Thursday, October 19, 2017

How To Cyber Stalk Literary Agents

Okay, don’t actually cyber stalk anybody. That’s creepy. I mean, don’t try to find somebody’s home address or birthday or the names of family members. Seriously, just don’t do that.

Psh! Why am I worried? You guys are normal. Right?


No, this article isn’t about actual stalking, but about literary agent research. Far less creepy and infinitely more important to your writing career.

You’ve written the next Twilight. Or Hunger Games. Or Paranormalcy. Or The Inquisitor's Tale.

All you need is a literary agent to get those big publishers to take notice of you. But there are hundreds of them listed on sites like querytracker and agentquery!! How the heck are you gonna find the right one for you?

This is why the agent hunt is likened unto dating. Because there isn’t just one right agent out there for you. There are lots of right ones, lots of agents who could fall in love with your work and be effective, tireless champions for you in the face of publishers who rarely take direct, unagented submissions.

Unlike dating, though, one party is at a distinct disadvantage in the agent hunt.

You. The writer.

It’s not, “Hey, let’s have dinner.” It’s, “I have something here you might like, but I know you get a thousand of these letters every week, but still, would you please look at mine for a second?”

It doesn’t have to go down like that.

Agents have said in interview after interview that a professional query letter personalized to them rises to the top, while Dear Agent varieties get automatic deletes. How important is the personalization?

To some, it’s more important than others, but all agents agree they want to feel like you’ve done your research and you’re not just taking a shot in the dark, hoping something will stick.

I’m not a querying professional, but I am a writer of professional queries. I’ve written a lot of them. And I’ve had some positive responses, mainly from agents who knew I’d specifically sought them out for what they represent.

One agent agreed to read my book after a query workshop on her blog. Two kind souls on the querytracker forum invited me to query their agents because we wrote in similar genres. Another awesome agented writer gave me a referral to her agent after she read my pitch. Mentioning that query workshop and those client names got my foot in a door that was sometimes barely ajar, sometimes completely closed.

But it’s not because this business is all about connections. No. It’s because agents get slammed with queries from all sorts of writers in all different stages of their writing careers. Some are just starting out. Maybe, like me, you sent out one of those newbie queries to an agent who didn’t rep what you were selling just because you liked his blog (*cough* Nathan Bransford *cough*). Even if you didn’t, you probably know agents get those kinds of queries all the time. It’s a breath of fresh air when they get a client referral or a query from someone they recognize as a regular blog reader/commenter (in the right genre for what they rep).

Finally! I imagine them saying, as they sip their mysterious dark-tinged beverage. Finally, somebody who actually wants to be represented by me and not just any old agent!
See, for them it might be just as frustrating as for you. They want clients who take writing seriously enough to care who represents them. They want clients who want to be their clients. Makes sense, right?

So here’s how to cyber stalk them (again, not actual stalking):
  • Read any interviews linked there. Visit their websites. Take actual notes on your favorites. If they give submission guidelines, follow their instructions.
  • Keep up on the market. Read the genre you write in. If you read an awesome book that’s similar in tone to yours, check the acknowledgements or “[author name] represented by” in your favorite web search engine.
  • Read books represented by the agents on your list. (When I first started my agent hunt, I thought this was going the extra mile, but it really, really helps you to personalize a query if you can say your book has similar elements to [published book by client name] and actually know what you’re talking about. And besides, the reading doubles as writing research, as well.)
  • Search their name at forums and forums. If they’ve done a Q&A or just been talked about by other authors, this info is priceless. 
What about you guys? Any cyber stalking tips for newbies?

Originally published on Operation Awesome, January 2011, links updated.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Pot Holes and Aha Moments in Your Writing Career

A writing career, just like any other kind, starts at the bottom and works its way to the top. It's a journey, filled with pot holes (hee hee, plot holes), and Eureka moments. 

My first Aha moment as a writer came after I penned my very first novel. It took me from 2003 to 2008 to finish it. Yeah. No, I wasn't working on it the whole time. I belonged to the someday-I'll-write-a-book club. My pot hole was that I didn't have any discipline. From August to October, I finally finished it.

In 2008, my Aha moment said, Writing on a daily schedule yields faster, better results.

Duh, right?

When you write every single day, or close to it, your story simply has more cohesiveness, more natural flow, than it will when you put months between each chapter. Not to mention how your writing style will change over time, even if you're not writing regularly. If you want to see what it looks like when 19-year-old me writes Chapter 1 and 23-year-old me writes Chapter 27, I've got a manuscript that can demonstrate it palpably. An unpublished manuscript. A terminally unpublishable manuscript. I will never do that again.

Another pot hole I faced as a writer was my essay training from high school, which told me to seek out the fanciest word to drive home my point. Never, ever use was or said, my teachers said. If you try to take every was and is/were/are out of a paper or manuscript, you will end up with some funky variations on sentence structure and some even funkier word combinations. Or maybe it's just me.

(e.g. It was proven that the chicken pox are contagious.
becomes-- The researchers found that chicken pox bore communicable properties.)

Stilted much? Yeah, this won't sound good in your YA novel. Thus, my next Aha moment came after my third book (we'll skip right over the sequel I wrote to the first book which had all the same problems as the first, but with a catchier ending).

It said, Stop trying to sound smart.

I am smart. You are, too. But we don't have to prove that to our readers by using words like ruminated where it would sound more natural for the character to say thought or pondered. Sure, if you've got a narrator or character who would use that word, like John Green's child prodigy in An Abundance of Katherines, then by all means, say ruminated all you like. But not because you're too good for boring words.
A Pot Hole 
A meandering hell of word-vomit at the end of that book taught me this:

A rough outline is better than no outline at all.

Which leads me to today's Aha moment. Two books later, I am still learning the importance of story structure and planning in creating the elusive perfect novel. Meandering? Still happens to me, unfortunately. I'm finally frustrated enough to do something about it. Enter Larry Brooks of

"In essence, story development separates into two sequential realms: the search for story… [followed] by the rendering of story."

otherwise realized as...

If it took you half the book to figure out your plot and character arcs, the reader has no hope.

Smart guy, that Larry Brooks.

What Aha moments have you had lately? What road blocks or pot holes have you hit?

If you're about due for another epiphany, check out Larry's article: A Mindset Shift That Can Get You Published, which inspired this post.

Originally published on Operation Awesome, January 2011.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Finding the Strength in Your Writing Weakness

Are you a storyteller or a wordsmith? 

I've noticed lately in my reading that some people truly excel at story, like Frank Baum of Wizard of Oz fame, or Rick Riordan of the Percy Jackson series; and others weave words like master artisans in the households of kings, like Libba Bray of Going Bovine and A Great and Terrible Beauty, or Gayle Forman of If I Stay, or my critique partners. ;)

Of course, it would be nice to have it all, but nobody starts out that way. That's why we call writing our craft.

So which part of our craft is your strong suit? Storytelling, with its plot structure, twists, and revelations? Or wordsmithing (how can that not be a real word?), with its heart-piercing phraseology and dew-from-heaven gloriousness?

It's an important question because the answer can tell you where you need to focus your practice. 

Me, for instance. I've got wordplay down to an art. Okay not really, but I became a writer because people told me I write well, not because people said I come up with the most air-tight plots ever. So I fall in with the wordsmith lot. For me, this means my current focus has to be plot. And not just plot. Storytelling includes characterization and setting, so you can see I have my work cut out for me.

My 3-year-old is a wordsmith already. Aw!

Knowing where my strengths lie as a writer gives me focus, but it also reminds me to allow myself a little failure in my weak areas. 

It's okay if my first draft is filled with plot holes. For me, revision is less about crafting perfect sentences and more about re-imagining the story... over and over again, until it all fits. And, of course, since this is my cross to bear I think storytelling is much harder than spinning beautiful phrases. Which is more difficult for you?

Now you know what to work on this weekend.

Originally published on Operation Awesome in December, 2010.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Finding Your Voice in the Literary Industry Cacophony

When I first started devoting serious time to becoming (my romantic notion of) a writer, my biggest worry was that I had no voice.

Yeah, you read that right.

I'd read something online about Finding Your Voice and I worried I needed to develop my voice. It's actually kind of silly if you think about it, because just about everybody is born with a voice. You don't question it or think about it. You just speak and words come out in your own unique voice. Sure, you have to coo or babble when you're a baby (not to mention all that bawling). You have to listen to your parents and siblings speak, and you mimic them to some extent. But in the end, the only way to develop your voice is to practice speaking.

Writing is the same way, but I didn't know that. I thought I needed a special guide to teach me how to be myself.  This stems from a fear that's haunted me my whole life, and I'm probably not alone.

Is being myself good enough?

It turns out that the only way NOT to have a personal writing voice is to try too hard to be like somebody else. Don't do that.

Finding my voice in an all-women's choir
that performed in the Salt Lake City Tabernacle!! Woot!
While the guide I linked above has good ideas, like reading a lot of different books or practicing writing like your favorite authors, or writing to prompts--all this is effectively the baby listening to conversation before she tries to make words on her own, and then awkwardly copying words like "No" and "Don't" and "Stop that" (this might just be my babies).

Writing in someone else's style is fine, but don't try to be Meg Cabot. Yes, she is awesome. Yes, she is witty. Be awesome and witty in your own way.

How do I propose you do that?


For writers, blogging is like a warm bubble bath. It's the fun and relaxation of writing without the cold shower of pass-or-fail judgment. Especially when you're first starting out. For a long time, I had 33 followers on my personal writing blog, and only about 8 hits a day from different viewers. Reaching more people is awesome, but starting small is good, too. I got into my own writing groove whenever I blogged, and even though I never turned my internal editor off (is that even possible??), I did allow myself some indulgences you simply can't do in printed fiction...

:) SQUEE!! LOL. ;) ROFL b/c That is made of awesome. OMGoodness! :p

...and the result in my novels has been palpable: I actually have a personality. Letting my hair down on my blog has freed up that personality more than copying Shakespeare or Mark Twain ever could. Not that I SQUEE in my books (though a character might at some point). They are definitely different formats, unless you're writing one of those MG books in chat format, which I think has been done to death, people.

The greatest key to finding your writing voice is to be yourself. 

Let that snark, incurable optimism, or witty cynicism seep into your novel. That's what people will relate to. Learn from others, try out new ways of expressing your themes and your characters. But don't bend over backward trying to achieve the oh-so-marketable and ever-elusive VOICE agents are always talking about. When they say that, they're really saying THAT BOOK connected with them on a personal level. Across the publishing universe, voice is as subjective as romantic chemistry. You can't fake it.

Be yourself, let your voice shine through the printed page, and trust that someone, somewhere will like you.

Originally published on Operation Awesome in December, 2010.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

China's Past and Future in 2 Book Reviews

There is so much to love about this book! It's appealing to young and old alike. It was lent to me by sisters, ages 14 and 12. They were effusive in their praise. As a work of historical fiction, it gave them context for our class reading of Red Scarf Girl, which is memoir, China's own version of Diary of Anne Frank. Letters in the Jade Dragon Box is how I washed down Red Scarf Girl, which has an overall oppressive feeling because of the weight of oppression Jiang Ji-li truly felt. Reading this one next helped me to feel more hope for China. It is an LDS author who weaves a story of conversion and re-conversion throughout, using actual missionary history in Hong Kong to give it life. At first, the historical footnotes caught me off guard, but I came to appreciate the depth these post-chapter explanations provided. They make this book an excellent study tool for those interested in China's past and present, particularly from a religious freedom perspective. I feel this book gave me more of a connection to China, celebrating its beauty, art, and culture, while telling the very sad story of the 1960's Cultural Revolution which tore so many families apart. I highly recommend this to both adults and young people. Reading it in the same semester with Red Scarf Girl is even better.

I was moved to tears by Ji-li Jiang's story many times. I came away from this book feeling strongly that if everyone read it, the world would be a less oppressive, less ignorant, more sympathetic place. This book is a plea for compassion and law. In her epilogue Jiang says, "This is the most frightening lesson of the Cultural Revolution: Without a sound legal system, a small group or even a single person can take control of an entire country. This is as true now as it was then."
I now have a deeper respect for the United States Constitution and the rule of law, as well as the importance of kindness and generosity in building and maintaining community life. Good books entertain you. Great books make you ask yourself questions about things that matter. The best books change you in the reading. You come out a better person. Red Scarf Girl is one of these.