By Cait Collins
I love to write, but I thoroughly dislike writing query letters. While not my favorite activity, I understand the importance of a good pitch letter. Not only does the correspondence present your work to the editor or agent, writing the perfect pitch will help you with the verbal promotion of the work.
A good query letter begins with your ability to state the theme of your work. Every story has a theme. Sometimes it is obvious, but in other instances the writer has to dig to find the point of his story. For example the theme of my story How Do You Like Me Now, is “Revenge may be satisfying, but justice is better.” With that in mind, it’s easy to open the query with a solid hook. Yes, lead the letter with an attention grabber and worry about your biography later.
A pitch letter should be as well thought out and crafted as your novel or story. Do not take shortcuts here. If the query is weak, the agent or editor might assume the work is also poorly constructed. Avoid using clichés. Make sure your verbs are strong, action verbs. This eliminates the need for adverbs. I’ve heard writing instructors preach on adverbs as enemies instead of friends. A good verb can save you precious words when facing a limited word count.
Here are a few other tips that have helped me.
- Know your characters and their relationships. Use the understanding to introduce the protagonist and the antagonist in short paragraphs.
- Use present tense.
- Keep the letter to less than one page. Too much information is not necessarily good. In a verbal pitch, you may have ten seconds to get an agent’s attention. Apply the same standard to the query.
- Do your research. You don’t want to be the erotica writer who pitched to an inspirational agent. Be sure you have the editor’s full name and the correct spelling. Be sure he represents your genre. Make sure you follow the agency’s submission guidelines.
- Do not include your photograph, your cute kitty’s picture, or submit the letter on bright colored paper. Use only Times New Roman 12pt type. The margins should be one inch all around, on one side, and printed on a good quality, white bond paper.
- Your information should be at the end of the pitch. Keep it simple. If you are a first time writer, don’t publicize the fact. Instead, promote your successes. If the novel won an award in a contest, say so. Your self-published first book garnered respectable success. Say so. Just don’t over advertise yourself.
- Promote your platform. Agents and Editors need to know if you have a website, are on Facebook or Twitter. While you may have multiple, promotion sources remember you still need time to write. Don’t over burden yourself with social media
- Thank the agent or editor for his time. It may take eight to twelve weeks to get a response, so be patient. Bugging the agent for an update every few days may do more harm than good.
- Be yourself, but be professional.
Paying attention to details will help ensure your letter will be well received and could get you one step closer to a publication contract. Good luck. I’ll be looking for your name in the stacks.
A NEW DIMENSION
By Rory C Keel
After looking back at some of my writing, I noticed that my characters were flat, and not because they’re typed words on a screen. No, they have no depth, no dimension.
As I start the new year of writing, I will create what I will call character interviews. In Gail Carson Levine’s book, WRITING MAGIC, she suggests making a character questionnaire.
Make a list of questions and fill in the answers such as: name or nickname, what type of being (human, alien etc…), age, sex, physical appearance and characteristics, family members and friends, pets, hobbies?
Then ask deeper questions like: What are my character’s talents and abilities? What are their faults, fears and good qualities?
If you have flat characters, try interviewing your character and give them a new dimension!
Rory C. Keel
A Character MUST Die!
My WIP is going great. Writing, writing, writing… until this morning.
Last night, our 13yo told me about the latest video game that he and his friends have mastered. It takes place at world’s end (of course), with a surprisingly complex back story (I’m told most games have them). Groups of people were sheltered in different bunkers and given tests of endurance. Long story short, there’s lots of killing and then the survivors commit suicide. That’s where he lost me. So what’s the point of playing this game?
If you write stories for children as I do, this is the reality of entertainment today. How can my historical western book compete against a video game and hold a young reader’s attention? I asked my 13yo his opinion about a fight scene I’m working on. We talked about body movements, hand placement, and the ability of staying on a horse while my character shoots arrows.
“Who dies?” he asked.
“No one dies,” I said.
“It’s not a good story unless someone dies,” he said.
Is that true? I thought about my favorite stories. Charlotte dies. Old Yeller-gone. Jo’s little sister in LITTLE WOMEN. Basically everyone in Hunger Games except for…well, you know. My son might be right. Except no one dies in my story. I can’t kill any of my characters. I like them all, and basically I need them for books 2 and 3. (Dreaming big for a series.)
“They learn to trust and help each other,” I said. “Bitter enemies become best friends and it’s a happy ending.”
“That’s not good,” he replied.
“I’d read it.” This from our 17yo as he studied the contents of the frig. At least I have one reader.
As I sit here staring at the words on my computer screen, I’m wondering which character must go? What’s wrong with a happy ending? All of my characters want to live and I have no idea why. They’ve completely taken over. It happens sometimes.
POST CARDS FROM THE MUSE
By Nandy Ekle
One of the rules of our critique group is if you haven’t written something new to bring for critique, then you should bring something educational. This is a great rule because it works like a deadline to keep the writing going. But in those days when the words just will not come, we can learn something new and helpful.
So, since I have written nothing new in a while, other than the business letters I write for my day job, I decided it was time to do something educational. So I decided to bring a guest to our meeting tonight.
If you remember my blog from last week, I started reading a new book and the first chapter, which is a prologue, completely, totally blew me away. Talk about words that grab you and don’t let go. This book definitely has kept me hypnotized.
So for our meeting this week I decided to take my book and read the prologue out loud, as a learning tool. So that’s exactly what I did. I took Rose Madder by #Stephen King# and read the prologue to my fellow critiquers. And guess what happened. Exactly the same thing that happened to me. They were entranced.
Thank you, Mr. King, for instructing our group tonight.
Congratulations. You have just received a post card from the muse.
In the Dark
By Cait Collins
I wake with a start. Something’s off. I can’t put my finger on what’s different. My fingers brush the lamp switch. Light will help. I won’t be so unsettled. But nothing happens. Maybe the bulb is burned out. There are no lights on in the apartment. Even my LED night light is dark. The television is off, but itt was on when I went to bed. This can’t be good.
I stumble to the closet and grab my battery powered lantern. Flipping the switch, I’m surrounded by a white glow. No longer do I stub my toes on furniture or bump into walls. This baby gives off enough light so that I can at least navigate and find my clothes. Maybe I can even match my shoes.
It’s 4:30 AM. Much too early to head for work. So what can I do? I can’t make breakfast or coffee. With no television and insufficient light for reading, I can only sit in the dark and wait. And think. What happened to the electricity? We didn’t have a storm. No sirens break the silence, so an auto accident could not be the culprit. Maybe one of the neighborhood kids threw the main breaker. Or maybe there’s an axe murderer just waiting for me to walk out the door. Then there’s the possibility an alien ship landed in the parking lot and the energy from their space ship knocked out the electricity. Who knows what happened?
Hey, I could write a story about this. The heroine, a police detective, wakes to utter darkness. Harsh breathing disturbs the silence. “Please help me.” And then…?
Why Would Anyone Read My Writing?
By Rory C. Keel
Why would anyone read my writing? This is a question beginning writers often ask themselves. It’s a normal question to ask. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve asked it of myself.
How do I deal with it? I learned not to make it personal. Many experienced writers ask the same question when they find themselves struggling to put something on the page.
The simple answer is that people want to read your writing because it’s entertaining, interesting, funny or emotional. These are the same reasons people read anything written by any author. The characteristics that make other authors worth reading are the things that will make your writing worth reading.
Don’t take it so personal
Most readers don’t determine what books they read by the personality of the author who wrote it. Many times the attributes of authors aren’t known until they reach some measure of fame. A person reads what they are interested in based on the content and writing, and then the reader may choose to learn about the personal traits of the author he or she likes. This shows that the writing is important.
Improve your writing
If your work isn’t interesting, entertaining, funny or emotional people probably won’t read it. Nothing personal about you as a human being, just improve your writing. To do this study the craft of writing, seek help from a critique group or a writing association.
As your writing improves, so will the number of readers.
Top Ten from SCBWI-OK 2014
The Oklahoma chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators held a meeting in Oklahoma City. If you aspire to write stories for children, this group is a must. www.scbwi.org
SCBWI hosts a huge con in August in LA and a NYC con in February of every year. If you’re low on funds or time and can’t make the journey, consider attending one of the local workshops close to you. I usually make at least one of the Oklahoma meetings every year, which is just up the interstate from where I live. Time and family are the issues for me, but several nights away is doable. Sure you could go shopping or take a vacation, but how about making an investment in your writing career instead?
You’ll meet creative writers, editors, agents, come away with tons of inspiration, and find new friends who love stories just as much as you do. Now here’s the big secret that only conference goers know: most of the big publishing houses are closed to un-agented submissions but these editors make an exception for attendees when they speak. They’re furnished with a list of names and those people can submit a manuscript and bypass the slush pile. Did you get that? You have to go. It’s only for those who attend the meeting. What a fantastic opportunity!
Here’s my top ten from SCBWI Oklahoma 2014:
- Twist the cliché character and turn what we’ve already seen on it’s side. Tricia Lawrence, Erin Murphy Literary Agency.
- Have you considered the visual language of comics? They can say one thing and show the opposite. Colleen AF Venable, FirstSecond Books.
- Figure out your character’s pain point. Ask them questions, and then torture them. Tricia Lawrence, Erin Murphy Literary Agency.
- Use family to create characters. Family dynamics shows a character as who they really are. Andrew Harwell, Harper Collins.
- Study the work of craft. Not just reading. Take it apart and look at stories from a writer’s perspective. Melissa Manlove, Chronicle Children’s.
- Trend chasing books usually fall flat. Challenge yourself to look outside your day-to-day existence. Which truths would make great fiction? Kristen Miller-Vincent, D4E0 Literary Agency.
- Family relationships can bring more emotion to create empathy and sympathy for your character. Andrew Harwell, Harper Collins.
- Give your character an objective in each scene. Pit them against an obstacle. Liza Kaplan, Philomel Books.
- Use those familiar family conflicts that we’ve all experienced, but amp them by 1000 times for your book. Andrew Harwell, Harper Collins.
- Your brain is a machine made for generating ideas and ideas come to writers like lightening bolts. More importantly, it is the lightening bolt that hits somebody who has been habitually cranking the generator. Those are the best ones. Melissa Manlove, Chronicle.
Thanks to SCBWI Oklahoma for a great conference. I can hardly wait until September!
POST CARDS FROM THE MUSE
The Magic Words
By Nandy Ekle
I was born a word person. I don’t remember the age I started reading, but I don’t know that I was a prodigy. But no matter what age I started reading, I’ve always loved stories.
The first stories I loved were bible stories, then the early readers from school. My parents were avid fans of the library and I grew up thinking the library was an enchanted place.
I always had lots of words to say, and said them as often as they came into my head, much to my dad’s dismay. I guess the thing I heard him say more than anything else was, “Don’t your jaws ever get tired of talking?” And of course, the words did slow down, except when I am able to let go and write. And in those moments, I really truly do visit the land of enchantment.
But as much as I love to talk and write my own words, I love reading others’ words just as much. I’ve only ever started about four books I simply could not finish. All the other book I’ve read are the most wonderful dessert in the world.
I said there were only about four books I simply could not finish. The opposite of that is there are about four writers who are the most powerful wizards on the earth.
All this introduction to say I am reading a book now by one of these very talented authors. I know I should not have been so surprised because nearly everything this writer does is pure genius. But I read the first paragraph of the prologue and immediately felt the air shimmer and electrify. The world around me disappeared and I felt like I was being sucked through a vortex to another world. All from the first paragraph.
That is talent.
Your assignment: get your favorite book by your favorite author and analyze it. When do you find yourself grabbed and pulled in to the world? How did they do it? Does the story you’re writing do that? Can you fix it?
Congratulations. You have just received a post card from the muse.
Reality vs. Fiction
By Cait Collins
Hospital scenes on television and in the movies are nothing like reality. I have yet to see one doctor pat a nurse’s backside. Nor have I noticed doctors and nurses sneak into a supply closet for a quickie. In fact the hospital routine is pretty boring.
My niece recently had day surgery. Before the staff took her to the OR, the nurse anesthetist came in to meet with the patient. She verified my niece’s name matched the information on the bracelet. She confirmed the doctor and the procedure, and explained the process—sedative; anesthesia; intubation, and then she made way for the surgical nurse. Same procedure. The two ladies had different personalities. The anesthesiology nurse was pleasant but straight forward. The surgical nurse was professional but more personable. She assured us everything was under control. Then the doctor came in to mark the surgical field. Again, very nice, but totally professional.
It’s no wonder writers exaggerate the setting. The trick is maintaining enough reality to keep the reader or television/movie viewer from sitting up and saying, “No way.” The long-running TV series ER is an excellent example of both good and bad writing. I truly loved this series, but I was also aware of the flaws. One can only go so far before the action is unbelievable.
One episode that rang true centered on misdiagnosed toxemia. The mother presented with an infection, but as treatment progressed, it became apparent Mom and baby were in jeopardy. A botched C Section and inability to control bleeding lead to the mother’s death. Dr. Green’s attempts to come to terms with his mistakes were so believable the viewer could feel his pain and self-doubt.
Not so believable was the disappearance of ER doctors from their shifts without having secured coverage for the department. Such action would result in the doctor’s dismissal from the hospital and possible suspension or loss of his license to practice. The quarantine episodes and the helicopter accident that deprived a surgeon of his arm were just too contrived to be good drama.
One story line that was well written and beautifully performed was Dr. Green’s death from brain cancer. I lost my husband to brain cancer. Watching the deterioration of a vibrant character hit too close to home. I watched the episode once. I will never watch it again. It hurts too much.
The ability to suspend disbelief, to make one believe the impossible is an art. It takes research, observation, and practice. But when done correctly and well, the reader or viewer is totally engrossed and satisfied with the work. The writer needs to develop good research techniques and professional sources so that his writing is believable. I challenge all of us to make the audience believe and accept exaggerations of reality.
A Thrilling Suspense
By Rory C. Keel
Whatever happened to action/adventure stories? Today they’re called thrillers or suspense stories.
This genre defines itself with stories that evoke an emotional thrill by placing the reader in the middle of situations such as a conspiracy or an eco-thriller.
Suspense might include an aviation story set in the past, or even a future time, and may include a familiar theme such as legal or medical thrillers. In thrillers that have espionage, exploration or treasure hunters, the protagonist’s life goes beyond the ordinary.
Thrillers are usually full of fast action and the hero always wins and leaves the reader wanting more.