Archive for April 2012
Not so long ago, I had tons of my own questions about how the query process works and I wondered if I’d ever find representation. I speculated whether my query would stand out or get lost in the slush pile without being read. It was a time of careful research and cautious hope. Since then, I’ve corresponded with dozens of agents, and I have found they are genuinely nice people with a passion for books. Needless to say, they didn’t all want to represent Birthmarked, but they were all nice, and I ended up with the right agent match for me.
Lately, I’ve had several writers ask me for advice about publishing, and I’ve expanded my FAQ to cover their most common questions. A fellow Connecticut writer, Candyce Pruitt, recently corresponded with me about her agent search, and when her questions touched on some of the same things that used to mystify me, I asked if we could cross-post our exchange on our blogs, and she agreed.
I’d like to stress that I’m not an expert on agents. I’m simply a writer who has gone through a search, and it was a positive experience for me.
Candyce: I do have a few questions regarding the agent search, but if you have any other advice to offer, I would also love to hear it!
When an author has no publishing experience, what are some good ways to beef up the author bio portion of the query letter? How important is that part of the query letter?
Caragh: Be honest. If you have no previous publishing experience, you’re an unknown with a clean slate. Briefly state your education and your two jobs because they demonstrate your passion for ya lit, and that counts. Your book info is what will intrigue the agent or not.
Candyce: After you’ve queried an agent, will they provide feedback if they request all/part of your manuscript?
Caragh: If they’re interested, they keep asking for more. Once they’re not, they politely pass and wish you well with your writing and with finding representation elsewhere. In rare cases, if they’re on the fence but super interested, they might ask you about what you might revise, with no promises to represent you.
Candyce: Can you query an agent a second time?
Caragh: Why would you want to?
Candyce: I’ve read on a lot of sites that I should expect a lot of rejection. How often do agents actually request partial/full manuscripts?
Caragh: They request them whenever they encounter an irresistible idea. New agents seeking clients are particularly receptive.
Candyce: How many agents did you query before you found your current agent?
Caragh: I queried 40+, in waves. Details of my search are on my blog.
Candyce: Do you have any tips for making the query letter stand out?
Caragh: Your letter will probably be in the strongest twenty percent simply by being clear and coherent. After that, your ideas are what matter.
Candyce: I’ve been trying to draft my query letter while making final revisions to my manuscript. If you have the time (and I understand completely if you don’t), could you skim over the description I have and let me know if you think I’m on the right track? I’ll include the description below the salutation just in case.
Caragh: It would be a mistake for me to advise you specifically on your description, because it conveys your idea, how you think, your voice, and other subtleties that are strongest when they are purely your own.
I can see you’ve looked into this process a lot already, which is great! Being informed is so helpful. I can’t recommend AgentQuery.com highly enough for tips and searching info. I’m sure you’ll look into which agents are most likely to be interested in your work, and you’ll follow their submission guidelines on their sites to make it easy for them to consider your query. If you send out half a dozen queries and no one asks for more, that could be a sign to revise your query before you try the next batch. Keep trying. If your novel reaches the right agent at the right time, you’ll be on your way. If you don’t find representation for this book and the writing makes you happy, keep on writing.
And to anyone else searching, too, good luck!
One of the coolest landmarks in the quiet, northeastern corner of Connecticut is the quaint and quirky Traveler Food and Books directly off exit 74 on Route 84. It’s part restaurant, part used bookstore, and when you visit, you’re invited to pick a used book to take home for free. Black and white photos of famous writers line the walls, and you’ll find stands of jigsaw puzzles, coffee mugs, and shrink-wrapped sets of National Geographic dating back over decades. We like this place. It feels like home. They make turkey club sandwiches with toothpicks in the wedges, thick French fries, and Shirley Temples with maraschino cherries. The lower level is a tightly packed warren of bookshelves, where hiding and browsing are synonymous, and all your old book friends await you.
But beyond the place itself, I’m intrigued by this concept of Food and Books, as if they’re a team, or interchangeably precious. Food is to the belly what books are to the mind, and I’d argue we need both to be well and happy. I’m reminded of Frederick Douglass, who traded his scarce supply of bread with the white boys in Baltimore so they’d teach him to read. He was so hungry to learn, he literally starved himself for it.
For those of us who can’t get enough, is there a link today between over-reading and over-eating? Not according to a recent Canadian study of sedentary habits and obesity. The research by Statistics Canada showed that not all sedentary activity is the same, as readers are less likely than TV watchers to be obese.
Besides, books make us happy. They contribute to immediate and enduring happiness, the way good, nutritious food does. For me, few indulgences are sweeter than curling up with a favorite book and a nibble of fudge. That’s what I’m up to tonight.
I’m all for profanity in books when it suits the characters and the situation. Most of the teens I know employ a range of swear words and use them flexibly for humor, sarcasm, and rage in real life, so when I encounter teens in books who use obscenities, it doesn’t faze me much. It seems real.
So why don’t I use obscenities in the Birthmarked trilogy, and isn’t it inconsistent to be prudish about language when I’m writing about edgy concepts, like childbirth, hanging pregnant women, torture, murder, and abortion?
It makes me wonder how often we mentally lump together foul language with adult concepts. We presume a book with swear words is likely to contain sexual or violent content or both. Since a film can be rated PG-13 due to its language, sexual content or violence, we’re conditioned to assume the three go together and all are equally objectionable for impressionable minds. We assume someone is “mature” only after they can handle all three.
But guess what? I happen to like books that deal with edgy concepts and for my purposes, it works better artistically to write about them without profanity. My trilogy is in third person, and it is futuristic rather than contemporary, so I don’t have the challenge of trying to create a believable interior voice of a teenager today. In the dialogue, my teen characters have a degree of formality that fits the oppressive society that governs them. As they get to know and trust each other, their language relaxes, too, and I liked playing with that.
From a practical standpoint, I happen to use swear words sparingly in my own life, so I didn’t have to cut back much for the book, but there were definitely places when a character could have naturally said “Oh, my God!” In those cases, I deliberately edited to avoid even that mild curse, because, in fact, the societies in my novels are so devoid of traditional religions that the characters never mention God.
Curiously, I think the lack of obscenity is allowing my work to fly under the radar of some parents who use the degree of profanity as a guideline for what is acceptable for their kids to read, especially for younger readers. Such parents may hope to protect their kids by preventing them from reading books with obscene language, as if profanity were the gateway to worse evils. I have personally watched a mother flip through a novel, searching for “s—” and “f—” to rule out the book as a gift for her young daughter, yet my books would pass her test, and the girl would inadvertently be exposed to some intense passages. Other readers have mentioned a distinct preference for no obscenity. In fact, this blog was inspired in part by one who recently wrote to me: “Also thank you so much for not ruining your story with profanity. I hate reading a book with a good plot but lots of language because I have to stop reading it.”
I guess I’m glad my book without profanity isn’t being rejected by readers who don’t like swear words, if you can follow my logic of negatives. A little subversive side of me wonders if I’m sneaking evil to them in the guise of a clean read. Yet I’m also wary, because I think the 12+ rating of my books is actually an invitation to advanced readers as young as 10, and I’d be careful of which kids that young are mature enough for the concepts. Most of all, I’m interested in this place where profanity and edgy concepts diverge. I’m intrigued when we can use civil language to encounter and discuss horrific ideas. I love that this can happen in YA literature.
You don’t move
you red distorted blob
and I with my manuscript
Hard to say which of us
is more alive
in mind, body and soul,
I in my air, or you
looking through the glass
at the distorted, motionless
blob with the pen.
Only I could figure it into
or imagine this poem
might be better in French.
at my arrogance,
just because I feed you,
let alone scribble poems,
I deserve to win.
Or as Strunk & White put it: “Omit needless words.” I love that maxim. It never fails to make me laugh, like I’m wise to an inside joke. It’s so incredibly concise! I embrace this advice as much as I possibly can when I’m revising. Early drafts are all about ideas, coming up with them and expanding upon them. Characters, plot, and setting must come first. But eventually I go around a corner where I focus on the best way to transmit my messy ideas, and that’s when I invoke Strunk & White in my tightening.
Producing clean, tight paragraphs and sentences is as relevant in fiction as it in non-fiction, because the more efficiently I can get my ideas into someone else’s brain, the more impact they will have. If I can do it in five words instead of eight, I might snare my reader’s attention long enough to keep him reading into the next concise sentence. Over the span of a book, the whole pace can feel tighter, stronger. That’s simply good writing.
Considering my sentences word by word, like a poet, forces me to reconsider precisely what I’m trying to say. It is not a dry, mechanical exercise, like checking spelling. I find deep mistakes, not just in lazy language but in the ideas that still need to be refined, and this can send me back to an idea stage again.
For me, this is pure fun.
I am working on my first pass pages for Promised (yes, still), and one of the cool things about seeing the text formatted on the page as it will appear in the printed book is that I can read the story faster, like a real book. It’s easier to spot if I use the same phrase, like “she said coolly,” only a few pages apart. That’s distracting. What’s even more important is I can sense better when a passage starts to drag, which is the biggest clue that I need to omit more needless words. When I look closely enough, I can figure out which words are extra, or which sentence adds the least to an explanation or description. Chances are, the spare words and the quasi-redundant sentence can go, and with cutting, I give more impact to what remains.
Favorite things to watch for:
A sentence that begins “There is/are…” can almost always be reworked to be more concise.
The word “really” almost always can be cut, except when it adds to voice.
If a character “starts to” do something, she can probably just do it, so cut the starting
Thanks, Strunk & White, for “Omit needless words.” For me, in practice, it’s really more like “Cut needless words.” Now I just have to find the right ones.
FIRST DRAFT: Just for fun, here’s my first draft of this blog post, before I omitted needless words.
Or as Strunk & White put it: omit needless words. I love that Strunk and White maxim. It never fails to make me laugh, like I’m remembering an inside joke. I also embrace it as much as I possibly can when I’m revising. Early drafts are all about ideas, coming up with them and expanding upon tham. But then, I go around a corner where I start considering the best way to communicate or express those messy ideas, and that’s where I start tightening paragraphs and sentences.
This is as relevant in fiction as it is anything else, because the more efficiently you can infuse your idea into someone else’s brain, the more impact it will have. If you can do it in five words instead of eight, you might get your reader’s attention long enough to go onto the next consice sentence. Over the span of a book, it can make the whole pace feel tighter, stronger.
Also, considering my sentences word by word, like a poet, forces me to reconsider precisely what it is I’m trying to say. I find mistakes that way, not just in language but in the ideas that still need to be refined.
For me, this is pure fun.
I am working on my first pass pages for Promised (yes, still), and one of the cool things about seeing the words formatted to fit on the page in the placement/orientation they’ll have on the page is that I can read them faster, like I read a real book. It’s easier to spot if I use the same words, like “she said coolly,” close together in a distracting way. You can say that once in a while, but not too often. What’s even more important is I can sense better when a passage starts to drag. In those cases, it’s not too late to cut something, and when I look closely enough, I can figure out which sentence is adding the least to an explanation or description. Chances are, it could go, and by cutting, I’ll make the remaining sentences have more impact. They’ll matter more.
Off to look for exmples.