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.