Query Letter Writing

Literature Blogs
This week my critique group participated in a Query Letter Writing Workshop. Our workshop leader was Jaclyn McMahon. She had us read up on query letters and discuss the mentioned articles, books and blogs. Then we each submitted one of our own, which everyone in the group critiqued. Those critiques led to more discussion.

There are entire books written on this subject of writing a query letter, but I shall share a few things I learned this week:

1) There are many winning query letters (ones which land contracts), but there is no perfect query letter, i.e.,  what causes one editor/agent to reject the story idea may cause another to accept.

2) Three paragraphs within the letter are the norm: A) Intro with readership age, word count and genre, and how you heard/know of agent/editor; B) 3-5 sentences summing up the story; and C) Personal information, as in publications, education, experience in the field in which you’re writing, etc..

3) No need to list every little article or story you’ve had published.

4) Name-dropping sometimes works, but researching what the editor/agent represents is a better bet.

5) No getting chummy if you don’t personally know the person to whom you’re sending the letter. Stick to the facts. Be a professional.

6) Be polite.  (I list this is all by itself because it’s important.)

7) Do your Cross-your-fingers-and-hop-around-the-room-in-hope dance, then get back to writing and thinking and researching.

Summer Solstice Forest

Literature Blogs

Happy Summer Solstice, everyone. (Officially at 1:16 p.m. EDT around here)

I remember last year becoming depressed at summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Why, you ask, would that make me sad? It’s the day of most sunlight! The reason was because I knew from that day on, until the winter solstice six months away, that the days would get shorter, and dark would come earlier and remain around longer.

This summer solstice, I think about trees. I miss my wooded neighborhood.

My husband and I came home at noon today for lunch. At 12:20 p.m., we heard a house-rattling thump. We stared at one another for a moment. It was a familiar sound; last heard three weeks ago when the tornado pushed trees onto our house. Today, there was no wind or rain outside at 12:20, so we looking out our windows to investigate. Seems our next door neighbor decided to sell his three remaining, living oak trees to the tree-buying guy who canvassed our neighborhood after the storm. One, he didn’t want any of our trees. Two, besides our little red-bud and smaller dogwood, since the storm those three 100’ trees in our neighbor’s yard were the only morning shade for our backyard. Our neighbor on our other side, who owns the once-wooded lot separating our two houses, also sold his living and fallen forest to the tree-buying guy. My two little flowering trees look very, very lonely.

The three trees being felled are on our neighbor’s property, right next to the boundary line. They are his trees. They belong to him. So why did I start crying when I realized living trees were getting cut for money, not just the storm-fallen ones?

I think a part of me truly relates to T.A. Barron’s Tree Girl.

It’s painful to me to see (and hear and feel) mature trees cut needlessly – just for money. I wouldn’t do very well in the Rain Forest area – unless I could play in the forest. (I’m thinking Fern Gully here, too.) I love the woods. I miss the woods around where I live. I don’t really think of myself as a radical tree-hugger type. I’m just a lakes and woodland girl. I need to remember this feeling.

That said, … I need to change my thinking, and plan what to plan in my now-prairie yard. It’s comparatively a blank slate. I’m thinking veggie garden… with tree saplings on the east and north sides which will grow tall in the future.

Convicts in my Front Yard

Literature Blogs

There were orange suited convicts in my yard this morning… They are minimal security prisoners on work release to help with the storm debris clean up piled shoulder-high along the streets of my neighborhood. My husband’s gone. I am curious. There are a few city workers using the machinery out there, too. I must admit, for some reason, it was a bit thrilling. I mean, I know no murderers were released to do the work. Still…

Now comes the awkward part.

For about a half an hour after they had moved down the street, one of the vans with blue-suited prison guard drivers, sat in our driveway. We have no sidewalks, nor curbs and gutters. There’s just grass to the edge of our narrow little street. I was trapped. It wasn’t like I needed to go anyplace, either, but I had this irresistible urge to run.

About the van in our drive. The last I’d seen anyone around it, he was an orange-suited guy, taking an awfully long time to get something from the back. (Okay. We all know by this that I would never make a very good witness, but there’s nothing wrong with my imagination.) So I started thinking… why? Why was that van there when the convicts had moved down the road and no longer in sight?

The fantasy writer in me played with magic, and the fact that our baby red-tailed hawk never moved from its dead branch for the entire time the trucks and shovels and asphalt scraping and raking and beeps went on. What, exactly, did that hawk chick have to do with the person in the unmoving van? Or orange?

The SF writer in me wondered about abduction of the driver-guard… Boring!

The thriller writer in me knew someone in orange had slipped away from the crew, and was climbing through my opened three-season room windows. Didn’t you hear the small sound coming from that part of the house?

The romance writer in me thought of an unwed mother going into labor because of all the activity out front, but who was unable to get out of the driveway because it was blocked, so HE comes to the rescue… okay… I’m not romance writer.

The crime-writer part, figured the guard was dead in the back of the van. His jacket and trousers missing… along with one of the inmates. Oooo.

The picture book writer in me was thinking about community helpers, like nice police people and smiling city workers who help keep our streets clean.

As I was typing these scenarios, a blue-suited guard walked up to driver’s side of the van, got in, and pulled away after the rest of the activity. The reasoning side of me figured he’d parked there because it was out-of-the-way, plus our driveway faces the corner, and so had a good vantage point for prisoners working either street.

I have no trouble coming up with ideas for stories. And I honestly like writing for hours at a time. And when a day or – shiver – two go past when I do not write, I go into withdrawal and become grouchity and not very nice to live with.

So here is my writing challenge to you today: find one situation and come up with several alternative solutions to it, then run with the best idea. This can be a scene from your story, or it can be just a fun exercise to get your creative juices flowing, like looking outside your window to find your yard crawling with orange-suited convicts.

More Tornado Stuff

Literature Blogs
 

We’re still without internet — 11 days and counting. This is killing me. It’s difficult not to be able to communicate in my normal, daily way, using my normal, daily workspace. Right now, I’m using my husband’s work computer while he is off on a staff retreat. Which reminds me, thanks to the many people who have offered their homes for my internet communication addiction.

Before I speak about yesterday’s events, I want to say how furious I feel towards thieves, especially thieves who take advantage of tragedy victims. Strangers are canvasing our storm damaged neighborhoods, asking for down-payments for tree removal ($500 to $2,000), and then never returning. I knew of things happening like this from after Hurricane Katrina. I thought everyone knew that. Maybe not. Maybe it was just because I’d helped out down in Mississippi, and therefore heard lots and lots and lots of stories. But this I know, if any stranger comes to our door asking for a down-payment before work, he’d better have his cell phone ready for a 911 call because I’ll be all over that guy! (Actually, our trees are now off the house, and the rest in process of being removed, so these thieves probably won’t bother knocking on our door. Oooo. But if one does…)

Yesterday (Tuesday), three major things happened.

1) Our official insurance claims agent came out and spent three hours assessing our damaged property.

2) Garbage. I need to back up this story two days, to Monday. I called first the disconnected number in the phone book, let City Hall’s number ring 15 times, then called the number to ask for a dumpster, figuring they could direct my call. I was dead-set on speaking to someone about our missed garbage collection. I learned for the first time in living here seven years, that this job is outsourced, out-of-town. I was put on hold  for 45 minutes (not letting that wiggling fish at the end of the line get away this time), waiting, waiting, waiting, with no speaker phone. Four days previous, half of our street was collected. I can only assume tree removal and construction trucks blocked their way on our regular garbage collection morning. But with homes in our neighborhood having cleaned out our refrigerators, and after four days in 90 degree heat (visualize waves of stink rising from each driveway end), and animals starting to dig into the bags, not only did the 8′ piles of tree debris on our lawns block our view of the pavement, but  the garbage piles made it tricky to pull out. 45 minutes later, and then grilled for details, like my waste management number (didn’t even know we had one) and exactly how many bags did I have out there, I was told they would pick it up the next day. They did. My neighbors call me “The Garbage Police.”  I call me desperate.

3) At noon, with the temperature hovering at 90 degrees, one of the many still-leaning trees around here took out a transformer box, leaving hundreds of homes and businesses in my area without power. The lights flickered on and off about eight times before they went off entirely.

It got me thinking about different people (and therefore character) reactions. (This IS supposed to be a writing blog, after all.) My sister would have said, “Let’s get out the flashlights.” My father would have said, “What the &%#@!” and then gone to check our fuze box. My mother would have sighed, then looked disgusted. Another may have stared at the light, blinked, and then waited for his spouse to tell him what to do. Others may have said, “Oh, well,” or “Here we go again.” (This is a great writing exercise, by the way: take any situation, and then have each of your characters respond/react to it in their own way.) My reaction to the this incident? I know it was still daylight. I knew we had gallons of tap water for flushing, and bottled water for drinking. We’d just gone through six days without power, and knew all the what-to-dos. But, actually, that was the point. We’d JUST gone through six days without power, and only had it on for three days. While the light in our hallway flickered, I went from ut-oh mode to hope each time it flashed back on. But then, when it went off for good, I tried not to burst into tears in front of our insurance claims agent, continuing business as usual. It was only off for four and a half hours, but somehow, I was still rattled — cool, calm, collected me, rattled at a daylight loss of electricity.

Well… I may not be doing the novel revision work I’d planned on doing this week, or this month, but I sure am gathering writing fodder for future stories. I have 71 journal pages (mostly random thoughts and facts) and counting, and that doesn’t even count my blog words.

I hear rain and wind storms are coming the next couple days. Why do I feel shaky when I think about that?

Yet Another Tornado Cleanup Entry

Literature Blogs

First need: Water. The first night after the tornado struck, we had gallons of water which I always have on hand “in case.” By the second night, we were using our neighbor’s outdoor spicket, as they have city water, so even though they were without electricity like us, they still had water available.

Second need: Food. As hikers, we always have dried food in our house. Others might not think a lunch of peanut butter on crackers with a can of V-8 and cup of applesauce is much of a lunch, but it is quite satisfactory. And grocery stores in some parts of town were opened, although we couldn’t store anything cold.

Third need: Shelter. Our house is now livable. It is far from the normal we were used to. While our master bedroom gets repaired, we’re sleeping in the smaller guest bedroom with our winter clothing stashed in the basement because there’s no room for them upstairs. And although we still have tarps over four parts of our roof, we are protected from the elements. We have shelter.

Fourth need: Love/ People/ Friends. Thank you. I can’t say that enough. Although you may not think that merely asking “What can I do?” is much, it is HUGE. We need the knowledge that others care. You do. Thank you.

Fifth need: Mental Stability. Throughout this past week, my husband and I each found ourselves repeating things, or forgetting things, or being unable to focus or concentrate. (And I apologize for continuing to repeat things.) Everywhere we look in a 360 degree circle, in every room, and at each section of our yard, there are things which need to be done yet.

I actually thought I was doing (mentally) much better after the power and water came back on. (We will have only partial power for perhaps months, and still don’t have internet service nine days after the tornado. I’m sending this through my husband’s work office.) But today as I was out doing two errands – taking several trashbags of clothing to the Salvation Army and stopping to get milk – I was at the checkout and asked the clerk if she was affected by the storm. She replied, “Thankfully, no, but this store was without power for a few days.” I smiled and nodded, then turned to leave, taking two steps before I realized I had neither paid for the food nor even taken the milk. Yeah. Although some people may argue there was doubt all along, I must admit that I don’t think I’m quite mentally stable yet.

P.S. I have taken 62 pages of notes in my journal so far, concerning this storm and clean up,… and counting. Most of what I’ve written is just jotted thoughts. I could write pages on any of those things. Oh, the writing fodder — to look over someday when I’m mentally stable once again. I may even read over these blog posts for the past week – and melt in sobbing embarrassment.

Tornado Cleanup — 7th Day After

Literature Blogs

I finally posted some photos on my FB page (link). Peter had posted some from his stay earlier. Believe me, I have TONS more, including of the neighborhood damage, but those will come (perhaps) later, when we actually have internet from our house.

As mentioned earlier, at 1:15 p.m. yesterday, our house finally got power. We in our neighborhood see this as a miracle, for even yesterday morning, we were all chatting up that we didn’t expect it to be hooked up for weeks. It is actually only partial power, because of the hole in our home from a fallen tree – master bedroom and den (Jeff’s home office) are without power, and will be so for who knows how long.

There is SO much I can be writing about. Over these past seven days, I wrote over 30 pages of notes (some nearly unreadable) in my journal. I’ll write about some of that later, and maybe other of it never. For this post: 4 things.

1) I felt like I’ve been on a week-long missionary trip, working from sunup to sundown in 90 degree (plus) heat. Although, I must add that it’s only been in the 90’s for three of those days, including today.

2) Because we’re on well water (v.s. city water), when the power went, so did our water supply. Now that we have water flowing in our house, I feel euphoric. The big problem is what to use the water for first? My initial inclination was “Me! Me! Sweaty, stinky, dirty me!” But with several hours to sundown last night and humidity high, my veggie garden, strawberries and grapes got first priority. Oops. Thinking back, it was clearing and cleaning our two refrigerators which happened first. And that took hours.

With the tree removal guys working till sunset (and we are getting close to the summer solstice, you know), Jeff and I had a European meal at 9:30 p.m. There are clothes to wash, floors to wash, dishes, counters, bathrooms. Today I did five loads with more to do. Plaster went everywhere when the wall crashed. Then there is sweaty, stinky, dirty me.

3) My poor, poor yard. I’d already spread (before the tornado) 2 huge bags of peat most and 2 large bags of grass seed over our lawn. It was going to be gorgeous this year. Then came the bobcat and chipper and trucks and trailers pounding our lawn flat.

You must realize that I am the gardener/ lawn care person of the family. I hand-pick dandelions, and I aerate the lawn with a pitchfork – seriously! Yep, it takes a long time, but it does a great job. Thinking about “what do you need,” perhaps we should have a pitchfork part at our house after the machines are all gone from our yard. Oh, yeah. There will be a dumpster there for a while during reconstruction, along with affiliated machinery. (Heavy sigh)

4) The only thing I wish for now is that the city would pick up our garbage. They are three days late in collection, and with all that stinking, rotting refrigerator food bagged out at the curb, I’m just waiting for animals to have a feast.

BUT, we are safe, and WE HAVE POWER! (and water!) Life is good.

Battle Creek Tornado, Post #2

Literature Blogs

On Sunday, I wrote four pages of observations on notebook paper before deciding to write tonado-related things in my pen and ink journal, including important phone numbers, notes, priorities, and even scattered half-phrased thoughts. I’m now on my 25th tornado page in that journal. I figure, as a writer, someday I’ll return to those pages for future stories/articles. For now, it’s simply a central location for stuff my brain is too shaky to retain.

Five points to today’s post:

1) We still are without power and water. Yesterday, there were still 31,000 people without power, with the plan to have everyone restored by 11 pm tonight. Even so, our wires are pulled away from our house and under a large oak, so unsure of when this applies to us.

2) Son John had his own tragedy happen a week before ours. A drug-crazed stranger threw a 50-pound boulder through his car window, then proceeded to rip apart the dashboard before threatening John’s life. Far away carless John is in his own survival mode, but wishes he could help as well. There will be stuff for him to do later. No worries.

Monday, Jeff called Son Peter, who lives 5 hours away. As soon as he found out the extent of the devastation, he drove here with a chain saw, lots of bottled water, tarps, and nails. We had a list of three major things he could help us with during his overnight stay. They were all accomplished two hours after he arrived. It was like Jeff and I were taking baby steps in shock, while Peter comes in as a triathlon athlete (which he is, actually). He whipped through a project, then said, “What next?” His time was not only a physical boost to us, but definitely an emotional boost.

3) Our yard went from 90% shade a week ago to 90% sun this week. Sunlight comes through windows which hasn’t seen sun in our seven years here.

Related to that: With downed trees all about, it took Peter four attempts to get to our house. Even so, the neighborhood looks so different, he started to drive past our house when he saw us out front. Yesterday, Friend Francie, who was out-of-town during our storm, drove down our little street (a whopping 20 or so houses), and became confused when she realized she’d reached the end of the street and had to of have passed our house.

4) People keep asking what we need. This morning I broke down for the first time and cried with “Cuz” Dale called from Mississippi, saying how she touched she/they were when members of my church and I went to help with Katrina clean up, and asked “If there is anything at all I can do–” I answered, “Dale, you already have.” It’s the care and concern and compassion, and being a friend — that is the BEST thing anyone can do for us. Just be our friend. Thank you.

5) Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to work on some photos at home to post on FB tomorrow. Hopefully. It’s hard to plan things more than a few minutes ahead of time.

Love to you all. We sure feel it coming at us from you.

New things learned/experienced in May

Literature Blogs

To me, it’s important to be constantly learning or doing new things. Is it because I get so easily bored? And yet, I claim that I have never been bored in my life. Maybe it’s a form of ADHD? I’d rather think it’s just Sandy Carlson. Whatever this rolling nugget inside me is about, it sure keeps me moving and learning, and I love it. Will I use everything I learn and know in stories, blogs, articles? Probably not.

All that being said, here are a few of the new things I’ve done this month:

* Put in a small veggie garden on the SE side of our house. This is the first year in more than three decades that I haven’t had a sun garden. This year’s is an experiment, since our yard is 90% shade. But when our neighbors cut down the huge oak between our yards (which shaded our house each summer morning), the empty space brought about five hours of sun to that section of yard.

* Bought a manual reel lawnmower, which I LOVE using. I can stop and start whenever I have a need (like to pick up fallen sticks) without having loud noise come on and off. I can even hear birds singing or children laughing while I mow.

* Accidentally caught a prescribed burn around the base of my favorite tree in a nearby park.

*Investigated, then bought fruit tree spray for our apple tree. Although we’ve lived in houses which had fruit trees (cherry, pear, and apple), I’ve never sprayed before.

* Accompany on guitar a professional and excellent pianist (v.s. the “whatever” musicians I’ve worked with in the past, who were also very talented).

* After reading a few articles about how to save money, and realizing we already do all those things – except for selling our second house, since we don’t own one – I came up with a simple money-saving plan anyone could use: write down what you spend money on, then start eliminating. However, I realized that, if finances allow, there ought to be an occasional special something not necessary – the very reason why Hershey’s candy bars became so popular during the 1920’s depression.

* Made my own vanilla extract — although I have to admit that I didn’t grow the beans nor make the vodka myself.

* Learned how to hyperlink for my experimental eBooks, which is pending approval to the premium catelogue. (Yep, put a second one up: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/56480 , but this version is minus the hyperlinks.)

* Attended the newly formed Sisters In Crime chapter for our state.

And just think… there are still 3.5 days left in the month to learn and do even more interesting things.

4 Agents and Michigan Sisters in Crime

Literature Blogs

Admittedly, the past two weeks were overwhelming with writing activities — that is, attending writing activities, not writing writing activities. It started with Miss Snark’s Secret Agent contest on Monday (I got my first 250 pages in for critiques — very helpful). Monday night WriteOnCon held a chat with three agents (interesting to discover their likes and visions for the future). I planned to get a post in on both those events, but sadly, like jokes, the timing is now past.

And then last Saturday, local writer Suzanne, hosted our first Sisters in Crime Michigan chapter (not counting the organizational one) with Bill Howe, a retired crime lab supervisor with the police department and currently the investigator for the county prosecutor’s office. I am not normally a mystery or crime writer, but, hey, these were local writers willing to get together right here in my home town, some coming from two hour’s away.  And learning new things is always interesting to me, especially if I can use some of the facts I glean to put into my fictional characters.

Bill’s presentation dealt with interviews and interrogation skills. Interviews are made with anyone involved, but interrogations are reserved for suspects. Bill addressed the importance of non-verbal communication, and that as one policeperson interviews the suspect, two others are watching the nonverbals. For instance, self-grooming or stalling to give answers (repeating the questions) are signs of deception. Bill explained how the eye direction of a right-handed person (v.s. left-handed) indicated truth or fiction. Interestingly enough, I learned that police are allowed to use trickery during the investigation. Sometimes the interrogator also uses sympathy, relating to the person and why they may have done such a crime.  Bill never felt good about doing this. In fact, it made him feel dirty. But if it got a confession by giving the suspect a way to save face (Bill: I can understand why you would ***. I feel like that all the time.”), it is a good interrogation technique.

The time with Bill passed in the blink of an eye. (Oh, no. Was I looking up and to the right, or down and to the left when I said that?) Will I ever use this information with my own writing? I don’t know. But now that I have it, watch out. I’ll be watching. Are you telling a truth or a lie? (Hee-hee-hee.)

How Do You Revise?

 Literature Blogs

An interesting question popped up on Miss Snark’s blog today: (basically) How do you revise? Do you revise right away or let it sit?

It got me thinking…

I revise in various ways:

1)sometimes as I’m writing the rough draft (a very slow writing method);

2) the following day, while reading over the previous few paragraphs or chapter to get a running start on new words;

3) when I’m finished with the entire rough draft for consistencies of voice, etc;

4) after going through comments from a few beta readers or critique group; and

5) right before I click “send” for an agent/editor submission. If it’s rejected, the story can sit years before I look at it again, then — BAM — it’s like I’m my own beta reader.

So? What about you? (Or are you like a best-selling author I know who says, “Only revise when your editor tells you to”?)