Podcast Host Jessica Bowser Discusses the Value of Journaling About Outdoor Experiences

Jessica Bowser, host of the Virginia Outdoor Adventures Podcast, began Virginia State Parks Trail Quest in 2015, visiting every state park over the course of five years. In 2019, when then-state parks director Craig Seaver gifted her with a state parks journal while she was visiting Natural Tunnel State Park, she began journaling about the experience. In the interview below, Bowser talks about the great outdoors, writing, and mental health.

INSPIRED BY OTHER PEOPLE’S STORIES

Mind the Dog Writing Blog: You don’t normally journal in your everyday life. What made you decide to journal about your state park visits?

A cozy fireside at Hungry Mother State Park provides the perfect place for Bowser to write about her experience at the park in March 2020.

Jessica Bowser: The inspiration came from the journals in each of the cabins. When you leaf through those journals, you find people have had very different experiences, even though they are all staying in the same place and the same activities are available to everyone; everyone makes it uniquely their own. You read about something funny that happened with a  pet they brought with them, or some people are newlyweds on their honeymoon. Other people are locals who have family traditions of returning to the same park every year.  You read their personal stories. For example, when I was at Hungry Mother State Park, I was reading an entry from a family that comes every year, and the husband/father is a coal miner–so they had to come during a time that worked out for the coal mining schedule. It was the only vacation that they got every year and that was what they did: They went to Hungry Mother. They stayed in the cabin. They went paddling and swimming in the lake and hiking, and then a few days later, they would have to get back so that he could go back to coal mining. I thought that was so unique. I live up in Northern Virginia. There’s no coal mining up here, and it really is representative of part of the state that unfortunately, a lot of people are unfamiliar with. I love to read these stories and hear about other people’s lives and learn about other people. That is what made me think I should also be keeping a record of my own journey, because I do get around so often that there’s a lot to write about and a lot of things I want to remember and be able to look back on. Those journals prompt you to enter a lot of different information, and so when I do go back and read it, I can think about things that were very specific to that trip that I probably would have otherwise forgotten.

THE VALUE OF RE-READING PAST ENTRIES: REMEMBERING THE PAST, PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

MTDWB: How often do you go back and read your journal entries? What effect does doing so have on you?

JB: I don’t read them terribly often, but when I am actually at a cabin and I finish an entry, I sometimes flip back and see what else I had written months or even a year or more before. The whole purpose of the journal is to keep a record of what I’ve done so that I can remember my experience. If I don’t go back and read it, then I’m not fulfilling that goal. The benefit that it has, is it brings up a lot of fond memories, but then it also makes me think, ‘Oh, I really want to get back here and do this other thing’ or ‘There’s another park I want to visit that I haven’t been to in a while where I can also have this same experience.’ For example, if I really enjoyed kayaking at Belle Isle, it makes me think, ‘What parks have I not kayaked at?’– because I didn’t have my kayak until last year, so where else do I want to get back to? Well, Smith Mountain Lake is one place that I would love to kayak. I’ll be there this June and I’ll get to have that experience. When I read my journal, I can think about what else I’d like to do in the future, but also be reminded of interesting and fun and meaningful things that have happened in the past.

When I read my journal, I can think about what else I’d like to do in the future, but also be reminded of interesting and fun and meaningful things that have happened in the past.

ON ADAPTING THE JOURNALS TO A PUBLISHED PIECE

MTDWB: Would you ever consider publishing your journal(s) in some form? Why or why not?

JB: I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you say it out loud, it sounds like a future book! It’s interesting you say that, because part of the reason I started the podcast is because there’s a real lack of diversity and also a lack of representation of pretty much all groups except white men, but women specifically. It’s lacking in the outdoor industry and it’s lacking in podcasting, so a podcast by a woman about the outdoors is sort of filling the gap in two different spaces. The larger group that is interested in the podcast are women my age, which isn’t surprising. I think it really appeals to them because they don’t usually hear about somebody like themselves doing this.      

REFLECTING ON EXPERIENCES

MTDWB: How did you feel about journaling during your visits?

JB: Even on the nights when I was really exhausted and I’d think, ‘Oh, gosh. I haven’t done this yet and I really need to,’ I never dreaded it. If it was a chore, I probably wouldn’t do it–I do enjoy doing it. I do like thinking about all the things I might have otherwise missed. I’d really think about what I did on Day One, what I did on Day Two. I’d ask myself how did that make me feel, what did I enjoy about it, what would I like to do differently, what would I like to do when I come back. It was reflective. You do have to really think about everything you did and why you did it and could it be different and was it worth it and all of the things. As an educator, I come at it from having that practice of being reflective and journaling. I appreciate being able to think about what the purpose and the meaning is while I’m writing.

ON JOURNALING AND MINDFULNESS

MTDWB: How did you feel after each entry?

JB: Tired! I only say that because I always journal at night and after a long day, I just want to crawl into bed. I felt fulfilled because I took the time to think about my experience. Oftentimes, we go through the motions and while we might be enjoying it in the moment, once it’s over, sometime we don’t think about it anymore because we’re on to the next thing. Even sometimes while were doing something, we’re not always present. I think that is something people are starting to become more aware of, and they are trying to be more in the moment. That’s something that I personally am working on and I think that journaling is helping me do that more because I have to pay attention to what I’m doing and not let my brain wander. Especially now, as a podcast host, that has crept into my personal life. I have to figure out where the boundaries are for that, because I can no longer just go out for a hike and enjoy the hike. The whole time I’m out there, I’m thinking, ‘what content am I going to come back with and what kind of photos and what kind of video and how do I present this to people?’ As a former educator, I’m also thinking, ‘What questions would people have about this?’ It really takes away from a lot of my experience, so the journaling helps me to be more present in the moment and to enjoy it more because I know I am going to be reflecting on it later.

Bowser journals by the fireside in a cabin at James River State Park in November 2020.

Journaling helps me to be more present.

JOURNALING: GROWTH THROUGH REMEMBERING

MTDWB: Did anything surprise you about your journaling experience?

JB: I think the thing that surprised me was how quickly I forgot about past experiences. You think, ‘Oh, I’m going to remember this,’ and then you don’t. I appreciated, especially as time went on and the entries started to build, that I put those things in writing so that I could remember them—because I really was surprised at how much I forgot. It was a nice reminder of going back to being present in the moment so that I do remember more of the experience. I also like  remembering my feelings at the time, especially with new experiences–if I am doing something for the first time or doing something that I am nervous about or that pushes my boundaries. People often say to me, ‘You’re so fearless; you’re always out there doing these crazy things and you just have no fear,’ and that is absolutely the farthest thing from the truth. I want to do this thing and I’m scared out of my mind and I am going to push myself because I know I shouldn’t be afraid or I’m never going to reach that goal if I don’t step outside of my comfort zone. I see it as a growing or learning opportunity. Journaling helps me with thinking about those moments when I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, and remembering what that was like. It makes me ask myself why I was so afraid of that and what I could have done differently so I wouldn’t have been so nervous–or I realize I can’t believe that scared me because after I did it, it was like, ‘Oh, I could totally do this again,’ and now maybe I have done it three more times and it’s no big deal anymore, but in that initial, first time, it was something really scary. I like to look back, especially on those moments, because I can see the growth and I can see how it’s impacted me and I can see the change and the value in it and it encourages me to continue doing those things. 

Journaling helps me with thinking about those moments when I pushed myself. I like to look back on those moments, because I can see the growth and I can see how it’s impacted me. It encourages me to continue doing those things.

WEAPON OF CHOICE: PEN OR PENCIL?

MTDWB: Did you use pen or pencil when you journaled?

JB: I have a gel pen, and I keep it tucked in the spirals of the journal. I have so many gel pens, it’s ridiculous.

STORYTELLING: WRITING TO CONNECT

Bowser records an episode of her podcast in her closet–a common practice among podcasters. Always looking for ways to connect to her audience, she has found that telling stories of her outdoor experiences has been the most successful.

MTDWB: Did journaling carry over into any other aspects of your life?

JB: I think when you’re a content creator like I am, you have to find ways to connect with your audience. I look for ways to connect with people. It’s all relational. The best way to connect with people is to tell your story, and to tell it in a way that people can envision themselves in your place. In my case, I want people to be encouraged to do those things, whether it’s an outdoor activity or visiting a place or trying something new. For me, journaling is just another form of storytelling, and also at the same time encouraging people to get out and create their own adventure.

The best way to connect with people is to tell your story. Journaling is just another form of storytelling.

ON HER JOURNAL

MTDWB: Was there a specific brand or type of journal you used or preferred? Why?

Bowser displays the state parks journal where she records her various experiences, excursions, and adventures at state parks across Virginia.

JB: I use the same journal that you find in all the state park cabins. It’s the same standard journal in all the cabins. I was visiting Natural Tunnel State Park in October 2019, and it was my first time at that park. I picked up the cabin journal that particular day and I realized that there was an introductory welcome message from Craig Seaver, who was the director of Virginia State Parks when the journal was published. I had met Craig recently and I really connected with his message in the journal because I had just met him at the Virginia Association for Parks conference and really liked him. I wanted to let him know that I had read his message, so I reached out to him on social media, and it turns out that Natural Tunnel was the park where Craig was the park manager before he became director of the whole system, so he had a personal connection with Natural Tunnel. I told him I would really like to have one of these journals, and asked where I could get one. He had a ranger show up at my cabin and deliver me my own journal. I was delighted. I was so excited to start using it. It made me feel so special. The journal itself has meaning to me, because the person who gave it to me is someone I admire. Every time I pull it out, it’s a reminder of Craig. It’s also a reminder of my advocacy with VAFP. It’s also a reminder to take a few minutes out of my experience and document what my experience has been like.

JOURNAL ROUTINE

MTDWB: Was there a particular way you formatted your entries?

JB: The journal asks what dates you were there, what the weather was like, what activities you did, what wildlife you sighted, who you met, who was with you. That’s the front page, and then the back page is blank lined paper for notes

MTDWB: How often and when did you journal?

JB: I always do it at the end of my visit, because I want to make sure that the entry captures my whole visit. Sometimes I will start it during the visit, especially for wildlife sightings, so I don’t forget anything. I will start to fill it out, but I don’t usually do the blank back page until the last night.

JOURNALING, NATURE, AND MENTAL HEALTH

MTDWB: May is Mental Health Month. Can you speak a little bit to the role the outdoors has on mental health? Can you speak a little bit about the role journaling has on mental health?

JB: There has been research out on the benefit of the outdoors on mental health for a long, long time, but I don’t think it has gotten as much attention as it has gotten within the last year. Given the circumstances with the pandemic, you hear over and over that people are getting outside in ways that they never have before. All of a sudden, you couldn’t buy a fire pit or a kayak or a bike. Still, every supply chain is dried up. That is all evidence of the fact that people are now realizing the value of the outdoors. I hope that this isn’t short-term, a time people got outside because they had nothing else to do or they didn’t have other places to go where they could be safe. I hope that this experience will lead to people connecting to the outdoors long-term. Especially from a conservation standpoint, we want people connecting to the outdoors in a meaningful way so they will appreciate it and want to conserve it. Certainly being outdoors has a huge impact on our mental health and it’s something I have done for years and years. I am really excited other people are coming around to have that experience as well.

In terms of journaling and mental health, it has been helpful for me to be more present in the moment. I have also talked to other people who have been journaling about the outdoors.  A potential future guest on the podcast is writing a memoir about losing her brother, and she says the reason she started journaling was because when her brother passed away, someone bought her a journal and encouraged her to write letters to her brother. She started doing that, and it became the basis for her memoir. I can see where journaling would have an impact.

When you combine journaling and the outdoors, you have both of those elements working for you at same time. You have the experience of the outdoors, and the journal to help you reflect on it, and be more present. It is a double whammy. The journal reinforces the impact that the outdoors has on mental health and wellness. It is two sides of the same coin.

When you combine journaling and the outdoors, you have the experience of the outdoors, and the journal to help you reflect on it. The journal reinforces the impact that the outdoors has on mental health and wellness.

Author Bio

Jessica Bowser is the creator and host of Virginia Outdoor Adventures Podcast, which showcases the diversity and beauty of our state by Virginians who have a strong connection with the outdoors. Through conversations with guests, Jessica has created a guide to outdoor recreation and provides recommendations to assist listeners with planning their own adventures close to home. Jessica enjoys capturing her adventures in photographs while she is hiking, cycling, climbing, kayaking, birding, and camping throughout Virginia. Virginia Outdoor Adventures Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and anywhere you listen to podcasts. For outdoor travel ideas and recommendations, or to follow Jessica’s adventures, visit www.VirginiaOutdoorAdventures.com, or follow the show on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

Guest Post: Key Steps in Advertising Your Book Digitally

So you finished your book. But nobody seems to be reading it. It’s not that your book isn’t good enough; it’s that your book isn’t visible enough. You have the writing skills, but may not have the marketing know-how. It’s okay, though. These days, online promotion can help get your book in front of readers. It can be a lot more convenient and more cost-effective than traditional advertising. If you’re not familiar with the modern, digital method of promoting a book, you can carry out the key steps detailed below to increase your book’s visibility (and sales!).

Keyword Research

Keywords are vital in any online marketing campaign. If you’re not using the right words to talk about your book, you won’t get it in front of the right eyes. This can be useful if you run any advertising for your book on Google, Amazon, on Facebook. Knowing what keywords to use can even be useful for any blog posts or press you do. If you use the right keywords, you might rank on Google for the word and generate extra sales.

Start by making a list of all the words you can think of that someone else might use when looking for your book. These should be terms that generally describe your work. Leave out the very specific search terms you’re wishing for. Aside from the list of potential keywords, you should also take note of the search volume, competition level, and ad costs for every word.

A great place to go fishing for keywords is keywordtool.io. Another method is to ask your friends and acquaintances who read in the genre you write what keywords they would use to search for a book like yours. 

Keep the list of keywords you’ve created handy. Any time you’re doing any marketing, especially marketing related to search or search ads, utilize the keywords. For example, if you found the phrase “young adult story with wizards” is a keyword that is popularly searched, but not competitive, you could test Google Ads on that keyword. You might mention the phrase in your interviews. Some of those press quotes just might rank on Google! You might write a blog post about why your book is such a great young adult story with wizards, and target the keyword for SEO.

Social Media and Email

Post about your book on your social media accounts to help make sure your contacts know about your work. Send emails to every address on your list, as well. You never know who among them might be interested in buying, reviewing, or recommending your book.

Composing and sending an email newsletter is also an effective way to market. The challenge with books is that once somebody puts down your book, you have no way to reach them again. With a newsletter, you have their email address. This means you can build your relationship with your readers and can market to them in the future, every time you have a new book released, or information you want to share.

Try offering a free chapter or a teaser story for newsletter subscribers to incentivize people to subscribe and update them on your journey regularly.

Your Blog

Writing several blog posts about your book will not cost you anything except your time. Aside from your book, you can also tell stories about how you deal with writer’s block and other challenges

If you’re not keen on doing those things, or if you don’t have the time, you can pay someone else to do that for you. For a few hundred dollars, you can hire ghostwriters through sites like Upwork and Fiverr

Guest Posts on Someone Else’s Blog

Guest-posting is another way of promoting your book and yourself as a writer. Thankfully, there are many online publishers and blogs with a subscriber base that accept guest post submissions. 

You can write a post and pitch it to the said publishers and blogs. Another option is to go over your own blog, look for your most popular content, and then see if it can fit niche websites. If your submission is accepted, you can fill your author bio with a link to your website and your book’s sales page. 

Book Reviews

Nowadays, readers value book reviews more than an author’s star rating. These reviews may come from bloggers, Goodreads group members, and anyone who reads, for that matter.

You can first ask your family and friends to provide feedback about your book. You can also get paid reviewers to help create hype for your work. If you have an email list and several social media pages, you can announce giveaways in exchange for reviews. Be a little careful with this as some sites like Amazon prohibit “incentivized” reviews.

Giveaways and Discounts

Never discount the power of promoting free and inexpensive products. For many readers, it’s exciting to bump into books offered for free. You can set up your giveaway on Goodreads, on your social media pages, and on writing sites that allow such.

You can also offer discounts. Use a coupon site like RetailMeNot. Then, encourage your prospects to tap those coupons to purchase your book on your website. 

Helping Other Writers

Be active in online communities for writers and readers, especially those pertinent to the same genre as your book. Wattpad and Commaful are some options to explore. 

Then, buy your fellow writers’ books. Give positive comments about their works. Connect and communicate with them through social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr

Basically, show them that you care. Sooner or later, they may also return the gestures.

Tracking Your Successes and Failures

The best way to learn how to market a book online is to get out there and do it. Map out different promotion tactics. These could include working with bloggers, utilizing social media, setting up a landing page, or putting together a website that promotes your book.

Sure, there are some things you can only do when you have a larger budget. However, you can start small to get a feel for how running a campaign goes. Eventually, you can increase your budget as you get better and better at advertising and marketing. 

Evaluate how your efforts went. Was there anything you wish you had done differently? Was there anything that worked particularly well? Spend some time analyzing the results of each strategy to determine what worked best for you.

Personally, I like to track my results in a spreadsheet. I make notes on every campaign or idea I try. I note the difficulty and ease of the campaign. I also note any costs associated with it. As numbers come through, I update a “sales” column to track how well the campaign is doing. Sometimes it’s impossible to attribute exactly where a sale comes from, so I use my best guess and round as needed. Pause campaigns that are not working, and invest more effort in ones that are.

Marketing is hard. There is no way around it, but there are many opportunities. It’s a critically important part of the process of being an author. With a little luck, creativity, and hard work, we’ll see you on the bestsellers list!

Author Bio

Hayley Zelda is a writer and marketer at heart. She’s worked with a number of self-published authors on marketing books to the YA audience, and has written on Wattpad, Commaful, Archive of Our Own, and Fanfiction.net.

First Semester: Preconception and Reflection

“Does anyone know what this word means?” I ask, as I scrawl “preconception” across the Promethean Board at the front of my classroom, reflecting on how much better my digital handwriting has gotten over the course of the last year. I am not sure how this lesson will go. It is 8:15 on a Monday morning. I made the last-minute decision to revamp my lesson plans last night as I fell asleep, when, from the safety of my comfortable, warm bed, the idea of trying something brand new first thing on a Monday morning seemed less foolhardy.

Now, standing in front of 11 masked teenagers staring blankly back at me, I question last night’s half-awake judgment. It seemed like such a good idea just nine hours ago.

“Well,” I say, “let’s break it down a little then.” I underline one part of the word: concept. “What’s a concept? Anybody know?”

“Like, an idea?” someone offers.

“A thought,” someone else says.

“Yes!” I say, drawing an arrow from my underlined “concept” down to where I add the words “idea” and “thought.” “And what does the prefix ‘pre’ mean?”

“Before,” a student says.

“Right! So, see? You did know what ‘preconception’ means.” I draw an arrow reaching from “pre” down to where I write “before” beside “thought” and “idea.” “A preconception is an idea or a thought you have about something before you have actually done it or experienced it. It’s like an expectation. So, let’s think back to the beginning of the semester–the night before the first day of school. What were some of your preconceptions?”

I write the students’ ideas on the Promethean Board: It’s going to be boring; I’m going to be tired; I don’t want to get up early for school; I’m excited to see my friends; it’s going to be hard; I’m going to have too much homework.

Once we have a substantial list, I point out to them that most of their preconceptions (all but one) about the current semester were negative. I think back to my own preconceptions going into this school year in particular–the pandemic forcing all kinds of unfamiliar precautions, processes, and protocols upon us. I had been terrified. My stress levels were through the roof. I wished desperately that I had reached retirement age. I fully expected this year to be at least as stressful as my first year teaching, when I regularly found myself contemplating driving my car into a tree or guardrail instead of to school. I didn’t have a death wish. I wasn’t suicidal. (I was, however, miserable.) It was just that back then, going to the hospital simply sounded more appealing than going to work.

I fully expected this year to be at least as stressful as my first year teaching, when I regularly found myself contemplating driving my car into a tree or guardrail instead of to school.

“Now,” I say, “next week we start second semester. What are your preconceptions when you think about your new classes, your new teachers, your new schedule?”

Again, most of them are negative–it’s going to be stressful, their classes are going to be more difficult, their teachers might be mean. I ask them how they are feeling now that we are looking ahead to next week.

Stressed.

Worried.

Overwhelmed.

Curious.

Excited.

I can relate. I feel all those emotions, too. Will I click with my new students the way I have clicked with my current group? Will my new bunch of students be as motivated, fun, thoughtful, well-behaved, and enjoyable as the ones looking back at me now have been? Will I remember all the little things I need to do to open a new semester, essentially preparing for a brand new school year? Will my virtual classes go okay? How am I going to juggle my virtual honors class with my hybrid honors class, a mix of both virtual and in-person students? The uncertainty is unsettling.

“Now, think about this current semester. Raise your hand if this semester was as stressful, boring, annoying, or bad as your preconceptions said it would be.”

No hands go up.

“Raise your hand if the semester went better than you expected.”

Most of the students raise their hands. I raise my hand, too. I have, for the most part, genuinely enjoyed this semester–the content, the students, the schedule, the flexibility, the increased concern for my and my colleagues’ well-being. Sure, there have been moments I wanted to cry (and moments I did). There have been moments I questioned if I could really get everything done well–or at all. Moments I had to ask for help. But, despite the pandemic and the challenges, I have to admit–this semester has been more fulfilling and rewarding and successful–and somehow, less burdensome–than any of my pessimistic preconceptions imagined. None of my fears came to fruition. Not. One.

“You see,” I say, remembering what Alexandria Peary said during the mindful writing webinar I attended over the weekend. “That’s what preconceptions usually do: burden the moment. Right now, in this moment, you could be having a perfectly pleasant time in English class, but now you’re dreading next semester’s algebra class instead. You’re not present in this moment; you’re worrying about next week. Now–what are your preconceptions when I tell you: We are going to write a poem?”

Groans arise around the classroom. We have learned nothing–so we make a list of our preconceptions about writing a poem:

No no no no

This is going to be annoying

I am not good at this

My poem is going to suck

I’m excited

I like poetry

I don’t like poetry

Ugh

Poetry is shady (meaning, I think, it’s too ambiguous and includes too many hidden meanings).

Then, we proceed to write a poem, using a step-by-step process I stole from the weekend’s Nation Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) webinar.

“Imagine,” I tell my students, “you are in a room. Describe the room.” I give them about a minute to write before saying, “There is an object in the center of the room. What is it? Describe it.” I give them another minute. “The object has a shadow, but it’s not of the object. What is the shadow of?” A minute to write. “In the shadow sits an object from your childhood. What is it?” A minute. “The room has one window. What do you see out the window? What is your view?” A minute. “Imagine that in your view, you can see a person you would give anything to be able to see again. Who is it, and what are they doing?”

“I take it back,” a boy suddenly says. “I take back my preconceptions; this is fun.”

The girl behind him echoes his sentiments. “Yeah–I like this.”

I smile. “You get to talk to this person. What do you say?” I give them a minute to write. “Now, you can sense a change in the room. How can you tell something is about to change? Describe how you know, but don’t finish your thought; don’t include what the change will be.”

The room is full of sunshine
or candlelight, whether day or night--
rainbows dance across the wall.
There is a golden birdcage, big enough for me,
in the center.
Its shadow, long across the floor and creeping
up the wall--solid--not barred--
shades a rocking horse.

Buildings outside are brick or sided--
rooftops capping cozy homes.
Jack sits in a window across 
town,
wagging his tail, looking at me expectantly.

Are you happy? I say. Are you safe? Do you know that we still 
love you?

The room is sleepy and warm and lonely and quiet.

The door begins to open and--

I give them a minute or two to wrap up their writing before asking if anyone wants to share. I am pleasantly surprised to find about half the class willing to share their poems, albeit anonymously. I read them aloud, pointing out all the little things that impress me in each of their poems. At the end of class, the boy who predicted his poem “was going to suck” admits he “kind of liked it.” Then he clarifies, “Well, I still thought it sucked when I read it to myself–but I liked it a lot when I heard you read it.”

“That’s interesting,” I say. “Do you think maybe that’s because you still had the preconception that it was bad, but when I read it, I expected it to be good–and read it like it was good?”

He thinks for a second. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Do you think it’s good now?”

He smiles a little. “Yeah.”

“So do I.”

I watch them all file out through my classroom door. I feel a little sad as I realize they’ll walk in and out of that doorway only once more this year before disappearing into a new schedule, different classrooms, different classes, leaving me to build rapport with a brand new, unfamiliar bunch of students with their own preconceptions about English, school, themselves, and me. I remember how worried I was at the beginning of this semester–how skeptical and scared. I reflect on how well it all turned out, and I hush my preconceptions–Stop burdening my moment–allowing myself to savor this small success: Students wrote poetry–and liked it.

My classroom has cleared and the first few students of my next block have entered. One of my students reads the daily agenda on the board.

“Poetry?!” she groans. “Ugh!”

I smile to myself. Buckle up. Here we go again. And everything is going to be just fine.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

A Piece of Cake: Foreshadowing in my Own, Real Life

Today is my birthday. In the world as we know it, birthdays and cake are synonymous. In the world of An Expected End, my novel manuscript, deathdays and cake are also synonymous. In fact, cake features pretty prominently throughout the story. Marshall learns his deathday at Shyndigz, a real bakery in Richmond, Virginia. And although he is eating their signature oatmeal cream pies, as opposed to cake, while he dials into the Hotline to get his official Date of Departure (DoD), Shyndigz is also known for one of my favorite menu items, their salted chocolate caramel cake.

Cake also features in the story when Marshall’s colleagues, much to his chagrin, surprise him with an office deathday party, complete with deathday cake.

Marshall is eating the last piece of his birthday cake when he realizes how knowing his deathday has changed his perspective on life and the way he lives it: Life is like a piece of cake; he savors each bite, but knows each bite moves him closer to the last bite, and ultimately, to no more cake.

Perhaps one of the most important roles cake plays in the manuscript is that of being the reason Marshall meets Penelope. He goes to her bakery, The Cakery, a fictional bakery in Richmond, to pick up a deathday cake for a colleague’s office deathday party. Later, on his thirtieth birthday, he revisits The Cakery to purchase himself a birthday cake, which is really just an excuse to see Penelope again. He is eating the last piece of that birthday cake when he realizes how knowing his deathday has changed his perspective on life and the way he lives it: Life is like a piece of cake; he savors each bite, but knows each bite moves him closer to the last bite, and ultimately, to no more cake.

In its final role in the manuscript, cake features again when (**spoiler alert**), after Penelope has died, Marshall bakes a birthday cake from one of her recipes for their daughter, Evergreen’s, birthday.

Recently, cake has also featured prominently in my own, actual life.

Sunday, my husband came home from mountain biking in Richmond with our nephew. “I stopped at Shyndigz on my way home,” he told me.

“What did you get?” I asked.

“Oatmeal cream pies.”

“What else did you get?” I asked, taking for granted that he also brought back a piece of salted chocolate caramel cake for me.

“Nothing.”

Surely, he was pulling my leg.

“No, seriously. What else?”

“No, seriously. Nothing.”

I waited for him to break down, and admit, cackling, that a piece of cake waited for me on the kitchen counter. When he didn’t, “What?” I said.

“I didn’t get anything else.”

On New Year’s Eve, the fifth day after The Day I Did Not Get Cake, the doorbell rang just as it was getting dark outside. When I answered it, my husband was standing on the front porch, holding out a plastic container in which rested the perfect piece of Shyndigz salted chocolate caramel cake.

“You didn’t get me any chocolate cake?” I was incredulous, still sure he must be kidding, dragging the joke out as long as he could.

“No. Really. I’m not lying to you. I was in a hurry and I just didn’t think to get any cake.”

“Are you serious? You went to Shyndigz and didn’t get me any cake?”

He laughed at the utter shock that must’ve been on my face. “Sorry?” He was still laughing.

For the course of the the week, I lost no opportunity to remind him of the fact that he had gone to one of my favorite bakeries where they make one of my favorite cakes, and neglected to bring a piece home to me. I must’ve found a way to work his negligence into every single day at least twice.

On New Year’s Eve, the fifth day after The Day I Did Not Get Cake, the doorbell rang just as it was getting dark outside. When I answered it, my husband was standing on the front porch, holding out a plastic container in which rested the perfect piece of Shyndigz salted chocolate caramel cake, complete with a to-go cup of extra salted caramel spread. During his lunch break, he had driven downtown to get me my long-awaited piece of cake. He has been forgiven.

I let him in and set the cake down on the counter, every intention of savoring it after the Chinese takeout we’d ordered for dinner with a couple friends. As we finished our lo mein and rice and pot stickers and egg drop soup, I eyed the piece of cake on the counter. But before I could eat that: New Year’s Eve fortune cookies. We each cracked open our fortune cookie and shared the fortune within with the rest of the table. Mine? “A piece of cake is awaiting for you.” Forgiving the misuse of “awaiting,” never has there been a truer fortune. Just a moment later, I was sinking my fork into the moist chocolate cake, savoring the thick chocolate icing and salty caramel goodness of the slice.

Today, being my birthday, is also likely to involve cake in some capacity, at some point.

And I’m hoping my New Year’s Eve fortune holds a longer-range, figurative meaning in addition to its immediate, literal one. I’m hoping it’s prophetic, foreshadowing that my manuscript, rife with pieces of cake, will achieve publication this year–will become a real book, one I can hold in my hands, flipping through its pages, savoring its existence the way I do a piece of chocolate cake.

Never has there been a truer fortune than the one I got on New Year’s Eve. (Sidenote: The above is only a third of the actual slice of cake, which will likely last me three to four sittings.)

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

Thank You, 2020: My Writing Year in Review

I know, I know. Everyone is waving an enthusiastic sayonara to 2020 and never looking back, the expectations high for 2021. I don’t know whether to wish the new year good luck meeting everyone’s extreme expectations for improvement, or congratulate it on the fact that it won’t have to work very hard to seem better than its predecessor. Either way, as I sit here on December 31 reflecting on my year in writing, it was a pretty good one. (And yes, 2021, my writing and I have high expectations for you, too.)

January

The first week of the year, I entered three different writing contests. I didn’t win any of them, but putting my work out there is a huge accomplishment in and of itself (and one of the photos I entered in one of the writing/photography contests did earn second place).

Before the month was over, I taught two, single-session writing classes for the dog handlers of Canine Adventure, Richmond. This experience was a lot of fun because it combined two of my favorites: writing and dogs. In addition, I got to meet some fellow dog-loving writers, and give them some resources to further their own writing endeavors.

I also wrote two pieces for The Village News and one for the AKC.

I pose with some of my “students,” dog handlers for Canine Adventure, after a writing class in January 2020.

February

In February, I wrote a piece for Everyday Dog Magazine, which ran March 1. I also wrote another piece for The Village News, in addition to submitting work to two small presses.

March

Things got a little crazy in March, as we are all aware, but I did compose a blog post to help parents navigate the whole, then-brand new school-at-home thing. I also wrote an article for The Village News about a local, self-published author, especially fun because I love when I can use my own writing to support other writers in theirs.

April

In April I managed to write 30 poems in 30 days as part of the Poetry Society of Virginia National Poetry Month Challenge. I also attended two virtual Master Classes on self-publishing, both organized by James River Writers. One was taught by Tee Garner, the other by Ran Walker.

This month, I also wrote my first Covid-related article, a piece about a local emergency nurse deployed to what was then ground-zero of the virus: New York City.

May

May was particularly exciting, as I learned a piece I wrote about Jack and Sadie was selected to appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Dogs. The story, an unabridged version of which appears on this blog, is one extremely close to my heart.

I wrote my second and third Covid-related pieces, both of which focused on local businesses. The first was an article about a how a local barbecue restaurant was serving the community and surviving the pandemic. The second focused on how a local hair salon planned to reopen under the Governor’s Phase I Guidelines in Virginia.

Near the end of the month, I learned my essay “My Return to Mountain Biking” earned first place in the Bike Walk RVA essay contest.

Finally, for the first time ever, I opened the blog up to guest posts, and enjoyed reading submissions from writers about their beloved dogs.

June

In June, I participated in a virtual event honoring the winners of the Bike Walk RVA essay contest, and collaborated with QueryLetter.com on a blog post about query letters.

July

I again found myself working with the folks at QueryLetter.com to share a blog post, this time about book blurbs.

This was also the month The Magic of Dogs was released (on the same day as our wedding anniversary), and the month I received my copies of the book.

Soda (left) and Nacho (right) with a few copies of the book

August

In August, things were kind of quiet in my writing world, but I did compose a blog post for teachers about back-to-school amid the pandemic. I was also hired as the Outdoor Writer for Cooperative Living Magazine, a role I am still extremely excited about.

September

In September, I partnered up with Cool Canines to host a virtual book signing, reading, and fundraiser for the Richmond SPCA. Dog treats and signed copies of The Magic of Dogs raised $178 for the shelter.

I also read and reviewed Mary Oliver’s collection of poems, Dog Songs.

October

After an editor at a small press provided me with very thorough and valuable feedback on my manuscript for An Expected End, I began earnestly to revise. I also wrote a blog post and a few poems, as well as an essay entitled “Pandemic Picture Day,” which was published on the United States Department of Education blog.

Before the month’s end, I finally figured out how to share “Sadie’s Song” online. The song is a collaboration between my uncle and me. It began as a poem I wrote back in April, which he then set to original music.

November

In November, I interviewed a Covid-19 survivor and told his harrowing survival story in an article in The Village News. I also continued working on revisions of An Expected End.

December

As the year winds down, I have heard from the small press I have been in contact with that my piece isn’t for them, but I am still grateful for the communication with them, and for the guidance they provided me, as well as for the resulting revisions, which I believe make my manuscript that much stronger.

Following that news, I entered my manuscript in the Inkshares All-Genre Manuscript Contest. Please feel free to support my endeavor there! 😉

I also embarked on my first adventure for Cooperative Living Magazine, a weekend at Twin Lakes State Park, and I eagerly await the publication of the piece next month (next year!).

I learned about another small press, TCK Publishing, when they reached out to me about writing a book review for them. I read the book, wrote the review, and submitted my own manuscript for consideration.

Currently, I am also holding my first-ever giveaway on Instagram–signed copies of Chicken Soup for the the Soul: The Magic of Dogs and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive, Live Happy. The winner will be announced on Instagram tomorrow (next year!).

This year held both disappointments and rewards for my writing life. The rewards were validating and exhilarating; the disappointments yielded progress and growth. Here’s to a successful 2021!

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

Book Review: Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing, Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know

The operative word in Peter Yang’s book The Art of Writing: Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know is “everyone.” As he writes in his introduction, “Everyone can be a writer, if they so choose” (XII). Indeed, the book expresses the idea that, regardless of profession or position, we all need to write, and write well, and is a book for everyone. The seasoned writer might gain insights from the way Yang breaks down and analyzes the practice of writing, but the book would likely prove more useful to those desiring to improve their writing for the workplace, pleasure, or posterity, as well as to beginning writers. With the exception of the fact that an experienced writer or writing instructor is likely to understand concepts in the book that Yang merely glosses over as opposed to deeply explaining, a feature of the book that might prove a disadvantage to its intended audience, it would serve as a helpful handbook to the aspiring writer, regardless of field.

Yang sees “writing as a fundamental life skill” (X), a very valid position, though I would also add “process”–writing is a process and a fundamental life skill. Given the way Yang’s book progresses, it seems he would agree with that addition. He examines what he believes are the four fundamental principles for effective writing: economy, transparency, variety, and harmony. A writer, he posits, who masters these four areas can, as a result, write artistically, making writing “a joyous activity” that leads to “personal fulfillment” (XIII). This type of writing does not endeavor to impress, Yang explains, but to communicate.

He goes on to list five distinguishing attributes of artistic writers: meticulousness, awareness of audience, sincerity, realistic expectations, and flexibility with the four aforementioned principles. While his list of attributes is certainly valid, and he provides short explanations of what these attributes are, the list lacks examples of artistic writers to illustrate how they employ these traits.

A lack of examples and in-depth explanations does plague the book, making it perhaps more useful as a supplemental text in a writing course than a thorough examination of the written word and how to best communicate through it. If employed as a supplemental text with a competent writing instructor to provide examples, explanations, and exercises to accompany the book itself, it would prove incredibly useful.

Economy

The first principle Yang examines is economy. According to Yang, “The composition of your writing should imitate the anatomy of a flower–every part should be necessary and contribute to the whole” (3). This is sound advice. Yang goes on to provide a short explanation of how to simplify a sentence, an explanation that makes sense to a seasoned writer, but might be lost on a beginner.

Following the paragraph, Yang provides several examples to illustrate his thoughts, but the examples, while accurate, lack explanations that might be helpful to a novice writer. The first several sections of the chapter on economy are rife with examples, but lack clear explanations of what they illustrate. In addition, exercises with a key would prove practical and useful–another reason this book would work well as a text in a classroom with an instructor to facilitate practice.

Transparency

According to Yang, “A writer’s work can hew to the other three principles but fail to be artistic if it does not conform to the principle of transparency” (23). Transparency he defines essentially as clarity. “Transparent writing is writing that is lucid and explicit. It leaves no room for doubt and assures the intelligibility of your ideas” (23). Given the assertion that writing cannot be artistic if not transparent, even if it complies with the other three principles, I did wonder why transparency appears second in the book, as opposed to first or last.

Despite their questionable placement in the book, Yang’s ideas regarding transparency are spot-on. Particularly relevant areas include the use of figurative language (which Yang himself employs very well throughout the book), the use of shifts in tense, and the avoidance of flowery language.

One thing this chapter does better than the others is provide explanations of the examples included.

In a nutshell…

Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing is likely to prove interesting to a veteran writer, who would appreciate his breakdown of writing into four fundamental principles. It is an ideal text for the student of writing, provided the student has an instructor to elaborate on the concepts Yang touches on. The book is a good introduction to writing, and with the right elaboration, would prove an excellent text for anyone looking to hone their writing skills.

Variety

Yang’s chapter on variety is accurate, but ironically enough, the three section titles are:

Vary Your Sentence Structure

Vary Your Paragraph Structure

and

Vary Your Word Choice.

While all the above advice is sound, I found the lack of variety in the headings amusing, though not inapproriate (here I violate Yang’s advice to “Write in the Positive,” as explained on page 12). The headings are indeed transparent, and the explanations that follow are legitimate.

Harmony

The fourth and final principle Yang examines is harmony. The explanations in this chapter are clear, concise, and understandable, but do lack concrete examples to illustrate the ideas. While a lack of examples is not likely to matter to a veteran writer, it could matter to a new writer.

Coda

After explaining the four basic principles, Yang includes a final chapter that expresses his “Meditations on Writing.” In this chapter Yang writes, “Writing is not for the impatient. Mastery of writing is a lifelong endeavor” (75). Yang could not be more correct. In my experience, Yang is also correct about the value of taking breaks from one’s writing to increase motivation, as well as about the value of taking risks in one’s writing.

Overall, Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing: Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know expertly distills writing down into four basic principles. It is an incredibly accessible and digestible read, but perhaps too broad and generalizing. That said, it is a book for the general population, so perhaps that is all fitting.

While veteran writers would be most likely to understand and agree with the concepts expressed in this book, they do not necessarily need this book. Instead, the book would be most enlightening to novice writers or people who do not necessarily consider themselves writers, but do write, whether in their professional or personal lives; however, they would be perhaps the least likely to fully grasp the concepts as they are explained in this book–somewhat skeletally. For that reason, this book is best suited for a fairly experienced writer interested in analyzing the written word, or as a guiding or supplemental text in a writing course wherein an instructor could provide further examples, deeper explanations, and practical exercises.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

I Write Best When I’m Asleep

I write best when I’m asleep.

Well, not really–but sort of.

There is something particularly fertile about the thoughts that float between the waking life and the sleeping, that swim in the twilight of consciousness. I have known for years now that I am most creative and most open when my self is out of the way, in a state where only mind and imagination exist, independent of any self, any ego, any personal effort. Even when I feel fully awake and aware, when I have found what is known as “flow,” it seems I am merely a conduit for my creation, not its personal author.

In this way, praying and writing are not unlike. I write best from my proverbial closet, my mind closed to all the minutiae of daily existence, and open to everything–anything–else.

I had two experience with this phenomenon this week alone. The first was mid-week. Nacho woke me up for a quick potty break around 2:30 in the morning. For whatever reason, as I pulled the fleece sheets back over my shoulders and settled into bed again, a concrete thought, born no doubt of some unconscious musings still lingering in my mind, so recently asleep, presented itself to me in isolation: “We think our plans are set in stone.” And after that, another thought, and another–until it became clear to me that I was writing a poem, a poem about planning–and its futility (perhaps or perhaps not inspired by what it’s like to be a teacher right now. Read: near daily unexpected and inconvenient if not debilitating technology glitches, students with quarantine dates that continually change, the absolute necessity for patience and flexibility).

I stayed awake for maybe 30 minutes, reciting the stanzas over and over again in my head to cement them there for when I could write them down. (On my to-do list: a bedside writing station). Plagued by a slight fear of losing them (as often happens) before fully awake, I awoke several times between 3:00 and 5:15, each time reciting–and slightly revising–the poem in my head. As I finished breakfast a little before 6:00, after I had fed the Littles and let them out to potty, I finally wrote it down in my journal:

The Insanity of Humanity

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
--Not Albert Einstein

We think our plans are set in stone,
this life, this time--all our own,
entitled to our every plan--
Oh! the arrogance of man!

Until catastrophe takes shape,
putting us back in our place,
reminding us we're not as great
as destiny or cruel fate.

So we retreat to lick our wounds, 
gather comfort from the gloom,
then emerge renewed, refreshed,
having learned we don't know best.

But then we lament what might've been,
and the cycle starts again.

The second experience was early this morning, long before sunrise.

I am currently working on revisions of a manuscript for a novel I submitted to a small press under the working title The Experiment. Among the many revisions suggested to me was to come up with a better–a more apt–title (fair enough, as the working title applied to the very earliest conception of the piece, but really isn’t very relevant to its current form). I received this feedback in August, and have been struggling to divine the perfect title ever since. Over the course of the last couple days, several have materialized out of my half-awake mind, four of them in succession this morning. I now have a list of fifteen potential titles. Maybe I’ll use one; maybe the perfect one has yet to arrive. Either way, I have begun to have fun–and usually (as in when I am awake), titling a work proves a struggle for me. (And let’s not even get into the (albeit beautiful and fulfilling) struggle that is revising an entire manuscript!) Here are the now fifteen working titles:

  1. Feel the Chill of Each Yearly Encounter (thematic; allusion; partial quote from Tess of the d’Urbervilles)
  2. The Chill of Each Yearly Encounter (thematic; allusion; partial quote from Tess of the d’Urbervilles)
  3. Everything Precious is Scarce (thematic; pulled from a conversation in the manuscript)
  4. I Have Measured Out My Life with Coffee Spoons (a motif; a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” referenced throughout the manuscript)
  5. This One Thing I Know (thematic)
  6. One Thing I Know to be True (thematic)
  7. One Thing I Know For Sure (thematic)
  8. One Thing Certain in an Uncertain World (thematic; also a phrase that pops up here and there in the manuscript)
  9. Every Plan is a Tiny Prayer to Father Time (thematic; lyric from Death Cab for Cutie‘s “What Sarah Said”)
  10. An Hourglass Glued to the Table (thematic; partial lyric from Anna Nalick‘s “Breathe (2 AM)”)
  11. T-Minus (thematic; plot-inspired; suggested to me by one of my readers)
  12. In So Many Sunsets (thematic)
  13. All the Water in the River (thematic; symbolic; related to the symbolic motif of the James River in the manuscript)
  14. Time is But a Stream I Go A-Fishing In (thematic; symbolic; a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden)
  15. The Water in the River Flows Only One Way (thematic; symbolic; related to the symbolic motif of the James River in the manuscript)

And now, perhaps because I am fully awake, I am having trouble writing a conclusion for this post. Maybe I should try later tonight–from the quiet confines of my bedroom and the soft desk that is my pillow; after all, I write best when I’m asleep.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

Enticing Readers with a Killer Book Blurb

Writing a book is one thing. Selling that book is another.

The countless hours you’ve poured into your manuscript will be for naught if it never makes it onto readers’ bookshelves or Kindles, and one of the key elements in successful book marketing is a compelling book blurb. Condensing your entire novel into a couple paragraphs of densely packed promo is not easy—but you’ve already written an entire book, so you can do this, too.

Don’t underestimate the importance of a book blurb: Self-published authors need one to entice readers to buy the book, and authors hoping to land a deal with a traditional publisher need a tantalizing blurb to hook prospective agents. So take your time to write an effective blurb, allowing for many drafts and dog-walking breaks to keep your spirits high.

Query Letter Blurbs for Traditional Publishing

If you’re going the traditional publishing route, you’ll almost certainly need a literary agent. Most major publishers won’t accept direct submissions from authors, and the professional guidance of a literary agent can work wonders for your publishing career. Landing an agent is the difficult part.

To convince an agent to represent your manuscript, you’ll need a query letter. Short and sweet, never exceeding one page, query letters succinctly describe your manuscript, your experience as an author, and why the given agent is a good fit for your book. The most important part of a query letter is the book blurb, your chance to convince the agent your manuscript is worth reading.

Selling your manuscript to an agent isn’t entirely the same as selling it to readers. While readers are simply looking for entertainment and may be more willing to take a risk on your book, agents are searching for professional opportunities and need to know reading your full manuscript won’t be a waste of their time. That’s what your blurb is for. Without giving away the ending, you need to promise the agent an interesting and worthwhile read.

Promotional Book Blurbs for Self-Published Books

If you publish traditionally, your publisher will take care of crafting an effective book blurb, but if you self-publish your book, you have to do everything yourself. Your book blurb is almost as important as the book itself, because the book isn’t much good if no one ever reads it. It’s crucial that you take the time to learn how to write a compelling book blurb.

Query BooksThe key to book blurbs is succinct, concise writing. Keep it short and skimmable, and emulate the style and tone you use in the book. Hook your prospective readers with a creative and interesting first sentence, and end on a cliffhanger that leaves readers hungry for more. Choose the vocabulary carefully to build atmosphere and spark your readers’ curiosity. Focus on the most important themes of the book, but don’t forget that less is more, and packing in too many details can turn potential readers away.

Writing is a creative field, and no two books are the same. Consequently, there’s no one perfect approach to writing a book blurb, but that doesn’t mean you can’t draw inspiration from previous successes. Go to Amazon or your local bookstore, browse the blurbs in the bestseller section, and take note of which blurbs most strongly spark your interest. Using similar techniques can help you boost your own blurb.

Book Blurb Example

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, the classic format for fiction book blurbs is to introduce the situation, add a problem, and raise an intriguing question. Blurbs typically end with a single sentence that describes the mood of the book. Keep it short: Don’t go over 150 words. The goal is to convincingly sell your book in as few words as possible.

In a previous post on query letters, we used the example of a middle-grade novel, Good Boy, about Spot, a canine detective who has to begrudgingly collaborate with a leading detective cat to uncover a pet treat black market in their hometown. Here’s what the book blurb for Good Boy could look like:

Spot is your average border collie detective: observant, deliberate, energetic, and passionately anti-feline. The star detective of Inouville’s canine police force, he’s only one groundbreaking case away from the most coveted detective award in the canine world: the Good Boy Award.

And then that case falls right into his lap. Or, more precisely, the leading detective from the rival feline police force comes hurtling through his open window, claws out, and whacks his favorite pet treats right out of his paws (cats never were polite). The cats have discovered a major pet treat black market—and the only way to uncover it is through cooperation. Is Spot a good enough boy to put aside his anti-cat bias and expose Inouville’s largest organized criminal group?

Good Boy is a uniquely creative comedy exploring crime and mystery, bias and prejudice, and indefensibly rude felines.

Professional Help with Query Letters and Book Blurbs

Need help writing an effective query letter or book blurb? Don’t be discouraged. Plenty of authors seek external help. QueryLetter.com is a fantastic resource for authors Query Logostruggling to summarize their masterpieces succinctly and successfully. QueryLetter.com hires publishing industry professionals with vast experience in the field, which means they know exactly what agents and publishers are looking for. Whether you’re looking for help with your query letter or need assistance finding the right literary agents to query, the publishing professionals at QueryLetter.com can help you.

If you need practice writing book blurbs, QueryLetter.com’s blurb-writing contest is perfect for you. Let your imagination run wild! The winner will be awarded $500—a great incentive to practice your blurb-writing skills.

Update

Congratulations, Julia Kiger! Out of over 3,000 competing book blurbs, Ms. Kiger’s was the winner of QueryLetter.com’s blurb writing contest! To read her winning blurb, as well as nine other finalists, click here.

Why Query Letters Matter—and How to Write a Great One

So you’ve finished your manuscript. Congratulations! Take a moment to celebrate. Indulge in some celebratory sweets, play with your dogs, and revel in the glory of having written a book.

And then get back to work. If you’re looking to get published, you’ve finished only the first step. Assuming you’re hoping to go through a traditional publisher, your next step should generally be to write a query letter and land a literary agent.

What Is a Query Letter?

Query letters are what authors use to hook agents and publishers and get them interested in their work. They essentially serve as an advertisement, with the goal being to entice the agent or publisher to request a full copy of a manuscript.

Query letters should be short and sweet (like the Littles!), not exceeding one page. The exact content will vary depending on the manuscript, your writing experience, and the agent’s personality, author list, and preferences, but generally, you should include an opening hook, a blurb, a quick overview of the target market and any comparables, and, if relevant, an author bio.

How to Structure a Query Letter

Don’t rush through your query letter. It’s a crucial part of getting your book out on bookshelves. If sending your letter by mail, use the same professional format as a business letter, meaning standard black 12 pt. serif font on white paper. Provide the agent with your full name, address, phone number, and email address, followed by the name and contact information of the agent you’re addressing.

If sending your query by email, you’ll likely wish to include your contact information under your signature at the end of the message, and you don’t need to include the agent’s contact information. Otherwise, the format of the query itself, discussed below, will be identical.

First Paragraph

It’s time to dive into the body of the letter. Start with a hook—something creative and unique to draw in the reader. For example, say you’ve written a book about a sassy detective dog who has to begrudgingly work with a feline detective to solve a major case:

Enclosed are three chapters of my middle-grade novel GOOD BOY (50,000 words). When a pet treat black market emerges in his hometown, experienced detective dog Spot has to abandon his anti-cat principles and collaborate with a leading feline detective to solve the case.

In general, your first paragraph should contain an extremely brief summary of your book that also highlights the more subtle themes of the story. In the Good Boy example above, the overt themes are detective work and dogs, but the deeper theme is overcoming biases and prejudice.

Query Publish Scrabble Tiles

Second Paragraph

In the second paragraph, you should outline the plot of your book. (Think of the book blurbs you see on the backs of novels.) Your goal is to entice the agent to request the full manuscript, so make it interesting without giving away the ending. Many authors struggle with this part because condensing an entire manuscript—your labor of love, no less—into a few sentences is difficult. Take your time. You may require several iterations to sculpt the perfect blurb.

The blurb, which is the most important and powerful part of a query letter, is also a good opportunity to show off your writing skills. Target clarity while emulating the tone and writing style of your manuscript. If your book is a comedy, add a few jokes and aim to get a laugh out of the reader.

Third Paragraph

In the third paragraph, discuss your target audience. For example, Good Boy is likely to appeal to middle-grade readers, especially dog lovers. Also consider mentioning any recent successful books that address similar themes or topics to yours to give the agent an idea of where your book might belong in the market.

The third paragraph is also the ideal place for your author bio. Don’t tell your life story! Keep it brief, like the rest of the letter, and mention only relevant information about yourself as a writer or subject matter expert. If you’ve previously published books or won any awards, be sure to mention those.

Closing Remarks

Close the query letter with a statement of appreciation for the agent’s time and consideration and state that you look forward to his or her response. If sending your letter by mail, also mention that you’ve enclosed a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the agent’s convenience (and actually enclose one).

How to Tailor Your Query Letter for Specific Agents

After writing the perfect query letter, you’ll need to personalize it for each agent you query. This involves more than changing a couple of details. Take the time to mention why you believe this specific agent is a good fit for your book or how your manuscript relates to previous books she has represented or is looking to represent. (Some agents discuss the types of books they’re looking for on social media, so keep an eye out.)

If you’ve met the agent before, definitely say so. It’s best to include these details at the beginning of your letter to establish rapport right away.

Professional Query Letter Help

Query LogoIf you’re struggling with your query letter, don’t be afraid to request professional help. At QueryLetter.com, you can find publishing industry professionals who will craft a compelling query letter, as well as a succinct synopsis and outline, to help you sell your manuscript. It’s a valuable resource for any author seeking publishing success.

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Guest Post: 14 Pounds of Courage

Charlie is 14 pounds of Toxirn courage. He is aggressively friendly and has never met a person who doesn’t love him. This little guy has a long list of funny fears, though. He hates bicycles, mopeds, and unknown items by the curb on large trash day. He hates the robot vacuum that, to him, turns itself on and chases him around the house. He even hates walkers. Imagine my surprise when we first adopted him and he barked not at random strangers, but at an elderly woman with a walker!

The thing about Charlie, though, is that he’s incredibly brave. In such a big world, he is always gentle to creatures smaller than himself. He adores head rubs and scratches

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Charlie enjoying some rubs and scratches

behind the ears from children, even as they run at him in groups clambering to love the little dog. “Look how tiny he is!” they giggle with delight, even sometimes awkwardly trying to pick him up. He licks their faces all the same. He fearlessly runs to greet huge dogs and doesn’t think twice about the fact the other dog could eat him for breakfast. He doesn’t care, either, because in his mind, he’s just saying hello. He’s incredibly happy and loves to share his toothy smile with everyone.

What’s amazing is that this boy doesn’t hide from things that scare him, but confronts them directly, barking to deter them. He perches on the edge of the couch to valiantly defend it from the vacuum. He barks menacingly at dogs walking in front of our house…on the other side of the street. This is his home and he wants to make that clear!

Charlie shows me it’s okay to be scared, but to face those fears instead of hiding from them. When he’s around, it becomes clearer what it means to be a good person and have an appetite for life. Above all, he proves that love wins in the end. People will still love you even when you look a little wild (up to and including having Albert Einstein hair). Happiness is achievable just by virtue of being around the people who love us most.

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Charlie with a favorite toy

Charlie’s people are everything to him, and that’s perhaps the most profound message anyone can learn. Community, family, and love for others are some of the strongest

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Charlie enjoys an outdoor adventure.

bonds we can create. It doesn’t take money or fame to achieve true happiness, but compassionate connection and the realization that we’re all just people trying to live joyful lives. We often get caught up in surviving monetarily and forget the simple pleasures – Charlie doesn’t, though. Watching him really puts life into perspective.

We are Charlie’s people, and he is our boy. I can’t imagine a life without this smiling, tiny-mustachioed boy who is a continual source of joy in our lives. It’s just a plus that he proves taking multiple naps in a day is completely acceptable.

Author Bio

Charlie IVRachel Tindall is a passionate writer, blogger, and writing confidence coach. She has worked with numerous students in the classroom and building confidence in others is at the heart of all she does. When she’s not writing, she’s reading books, learning and building her business Capturing Your Confidence, watching lame TV shows with her husband, and playing with her adorably sassy dog, Charlie. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.