Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Query Update

What was it Mark Twain once said? “Lies, damn lies, and statistics”? (Although I recently read an article in READER’S DIGEST about famous misquoted and misattributed lines, and I’m pretty sure that was one of them.) Well, then, for what it’s worth, here are the numbers:

Total queries: 59
Pending queries: 15
Full requests: 1 (1 pending)
Partial requests: 6 (2 pending)
Rejections: 31
Non-responses: 6

Yeah, that non-multiple of ten up in the total queries count is driving my type-A personality crazy, too:) But I just didn’t have the time to dig up one more name, so I decided to leave it at that. I figure I’ll catch up the next time I fire off a round of queries.

You’ll notice I’ve added one more statistic to the list: the number of non-responses. I officially count it as a non-response once the query’s more than three months old (which you can read all about in this post, if you like), so I don’t have very many yet, since I’ve only been querying this manuscript for about four months.

Oh, yeah. I also picked up my first full request last week. I’m pretty excited about that, too:)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Writing for Self vs. Writing for Publication

A month or two ago, I remember saying something very much like, “Ugh! I just want to be writing again! I’m so sick of all this querying!” This was back when I was still outlining Bob (new work-in-progress)--and still trying to adapt to a new schedule with a new baby in the house. I hadn’t written even a sentence of a novel for months, and the withdrawals were starting to eat me alive.

My husband laughed at this and said, “Wasn’t it just a few months ago that you were complaining about the writing? I believe you said something very much like, ‘Ugh! I just want to be querying again! I just want to have another manuscript ready to send out to agents!’”

He was right, of course. I did say something very much like that while I was editing my last book. That’s because I was starting to feel that same feeling I’d get whenever my parents would make me stop to eat food in Disneyland. There I’d be, stuffing my ten-dollar slice of pizza into my face as fast as I could stuff, scowling at all of the other kids skipping past, and knowing, just knowing, that their favorite ride was Big Thunder Mountain, too. That they were on their way there, and that they were going to get in line in head of me. As if Big Thunder Mountain were going to up and disappear sometime in between when they arrived and when I finally choked down that last fifty-cent pepperoni.

It’s irrational, I know, but sometimes we humans are just irrational beings (case in point: whoever decided mullets were attractive). And the truth is, while my life’s ambition has been to publish a book for as long as I’ve known what the word ambition meant (which is why I put up with all that querying), it’s not the reason I write. I write because I have to; because some days it’s the only thing that stands between me, my two kids, and the nut house; because it gives me a socially acceptable reason to talk to the voices in my head. I write because whenever I see something funny or beautiful or tragic, I imagine how I would describe it if I were writing about it in a book. I’m sure you understand.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I write for myself. As magnificent a dream as publication is--and it is magnificent and, for now, just a dream--it is not what keeps me going, what forces me to put at least a few words down on paper (or up on the screen) every day. I probably would have given up a long time ago if that were my motivation. And I’m not giving up. Because I can’t.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Book Recommendation: ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN' by Rick Bragg

No matter how much I enjoy them, books rarely make me want to contact their authors. I loved, loved, loved Suzanne Collins’s THE HUNGER GAMES, for instance, but all that book made me do was hunker down to wait for the sequel. Not so with Rick Bragg’s ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN’, a beautifully written memoir about his roundabout journey from Alabama country boy to Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist. After closing his book, I went straight to the computer and spent a whole fifteen minutes poking around the website for the NEW YORK TIMES, trying to track down Mr. Bragg.

All right, all right, so I didn’t invest too much time or energy into finding an e-mail address. Besides, there’s a good chance that, more than twelve years after the book’s publication, Mr. Bragg isn’t even working for the Times anymore. But I would still love to sit down and eat lunch with him sometime, mostly so that I could hear more about his momma.

Although ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN’ does chronicle the rise and development of his newspaper career, at its core, the story struck me as being a tribute to his mother. It was interesting to read about his Harvard fellowship, of course, and the horrific atrocities he covered in Haiti, but it was his characters--the living, breathing, sweating, crying men and women around whom his life danced--that really engaged me. Especially his saintly mother. She took nothing from life so that her sons could have everything. I would like to hear more about a woman like that.

Every fiction reader should pick up a nonfiction something or other every now and then, just to remember that some stories are real. And this one provides a wonderful reality check.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Krista (Heart) First Drafts

As I mentioned in this post, I love first drafts--and now I have a new one! I started it a few days ago, and now I just want to wave it in the air and dance around the Christmas tree a few times. But my excitement about this first draft is really probably due to my outline.

This new work-in-progress, which I will affectionately refer to as Bob, first came about as an offshoot of another (failed) idea; that was four weeks ago. So for four weeks now, I’ve been giving Bob the once-over, putting scene ideas down on paper, building up new characters and the world they will inhabit. Since I’ve been thinking about Bob for weeks, when I finally sat down to construct those first few sentences, I was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly they came together. At how effortless the tiny details were.

Perhaps I should clarify: The characterization and world building came together smoothly; the actual words and sentences themselves, not so much. I must be out of practice; it’s now been nearly four months since I wrote anything longer than a blog post. Still, I’m confident that the ease of writing will return, and I’m ecstatic that the story elements are so cemented in my brain.

So thank you, noble outline. I’m certain it will change, adapt, over the next weeks and months, but it’s given me something concrete and constructive to work on these past four weeks--so that I haven’t been tempted to jump right into the chapters.

What do you think, O wise blog surfer? Are outlines worth the trouble? And how long do you let a story germinate in your imagination before you start to give it life?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Anatomy of an Agent Hunt: Writing the Synopsis

All right, true confessions time: I dislike synopses (and I only use the word dislike as an attempt at tactfulness). They’re hard to write, and even harder to write well. So I will definitely not be relying upon any of my own wisdom in trying to explain how to compose one.

I will say that it’s probably best to write two synopses, one longer and one shorter. The longer synopsis should be somewhere in the four- to six-page range, the shorter more like one or two. And now for a few professional pointers (and there’s really only a few because this topic kind of bores me):

The Longer Synopsis

“The Art of the Synop?” In this excellent post on the subject, agent Kristin Nelson presents a framework around which to build a four- to six-page summary. Her one caveat: Since she never uses synopses, either in her query requirements or when she goes out on submission to editors, her advice might not be too valuable. I disagree:)

The Shorter Synopsis

“The synopsis conundrum” As I was composing my synopses for the book I’m currently querying, this was the best explanation I found for what a one-page synopsis should be and how to write one. Agent Nephele Tempest’s post is a must-read on the topic.

Finally, for a great series that puts all these ideas together, check out these “How to write a really good synopsis” posts by fellow writer Anne. My particular favorite was the one entitled “How to write a really good synopsis, part XIV: alas, poor synopsis; I knew him, Horatio,” in which she compares three synopses of varying lengths for the same well-known story.

Well, it’s a start, at least. If you have any tips for writing a synopsis or know of any other helpful online references, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments section.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Anatomy of an Agent Hunt: Writing the Query

The query letter is probably the single most important tool for marketing a novel, and it’s made up of four main parts: a plot summary; a plot summary; a plot summary; and a brief biography, appropriate conclusion, and contact information. People disagree about a lot of things (whether you should have an introduction, what to include in your biography, whether you should even have a biography if you’re not a published author), but pretty much everyone agrees that the plot summary is the single most important component of the query. Fortunately, that means that pretty much everybody’s talking about it--and about query writing in general, too.

Perhaps the best place to turn for query-writing help is to the people who have to read and judge them every day: agents. Here are a few of their blogs that I’ve found useful.

1) Pub Rants Kristin Nelson is one of the best agents in the business, and in addition to the fairly frequent posts she makes on the subject, the Pub Rants sidebar is jammed with query-writing information. About midway down the page you’ll find the heading “Agent Kristin’s Queries: An Inside Scoop.” These are the actual query letters she received from several of her now clients, along with her commentary on the things that worked and why. A little farther down the sidebar you’ll find “Agent Kristin’s Query Pitch Workshop On The Blog,” which is all about that infamous plot summary.

2) Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent Nathan Bransford, another dynamite agent, also regularly discusses queries and query writing on his blog, and he’s kindly grouped several of his most informative posts under the sidebar heading “The Essentials (Please Read Before You Query).” Definitely some must-reads.

3) Janet Reid, Literary Agent Oh, look: another fantastic agent. And this one’s provided a few more fantastic posts about writing that query under her sidebar heading “If you’re looking for an agent.” I’m sure you’ll notice that Ms. Reid is a bit, er, more abrupt than either Ms. Nelson or Mr. Bransford, which just goes to show that agents have personalities, too, and that you should be looking for one that complements yours.

4) Query Shark This is another blog maintained by Janet Reid, and this one is all about the query. Here’s how it works: A bevy of unsuspecting victims jump into the shark tank (i.e., e-mail their queries to her Query Shark address) and hope that they get chomped. The getting chomped is often painful but always instructive. And the rest of us get tank-side seats to watch. It’s a great way to learn what the more common slipups are and how to avoid them.

There have got to be at least a million other websites with helpful information on this topic, including Kate Schafer Testerman’s ongoing “Ask Daphne! About My Query” series and Jennifer Jackson’s “Letters from the Query Wars” posts. So look around, and if you find a good one, feel free to share it below.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Anatomy of an Agent Hunt: Researching Agents (Part Two)

So now you have a list, or at least the beginnings of one. That was the easy part. The hard part is determining which of the agents on that list are legitimate and, harder still, which ones you think you’d most like to work with. Fortunately, there are a few websites that will help you accomplish both of these tasks at once.

The truth is, most of the agents listed on the major online databases aren’t (total) hacks. So if you found the name on one of those websites, chances are, it’s all right. But there’s a big difference between a ho-hum agent and an oh-my-gosh-I’d-pee-my-pants-if-she’d-just-request-my-first-page agent.

Step #2: Sift your list. Keep in mind, you’re looking for quality and compatibility now. Here are a few websites that will help.

1) www.aaronline.org This is the official website for the Association of Authors’ Representatives. If agents are members of the AAR, they’re legitimate, period. But there’s still a lot more to consider, such as how active they are at the moment and whether their agenting style corresponds to your needs.

2) Preditors and Editors While every member of the AAR is legitimate, not every legitimate agent is a member of the AAR. That’s where Preditors and Editors comes in. Illegitimate agents are highly publicized here, and those agents with quantifiable sales are also clearly defined (they’re designated with a dollar sign next to their names). Preditors and Editors, however, can be (slightly) behind the times, so if you’re looking for up-to-the-minute information, Publishers Marketplace is probably the best place to find it.

3) www.publishersmarketplace.com I think of this website as sort of the online hub of the publishing industry. A lot of agents have listings here (although Publishers Marketplace isn’t nearly as searchable as the sites I mentioned yesterday), and they also keep a daily log of deals made to respectable publishers. A lot of this information, however, is only available to their paying members, and while I’m sure it’s well worth the money ($20 a month, according to their homepage), I’ve never found occasion to actually register myself. Especially when a lot of writers over at Absolute Write are already members and share this kind of stuff on the message boards.

4) Absolute Write Water Cooler The Absolute Write Water Cooler has a lot more to offer than just background checks, but these forums represent perhaps the best source of free, fresh information and anecdotes from other aspiring authors (and even some published ones). Here you can get a general feel for agents’ sales, response times, querying preferences, and more. In addition, after registering with the website, you can post your own questions and comments on specific agents and get answers and feedback from fellow writers.

Well, that should be enough to get you started. And once again, if anyone has any other suggestions for vetting agents, please post them in the comments section.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Anatomy of an Agent Hunt: Researching Agents (Part One)

Over the next week or so, I’ll be doing this series entitled “Anatomy of an Agent Hunt.” I’m planning to pull together a (by no means exhaustive) list of internet resources that should be of some assistance at various stages of the query process. Today’s topic is researching agents.

Researching agents occurs in two steps: First, you have to actually dig up their names; and second, you have to make sure that they’re legitimate. I’ll consider each of these separately.

Step #1: Dig up agents’ names. There are several great online databases for doing this. Here are my thoughts on the ones I’ve found.

1) www.agentquery.com Agent Query has put together perhaps the best at-a-glance agent listings online. You can search by agent name or agency or by such broader classifications as genre and whether the agent is currently accepting new clients. I like Agent Query because you can skim their search results and get a feel for what agents you might be interested in querying without actually clicking into the listing itself.

2) www.querytracker.net QueryTracker also has an expansive collection of agent listings, but they’re less readable than Agent Query’s, and most of their information is only available to members, anyway. It’s not difficult to become a member (you only have to fill out a short form, and basic membership is free), and I have never had any problems with spam or any other invasions of privacy as a result of my membership. But if you’re not comfortable with signing up, then QueryTracker is probably not the best site for you.

The great thing about QueryTracker is all the additional information it provides to its members, like statistical reports about query and submission response times and whether the results of those queries and submissions were rejections or requests. There’s also a message board embedded within each agent listing in which members can share anecdotes about their experience. All of this data is generated by QueryTracker’s members, who self-report on every aspects of their querying exploits.

3) www.litmatch.net Lit Match is a rough combination of Agent Query and QueryTracker. Its agent listings are more readable (though still not as readable as Agent Query’s, in my opinion), but it also provides several statistical reports (though not as many as QueryTracker or with as much depth). The nice thing about Lit Match is that these statistical reports are available to anyone, but you can’t contribute data to the reports unless you’re a member.

The one thing Lit Match does better than QueryTracker is track queries (ironic, I know)--your own personal queries, that is. As I’ve already mentioned, QueryTracker’s reports are better, but Lit Match’s personal query tracking page is just more readable. Of course, Lit Match’s creator is currently in the process of revamping the site, which he’s planning to unveil at the end of the month, so maybe all of that will change in a few weeks, anyway.

Phew. That took a lot longer than I thought. I guess I’ll cover step two tomorrow. But if you know of any other great places to find agents, feel free to share them in the comments below.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I'm My Own Book Banner

That’s banner as in one who bans things, by the way. Not banner as in the long, wavy sign my high school strings across Main Street every time they put on a play…

At any rate, if you have anything even remotely to do with the publishing industry, I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that this is Banned Books Week. Awesome agent Nathan Bransford’s blog post on the subject raised some interesting questions, including whether censorship is even plausible in this digital age and the fine line between suppression and discretion. I don’t have much to say about that first one, but the second inspired the opinion that follows.

First off, let me just say that, in general, I don’t support governmental censorship simply because I wonder where it would end. Would the Koran, for example, eventually be censored because it engenders terrorist sentiment? (I am not suggesting that the Koran advocates terrorism, by the way, only that those Muslims who commit acts of terror often use a misinterpretation of its teachings to justify their behavior.) Not a pleasant path to start down. Indeed, the government does not have the right to make decisions about what we and our children read--but parents do.

In fact, it goes even farther than that--parents have not only the right but the obligation to make informed choices about the media that come into their homes. And that will mean banning at least a few of those things, books included.

You may call me unenlightened. You may call me a tyrant. But there are some books (and some TV shows, movies, and music) that my children will not read, watch, or listen to. I will not allow them (or myself, for that matter) to read, watch, or listen to anything with explicit sexual content. And until they’re old enough to handle certain themes, like murder, I will restrict their access to material with that content as well

Now I know what you’re thinking: How can I possibly expect to limit such things? They’ll have friends with access; they’ll find spare internet connections; they’ll have unsupervised time. And that is absolutely true. I cannot completely remove their ability to seek out such things, to choose for themselves, and I wouldn’t want to. But I can let them know what my standard as their parent is. And I can teach them why I want them to adhere to that standard.

So the government or the schools or the American Library Association can ban or not ban books all they want. The fact of the matter is, I don’t trust their opinions, anyway. And even if I did, their actions still wouldn’t change my responsibility as a parent.