifest and we start looking for the off-ramp. We question our ideas, we procrastinate, we revise endlessly. We’re stuck in a never ending loop between unlived expectations and our limited abilities to meet them.
It’s only natural we should strive for perfection. But perfection is that golden goose that if you look at it long enough, it turns into an ugly duckling. That is, in fact, an important part of what makes us creatives. And as we grow and get better, we look back at our work and see the flaws. Yet it’s also important not to get stuck, to keep moving forward, to finish. That is how we grow. I know artists who actually don’t start anything, fearing that the end result will never live up to their expectations. It’s quite unfortunate.
When I feel dismayed, I go back to the reasons why I started. It’s much like reminiscing about my carefree childhood days. Everything seemed possible. I look for that seed of inspiration and use it to re-ignite my inner locomotive.
Sometimes, I realize that I am at that moment in my life incapable of telling the story or drawing that picture. I simply lack the life experience or skills to do so. This doesn’t mean that my idea is lost in the woods, never to be seen. It just means that I can put it in my back pocket and come back to it later. And trust me, I have many of those.
When we were working on our movie, there were so many variables that was ultimately out of our control. We relied on so many people, and to be able to keep it going for a year, and to finish was quite a miraculous thing.
Contrasting that to my current endeavor of writing and illustrating, where everything is really on my shoulders, gives me a unique perspective and set of expectations. I really have no excuse not to finish. It’s all on me. And If I have to spend time away from my family to work on my craft, then I better make it count.
Finishing is important. Once you’ve experienced completing a project that you’ve poured your life into, you stand among the few who have “made it.” You can tip your fedora to the naysayers and show them that you’ve done what you’ve set out to do. You’ve kept your word, your promise; even if it’s just to yourself.
Those who finish are the ones who inspire me the most, because I know how hard it is to get to that point. Not everyone can be a breakout overnight success, but we can sure break out of our walls and create something amazing, and it all starts with mastering the art of finishing.
So put on that thinking cap, adjust your monocle, get a jug of coffee, and dust off that manuscript or picture book. It’s calling your name.
That’s all for this week! Next week we’ll have another pep talk for you, plus answering your questions! Comment with any questions you have for us about writing, drafting, motivation, etc. or send us as ask through Tumblr.
Hey, All! Stephanie here, with my good friend and fellow pub-crawler, Stacey Lee. Today, we are so excited to talk about two of our favorite things: writing and fun!
Stephanie: It’s the beginning of November, which means NaNoWriMo has just begun!
I love the idea of NaNo. I love that it’s a race to write fast, and one that everyone can win. So instead of competing, people are rooting for one another. A wide array of authors give inspirational pep talks. Strangers write together in coffee shops. Friendships are formed as people participate in group writing sprints.
NaNo is fun! And I think this is a key reason why it is so enduring. I don’t know about all of you, but whenever I’m feeling particularly stuck, uninspired, or that everything I’m writing is really garbage-y, I think it’s because I’ve forgotten to have fun with it. And I believe it’s nearly impossible to write a story others will love if you’re not feeling any love as you write.
So Stacey and I have put together a list of, Seven Ways To Bring The Fun Back Into Your Writing:
1. Fall in love with words again.
Stephanie: When I was younger, being the super-cool kid that I was, I sat in my room a lot and read my thesaurus. I loved discovering new words. I’d highlight the ones that sounded most interesting then write little stories around them. Sadly, my teachers often informed me I was actually using many of these words incorrectly—but that’s another story.
The point of this story is, I made an effort to uncover new words as if they were treasures to be found. I’m not sure when I stopped (probably around the time I started making friends), but lately I’ve started hunting for words again, and listing all the lovely words that I’d been neglecting. It inspires me—like finding the perfect party dress and deciding to throw a party because of it. Now it’s even easier to re-discover words with awesome sites like thesaurus.com.
I’m also a big fan of McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions.
This book also has a thematic index. For example, if you’re searching for a term to use in place of liquor store, you’d find: candy store, comfort station, filling station, guzzelry, happy shop, headache department, headache house, juice house, leeky store, LIQ, oasis, thirst-aid station.
2. Commandeer your setting.
Stacey: Stand up, and wiggle your shoulders. Roll out your neck. Now make fists and pump them toward the heavens and say, “I am Master of my domain!”
Now sit back down and examine the world you’ve created. How can you make it better? Don’t settle for what’s ordinary, or expected because when we do that, we put readers (and ourselves) to sleep. Make it more vivid, more memorable. How? By not just adding a crooked door to the cottage, but creating an emotional connection between the crooked door and your character. Maybe every time your character sees the door, she remembers how her dad kicked it down when her mom locked him out. Or maybe the door is always threatening to fall. You can create a lot of layers, and have even more fun with your writing, by commandeering your setting.
3. Let Your Imagination Leap Out Windows.
Stephanie: A couple weeks ago a former student of mine sent me this lovely quote:
Her imagination was by habit ridiculously active; if the door wasn’t opened to it, it jumped out the window. –Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
When I read this I pictured a bored woman jumping out of a window. But I believe the author is really saying that writers should shrug off anything confining them and take bold daring risks that will bring them to frightening and dangerous places. This goes beyond breaking rules. It’s simple to say, “I don’t care about what everyone says, I’m going to start my book with my character waking up.” But mining deep within yourself, to find a subject that will not only force your reader to see some facet of the world through a different lens but stretch you as a writer, that is something else entirely. This might not be ‘fun,’ but it’s definitely exciting.
4. Find Reasons To Celebrate:
Stacey: I think sometimes we’re running so fast, we forget to stop at the rehydrating stations. Celebrations are one of the ways we can rehydrate, along with eating and sleeping and laughing. I book a spa appointment every time I turn a draft in on time—my own private pat on the back for making my deadline. And speaking of celebrations, Stephanie and I are preparing a celebration for our one-year anniversary on Tumblr because it’s basically an excuse to be merry and giveaway an awesome stash of books.
5. Pick a Theme Song
Stephanie: I know a lot of people do playlists, which are also awesome, but playlists usually encompass a variety of emotions. A theme song should be your anchor to one distinct feeling, which you are excited about threading throughout your entire novel.
For the first book I wrote, Hoppípolla by Sigur Rós was my theme song. It was whimsical and beautiful, and it made me think of make-believe things come to life. Whenever I felt as if my writing was stale, I would put that song on and it reminded me of what I was attempting to achieve.
6. Get into a good story.
Stacey: Nothing helps me rediscover the joy of writing like reading a good book, watching an awesome film or play. When I’ve reached a roadblock, sometimes just reading the words of others inspires me to go back and kick some roadblock bootie. Great stories I’ve experienced recently:
Phantom of the Opera musical (made me want to write a tragic love story!)
The movie The Martian (plotting brilliance)
Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton (the evil scheming ballerinas!)
7. Participate in NaNoWriMo.
We know the month has already started, but it’s not too late to join in the fun.
Now it’s your turn! We’d love to hear any tips you have that might help put the fun back into writing!
Hey all! The PubCrawl gang here with a special Tuesday guest post with Beth Revis, the New York Times bestselling author of the Across the Universe trilogy, and one of the smartest and most generous people we know! Because Beth is so generous, she has written—not one, not two, but three—books of writing advice! We are giving away the first here today, which I think many of our readers attempting NaNoWriMo this year might find useful!
DON’T MISS OUT ON THE GIVEAWAY AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST!All orders of Paper Hearts made before November 15 from Malaprops will come with a special gift—more details below!
There is Always a Reason to Be Jealous
When I was a kid, scribbling stories and beaming when the teacher or my mom displayed them on the wall, authors were as mythical as unicorns. Walking among the shelves of a bookstore felt like walking among giants. It wasn’t until I wrote my first novel that I started to think being an author wasn’t an impossibility.
And that was also about the time when I started to feel jealous. I wanted, more than anything, to be a published author, and as time went on, I became more and more jealous of anyone who already held the keys to elite circle. That feeling just became more and more intense as I wrote manuscript after manuscript, hoping to find the golden ticket into publishing.
I would tell myself, If I could just get an agent, I’d be happy.
And then, eventually, I got an agent. And so I said, If I could just get a book deal, I’d be happy.
And I did. I got the book deal of my dreams. But then I said, If the book could just do well, maybe some awards or hit the list…then I can be happy.
And it did. And I was blissfully, gloriously happy. I had all my dreams come true. A great book deal, a trilogy that hit the NY Times bestseller list, publisher sponsored book tours, fan letters, literally everything I ever wanted.
But there is always a reason to be jealous.
Someone else hit the list higher. Someone else got a bigger deal. Someone else is heralded as the height of the genre. Someone else has higher ratings and better reviews. Someone else has everything I have, but also a nice lake house and isn’t allergic to kittens.
There’s always a reason to be jealous.
Even if you have it all, even if everything’s perfect…it won’t last. It just won’t. I guarantee that even J. K. Rowling worries that her next book will flop and the glory days are over. A number one New York Times bestseller fears that no one will read his next book. An author on the red carpet of the movie based on her book has a niggling fear that this is the peak and everything is downhill from here.
And even if you are riding that high, there is always someone who is higher up than you. There just is. That is the nature of the game. We all want to be the best of the best. We all want to be made immortal through our works. We all want to know that the things we wrote made a difference in someone’s life. And it’s hard to measure what our success is. So we look at things that do measure “success.” Things like author rank, or sales numbers, or who gets invited on a book tour, or who gets the most fan art on tumblr, or who is friends with who, who got a blurb from this other author, or which publishing house is better, or who gets more attention from their editor, or who stays on the list longer than who else, or who even makes the list, and in the end none of that matters.
None of it.
There is always a reason to be jealous.
No matter how successful you are, there is always someone more successful than you. No matter what you think the epitome of your career is going to be, when you reach it, there will be a higher point you want to reach. And that is good. You always want to be striving forward, you always want to be trying to make your art better. But if you become focused on what other people have, you waste your life on jealousy. You become bitter. You start reaching for the false goals. You quit celebrating the success of others, because you’re so wrapped up in yourself.
There are countless reasons to be jealous. But that doesn’t mean you have to succumb to them.
You can win a journal with this cover!
I wrote Paper Hearts for the writer I used to be. The questions I used to have plagued me when I was starting this career path. How do I get to the end? What’s the proper way to structure a novel—is there even a proper way? How do I make my book stand out from all the other ones on sub?
Now, fifteen years, eleven unpublished books, three New York Times bestsellers, one self published book, and countless hours working on craft and working with other professionals, I think I finally have the answers that I needed way back then.
Unfortunately, I can’t travel back in time.
But what I can do is try to help others. I’ve been compiling articles on the things I’ve learned about writing, publishing, and marketing for years, first informally on blog posts, then more collectively on Wattpad. After hitting 100,000 reads, I realized that I should take Paper Hearts more seriously…and that I had not one book, but three.
Fully revised and expanded, the Paper Hearts series will feature three volumes, one each on writing, publishing, and marketing. Paper Hearts, Volume 1: Some Writing Advice will be out on November 1, with the other two following in December and January.
Your enemy is the blank page. When it comes to writing, there’s no wrong way to get words on paper. But it’s not always easy to make the ink flow. Paper Hearts: Some Writing Advice won’t make writing any simpler, but it may help spark your imagination and get your hands back on the keyboard.
Practical Advice Meets Real Experience
With information that takes you from common mistakes in grammar to detailed charts on story structure, Paper Hearts describes:
How to Develop Character, Plot, and World
What Common Advice You Should Ignore
What Advice Actually Helps
How to Develop a Novel
The Basics of Grammar, Style, and Tone
Four Practical Methods of Charting Story Structure
How to Get Critiques and Revise Your Novel
How to Deal with Failure
And much more!
BONUS! More than 25 “What to do if” scenarios to help writers navigate problems in writing from a New York Times Bestselling author who’s written more than 2 million words of fiction.
Remember: if you pre-order the print copy from my local indie bookstore, Malaprops, you’ll also get a chapbook of the best writing advice from 12 beloved and bestselling YA authors included in your order for free!
BETH REVIS is the New York Times bestselling author of the Across the Universe trilogy, as well as The Body Electric, Paper Hearts, and the forthcoming A World Without You. She lives in the Appalachian mountains with her boys: one husband, one son, and two very large dogs. You can find out more on Facebook, Twitter, or online. If you never want to miss a thing and also get exclusive insider opportunities, sign up for her newsletter here.
One of the questions authors are most often asked is "Where do you get your ideas from?" If you're like me, it's easier to answer where you DON'T get inspiration. Ideas shoot out at me from everywhere I go and everyone I see. Which is why I try to always have a notepad of some sort, whether paper or electrical, with me always. And my kids have made a joke of rolling their eyes and groaning every time they hear me say, "that would make a good story!"
I believe that, as writers, we have trained our minds, opened them, widened them, attuned them, to be receptive to these ideas that flutter about in the aether. Inspiration is there for one and all, but we creatives are the ones who notice and care. However, sometimes the trick is knowing which idea is fluttering by to catch our attention, and which should be released back into the wild for another writer. Not every idea I've had is my story to write. It's taken me several ears as a writer, developing and honing my voice and themes, to know which ideas to cherish and which to pat on their head and send them back on their way.
New York Times Best Selling Author Jennifer Donnelly is here with us today to share some of the ideas she captured and coaxed into a story that became her newest release in the WaterFire Sage - Dark Tide. Be sure to check it out at the end of the post. And please share in the comments how you corral all your inspirations!
The Flows of Inspiration: A Craft of Writing Post by Jennifer Donnelly
Inspiration for DARK TIDE, and the entire WaterFire Saga, comes from some pretty strange places.
As anyone who’s been to one of my readings knows, one of the biggest was the work of the designer Alexander McQueen, but another mad genius who has also been a huge source of ideas is Rene Redzepi, the chef behind NOMA in Copenhagen, one of the world’s best and most out-there restaurants.
November is novel writing month! I’ve decided to expand the secret gift I was going to send a writer friend of mine, and send out daily writing inspiration and tips to anyone else who would like them! Here are the details. Sign up and let’s write!
Yep, I signed up. Why? Because as much as I enjoy eating all the chocolate in the world when I’m working on a book or screenplay, I don’t actually like the brain fog that comes with it. So I’m more than happy to turn to science to help me solve the sugar thing once and for all.
If you have your own particular food issues and you’re interested in joining me, here’s the final video in Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson’s excellent, informative Food Freedom series. She’s also giving some free webinars with Q & A this week. I signed up for the one on Tuesday afternoon.
Like I said before, it’s not like I’m particularly proud of fueling my creativity with so much sugar over the years, but I do see from your emails and comments to me that you appreciate me talking about it in public. So here I am again! If that helps you, I’m happy.
Here’s to eating in a way that feels easy, automatic, and free. ‘Bout time!
A lot of you have written to me in the past few days thanking me for sharing my own struggles with sugar addiction (a.k.a. my kryptonite), and also for sharing Dr. Susan Thompson’s videos about what she’s learned as both a neuropsychologist and as a formerly obese woman about how to rewire our brains and finally get rid of cravings once and for all. Yes, please, now!
(And by the way, thank you for all your emails and comments! I really do love the solidarity we can have about this topic. It’s not something any of us are particularly proud of, but it feels good to be able to talk about it with each other!)
The third video in Susan’s series is now out, and it’s the best so far: about the 5 critical ways we can rewire our brains so that eating the right foods, and not eating the wrong foods, becomes completely automatic.
If you haven’t already watched videos one and two yet, I highly recommend them, since each is chock full of all sorts of cool science about why we crave what we do, why willpower fails us (it’s not the right tool), and other answers to questions you’ve probably had as you dive into that fourth serving of cookies, candy, cake, or ice cream. I know because I have been there, my friend. As recently as last week!
Hope you love this last video as much as I did! LEARNING! Love it!
Earlier this year I read a great book that really helped me get my financial life in order: The Wealth Chefby Ann Wilson.
I was so enthusiastic after reading it, I actually signed up for a course with her. And as a result of that, I ended up paying off a car loan that’s been hanging over my head too long and was going to keep hanging there for a few more years.
So here you go. Enjoy the video, where Ann talks about her fellow South African, an artist who didn’t let his own poverty and lack of access to oil paints stop him from creating beautiful and now-celebrated works of art.
Then make sure you read her blog beneath it. So much great information and so many great ideas!
And by the way, if you’d like more posts like this, delivered to your email every morning, subscribe to my Wise Girl Daily Wisdom emails! I think you’ll enjoy those!
I have, at various times in my life, been merely overweight, then obese, then heavy, then down to slim and trim, then up a little to what I considered “sturdy,” rather than fat, then down a little, up … a lot of you can relate to the pattern.
And right now, coming off multiple months in a row of writing for sometimes 18 hours a day, not getting as much exercise as I usually love, and powering my books and screenplays with WAY too much sugar, I feel pretty gross. I still love myself and want to be nothing but kind to myself no matter what, but I know my “kindness” of feeding myself a whole bunch of chocolate to keep up my energy and creativity during this time of intense work has actually not been a kindness at all.
Sometimes information comes to you at just the right time. Or maybe it’s always out there, but you’re not ready for it until you are.
A week or so ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to an interview with Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson. She’s both a psychology professor and a formerly obese woman. And I just loved her energy. I loved her sincerity and her passion for teaching what she knows about finally breaking free of food addictions and finding our individual bodies’ own natural weight. It was a theme I explored in my novel FAT CAT, and it’s definitely something that speaks to me personally.
(And by the way, when I was researching and writing FAT CAT, I completely gave up sugar. Weight melted off me. I felt great. My brain was clear, I had incredible energy … and yet here I am again.)
What drew me in was Susan’s own story about appearing to be very accomplished in some respects — highly educated, very successful in her career as a professor — but at the same time feeling like a failure because she was always overweight. How could she be so smart in other areas of her life — how could she know so much about science and psychology — and yet still look like … that?
Then one day she was finally ready to turn her years of research and knowledge on herself and figure this out once and for all. And to her utter delight, she discovered it wasn’t an issue of willpower or weakness or laziness, it was actually just a matter of brain chemistry. Some people are more susceptible to certain foods than others are. It’s not a moral issue, it’s just biology. And we can work with biology.
For some of us, sugar is as addictive as cocaine or heroine. If you’ve felt as enslaved by sugar as I have at times, you know it absolutely feels like a drug.
By the end of watching that interview, I knew I wanted to hear more of what Susan could teach. So I actually contacted her to find out when her next course was. Turns out it starts in just a few weeks. PERFECT.
A lot of you have written to me over the years after reading FAT CAT to share with me your own struggles or journeys about food and weight loss. I’ve read them all, I’ve answered them all, because I know what you’re going through and I want to try to help where I can. I’ve passed along resources I relied on in writing the novel, such as websites and books and cookbooks. I hope all of you who have written to me have gotten great value out of that information.
Some writers rely on drugs and alcohol. Not me. I just finished writing a screenplay fueled mostly by coffee and Reese's peanut butter cups. Soooo much better, right? *cough*
One of the reasons I wrote my novel FAT CAT was that I was an overweight teen (and adult, at times), and I wanted to sit down and research everything I could find about food, weight loss, and healthy eating. Then I came up with the science project plan for my heroine, Cat, to put herself through. I even did it myself while I wrote the book so I could accurately depict what Cat was feeling from day to day.
And the hardest things for both Cat and me to give up were -- you guessed it -- sugar and caffeine. Cat's withdrawal struggle in the novel was mine. But once I got passed that, boy, did I feel great! But then after I finished writing it, I eventually slipped right back into my old habits. And to be honest, I'm still struggling with that today.
Which is why I'm so excited about this free video series from Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson. She's a tenured psychology professor with a Ph.D. in Brain and Cognitive Sciences (and you know how much I love SCIENCE!). She also used to be obese. I always love to learn from someone who's been on the front lines and has figured out how to do something better.
For years now Susan has been teaching her findings in her college course on the Psychology of Eating. But last year she realized she should make that same information available to more people. She decided to create her free video series to share the truth about the psychology and neuroscience of weight loss and food freedom.
I'm glad she has! I've already listened to some of her presentations, and WOW. So much of what she had to say really hit home.
One of my favourite Neil Gaiman quotes: "Just write. Many writers have a vague hope that elves will come in the night and finish any stories for you for you. They won’t." You can see the original video in which he offers advice for young writers:
Guys. Queries are hard. This is an undisputed fact of the agent-acquiring process. These days a lot of agents ask for the first 5-30 pages of your manuscript when you query, because it’s so much easier to tell if a story is good by reading, well, the actual story. But the query is the hook—the bait that gets the agent past that first page and into your story.
I read queries on the daily. A lot of them. As a literary assistant, it’s one of my many responsibilities. I need to be able to tell, just from that one page, if your book is something the agent and I will want to read. I need to see just how I would pitch it to an editor. And I need to see that you know your stuff. Have you done your research? Or did you scribble off a quick note and hit SEND ALL?
The queries that stand out are either very good, or very bad. But there are a lot of queries that get stuck in the middle—that strange wasteland of almost-there, but just not quite. Chances are, a lot of you are in that boat. Most of us, even those who have agents, have written blah query letters. And I know PubCrawlers are smart. You have done your research, much of it on this very website. I don’t need to tell you not to send attachments, or not to write your bio in the third person. I don’t need to tell you not to call your manuscript a future bestseller, the most unique piece of fiction ever written, a story that will apply to all of the audiences that ever existed!
So I’m not going to talk about the basics. You guys KNOW the basics. I’m going to talk about those little things that maybe don’t seem problematic at first glance. But fixing these can go a long way toward helping the viability of your query overall
1. Don’t start your letter with all the details about how you came to write this book.
Writing is exciting. How you came to be a writer is exciting. The fact that it’s your first, or second, or millionth novel ever is exciting. But they are most exciting to you—in a query, these things clog up your first paragraph and waste valuable space. Before he or she has ever met you or read your work, an agent doesn’t care how you got started writing. As much as it matters to you (and it does matter!), it’s best to leave it out. It will not change how he or she feels about your story.
2. Be careful creating “atmosphere” before launching into your hook.
It can feel gimmicky. Unless your setting is basically a character itself, it’s best to stay away from this method. For example:
Castle Pelimere is deep and dark, inhabited by angry spirits and on the verge of certain doom. For a hundred years it has stood, and now, thanks to the Everlasting Nothing that has circled its walls for centuries, it is all about to come crashing down.
Jody Brody is a teenage pickpocket with no other skills and no other prospects. When Castle Pelimere needs a hero, Jody steps up to the plate.
I know, I know—this is a very obvious example. But it serves the point—character is story, and when I’m scanning through queries, I’m more interested in Jody Brody the pickpocket than the plight of Castle Pelimere.
3. Don’t relate two unrelated ideas in your hook.
You would be shocked how often I see this. Shocked, I tell you. An example:
Marty Schmarty is not your typical jock—he’s been taking ballet since before he could walk, and he’s better than half the girls in his class. But when he’s offered a football scholarship to his dream school, he learns what it really means to be part of a team.
Again, another extreme example. But writing a good hook is a huge part of the battle when it comes to queries. A good hook can make me perk up and pay attention. In this case, the writer has written something that “sounds hooky” and “adds character”. It makes me pay attention—then has no pay-off. Marty’s a pro at ballet, and this is set up as a key quality—then is not mentioned again.
4. Be confident…to a point.
There is nothing wrong with being proud of the story you wrote. It takes a huge amount of confidence to query a book (we’re all writers here, we can admit this). But it’s not up to you to decide whether your writing is of the same caliber as authors you have emulated or been inspired by, or if it’s beautifully lyrical or powerful and gritty—that is for your readers, and that includes any agents you are querying, to decide.
5. Be wary of the false choice.
Technically, a false choice refers to a situation where two choices are given as the only possible option—even though more choices may be viable. In this case, I’m using to describe it as a situation given in a query, wherein a character has what appear to be two choices—but only one of those choices is actually viable. Still with me?
Okay, so you’ve laid out your hook, given a short synopsis, and now it’s time to present the dramatic question. Your character must do x or y. But when you present a false choice, it becomes clear right away which path your character will and must choose. At first glance, it isn’t always clear you’ve presented a false choice. For example:
Jake must choose between saving the woman he loves from the mob and escaping to the Bahamas, or turning himself in and confessing to his crimes, even if it means her death.
Maybe turning himself in might be the right thing to do, but unless this is a morality play, the choice here is not actually black and white. When questions like this are presented at the end of a query, I can’t help but roll my eyes—I know what Jake is going to do. He’s going to choose the Bahamas. And if he doesn’t, then you need to do a fantastic job of setting up the why within your query. Again, the above is extreme example, but I encourage you to take a look at the stakes in your own query and find out whether what you’ve presented is a real dilemma, or a false choice. I want the questions you present to make me go, “MUST READ AND FIND OUT THE ANSWER!”
So the gist of these suggestions comes out to: Make me want to read your book. Seriously, give me no other option. You wrote a whole book. You know how to put words together on a page—this is just a different kind of writing. One that forces you to think about how to condense what you’ve written, and lay it out in a way that is tight and enticing. I promise you—it is doable. It’s hard, it’s often confusing, and sometimes it can take multiple drafts to get right. But it can be done!
I hope this is useful, and I wish everyone who is currently writing their query, Good Luck!
I love what Stephen King said about not waiting for one's Muse to show up.
“Don't wait for the muse. As I've said, he's a hardheaded guy who's not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn't the Ouija board or the spirit-world we're talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon. or seven 'til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up.”
Third grade was my favorite year of school. We had the best teacher ever. We sang songs and poems that I still remember to this day (Cumalada cumalada cumalada vista!). For math, we… Continue reading →
Happy Friday, everyone! To go along with Stacey’s post about submissions, this is a repost from my blog, a silly little song filk I hope some of you—especially those submerged in the submission swamp—might enjoy.
Last summer, when I was on submission with my novel to publishers, I remember being in complete and utter agony with the not knowing and not being in control. There’s a lot written about the query trenches throughout the blogosphere, but not a lot of space is given over to being on submission.
Part of that is because unlike querying, the experience of being on submission varies widely from individual to individual, so it’s hard to generalize. Another part is that being of sub is pretty much entirely out of your hands. Once your manuscript is on the desk of an editor, there is literally NOTHING you can do to influence the outcome. It doesn’t make for easy, digestible blog posts. Query tips are relatively easy to give, but there is no advice you can give to someone on sub, save Patience, young Skywalker.
And that advice sucks.
Being on sub is a bit like being the awkward middle schooler at a junior high school dance. Pick me, pick me! Sometimes you’re the first on the dance floor. Sometimes you’re left the self-conscious wallflower. Junior high—and publishing—can sometimes be cold and capricious.
I find the best thing to do in these sorts of situations is laugh them off. It’s either laugh, or cry, right? I’d rather a good chuckle than anguished sobs, so in order to distract myself, I rewrote the lyrics to “Agony” from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.1
If you aren’t familiar with the song:
Did I confuse them
With my rabid, insane,
Don’t I amuse them
With my witty, urbane,
Beyond power of speech!
When the contract you want
Is the only thing out of your reach.
Here in my tower,
I sit by the hour
Awaiting the Call.
The one that will save me
And soon validate me
In the eyes of them all:
All those agents are jerks!
Low esteem, insecurity
Are affecting my work!
Oh the torment, the stress!
Why can’t they just buy me—
How could they deny me—
They don’t know what is best!
Am I not lyrical,
Ahead of my time?
I am everything agents could wish for!
Then why no—
Then why no—
They all must be mad!
You know nothing of madness
Till you’re tearing your hair.
As you open email,
Yes, refreshing it,
Always refreshing it,
Though it’s different for each.
Always ten trends behind—
Always telling you no—
And the dream is just out of your reach.
I must have a book deal!
Okay, so I went ahead and decide to record the cover for funsies. Apologies for inflicting my voice on y’all. This song is not in my range.
At the point I had written this, the Disney movie version hadn’t come out yet. I have…Thoughts about it, but the “Agony” scene with Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine is definitely the best—and maybe the only worthwhile—scene in the entire film. ↩