As a high school teacher, I learn as much from my students as I teach them. For example, several weeks ago, when I was teaching my students about the root “therm,” I got an education on thermite, and the fact that it can burn underwater. More recently, I overheard one of my students, who is getting ready to apply for a specialty arts program, say something really simple, but really profound, to a classmate sitting in her little pod of student desks: “I really hope they [the judges/admissions committee] like my art and that I get in, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”
“I really hope they like my art, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”
This statement resonated with me because, for the last few months, I have been sending query letters for my debut novel, Goodbye for Now, out into the ultra-competitive world of literary agents and publishers in the hopes of following the traditional route to seeing it published. So, far I have queried about fifteen agents (though it feels more like 1500)–some of whom have thanks-but-no-thanksed me the very day they received my query. I won’t lie and tell you that isn’t disheartening, because it is–it really, really is. But not disheartening enough to stop me. Not yet. I intend to query at least one agent a week for the entirety of 2017 before switching my tactic. If December 31, 2017, rolls around, and I still don’t have a single offer of representation, I will either reevaluate my query or attempt a new route altogether.
On those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: At the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer.
And on those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: I really hope agents and publishers and readers like my book, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer. That part of my identity is not reliant on the validation of the mainstream publishing world (though it would be nice, and it is my goal…), nor is it dependent on recognition from critics or reviewers (though that would be nice, too). It relies only on the fact that I continue to do one thing: write. And that, my friends, I most certainly will do.
Your identity as a writer does not rely on the validation of the mainstream publishing world, nor does it depend on recognition from critics or reviewers. It relies only on the fact that you continue to do one thing: write.
In his essay “Why Soldiers Won’t Talk,” John Steinbeck surmises that one reason a soldier can return to battle despite the traumas of war, and a woman can bear more than one child despite the ravages of labor and delivery, is simply because neither can
remember what the experience was like, rendering both incapable of experiencing the fear that might prevent them from entering into a similar experience again. “Perhaps,” he writes, “all experience which is beyond bearing is that way–the system provides the shield and removes the memory.” I think there is some validity to Steinbeck’s hypothesis. I see it evidenced in my own life, in at least two areas. The first is my husband’s willingness–eagerness, even–to engage in DIY home projects over and over again, despite the stress and anxiety they inevitably cause him. Not long after completing one painful project, he starts to get antsy for another–to the extent that we just purchased a second home, in part to help satisfy his craving for projects (and he is now completely embroiled in the pangs of a plethora of home projects). The second is my own experience with writing conferences, my favorite and the most accessible one to me being the James River WritersAnnual Conference. I look forward to this three-day event with an enthusiasm approaching that of a young child’s at Christmas. But some years, I leave feeling defeated and discouraged: There are so many writers out there with so many stellar ideas, and we are all in competition for an agent, a publisher, a paycheck. I look around at the sheer number of writers in attendance at the conference and think: How can I possibly stand a chance against so many competitors? Frankly, it’s deflating.
We come together as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community.
But at Friday’s pre-conference Master Class, “How to Hook an Agent–From the Query Letter Through the Opening Pages,” literary agent Michael Carr said something that helped me realize at least one reason (there are many) I look forward to the conference every year: “It’s important to get motivation from events like this.” He went on to explain that so much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together. We are among people who take us seriously as writers. We convene as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community. And it is in that spirit of the writer’s community that I share with you just a handful of highlights and takeaways from this weekend’s James River Writers Annual Conference.
For reference and in an effort to give credit where credit is due, here is a list of the sessions I attended:
Be sure to vary your sentence structure. Reusing the same sentence structure can pull the reader out of your narrative, or, as Michael Carr explains it, can “wake him up from the fictive dream.” Two structures that Carr says are frequently overused, particularly by amateur writers are: 1) “Doing this, she did this” or 2) its inverse: “She did this, doing this.”
So much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together.
Each scene of a novel needs tension to hold a reader’s interest. Some ways to introduce tension can include giving the character a goal–and creating a character who actively engages in reaching this goal, as opposed to passively waiting for things to happen to him. Secondly, there must be some opposition regarding the goal. Something must impede the character’s achieving the goal he has set. Another tool in the writer’s belt is dramatic irony. The reader’s experience of knowing more than the characters about which she is reading is a powerful means of creating tension. Finally, be sure to ask yourself if there is enough at stake. What will the consequences be if the character achieves his goal versus if he does not achieve his goal?
The Opening Lines
At least three different experts at the conference exaggerated the importance of starting in the right place, which could be as simple as deleting the first line or first paragraph, or as complicated as rearranging the order in which your chapters appear–as was the case with my novel. Initially, Goodbye For Now opened with Marissa Donnoway working at The Beanery, serving a difficult customer. Several people mentioned that the book started a bit too slowly. In response, I wrote a new scene, one in which two brothers are looking out over Lake Huron. Still too slow. I deleted that scene, and opened the book with the emergency room scene. That didn’t work logistically, and the book currently begins with Scott Wilder’s suicide.
If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another.
Keep in mind that when beta readers, critique partners, critique groups, or other readers offer feedback, you are not obligated to take it–but deciding when and if you should follow someone’s advice can be tricky, and sometimes, so can not getting our feelings hurt. I thought Michael Carr’s comments regarding this issue were an insightful reframing of how to look at criticism. He essentially suggested that when someone responds critically to your work, it simply means he woke up from the fictive dream and didn’t “believe you.” It is not personal. It means you might want to revisit that part of your piece and consider how you can strengthen it. Sometimes, a reader might suggest a specific change to improve a piece–a change you disagree with. It’s important to keep in mind that you do not have to act on specific advice, but you would likely be wise to address the issue in some way, even if it is not the way your critic suggested. Carr also advised, “If the feedback resonates with you, address it. If it doesn’t, don’t.” Specific feedback itself might not be worth following, but reexamining each part about which a reader makes suggestions is worthwhile. In my case, the people who told me my book started too slowly only confirmed what I had suspected all along–so I addressed that issue (many times…).
I also appreciated what Natasha Sass of Busstop Press said about feedback: If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another. More on this, in the context of tropes, below.
On Writing to Market and Finding Your Audience
Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but until attending Friday’s Master Class,
“Writing Smarter, Faster, and to Market: Game-Changing Tips for Indie Authors (and Writers who Want to Up Their Game NOW!”, I was unfamiliar with the term “trope.” Now I know a trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre. The tricky part is that tropes change over time, so reading within your genre and subgenre can be an important way to keep up with what tropes are currently desirable in your area.
What does your audience want? What do they expect?
A trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre.
Two important notions occurred to me as I sat in a session today, the final day of this year’s Annual Conference. The first was that this year was quite possibly my favorite Annual Conference thus far (though they have all been wonderful). The second was that I would likely have never finished my novel, Goodbye For Now, had it not been for the 2014 James River Writers Annual Conference. The idea for my novel was born in 2006, when I was studying abroad in Germany–an ocean away from my then-fiance (now, husband). I began actually writing the novel in 2010 (I think) in a black-and-white Composition book. After a few weeks, I got busy and just stopped writing. I even lost the Composition book. Four years later, at a Master Class that was part of the 2014 Annual Conference, I read aloud the synopsis I composed in the workshop that day. The response I got from the instructor and my fellow attendees was so supportive, I came home and dug through my attic space until I found the Composition book. My desire to write the novel was reinvigorated, but it would likely have remained dormant, safely stored away in my mental attic, had I never attended the conference. Now, two years later, the sixth draft of my novel is complete, and I feel equally excited, motivated, inspired, and encouraged. And I already can’t wait until next year’s conference.
Whenever you tell people you’re writing or have written a novel, they are (usually) instantly impressed. But if you’ve written or are writing a novel, then you know: Writing the novel was the easy part. Writing your query letter and crafting your pitch are infinitely more daunting tasks. The truly impressive achievement would be boiling your novel down to its core, to explain its marketability, significance, and plot in roughly one page–and so effectively that an agent, who has thousands of writers clamoring for his attention, decides he wants to devote it to you and your work. Because I truly do find writing a one-page query letter and delivering a 60- to 90-second pitch much more difficult than writing and revising a 110,000-word novel, I recently attended an Agile Writers of Richmond event called Beyond Agile Writers: The Elevator Pitch with Shanelle Calvin. Below are my takeaways.
Query Letters and Pitches: The Dos
Know your audience. Research the agent(s) you plan to address. Know the genres they prefer to read, know their basic background information. One concept Ms. Calvin reiterated was that if you want agents to invest in you, you have to show you are willing to invest–and have invested–in them. (See “Don’t #1”)
Be authentic. Your tone, whether during a pitch or within a query letter, should be the tone of the novel and the tone of your brand. Make sure this tone is consistent on your social media platforms, as well.
Show, don’t tell. Through social media followings, reviews of your work, author recommendations, the tone of your letter and/or pitch, and strong verbs, prove your book is marketable.
Be clear and specific. If you are sending a query letter via e-mail, make sure that both the e-mail’s subject line and the body of the e-mail clearly communicate that the purpose of your message is to query. Including the word “query” in your subject line is advisable.
Follow the directions. Every agent to whom you send work will have different requirements. Some will request the first ten pages of the manuscript to be e-mailed with the query in an attachment. Others might instruct you to send the first twenty pages of the manuscript in the body of the e-mail, below the query. Make sure you carefully review what each individual agent requires, and follow those directions scrupulously.
Provide a comparison. If you believe your work resembles the works of a well-known author, point out the similarity. For example, you might say something like, “In a novel comparable to the works of Mitch Albom…,” or “In a piece reminiscent of Fried Green Tomatoes…,” or “In the spirit of works such as…” (See Don’t #2)
Be visible and present. On social media that is. You want agents to be able to find you. Whether you use LinkedIn, Facebook, Snapchat, Periscope; whether you maintain a blog or a website or both; it is important that agents can find you, as well as any works you may already have published. If you do maintain a blog or a website, directing an agent to it in your query can be helpful, provided it is relevant to the work you are pitching. (See Don’t #6)
Dress the part. If you have a meeting or an appointment at a conference to pitch your novel, present yourself professionally. While wearing a suit and tie may not be consistent with your brand, and such a formal outfit may not be necessary, it is important to dress in a respectful, appropriate manner that will leave a positive impression. (See Don’t #7)
Compel a response with a call to action. Make sure to end your pitch or query letter with a call to action. If the agent does not request a portion of the manuscript to be sent in with the query, for example, you might close with, “May I send you the first chapter of my manuscript?” If the agent’s query requirements already request a sample from the manuscript, you might close with something like, “I hope you will provide some feedback on my work.” Alternatively, you could close with questions you have for the agent. Anything that begs a response is helpful in maintaining the communication, and in letting an agent know what your ideal next steps would be.
Include credentials. If you are a member of writing clubs or organizations, let agents know. If you have other work published, let agents know. If you have a degree in creative writing or have received a fellowship or other honors, let agents know.
Include the conflict. Make sure the query or pitch clearly communicates your protagonists’ desire, as well as the obstacles to achieving that desire.
Include statistics. Be sure to (accurately!) include the genre, target audience, and word count of your novel.
Query Letters and Pitches: The Don’ts
Send a form letter, or send the exact same letter to multiple agents. Too often, this can result in errors fatal to your novels’ chances at publication. For example, you might remember to change the recipient’s name in the salutation of the letter, but forget that you mentioned names later in the query. Where you refer to the agent by his correct name in your greeting, later you address him as a woman–another agent to whom you sent the same query.
Make outlandish and pompous claims and comparisons. While it may be acceptable to compare your work or your writing style to those of well-known authors (providing you are accurate), it is unwise (if not entirely delusional) to declare something like, “I am the next John Steinbeck” or “My book is a bestseller.”
Be impatient. Most agents will give you a timeline during which you can expect to hear back from them, such as within 6-8 weeks. Let the amount of time they ask for elapse before you follow up.
Be careless. Spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and poor grammar do not bode well for someone claiming to have written a marketable novel.
Be long-winded. The art of both the pitch and the query lies in brevity (which is why I have not yet mastered either). You do not want to give too much away by including every detail, nor do you want to run over your allotted time during an appointment or meeting, or compose too lengthy a query letter. Any of these errors can make you seem unprepared, disorganized, and inconsiderate.
Include links to irrelevant social media. While making an agent aware of your blog or website if it is consistent with your brand or pertinent to the subject matter of your work is helpful, directing them to your personal Facebook profile where you post mainly pictures of your dog is probably not helpful (unless, of course, you are pitching a book about dogs, or veterinary science, or some similar subject).
Wear jeans and a T-shirt to pitch your novel. Even if your brand is casual, you want to avoid coming off as careless, sloppy, or amateur. If you want to remain consistent with a casual brand, think business casual: khakis and a polo with boat shoes, perhaps, for men.
Now, all that said, I am off to find out if I can practice what I preach by attempting to condense my nearly 110,000-word novel into a one-page query letter! I wish you happy writing (which should be easy) and happy querying (if that isn’t an oxymoron).