Some Thoughts on Reading

I have a confession to make. Last week, I gave up on a book* I was reading.

This is practically unheard-of for me. I mean, I’ve given up on books before, but they were usually random books I picked up with no knowledge of the author – and even then, my Type A personality usually demands I read them through to the very end. (Oh, and A Storm of Swords, which I put down after the red wedding because I couldn’t handle any more fiction-induced heartache.)

But this book came highly recommended (4.5 stars on Goodreads out of over ten thousand reviews!) Not only that, but on the surface, it was a book I should have liked. A book I wanted to like.

But, with my reading time limited by my concussion, I couldn’t bring myself to keep going with a book I just wasn’t that into. It’s not like the story was terrible, or anything, I just couldn’t connect to the character.

Now, if you’re a writer, those words probably sound eerily familiar. They’re a common refrain in rejection letters, along with “this is a very subjective business” and “it’s just not a good fit for me.”

And this is why you should query/submit widely. Because this really *is* a subjective business, and not everyone is going to enjoy every story. Lots of best sellers were rejected before they became hits – and they still don’t have universal appeal.

But the most important thing is to keep trying. Keep putting your work out there, and hopefully one day you’ll find the agent/editor/reader who is the right fit for your book. Or, at least, that’s what I’m trying to tell myself as I get ready to go on sub with my MG.

What about you? Ever given up partway through a book, or do you stick it out to the end? Ever read something popular and wondered what all the hype was about? Tell me about it in the comments.

 

*No, I’m not telling you which book, because, honestly, I’m kind of embarrassed I didn’t like it. Also, the world of kidlit is small, and I don’t want to step on any toes.

 

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The Waiting Game

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If there’s one thing writers know about, it’s waiting. Waiting on feedback from critique partners, waiting on submissions to agents and editors, and even waiting for a book to come out. So today I thought I’d post about ten constructive things you can do while you’re waiting.

1. Relax – That’s right, take a deep breath, pat yourself on the back for your accomplishments, and enjoy a piece of chocolate (or whatever your reward of choice is). Then…

2. Network – You should probably be doing this already, but if not, get active on social media, start up a blog or a website (or both), go to author events, conferences, meet-ups, leave comments on the blogs you follow, make friends, do guest posts on other people’s blogs, participate in list-serves, etc. Basically, get yourself out there (in person and/or virtually).

3. Read, read, read – Books in your genre/age category, books not in your genre/category. Keep an eye on what’s getting published today. If something really pulls you in, step back and figure out why it works and how the author did it.

4. Refill the creative well – Get out and get inspired. Head to a museum, or take a walk in nature. Or stay in and get inspired. Watch an awesome tv show or movie. Whatever gets your creative juices flowing.

5. Get creative – Not in the mood for writing? Do something else creative. Draw, sketch, sing, dance, bake fun cakes…

6. Seek out inspiration – Writing for kids? Spend the day playing with yours, or offer to babysit a friend’s. You might be surprised by how many ideas they give you.

7. Do something your character would do – Let’s face it, whether you’re on submission with an agent or an editor, chances are there’s more revision ahead of you. Why not jump into one of your character’s skins? Does your MC love to Cosplay? Make yourself a kickin’ costume and head out to the nearest comic convention. Did you create a fabulous new food for your fantasy world? See if you can make it in real life.

8. Critique other people’s work – Critiquing is a great way to learn. Even if you don’t have work to put up for critique yourself, volunteer to critique or beta read for a friend. Or find a book you like and review it on Amazon or Goodreads (after all, with any luck you’ll be looking for people to do the same in a few years…)

9. Plan the sequel – Start making an outline for what could/should/will happen in the next book. (I’d resist the urge to start writing, though, just in case Book 1 never makes it to print.)

10. Write something else – Start on a new book. That way, whether your current story succeeds or not, you have another to move forward with.

Hopefully I’ve given you some ideas to help while away the many hours of waiting a writer endures. How do you pass your waiting time? Let me know in the comments.

Leave ’em Wanting More

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about queries, giving the tips and tricks I learned from the 3+ years of querying that led to signing with my agent (yes, from a cold query!). Today, I thought I’d post about what I find to be the hardest part of the query: the synopsis.

(Most of what I’m going to write here applies to novels – boiling down 40,000 – 100,000 words to around 150 is no easy feat – but the core of this can apply to a story-based PB as well. For more info on writing PB query synopses, check out this post by Mary Kole, over on her kidlit blog.)

Let’s start by stating the basics. Your query synopsis should be written in the third person, present tense – no matter what tense/POV your ms is written in. The query synopsis should NOT give away the ending of the story because the whole point is to hook the editor or agent into wanting to read more. Think of it as a movie trailer: if the ad gave away the end, what would be the point of watching the film? (Note: the query synopsis is different from a story synopsis, sometimes requested by agents, in which you do detail the entire story, including the end – I may write a post on that in the near future.)

You also want to keep your query synopsis to two to three paragraphs, maximum.* And, the major query synopsis rule: NO rhetorical questions! (1. Because agents get them a lot. 2. Because their answer to your question might not be what you want them to say. ie. “What would you do if giant spiders ate your brother and took over your school?” “Bake them a cake.” “Faint.”)

I also suggest when you’re finished your synopsis, to get a friend or CP who isn’t familiar with your story to read it and see if it makes sense.

But most of all, I think every good query synopsis should contain the 4 Cs: Character, Conflict, Consequences, and Choice.

Character: The essential part of every story. In a query synopsis for a MG or YA book, you typically introduce your main character (MC) by listing their age, and a detail or two about them. Listing their age up front helps the agent or editor know what age group your book is for (especially if you’re putting your book title, genre, word count, etc after the synopsis, which seems to be the preferred method these days*). When it comes to describing your MC, make sure you’re not falling back into clichés, or generic information. You want your character to stand out. Saying “Sixteen-year-old Madison is the most popular girl at school” or even worse that “Carol Liu is just an average twelve-year-old” does nothing to make your character unique. But saying “sixteen-year-old Madison is a shoo-in for prom queen, but she’d rather spend the night playing video games” or “Twelve-year-old Carol Liu spends her time day-dreaming about horses while pretending to do her homework” creates a much deeper impression.

Conflict: What is it your character is trying to do, and what exactly is stopping him/her? The conflict could be anything from an evil wizard bent on killing him/her, to crippling self-doubt. Whatever it is, we need to know in the query.

Consequences: What happens if the MC doesn’t succeed? Will the world end? Will your MC be laughed out of school? Again, be specific, and try not to devolve into clichés. Don’t say “it will set off a chain of events that could spell the end of life as Arun knows it” – that could mean anything from him getting kicked off the soccer team to him being turned into a hamster. Be specific. “If Arun can’t figure out who’s sabotaging his dad’s bakery, his dad will lose the business, and they’ll have to move in with Stinky Uncle Om two hundred miles away from all his friends.”

Choice: Okay, this is probably an optional one, and not every story is going to lend itself to this structure, but if you can include a choice  your MC has to make, where both options are equally bad, you’ll definitely make the agent/editor want to keep reading to find out what happens. For instance, “Chantra has two choices: trade her life for Elon’s, and become the Emperor’s latest concubine, or walk away to live alone in freedom, knowing she doomed her true love to an early death in the mines.” (Okay, these are kind of cheesy examples, but you get the idea.)

So, there you have it, my tips for a query synopsis that will leave ’em wanting more.

Still not sure what to write? Check out the QQQE, Query Shark, and Evil Editor for tons of examples of what works and what doesn’t.

 

*Of course, every agent/editor is different. If the one you’re sending to has a preference, definitely customize your query to their standards.

Let’s Talk Queries – and a Mini-Contest

Querying can feel like diving without an oxygen tank - hopefully my tips will help you breathe easier.
Querying can feel like diving without an oxygen tank – exciting and scary all at once. I hope my tips will help you breathe easier and enjoy the trip.

When I started querying my (now trunked) first novel, I didn’t even know what a query letter was. My first query letters were basically lame cover letters that said “here’s my novel, hope you like it.” Needless to say, I got a lot of form rejections and non-responses. It took me an astonishingly long time to think of asking Google to help me.

So, I thought I would use today’s post to offer some querying tips and advice I learned in the past four years of querying. And, in the spirit of paying it forward, I’m going to offer a query critique to one lucky reader. (More details on that at the end of this post.)

But first, here are my Top Twelve Query Tips:

1. Ask the Internet: There are a ton of sites out there dedicated to helping make queries better. Before I wrote my query for SHADOWCATCHERS, I went to QQQE, Query Shark, and Evil Editor and read practically every post to see what worked and what didn’t.

2. Know Your Audience: By which I mean the expected reader for your book. Make sure you get your age group/book style (Picture Book, Chapter Book, Middle Grade, or Young Adult) and your genre (Contemporary, Fantasy, Romance, Sci-Fi, Paranormal, etc) right. Then make sure your word count is appropriate. Not sure what an appropriate word count is? See Tip #1 above. (Okay, or check out this Literary Rambles post, or this Writer’s Digest post.)

3. Ask for Help: Once you’ve perfected the synopsis portion of your query, get a friend or critique partner (you do have a CP, right? If not, skip the query writing, find a CP and have them go over your manuscript with you before you start querying) to read through your synopsis. I like to pick someone who doesn’t know the story already, so they can tell me where I’ve left out important information. If my synopsis doesn’t make sense to them, it won’t make sense to the agent I’m sending it to. It’s also good to test-send your e-queries to a few friends with different email servers to make sure your formatting doesn’t appear wonky.

4. No Credentials are Better than Inflated Credentials: I think this part of the query letter strikes fear into every unpublished writer’s heart. I mean, how are you supposed to impress an agent if you don’t have anything to brag about? Relax. Not having credentials makes you a debut author – and agents sign those quite often. I didn’t have any credentials, and I still got requests from agents – not to mention, signed by one. But what you don’t want to do is lie/pad your resume. Agents will find out. So only use credentials that count. Agents don’t care if you won your Grade 6 Writing Contest, or are in charge of your PTA newsletter – but if you won a major contest, by all means, include it.

Some agents suggest writing something memorable about yourself in this section, if you don’t have writing credentials (not just that you have kids, or a dog, etc. but something really memorable, like having 15 kids, or raising teams of sled dogs – or say, owning a life-sized stuffed polar bear), but other agents would prefer you just leave this section blank. Which brings us to:

5. Read Each Agent’s Instructions (and Follow Them): It seems like every agent out there wants something different than the last – just a query, query + 5 pages, query + 5 chapters, writing sample embedded in the email, writing sample attached as a word doc, etc. Whatever they ask for – do it. Being different will make you stand out, but not in a good way. And, whatever you do, don’t just BCC (and definitely don’t CC) your whole slew of agents with the same e-query!

6. Personalize Your Query. Or Don’t: It’s always better to personalize your query, if you can. Find an interview or blog post where the agent said something that applies to your writing (I read on x’s blog interview that you are looking for MG Fantasies featuring were-gerbils), or comment on one of their clients (I really enjoy y author’s books), or stalk the hashtag #MSWL (manuscript wish list) – just make sure it’s a recent post, not one from three years ago. But if you can’t find something meaningful to say, it’s okay to say nothing. In fact, I think it’s preferable to have no personalization, than to say something lame like “According to your website, you represent MG, and I write MG.” Yes, I sent out un-personalized queries, and yes, I got requests for them. However, if the reason you can’t find a way to personalize it is because the agent doesn’t seem to like the kind of books you write, then maybe that agent isn’t the best one to represent your book.

7. Get the Little Details Right: I’m not just talking about spelling the agent’s name right (or knowing that they’re a Mr. not a Ms.). I’m talking about all the little formatting details too. For instance, a snail mail query is formatted like a business letter, with all your (and their) contact info, plus the date, at the top of the page. But in an email query the agent would have to scroll through all of that before they got to any of the good stuff, so your contact info goes under your name/e-signature, including any links to blogs, websites, etc. (If you read the Query Shark at all, you’ll already know this.) Both snail and e-queries should be single-spaced with a full return between paragraphs (like the formatting of this blog), but writing samples should be double-spaced. And while we’re at it, remember this is a business letter, so sign off appropriately. A “Thank you for your time and consideration.” followed by “Sincerely,” is the safest way to go.

8. Act Professional: A query letter is like a resume for your book. You want it to look as professional as possible. That means proofread, proofread, proofread! Typos in a query letter are like having spinach in your teeth at a job interview – they won’t necessarily stop you from getting the job, but they’re darn distracting and may make the agent question your professionalism. While you’re at it, make sure you’re sending those e-queries from a professional-sounding email address. Sexygerbilgrrl67@hotmail.com is fine for you and your friends, but not for querying your children’s book. Open up an email account that has your name in it, and use it for all writerly correspondence.

9. Fill in the Agent’s Email Address Last: This tip comes straight from personal experience. As if querying wasn’t already stressful enough, there’s nothing worse than the dread that comes from realizing you accidentally hit “send” too soon. (Seriously, why are “attach” and “send” so close together?) If you save the agent’s email until the end, there’s no chance of having to send that second “oops!” email. Also, it lets you double-check that you’ve addressed it to the right person.

10. Keep Track: I used a word doc (which I printed out during my concussion days), but you can use Excel, recipe cards, or whatever system works for you. I typically put the agent’s name, agency, their expected response time (or no-response time) – in both weeks and date (ie. 4-6 weeks = follow-up after June 6, 2014). If an agent has no stated response time and DOESN’T say they are a “No Response Means No,” I would follow up after 12 weeks with a quick polite email. If you don’t receive a response, count it as a no and move on.

11. Query in Batches: I queried in batches of 5-10 agents at a time. Be sure to include both “dream agents” and not dream agents in each batch, because you only get one chance, and you don’t want to use up all your “dream agents” on the first go. Also, querying in batches lets you assess what’s working and what’s not. Did your first 10 queries come back with form rejections? Maybe it’s time to re-assess your query letter. Fizzling out with partial requests? Take a look at your ms. And, if any agents are generous enough to give you feedback – take it.

12. Grab Some Chocolate and Settle in For the Long Haul: In my experience agents took about 4-16 weeks to reply to queries, 2-8 months on Partials, and up to a year on Fulls. Writing (or at least, publishing) is not a speedy process, so sit back, eat some chocolate, start writing your next piece, and try to keep yourself from checking your email every five minutes.

And now, the part I’m sure you’re waiting for: CONTEST DETAILS! I’m going to make this simple. Just leave a comment with your name, your ms’s genre, age group, and word count, and I will randomly pick one to receive a query critique from me! I’m going to limit this to children’s books, since that’s what I write, and the critique will be private (ie. I won’t post it up on the blog for everyone to see). Contest will close Wednesday May 27 at 6pm EDT, and I’ll announce the winner later that night on the blog and on Twitter (@K_Callard). Good luck! Contest s now closed!

Rainbow After the Storm

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The past eight months (and counting) of concussion have been long and hard [to see how hard, check out last week’s post here]. But there’s been a good side, too. I’ve learned a few things, and I thought I’d share them with you.

1. I used to check my email too often. Way too often. Only being able to get my email updates twice a day from my husband made me crazy at first, but I soon realized that agents weren’t going to walk away if it took me a few hours to reply to them. And since I wasn’t sending out many queries, I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with responses. Now that I’m allowed back on the computer (for short times) I’m finding it hard to keep from constantly checking in, but I’m doing my best to stick to only peeking at my inbox three times a day (or so). This has led directly to realizing:

2. Life is more relaxed without stressing over queries. Add my impatience waiting for responses to the amount of time I spent researching agents, perfecting queries, and checking out contests, and you’ll get an idea of how stressed I felt. I know I’ll have to get back to it all eventually, but as long as my computer time is still limited, I’m going to enjoy my mini-vacation from querying while I can.

3. It’s easy to lose time on Twitter, Facebook, blogging, etc.  This one is probably a no-brainer, but it took me losing computer access to realize just how much time I spent on social media. Sure, some of it falls under the necessary category of establishing a social media presence, but, let’s face it, a lot of it was just wasting time. When I’m allowed back online full time, I will definitely be establishing limits on my non-writing computer time.

4. I’m a Pinterest goddess at heart. Okay, so I don’t have a Pinterest account, but I’ve seen the stuff on there. Over the summer, with three kids home and nothing better to do, I spent a lot of time trying to entertain my kids. We’re talking theme days, food faces, and whatever simple crafts my injured brain could manage – but of course without the photographing and displaying online. I have a feeling Pinterest could definitely become a major time-suck for me, which is why I’m going to continue to steer clear of it.

5. No writing and no reading make Kaye a little crazy. As I wrote above in #4, I channeled most of my creative impulses into entertaining my kids. As great as it felt to be SuperMom for a while, the lack of outside interests left me feeling a bit empty. I love my kids, but I need an identity away from them too, and the concussion robbed me of that. But in doing so, it made me realize writing is more than a hobby or simple career aspiration, it’s become part of what makes me me, and without it I’m lost.

6. I don’t have enough in-person friends any more. The past five years have seen many of my friends move and/or have kids and other draws on their time, and I’ve been tied up with the chaos of twins (+ 1), and trying to squeeze out writing time. More and more I’ve been relying on the internet to communicate – both with existing real-life friends, and with people I only know in cyberspace. Since my concussion has improved, I’ve been trying to get out more. I have weekly coffee dates with some of the neighborhood mommies, I’ve been meeting my crit partners whether I have material ready or not, and my husband and I have been trying to host more casual meet-ups on weekends. I still miss my virtual friends, but at least I don’t have to be lonely in my recovery.

7. I need to accept limitations. As a competitive (not to mention stubborn) person, I’ve always seen the word “can’t” as a challenge. You can’t race in figure skates, you say? – Watch me! You think girls can’t play baseball as well as boys? – I’ll show you. So it took a while for me to realize following the doctor’s orders was important to my recovery. In fact, I actually set myself back about six weeks by trying to fill out all my passport paperwork in one sitting. Now I’m learning to take it slow and not push myself too much (this blog post was written in five installments).

So there you have it. My concussion may have been brutal, and painful, and depressing, but at least I learned a few things. I hope any storms you have in your lives are filled with rainbows, too.

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