Querying: What is My Story About?

whats-it-about

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.

 

How to Query

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 8.46.44 AM

It’s official. I’ve begun sending out queries for a new picture book manuscript. It feels good and productive and I’m really excited and hopeful to get some feedback from agents.

Thanks to the talk I went to last weekend, I’ve begun to change my querying process and the way that I think about query letters. Picture book author, Dev Petty, walked us through her own querying process during her talk. Here’s a breakdown of how she goes about it:

  1. Research agents that take on subject matter and writing styles similar to your own.
  2. Search for editorial agents. Editorial agents provide editing services before sending your book off to publishers. No agent is going to identify as non-editorial but many don’t provide this service. If you want help with editing before your work is sent to publishing houses, check agent websites and interviews to see if they mention editing as one of their services.
  3. Create a list of 10 to 15 agents that you are most interested in working with.
  4. Research them, research them, research them. Read their past interviews. Get to know their client lists. Read agent spotlights. Learn as much as you can about these people. Remember, if they choose to sign you, they will be representing you. Make sure you know who they are and how they like to work.
  5. Construct personalized query letters for each agent. Show that you’ve done your research. Congratulate them on a recent award they’ve won, or on a new successful client they’ve signed. Follow their specific query formatting preferences. Mention that your book will appeal to readers of one of their current client’s books. Tell them why you want to work with them, specifically.
  6. Have a handful of other manuscripts ready to send. There’s a chance that an agent will ask to see more of your writing.
  7. If they say no, or offer any sort of feedback, thank them and use it as an opportunity to send them a new manuscript: “Thank you for your feedback on So and So Manuscript. I’ve taken the advice you gave me and used it when revising my latest manuscript, The Adventures of So and So. I think it would fit nicely with your current list because of reasons A, B, and C.” As you continue sending them your work, you’ll begin to build a relationship with the agents you’re interested in working with. They’ll recognize your name. They’ll get to know your writing style and voice. Above all, they’ll recognize your commitment and desire to work with them.

I really like Dev’s approach because of its personal nature. Since I’ve started following her advice, I feel more connected to the querying process. It only makes sense that one should know as much as possible about a person before trying to work with them. After doing mountains of research I feel as though I am more equipped to make a case for my book and why someone should add me to their client list.

Wish me luck. I’ll keep you updated.

 

Much love and keep writing.

 

 

Is Your Picture Book Ready to Send?

This past weekend I attended a talk by picture book author, Dev Petty, at my local SCBWI chapter meeting. Dev is the author of I Don’t Want to Be a Frog and I Don’t Want to be Big. As promised in my last post, here is a list of questions that Dev asks herself before sending her picture books to agents.

  • What are my goals?
  • Have I read current and popular picture books?
  • If so, what have I learned about current popular flow, rhythm, and style?
  • Have I considered writing in different tenses, points of view, and formats?
  • Have I considered deeper options, metaphors, and ideas?
  • What is the most interesting way I can turn my idea into a story?
  • Does my story have a strong beginning and a satisfying ending?
  • Does my story have an original voice?
  • Did I leave room for the illustrator?
  • Did I consider action on the page?
  • Did I leave room for the reader to participate with the text/images?
  • Do I get quickly into the action and story problem?
  • Did I read it out loud? Many times? To different audiences?
  • Is my story too long? (More than 900 words for a picture book)
  • Is it rhyming? If so will that hinder my chances of getting published? Dev made a good point about the fact that rhyming texts are harder to edit for publishers. She also shared that agents/publishers tend to be more enthusiastic about signing picture books with prose than with rhyme.
  • Is more than one beta reader telling me the same thing?
  • Can I remove anything that isn’t adding to the story?
  • Do I have a handful of other stories to show agents should the request them? (More on this question in my next post)
  • Does my query letter voice reflect my writing voice?
  • Do I have a social media presence?

So there you have it, the thought process of a published, successful picture book writer. I fully intend to ask myself all of these questions before sending manuscripts out in the future. Hopefully they’ll work for me (and for you!) like they worked for Dev.

51fc22beej2bl-_sx258_bo1204203200_

Much love and keep writing.

Aaand We’re Back

Hi friends,

It’s been about a year since my blog went silent—a year, two new teaching jobs, two cross-country moves, and a trans-Atlantic relationship, since my last post. I can blame the crickets on circumstance, or I can just fess up. Maintaining a blog is a lot of work. Sometimes when life gets hectic something’s gotta go and for me it was the blog.

Despite my cyber silence, my plight for publishing has far from ceased. Queries continue to fly from my ever-hopeful fingertips but to no avail. Something about my first book just wasn’t cutting it. So I took it to the cleaners, ransacked the ending, a few major plot points, and started rebuilding. The direction it’s taking feels good and new and fresh and promising. But I got stuck. I’m frozen somewhere between my old manuscript and my vision for the future. So instead of prying reluctant words from my brain, I recently set it aside. My neurons simply refuse to fire in the order it will take to finish that book right now. So screw ’em. They’ll come around eventually.

In the meantime, besides short stories, other YA novel ideas, and journaling, I’ve turned my attention towards another writing outlet: picture books. They’re short, and snappy, and to the point. And the best part is, they make little kids think. Tiny little ones all over the country read, and are read picture books every day. And their tiny little brains use the information in those books to help them make sense of the crazy world that they so recently arrived in. What a cool opportunity to be a part of. So I wrote the first draft of a picture book a few weeks ago. And just a few days later got an email from my local SCBWI chapter with the subject, “Is Your Picture Book Ready to Send? A Checklist for All Writers.” The universe works in weird ways sometimes. Well, all the time actually.

The email turned out to be an advertisement for a local meeting with a guest speaker named Dev Petty, author of I Don’t Want to Be a Frog and I Don’t Want to be Big. During her talk she provided the list of questions she always asks herself before sending manuscripts to agents. I fully intend to break down the important points of her talk in my next blog post, but the real point here is that this meeting really inspired me to get back on the blogging train. It’s time to sweep the crickets out and get back to business. I have returned to the cyber world. And here I shall stay.

Stay tuned and keep writing.

 

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?

20071126-todo-list

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.

“I’m a Writer”: Claiming the Title

On our way down from the peak of Yosemite’s Liberty Cap, my housemate, Max, and I encountered two ill-prepared Hollanders with round bellies and jovial grins. With nothing more than a camera and a some stylish European shorts, they passed us on their way to complete the six hour hike from whence we came.

“How much farther to the top,” the one with the camera sang at me in his heavy Dutch accent.

“Depends on which top,” I replied with a smile, glancing towards the many surrounding peaks.

This halted their gleeful ascent but did little to deter the enormous dimples carved into the corners of their lips.

“Any top,” he chuckled, swaying gently in contentment. “Where are you from?”

“Berkeley,” Max offered.

“Ah ya, so are you in a Startup too?”

“No,” I giggled, gesturing towards Max. “He’s a pilot and I’m a…” I hesitated. “I’m a writer.”

We exchanged a few more pleasantries before they ultimately decided–despite the ominous rainclouds above–to carry on with their hike.

I walked away from the conversation beaming. I had finally done it. After so many sleepless nights spent running through plot lines and character arcs, thousands of hours of drafting and editing, after tens of thousands of words typed, I had finally claimed the identity of a writer as my own. I could have fallen back on my usual response: “Oh I’m starting a teaching job in December,” sometimes accompanied by a barely audible squeak, “and I’m trying to publish a novel.” But I didn’t. I don’t quite know why this particular instance inspired me to own up to my rightful title. Perhaps it was the adrenaline-driven rush of confidence that comes along with completing a challenging hike. Perhaps it was the light-hearted nature of the cheery Dutch man who asked the question. Maybe I was just too damn tired of discrediting all the emotion and energy I’ve put into this book. Regardless, now that I’ve claimed the title of writer I’m never giving it up.

 

 

“I am a writer.” Every syllable feels right.

Book Title

Synopsis Hell: Writing a Synopsis for Query Letters

I’ve been querying like mad over the past couple weeks.

For those that don’t know what querying is, it’s basically sending a letter/other materials to an agent to inquire as to whether they’re interested in reading your manuscript.

Through time spent researching various literary agent preferences I’ve found that no two queries look exactly alike. Some agents only want a query letter. Some want a query letter and the first ten pages. Some only want the first ten pages. Some want the first ten pages in the body of the email. Some want it as an attachment. Some want it mailed. And, unfortunately, some want a synopsis.

These synopsis-seeking agents are the bane of my existence.

Believe it or not, I think I may have had a harder time summarizing the plot of my book in two Word doc. pages than I had writing the entire two hundred sixty book pages. What do you mean you want me to condense my elaborate story into a few meager paragraphs? What do you mean I have to fit in the main character arc including their major character traits and motivations? The impact character’s part? The major relationship and themes? You want the plot line but you don’t want me to give it away? Talk about a tall order, people.

Anyway, I worked on the damn thing for a few days, got it to an acceptable state with the help of many deep breathing exercises, and now I’m never going to look at it again.

Agents should start getting back to me over the next couple weeks. In the meantime I plan to keep pumping my manuscript out into the world. Wish me luck.

 

Keep writing.

 

Rejection Bliss- My First “Thanks, but no thanks” From an Agent

Dear Internet,

After sending my manuscript to two agents (there will be many more to come) I’ve received my first rejection letter. I had a feeling before opening the email that the contents would not be favorable. However, upon reading the very polite “No thank you, negative, it’s not for me,” I felt no heart-sinking disappointment, no exhale of frustration. Instead of crawling into a corner of denial and bent pride I found myself standing in the middle of the sidewalk staring at my phone with a big idiotic grin on my face. Someone read my manuscript! A professional, real life agent read it! And they didn’t even say they hated it! Or that it’ll never sell! They read it and they said that, due to a stylistic preference, it’s not for them. Even better, they encouraged me to continue querying other agents. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not sure if each rejection will incite the same ridiculous giddiness. Being turned down is bound to get old. But for now I feel more motivated than ever to keep working towards publication. I’ll be sending out two more queries some time this week once I finish writing a synopsis of my book. Expect a post on synopsis writing as it’s far more difficult than I expected. Until then, keep writing and best of luck. 

Demystifying the Writing Conference

IMG_7146

Dear Cyberspace,

A miraculous thing happened this weekend. I survived my first writer’s conference! I can’t tell you exactly why I was so nervous. I think it was mostly the fact that I didn’t quite know what to expect. Going into the conference I knew three things: there would be workshops on different aspects of the writing/publishing/marketing process, I would meet a lot of fellow writers, and I would have to pitch my book to as many agents as possible during an hour long pitch slam. Ok, so I just said I couldn’t tell you exactly why I was so nervous. I lied. Now that I think of it, I know exactly why. It can be summed up in two words: pitch slam.

Let me give you some insight into this phenomenon if you aren’t already familiar with it. The hour long session is broken up into three minute intervals during which you sit with an agent and give a 90 second book pitch. With the left over time the agent asks you questions about your book and, if they like what they hear, pass you their business card along with instructions as to what they want you to send them. Requested materials range from a query letter to a synopsis to the first three chapters of your novel.

Picture, if you will, a large room lined with thirty or so tables. At each of those tables sits two literary agents with their names posted behind them on the wall. Now, picture a line of two hundred people standing outside the door to this room. These people have been standing there for, say, forty-five minutes. The door opens and they scramble frantically into the room in hope of being the first in line to sit down with one of the agents. Keep in mind that there are 200+ aspiring authors scuttling around this room and only 60 agents. So if one of the agents that you want to talk to is already taken you begin to form a line behind them. As you’re waiting in this line the clock is ticking down. Are you behind three people? That’s three minutes each. Nine minutes of time you could be talking to other agents wasted. What if you’re behind five people? There must be a reason that this agent is so popular, right? It must be worth it? Your eyes wander around the room…There’s an agent with an open chair in front of them! Should you abandon your line and go talk to him? Glances back at the agent you’re waiting for. But she looks so nice! What if she’s THE ONE? Looks back to the agent with the vacant chair in front of him. What if he’s THE ONE?!

Talk about stressful.

Anyway, I survived the experience despite my sky rocketing heart rate. I ended up pitching to six agents in all and four of them requested the first fifty pages of my manuscript! Somehow they understood me as I stammered through my pitch and decided that they like my idea! Needless to say, I left that room feeling pretty proud of myself. I’ll be emailing them my first few chapters by the end of the week.

As for the rest of the conference, it really was just meeting people and sitting in on workshops. Here are some of the sessions I attended:

  • Networking for Writer’s
  • Blog Your Way to a Book Deal
  • How to Sell Your First 1,000 Copies
  • Turn Your Readers Into Marketers

All of the workshops I attended bolded, highlighted, and underlined the importance of blogging as an author. So here I am and here I’ll stay.

More soon.