Thursday, September 27, 2012

Writing queries -- the basics!

Sooner or later, as much as you like to work on your stories, you will have to send them out into the cruel world where they will have to war with other stories, Gladiator-style, for that coveted place in an editor's heart. So you write a query, which is basically a single-paged letter introducing your novel to some jaded, bleary-eyed reader who has seen way too many of these things. You want your letter to pique her interest so she'll request pages, or even your full MS.

The best way to learn to write a query is to read slush -- the unsolicited queries and MSS that pour by the thousands into literary agencies and publishing houses. If you ever have the chance to work for a literary magazine, an editor, or an agent, then do it. You soon see for yourself how many of these letters sink into a mind-numbing morass of sameness -- and how one good query just blows the other letters away.

If you can't read slush, then do the next best thing and go to Query Shark and read the many, many queries agent Janet Reid critiques. In fact, read the whole blog and learn from her critiques! It's the best education in query writing you'll get.

Okay: So let's set up a query.

Now, these guidelines I'm giving you applies to e-queries, which is how most agents are taking their queries these days. Some agents prefer snail-mail queries, and for those, you'd add your contact info and date at the top as you would a regular business letter. (In e-queries, contact info works best at the end of the letter, not at the top.)

The first paragraph of the query lays out why you chose this agent/editor. "I'm sending you this because you rep YA fantasy with brawling raccoons, which is what my story is about." Because we hate getting mass-produced letters written by robots. (P.S. I'll cover agent research in my next post.)

The second (and sometimes third) paragraph is the synopsis of your book. A lot of us groan and whine and reach for the bourbon when it comes to synops, but it's important to put in the extra work. You want the synop to be understandable and awesome.

Make the synopsis into a puzzle, a Rubik's Cube that you're playing with just for fun. Keep some scrap paper handy and, in odd moments, slap a synopsis down on it. Then when you've written it, throw it away. The next day, write another synopsis, just off the top of your head, and throw that one away. If you mess with the synopsis over a series of days, you're keeping it simmering on the stove, metaphorically speaking. Pretty soon you get a synopsis you think is worth keeping. Revise that one.

When you're a whiz-bang astrophysicist who's demoted Pluto, all other puzzles are easy.
The last paragraph is your bio. Keep it short and sweet. If you're published, mention your very awesome books. If you're unpublished, it's no biggie, just say something short and sweet about yourself. "I'm a chicken wrangler who graduated with an MFA for writing for children from Hamline University. My articles have appeared in Czar Times, Ming Vase Monthly, and Gum Chewer Aficionado, and I won the National Yodeling Championship three years in a row." That oughter get their interest.

Then thank the agent for their time and interest, put on the closer, and follow that with contact info -- mail, phone, and email. Then follow that with your sample pages, pasted in the body of the email -- NO ATTACHMENTS because viruses are scary.

I adjure you, I beseech you: Start working on the query, and especially the synopsis, BEFORE the novel is finished. (Writing the query also helps you tighten your novel's focus.) Write the query, revise it, then send it to critique buddies everywhere. Listen to their advice and revise it a couple more times. When it's in decent shape, enter it in a few query critique contests. (Keep an eye out for these around the internets -- they are super-helpful.) Persistence (and revision) wins the game.

Next up: Researching and submitting queries to agents!

Further reading: How to Write a Query Letter from Nathan Bransford, former agent; "How to Write a Query Letter" from AgentQuery; Miss Snark, who is no longer blogging there but she is still awesome; and the Snarkives, which are Miss Snark's posts topically sorted.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

juicy bits

Hooray! I survived another conference. I'll share some of the juicy details in a bit.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Is It Just Me?

So here's the story -  Red Hen Press will publish a new collection of poems next year.  They (the press) urge an on-line presence (sounds spooky in a way, doesn't it?  "I sense a presence in the room!"), mostly Facebook and Twitter.  Fine.  I'll cooperate for a change.  So I get a couple of accounts.  Or rather a friend sets me up.  I approach w/ great trepidation.  I'm the mongoose, the accounts are the cobra.  But a mongoose is tough, so I toughen up, too.

Twitter I learn to like because the entries (don't expect me to say 'tweets') remind me of haiku and I get to compose something short and, I hope, attractive.  None of that, "I'm eating cake!" nonsense.  Something w/ some resonance.  Or mystery.  Or at least a laugh.

But Facebook?   It's way too much like making out with an octopus -- all those arms and suckers everywhere.  So many unreasonable demands!

I've always been a selfish s.o.b. and/but I get a lot of writing done because -- partly, anyway --  what's left of my mind is free to wander.  I'm not busy friending (there's another barbaric neologism) somebody I went to grade school with who remembers the birthday party where milk ran out of my nose onto Shirley Willoughby's new dress and oh, by the way,  Shirley is now in a coma but might like a card.

See?  Just writing about it makes me cranky.

There are two people I e-mail every day.  I'd be, frankly, bereft without them.    I'm deep with them rather than wide with others.  It's the best I can do.

 Montaigne:  "I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself."

I second that and call for a vote.



Monday, September 17, 2012


During this season when politicians end every ratty moth-eaten political speech with a threadbare allusion to God and country, and at least one even warbles "America the Beautiful" uncertainly in public, a little shot of scepticism is a tonic.  Here's one answer novelist Don DiLillo sent by Fax to PEN America in response to interview questions:

"On Religion

"The Latin mass had an odd glamour--all that mystery and tradition.  Religion has not been a major element in my work, and for some years now I think the true American religion has been "the American People."  The term quickly developed an aura of sanctity and inviolability.  First used mainly by politicians at nominating conventions and in inaugural speeches, the phrase became a mainstay of news broadcasts and other more or less nonpartisan occasions.  All the reverence once invested in the name of God was transferred to an entity safely defined as you and me.  But do we still exist?  Does the phrase still soar over the airwaves?  Or are the American People dead and buried?  It seems the case, more than ever, that there are only factions, movements, sects, splinter groups, and deeply aggrieved individual voices.  The media absorbs it all."  From "Best American Fax from Don DiLillo." The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011.  Edited by Dave Eggers. Pp.3-4.

Unless a writer expresses a unique take on the world, the expression won't be worth much.  I was happy this week to read a critical essay by our Hamline MFAC student Shelley Jones, where she took apart the notion of "setting as character," turned the idea over and over in her hand, and examined it sceptically--as critically as one ought to do in a critical essay.  Her questioning stance gave the phrase new meaning, her own meaning.  What pleasure the essay gave its reader, the pleasure of seeing mind at work.

All of us do well to entertain doubt about supposedly settled truths and to think about them anew for ourselves.  I intend to examine received wisdom as a regular exercise in my journal.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Novel playlists!

I’ve always liked playing music while I’m writing a novel. The right song can focus the mind, get me into the trancelike state where good writing happens, and can encapsulate the mood and tone of the novel. That said, I can write only to certain songs that are specific to that novel. Anything else is distracting.

I have a few all-purpose songs that can help me get in a writing state. “Black” by Pearl Jam was a song I used while writing a short story in 1994 that I’m able to use for general all-purpose writing. I actually had a novel show up when “Frozen” by Madonna came out, and I ended up using the slow tracks off her Ray of Light album for that novel. Thorn’s story, on the other hand, gets “River of Tears” by Eric Clapton and “Still Got the Blues” by Gary Moore. The end of Butterfly Chaos gets “Hard Way Out” by Jeff Black. In its previous draft, before I completely rewrote it, I used “Time Stand Still” by Rush, and a song that I associate with a boy I knew long ago, “Close to You” by the Carpenters.

The interesting thing is, I don't allow myself to listen to those songs if I’m not writing. If one of those songs pops up on my i-Pod, or on the radio, I have to move on to the next song, or change the station. To listen to the music outside of my writing time dilutes the effectiveness of the song. I want to associate the music to the world and mood of the novel and nothing else.

I have to put the songs in a separate playlist on my i-Pod so I don’t get jarred out of the novel when the tracks change and I’m suddenly listening to marsh duck calls -- which makes for a hell of a segue.

Character (dramatically): I can’t keep this to myself any longer. I’ve kept this secret for so many years. But I want to say that –

from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Anas platyrhynchos: Literary Critic.

I’ve tried to listen to classical music while writing, but the mood of the compositions often changes during the course of a single movement, because composers love to make everything really quiet, and then suddenly, kettledrum explosions! The exception to this is Shostakovich’s String Quartet #8, which I’ll play sometimes for final showdown scenes when it’s the end of the world, because Shostakovich generally scares the crap out of me. 

What about you? Do you use playlists in your novel? Or is silence the best policy?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tell Me or It's Curtains for You, Buster

Remember T. A. Barron?  He was a guest 2 summers ago; he presented during a tornado and was lucky not to end up in Kansas.  Among many wise things he said and many suggestions for writers, I still use something of his called (I call it that) The Interrogation Method.

His advice was to, among other things,  note characters' deepest fears, hopes, longings and then ask, "What is your deepest secret?"  He suggested doing this for every character, every place, and every magical/endowed object.

(It's fun to do it with less-than-magical-objects.  I once asked a toaster just sitting there by the can opener while my characters argued.  Its secret was an impulse to burn everything.  No half-measures.  No middle ground.  It particularly hated "golden brown.")

I was reminded of Mr.  Barron's exercise last week when I was fooling around with a couple of ancillary characters.  Not even sidekicks.  You know the guys who hold the spears in Shakespeare plays?  Like that.  Barely speaking parts.  "No, m'lord."  That kind of thing.

So on a whim I asked  these accessories their deepest secrets.  Holy crap.  It was like sitting down next some some wan dude at a boring party and all of a sudden your ears are burning and you're half fascinated, half repelled.

I never felt the same about them after that.  One of them disappeared from the story but the other one turned up toward the end and I thought, "I remember you, man.  Did you ever get to see CocoRosie in person?"

Give it a try, especially if you're floundering.  Stop paying attention to the stars of your stories.  See what's up with the understudies.  They'll usually spill the beans right off, but if they don't, twist their little, imaginary arms.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Where there's a paraprosdokian ...

     Our lives continue to be enriched by new and improbable words.  Well, they’re improbable to me until I look them up. The other day after I ran across the word "paraprosdokian" and found a definition,  I thought about how we are repeatedly warned to ferret out those dreadful clichés.  A paraprosdokian" may solve our problems.
     Wikipedia and the Internet claim that paraprosdokian is a word, that it’s a “rhetorical” term that begins with a well-known or traditional saying, proverb or phrase but ends with an unusual or smart-butt twist at the end.
     Anybody out there heard of this word? Anyway, here are a few from the web site
     “Behind every successful man is his woman; behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.”
     I like this one: “If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.”
     What about, “Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.”
     And this classic: “Where there’s a will, there are relatives.”
    So now there may be hope for some of those clichés that you deleted from your last manuscript. Drag em back out, tack on some cryptic endings to the worst ones, and stick em back in. Now they’re “fresh.”  
     Do you have a favorite paraprosdokian?

You know you want to write this badly.

The winners of the 2012 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest are up! This contest is named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the author who inflicted the line "It was a dark and stormy night" on literature, and to this day we still feel the mighty wrath of his opening sentence echoing down the stuffy dark halls of purple prose.

My Hero!

Anyway, if you think you can compose "the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels," check out the rules here. This year's winning entry involves eyelash mites.

Inspired yet?

Saturday, September 1, 2012


     The Chinese restaurant has two side-by-side glass doors.  Last week the manager taped a sign to one of them, hand-written in red, "USE ANOTHER DOOR," with an arrow pointing toward the center, between the two doors.
     Merely by reading the sign, I would know that the proprietors have not spoken English all their lives.  They almost get it right, but not quite.  A native speaker would write, "USE OTHER DOOR," which implies the other door, the one right here, beside the door where the sign is posted.  AN other door suggests that customers should use some unspecified other door, maybe the one here but maybe one down the block, where the arrow points.  The difference between a definite article, the, and an indefinite article, a or an, is hard to explain to an immigrant, although five-year-old native speakers use the words correctly without conscious thought.
      Subtle errors in usage sometimes show up in the speech of fluent English speakers who grew up in a different language, or they may use foreign phrases  occasionally in their conversation. ("Gott in Himmel," my great-grandmother used to say when she was running out of rope.)  Heavy-handed writers overdo dialects of region or class, however, relying on clumsy phonetic spelling and piled-up errors in grammar.  In the comic books of my childhood, Indian chiefs always displayed headdresses of eagle feathers and opened every conversation with "How!"
      Here's a passage from one of my favorite stories in Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby:
`Tu'n me loose, fo' I kick de natal stuffin' outen you,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, but de Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nuthin'. She des hilt on, en de Brer Rabbit lose de use er his feet in de same way. Brer Fox, he lay low.  Den Brer Rabbit squall out dat ef de Tar-Baby don't tu'n 'im loose he butt 'er cranksided. En den he butted, en his head got stuck. Den Brer Fox, he sa'ntered fort', lookin' dez ez innercent ez wunner yo' mammy's mockin'-birds. 
      Harris published his first Uncle Remus stories in 1870.  Remus the storyteller is either a slave in the American South or a freed slave.  Although the quoted passage may be a phonetically accurate expression of Southern slave dialect, it is practically unreadable, especially by young readers, native born or not.  Moreover, the attitude implied by the differences between Uncle Remus's speech and that of the white characters, is condescending at least.  Here's the plantation owner's son:
 'Uncle Remus,' said the little boy one evening, when he had found the old man with little or nothing to do, 'did the fox kill and eat the rabbit when he caught him with the Tar-Baby?'
The implication that privileged Southern European Americans of the time spoke standard English, while Southern African Americans spoke a rough dialect, is one reason that librarians, reacting to patrons' complaints of racial bias, put Harris's trickster stories under the counter or in the back stacks during the 'seventies.  (The people who complained ignored the fact that the Br'er Rabbit is the brilliant trickster who outwits his tormentors, the manipulative Br'er Fox and the stupid Br'er Bear.)
     Virginia Hamilton (The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales), Julius Lester (The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Br'er Rabbit), our own Hamline student, storyteller Alicia Williams, and other writers set things right with stories told in a language untainted by bias, and more subtle and easily read and understood than rough dialect is.
     (Incidentally, the Cherokee and other Indians also told trickster tales with a brilliant rabbit as the leading character.)
     Whether we write stories about contemporary Americans or our own immigrant ancestors, we ought to use a light touch.  The language, like everything else, ought to serve the story without calling attention to itself.  Reversion to a former accent or usage can dramatize a character's anxiety.  My great-grandmother's resort to her native German audibly demonstrated that she was about to explode.  As we write our characters' ordinary conversation,  we can take a lesson from the sign on the restaurant door.  Subtle details of usage here and there may be enough to show the reader how long a newcomer has lived in the neighborhood, where he came from, or how she wants to be seen.