Archive for June, 2017

Unstrung Harp

From The Unstrung Harp, or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey (©1999):

On November 18th of alternate years Mr Earbrass begins writing ‘his new novel.’ Weeks ago he chose its title at random from a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book. It being tea-time of the 17th, he is alarmed not to have thought of a plot to which The Unstrung Harp might apply, but his mind will keep reverting to the last biscuit on the plate.

I’m only one guy, and I’ve never even published a book, but I’m gonna suggest that the best way to begin writing a novel is not this way.  I don’t know.  You do you.

Personally I use a completely different arbitrary and stupid method: I try to come up with the perfect first sentence.  For weeks I have been devoting drive time, shower time, time between hitting the snooze button, and break time to composing the line that will make kids everywhere beg their parents to buy my book.  The problem is I haven’t really developed the plot structure, yet, or even fully established the world where it takes place and all of the rules, so….

The last book I wrote I began by the seat of my pants, and it wasn’t until I was 4-5 chapters in that I was forced to stop and create an outline for the plot structure.  Then when I had finished the book, most of those first chapters got deleted, rewritten, or both.  Very little of that seat-of-the-pants stuff remains.  But it was good exercise and gave me lots of background material that helped flesh out the characters in later drafts.

For the sequel (currently in progress), I already knew most of the characters — certainly the main one — and I started with a complex plot outline before I even thought about writing the first chapter.

With the new book, though … I’m eager to get started and reluctant to build the foundation.  That’s bad, right?

Imma gonna have to get on that outline and background before I go any further, for sure.  But it’s fantastic to feel the enthusiasm and passion again.

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Wisdom can come at the oddest moments and from the most unlikely places. This notion ocured to me today as I was making myself a sandwich for lunch.

I happen to be a fan of mustard on my turkey and avocado sandwich, so I always have a bottle handy. Usually something with a little kick, like a good horseradish mustard. If you yourself enjoy a mustard other than the standard plain yellow variety, then you will be familiar with what happens if you squeeze mustard from a bottle that has sat idle.

You get runny mustard. It explodes from the bottle in a watery mess that soaks into the bread, making it soggy and unappetizing and ruining your lunch. So what you learn to remember is that before you squeeze, you have to shake your mustard vigorously, or you’ll be sorry.

This is also true of writing, and in particular query letters. You don’t ever want to just squeeze out a quick query to a prospective agent by using a boilerplate letter you wrote months ago. You need to shake things up by getting to know the agent first — on their agency page, on Twitter, on the Mauscript Wish List page, and by searching for interviews they may have done in the last few years. If you don’t, you’ll ruin your one shot with that agent by presenting them with something watery and unappetizing.

Agents get hundreds of blind queries a month, and like anything endlessly repetitive, certain trends begin to stand out that turn an agent off. You can read all about these by following the Twitter hashtags #100queries and #500queries. Agents want to feel like they were chosen, not picked randomly out of a hat. They like it when a query is personalized — not just with their name at the top (spelled correctly!) — but with reasons why the author choose them. They like to be shown how your manuscript might be a good fit for them.

This doesn’t have to be a lengthy process. It only takes a few minutes to discover whether or not an agent is after what you’ve got, and to drop a few words to that effect into your query. You only get one shot at an agent, and this little extra bit of effort can make the difference between a perfect turkey and avocado sandwich and a soggy, unappetizing mess.

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There are several different approaches to querying agents:

  1. Send them out in batches of 5 or more. Pro: wide coverage. Con: lots of research.
  2. Send them out 1 at a time, as you discover new agents. Pro: little research. Con: minimal coverage.
  3. John Berkowitz’s Patented Query Slow-Burn. Pros: wide coverage with little research. Cons: you need to commit.

But what is this amazing Query Slow-Burn? I hear you cry.  Glad you asked, because I am here today, standing in front of you in the hot sun, to elucidate on that very topic. (Imagine I have a handlebar mustache and that I am now twirling it. I am also brandishing a bottle of elixir. There may or may not be a soapbox.)

The main problem, for me, with the “wide net” process, is that you have to research and find five or more agents, then research all of them, write five personalized queries, and put together five submission packages, each following a unique set of submission guidelines. This can take quite a while, and if you are pressed for time, you run the risk of mixing something up. On the other hand, if you take the opposite tack and submit to one agent at a time as you discover them, giving each one your full attention to detail, it will take a long time to reach a decent quantity of subs.

Last summer I adapted a writing exercise to my querying process. The exercise was to write at least one sentence every day on your manuscript, and to see how long of a “chain” you could forge (one link for every consecutive day). By using the Twitter hashtag #MSWL (manuscript wishlist), and the new and improved official MSWL website, www.manuscriptwishlist.com, I am able to filter for agents seeking my genre and age group with ease. And finding a single agent seeking one or more of the elements featured in my book doesn’t take much time. I can locate a likely agent, stalk research their Twitter feed and blog posts, find agent interviews, and read about them on their agency’s website in 10-20 minutes.  With this info at hand, personalizing a query and submission package is a snap, and I can manage the whole thing in under 30 minutes. The key is to do this EVERY DAY.

If I have to gin up half a dozen queries at a time, I often find myself putting it off until I can clear several hours from my schedule (which are hard to find).  On the other hand, I can manage a single quality query on my lunch hour at work, using the Slow-Burn method (patent pending). It doesn’t seem like much, but at the end of a month you’ll have 30 queries out there, and with any luck you’ll already start to see responses to your early subs coming in.

If you really want to do it up right, use a spreadsheet to keep a record of your progress. I keep mine in Microsoft’s OneNote, and my fields are Agent, Date Sent, Reply, Request Sent, Response, and Notes.

Give it a try, and let me know if this method works for you.