July 26, 2012

That First Step

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I haven't written a massive amount of query letters over the past three years.  This is probably a deficiency on my part, as it seems many writers draft about ten per novel; I prefer to write and edit one basic query per story and then edit it depending on submission guidelines.  After all, writing out one summary is hard enough.  I wrote a 100,000-word novel about this plot and these characters, and I'm supposed to sum them up within one page?  And leave room for an introduction/conclusion/biography, not to mention my contact information?  Are you crazy?

Many writers struggle with this aspect of writing, hence the half-funny, half-sad stories we read of editors and agents receiving full manuscripts from authors trying to opt out of queries.  We can talk for an age about our writing if someone broaches the subject, but trying to follow specific guidelines and rein in our loquacity is difficult.  I certainly haven't gotten the process down to a science, but as I said in A Plethora of Edits, it can be helpful to hear how other writers go about it; and besides, the subject of queries has been rattling around inside my head for the past several weeks.

Like most writers, I don't exactly enjoy writing queries.  The Soldier's Cross was torture, as I had never written one before and knew next to nothing about editors, slush piles, and all those gory details of getting published.  So I researched obsessively and culled through just about the entire archives of Query Shark before drafting my own.  By the time Wordcrafter rolled around, I knew more but was a little rusty on the application.  I read more Query Shark (the mainstay, I admit, of my query-writing process).  Then I went back to the arduous business of beating out a catchy, cohesive synopsis.

This month the time for me to write queries toddled around once more, this time for The White Sail's Shaking.  I did my usual perusal of the Query Shark archives, more for fun than anything else, and then sat down (with much trepidation and many "meh!" feelings) to begin.  After the obligatory "Dear Whatever Your Name Is" (but don't say that: I'm pretty sure that's an automatic reject), I always start into the brief story summary.  This isn't crucial, and many writers prefer to start off with something like this instead:

Thank you for the opportunity to submit to Blah Blah Agency.  TITLE OF MY AWESOME NOVEL is a 90,000 word YA/adult/middle-grade/what-have-you historical fiction/romance/yada yada, set in...

This allows writers to brief agents or editors on the marketing details of the novel.  One benefit to this approach is that it doesn't waste the agent's time: they can see right away what genre the book is and the age and sex of its intended audience, crucial elements to their decision process.  The con of this approach is that it isn't terribly catchy.  It's necessarily pretty formulaic, and although it works for its purpose (summarizing the more humdrum details of the book), it probably isn't going to capture the writer's unique voice - which is another major thing agents are looking for.

Neither method is wrong, and I seriously doubt a writer will be turned away for choosing one over the other.  Personally, I prefer to leap straight to the story itself with a hook that (hopefully) piques the reader's interest.  I try to keep it short and catchy, or, if it turns out to be longer, I at least try to keep the first phrase snappy.  Since I don't have other authors' queries to pull examples from, here are the opening lines of my queries for The Soldier's Cross, Wordcrafter, and the current draft of The White Sail's Shaking.

Fiona is not so bad.

Justin King writes fantasy. He never expected to be living it. 

Being a failure comes naturally to Tip Brighton.

These hooks should segue neatly into the next part, a one or two paragraph long summary of the plot.  For The Soldier's Cross, the hook leads the reader on to Fiona's self-satisfaction and her "good enough" philosophy.  Wordcrafter foreshadows the upheaval in Justin's life when it turns out that "fantasy" is a bit more uncomfortably real than he expected.  The White Sail's Shaking captures Tip's mindset and paves the way for the conflict between honor and glory that follows.  Sometimes these hooks are in a paragraph unto themselves; what follows then is the meat of the synopsis. 

I'm not very fond of writing summaries.  I never enjoyed it in school when I had to write book reports, and what is this but a book report on your own novel?  However, a little before starting my query for White Sail's I came across a "Back Cover Contest" over on the NextGen Writer's Conference; I didn't enter, but I did find the basic outline and the examples provided in the rules to be very helpful.  The outline covers the five or six points that the synopsis on the back cover of a book almost always covers.

Character - Setting - Conflict - Action - Uniqueness - Mystery

I like my hooks to start out with the character.  After all, the character is going to drive the rest of the synopsis, and waiting to introduce him or her can often lead to confusion.  Then in the rest of the summary you weave in the character's setting, including the time period if it's historical fiction; the conflict and action, which will often be very much related; and the mystery, which constitutes a sort of question at the end.  Note that the mystery doesn't have to be a direct question, like "What is heroine going to do?" but can be an implied question.

I left "uniqueness" out, as it tends to be a rather nebulous concept.  Obviously everything you just wrote should communicate to the reader that your story is unique in some, if not all, of the elements mentioned above.  For myself, I tend to think of uniqueness as more related to the next part of the query: the marketing details (wordcount and target audience, mentioned above) and the thrust of the story itself.  Here is where you can show what sets your story apart.  Maybe it's in a unique time period; maybe it approaches a particular theme in a unique way.  For White Sail's, I wanted to point out that the story is a sea novel, but differs from the classic works of Patrick O'Brian, C.S. Forester, etc. in its themes.  Never, ever, ever say that your book is similar to someone else's, but different in that yours is awesome and the other author's is rubbish.  Besides the fact that such an approach is the height of arrogance, it will be just your luck to find out that the agent is a huge fan of said author. 

After you finish this bit, you write up a brief bio.  Many authors, I've found, like to write these in third person; I find that a little awkward, but whichever works best for you will be acceptable.  You'll want to keep this pretty short, especially if you don't have many credentials, and avoid saying things like "This is the first novel I've ever written."  You might briefly mention what prompted you to write this particular story ("I had a dream about it" doesn't count).  Whatever you write, it should be professional and writing-related, not a list of likes and dislikes.  As a sample proposal I read recently said, unless your book is about knitting, saying you like to sit with your labradoodle and knit scarfs does not constitute a bio.

I conclude after the bio.  Always thank the agent for their time: it may be their job, but being polite is just, well, polite!  Also mention if you're submitting to other agencies at the same time, and then close with a neat "Sincerely" or "Regards" or whatever professional conclusion you prefer, add your name, and then your contact information.  And after a massive amount of edits, you're ready to send it off to agents and take that first step into the great wide world of the publishing business!

In summation, and for the sake of tired eyeballs, my query outline looks something like this.

Dear Agent 
(but use their name, if at all possible)

HOOK

SUMMARY 
(one or two paragraphs; they may ask for a multiple-page synopsis later, 
but in the query you should always be brief)

BOOK INFO 
(wordcount, audience, uniqueness)

BIO

CONCLUSION

CONTACT INFO

July 20, 2012

A First Impression

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In May I participated in a little meme that Rosamund Gregory of Shoes of Paper, Stockings of Buttermilk put together: Character Letters. My character for that round was Tip, writing a letter from the Mediterranean to his home in Pennsylvania.  The subject of this letter is still Tip, in a way, but the writer is Josiah Darkwood; he gets sadly little press around here, and I thought I should remedy that.

Note: Rosamund does not appear to have a July edition of Character Letters up, but as long as you link back to her, I'm sure she wouldn't mind participants.  Who doesn't like participants?

On to Darkwood.  Writing and reading are his two favorite pastimes, and as he does them  frequently, he is quite competent at both.  His penmanship is exceptional: bold, smooth, and flowing, as his thoughts come so quickly that he must keep his quill moving to stay a-pace.  He never draws on the edges of his letters, and his writing, unlike Tip's, is surprisingly un-blotted.

23 June, 1803
The Seagull's Nest, Boston

My dear Amy,

I wrote to you just yesterday, but while I realize that writing again so soon is little short of pitiful, I hope you will pardon me.  Is it so terrible, darling, that I want to talk with you as much as possible before we sail?  It may be a year before I see you again, and there is no knowing when I will hear from you next.  Write often, I beg, if it is not too much a burden for you.

Tomorrow Bent and I will have been here at the Seagull’s Nest three weeks.  There is but little progress on the Argus, and I don’t expect we will sail before next month is up.  I have not yet seen Lt. Decatur, although I hear he is in town, and until today, Bent and I alone of the brig’s officers had arrived in Boston.  I confess, I find it better that way; I am not, as you so well know, cut out for the communal lifestyle of the sea.

But I fear my reprieve has ended: we have had an addition to our number, a new midshipman on his first voyage—out of Pennsylvania, I think he is.  His name is Brighton, Tip Brighton, though I hope that is not his Christian name; Bent introduced him as such, however, and I smiled a little at the sound of it.  I hoped then that he did not notice; I rather hope now that he did.  At any rate, I will try to sketch an image of him for you (at the time he joined us I was more interested in my book, so my depiction may be somewhat lacking).  He is a little older than Bent, a fair few years younger than I: perhaps sixteen, or eighteen.  He struck me as being all limbs and sheer lankiness, rather like a colt that has yet to get all its legs beneath it.  His expression when Bent first introduced us was almost sullen, not quite sour, but perhaps if that were otherwise, he would not be exactly unpleasant.  You will forgive me, but my opinion of him at this particular moment is somewhat curdled.

To say where and when it started is not difficult, but how—of that, I still find myself uncertain.  It was all a flash, really.  If Brighton had not been there—but it is no good to say that, for he was, and perhaps it was just as well in the longer run of things.  But I am unclear.  I promise I shall do better.

You remember, my dear, what I have told you of Bent; and you know, too, how rash he can be.  This evening was worse than usual.  Mr. Lattimore, who runs the inn with a heavy hand, pushed Bent for his pay; he has been pushing, but until now it has been relatively subtle and I had thought him content to let Bent pay in installments, as he usually does.  It is certainly the best he can offer, and far more, I think, than Mr. L. deserves.  But it seems Lattimore thinks otherwise, and tonight he pushed too far.  (I should very much have liked, Amy dear, to put my own fist in the man’s ugly face…!)  But I fear Bent pulled a pistol on him instead.

I know Bent, and I know he meant nothing by it; he threw away his fire in a moment.  But it was a stupid, wrong, bull-headed thing for him to do!  I admit that.  And yet I cannot see, at this moment, that it was any less stupid, wrong, and bull-headed for Brighton to step up (as though he were no stranger at all) and start a fist-fight with Bent.  Of course as soon as he did the whole inn was in an uproar, and there was no chance to separate the two and smash their heads together as I would have liked.  So you see, Amy, why my opinion of Brighton is curdled.

This has been our first evening together.  What will it be like when we sail?  Perhaps, however, I am too hasty and Brighton will yet redeem himself.  I have already said that he is but a young, awkward fellow; I would hazard a guess that his upbringing has been none too good.  Now that I have vented my emotions I will try to be more lenient.

—But I pray God to give me patience, for I fail to see how I will ever manage to keep Brighton and Bent off each other’s throats after this!  It will, I think, be a very long trip indeed.

Yours ever,

Jo

July 17, 2012

Are You Ready?

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Today I'm honored to announce that Stephanie Morrill, author of the Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series, is hosting me over on Go Teen Writers.  Ms. Morrill is a kind and tireless supporter of young aspiring authors: she masterminds the blog (which features posts from Jill Williamson, Rachel Coker, and Roseanna White as well); manages the group Facebook page; and also participates in the NextGen Writer's Conference.  Needless to say, I was tickled to be able to write a guest post for her.

are you ready for publication?

If you asked every writer you ever met whether or not they want to be published, I would venture to say that the answer for the vast majority would be yes. It isn't why we write, of course; we write because we're writers, because we love the art of story-crafting, because we can't not. And there are some writers who are satisfied with that and don't mind the thought of never showing their work to another pair of eyes as long as they live. For the most part, however, writers cherish the thought of publication, perhaps to earn a living, perhaps for the sake of presenting to the public stories into which they have poured so much of themselves.

read the full post and join the discussion here!

July 12, 2012

July Snippets

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It's time again for the next installment of Katie's monthly snippets meme!  (For those of you participating in her "Actually Finishing Something July," this is great incentive to share clips of your recent scribbles.  Just saying.)  I haven't done much writing proper in July, other than the odd scene scribbled out in the odder notebook, but I did crank out several chapters in June, so I have things to feature.

july snippets

There was no backing out now, nor would Tip have done it if he could have; he was far too bull-headed, and far too keenly aware of it. Wordlessly he began to roll back his sleeves, ever keeping an eye on Lewis’ movements, the familiar, comforting thrill of the fight running spider-wise across his skin. The sun sparking between the oak leaves made the shadows and the light run wild while the two of them adjusted their positions, and as it lit Lewis’ face for just a moment, Tip saw that he had been wrong: this man was slow at nothing. 

James protested again, but the words fell, as always, on deaf ears.

- the white sail's shaking

“My sanity is of no consequence to you.”

- the white sail's shaking

Overhead a seaman was attempting to tune his fiddle in a fit of yowls and twangs. Another called out that the strings would be wet, and a third, louder than his fellows, retorted that it made no difference for the fiddle made little enough music as it was. Then the argument dropped out of hearing beneath the shrill singsong of the wind. The lamp-flame wavered again and a sorcerous light leapt up around Charlie as, rising sharply, he began to pace the quarters — up and down, white and blue alike turned faded orange in the glow, the shadows backing and surging.

- the white sail's shaking

One of the loose arms of Marta’s shirt fluttered against Tip; the breeze had begun to shift at last, the tide having turned outward a long time ago. No moon tonight, he thought once, casting another glance at the sky, and the world seemed all the more desolate for its loss.

- the white sail's shaking

“Why,” he said, “what a funny pair of jack-in-the-boxes you two are!”

- the white sail's shaking

The windows cast downward glances at him, disapproving of him in their cool way. “Dear, dear,” the building murmured to the house on the other side of the iron fence, “who on earth is that dirty fellow? He’s getting my hem all muddy.” 

- the white sail's shaking

His voice sank into murmurs, faint and soothing and themselves rather broken; Tabby curled up on his boots and started to purr, and the pot gurgled plaintively in the hearth. 

 - the white sail's shaking

Dear Father,

Yo ho ho!  (But no rum: Aunt K. wouldn't approve.)  I write to you from the Admiral Benbow Inn, where Gossamer and I have stopped to listen to a yarn or three from the old sea dogs who sailed the Spanish Main in days very much gone by.

That is to say, a parcel of books arrived for me today.

- sunshine & gossamer

July 10, 2012

A Plethora of Edits

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While I'm not officially participating in Katie's Actually Finishing Something July, the general idea for this month is to complete the preliminary edits for The White Sail's Shaking.  This means that over the past few days I have been wielding a red pen with reasonable vigor, slashing at the beginning of the first draft (beginnings are my bane), and it is currently in possession of half my mind. 

At least one Scribbles reader was interested in knowing how I go about all of this, and in the hopes that some of these points will benefit other writers, I thought I would go ahead and outline my process.  Of course every writer edits differently, and if there is one right way to do it, no one ever informed me; but this is a broad sketch of how I generally edit.

I like to start by making lists.  I have a little notebook in which I scrawl some of the finer parts of writing: marketing ideas, blog post ideas, research snippets, inspiring songs, and edits.  This is particularly helpful for a story like White Sail's, where I have so many edits to make that it becomes overwhelming; writing them down helps me stay organized and clear-sighted about what I'm doing.  So I make a list that looks like this:

Marta's Chapters
(with indented lines for each one of said chapters)

Atlantic Crossing

Edit Out Subplot

And so on, with boxes beside each so that when I finish I can check it off.  I'm pretty general here, since I know what I'm referring to and it helps keep matters in plain terms.  Too much detail makes me panic all over again.

After I make my list, I pull up the full Word document of my novel and take care of the major points that need to be taken out - for instance, that "edit out subplot" was a major point that took up two or three chapters, plus various references later on.  I left the later references because they are tied in with their surroundings, but I went ahead and stripped out the chapters singly devoted to the subplot.  This cuts down on some of the story's bulk, makes me feel productive, and saves the ink cartridge for the next part.

Because after I take care of those major issues, I print out my whole manuscript, punch holes, and put it in a binder.  This is the exhilarating part where I feel overjoyed with myself: I finished my novel!  It's gorgeous!  I love it!  I rule the world!  I indulge myself through this period, because frankly, it isn't going to last to the end of the editing process.

This is where I find a red pen (a good one is a must, especially when you know your story is going to need it), curl up in a comfy chair, and buckle down to the minutiae of editing.  I eliminate sentences, rewrite paragraphs, slash complete sections that have no bearing on the story.  Sometimes, however, I'm not sure if a section is important or not, so I put a question mark beside it and set it aside (figuratively) for me to address when I start putting the edits into the computer.  I'll also write notes to myself in the margins, for future consideration.  After this, I haul the notebook to the computer, open the document again, and start revising.  I don't necessarily follow what I wrote in the notebook, but often I do.

Now, a major part of editing White Sail's has been and is going to be adding sections that I skipped in the first draft.  Because I had such a hard time with 2010 NaNo, trying to make my story cooperate and bully my characters into submission, I passed over chapters that I knew would kill me.  These included just about all of the chapters wholly from Marta's perspective, and now that the story is "finished" and I have a better handle on her personality, I'm having to go back and add in those parts.  I also jumped straight from Newport, RI, to Gibraltar with Tip and his companions, because at the time I had no idea what to do with the Atlantic crossing.  I have ideas now, so again, more adding.  This business could come toward the beginning of the process, where I ripped out subplots; the only reason it didn't is because I wasn't ready to do it then.  I intend to do this as or after I transcribe the smaller edits.

And there you have it - how I edit.  (I try to keep things fairly simple, because it keeps me sane.)  What about you?  Do you have a process you follow?

July 4, 2012

Beautiful People - Regina

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Sky and Georgie played a sneaky trick on us this month, so for the Beautiful People meme, we get to choose our own ten questions.  I cheated a bit and snitched most of Jenny's, but we won't talk of that...

Having "finished" The White Sail's Shaking, I'm slowly turning Tempus Regina over in my mind.  I have not given it much attention, nor is anything concrete yet, but I wanted to introduce you to my main character Regina.  Many of these questions delve into aspects of her personality that I haven't considered before and which may even change down the road, but here is at least a rough sketch of her.

regina

1. What does she look like? What are her hair and eye colour?

Regina is tall and slender, moves with a grace that fits her name, and can seem, altogether, as lifeless and unapproachable as a statue.  Her complexion is pale, making her eyebrows standing out startlingly, and if she were out in the sunlight more she would have very light freckles over her cheekbones.  Her hair is thick and dark brown, much like the above picture, but her eyes are on the green side of hazel. 

 2. How old is she?

The story begins in 1849, when Regina is twenty.

3. What is her background? Where did she come from?

Regina is English and Welsh, primarily the former, by blood.  Her family was not wealthy, per se, but they had a fair income and no need to worry about money - until it came to light, just after Regina's brother was born, that her father had gambled most of the money away.  At that point he abandoned his family, and his wife was forced to give up their house in the country and take her children to London.  Having lived all her life away from cities, the noise and pollution of the capital quickly took their toll and she died when Regina was twelve.  Since then Regina has raised and provided for her younger brother alone, and that responsibility brought her early to a hard kind of womanhood.

4. What does she do?

Anything legitimate to earn money.  She works off and on in factories, but prefers jobs that allow her to bring her brother along.  At the start of Tempus Regina, she is just about to apply for a place as a maid to an eccentric bachelor.

5. Is there something she is particularly good at?

Regina has tried her hand at nearly everything and can do any business passably.  She once embroidered and played harp and piano quite well, but it has been nine years since she had an instrument on which to practice, and she has no use for embroidery now.  She used also to play with her father's pocketwatch, taking it apart piece by piece and then reassembling it, so she has more than a passing knowledge of clockwork. 

6. Is there something she is afraid of?

Regina does not express fear readily; she keeps it bottled with a tight lid on top.  She is terribly afraid of something happening to her brother, for she promised her mother to take care of him - and, too, if she lost him there would be little purpose left in her life.  To a lesser degree, she fears the dark.  Not that she is afraid to go asleep at night, but pitch-black rooms where the darkness seems sentient utterly terrify her.

7. What is her personality?  Introvert or extrovert?

 She is an introvert, perhaps more from habit than from inherent personality.  Generally she is aloof, often cold, showing little emotion: she cannot afford to.  At most times she is engaged in her own thoughts (thinking, most likely, about how to get food), but she can be filtering what others are saying at the same time and come out of her reverie with a fair idea of the conversation.  The wear of responsibility on her nerves as left her with a quick temper.

8. Is she married or does she have a sweetheart?

Neither.  Whether that changes will appear in the course of the story.

9. What is her favourite outfit?

Her wardrobe is, at the moment, very limited.  Her favourite colour is cream and she once had an old-fashioned dress in just the right hue, bound with a wide blue belt and possessing rather ridiculous gigot sleeves.  Now she keeps to dark colors (which don't do her complexion any favors) and simple cuts.  She is particularly fond of a dress she finds in an old trunk, composed of a chiton-like dress in burgundy over a sleeved, high-collared black "underdress."

10. If she had a song, what would it be?

Although "Street of Dreams" by Blackmore's Night is quite suited to her story, I would probably choose "Memories" by Within Temptation.  While I don't care for the band in general, this song fits not only Regina's storyline, but her personality as well.

all of my memories 
keep you near 
in silent moments 
imagine you'd be here 
all of my memories 
keep you near 
the silent whispers, silent tears

July 2, 2012

Firmament Winner

Friday, June 29, marked the close of Grace Pennington's giveaway.  The all-knowing Random Number Generator, which is to be trusted on all such occasions, states that the winner of the debut sci-fi novel Firmament: Radialloy is...

God's Pianist (GodsPianist...)

Congratulations!  You'll be receiving an email from Grace soon, and after that, a book in your mailbox.  For those of you who have not won a copy, be sure to pick it up in paperback or download it as an e-book over at Amazon
 
meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings






The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings






Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing



Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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