Monday, August 29, 2016

Things I Look for When Editing a Query Letter by Michelle Hauck


Michelle Hauck is giving us advice on how to write a query letter that agents will love. Take it away, Michelle!


As the host of many contests that feature query letters, like Query Kombat and Sun vs Snow, I've seen my fair share of letters that are designed to capture an agent's attention. Over four years, I've probably seen just about everything and this has helped me figure out a little about what works and what doesn't. 

When I dig into a query for a contest or for one of my clients, I first examine each sentence on its own merit, including the greeting, closing, and bio paragraph. I usually cheat by looking at these easy to correct sections of a query first and saving the "meat" of the query for later. In the information paragraph, I look for anything that doesn't really belong. Are the sentences straightforward and to the point or are they crowded with extra words? It doesn't matter too much if this part comes at the beginning or the end, but agents appreciate queries that don't waste words in the bio/word count/genre paragraph. Concentrate most of your query letter word count on the part of the letter where you tell about the story. All you really need is:

TITLE is a (age category, genre), complete at XX,XXX(round to the nearest thousand) words. 

Then add your comps (if you use them) and bio.

It may appeal to fans of blank...

Tip: Here's a trick for whether to put your word count/genre/bio section first or last in your letter. If your genre is out of favor or your word count is higher or lower than standard, put it at the end. If your story features some super diversity and that's reflected in your bio or your genre is hot or you have strong publishing credits, put your information paragraph upfront.

After the easy part is done, I turn to the heart of the query. This is usually three paragraphs often described as the hook, the line, and the sinker. What I'm looking for by going sentence by sentence is that no sentence is merely a repeat of what the reader already knows and that each sentence follows logically on the one before it. There's just not enough room in a query to waste space on repeating information. And jarring sentences that don't follow one another logically destroy the flow. A query shouldn't jump from topic to topic. If the sentences flow one to the next, you're also eliminating another likely problem, which is getting side-tracked by side plots.

Tip: A query letter should stick to the main plot and avoid venturing into channels of side plots.

By side plot, I don't mean things that motivate your characters. There is a slight difference, which can be difficult to discern. The main character may be motivated by the death of a family member due to a doctor's mistake. A lawsuit against that doctor could be an example of a side plot if the real plot is the sudden magic powers the MC discovers.

Tip: Show your character's motivation, usually in the first paragraph with the hook. Why do they act as they do? What defines their personality?

When going sentence by sentence, I'm also looking for bulky sentences that have extra words and awkward sentences that just need to be rearranged. I'm looking for important pieces that are missing, like the main character motivation and well-defined stakes. Are the sentences full of specific details or are they full of cliche words like family secrets, dark phantom from her past, sudden powers and more? 

If all I learn is that your main character has a secret and they are hiding from a dark phantom because of their sudden powers, I don't really know anything about the story. That doesn't entice and it's the biggest problem I see in query letters in contests. Compare that to a main character who accidentally killed her sister when her ability with fire appeared as she was trying to protect them from a sword-carrying bird creature. Clunky but you get the picture.

Tip: Fill your query sentences with specific details relating to the plot.

So the hook paragraph should tell us something about the main character, their motivation, and the obstacle they encounter that stops them from their goal. But be careful to avoid character soup. Limit your query to three named characters, and if it's set in a fantasy world, limit those names, too. 

The line paragraph is where we learn more about the obstacle in detail, and what the main character does about it. This is a good place to show how the conflict escalates. How does the problem get worse? Agents like to see a sense of problem growth so they know the plot doesn't stall: there is an obstacle, but then it gets harder to overcome.

Tip: Have your main conflict escalate and get worse in the query.

The sinker paragraph is where you lay out the stakes and the character choice. What bad thing will happen if the MC fails? Will the whole human race be wiped out? Will they lose their scholarship and chance to go to college? Will their family fall apart? Spell it out for the reader in detail and work it in with the choice the MC must make. Will the MC take the easy road and live safely or will they surrender their freedom to take that rocket ship to the moon and confront the villain? Laying out the main character's choice should be the end of the sinker paragraph, but be sure not to give away the ending and which way they go. Here's an example from one of my own queries:

She’ll have to accept Garrett’s chains or lose her humanity forever, unless the sun’s deadly rays awakens magic within her.

Note that I have already spelled out what the chains are, how her humanity is at stake, and why the sun creates magic early in the query. Now I'm just laying out the character's choices.

Tip: The end of the sinker paragraph can be less about plot points and more about the indecision the main character faces. What reality do they have to brave to overcome the obstacle?     

I always edit three revisions for my clients. In the first pass, I look to nail down the basic plot and make sure all the things I talked about above are in place. We make the query structurally sound. In the next two revisions, I ask the author to focus on the details and add bits that reflect the world building, the character personality, the mood of the story, and the tone of the story. In other words, it helps to nail down the story and stakes, then go back and add voice.

Tip: Take bits of slang from the manuscript and try and word sentences in your query the way your main character would say them. That does not mean write the query from your main character. Just try and copy the same voice and mood/atmosphere from your manuscript into the query. If your character is cynical, your query should reflect that. If they are bouncy, give zest to your query.

If your story is horror, give the query a creepy feeling. If it's a romance, focus on the character building and add sex appeal. Make the query match the manuscript is a good way to capture an agent's attention. Another thing to check for is did you remembering to highlight what is unique about your story, including the concept.

Tip: Pick out the elements of your story that are unique and make sure that is in the query letter. You don't want a query letter that is full of stale and used concepts. 

So there you have the strategy I use to judge query letters and to discover if they are strong enough to entice an agent. I hope this helps you to shape your own query.

And a final tip: Even when you land an agent, there's a good chance you'll still be writing query-type blurbs for your manuscripts. I wrote one for Grudging before it went on submission. An agent will want to have your take on what should be in their pitch letter to editors. So keep polishing your query skills.     


BIO and LINKS:

Michelle Hauck lives in the bustling metropolis of northern Indiana with her hubby and two college kids. Besides working with special needs children by day, she writes all sorts of fantasy, giving her imagination free range. She is a co-host of the yearly query contests Query Kombat, Nightmare on Query Street, New Agent, Picture Book Party, and Sun versus Snow. Her Birth of Saints trilogy from Harper Voyager starts with GRUDGING and FAITHFUL on November 15, 2016. She has another epic fantasy entitled KINDAR’S CURE.

Goodreads: Grudging
Goodreads: Faithful
Goodreads: Kindar’s Cure

Monday, August 22, 2016

5 Important Skills for the Indie Writer


At some point in time, every writer has to decide whether writing will remain a hobby or become a business. For the business-minded indie writer, there is always the task of figuring out what to outsource and what to continue doing. For those with knowhow and are diehard do-it-yourselfers, some things are must-dos and some, not so much.

·         If you're a graphic artist by trade, creating your own covers will make life a lot easier and negate the expense of paying someone else to do this for you. If creating graphics is not an area in which you shine, leave it to the professionals.

·         The ability to make banners and promotional material for your books for online use (think Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) is another handy skill in the indie's arsenal. Promo pics are fun to make and you can switch these up to prevent them from getting stale. 

·         Formatting is a good skill to have. I’ve read various books on this subject, including the free Kindle and Smashwords formatting guides and now do this for my books, which prevents me from having to pay to make changes. If this is beyond you though, don't waste time trying to figure it out. Pay for the service and avoid a headache.

·         Converting files to various formats might not be helpful to every writer, but it's an advantage when it comes time for a final read through of each book. There are free downloadable programmes such as Calibre or online versions, like Zamzar that convert word files to Mobi, which can be loaded on a Kindle for that last read before you ship your baby off to the editor.

·         Learning how to navigate social media is important. While it is not the place for a hard sell, many writers are successful in reaching readers on various social media platforms. Don't be afraid, dive in and learn as you go.

While time is always in short supply, I like having the option of knowing that I can do some things in a crunch. If I can't, there's the option of paying for these services. If you're on a restricted budget, it may suit you to learn as much as you can about the tasks that are required again and again in the publishing process.


So, have you added to your skill set lately? If not, do you plan to learn to do any of the things discussed?

Monday, August 15, 2016

Guest Post: Stuart Horwitz on The Process of Editing

THE PROCESS OF EDITING:
FOUR VERSIONS OF A PARAGRAPH

When Susan Gourley invited me to contribute to the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, I started thinking about the idea of security, and wondering whether it is a good quality for a writer to develop. Security can sometimes have you writing what you’ve already written. Security doesn’t want to try a different genre or write something that people won’t agree with, while remaining insecure is what helps a writer invent, elaborate, and produce.


But that’s no way to live. Instead, even if we can’t achieve security in our content or our current level of success, I think we can find security in a process. To that end, I will present here four versions of a paragraph from my most recent book: Finish Your Book in Three Drafts. I’ll focus on how the concept of my paragraph changed, provided I was open to new inspiration and help from others. From the title of my book, you might think there would be only three versions of this paragraph—all will be explained.


Here is the first draft. At the time it was placed just under the subhead, “A Word on Wordsmithing”:

You probably haven’t been able to help yourself from fiddling with perfectly good sentences to make them even better by this point — even though you were supposed to be focusing on the one thing your book is about… A lot of time when I work with clients, they ask me: When are we going to talk about the actual writing, you know? By that, they mean the word choice, maybe improving the vocabulary, or the syntax (i.e., the flow.) Part of me hopes the answer is: never. The idea that everything we’ve been doing thus far isn’t writing, and that we are going to get to the writing, strikes me as a set-up for pretension.

I typed (like, actually) the first draft of my most recent book for two reasons: because I had just inherited my Great Uncle’s 1963 Hermes 3000 Typewriter in mint condition, and to force myself to have to retype the second draft into the computer. Not every time-saving device encourages creativity.

When you’re retyping, push comes to shove a lot quicker. Some useless phrases like “by this point” were dropped (consult your Strunk & White for other likely candidates), but more than that, retyping caused the ideas to evolve. When I wrote my second draft, I didn’t want to write this twice: “By that, they mean the word choice, maybe improving the vocabulary, or the syntax (i.e., the flow.)” The second time, I wanted to write: “By that, they mean maybe improving the vocabulary, or importing some metaphors, or redesigning the syntax.” One of my second draft mantras is: “Make it better.” That’s all we’re doing in the second draft; no need for insecurity. We’re just making it better.

Another second draft mantra is, “Believe it, or Change it.” Keeping that in mind, I changed the end:

You probably havent been able to help yourself from fiddling with perfectly good sentences to make them even better – even though you were supposed to be focusing on the ‘one thing your book is about’… Sometimes when I work with clients, they ask me: When are we going to talk about the actual writing, you know? By that, they mean maybe improving the vocabulary, or importing some metaphors, or redesigning the syntax. Part of me hopes the answer is: never. The idea that everything weve been doing thus far isnt writing, and that were going to get to the writing, strikes me as a set-up for pretension, or at the very least an overly complicated surface.

Ending on the word “pretension” seemed harsh, and I jotted this note to myself in the margin of the original typescript: compassion. Meaning, try to find some empathy here, don’t be so heartless. Some of us have to try, you see.

Your second draft is the one that I recommend you send out to beta readers, those early readers who see your work before it is ready for the literary marketplace. Talk about insecurity! Nonetheless, such feedback is immensely valuable. I followed my own advice, and was happy that I did because so much new inspiration flowed my way. For example, one of my beta readers, Windy Lynn Harris, recommended that I give each draft a name. The first draft then became “the messy draft,” the second draft became “the method draft,” and the third draft became “the polished draft.”

Those kinds of ideas don’t come along very often, and the ripples extended far. Windys suggestion enabled me to situate the paragraph we have been reviewing within the context of the book I was writing, which should happen to every paragraph, ideally. To accommodate this, it actually grew to two paragraphs:

In the method draft you probably werent able to help yourself from fiddling with perfectly good sentences to make them even better – even though you were supposed to be focusing on the ‘one thing your book is about’… In the polished draft, the individual words likely became even more important. Using the right word, the one that you can pull off, is important. I just learned the word compassion like last week, what it means.

But a word on wordsmithing: Sometimes when I work with clients, they ask me: When are we going to talk about the actual writing, you know? By that, they mean improving the vocabulary, or importing some metaphors, or redesigning the syntax. Part of me hopes the answer is: never. The idea that everything weve been doing thus far isnt writing, and that were going to get to the writing, strikes me as a set-up for pretension, or at the very least an overly complicated surface.

Another reason it grew to two paragraphs, besides increasing the context, was the fact that I was still chasing the concept. Now the word “compassion,” from the margins of the typescript, made it into the actual text and augmented the idea. This feeling that you are still moving toward what you want to say is a crucial condition for finishing strong — and why the subtitle of my new book is: “How to write a book, revise a book, and complete a book while you still love it.”

Then these paragraphs (and the rest of the book in which they were contained) went to copy editing. Deep breath, everybody. I work with three copy editors, and I respect each of them wholeheartedly. That said, copy editors bring out the insecurity in even the most confident writers because having your work copy edited is often its own tug of war: between correctness and voice, between convention and style.

For Finish Your Book in Three Drafts I worked with Louann Pope (you can ask her here how much of an irritant I was to work with). Between the two of us we came up with this as the final version:

In the messy draft, you likely experimented with a few different tones of voice until you figured out who your audience members were, and what tone of voice would reach them. In the method draft, you probably werent able to help yourself from fiddling with perfectly good sentences to make them even better—even though you were supposed to be focusing on the “one thing your book is about.” In the polished draft, you considered the individual words even more carefully. Using the right word, the one that you can pull off, is important. I just learned the word compassion like last week, for example, what it means.

But a word on wordsmithing: Sometimes when I work with clients, they ask me: “When are we going to talk about the actual writing, you know?” By that, they mean improving the vocabulary, or importing some metaphors, or redesigning the syntax. Part of me hopes the answer is: never. The idea that everything weve been doing thus far isnt writing, and that were going to get to the writing, strikes me as a setup for pretension, or at the very least an overly complicated surface.

By now, the passage above had become the first paragraph of the Conclusion, and you can’t start the Conclusion of a book about three drafts with comments about the second and third draft only. Each draft allows you to take a further step back and that perspective allows you to see what needs to be done. Some of the sentences became more active, clarifying phrases were inserted and unnecessary ellipses were taken out.


And some lines, I wouldn’t let Louann touch. I know this reads as a fragment: “Part of me hopes the answer is: never.” I also know I left that sentence the same exact way every draft. Thats the music of going inside my mind. I don’t want to change it to: “Part of me hopes that the answer is never.” I was just counseling a writer about how your writing is always your writing. And you may feel insecure about it, but if you feel better about one version than you do of any other expression of the same idea, then you are done. “The end.”

Stuart Horwitz is the found of Book Architecture, a firm of independent editors based in Providence, RI. Finish Your Book in Three Drafts is the third and final book in the Book Architecture trilogy. His first book, Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method was named one of the best books about writing by The Writer magazine. His second book, Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula was released as part of a five-year, 100-venue book tour of North America which will run through 2017.

Thanks so much to Stuart for being here today. Check out his website and see if he's appearing on his tour near you. He's a gifted speaker who will convince you to work even harder on your dreams. Did he inspire you today, IWSGers? Did you see how the editing process improved the writing sample?