Querying: What is My Story About?

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The sun is shining, the world is beautiful, it’s Monday, and somehow I have off work! Instead of strapping on a pack and taking a group of 5th graders hiking, I’m posting up at my living room table, keyboard at the ready. Queries are slowly trickling into my “sent” box and life feels glorious.

As I’m back on the query train, I’ve been thinking about the process a lot these days. I recently received some stellar query advice from picture book author, Dev Petty. I know I’ve been shouting Dev out a lot these days, but during her talk a few weeks ago she said so many inspirational nuggets of wisdom that I’ve needed a few weeks to process them all.

When it comes to querying, Dev says that, without using any character names, you should be able to answer this question in less than one sentence:

What is my book about?

An agent probably won’t ever ask you to explain your book in a single sentence but having the ability to do so will give you the foundation of your query letter. You’re the author after all. You should be able to narrow the essence of your manuscript down to just a few short words. If you can’t do it, no one else will be able to.

An excellent example that Dev gave us was Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. She asked us all the simple question: What is this book about? A few brave souls volunteered their answers:

“It’s about a boy who runs away from home.”

“It’s about a boy who gets mad and goes on an imaginary adventure.”

After a few, Dev cut us off. As it turns out, this one can be narrowed down to less than a sentence. The very essence of Where the Wild Things Are is anger. The book is about anger.

It’s true. Arguably, the most well-loved picture book of all time is about anger. But it’s so easy to get caught up in the plot and sub plot and characters. That’s part of what makes writing queries and synopses difficult—all of the distractions that seem so important to summarize, but would ultimately be useless without the books fundamental message.

I started thinking in these terms about the picture books and YA manuscript I’ve written so far. Pairing them down to a sentence or even just a word makes talking about them seem so much more manageable.

My book is about perspectives in nature, or learning from your choices, or human nature. This is the first step, setting the framework for the rest of your query. If the book is about perspectives in nature, what essential plot points do I need to communicate in order to convey that message?

So far, this process has been working wonders for me. It’s turned query writing into a puzzle: identify the essence of the story, add in the details that support it.

I’ve got another picture book in the works these days and will definitely be using this approach when it comes query time.

 

Much love & keep writing.

 

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The Aspiring Author’s “To Do” List


Hi All,

Long time no blog.

This post goes out to those of you that are in the drafting stages of your first book. Right now you’re probably experiencing some Frankensteinesque tunnel vision along the lines of “Must finish book, must finish book…” It’s an involuntary mantra that never seems to turn off, even in sleep. I used to dream of finishing my manuscript only to wake up and find that I was still at a meager 20,000 words.

The point of this post is to drive home a very important message: The work doesn’t end once you’ve written your last word. Once you’ve decided your manuscript is ready to be seen by the eyes of agents and publishers you’re opening an entirely new can of worms and those worms need tending to.

So to give you an idea of the work involved in pushing a completed manuscript through publishing, I decided to share the things on my current writing “To Do” list:

  1. Research agents that are interested in my genre
  2. Send query letters to said agents (this can be pretty involved as most agents want query letters, synopses, and partial manuscript requests in varying formats)
  3. Attend writing functions/network (SCBWI is a great organization to be a part of if you want to get involved in your local writing community)
  4. Read books within my genre to see what’s currently hot on the market
  5. Find other writers (beta readers) to read my manuscript and provide feedback
  6. Beta read for other writers.
  7. Work on a second/third book (agents will be more interested in you if you have multiple books to publish)
  8. Make business cards
  9. BLOG (the more followers you have, the more marketable you look to agents and publishers)

Those are just the things I could think of off the top of my head. It’s safe to say that I’ve got quite enough to keep me busy for a while.

For those of you that are in the same stage, what’s on your writing “To Do” list? Is it the same as mine? Shorter? Longer? Did I miss anything?

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Much love, and keep writing. 

 

2014: A Year in the Writer’s Life

happy-new-yearHi friends,

2014 ends tomorrow night. Of all twenty-two of my years spent breathing, this has been the most intense.

It’s the year that I completed my college education and the year I moved across a continent to a place where I didn’t know a soul. In the last 365 days I became a certified teacher, discovered my passion for outdoor education, parted ways with love, and began teaching a class of twenty-six hormonal eleven-year-olds.

It’s also the year that I finished writing my first novel and began drafting my second.

From rewrites to rejections to more rewrites it’s been a hell of an experience. And now, with a shiny new full time job, I’m beginning to realize that publication just isn’t going to happen as quickly as I’d like it to. There’s just not enough time in the day to work, pump out queries, and swamp your social media pages with blog posts. I’ve spent the last month mentally kicking myself for not querying enough, not drafting enough, not blogging enough. But honestly, what and who sets the standards for “enough?” Here’s a revelation: It’s me. I’m in charge of how much I say is enough, and if I can’t manage a blog post a week or a thousand words a day, then too damn bad. I’ll live. My books will continue to exist and I’ll get to it when I can.

 

 

New Year’s Resolutions: Breathe.

Jumping Write In: Skipping the Outline

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Laini Taylor gets me.

I decided before drafting the second novel in my series that I would first create a thorough outline of the plot. I embarked on my first book with nothing more than half a page of very disjointed notes scribbled on a napkin scrounged from a paper bag lunch. I decided that this time around I was going to do it “right.”

So instead of just jumping into the opening scene I began outlining…and outlining…and outlining. For three days I sat in front of a single page word document pulling my hair out as I attempted to claw ideas out of my head. What did I come up with you ask? Interestingly enough, mostly questions. Littered here and there in the white sea of a mostly empty document lay questions such as “What’s happening in her world when the book starts?” and “What is the conflict?”

Helpful? Not so much.

On the fourth day I said screw it, exited out of the document and opened a new one. I didn’t think. I didn’t wonder how what I was writing now would effect the end of the book. I just wrote. And a wonderful thing started to happen. The more I wrote the more the plot began to take form in my mind. As I filled the page with words the questions started to answer themselves. It’s a bizarre experience, really. Sometimes it feels as though the story is already in me and I just have to give myself the time to organize all the bits and pieces into a coherent whole.

That’s just how it works for some of us I guess. Some people spend weeks, even months planning out every little detail before they begin to write. But for some of us planning isn’t what breathes life into our books. Writing is.

Laini Taylor, author of The Daughter of Smoke and Bone series is an excellent example of someone who can write an incredibly compelling book with no plan at all. She’s also a goddess. If you haven’t read her trilogy, check it out.

Philosophy Versus Fiction: Writing for Change

Last week I met up with an old friend over drinks. This particular human happens to be a graduate student of philosophy at a world renowned university. While catching up she mentioned that she has been struggling with a literature class in which she is currently enrolled. I inquired as to why and she proclaimed that she does not see the benefit of fictional literature. “I mean, what’s the point of it,” she asked with a smile, knowing full well that my passion is fictional writing.

Now, to how many people this wonderful human has divulged her lack of respect for fiction I don’t know, but I’ve got to give her some credit for having the guts to say it to my face.

This was my response:

“I thought that we were friends but I think maybe I should leave now…” *Pretends to get up to walk out of the bar, ultimately sits back down and rambles somewhat incoherently about the importance of fiction as a mode for communicating philosophical thought.*

Thankfully, the conversation eventually turned to other topics once we politely agreed to disagree on the matter. Friendship salvaged.

About a week has gone by but I haven’t been able to shake this conversation. I haven’t quite managed to stop mentally replaying my response. Now that I’m in a slightly more lucid state, I’d like to address some of the thoughts I’ve since had about philosophy in fictional literature. As it turns out, there have been many.

Let’s start with a question: What is the point of writing?

There are a number of answers to this question depending on who you ask. Some will say they write to tell a story. Others say it’s to cleanse their mind of nagging thoughts.

I would say that it’s to impact the people that read what you write–to write for change. I’d even go out on a limb and say that most philosophers would agree with my answer.

So let’s get real for a minute here. If we’re talking philosophy versus fiction under the lens of impact, what is the general population more likely to read, a prominent philosophical paper or an acclaimed novel? If I write a stellar, ground breaking philosophical essay who’s going to read it? Probably a bunch of old mostly white dudes sitting around smoking wooden pipes. Maybe some PHD and graduate students will check it out too. It might even trickle its way down to a couple undergrad. lectures or to the computer screens of precocious high schoolers. But by the time it makes its way around the somewhat small philosophical world, how many people will have actually read it? How many people will be affected or change their approach to life because of this essay?

Chances are, not that many.

Now, how many people do you think have read The Giver by Lois Lowry? I’d wager most of the educated American youth who attended middle school in the last two decades. The entire premise of the novel hinges on a single question: What is the best way to live? *cough cough* Ethics. Is it worth sacrificing love and passion in order to live without pain and suffering? No one wants to deal with pain and suffering, especially when they’re in middle school, but this book has opened the eyes of many a preteen to the idea that without hardship it becomes nearly impossible to appreciate the joy of life.

Next take The Golden Compass series by Philip Pullman. This trilogy is a meditation on the suppressive nature of religion. Not to go all analytical essayist on you but I’ll support my claim with a quote from Ruta Skadi, one of the secondary characters of the work: “For all of [the Church’s] history…it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out.” When I was eleven I hadn’t read any philosophical texts or essays. Come to think of it, now that I’m twenty-two I haven’t read all that many either. But these books sparked my own meditative journey on the philosophy of religion that lasted well into my high school years. Hell, my mind still gravitates back to this series when thinking about religious themes or issues.

I could sit here and break down the philosophical merit of novel after novel but I think you guys get the point. Now, I’m definitely not trying to make the claim that all fiction has deep philosophical value. But personally I tend to enjoy and appreciate fictional works that push the reader to consider and question the current state of the world around them. In my opinion those are the books that people, especially young adults, should be reading. So those are the books that I intend to write.

What books have impacted your personal philosophy?

Do you write to tell a story or do you write for change?

To-Write-is-to-Change-the-World Disclaimer:

No friendships were destroyed in the occurrence of this conversation or (hopefully) in the writing of this blog post.

Creating from Something: Taking Time for Creative Input

So it’s been a while since I was last at the begining stage of the writing process. About a year and a half has passed since that fateful day when I first started building the worlds and developing the characters within The Maker’s Table. I had forgotten how much energy goes into the initial planning of a novel. The truth is that a potter cannot throw a pot without first centering the clay on the wheel. You have to lay the foundation before you can jump into the story. It’s in this foundation that I’m finding myself a bit stuck. Right now I face the task of dreaming up an entirely new world while also continuing to develop the world in which Misha, my protagonist, lives. Creating from nothing. That’s the way I’ve been looking at it over the past few days at least. But this morning, as I woke up with a frustration hangover from my lack of productivity the day before, my bookshelf caught my eye.

I traced the spines of the books I have read over the past few years. Their characters, sentence structures, tones, and settings played through my head. I thought about how little pieces of each of them had found their way into the themes, and philosophies, and dialogues of my first book. And I reminded myself that any art form, writing included, is never a process of creating from nothing. All of our lives we absorb the sights, and smells, and sounds around us. We take in inspiration from the places we see, the music we listen to, the books we read. And in turn those experiences influence our own creative output. There is no avoiding it.

I thought about all the times in the last year and a half that I had justified spending my time writing rather than reading. After all, writing is far more productive an act. But is that so true? Is it productive to focus solely on output without creating the time to absorb input? How many inspirational ideas or quotes or plot lines have I passed up since leaving my “To Read” list to gather dust?

So, as I find myself going mad from attempting to claw new ideas for my novel out of my brain, I’ve decided to search for inspiration in the initial source of my love for writing: reading.

 

 

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Current undertaking: Dune by Frank Herbert

Drafting Procrastination: Beginning the Writing Process

World,

As you’ve been informed, book number one is complete. I’ve probably read the damn thing through a hundred times. My family has read it. My friends have read it. Other writers have read it. I’ve edited/revised it after each person sent it back to me with comments. And then I edited it again just for the hell of it.

 

What I’m getting at here is: It’s time to write another book.

Let me rephrase that: It’s been time to write another book.

 

I’ve actually been meaning to start it for the last week. It’s funny what can come up when you mean to start drafting a book. Suddenly, you notice how dirty your floor is. You’d better sweep and mop it. Maybe it needs a vacuum too? You definitely don’t have enough groceries for the next two weeks so you might as well stock up your fridge like you’re preparing for the apocolypse. Now is HANDS DOWN the perfect time to clean out the toaster and reorganize your underwear drawer. Your roller blades need new wheels? Better make the hour-long journey to the best skate shop on Yelp to get them replaced. Oh, and while you’re at it, maybe you should write a blog post about how difficult it is to start writing a book.

What I’m trying to say here, people, is that starting a book is a daunting task and I’ve been doing everything possible to distract myself from it. Time to get it together. Writers all over the world are frantically pounding out the beginning of their 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo and I’m cleaning out my toaster?

Since starting my book a few of my friends who also wish to be novelists have asked me for advice. I always find myself saying the same thing: JUST DO IT. Just sit down and do it. It’s scary, I know, sitting down with a computer or notebook and embarking on a journey whose end is so very far from sight. I sat on the concept behind my first book for four years before putting anything on paper. But once the first draft is done all that hemming and hawing just seems like a waste of what could have been time spent typing or brainstorming or outlining character arcs.

The point is, I need to take my own advice.

Novel number two, here I come.

Wish me luck.