Archive for January, 2015

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Lately I’ve been consuming a lot of websites, YouTube videos and blogs about how to write a good query letter.  A lot.

I’ve studied dozens of examples, read tons of advice, made copious notes, and I’ve learned only one thing for sure: writing a novel is nothing like writing a query letter.  And not as hard.

I know you should research the agent you are writing to and show you have done so.  I know you should spell their name right and thank them for their time.  I know the letter needs to fit on one page.  I know it should be no more than 3-4 paragraphs.  I know the synopsis shouldn’t be more than 250 words.  I know it has to better than the 200 other queries your agent of choice reads that day.

But something I didn’t know – because most of my sources didn’t mention it – is that the first paragraph should also contain a logline.  The logline is a single sentence that tells the agent the who/what/when/where/why of your novel.

Yes, I said single sentence.  Because distilling your novel into 250 words isn’t hard enough.

But the more I think about it, the more I think this may be the golden ticket to creating a successful query letter.  People talk about hooking your agent, but they don’t say how to do that.  The logline seems to be a perfect solution.

If you do it right.

No, I’m not teasing you; I’m here today to give you some pointers on how to write a perfect logline, to hook your author.

First the bad news.  It seems like there is a pretty strong consensus among agents and seasoned writers that if you cannot condense your book into a single sentence, there is something wrong with your book.  I know: How do they know?  Well, because they’re agents and seasoned writers, for one.  But it makes sense if you think about it.  Most successful books are about one thing, one conflict, one goal, one thing at stake.  There can be subplots and twists and turns along he way, but if it doesn’t boil down to a single key conflict you will likely lose your reader.

But that can be good news, too.  If your book does follow this traditional structure, you can distill it down to a single sentence.  And here’s how you do it.  Answer the following seven questions about your book.  You may have to take a couple of runs at this to get to the heart of your book.  And you may have to suppress the urge to include your favorite subplots and surprise twists.  But you will get there.

1.  What genre is the book?

2.  Who is the main character?

3.  What makes her unique?

4.  What is the inciting incident?

5.  What is your main character’s goal?

6.  What is the major conflict your character will face?

7.  What is the consequence if the main character fails?

I’ve done this with my own book, and I’ll show you my answers in a moment.  But first, here’s the synopsis (those 250 words) so you’ll understand the answers I came up with.

Twelve-year-old Cat Brökkenwier is a daydreamer. She sees faerie-folk among people the way her friends see animals among the clouds. But life in the suburbs is about as far from her dream of being a princess as you can get. Besides, her mom says there are no such things as faeries and ogres and pixies, and if she doesn’t buckle down and get serious about her schoolwork there will be Consequences.

That’s when a mysterious old woman tells Cat the fae were real but they’ve blended in until they’re almost human, and Cat can see them because she’s one of them. Oh, and since she has this “fae-dar” she could become the last princess of the fae. Now Cat must earn the crown before a goblin changeling with sinister magic beats her to it. Or worse, before her mother finds out. With the help of Mr. Goldschmidt, a dwarf clock-maker, Nanny Schumacher, a brownie housekeeper, Hunter Alfson, an elfin archery instructor, and many others she meets along the way, Cat learns what it means to be fae. Then the goblin reveals the devastating truth: Cat is descended from trolls, not faeries, and nobody wants a stupid troll for a princess. With her dreams and her world shattered, Cat must make a choice: be a troll and stop the power-hungry goblin from becoming prince or trade the crown for a spell to make her forget she’s a troll … and everything she’s learned about the fae.

Now here’s how I answered those logline questions:

1.  What genre is the book?
Middle grade urban fantasy

2.  Who is the main character?
12-yo Cat Brökkenwier

3.  What makes her unique?
Her fae-dar; she can see those of fae descent, where most people cannot

4.  What is the inciting incident?
Cat learns the fae are real, not her imagination, and that she might become their princess

5.  What is your main character’s goal?
To unite the fae and become their princess before the goblin prince beats her to it

6.  What is the major conflict your character will face?
Cat must choose between being a princess – and a troll – or making a deal with the prince to give up the crown in return for a spell that will make her forget that she is a troll

7.  What is the consequence if the main character fails?
The prince will rule the fae – and possibly the humans, too – as a tyrant

After about a dozen false starts, here is what I ended up with:

A homeschooler with the ability to see fairytale creatures living among us must abandon her dreams in order to stop a ruthless changeling from using his magic to rule both worlds.

Now I’m going to sit on this for awhile and take it out and look at it in fresh light.  We’ll see if it sticks.

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I’m back, dear reader, with my (hopefully) improved query letter.  I’ve sought and received a lot of advice on what I had thought was the perfect query.  Then I did so again with what I was certain was an even perfecter query letter.  This one received even more criticism than the first, a veritable blood-bath of red.

So I took a few deep breaths and rewote it from scratch, addressing (I think) all of the vagueness and confusion of the latest version.

So here it is, my soul laid bare. Or something less dramatic. After all, it’s only a few hundred words. Even if they are possibly the hardest few hundred words I’ve had to write in connection with my novel. Comments most welcome.

Dear [Agent],

I’m writing to you because I read you are seeking middle grade fantasy novels with strong female characters [or other appropriate specifics depending on the agent].

Twelve-year-old Cat Brökkenwier is a daydreamer. She sees faerie-folk among people the way her friends see animals among the clouds. But life as a homeschooler in the suburbs is about as far from her dream of being a princess in a castle as you can get. Besides, her mom says there are no such things as faeries and ogres and pixies, and if she doesn’t buckle down and get serious about her schoolwork there will be “Consequences.” So Cat becomes a model student. For almost a whole week.

That’s when a mysterious, old lady at the fair tells Cat the fae were real but they’ve blended in until they’re almost human, and Cat can see them because she’s one of them. Oh, and because she has this “fae-dar” she might be the last princess of the fae. Now Cat must earn the crown before the goblin prince with his sinister magic beats her to it. Or worse, before her mother finds out. With the help of Mr. Goldschmidt, a dwarf clock-maker, Nanny Schumacher, a brownie housekeeper, Hunter Alfson, an elfin archery instructor, and many others she meets along the way, Cat learns what it means to be fae. Then the goblin reveals the devastating truth: Cat is descended from trolls, not faeries, and nobody wants a stupid troll for a princess. With her dreams and her world shattered, Cat must make a choice: fight the goblin and his army single-handed or use his magic to forget she’s a troll … and everything she’s learned about the fae.

Complete at 66,000 words, “The Last Princess” is a stand-alone book with series potential, and will appeal to fans of Emily Windsnap or The Sisters Grimm.

Thank you for your consideration.

What do you think?  Would you buy this book?

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Two weeks ago I wrote here about the pros and cons of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing.  Two days ago my blog was reposted on the popular writing site, Critique Circle, that I wrote about here one week ago.  The post generated quite a lot of discussion, with strong opinions on both sides, including first-hand experience of both types of publishing.

One strong argument in favor of self-publishing included a link to Hugh Howey’s recent post, The Glut Is Good. Howey argues that there is nothing to fear from the presumed over-abundance of cheap e-books flooding the market.  Rather, he proposes, it is actually good for the market, because there are fae more choices available and afordable to the average reader.  This is, in turn, good for the market in general, because more readers means more future sales.

Howey makes a good point.  His assertion that there has never been a better time in history for literature may be correct.  The rise in popularity and quantity of digital titles certainly makes reading and aquiring books accessible and convenient to many more readers than ever before.

But that doesn’t mean you must want to provide those 99 cent e-books. I know I certainly don’t.

Others argue that this glut of cheap digital books means the print book market is dead or dying. There has certainly been a decline is printed book sales since 2010 when the digital market exploded (and incidentally Borders went out of business).  Digital books are on the rise with no sign of stopping, so traditional printed books must be on the decline.

Well, despite the dire predictions it appears the trend is reversing itself.  Jim Milliot of Publishers Weekly just reported the numbers for 2014 in For Books, Print Is Back.  And the numbers are encouraging.

Almost across the board, sales of printed books rose over 2013 for those outlets reporting.  Children’s books, in particular, had impressive growth last year.  Board books alone rose over 17%.  Hardcover and trade paperback books saw increased sales, too.  Read Milliot’s analysis — it is encouraging and has charts.   Howey didn’t have charts….

So for those of you still weighing your options, look to the future of print and don’t fear the glut.

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There is a survey posted today on the front page of one of my favorite writerly websites:

You’ve decided to write your first novel. What’s the single best way to learn how to do it?

o Take a class.
o Join a writers group. Get some advice.
o Read a good book on how to write a novel.
o Just write! Tell your story as you think it should be told.
o Read some great novels, from a wrier’s point of view.

I’ve actually done every one of these things. And each of them has made me a better writer. I would recommend any of these as a way for a novice writer to improve his or her craft. Or all of them. But one in particular stands out in my experience as absolutely necessary.

Join a writers group. Get some advice.

All of the rest – even taking a class – are fairly solitary endeavors. And what you need to be a successful writer (besides good ideas, devotion to craft, commitment, and a better-than-basic grasp of your language of choice) is feedback from other writers. All of the theory in the world will only get you so far. You need people to actually read what you’ve written and tell whether it is working. It’s all well and good knowing you aught to have a hook at the beginning of chapter one, but it isn’t as if there is a list of them somewhere you can choose from. You have to craft it. And once you’ve done it, how do you know if it is any good? Just because you think so? You’re the novice, remember?

To quote Nanny Ogg, “There’s many a slip twixt dress and drawers.”

So it will serve you well to surround yourself with fellow writers, hopefully writers engaged in the kind of writing you yourself are pursuing – young adult, historical romance, science fiction, whatever. Otherwise they may not represent your target audience, and may not be able to render useful advice about whether or not your vampires are scary or if Penelope’s bosom is heaving properly. Plus the structure of meeting weekly or bi-weekly provides a tremendous motivation to produce pages of story, which is often hard to muster when one is only writing for one’s self.

There’s an even better reason to find a group of like-minded writers, a reason most novice writers fail utterly to grasp: the real value in the critiquing process comes from giving critiques. There are a number of reasons for this. Writers often reject sound advice if it means tossing out their favorite lines, ideas or characters. Critique groups are fallible; you may get conflicting advice, or your readers may simply not “get” what you are trying to convey in your story (although if they do not, that is in itself often a problem). But when you read the work of other aspiring writers and identify the problems – or triumphs – you begin to see what is working and not working with your own writing.

So where does one find such a group, I hear you cry. Fear not; there are thousands of local writers groups of every genre and experience level looking for new members. Professional writers associations, such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, will even help you form one if you can’t find one to your liking.

But, really, it’s even easier than that. You’re already on the Internet; just click here. This will take you to that writerly website I mentioned earlier, the one with the survey. The site is call the Critique Circle, and it has been around for over ten years and has over 3,000 members. The site is designed specifically for writers to submit their work for peer review, in categories ranging from children’s to romance and fantasy to horror. And the critique process works well because it is based on a point system – in order to submit your own work you need to earn points by critiquing the stories of others. People are polite, helpful, and for the most part able to render meaningful advice (in my experience). Plus there are dozens of writer forums where you can discuss your genre, your story, your premise, or your characters. You can ask questions in the research forums, and somebody is bound to know something useful. Many of the members are published authors, from all over the world. The site also contains a whole boatload of useful tools for helping your story along: a name generator, writing exercises, a word meter for tracking your progress, a submission tracker, and many more.

I personally filtered my entire novel through this site, to my very great benefit. I can say with complete clarity that the advice I received consistently improved my chapters and my story, and my finished manuscript would not be nearly as good had I worked on it alone.

Oh, and it’s free. And anonymous, if you want.

So if you’re serious about writing, particularly about writing a novel, find a critique group and dive in. The sooner the better. You have nothing to lose but poor writing.

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