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A Query They Can’t Refuse

Querying an agent or publisher is one of the most nerve-wracking things that you can do as a writer; you put your work out there, and hope to avoid rejection. It goes without saying that the quality of your manuscript will ultimately decide the success of your writing career, but a good quality query will make the path to publication smoother and quicker.

So, how do you write the kind of query that has manuscript requests flooding in?

 

The Fantastic Five (Factors)

A good query is made up of five main elements;

  1. Opening
  2. What you are selling
  3. Hook
  4. Synopsis
  5. Closing
  6. OPTIONAL – Bio (this would come before closing)

 

Opening – Address the agent by name, spell it correctly, and lead with your best foot, so to speak. If you have credentials and previously published works you could mention them, and if you have met the agent before (especially if they requested your manuscript) mention this right away. The most common opening, especially for new authors, is to give the hook of your story.

What You’re Selling – Detail your title, any subtitles, genre, and category. Resist the urge to over state or boast; be business like and concise.

Hook and Synopsis – Writing an effective hook and synopsis is an issue all on its own, but your hook should deal with three main points: your protagonist, the conflict, and the stakes. Your synopsis should be attached to the query and be roughly one page long.

Closing – Bring you query to a close in a clear, compact way; think two or three sentences maximum. There’s no need to state that you are simultaneously querying, but you should mention if you’ve had interest from another agency. Give contact information, and thank the agent for their time.

Bio – A bio is not something that would necessarily be required at all, and it’s not wise if you’ve never published before. If you have you should mention the books or short stories you have published as well as giving a small amount of personal details.

 

Email Queries

Email queries are certainly an option these days, always check to see if the agent lists a preference on their site, but keep in mind that email queries should be formatted differently. They will also be read more quickly, and any mistakes will be glaringly obvious; be sure you proofread thoroughly.

For email queries;

  • Contact information should go at the bottom after your signature
  • Use Block Style; no formatting, no indents,
  • Place anything that should be in italics in CAPTIALS
  • Copy and paste your query into a word document to check spelling and grammar

 

Check here and here to find out what you shouldn’t say, and how to get ready to query,

Best of Luck!

 

 

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Do you need a Literary Agent?

This is a divisive issue; there are plenty of people who will tell you that you don’t need an agent, or that you should avoid them at all costs. They’ll tell you either that they’re blood suckers, or that you’ll never get anywhere without them.

The truth is less clear cut, but certainly there are pros and cons to being represented by a literary agent;

Pros

  • Experience and Reputation; when you work with a literary agent you’re not only benefitting from the time they put into your manuscript, but the time they have put into every project that came before yours. You’re getting their experience, skill, and know-how as well as the time they actually put into your manuscript; after all, a reputable and experienced agent will have many years of experience in polishing and pitching novels. You also gain a bit more clout with publishers; when they see you are being represented by an established agent you will stand out, and as such have less chance of being lost in the slush pile.
  • Contacts and Connections; when you form a partnership with a literary agent it will be because they are confident that they know who they can sell your book to. You benefit from their connections, their contacts, and the relationships they have built in their career.
  • Another pair of eyes; before you query an agent your manuscript should be as ready for publication as you can make it, however an agent can offer an extra pair of eyes to really polish it till it shines.
  • Someone to fight your corner; your agent makes money when you make money, so when you hire an agent you know that they want to sell your novel. They want you to succeed, and having someone that you know wants you to find success can be a real boost when things get rough.

 

Cons

  • More time; when you go to an agent first you’re essentially pitching your book twice. This has its benefits, as outlined, but you will be adding time onto the process.
  • Cost; agents, like all professionals, will need to be paid for their services. Generally speaking this means 15% of your earnings from sales, but this can vary. It’s up to you to decide if the cost is worth it.

 

How to approach/query an agent.

There are a few things which you should definitely never say when querying an agent, but what should you do and say to up your chances of success?

  1. Finish your manuscript
  2. Do your research
  3. Be concise, reasonable, and professional in your query letter
  4. Be realistic

To expand upon these points a little; make sure your novel is completely written and proofread before you query, look for an agent that represents your kind of fiction, don’t invest in a gimmick when you write your query letter, and be realistic about what you expect from your novel. If you claim to be the next George R. Martin, you may be met with scepticism.

Take as much care with your query letter as you did with your manuscript, and include a one page synopsis which clearly states the main characters and plot points of your novel. Don’t try to get cute and leave them guessing as to what happens; you should be making it easy for them to know whether or not they wish to represent you.

 

Remember that agents receive hundreds of letters and emails each and every day; be professional and concise in your approach, and you’ll find it’s appreciated.

 

Resources;

Three Differences Between Literary and Genre Fiction (know which you fall into if you want to pitch well!)

A Query They Can’t Refuse

Self-Editing 1, 2, and 3

Things You Should Never Say to an Agent

With the rise of e-publishing there are some people who will tell you that agents are obsolete, and that you don’t need them to get a book out there. This is technically true, but in reality it’s much easier to navigate the world of publishing with help. An experienced agent is invaluable for many reasons, but above and beyond all of them they have two things you probably will not; connections with established publishers and editors, and lots of experience in marketing books.

 

Do I need an Agent?

Literally? No. But it’s a good idea.

You can self-publish either online or in hard copy, and if you’re an expert marketer you could very well do a great job of it. However, this will take time and effort that pulls you away from what you love; writing.

An agent is, just like an author, or and editor, a specialist that brings a huge amount of value to the venture. Furthermore, most of the really big publishing houses do not take unsolicited submissions or submissions from those who have no representation.

There are many things you can do to attract an agent, but here are some things you definitely should not say;

 

Things you shouldn’t say to a potential agent

 

“I’m the next Stephen King, George R. Martin, J.K rowling [insert Big Name Here]”

You may be right, but agents hear this from over-confident authors day in, day out. Even if they believe you, you’re setting high expectations for yourself and your work. Not just once either; these are big names that sell consistently; if you have your agent and publisher believing you can replicate these numbers it doesn’t matter how well you do; it may not be enough.

Of course, it’s also very likely you’ll get this reaction;

judge judy

 

“I know you don’t usually deal with X, but…”

No.

No – get out.

Agents specialise in certain subjects and genres for many reasons, the biggest being that they knew who to sell these types of books to, and how to market them. They specify genres so that they can do their job well after you’ve done your job well.

Unless you follow that sentence with “but I’d like your advice on how to add elements of Y [which they do deal with] to it to make it stronger!” just shut up and research an agent that deal with your genre. Even then, it’s not their job to fix your writing. Its yours.

 

“There’s nothing like this out there!”

Stitch Frustration GIF - Stitch Frustration - Discover ...

I can guarantee you there is; there’s nothing new under the sun, as that old saying goes, so this sounds like you a) have no idea what you’ve written and which genre it falls into mostly, or b) you have no idea what’s out there because you rarely read. One makes it hard for an agent to really sell it, the other is a worry because you’re probably re-using well-worn tropes that you would know to avoid if you have read widely in your genre.

 

“I’ve self-published [X amount] books!”

Unless one or some of your novels/stories have topped 3,000 to 5,000 sales (the average self-published book sells less than 100 – 150 copies) this won’t help your case.

 

“My book will appeal to everyone.” 

That right there is a promise you cannot keep!

If you don’t approach an agent with a target audience in mind you’re making their job harder than it needs to be. If you write a novel with the aim of including universal themes, that’s fine, but the story and genre will appeal to one kind of audience in particular. YA lit might very well appeal to the masses, like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games, but by and large it appeals to young adults.

 

“It’s not finished yet, but…”

No! When you approach an agent your novel should be as ready for publication as you can make it. Get a professional critique if you can afford it, have another person (with good grammar) who reads your genre to test it and make suggestions. Edit, edit, edit! 

Your agent may make suggestions, the in-house editor at a publisher may make suggestions, but its your job to write the book so don’t rely on getting huge amounts of help from agents and publishers. They have their job, you have yours.

 

Finally, please do not send out generic query emails to hundreds of agents; tailor your approach and pick people you think will have a genuine interest in your work. And, of course, if you have any advice about querying an agent let us know in the comments section!

 

 

5 Ways to Kill Your Erotica Instantly

There’s this messy, nasty preconception that people who read erotica only want the blow-by-blow (excuse the pun) of sex in written form; that they really want some kind on anatomical mishmash so complex that it reads like a Picasso painting.

Well, it’s not true; if you want to ensure your readers simply cannot finish (or finish to) your erotica that’s a pretty good way to start.

In fact, if you want to basically murder all sensual and sexual tension in your writing you should just commit these 5 cardinal sins as quickly as possible;

 

  1. Disregard characterisation; if you really want to write ridiculous, unfulfilling erotica you should forget that your characters are meant to be people at all. Turn them into blow-up dolls with no personality or history, and certainly make sure they have no chemistry, either, or that might save the whole endeavour!
  2. Make it scientific; the penis goes there, the leg goes there, and hey presto you have a sex scene… right? Right! So just focus on which genital goes where, and don’t worry about things like sensory information or thoughts and feelings. Put the ball in the hole and move on if you want your erotica to really lack zing!
  3. Euphemisms are your best friends; if you want to write top-notch, horrifically embarrassing erotica shelve terms like penis, vagina, and breasts, instead go for “throbbing rod”, “love cave”, and “udders”. Really go wild – extra points if you never use the same term twice in the whole story!
  4. Forget  Foreplay; foreplay is a distraction from the main event. Approach erotica the same way you approach a gym session at 9pm on a Monday night; you’re tired, its effort, and really you have places to be – so just jump right in without a warm up and you’ll really slaughter your erotica’s potential.
  5. Push Plot Aside; if you really want to leave people perplexed and disappointed when it comes to your erotica then be bold and brave; dispense with the plot and jump right to the good bit. Don’t even introduce your main characters; that’ll really leave your readers in the dark!

 

If you do all of these things, I can assure you you’ll produce the kind of erotica that no-one else wants to read or think about… and that’s what you were going for, right?

 

3 Mistakes That Kill Your Novel At Outset

Beginnings are tough for me, and for many writers, and I firmly believe that you’re either a beginning or end kind of writer; people always excel at one above the other. So for all you other “Can’t-get-it-started” writers out there I’ve got three pieces of advice. Three mistakes that I’ve made over, and over, and over before putting them to paper (or page) here so that you can learn from my hard experience. These three things are almost guaranteed to murder the potential of any novel before your reader gets through the front door!

 

One; Leading with Backstory

We’ve all made this mistake; there’s some nugget of the past that we are adamant the reader absolutely has to know in order to understand the protagonist, and therefore the story…

Well, actually, they don’t usually.

If you’re tempted to lead with backstory ask yourself this one, very important, question; is this information/event directly related to the story that is about to follow? If not, no matter how interesting it may be, drop it. If you want to keep a story progressing (and constant progression is one of the things which singles out truly gripping stories) tell the reader only what they need to know at any given time! That could mean going back to touch on events which pre-date the story, but include only what is necessary to story progression and character growth.

 

Two; Purple Prose

Excessive description is a silver bullet when it comes to killing a novel; effective novel description should enhance the readers experience of the story without overtaking it. If you begin with description make sure that this is paired with a character in motion; if the setting is really key make sure that you’re also beginning the story as you introduce the setting.

Description should always, always be incidental, attached directly to the progression of the story, and applied with caution; if you allow your descriptions to overpower the action and story you’re already on a path of steady decline. This used to be less of a hard and fast rule, but these days the fiction that gets published, and certainly the fiction that sells, tends, more often, to be to the point, lean, and athletic (for lack of a better term). That’s not to say description is obsolete, but you should definitely be making your description work for its bread and butter. 

 

Three;  Lack of Threat

Threat is an essential in every novel; good fiction revolves around a person or people who face a problem, a situation, or an event which threatens their world as they know it in some way. To paraphrase a well-worn statement; get your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them. Introduce your story with threat; this can be a disturbance to their usual routine, for example a police officer at the doo a la The Rose Petal Beach, or a blow to their psychological state, think that single drop of blood in Rose Madder. It doesn’t have to be brutal or overly dramatic, but it must shift the paradigm of the characters life in a way which requires their input/action or you’re starting from a sedentary point. All novels should begin with need, desire, or danger, e.g. something that poses a threat to the usual working of their lives.

 

This advice won’t see you through every stage of your novel, but it’ll get you through the first chapters and that’s a damn good start!

Image Source; http://pearlsofpromiseministries.com/why-does-god-allow-roadblocks/

 

 

 

Sensuality versus Sexuality: Writing Convincing and (Potentially) Compelling Sex Scenes

by Celia Daniels

If you think writing a sex scene for the first time is an awkward experience, imagine teaching a room full of young college students how to write one. How do you overcome the giggles? How do you begin to explain what writing a sex scene is all about?

I started with a video about food. This video, specifically.

 

What does this video have to do with sexuality or the act of sex? Next to nothing. However, it has just about everything to do with sensuality. Look at the shots of the roux and the bechamel on the bread. This video about food takes on intimate camera angles; it directs audience attention to sense-based details in order to evoke key, engaging sensations. The sensations in this video in particular can range from intense enjoyment to amusement to hunger – sometimes even hitting all three at once.

It’s important, when writing a sex scene, to consider what sensations you want readers to experience when coming away from the text. How can you, as a writer, direct reader attention to the details that will set the mood of the scene? Alternatively, consider this: is it possible to write a sex scene that is simply “excitement, plateau, climax, come down” and still make it compelling?

Let’s take a look at an example sex scene. The following quote can be found in The Day Before Happiness, by Erri De Luca. It reads:

“She pushed on my hips, an order that thrust me in. I entered her.
Not only my prick, but the whole of me entered her, into her guts,
into her darkness, eyes wide open, seeing nothing. My whole body
had gone inside her. I went in with her thrusts and stayed still. While
I got used to the quiet and the pulsing of my blood in my ears and nose,
she pushed me out a little, then in again. She did it again and again,
holding me with force and moving me to the rhythm of the surf. She
wiggled her breasts beneath my hands and intensified the pushing. I
went in up to my groin and came out almost entirely. My body was her
gearstick.”

Yeah, imagine reading that one out loud in front of a classroom of college students.

This is a paragraph that clearly makes use of sensual detail. Note here that “sensual” is not synonymous with “pleasant.” The imagery of the guts is quite poignant, though; the wiggling is notable; and the final metaphor is memorable, if nothing else. Out of context, one could even assume that the tone this paragraph takes on intends to color this scene humorously. In context, this author won a 2016 “Bad Sex Award” from The Guardian and was tonally genuine – no sarcasm here. Based on this information, we can reasonably say that this sex scene is an example of utilizing sense-based detail in a less than delightful manner; the sensations a reader leaves the scene with, rather, don’t necessarily jive with the tone the author intended to convey.

Let’s look instead to one of my favorite novels, The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. Regardless of plot or character, the following quote is one of the most sensual I’ve ever read. It reads as follows:

“The circus looks abandoned and empty. But you think perhaps you can
smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent
of the autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold…The sun
disappears completely beyond the horizon, and the remaining luminosity shifts
from dusk to twilight. The people around you are growing restless from wait,
a sea of shuffling feet, murmuring about abandoning the endeavor in search of someplace warmer to pass the evening. You your self are debating departing
when it happens. First, there is a popping sound…[a] soft noise like a kettle
about to boil for tea. Then comes the light.”

This scene is not about sex. Yet it has the same structure as a sexual moment – excitement, a plateau,  and a climax. I didn’t want to include the come down because I think you should read the book, but the end of this moment is rather satisfying. Look, too, to the sensual detail – Morgenstern invokes a layer of smells as well as images in order to bring the tone of this scene to life. Audible details put readers in the center of the moment; you’re invited to feel the fascination invoked by the light along with the excitement, the tension, and the snap of the climax.

The tone of this scene is notable, of course – it’s meant to be intense and evocative. Not all sex scenes need to be written in this way or with this tone. The sense-based detail as mentioned above needs to fit the mood of the scene overall. Do you want to write an awkward sex scene? How can you use the senses to emphasize that a situation is awkward or uncomfortable? Want to write a quick fuck in an alley? How can you use the senses to make a reader understand that the situation is desperate?

Use of sensual detail – mood appropriate sensual detail, mind you – is what makes the difference between sexuality and sensuality in the midst of a sex scene. By finding the mood of your scene and then identifying key sensory details that seem as though they would fit, the sex scene you intend to write can be all the more convincing.

Beyond this, there are some general things to keep in mind when writing a sex scene. I shared these tips with my students, and I now choose to share them with you.

-don’t use overly complicated phrases for genitalia
-keep track of limbs, please
-remember to include foreplay
-most sexual situations require lube and preparation. Save space for this.

-Don’t be afraid to get creative with your scenes. If you want to write something new, do a bit of research and see where it takes you.

I also left my students with a writing prompt. I gave them five minutes to write a scene that did NOT depict sex but that was still sensual. The results I got ranged from deliberately funny to purposefully evocative. I encourage you to undertake the same prompt. You may be surprised to see what you can come with


Celia is a teacher and writer who is currently supporting the wonderful  IUWriteCon book giveaway. Celia has work  coming in a few publications out at the moment including, Road Maps and Life Rafts, “Ode to London”, and Magic Jar, “Where Do You Go (When The Noise Gets Too Much?).

 

Image source; http://www.whatthegirl.com/despues-de-tanta-espera-la-vacuna-anticonceptiva-para-hombres-ya-es-una-realidad/

 

Hannah Baker; A Masterclass in Unreliable Narration

Thirteen Reasons Why has gained a lot of interest, seen much scrutiny, and been pulled apart by some of the very best.

I don’t claim to fit that category, and so I’ll slip carefully past that issue and focus on what I want to say. I’ve talked more broadly about the series and book in the past and touched briefly on Hannah’s character. What I want to talk about here has much more to do with Jay Asher’s skill and the unusual way in which he employs the good old fashioned “unreliable narrator”.

 

What is/what makes an Unreliable Narrator?

Most obviously this is a narrator who cannot be trusted fully for one reason or another. It might be because they are relating events that happened long ago, like in The Good Solider, or because they are relating someone else’s story, like in Wuthering Heights, or because for one reason or another what they are saying can no longer be verified.

An unreliable narrator may be driven by self-preservation, desire for revenge, love, hate, or denial.

 

Clay and Hannah

Thirteen Reasons Why is actually driven by not one, but two unreliable narrators; Clay and Hannah. Clay is an unreliable narrator because he see’s everything through a blinkered lens; he filters every reaction, every statement through the quest to understand what he personally did to be on the list. For this reason he fits the mould, but is not the main focus here; Clay is unreliable because he is preoccupied, and because he doesn’t understand or know every detail of the story we are experiencing through him.

 

Hannah is a much more unusual and interesting form of the convention; she has set herself up to be an unreliable narrator in order to sow the same doubt, paranoia, and hurt as she felt herself amongst those she holds to be guilty. Before we go forward I should disclaim that this is only my view of her as a character; other people have their own interpretations and I have no doubt that they are all valid. However, I cannot help but see some premeditation in the damage and chaos that Hannah causes to those who hurt her.

 

Unreliable Narration and Masterful Manipulation

I hold that Hannah Baker is a) the ultimate unreliable narrator, b) a realistic anti-hero, and c) the engineer of her own status as such

Consider two extracts from the novel;

“And this time, I was going to be in control of how people saw me.” (Pp 19.) 

“Step-by-step. That’s how we’ll get through this. One foot in front of the other.” (Pp 54)

 

Hannah wants to align herself with each person as they listen, be on their side so that, when she spills their secret betrayals when she exposes them to others and makes them pass it along, they feel the same upset. So that they understand not only her truth and their part, but so that they run the gauntlet too.

Jay Asher masterfully created an unreliable narrator who manipulates the reader as well as the protagonist. Clay’s presence on the tapes and his obvious confusion as to why illustrate this perfectly; we want to believe Hannah so badly that we doubt him. Her testimony paints him as more unreliable than he actually his, or more deliberately unreliable I should say. And then she tells us, and him, that he honestly doesn’t belong on her list, not in the same way.  She manipulates Clay and the reader in one deft stroke, with one simple addition and omission, and of course, this means that it’s Asher who does this.

This is why I wrote this article; it’s not about the prose or even the story. It’s about the technique. This is sleight of hand done with aplomb; this is magician level deception in writing, and this is something we all need to learn from.

To use one narrator to mislead another, and by extension, the reader is not unheard of and it’s certainly not unique (consider The Historian, for example), but it’s unusual enough that it bears consideration. How can we learn from this, and what, as writers, can we do to incorporate the same cleverness into our own works?

 

Why it had to be so

Ask yourself this and be honest in answering; if Clay had hurt Hannah if he had been responsible, would you have put the book down? Perhaps not. Would you have cared so much about how he dealt with it? Probably not.

And if Asher had written this from Hannah’s perspective, from the meeting with Jessica to her suicide, would it have been as compelling and satisfying (albeit horrifying)? No. Definitely not.

Why?

Because we tangle ourselves as much in Clay as in Hannah; we want and need him to be either innocent or guilty depending on our own gut feeling (just the same way that some of us will instantly suspect either Justin or Bryce). It adds a layer of tension and a different element of potential loss to the narrative. This kind of layering is unusual and complex, but when it’s done well you get this effect; this I have to know but I don’t want to know, this don’t ruin them for me but destroy them completely if you do kind of effect. Clay had to be a saint or a devil, and Hannah had to be intangible because they cannot share the stage all at once.

Unreliable narration is the cornerstone of many a fictive genre: mystery, crime, and romance to name a few. In fact, to a degree most narrators are unreliable, but it’s this deliberate undermining of their credibility that draws a line between the narrator who is unreliable because the author doesn’t quite know what’s happening as they write, and the narrator who is unreliable because the author constructed them to be so. 

If anyone asks you what makes a good unreliable narrator, direct them to this book.

 

Image Source; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1hoi2KsB5U