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.

January Contest Crit Giveaway: Query or First 250

While I got my agent through querying, contests were critical along the way. Contests helped me hone my query and first 250, introduced me to other writers who gave me great feedback and encouragement, and pointed me to all kinds of fantastic online resources. In 2015, I want to give back to the writing community that helped me so much, and one way I’m going to do that is offering feedback to help other writers entering contests!

Thus, for my first contest crit giveaway, I’m offering the following to anyone thinking of entering Sun vs. Snow*:

Comment with your query OR your first 250 (not both), and I will tell you the ONE thing I think would most improve it!

Why only one? Left to my own devices, I tend to give overly lengthy feedback, which is both time consuming for me and potentially overwhelming for the recipient. By limiting myself to picking the one most important thing, I ensure I can respond to (and help) more people, and also protect your sanity. 😉

This offer is for the first 10 comments. If I get more than 10 entrants, I have to stop there. Only so much time in the day!

If you want to offer other people feedback, please do comment on their entries. Just make sure to be supportive even when delivering suggestions. If someone comments on yours, make sure to return a crit for theirs!

Good luck to everyone entering Sun vs. Snow! Learn lots and have fun!

(* If you aren’t familiar with Sun vs. Snow, it’s a great, fun contest for unagented writers seeking an agent for their polished manuscript. If you’re querying, you should think about entering!)

[UPDATE: I’ve got all 10 slots filled now! Thanks to those who posted for their bravery. I may do another crit giveaway next month, so stay tuned!]

Writing Goals for 2015

I have to say, I’m really excited about my writing plans for 2015.

I have three main projects I’m working on at the beginning of this year, each one at a different stage:

First there’s JANUARY IN SHADOW, a YA contemporary fantasy. I recently did a major revision for my agent which I’m really happy with overall. I’m so excited to continue this book’s journey in 2015!

I’m also revising A FALCONER OF VENICE, a YA historical fantasy set in late 17th century Venice. I’m happy with how revisions are going on this one, too. My goal for AFOV is to finish revisions sometime this winter and have a draft ready enough to show my agent.

Then there’s a new book, which doesn’t have a working title yet and is still in the planning stages — another YA fantasy, surprise surprise. I’m super excited about New Book. It’s my first real try at multi-POV, and I love the cast of characters I’m developing. I think it’s going to be a blast to write, with each of them having their own goals, secrets, and conflicts all playing off each other. It’ll be a challenge, and I love that, too. My goal for New Book for 2015 is to get a first draft complete.

I’m also hoping to give back to the writing community in 2015, since I got so much amazing support and help in 2014.

Suffice to say I’m all psyched up to have a creative, productive, and fun year. I can’t wait!

And I can’t wait to see the wonderful things all my creative friends and writer buddies produce, as well! Here’s to a year of amazing stories.

2014: The Year of the Phoenix

It was the year of fire, the year of destruction. The year we took back what was ours. It was a new age. It was the end of history. It was the year everything changed.

The year was 2014. The place: Babylo…. wait. No, this is about my writing career.

But yeah, it was a hell of a year.

In January of 2014, I started querying DREAMWALKERS, a middle grade contemporary fantasy.

In February, I got into my first pitch contest (in which I got no requests, but got great feedback and encouragement).

In March, I got amazingly helpful feedback from the incredible and supportive online writing community, all of which pointed in the same direction: my voice for this novel was YA, not MG. After soul-searching and conferring with my CPs and beta readers — and most importantly, after realizing a direction I could take the book as a YA novel that could be really awesome — I decided to take the plunge and revise to YA.

In April, I finished revising the entire book from middle grade to young adult, retitling it JANUARY IN SHADOW.

In May, I started getting a whole bunch of requests for the new YA version.

In June, to distract me from the hell of waiting for query replies, I started a first person reboot of a new novel I’d been toying with, A FALCONER OF VENICE, a YA historical fantasy.

In July, I got sufficiently excited about the new book and disenchanted with the old that I gave up querying JANUARY IN SHADOW. I still had some active queries and requests, but I wasn’t sending out anything new. I’d shifted my focus to writing AFOV.

In August, I got a Revise and Resubmit request for JIS. I had to decide whether to focus on revising for the agent who was interested in JIS or on getting AFOV ready in time for PitchWars, a big mentoring contest I was really excited about. I went with momentum and kept pushing ahead with the new book, intending to get back to JIS next.

In September, everything happened at once. I got into PitchWars as a mentee with AFOV. While I was still celebrating, I got a request for JIS on an old query I’d closed out as no response. Within a couple of days, that turned into an offer of representation. WOO HOO!!! I was thrilled (if a bit dizzy from creative whiplash) to sign with my agent, Naomi Davis of Inklings Literary Agency.

In October and November, I furiously revised JIS based on feedback from Naomi and my awesome, awesome CP’s and beta readers, as well as my own fevered plans.

In December, I finished revisions on JIS and delivered the revised version to my agent. And also started taking notes for a new book I’m really excited to write, and worked on a revision plan for AFOV.

2014 was the year I finally figured out what revising was all about. The year I found the courage to start over, to take big leaps and big risks, to throw stuff out and completely rethink basic assumptions. To allow myself no quarter and ruthlessly keep honing a story rather than stopping as soon as it could hold an edge. It was a phoenix year, where I set things on fire with the faith something beautiful would rise from the ashes and lay some creative waste.

2014 was the year I found community. There are so many amazing people out there in the online writing community, who give of their time with great generosity to help each other on the endless road. And my own community of friends, writers and not, were equally amazing about offering to read my book, or helping me hone my pitches, or helping pick a title. I had been going it alone, but that was stupid. As video games teach us, IT IS DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE. There’s so much I have to learn as a writer, always, and I am honored and humbled to be a part of a writing community so generous in its sharing of knowledge and support.

2014 was the year I got an agent. That still feels pretty darn awesome. I’m starting a new phase of my writing journey. I know it’ll be even harder in several ways, and I’m sure there will be many bumps in the road. But I’m so excited to be embarking on the voyage.

I’m starting 2015 bursting over with creative energy, excited about all three projects (JIS, AFOV, and New Book) and eager to see where I can take them. No matter what happens, I am going to make awesome stories and it’s going to be amazing.

Writing Secondary Characters from the Inside Out

My growth as a writer consists largely of “Well, DUH!” moments, where I realize in a blazing epiphany something super obvious I should have known all along. My latest is about writing secondary characters, and I’d like to share it with you. (I can’t say that without hearing a folk guitar intro in the background, so feel free to imagine one.)

Here it is in a nutshell: Write supporting characters from the inside, not the outside.

For years, I’ve been trying to take to heart the advice that characters other than the main character should have stuff going on, too — that they could each be the hero of their own story. For all major support characters (love interests, villains, BFFs, etc), I generally have sections in my notes where I plot out their arc, figure out their goals and flaws and fears, and all that good stuff. I thought that was enough, and sometimes I got good results that way. But other times, no matter how good a character’s arc looked on paper, I couldn’t make them come to life in the story.

I have one particular character in the book I’ve been revising who gave me a hell of a time. I couldn’t get him to work. I redesigned him completely several times, gave him more plot and more interesting relationships with other characters, and rewrote his scenes over and over. But each time I sent a new draft to beta readers, every single one of them unerringly singled him out as the weakest character — and they were right.

So I tried something I hadn’t done before. I tried to inhabit him as if he were the main character. While I was folding laundry, or in the shower, or driving to the store, I ran scenes in my head with him as the viewpoint character, letting him drive the scene. Thinking his thoughts, feeling his feelings, making his choices.

It helped immensely. I went back and rewrote everything the character said or did. I don’t know yet if he’s where he needs to be… but he’s finally a Real Boy to me now. He can talk and argue with the other characters on his own in my head, while before if I had him in a scene he was just filling the purpose I needed filled or providing a backboard for another character to bounce off.

I’m now in the early planning stages for a new book, and I’m trying the same thing with each of the major characters. For instance, there’s an antagonistic character who I originally envisioned as a flat minor villain (flavor: Ambitious Sociopath Vanilla). But then I tried really treating her like the hero of her own story — not just making notes about her arc, but getting inside her head and writing some of her story in my imagination. I wound up with a far better understanding of why she’s doing what she’s doing, and she expanded in much more interesting dimensions, becoming more human and tragic (if still ultimately a villain).

I have no idea why I wasn’t doing this before. It seems like a no brainer, right? But for many of my supporting characters, I was writing them from the outside, with no idea what their inner headspace was really like. Writing for the effect they’d have on the scene, or the interactions they’d have with the main character, rather than inhabiting them and driving their actions from inside their thoughts and feelings.

Let’s just say a more immersive approach is working better for me so far. Well, DUH.

Dear Newbie Querier Me, Part Two: Forget Personalization

(This is another thing I wish I could go back in time and tell myself at the beginning of my querying career.)

Dear Newbie Querier Me,

I know you keep reading that you need to personalize each query to the specific agent you’re querying. I know you see agent interview after agent interview where they talk about what a difference good personalization can make. But listen to me carefully now: that advice is for other people. Not you. For the love of chocolate, stop trying to personalize your queries.

You didn’t meet those agents at conferences. You don’t have a referral. You aren’t going to impress them by saying you love their famous client, because everyone loves their famous client, and besides, their client you love is a picture book author and you’re writing YA. I know they say to let them know why you’re querying them in particular… but the fact is, for almost every agent you query, the answer is because I read everything about you I could find on the web and you represent my category/genre and seem really cool.

That is not actually useful or interesting information. Skip it and get to your story.

Most of all, Newbie Querier Me, don’t try to make charming small talk or any such crap. You can’t do that. Sure, you read success stories about people who did that in their query letters and it worked out for them, but those people probably did not grow up in Massachusetts. You live in a state where making small talk with strangers is considered an invasion of privacy and kind of rude. You never learned how to do it without sounding like a creepy stalker. Stop trying. Just stop.

If you want facts and figures, consider this, Newbie Querier Me: You will spend hours personalizing many queries. You will get many agent requests. You will never, even once, get a request on a query you personalized. You suck at this. Stop shooting yourself in the foot. No one will notice if you skip the personalization, but they sure as hell will notice if you screw it up.

Love and Kisses,

Future Agented You

(PS) To those reading this who are not me, if you’re one of the lucky ones who actually has specific connections to mention (met the agent at a conference, have a referral, etc), or who is good at this personalization stuff and not intimidated by it, go right ahead and do it! Don’t let my pathetic failures hold you back if this is an area where you can genuinely shine.

But if you’re like me and you dread the personalized section of your query, do yourself a favor and leave it out. Just make sure you get the name right, and do your research to make sure the agent is seeking what you’re querying and is a good fit for you. It’s your story they really care about anyway.

On Tearing Down Walls

I grew up wanting to see more girls with swords on book covers. When I find one, it still makes me feel all warm and happy inside (especially if she’s wearing sufficient clothing, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue). It means I have a place in stories — a place I want, and a place I can be proud of. And a place in stories can carve you out a place in the real world, very directly. If you see female warriors, astronauts, and scientists in books and movies and games, you’re far less likely to question that they can exist.

I didn’t have to grow up wanting to see more people with my skin color on book covers. But lots of kids do. We need to change that, now more than ever.

The news lately has made it too horribly, tragically clear what happens when we see our fellow human beings as Other. We need to get all colors of faces on book covers, in movies, in games. And not just as the Token Black Guy on the team of 6 or even the Hero’s Best Friend… and certainly not just as the criminal, the thug, or the villain’s non-speaking lieutenant. We need diverse heroes, scientists, magicians, love interests, teachers — characters you want to invite into your living room. Characters you’d trust to watch your kids or save your planet.

We have to carve out that space in our stories. A safe, trusted, awesome space for all our friends and family in this wide world with its rainbow of people colors. Because what people see in stories, they will expect in reality.

Our imagination is our greatest power. Use yours. Create stories, art, and games that embrace and empower all kinds of people, diverse in race, gender, sexuality, and more. Your kings, gods, heroes, and scholars don’t need to be white straight dudes. They can be, but there are a lot of other options out there. And by using one of them, you can make someone feel happy and included. You can open a door that might have been closed otherwise. You can help show people raised in prejudice a wider world.

Who knows? You might even save a life.