Monthly Archives: February 2015

Honest Answers to Querying Writer FAQs

For fun, here are some honest answers to the questions querying (or pre-querying) writers REALLY frequently ask.

Q. Is my book any good?

A. Yes. But it could be better.

Q. OK, is my book good enough?

A. WRONG QUESTION! It’s never good enough. Back to the revision pits!

Q. How do I make this book better? I’ve looked at it so long my eyes are bleeding.

A. Give it to good, honest CP’s. Take a month or two off from it and start something new (not a sequel). Fall in love with the new thing. Learn from it. Now come back to the first thing, especially if you don’t love it anymore, and you will magically be able to make it better.

Q. But I want to start querying NOW!

A. NO. No exceptions. Take the time off and start something new to get some distance first. DO IT.

Q. OK, I did it. Now, OH GOD, how the HELL do I write a query letter?

A. Go critique other peoples’ letters in a forum or blog workshop somewhere first. Also go look at query contest winners on the big blog contests, and figure out what you like about your favorites. Also, QueryShark.

Q. That’s a lot of information. Can you sum it up in three words?

A. Yes. Character, conflict, stakes.

Q. Ugh, writing a query letter STILL sucks.

A. It will always suck. Go get feedback on yours now.

Q. Does my query letter suck?

A. WRONG QUESTION. Ask yourself, “Is this so awesome anyone in their right minds would immediately NEED to read this book?”

Q. Seriously?! THAT’S the bar?!

A. Yep. Terrifying, isn’t it?

Q. Dude. I should just quit.

A. NO. No quitting. BACK TO WORK.

Q. I sent out my query letter. WHEN WILL AGENTS GET BACK TO ME?!?!

A. Never. They will never get back to you. Your suffering is eternal.

Q. NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

A. Or you could check QueryTracker.

Q. Argh, now they’re getting back to me and it’s all rejections! Does my query suck?

A. Yes. Or else your book isn’t ready.

Q. How do I know which one?

A. Get feedback from someone whose judgment you trust who will be honest with you. Then listen to it. Then revise.

Q. I’m getting requests! OMG OMG!!! What do I do?!

A. Keep calm and query on.

Q. HOW LONG CAN IT TAKE AN AGENT TO READ ONE FREAKIN’ PARTIAL?!

A. Ten thousand years.

Q. Will they EVER get back to me?!?!

A. Not always. Non-responses on fulls are a thing.

Q. SERIOUSLY?!!?!? That is the WORST THING EVER!!!

A. Yep.

Q. Can I nudge?

A. On your full? After 3 months or according to guidelines. No sooner. Get your finger off that send button. (Smacks)

Q. When do I give up on this book and move on?

A. You should already be writing the next book the minute you start querying. If your book isn’t getting the response you want, stop. Pause. Look at it. HARD. Make it better. Make it better than that. Then try again. Chances are it’s not hopeless, you just queried it too early.

Q. I looked hard, and, um, I think it might be crap. NOW should I move on?

A. If it’s actually crap and you’re not just having a low moment, sure. If you’ve got a new book that’s better. (If not, why weren’t you writing it all this time, hmmm?) If it might not be crap, or you don’t have anything else ready, BACK TO THE REVISION PITS!

Q. You say that a lot, don’t you?

A. There’s a reason for that. Every book can be better, always. MAKE IT SO.

That was fun! What did I miss? Got any suggestions for more Honest Writer FAQs I should add?


Dramatic Tension Part 2: Chapter Breaks

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re reading a good book, and you tell yourself, “Okay, it’s getting late, I really need to stop reading at the end of this chapter.” But then you get to the end of the chapter, and AAAAH! It ends with some incredible twist, and you have to keep reading. Next thing you know, it’s 3 AM, and you’re not even sorry.

The weird part is, if the author had done a chapter break at the part where you thought “I really need to go to bed” instead of at the part where you went AAAAAH, you probably would have been able to put the book down. Even if all the words were exactly the same, with only the chapter breaks in different places, you would have had less of a feeling of incredible dramatic tension propelling you through the story and forcing you to read into the wee hours.

It’s very tempting to end chapters at a natural break point. It seems intuitive to look for a scene break, where you already have some white space or a few stars, and stick a chapter break there. But actually, some of the best chapter breaks for jacking up dramatic tension come right in the middle of a scene.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you have a scene where your heroine gets into her car, and then suddenly a zombie who was lurking in the back seat attacks her, and she bludgeons him to a pulp with her laptop bag. You could put in a chapter break at the end of the scene, after she’s freaked out a bit, dumped the dead zombie in a ditch, and driven off to find her friends and tell them what happened. Or you could break when the cold, rotten hands of the zombie close around her neck from the backseat. I know which chapter ending would give me no choice but to keep reading.

Your dramatic tension can’t always be spiked in the red throughout the whole book. Your readers need chances to catch their breath. But if you give them those chances at the end of a chapter, they’ll feel like they can put the book down. If you give them breathing room in the middle of a chapter, and then cut to a commercial (er, chapter break) right at the big twist or most exciting part, they’ll never lose that momentum.


Dramatic Tension Part 1: Layers of Tension

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about dramatic tension. I think manipulating dramatic tension is just as important as plot, character, and voice, but it doesn’t seem to get talked about as often. Yet dramatic tension is often the biggest factor that keeps me reading—it’s what makes a book un-put-down-able. It’s how writers can strive to hook readers from page one and keep them all the way through until The End.

I have a ton to say about dramatic tension, but for this post I’m going to start out talking about using dramatic tension at different levels of granularity. What do I mean by that? Well, for an example of a masterwork of dramatic tension, let’s look at The Hunger Games.

On the grand, overarching level, we’re desperate for the entire book to find out how the games will end. Who will win? Who will live? Will Katniss have to kill anyone she cares about? At this level, we’ve got the key dramatic questions for the whole book. As writers, we need to know what those questions are, make sure they’re sufficiently compelling, introduce them nice and early, and sustain interest in the answers through the whole book (which of course involves throwing in a variety of twists and wrinkles along the way).

But tension also operates at other levels. We have lots of smaller questions we care about just as much in the moment as we do about the big ones. What will Katniss do about Peeta’s big public confession? How the heck is she going to get down out of that tree alive? Will she wind up pitted against Rue? These many layered sources of tension operate on different scales (scene by scene, chapter by chapter, etc) as well as in different areas (physical danger, romantic tension, etc). It’s the intersection of different kinds of tension, playing out in both the short and the long term, that makes it impossible to stop turning pages.

If the only source of tension in the book was the long term question of whether Katniss would live, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting and engaging. It’s the personal implications of the life and death choices she has to make, small and large, moment by moment, that keep us reading. If she only had one big choice at the end, we’d never make it that far. As writers, we need something at stake in every scene—something specific to that scene, not just the overall stakes for the book (though it can certainly tie in to the larger stakes).

At various stages, I like to do a dramatic tension check on a book. I find it’s useful at the outlining stage and again during the revision phase. I try to identify the sources of dramatic tension for the book as a whole, for each major arc/act of the book, and on a chapter-by-chapter level. I ask myself “What is the reason the reader can’t put down the book at this point? What compels them to keep reading, even if they really should go to bed or get some chores done?” If I don’t have a good answer, or if my answer is vague or wishy-washy, or if it’s the same as it’s been for the last 3 chapters, I know I have some work to do.


Keep Revising: The Best Advice No Writer Wants to Hear

Every time I start a new round of revisions or edits, I save off a new version of my book. That way, if I decide I liked something better the old way, or want to salvage some language from a scene I cut two versions ago, it’s easy to go back and find what I want to keep from the earlier draft.

It also makes it easy to see how many rounds of revisions I’ve done. Here are some stats for you on JANUARY IN SHADOW, the book that got me my agent:

I started querying with draft #6.

I rewrote from MG to YA in draft #9.

I got my agent with draft #10.

I just sent her draft #13.

I went back and looked at draft #1 recently, and wow, it was… not great. Luckily, I realized that at the time, and rebooted completely after about 20K words. I’d say maybe 5% of the words from that first draft made it into the current version. You can tell by the stats above that if I’d bitten the bullet and revised to YA earlier, I probably would have had to do fewer drafts.

Some of those revisions were really minor polish passes, where I was mostly just hunting down rogue adverbs and shining the voice to a sparkle. But other revisions involved ripping out the guts and restuffing—changing characters, throwing whole chapters out, reworking relationships, shuffling the order of major events, you name it. Draft #11 was a major revision in response to my agent’s initial feedback, but my beta readers helped me realize I hadn’t dug deep enough, so I dove right back in and did another significant revision before sending her draft #12, which was much better.

I really thought I was ready with draft #6. I thought the book was as good as I could make it, and I was ready to query. But I was wrong. I still needed to really listen to my beta readers’ advice and my own instincts. I needed to ask myself hard questions about every part of the book that didn’t feel completely awesome to me, and not flinch away from the answers.

I needed to push myself to raise the stakes, dig deeper, push harder, until the book wasn’t as good as I could make it, but rather as awesome as it could possibly be.

Nobody wants to hear “You should start over” or “Major structural rewrites will make your book much better” or “You should do the work to improve your craft in your area of weakness and then come back to this.” But sometimes that’s what you need to do, and you’ll be a better writer with a better book if you throw yourself into those big scary revisions with enthusiasm about how awesome your book will be when you’re done.

Never be afraid to do the hard work to make your book not just good, but amazing. If you love it, you can do no less.