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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.

 

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If you’re committed to being a published writer, then you eagerly seek feedback on your writing. And if you aren’t swimming in money, then you seek to get it wherever and from whoever you can (because paying a professional editor is typically expensive). And if you spend any amount of time looking for people to read and critique your stuff, you will eventually discover pitch contests.

These are a great way to meet fellow writers in your age category and genre, and can supply an endless pool of potential beta readers and critique partners. Plus, you get to interact with and learn from agents, published authors, and professional editors, and in some cases “win” free advice or critiques on some of your work.

But here’s the thing about that. Most of these contests focus on the small stuff — your 35-word pitch, your query, the first page of your manuscript. There is no doubt it is vitally important to get those right, but competition if fierce and only a very few can “win” those contests.  Which means that more likely than not, if you enter one of these contests, you will not win. For many of us, this means you just try again. And again. This is the process, this is what you’re supposed to do. But by doing this, you tend to become a bit myopic about the small stuff.

The fact is, not every book has a perfect first 250 words. Not even the best books. Not every successful author got published with a flawless query letter.  I’m not suggesting you don’t focus on these things. You should. They will help you succeed. That’s why the contests are about those things in the first place. But whatever you do, don’t lose sight of the big picture. Remember, nobody gets your book better than you do. Not getting chosen out of 200 entries for a contest does not mean there is anything wrong with your query or first 250. Same thing is true if you don’t get chosen for 20 contests.

Prepping for and following contests is intense and often rewarding. But don’t lose sight of the other 99% of your book. Or the next book. Keep perspective  on the whole picture. And don’t sweat the small stuff.

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In the past, when I’d finished a revision and adjusted my query to reflect any plot changes or important new points of focus, I’d eagerly send it off to a fresh batch of agents, certain that these latest changes would make my manuscript irresistible.

That has thus far proved untrue.  And each time I send out another batch of queries, the total list of agents to which I can submit dwindles. It has made me more cautious.  The rule of the industry is that once an agent has rejected a manuscript, they will not look at it again — revised or otherwise.

You know the expression, “Youth is wasted on the young?” It is also true that querying is wasted on the inexperienced. The longer you query and revise based on feedback, the fewer agents are left to query. You start to get very careful.

It has been 10 months since I last queried an agent.  And since then I have done two complete revisions, including cutting 4,000 words. But I’m not the eager, fresh-faced writer I was, itching to blanket the world with queries. I have to be deliberate, selective, confident … careful. I am going to get as much free feedback as possible and polish any rough patches before I risk crossing any more agents off my list.

I’m taking the slow but steady path of the tortoise. I’m playing it safe.

queryswap

Query Swap Twitter event
Coming June 1, 2017
Your hook is your selling point. It has to be perfect. But getting good feedback can often be difficult or expensive. That’s why M.L. Keller—The Manuscript Shredder—is organizing the #QuerySwap Twitter party, an all-day event for people seeking critique partners to participate in feedback exchanges on query letters or back cover blurbs. The query swap Twitter party is designed to help writers connect with other writers. And since this is an exchange, both parties will benefit.
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Query Swap is happening from 8am-8pm EST on June 1, 2017.
Query Swap isn’t a contest. It’s an opportunity for writers to help other writers. There won’t be mentors, or agents. This is for writers only. Each participant will have the opportunity to find a new critique partner and exchange feedback on queries. Everyone gets feedback. Everyone’s query improves. Everyone wins.
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How to participate:
  1. Tweet a brief pitch about your MS with the tag #QuerySwap include genre and age category hashtags. (They might look familiar; they are the same as #Pitmad) No need to tweet multiple times since you can search the feed and look for a match too.
  2. Watch the feed and find someone with an MS in a similar genre, category, and tone
  3. Ask him/her to swap
  4. Exchange queries
  5. Give constructive feedback to your new Critique Partner.
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Can I just recycle my #pitmad pitch?
Maybe, but it might need tweaking. In this swap, genre, category, and overall MS tone will be more important than plot in finding a good match. Someone with a snarky sensibility might be less suited to selling your Anne of Green Gables retelling, so make sure you look for a person who writes in a similar style.
example pitches:
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#LGBT historic retelling of Frog Prince set in Polynesia also dragons #YA #F #R #QuerySwap
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or
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Dark portal fantasy with family drama and talking cats #MG #F #DIS #QuerySwap
Obviously, these won’t work for #pitmad, but they convey the necessary information for this event.
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Hashtags … (These are the same as #pitmad)
Age Categories:
#PB = Picture Book
#C = Children’s
#CB = Chapter Book
#CL = Children’s Lit
#MG = Middle Grade
#YA = Young Adult
#NA = New Adult
#A = Adult
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Genres/Sub-genres:
#AA = African American
#AD = Adventure
#CF = Christian Fiction
#CON = Contemporary
#CR = Contemporary Romance
#DIS = Disabilities
#DV = Diversity
#E = Erotica
#ER = Erotic Romance
#ES = Erotica Suspense
#F = Fantasy
#H = Horror
#HA = Humor
#HF = Historical Fiction
#HR = Historical Romance
#INSP = Inspirational
#IRMC = Interracial/Multicultural
#MR = Magical Realism
#M = Mystery
#Mem = Memoir
#LGBT
#LF = Literary Fiction
#NF = Non-fiction
#R = Romance
#P = Paranormal
#PR = Paranormal Romance
#RS = Romantic Suspense
#S = Suspense
#SF = SciFi
#SPF = Speculative Fiction
#T = Thriller
#UF = Urban Fantasy
#W = Westerns
#WF = Woman’s Fiction
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Some tips:
  1. Don’t flood the feed with pitches for the same book. Pitching multiple books is ok
  2. Pitch only books you are querying
  3. Don’t just wait for someone to ask you first. Be proactive.
  4. Use the hashtags to simplify your search.
  5. Be polite.
  6. Remember this is a swap. Both parties must give feedback
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Want to help #QuerySwap succeed? Please share via social media or reblog this post.
Questions or concerns, please leave a comment.

Crash Diet

Posted: May 4, 2017 in Writing
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I reached my goal!  I actually managed to cut 19 pages out of the first 50 of my daughter’s and my manuscript. That’s over 5,000 words.

That’s huge.

In the past I have compared cutting scenes and major revisions to brain surgery — you have to make sure all of the nerves are properly connected or the basic motor functions fall apart…. You get the analogy. But this was like a tummy tuck. I scooped out a whole bunch of filler then stitched the loose edges together, and without much else in the way of “maintenance” I was done.

Why was this revision different? Well, the key is that I didn’t have 357 threads to reconnect. The very fact that I could remove those pages without much affecting the rest of the book is a dead giveaway that they were unneeded pages. Naturally, there are things on those pages that I revisited later in the book, but not one of them was irreplaceable. I either introduced the missing concept a bit later, or removed all future references to it.  For the amount of fat that got cut, it was surprisingly easy.

I encourage you to try the same thing, but they key to success is clearly identifying those elements that are not explicitly vital to the rest of the book. This does not include scenes you “like” or set-ups for later punchlines. If you can cut the joke in chapter without hurting your story, then you can cut the scene in chapter two that sets up the joke — and does nothing else. In my case I had constructed a whole series of cascading motivations just to justify my main character sneaking into the garage at night and finding something. I realized I could just have someone give the thing to her, and all of that stuff became irrelevant.  So I yanked it.

And now I have a much leaner, more focused and better paced opening. The inciting incident, which didn’t take place until page 30, now happens on page 10.

I kind of feel like celebrating by writing a decadent, sugary scene, but I’m watching my weight.

Cutting Deep

Posted: April 28, 2017 in Writing
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Sometimes, the advice you get from your beta readers or critique partners just feels right.  Not always!  If you’re like me, or even newer at this game, you meet most advice from critics with a blank stare. “How dare they suggest I change that word? Don’t they know how long I agonized over it?”  It gets worse when they give more sweeping advice, like changing a character or adding an emotion.  Calls to cut out entire scenes? Forget it.

But eventually, your skin thickens and your reticence declines as you loosen your death grip on your manuscript, and you begin to actually see the merit in some of these suggestions.  And you dip your toe into a revision and discover that the change really did make that scene better.

I’m dancing with a new group of CP’s right now, and there appears to be some consensus on this new revision of mine that the “good stuff” doesn’t really begin until the end of chapter three. Well, yes I knew that, but it had to be that way, because reasons. Plus, can’t you see how much I have obviously agonized over those first chapters, shoe-horning in extra motivation and tension and foreshadowing? It’s flipping brilliant is what it is, and you’ll all agree just as soon as you get the end of the book.  You’ll see.  And then I’ll say I told you so.

Only this time, one of the readers said something nobody else has actually said before. “You should cut everything else and just start at the end of chapter three.”

The really funny thing about that was how I didn’t clench up. In fact, I started feverishly making notes. I found a use for those fancy Moleskine notebooks I bought.  I plotted and rearranged and made lists, and at the end of my frenzy I saw a way.  I am going to cut the first three chapters — some 40 pages — down to about 16. And I’ll have to add a page or so back in later, to introduce a character who’s original intro scene is being cut.  But I can do it.

This is a deep cut.  Because I now can see how I’ve been shoring up this house of cards from the very beginning. I needed an excuse for my MC to sneak into the garage and find a diary. So I had Mom get mad at her for being immature and take away her beloved books. But I needed a reason for Mom to get mad, so I invented a whole scene were the MC’s little brother runs away while she’s babysitting.  But then I needed a scene showing the MC trying to deal with Mom’s anger and failing.  So I added a scene with her best friend giving advice. And all of this is now replaced by simply having someone give the the diary to the MC.  Now all of the rest of that is utterly unnecessary.  Sure, there are a million threads suddenly flopping in the breeze, but I can tie most of them up pretty quickly, to later scenes, or by yanking them out altogether.

It’s good.  It’s working.  And when I’m done, I’ll have a mean, lean opening, where we get to the “good stuff” right away.

And that’s what we all want, isn’t it?

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Most of you are probably not old enough to remember actual prizes in Cracker Jacks boxes. Not those lame tattoos or stickers. We used to get actual toys — mini puzzles, tiny race cars, code rings, those whistles that go “whizzzzz” when you blow them.  Same thing with cereal boxes. I remember receiving actual playable records you cut out of the back of the box and stick on your turntable. Nowadays it’s all about the Happy Meal toy.  Because kids today couldn’t possibly wait through a whole box of cereal or even a whole box of Cracker Jacks to get to the prize (come to think of it, we weren’t always entirely patient, either).

So you may understand how we felt when, after all of the anticipation, we finally got our prize and it turned out to be … well, junk. There’s a certain amount of build-up when your mom says you can’t pour out the entire box into a mixing bowl just to get a toy; you’ll just have to wait.  Or when you’ve finally saved up enough pocket change to buy a box a Cracker Jacks with no idea what may be waiting inside.

Getting feedback on your manuscript is like that. You never know what you’re going to get after the long wait. And the anticipation is especially accute when you have to work just to find someone reliable and experienced to actually read your stuff in the first place. After all that, sometimes the advice you get is … well, junk.

The difference, though, is that sometimes you can’t tell if the advice is bad or not. Sure, if you can get several people to look at your stuff, you can start to see patterns and maybe get a consensus on certain rough spots or problems.  But even then, it’s hard to know if they just aren’t seeing what’s on the page. Often, when a reader misses something you feel is very clear, that simply means you’re not seeing it from their perspective — you can’t.  Other times, it just means they aren’t paying attention. Or maybe they aren’t part of your target audience. This is especially true when you write children’s books. It is unlikely you will be receiving detailed critical analysis from eight-year-olds. Or maybe your readers just simply aren’t familiar with the tropes of your particular genre.

This is why we work so hard to get multiple readers — so we can see if everybody sees the same thing or not. But even then, we may not agree. To be sure, it is not healthy — or practical — to take every piece of advice that comes your way. You will drive yourself insane trying to please every reader. Tastes vary. You know your voice and your message better than any reader, and you know when certain advice will break them. So you choose not to follow that advice.

But none of these judgement calls are black and white. There are a lot of reasons one might choose not to heed the advice of a critique, and not all of them are because the advice is fundamentally flawed. You may decide to go a different route than that suggested, solve the problem a different way. You may decide to wait and see what others say. You may know something the reader doesn’t, that gets revealed later in the story and which will make what you have written make perfect sense. Or, you might not be in an emotional position to embrace perfectly valid advice.

I just finished a substantial revision to the opening of the book I’m querying, which addressed issues that had been riaised by a number of readers, including professional editors and agents.  These were issues I was unwilling to concede to at the time, and therefor unable to deal with then.  However, the time eventually came when I was able to accept cutting several thousand words — and my favorite scene — out of chapter two, and getting to the “good stuff” that much sooner.  I added higher stakes and made my main character work harder to get what she wanted. These were big changes, which resulted in alterations throughout the whole book. and the time had to be right for me to tackle them.

So just as important as the quality of the advice is your receptiveness to it. Obviously, if your reader suggests something that is way off-base, don’t follow it. Less obviously — but equally important — if you are emotionally unwilling to embrace the advice, don’t follow it then. Bad Things will happen if you force it when you’re not ready. But also, keep that advice on file for when your perspective changes. Because it will.

Back to my manuscript: After making this latest rather ambitious revision, I am getting feedback from fresh readers. And more than one has suggested the beginning is boring and I don’t get to the “good stuff” soon enough. Possibly this is true. I’m not able to hear this advice right now, though. Because I’m just not willing to rip the fresh stitches out of this manuscript and dive into it again. Not right now. I need time for this new version to “cure,” for the scars to smooth until it all feels natural to me again (I can clearly see the fresh passages and missing sections as if they are written in different-colored ink on the page). The time isn’t right, just as it wasn’t right the first time I heard the advice that led to this latest revision. Maybe I’ll be able to embrace it later. But if I start revising again right now, Bad Things will happen.

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#AuthorMentorMatch is like a contest, only without all of the contest-y bits.

Basically, a team of writers — most of them published, all of them experienced — have gotten together to offer their services as mentors for up-and-coming writers.  Like a contest, hopefuls fill out an application and submit it along with their query and first 10 pages to their choice of 4 mentors (out of 30).  Each mentor will choose one mentee, and they will then spend the next several weeks polishing, revising, and perfecting the manuscript for querying.

That’s it. There’s no agent round, no elimination round. There’s just authors and mentors getting matched.But, really, that’s everything, isn’t it.  This, exactly, is why we enter all of the contests in the first place — to win free advice from a professional and a chance to really take our manuscript up a notch.

The latest round (Round 2) opens April 13, and this time it is open to YA and MG — there are mentors specifically for each age group.  In their o wn words:

What is Author Mentor Match?
Author Mentor Match pairs unagented, aspiring YA & MG writers with mentors to help them with their manuscripts and guide them through the publishing process.

There’s no contest aspect –- AMM focuses on building lasting relationships. Mentors will help writers revise their manuscript before querying, give advice and tips on agents, and support through the process.

Our Mentors
Every one of our mentors has gone through the process of revising their manuscript, researching agents, and done time in the query trenches. Our mentors are published, debuting, on submission or in revisions with their agents. We are excited to give back to the community and help you polish your manuscript, craft the perfect pitch/query, and take your writing career to the next level.

How It Works
Mentees can apply to up to four possible mentors, submitting general information about themselves and their book via a submission form, then emailing their query and first ten pages to us. The mentors will consider all mentee submissions carefully, potentially asking for more pages, before selecting someone to work with.

Who’s Behind It
Author Mentor Match was created by Heather Kaczynski and Alexa Donne in Fall 2016, who comprise of 2/3rds of the current moderating team. The incomparable Kat Cho has joined the mod team for Round 2.

If you have a manuscript close to being ready for querying, check it out: http://authormentormatch.com. Good luck!

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One of the most stressful parts of writing is not writing. Everyone knows this. Even people who don’t write. Because in every movie or television show which features a character who is a writer, there is a scene where that character is wracked with anxiety, pacing a floor ankle-deep in crumpled paper balls of failure, and basically rending their garments.

I’ve never had this experience, because I’m not particularly susceptible to wailing and gnashing my teeth. And I’ve never seen any of my writer friends melt into a steaming puddle of angst, either. But the anxiety is real, and any writer will tell you that there are times when the challenge of facing a blank screen can seem overwhelming. “Writer’s block” and “dry spells” most definitely happen. And when they happen, they can seriously erode your confidence, which only makes the problem worse. It can feel like you’re floundering in quicksand, surrounded by miles of empty desert in every direction.

It doesn’t have to feel that way.

Have you ever seen the movie “Mr. Baseball starring Tom Selleck? It’s certainly not the best movie ever, but it has its moments. Selleck plays a struggling baseball player that gets traded to a team in Japan, and he fears his career is over. Plus, he feels utterly out of place (very American, not worldly, daunted by all the differences, and 2 feet taller than everyone else in the whole country. So, he basically disregards everything anyone tries to tell him and fights with his new coach.

Finally, his coach does this sorta Karate Kid thing where he makes him hit golf balls with a bat at a driving range for hours at a time until Selleck finally throws down the bat and says, “I want to hit baseballs!” And his coach smiles and says, “Now you’re ready.”

The point is this: When you’re stuck and feeling guilt and pressure and self-doubt because you can’t write, and the idea of dragging out your manuscript is torture because it only justifies your feelings of failure — that is when you need to put it away and find something non-writerly to do for awhile until the desire to write comes organically. Maybe it will take a few months until you get your mojo back, and that’s okay — give yourself permission to recharge. Plant a garden. Binge-watch something you haven’t made time to watch. Learn to cook a new dish. Read a lot, until you begin to burn with the need to do it better than the writers you’re reading.

That’s when you’re ready. Until then, get comfortable on the bench. It doesn’t mean you’re out of the game; it just means you’re between innings.