the writer's arsenal: nothing is loved by everyone

It's been a while, but The Writer's Arsenal is back. I've got a whole slew of new writing/publishing related topics I'm looking forward to covering here on the blog, but as always, if there's anything about writer's craft, the industry, query process, whatever that you'd like to know more about, please leave a request in the comments or use the contact form and I'll be happy to cover it in a future post.

Today I want to talk about something I've undoubtedly touched on in the past, but this post is going to go into things a little more in-depth, and that's rejection.

Let me assure you, nobody likes being rejected, but absolutely everybody experiences it at some point or another. Writers (and artists in general) especially need to learn to live with it, because it's something you will continue to experience every step of the way.

Anyone who has queried a novel knows that receiving rejections is par for the course. Some authors manage to luck out with regards to timing, and they hit the right agent at the right time, receiving an offer of representation without having first received many "No thank you"s. But that's just luck and timing. If they'd done things another way, the number of rejections could have easily gone up, and for most authors querying, it does. In fact, for most authors, the number is in the dozens, or easily hundreds. Sometimes it's because the book isn't ready to be published, but a lot of the time, it's just a matter of taste--just a matter of finding the right person. And in the end, it's a good thing. Because a writer wants and needs an agent who loves their writing enough to fight for it. The agents who reject a manuscript weren't the right people for the job. Though unfortunate, it's a good thing they're passing. 

But then let's say, you finally land an agent. Hooray! No more querying! No more "No thank you"s! Except, now you have to submit to publishers, and the song and dance continues. As someone who's been on sub for a while, I know it all too well. And while it's always disappointing to receive a pass (even if it's accompanied by praise and helpful feedback), I know it's for the best. I want an editor who loves my books, loves my voice, and will want to work with me on future projects. If they can't see my potential, they won't be a great editor for me to work with.

Okay, so, let's say your book sells--yes, you've finally made it! The days of rejection are truly over now! Except...they're not. As any published author will tell you, the day your book hits the shelves (or sometimes beforehand, if advance reader copies go out) is the day the reviews start trickling (or hopefully pouring) in. Some of them will be glowing. Some of them won't. Agents rejected you, editors rejected you, and yes, now readers are rejecting you. A lot of writers find this extremely frustrating, and I can't really blame them. How can some people think your book is amazing while others feel it's utter garbage? Well, it's for the same reason some of us love sushi and some of us think it's disgusting. We all have different tastes, and authors absolutely must maintain that tough outer shell that got them through the query process, and find a way to accept the bad with the good, especially since some of the bad you'll see is just people trolling. Sad as it is, people will leave scathing reviews just to get a reaction. And if for no other reason, that's why you simply can't take it to heart. 

In May of last year, I saw something on TvLine.com that struck me so deeply that I grabbed a screen cap to keep as a reminder. David Letterman's final episode of The Late Show had just aired and having missed it myself, I was reading a recap of the show, and then scrolled down to the comments, where I saw this:

Source:  TvLine.com

Source: TvLine.com

Wow. Just wow. I see comments like this often. An article gets posted, and somebody in the comments rails on it. But there was something about this one that really stayed with me. David Letterman had been hosting The Late Show for 22 seasons. He was a late night icon. Of course, there were people who liked his style, and people who didn't, but here it was, his final episode, a time to recognize what an accomplished career he's had, and there in the comments was someone who not only bothered to say he didn't care for it, but qualified that comment by saying he's not a fan to begin with! In one fairly succinct comment, this guy captured what writers need to keep in mind whenever they read a rejection or negative review of something they've written. Some people simply don't like certain things. And even though they don't like them, they still take the time to write a negative review. This comment might as well have said, "I hated this Sci-Fi book, but I'm not a Sci-Fi fan." Of course, most rejections and negative reviews don't bother to mention that second part, but it's important to keep it in mind. 

Of course, there are people who will recommend that authors don't read reviews at all. I think that's a mistake though, because I think feedback is how we learn and grow. As a writer AND editor, I want to know what people don't like about something I've written because I want to be able to make it better. Be it for revisions, or the next book I write, I want to keep an open mind and improve, even if I know I'll still never be able to make everybody happy. The key to dealing with negative reviews isn't to not read them, it's to not let yourself get baited. Thank people for their praise, and then just let the negative comments exist. Read them with an open mind, remind yourself that people have different tastes, take in anything you can learn from, and then move on. 

Rejection is unavoidable. Even NYT bestsellers receive bad reviews. But those aren't the people you're writing for, right? Just remember, nothing is loved by everyone. And that's okay. The world would be a boring place if that weren't true. The people who love your books are the people who matter most, so keep your focus on them, and keep writing!

 

the writer's arsenal: pitch, query, back cover copy


Call it whatever you want--as a writer, at some point, you're going to have to sum up your story in a few short, hooky paragraphs. Starting out, you'll need this fine-tuned pitch or query blurb when you're approaching agents, then publishers (though once you have an agent, they will often help you position it to perfection!), and ultimately, if you land that elusive book deal, it will likely be the beginning of what copywriters will eventually turn into magical back cover copy a.k.a. those enticing lines on the back of book that make you decide to pop it in your cart instead of returning it to the shelf.

Many authors find it easier to write a multi-page synopsis than a shorter pitch (not to mention those one-liner loglines!), though I hear complaints about having to write all of the above. It's true that writing a pitch or synopsis requires a different skill set than writing a novel. A novel is pure creative whimsy while a pitch is a marketing piece. But that doesn't mean both aspiring and experienced authors don't need to know how to do it all. I know I don't have to tell you how important self-marketing is in today's publishing landscape. In fact, it really couldn't be more important. It's not enough to write your book, you need to be able to sell it--first to an agent, then to a publisher and then to a slew of readers, which might end up being the hardest sell of all.

Because so many authors find it so hard to writing a pitch, they often wait until a book is complete before they write it. Makes sense, right? Why write a blurb about a book when you don't even know how it's going to end? Well, my answer to that, being an outliner, is that you probably should have an idea as to how it's going to end, at least enough of one that you could write an enticing couple of paragraphs. For the first three novels that I wrote, I actually found it helpful to write the pitch first, with the primary focus on: what is the primary hook of this story? Were they perfect representations of the books I was about to write? No, but there was also nothing wrong with tweaking them as I went. The reason I found writing them first so helpful is because they helped me to stay focused. Outlines are great. I'm a big fan. But sometimes when you're writing, it's extremely helpful to read a succinct snapshot of what's at the heart of the story. It's always helped me to stay on track. In fact, the blurb I have posted here on the site for Skin Deep is extremely close to the original version I wrote before I dove in on chapter one of that book.

For my current WIP, tentatively titled You'll Never Know Me, I found myself at a complete loss trying to write a pitch before starting the story. It was the first time that had ever happened to me. I knew what I wanted the story to be about, but I had a difficult time coming up with the right words to describe it. You'll Never Know Me is my first real foray into writing straight-up contemporary YA and I think that had a lot to do with my inability to write the blurb up front. With both Unnatural and Skin Deep, I knew the hook. Each is a fantasy and the hook that drives each story is really clear. With YNKM, it's a far more character-driven story, and the hook seemed far more intangible at first. But now I find myself sitting close to the halfway mark and suddenly, everything seemed to fall into place. I just needed to hit the point in the first draft process where the big picture started to really come together.

Though my first dip into the contemporary YA pool has been more of a slow wade than a dive, having a blurb (which I can now reference) prepared gives me a lot more confidence in the direction I'm headed. I feel more steady about everything that's yet to be written. And if for no other reason (though it's just nice to have it nailed down), I think that's an excellent argument for forcing yourself to write that pitch/query/blurb/whatever you want to call it well before you finish writing the book. You might just find it pulling you up and over when that inevitible case of writer's block hits.

So without further ado, here is the (working draft) pitch for my first contemporary YA, You'll Never Know Me:
Louise Dunn hasn't recognized the world around her since the morning after her brother Neil’s senior prom, when she discovered his drowned body on the front lawn, with no explanation for how it got there. Buried beneath a grief she can’t seem to surface from, she stumbles through the ensuing summer, seeking solace in anything that can’t get inside her head. Then she discovers a hidden journal in Neil’s room, along with a stack of unfamiliar comic books, and everything changes.

It was no secret that Neil was gay. He’d come out the year before his death. But as Louise delves deeper into his pastimes and relationships, she discovers that maybe she didn’t know him as well as she thought, and what’s worse—things might’ve been different if she had. Between a series of unsettling encounters with Neil’s ex, and a sudden, unexpected connection with Matt, the fanboy clerk at the local comic shop, Louise finds she’s increasingly unable to ignore the tragedy that’s slowly suffocating her, and the walls she’ll have to tear down before she can start to live again.


 

the writer's arsenal: room for interpretation


In my post on Query Letter Dos and Don'ts, I touched on the fact that you shouldn't praise yourself in your query. I want to expand on that a little bit because I see writers doing it wrong all the time. The rule to not praise yourself is twofold--don't praise yourself and don't praise your writing. Just show your hand and leave it up to the agents/editors/readers to judge for themselves.

When it comes to talking about yourself, avoiding self-praise shouldn't be difficult. Just stick to the facts: What's your writing experience? Notice I didn't say, "What's your life story?" or "How awesome do you think you are?" Right, cause nobody needs to know that. In a query letter, you need only list your credentials. Not "I've written the next bestseller". Not "My five divorces have made me super wise in the way of women". And definitely not "You are seriously missing out if you don't take me on because I'm a literary genius". Again, stick to the facts. Let your reader decide whether or not those writing contests you won make you a literary genius. Factual credentials = impressive, even if they're slim. Overstating your brilliance = major turn off.

So then let's talk about that bit of the query where you talk about your book. Writing a good blurb is an art in itself. So is writing a synopsis (and yes, a query blurb and a synopsis are different things--we'll cover that down the line). The blurb needs to tell your reader what your story is about, without just being a bunch of buzz-words. Not "It's a hilarious, touching, awe-inspiring journey through the human condition that will rock the genre to its core". As the author, that's not for you to say. Your blurb should give a sense of the plot and sure, even the themes, without blowing them out of proportion. It needs to walk the fine line between factual and enticing, without forcing subjective opinions into the mix. You can say that your story "explores themes of human frailty", without claiming it will "shatter our current interpretation of human frailty in the modern world". See the difference? If your book is funny, that should be conveyed in your writing, in your voice, in your blurb. It's classic "show, don't tell". Leave it up to the reader to say, "Hey, this sounds funny!"

It's the difference between this:
"Hey guys, wanna know who's hilarious? It's me! I'm hilarious!"

And this:


Okay, maybe you don't find that sailor/pac-man ghost as funny as I do, but that's kind of what I'm getting at here. It's open to interpretation. Don't say you're funny. Be funny. Your query letter, or pitch, is your first impression. You want to make a good one. You don't want to be this guy:

"Who wants to hear some super funny jokes about cancer?"

Semi-related P.S.: You know how some people will occasionally say "that's funny" instead of just laughing at something? I'm totally guilty of that. But I never say it because I'm trying to hide the fact that I didn't think something was funny. Quite the opposite in fact. I usually say it when I'm really impressed by how funny something is. So impressed I need to vocalize my feelings and make it really clear that I think something's funny. Trust me, it makes sense in my head :)



the writer's arsenal: query letter dos and don'ts

Over time, I plan to look at certain specific aspects of the query letter (and query process) in a little more detail. But you have to start somewhere, and I think the best place to start is with a top line list of dos and don'ts when it comes to querying. Query letters seem like they should be straightforward and there's certainly plenty of information on them around the web, but in my experience some of the info is conflicting and some of it amounts to few actual takeaway tips. I'm hoping to keep the tips in this post clear and concise. And then we'll get into more detail in future posts (let me know in the comments if there's an aspect of querying or anything publishing-related that you'd like to hear more about down the road). I'm going to stick to tips that mainly apply to querying fiction. I'll cover non-fiction in another post, as it's a whole different ball game.

I apologize ahead of time for typos--it's a long list and I'm doing the bad thing by posting before I proof. I'll fix it up as I notice the inevitable errors :)

  • DO finish your book before you query. This should be a no-brainer, but people often get excited and want to start the process as soon as possible. But please, don't do this. You should be focusing all of your efforts on finishing, then revising, then polishing your book. Then, and only then, should you start querying agents and publishers. 
  • DO ensure you're only reaching out to reputable agents/agencies/publishers. Check out the services offered at QueryTracker. Use Preditors and Editors, an online resource for writers to help them avoid being scammed. Also check out the Thumbs Down Agency List at SFWA and the forums at Absolute Write. These resources exist for education and support. You'll need a lot of both as you attempt to enter this crazy business.
  • DO your research. Know whether or not the person you're querying represents your genre. Querying someone who doesn't is only going to make your rejection/non-response rate go up. Keep to the people you might have a shot with. They're the ones who know their stuff when it comes to your genre. They're the ones you'd want representing you anyway.
  • DO also research the person you're querying beyond just which genres they represent. Do they have a website? Twitter? Blog? Do they have preferences when it comes to query letters? If they do, ALWAYS follow them. ALWAYS. They've provided those guidelines for a reason. Respecting them will get you started off on the right foot.
  • DO include sample pages ONLY IF the agent has asked for them in their guidelines. Otherwise, keep it to just the query letter itself. Most agents will say how many sample pages, chapters, etc they would like to see included, but if you come across a set of guidelines that simply say "sample pages are fine", keep it to the first 5-10 pages, or if your first chapter lands somewhere in that range, cut it off there. It's enough to get a taste, and it's certainly enough to help them decide whether or not they want to read more. 
  • DON'T select sample pages from what you believe to be "the best" part of your book. Sample pages should always be from the beginning of your book--not an exciting passage from chapter nine (even if it is awesome). The opening pages of your book should be attention-grabbing enough. If they aren't, you have more revising to do. 
  • DO send your query letter via email whenever possible. It's faster and more environmentally friendly. Very few agents/publishers still prefer submissions via snail mail, but if they do, adhere to that request. Include a SASE and remember to actually put a stamp on it. An envelope with your address on it is worthless without the stamp.
  • DON'T send your query letter on weird stationary (this goes for email and snail mail). For snail mail, don't include anything other than the query letter, SASE and sample pages (if they were asked for in the guidelines). No glitter, no spritzes of perfume, no sample marketing materials, and no sample covers you've designed yourself.
  • DO send email queries from a professional sounding email address that identifies who you are. sexykitten789@gmail.com will make you look ridiculous. If you don't have an email address that is some variation of your name, make one.
  • DO keep your content in the body of the email. No attachments unless the person has specifically said it's okay. That includes sample pages. Paste them into the body of the email, below the query letter.
  • DO format email queries as emails. Don't try and use the snail letter format in an email. It looks silly. The subject line should read, "Query: <title of book>" unless an agent specifically requests otherwise.
  • DO prepare your subject line and body of the email first and then add the recipient's email address last. This will prevent you from accidentally sending it off before it's ready to go. Hitting send won't get very far with a blank To: field.
  • DON'T send query letters out in big batches to multiple recipients, even if a bunch of agents have identical guidelines. Their names aren't identical and that's reason enough to separate them out. Nobody wants to be reduced to a name on your mass query mailing list.  
  • DO address your letter to the specific person you're querying. Dear Sir, Dear Agent, Dear Publisher, To Whom it May Concern, etc is not a good first impression (especially the Dear Sir--you're just going to offend somebody with that one). Since you've done your research on the people you're querying, there is no reason to not address each letter you send to the person it's indented for. If an agency asks that you send one query letter to the agency and they'll decide who it's right for and no name of contact is given, simply address it to the agency: "Dear Agents of <insert agency name>". Don't just leave out a salutation. You have one shot at a first impression. Make it count.
  • DO keep in mind that a query letter is a professional letter. Keep it that way. It certainly can be genial and polite, but don't let it slide into casual territory. Keep your language professional, clean, concise and on point.
  • DON'T lose sight of what the query letter is about--your book. It's not a platform for you to talk about yourself, your family, your pets, your dreams, where you grew up, where you traveled in your youth, any adversity you've overcome, etc. It's about the book you've written and your specific, non-emotional qualifications to write said book. The person you're querying isn't your pen pal. Don't tell them about your life. This isn't a personal correspondence. It's a business letter.
  • DO keep to this format: intro or hook (if you have one), brief but enticing plot summary, brief author bio/qualifications, thank you, sign off. The letter shouldn't be longer than 3-4 paragraphs. Some agents would also like to know how you found out about them and why your book would be a good fit for their list. If they mention this in their guidelines, then go for it, otherwise, keep it short and sweet.
  • DO make sure you include the following vital pieces of information in your letter: title, genre, word count and what the book is about. Those are the things agents/publishers need to know. 
  • DON'T mention future books in a series, or other books you've written (unless they were published). A query letter should be about one book. Even if your book is book one of a planned trilogy, don't mention this. If the agent is interested in the book, that's something you can discuss when you speak on the phone. 
  • DON'T write one huge book and talk about how it could be broken into shorter books. When you query, your book should be ready to stand alone as one cohesive unit. And the word count should be reasonable (90-100k for adult fiction; 60-80k for YA, 50-60k for MG. There are exceptions but don't stray too far).
  • DON'T even think about mentioning the word film. Or movie. Or merchandizing. Your query letter is about the manuscript you've written. That's it. The time to talk about anything beyond the book itself is not now. That may comelater, after you've actually sold your book to a publisher, and even then, let the conversation come to you. Publishing is not the film industry.
  • DON'T praise your own book in your letter. Just don't. It may seem harmless to refer to it as a hilarious tale of blah blah blah, but just don't. The book should speak for itself. The plot summary should hint at the themes and give a sample of the voice (I'll discuss the plot summary in more detail in a future post), but it should do these things without you having to spell them out.
  • DO include information about any relevant writing awards you've won, writers' groups you're a part of, and/or relevant education you've completed. If none of these apply, don't try and find things to force in their place. Just keep your letter simple.
  • DO mention it if you've been published before. If you have, always include details (title, pub date, publisher).
  • DO remind an agent of who you are if you've queried them in the past, especially if they've requested material from you.
  • DON'T feel the need to point out that this is your first book. Nobody needs to know that. Your lack of publishing credentials will speak to that.
  • DON'T feel the need to copyright or get a patent for your book. It's not necessary and it makes you look paranoid. As long as you are querying reputable agents and publishers, nobody is going to steal your book. 
  • DO mention comparable books if the agents asks for it in their guidelines, otherwise, don't feel the need to do it unless it's a fantastic comparison. Don't say it's the next Harry Potter or Twilight or whatever. Don't compare your book to bestsellers just because you want it to sound awesome. Only compare it to books if the comparison is pitch-perfect. Otherwise, you just look silly.
  • DO include your contact information at the bottom of your letter--email, phone number, address.
  • DO proof your query letter before you send it. Even if you've saved it as a template somewhere on your computer and you know it's been proofed. Check it again.
  • DO proof your query letter before you send it. Oh, I just said that? Well, do it again. The last thing you want to do is hit send and then realize you've made a silly typo. Most agents will be forgiving of an easily-missed typo, but more than one starts to get you in serious trouble.
  • DO send your query letters out in batches and wait to hear back from a few before sending more. Many people will recommend you don't query your top choices right away in case the first version of your query letter isn't your best (it's probably not). Query agents you are interested in, but maybe aren't your top choices and based on their feedback, revise your letter before sending it to your top picks. If the query letter seems to work and you receive some requests, feel free to stick with it and send it along to those top agents. But don't query 100 agents at once or you'll be sorry if you realize the query could be stronger. Again, you only get one first impression.
  • DO keep track of who you've queried and when. I like to create a spreadsheet in excel that also includes info on expected response time, whether or not sample pages were involved and any other relevant info on the agent or agency.
  • DON'T reply to rejections. Not even to say thank you. Just read them and move on. Agents don't expect or want replies to rejections, especially form rejections. If you receive a rejection on requested material, a simple "Thank you for your time" email is acceptable, but don't ever ask for more feedback. Don't ask if you can send a revision. If an agent would be open to seeing a revision, they will mention it in their reply.
  • DO respond to requests for more material in a timely manner, usually within 24 hours. Follow instructions carefully. If they only want to see a few chapters, don't send the whole thing. When you are ready to send along your materials, change the subject of your email to something along the lines of "Requested material: <title of book>" so that it stands out in the agent's flooded inbox.
  • DO be patient. Patience is HUGE in publishing. You're always waiting for something and the wait starts now. Agents/editors are busy. Very busy. Give them time to get to your query or submission. If they are a non-responder, they'll usually mention it in their guidelines (ie: if you don't hear back within six weeks, consider it a pass). Respect that. If they say it's okay to follow-up, then do so. If they don't specify a time, eight weeks is a good rule of thumb. I know that seems long, but trust me, it takes that long sometimes. Sometimes it takes even longer. After eight week, a polite, "Just wanted to follow up on my query from <date>" is acceptable. Include the original query in your email. If you still haven't heard back after another six-eight weeks, follow-up again, but after that, it might be time to start thinking about moving on.
  • DON'T re-query a book to the same agent after they've rejected you. They'll remember and they'll be mad at you for trying to trick them. Only send a revised manuscript if it's been requested, the only possible exception being if you've done a major overhaul and have received some positive reactions to it from other agents, then it's okay to see if a previously semi-interested agent would like a second look.

I'm certain I've missed a few things but I'll definitely add to this list as I think of more. If you have any questions about any of the above, or anything I didn't cover, please ask away in the comments!

I will cover the next step, a.k.a. what to do when an agent offers representation, in a future post.

For today, I will leave you with my query letter for Unnatural (titled Unnatural Disaster at the time), the book that snagged me my fabulous agent:

Dear <agent>,
November "Ember" Edwards is not a witch. She can't successfully perform a single spell, which would be a total non-issue except that everybody else can. Ember is what The Ravendale Finishing School for Young Sorcerers labels a "dud", a weak link in the gene pool, and it's sink or swim when she and a group of fellow non-graduating students are led into the woods for the post-academic culling, an annual event that pits the duds against a series of so-called natural disasters, forcing them to either summon their latent magical abilities or die trying.
Thankfully, Ember is not alone. Her boyfriend Ren Hargrove is also a dud, and Ember thinks they have a good shot at surviving if they stick together. But first, she'll have to find a way to get Caden Rowley, the mysterious stranger who turns up in the woods, out of her mind, a task that's much easier said than done when he causes her to feel the first sparks of magic she's ever known—something she's learning she can't live without.
I’m seeking representation for my young adult novel, Unnatural Disaster, which is complete at 63, 300 words. I graduated with an Honors Bachelor of Arts in Rhetoric and Professional Writing from the University of <redacted>. I'm currently on maternity leave from my position as an editorial assistant for <redacted>.
Thank you so much for your time and consideration.
Warm regards,
Kate Pawson Studer

no post today (err, other than this one...)

Just a quick post to say there won't be a regular Monday post today. NaNo is forcing me into an out of the ordinary routine, so I'm posting when I can (like yesterday's NaNo focused post with links to some of the best writing advice on the web) and writing when I can. Since yesterday was better for blogging, I did, and since today is better for writing, I'm going to. I hope to be back with a regular post next Monday in which I'll address query letters and the query process as part of the writer's arsenal. After four years of reading query letters, not to mention my own experiences writing them, I have a few tips I want to share :)

In the meantime, my word count is calling...

verbose seductress...