Query Letter Writing

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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.

Writing Conference Expectations

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We’re having our SCBWI-MI fall conference this weekend. I’ve been to over a dozen live writing conferences in different states. I’ve also been co-chair of four of them. I’ve attended on-line writers conferences as well. After all this time and experience, I rather know what to expect. I should rather say, I ought to know by now what to expect. Here’s what I expect for this weekend.

* That I will greet old friends, and make bunches of new ones – all of us gathered by a shared interest and hope.

* That one of these writer friends will tell me: 1) if I put my sweater on tag-side out; or 2) if my shoes don’t match, from getting dressed in the dark; or 3) that before I slip away for a critique, to be sure I remove the spinach dangling from between my teeth or pumpkin smear on my cheek.

* That I remember to bring extra pens in case my favorite one runs out of ink. I also take a water bottle, a watch, and business cards, and sometimes even remember to hand out the cards.

* That I will have one manuscript (possibly more) polished enough to pitch.

* That when I practice my elevator pitches, I mentally delete each “um” and “well, then…” and “ya know?” and remember to keep such phrases deleted when my mouth lays a patch at the intersection of Conversation Street and Nervous Lane.

* That I take cash-only for book purchases v.s. my credit card, which doesn’t light up when I’ve exceeded our monthly food budget.

* That I don’t pass out when I come face-to-face with an editor or agent. First impressions count.

* That I will take away gobs of information for my personal writing craft improvement.

* That after an attending editor or agent asks for a partial or a full, I’ll be business-like-delighted, but not so elated-ecstatic-happy that I’ve forgotten where I parked my car.

Self-Published v.s. Waiting for the Traditional Press

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I had lunch today with a self-published children’s book author who has written and published three picture books, three middle school books, and will have his first young adult book published this December. He already has orders for 1,000 copies of the YA book. He travels throughout the USA, presenting a highly energetic, entertaining, and musically talented school visit.

Anytime we get together (he is a local author), and he happens to read parts of my WIP (whichever I may be working on or wish to share), he is impressed with how well I write. He says I am a much better writer than he. I humbly tend to agree, since I am associated with SCBWI, been in several critique groups through the years, have had numerous critiques with agents and editors, and am constantly improving my craft. Whereas, he tends to write for himself and doesn’t take a critique very well, although he may tend to disagree with that statement.  This author keeps trying to talk me into self-publishing. I keep telling him, “No, thanks.” So what is my hold-up?

1) Fortitude. I want what I write to last beyond my lifetime. I want my stories to be published by others who will continue the story long after I’m dead. Only a traditional publishing house would do that. My friend not only self-publishes, he self-promotes, self-markets, arranges his travel and hotel and meals for school visits, and carts all his books in his van on his tours. Who will do all that for his books when he dies?

2) Editors. I want a professional who is trained in literacy and experienced in what is excellent to look over my writings, to make them the best I (we) can make them.

3) Money. Time and money have always been deciding factors in things which I do. I haven’t got the money to put forth for a self-publishing adventure.

I am glad for my friend. He is happy with what he is doing. As I mentioned, he is highly entertaining, and kids love his visits, and he does encourage children to read and to write. Plus, many literary authors are rather dull speakers. (Rats! I know I’ve just offended thousands of friends. Double-dog-rats!)

Even though he is making a rather good living at what he does, and I am making nothing, I am not willing to follow his path, even if I were given a chunk of start-up money to do so — all for the reasons listed above.  He’d love to see me published. Hello! Me, too. But I’ll remain a hold-out for the traditional press, recession or not, e-books or not, wading through the ever-evolving world of publication.

Here’s to me — to my high hopes of every week becoming a better writer, and of someday becoming a book-published author with an editor in a traditional house.

WriteOnCon, part III — online v.s. live conferences

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I am all for writers conferences. I’ve been attending them for about twenty-five years, and have co-chaired four and a half of them.

I participated in last week’s WriteOnCon — a free online conference for children’s writers. I am slowly catching up on day three because I was out of town for a week. During my absence, I thought of a few differences between online writers conferences and live writers conferences, and thought I’d share them.

1) Cost. WriteOnCon was free. Our 2-day fall SCBWI-MI conference — which I’m attending — costs between $235 and $285, plus attendees must arrange for our own overnight accommodations.

2) Information. Both forms make my head ache with overload of things to absorb. Both have things for new-to-the-business writers and seasoned, published writers. Online offered far more speakers, but live speakers can be approached.

3) Networking. This can work well for both types of conferences. Online can be a bit more difficult, but you can also meet people from around the world. On the live side, depending on your personality, meeting an editor for the first time in person can terrify some. An editor once told me the story of a face-to-face critique at a conference, where as soon as the writer sat down, she burst into tears from being so close to an actual editor.

4) Presentations. Live conferences have… well, live speakers, with question and answer times. Online conferences have YouTube videos, or live chats, or written talks (like a blog post).

5) Fashion. Spending a couple months deciding what to wear to a live conference (and usually changing my mind the night before) v.s. pajamas or grubs.

Personally, I appreciate both types of conferences. I appreciate the work which conference organizers put into making conferences dynamic and memorable information houses for willing-to-learn writers. I appreciate speakers willing to give of their time and knowledge, and to possibly pick up some new clients or authors or illustrators, which is, of course, every attendee’s hope. And I love meeting fellow writers who generally huddle together, us against the world.

Keep on learning. Keep on writing.

A Famous Writer

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I was outside watering a few dry plants this evening when a kid rode up onto our lawn heading straight at me, with two runners in tow.

“Ain’t you that famous writer?” the bike rider said.

I laughed lightly. I remembered the 6th grade boy. He was selling candy a couple of months ago to help defray the costs from when his house burned down. I got to talking (back then) to his friend and him about a story I wrote a story about a 6th grade boy whose house burnt down.  Ironic, I thought. Since I wasn’t sure they believed me, I ran back into the house and brought out the manuscript. (Writers sure can get desperate sometimes.) We read together the first paragraph, and their eyes got wide. See? I was telling the truth! My writerly spirit encouraged, I bought some candy bars from him, wondering deep down  if it was really a hoax, but always liking to have friendly contact with neighborhood kids for several reasons. When that incident happened, I didn’t think I’d ever see the kid again. And here he was, riding on my lawn, showing off to his friends the famous writer he knew.

“I’m not famous,” I admitted. “But I do write. And at the moment, the story you just mentioned is out with an editor.” I wasn’t sure if they even knew what an editor did, but didn’t want to confuse them, or sound like a teacher.

“I want to read it,” said the Candy Bar Boy. The other two nodded.

“It takes time,” I told them. “Once the editor accepts the final copy of the story, it normally takes two or three years before it gets published into a book you can read.” This would be going through a traditional publishing house, of course, but again, I didn’t want to flood them with too much information, nor the fact that it could very well be rejected by several editors first.

“I’ll be in 10th grade by then,” said the older boy, counting on his fingers.

Again, I didn’t want to add other publishing housing rejections to the mix, but thinking about rejection slips, my pessimism escaped. “Yeah,” I said. “By then you probably won’t even remember me.”

“Oh, yes, we will,” they all three assured me. Maybe they knew what long waits and being sad was all about.

“We sure are thirsty,” hinted the one runner.

“I’ll get you some water,” I offered my potential future readers.

They quickly chugged down the glasses of water and were off to play basketball while it was still light. As they rode away, I heard the Candy Bar Boy say to his friends, “See? I told you I knew a famous writer!”

Whole Novel Critiques– Rewriting and Revision Process

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I have just finished receiving my first group whole novel critique. The five others in my on-line critique group spent the past month reading and critiquing a novel they’d never seen before. This last week we’ve been discussing what everyone wrote about it.

The process: I submitted the whole novel on line, with an author-list of questions in four categories: 1) beginning and ending of book; 2) characters; 3) plot; and 4) theme. After three weeks, I received their responses, then compiled a new set of 7 or so questions stimulated from their comments. Now that I have those second responses back, I need to think how to proceed (in other words, comes the nitty-gritty bit of rewriting and revision).

In my past, I’ve had individuals read whole novels of mine. If editors or agents comment, they usually come back with just a line or two (e.g., “too quiet a story line for me”). Other writers’ comments vary in length, usually 1-2 pages of printed naration. What I found so fascinating about this group process, was that I had five different people in 4 different states and 1 other country, giving their thoughts on how to make it a better story. If one or two of them didn’t like something or was confused by some part or character, I could TOT it (take it or toss it). But if all 5 of them felt some part was needy, I would certainly see it as something needing to revise or rewrite.

One person in our critique group has revised one of her novels 17 times. She says it was a good story in the beginning, but now she really likes it. I don’t keep track of the number of times I rewrite or revise, since I often do it by chapters or scenes. I’d only do whole novel look through right before sending it out to an editor or agent. This time, I hope to do things differently before the professional submission.

I’ve compiled a list of things I need to address (e.g., the relationship between father and son). I plan on taking one of each of the things which need fixin’, and go through the entire story focusing on just that one concern. When I am done with that revision, I’ll move on to the next one and go through the entire story with only that concern in mind, and so on. THEN, I’ll do a whole book look to see how much I’ve messed things up or fixed things up.

Man! When I made up stories for my friends in junior high, it was never this hard.

Whole Book Critiques and Not so Alone in the Ocean

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I’m three days early in adding this post, but simply can’t help myself.

This year my on-line critique group is doing whole-novel critiques. We just finished critiquing and discussing Donna’s book. It has been a wonderful experience, for, as Donna pointed out, we all chose her chapter 2 as the chapter we least liked or saw whole-book purpose to. Yet, she reminded us, when she passed the chapter through our group while we were doing one or two chapters at a time, we all liked the language, chapter arc, etc.

We’ve been learning that we can be great writers, but miss the forward-moving action of a great story. It’s an eye-opening discovery.

It can get very lonely and discouraging, waiting to hear back from editors or agents.  This past Christmas I heard from two long-time writers friends who decided to pour their creative energy into other-than-writing stuff — Aaron is in theater and Meridee now does pottery. They’re both great at what they do. I’m glad they’ve found contentment.

Sometimes I feel like I’m splashing around in an ocean, clinging to a life ring, waiting to be rescued. I feel some hope as I kick together with another writer, also on her life ring, or a group of us (networking, it’s called in the real world). I let the theatre and pottery boats pass me by. I sometimes rest a while on a magazine or web boat. But I aways end up back in the water, kicking and hoping and waiting. Some day I know that agent-editor boat will pass and rescue my weary bones. Sometimes at the crest of the wave, I imagine I see land… but I’m not sure.

Keep on kicking, you faithful writers. Either ship or land is bound to come our way sometime.