Two “BIG” Annoucements!

1. Today The Stolen goes on sale in paperback! You can get a copy at your local bookstore, or from: HarperCollins, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Indiebound.

2. I’ve got a post on John Scalzi’s blog, part of his “Big Idea” series! Do stop by and check it out, the poor guy could really use the extra traffic… (MASSIVELY sarcastic)

That’s right, I’m now a “Paperback Writer.” And yes, I’ve been waiting a long time to use that!

When You Wish Upon a Star, and Work Really Hard, and Don’t Ever Give Up, and Get More Than a Little Lucky… (How I Got a Publishing Offer)

Before I begin, please give me a moment.

I got a publishing offer! AAAAHHHHHHH!

hobbes

Thank you.

More than twenty months ago, Harper Voyager (the science fiction and fantasy branch of Harper Collins) had an open submission window. For two weeks, one of the major publishing houses was going to accept manuscripts from authors who didn’t have agents. The link is still active, harper-voyager-guidelines-for-digital-submission/, for those of you interested in reading the details. I submitted The Stolen (previously titled Stolen Child) with high hopes. The initial assessment was that over 4,500 manuscripts were submitted. Truth to tell, I expected they’d receive many more, but as it turns out, they were expecting many less. The original plan was to have a list of twelve new authors to release digitally, with the possibility of print publication, in three months. For the next fifteen months, updates were posted every two to three months. Eventually Harper Voyager decided to notify everyone if they were accepted or not, instead of just letting authors assuming after a certain period of time that they were not accepted.

So I waited.

Waiting 1

And I waited.

Waiting 3

And I waited some more.

Waiting 2

In fact, my wait is how this blog came to be. I’d been planning for awhile on setting one up and decided this was the perfect time. If I was selected, I’d have the basis of an online presence to help in marketing. If I wasn’t, I’d have the basis of an online presence for if/when I decided to self-publish.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how hard it was sometimes. With no word meaning The Stolen was still under consideration, I began to panic that perhaps the rejection had gone to my spam folder and I’d deleted it. In the updates submitters were told we could check on our status by emailing Harper Voyager. I did, and didn’t hear back. As you can imagine, that didn’t help. After two months, I sent another message and received a reply in less than twenty-four hours: I was indeed still under consideration! I was hopeful, but after so many rejections before, staying positive wasn’t always easy. When it was hard though, I reminded myself that every day I wasn’t rejected was one day closer to making it.

The final update came on December 19th. They were down to 295 submissions, and everyone would be notified one way or the other by the end of January.

Luckily the end of the year was busy for me. I started a new contract for my day job as a consultant in the utilities industry and tried, often unsuccessfully, not to think about The Stolen still being under consideration.

Then the email arrived. I saw the notification light on my phone blinking, and when I checked my email, I saw a message from Harper Collins. Now, all this happened in half of a tenth of a second, but I remember thinking that when the message arrived, how hard I might find it to open because it could be either a rejection or an offer. In fact, until I opened it, it was both. It was Schrödinger’s cat. Well, as it turned out, the email program on my phone shows the first two lines of the message along with the title and the sender. I read “Dear Mr. O’Connell, We are delighted to offer you—”  and my brain stopped. After a while of taking it all in and utterly losing my mind, I recovered enough to start thinking clearly. That meant, I started planning what to do next.

Of course I replied to the editor, thanking her for her offer, and I did NOT accept it. If I had, there would be no negotiation, just me accepting the first offer they made.

Next, I sent out emails to agents. I don’t have one and I want one to negotiate my offer for me. I’m not stupid, but I know very little about the publishing industry. I want, in fact I need, someone there who can ensure I’m not taken advantage of. That’s sound advice for anyone signing any kind of offer. Now, as I’d exhausted the list of possible agents in my genre by having submitted my manuscript to them over the last couple of years, I had to send messages to those who’d already passed on my book, sometimes more than once. I will admit, this gave me more than a bit of satisfaction. I am, however, mature and reasonable, so I restrained my inner child.

Neener-neener

As I’m writing this, I’m waiting to hear back from a few of the agents. I also contacted a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property, specifically the publishing world. From the responses I’ve received, this is what I learned.

An agent charges a percentage against all profits made from the title(s), and apparently, it doesn’t matter if they found the publishing offer or you did. Lawyers charge by the hour. So, a lawyer will cost more up front, but then the costs are done. An agent costs nothing now, but gets a piece of every dollar you make on those titles (15 percent is the normal rate I’m seeing).

I won’t post the details of the offer, but I will say it was for The Stolen , and its sequel, currently titled The Forgotten. I’ve also been told I need to change the title as there’s already a book with that title that achieved some level of success (that change has already happened). I’m disappointed, but I knew that was a possibility.

What happens next?

I have no idea. Well, I have very little idea. This is new to me, and I’m guessing it might be to you as well. I admit, I’ve never quite understood, or was at all interested in the more personal blogs, those akin to digital diaries for the world to read. It’s fine if that’s your thing, I’ll withhold any judgment, but I just can’t get myself to believe much of what happens in my daily life is worth reporting. Having said that, this journey unto which I’m venturing might in fact be of interest to others, so I’m going to make more of my blog entries hence forth, a sort of travelogue of my journey to publication. To be clear, I’m not an idiot. I know full well something could come up and scuttle this whole process. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen, but if it does, that’ll be part of the journey, and I’ll tell you about it. Then, I’ll choose my next path and go from there.

I don’t ask for your adulation, praise, or envy. Congratulations are welcome and appreciated, but not necessary. I worked hard to achieve this. I spent years crafting the book, working with editors, and improving my skills as a writer. I also know that I was more than a bit lucky. People say “I’d rather be lucky than good,” I rather like knowing (in this instance at least) I was a bit of both.

To those of you still querying agents, sending out samples, and searching for publishers who will read your work, I salute you. Keep the faith, stay on the path. As I said in my first post, Your Baby is Ugly

“I know one day my book(s) will sit on a shelf and I’ll make a living on my writing. I know this because I also know that you’ll never succeed if you give up. The people who succeeded say you can too, the people who gave up say you can’t. Who are you going to listen to?”

Some might be confused by this since I posted the release date not long ago. That’s understandable. You see, this post was written in January, when I got the offer. However, when I was, almost literally, about to post this, I got word I needed to keep the offer quiet until Harper made the official announcement. Since they have I can now post this. I did consider rewriting it, but decided not to since it really captured my joy, shock, and mind-blowing delight at getting the offer. Posting it brought me back to that moment, and that’s why I posted it, to share that joy with others.

Here are some links to the official announcement:

HarperCollins

Publisher’s Weekly

 

 

Read Any Good Books Lately?

I’ve never bought into the idea that some talents can’t be learned. Sure, some people have natural talents, or learn faster than others, but generally speaking, I think given enough time, anyone can learn to do anything. Everyone learns differently, some people learn best from a book working on their own, others need someone to show them examples. Some things can be learned from books. However, I think learning to write from a book is akin to learning to speak a foreign language from a book, i.e. it just won’t get you there. You need practical experience. If you want to learn how to write well, you have to write. For most of us, that means going through a phase of writing, to be polite, poorly. And yet, I think that there are elements of the craft of writing that you can learn from books. As such, here are three I’ve found invaluable on my path to becoming a writer.

  1. Self-Editing For Fiction Writers – By Renni Browne and Dave King

This book is on its 150,000th edition. Okay, maybe not that many, but it’s usually at the top of the suggested reading list, and for good reason. I found it easy to follow and understand and apply to my own writing. The book’s one drawback is actually a human fault. It teaches you how to fix problems, but you can fix only the ones you can see, and you’ll never see them all. As writers, we tend to skip over our own errors, our brains fixing them so we read what we intend, not what’s really on the page. However, this book is an excellent starting point and is easily one of the best I’ve found. It covers all aspects of writing: character development, dialogue, plot, all of it. It’s available everywhere and I recommend it, unless you don’t think you need it, then I highly recommend it.

  1. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy – By Orson Scott Card

Regardless of what you might think of Mr. Card’s personal politics and beliefs, this book still has a lot of value if you want to write in either genre. I’ve read it several times, and I’m not even a huge fan of his fiction. This book is good at reminding us not just to write for fans of the genre, but for those who aren’t as well. Like most books, there are things I take away from it and find useful, and some things I discard because they don’t help me. But in the end, the cover price is small for the amount of information you’ll get out of it.

  1. The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great – By Donald Maass

For those of you who don’t know, Donald Maass is a literary agent, and a rather successful one (read subtle understatement there). When I found this book of his, you could download it for free (as a pdf), but it doesn’t appear to be offered that way anymore. It’s a quick read, and I read it initially to get an agent’s perspective on writing (he’s also a published author). I got much more out of it than that. He has plenty of excellent tips and suggestions for improving your manuscript. What I really took away from it though was the first section: Status Seekers and Storytellers. For that portion alone, I think this book is worth the cost.

There are countless books on the craft of writing. These are just three I’ve found useful. Have you read any titles you want to add? Please leave a comment and tell me about them. I’d love to hear about what you’ve found helpful. In the end though, the only real way to improve your writing is to write, have someone else critique it honestly, then work to make the story better. Remember what Ernest Hemmingway said, “’there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Of course, he never said how much you had to bleed, or how long you had to sit.

 

Self-Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing (Two Roads Diverged In a Wood)

At some point, the majority of writers find ourselves at this fork in the literary road. Some take one path, some the other, with regrets on both sides. However, before we get too deep into the “woods” as it were, let’s make sure we understand the terms we’re talking about.

Traditional Publishing:

This is when someone else (read, publisher) assumes all financial responsibility for publishing your book. This includes: all printing costs (cover design, page layout, attaining an ISBN number, distribution, etc), conversion to the various e-book formats and distribution in the major markets (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google, iTunes, etc), marketing, return insurance (book stores can return unsold copies and get their money back), and much, much more. For this, you give them the sole rights to publish said work for a specified period of time. You’re paid an advance and a percentage of sales for each book that’s sold (royalties). It should be noted that smaller, independent publishing houses don’t typically offer advances, but usually offer a higher percentage of sales as a counter, and the advance is just that. It’s an advanced payment, which means you aren’t paid royalties until your book has earned back to the publisher in profits the amount of your advance.

Self-Publishing/Vanity Press:

If you started writing before the e-book boom, the words “vanity press” might make you cringe. I use both terms there, though technically, self-publishing is different from vanity press and many of the places that offer “self-publishing” are actually just vanity presses, but that term has a stigma so it behooved them to find another name. For the sake of our discussion, I’m going to give my definition of each by describing their differences. I’m sure there are people who will disagree with me on this separation, but being specific is important when talking about publishing and I believe in calling something what it is, no matter what stigma it might carry. So, what’s the difference I see?

Self-publishing is when YOU assume ALL financial responsibility for the publication, distribution, and marketing of your work. In essence, you become an independent publishing house with a tiny library. Of course this doesn’t mean you, yourself, will be operating the printing presses, or driving the delivery trucks. You’ll hire people to do those things, but you’ll be the one doing the hiring. You get 100 percent of the money for all sales, 100 percent of the rights, and also 100 percent of the bills. You can do everything any publishing house will do. You can hire a printer, or use print-on-demand (which allows for smaller book runs but costs significantly more per book). You can hire a distributer who will even arrange for your books to be warehoused until they’re ordered. You can do your own marketing, even buy return insurance and thus allow brick and mortar bookstores to shelve your book without fear of losing money (assuming you can convince them that your book will sell), and all the rest. It’s not easy, it’s rarely cheap, but it can be done. Make no mistake though, the self in self-publishing is you and that, to me, is the key separation between it and vanity press.

Vanity press, on the other hand is really a hybrid of self-publishing and traditional publishing. With vanity press you assume some (typically most) of the financial burden, surrender some of your rights (though typically not as much as with traditional publishing), some of the profits (typically better than traditional publishing but not always) and essentially hire one company do all the heavy lifting of publication. It should be noted that with vanity press there is usually very little, if any, marketing done.

So now that we understand what we’re talking about, what are the pros and cons of each one? Well, let’s break it down by category, but understand I’m using generalizations here. As with anything that relates to you signing away rights of any kind, you should check with a lawyer to, at the very least, translate the legalese into plain English. Many a writer has found him/herself in a bad place because they let the excitement of publication blind them to a trap or unfair (to use a monstrous understatement) circumstances.

Recognition:

This isn’t even a contest, which is why I’m starting with it. Traditional publishing wins by forfeit, and that’s the very top benefit to traditional publishing. The reason for this is a harsh but immutable fact: self-publishing and vanity press publish a LOT of books that, for a variety of reasons, shouldn’t be. If you’re offended by this statement, I encourage you to peruse the e-book offerings at Amazon, or anywhere else that lets you “publish” anything you like. Often the e-books are plagued with spelling and grammar errors. That might sound elitist or snobbish, but give it a try. How many misuses of “they’re,” “their,” and “there” (as just an example), will it take before you can’t ignore them anymore and you stop reading? That’s assuming the book isn’t just badly written. There is a lingering notion in the world that writing a book is easy. If you can arrange words into a complete sentence, you can write a book. We all know funny stories, or have interesting anecdotes that people seem to enjoy. As anyone who’s ever finished a book knows, keeping a story going for 70,000-100,000 words plus is no easy feat, let alone keeping it interesting and on track. Of course, short stories are no simple task either. Keeping a coherent, engrossing story down to 5,000 words or less is impressive. If writing a novel is like building a house of bricks, writing a short story is like carving a doghouse from a single block of stone. Writing, like anything else, is a craft. Sure, some of us have more natural talent than others for one aspect or another (technical writing, storytelling, dialogue, etc) but writing is also a skill that should be honed and developed. Let’s apply the same thinking to other tasks that many people associate with writing:

  1. I can build a house, it’s just four walls and a roof.
  2. I can build a chest of drawers, I know how to cut wood and use sand paper.
  3. I can replace (insert part name here) in my car, it’s just bolts and wires.
  4. I can race that dragster, I’ve been driving for thirty years.

Okay, you get the idea. It’s not fair, but every one of us who wants to get published is lumped into the “I’ll just write a book” crowd until we prove we’re serious. Does that mean everything that is published through traditional means is quality stuff? I think we’ve all come across examples of that not being the case. But, I think we can agree you’re less likely find something like this in the traditional publishing world.

Getting Published:

This is goal, right? How many of us have dreamed of holding an actual, physical copy of our book in our hands? Like recognition, this is no contest. Non-traditional publishing wins hands down. The reason is just as simple; everyone is welcome! That’s great, right? Anyone can publish a book! Yeah, ANYONE can publish a book. But, there’s a cost to having an open door. There’s recognition of course (see above), but there is also the company you’ll be in (also see above), and that’s just the beginning. Despite these things though, I still see the allure of non-traditional publishing. Yes, it’s hard to break into traditional publishing. Okay, it’s a leg breaker. Even if you have a great book, you have to pitch it to the right person at the right time. Believe me, I understand the frustration. My rejection letters, or lack of any response at all, number well into the triple digit range for the two books I’ve tried to get published. The first, I admit, falls into the “not ready for publication” category. Frankly, I wrote it and “people” (friends, co-workers, casual acquaintances) liked it, so I thought it was ready to go. Ah, to be young and naïve again.

Compensation (Royalties and Sales):

Now we get into murkier waters. The simple solution to navigating this section is to order the options from best to worst:

  1. Self-publishing
  2. Vanity press
  3. Traditional publishing

The trouble is, like with many things, the context. With self-publishing (my definition), you get all the money! Woo hoo! The other two options give you varying degrees of less than that, with vanity press usually offering a higher percentage of sales. Keep in mind, though, this is where understanding your contract comes in. If you see the word “profits” instead of “book sales,” run, fast. Profits is a term so easily manipulated that I can almost promise you’re about to be taken in. Well, profit is anything after all the bills are paid, right?  You’d be amazed the number of “expenses” that take a bite out of the incoming money. Odds are, you’re lucky to see a stem when everyone has had their bite of the proverbial apple. Non-traditional royalty rates vary widely both in percentage and where in the financial chain they’re calculated. For traditional publication, average royalties for hardback books range from 10 percent to 15 percent, though only successful authors tend to see above 12 percent up front. There are typically breakpoints for more copies sold (higher percentage rates the more copies you sell). For paperbacks the range is 6 percent to 9 percent, of course authors with proven sales can see above 10 percent.*

The other catch to this is that you actually need to sell books to make money. Sure, you can put your book on Amazon and B&N (Barnes & Noble), but you’re just one of, literally, millions of books available. And I’m not even talking about e-book only titles. It’s like deciding you want to sell something and so you setup a webpage and stop. Sure, some people will invariably find you, but no business has 100 percent of the shoppers as buyers. Physical books still account for about 90 percent of all sales, and about 56 percent of sales happen in actual stores, not online.** That means that if you’re not on shelves, your market is already more than cut in half. Sure, online sales are increasing, but no matter how it’s spread, you still have a smaller group of people to sell to. So while you might make a larger percentage going non-traditional, you’re likely to see far less sales.

At this point, I feel I should mention that there have been a number of people who’ve been quite successful by going the non-traditional path. Yes, it happens, and with hard work and some luck, you could join those ranks. Of course, lots of people win the lottery too.

Rights:

Once more, this is tricky. Self-publishing lets you retain all the rights to your work. Traditional publishing and vanity press require you to sign over some of those rights for some amount of time. Each can vary widely, both in time and scope, so I can’t really speak to it. I’ll just say again that you need to consult with a lawyer who deals in intellectual property, if you aren’t working with a reputable literary agent. Yes, both will charge for their time (agents fees will come out of your advance and royalties), but they will also keep you from being taken advantage of, or at least unknowingly taken advantage of.

The Stigma:

This is such a powerful aspect that it needs to be taken into account. Although it’s true that with the rise of e-books, self-publishing (which is much easier with e-books) and even vanity press don’t quite have the full mark of Cain they once did, it’s still not looked upon favorably. At best, you can hope for indifference. Again, there are people who’ve achieved enough success on the non-traditional route that traditional doors have opened, but make no mistake, that’s not the norm. If you choose the non-traditional route, you need to understand that it means that nearly everyone in the publishing world will, at best, not recognize that you’re a published author, or at worst, categorize you in the literary equal of a leper colony. In fact, in most cases, if you decide to try going the traditional route after going the non-traditional one, you’re best never mentioning you went down that road at all.

Is it fair? Well, that’s a loaded question. Publishers are the ones putting the money up, so they get to decide who they’re going to invest it in. Most non-traditional publishers have no quality checks at all, so you get a lot out there that most of us would agree is less than stellar. If you want to walk through the doors that are always open, be prepared to accept the kind of company you’ll be seen as keeping. Likewise, if you want to get “inside,” be ready to knock on a lot of doors and have a great many of them slammed in your face.

Summary:

Like life, publishing choices come down to compromises. If you really just want to see your book in print, the good news is you can. If you want to see your book on the shelf in a store, it’s going to take more work. I can’t and won’t tell you which is right for you. I will however tell you where I am, and why.

I want to be a professional writer. My dream is to make my living writing books, to be able to walk through a bookstore and see my book on the shelf, or even see my book “in the wild” (find someone actually reading it). That means I’m taking the traditional route. I’m querying agents and the publishers who work directly with writers. It’s not easy, and as I said, I’ve gotten my share of rejections. As a genre (fantasy) writer, my options for publishers and agents are more limited, but I’m going to knock on every door available to me. That being said, if I get to the point that there aren’t any more doors left, I’m not going to just give up. I myself will choose to (truly) self-publish, and do all the hard work necessary to get my book out with the hope I can either build enough of a readership base that I can make a living, or enough that I can convince a traditional publisher to take me on. I can’t tell you which path you should take, that’s up to you. Me, I’ll take the path less travelled by, a long and hard path that might very well lead nowhere, but I hope it will make all the difference.

*Royalty statistics taken from PublishLawyer.com: http://www.publishlawyer.com. Accessed November 2013.

**Book sales statistics for 2012 as reported by Bowker market research: http://www.bowker.com/en-US/aboutus/press_room/2013/pr_08062013.shtml. Accessed November 2013.

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part. Okay, Not Really, But It Can Get to You.

First waiting room: the query letter.

So you’ve sent your query letters out to agents and/or publishers. The waiting game begins, but how long should you wait? This is where doing your research, as I suggested in my post It’s Not You, It’s Me. Okay, It’s You. Most agencies and publishers will state the usual response time in their submission guidelines. I’ve seen it range from a couple weeks to a few months, depending on how many queries they receive on a given day. They will also tell you if you should assume no response, after a set period of time, constitutes a “no, thank you.” To help me keep track of this, I created a simple excel spread sheet that lists: the agency/publisher, the specific person I queries, the email/address I sent my query to, what I included (synopsis, sample, etc.), when I sent it, how much time has passed, how long before I should hear back. The last was done using a simple formula: =today()-cell that contains date query was sent. I check the spreadsheet every so often, making note if I passed the “no thanks” threshold.

If, however, they do not tell you that no reply should be considered a rejection, is it okay to send an email checking on your status?

Yes, unless they ask that you don’t. Understand though that it might take some time to get a reply. Since mail (regular and the E variety) can get lost, if I don’t hear back within a couple weeks, I’ll send a second. If I don’t back from that one, I’ll mark that query as a rejection. I figure at that point either they’re too disorganized or don’t feel the need to reply, so it’s not worth worrying about any longer.

How long should you wait to send a message checking on your status?

If they mention how long it generally takes to respond, I use that as a basis. I’ll take the high end and add four weeks. If they don’t give a normal response time, I’ll give it two months.

This waiting is the least stressful part. I generally send out queries is bunches and, frankly, I expect a high percentage to get no reply or a rejection. The odds just say that’s the most likely outcome, but then you only need one to say yes.

Second waiting room: the sample submission.

Woo hoo! You heard back and they want a sample! After you’ve finished your brief moment of celebrating like you’re an eight-year-old who just found out you’re going to Disney World, you really should send the requested items back in short order. Don’t skimp on the celebration though, a request for a sample means your query did its job, it got you in the door, and that’s not nothing.

This waiting is the easier of the two because if they requested a sample, you can be certain you’ll hear back. Typically they’ll also let you know how long they expect to need to review your sample. If they don’t, you should ask. You should also get comfortable because it can take a while. Keep in mind these people, hopefully, have clients who are making them money, or if it’s a publisher, have books to print and sell to make money. My experience is that you should expect it to take between one and two months, depending on the size of the sample and the person’s work load.

During this time, it’s best not to think about it. That’s a sure way to drive yourself insane, and writers, as a group, already live pretty close, so it’s a short drive. Find something else to do to occupy your time. I give myself one day a week to go over things and remind myself I’ve got a sample out there being reviewed, but otherwise, forget about it. Work on another writing project, look at cat videos on YouTube, anything to get your mind off it.

As a side note, if you sent out multiple queries and you get the rare pleasure of having multiple requests for a sample at the same time, you should check with the first agent/publisher and see if they want an exclusive review (if they didn’t tell you when they requested the sample). If they don’t, and not many do, when you send the sample be sure to let the second agent/publisher know that someone else is also reviewing it. At this point you can celebrate more, then find something else to do. I hear making ships in a bottle is fun. It should also be noted that if you’re submitting short stories, this is generally the time frame you can expect, but with the request for exclusivity being more common, at least those with rapid response times or recognizable names, as I understand it.

Third waiting room: the full manuscript review.

Well done you! Go ahead, do your happy dance, I’ll wait. Okay, now you really need to get comfortable. Some places can take as much as a year to review full manuscripts. Also at this point, requesting exclusivity is more common. Yes, this sword cuts both ways.

What should you do?

Forget about it. Seriously, try your best to put it out of your mind and move on with other things. Every so often you’ll remember, and when you do, take a moment and remind yourself that no response means no rejection. Then, return to your normal life, there are dishes that need doing, garbage to take out, and have you seen how must dust there is on the coffee table?

On a personal note, I’m writing this as my own form of dealing with the wait. My manuscript The Stolen Child is under consideration by a publisher, and I had my one year anniversary of waiting just a few months ago. I did check, and I am still under consideration. The final word is supposed to come down by the end of this month. So trust me, I understand how maddening the wait can be, but that is just the cost of admission. Hang in there, and might I suggest some interesting articles to read at a rather brilliant blog, A Quiet Pint?

Writing a Query Letter (The Subtle Art of Begging)

Yes, I’m well aware how many others offer advice on writing a query letter. In point of fact, I mentioned it in my post It’s Not You, It’s Me. Okay, It’s You that Google shows 22,300,000 hits when I search “query letter.” Checking that number again it’s now 27,900,000. So why am I adding to that mountain? Because I’m a writer, and I know the pain and stress that goes into it.

So everyone is on the same page, let’s start at the very beginning.

What is a query letter?

Sometimes also called a cover letter, a query letter is, in essence, you asking someone, pretty, pretty, please, to read your work because it really is awesome and you know they’ll totally love it! Yes, you should word it a little better than that, but let’s be honest, you’re trying to convince someone to take time away from making money to look over your work because you think it can make them more money. The important thing to remember is that your query letter isn’t trying to get you published, even if it’s being sent to a publisher. A query letter is successful if it opens the door. After that, it’s up to your work to stand on its own.

Anatomy of a query letter

A query/cover letter is basically just three parts.

  1. The introduction. This is the easy part. You’ll need to tell them a few things:
    1. Word count of your work (I round to the nearest thousand, though you can be more precise if your letter is about a short story).
    2. Genre, and be specific. If it’s urban fantasy or space opera, say so.
    3. The title. Yes, this is something they should really know.
    4. Less easy is a “hook,” or reason why they should keep reading, and it shouldn’t be more than a sentence.
    5. A summary of your book. This is the hard part. You need to boil your story down to one to three paragraphs that will make someone want to read the whole thing. The common advice is to look at jacket copy (the summaries on backs of books or on dust jacket flaps). I also like to think of it as a movie trailer.
    6. Your bio. This is where you’ll put any publishing credits you have. If you don’t have any, don’t panic. This is also where you can say why you think you’re the person to write this book.

Somewhere in your letter, it’s not a bad idea to mention who you see as the intended audience for your book. Sometimes it’s implied, if you compare your work to another author’s (or, uncommonly, another popular form of artistic expression that is along the lines of your book, such as in the example below.)

Details matter

Remember this letter is going to be the first impression someone gets not only of your writing, but of you. How do you want to be seen? If you take the time and put together a polished query letter, you’ll come across as someone who treats their writing seriously and professionally.

  1. The title of your book should be in italics and all CAPS.
  2. Address your letter:
    1. To a person. Do NOT use: To whom it may concern, Dear sir/madam, or the like.
    2. To the correct person.

i.      If you’re sending it to a publishing company, address it to the acquisitions editor.

ii.      If you are sending it to an agency, send it to the agent who handles books in your genre.

  1. To Mr. or Ms., never the person’s first name.

i.      EXCEPTION: If you can’t tell the person’s gender from their first name, (some names are used for both), don’t try to guess. Use the whole name. For example: Dear Leslie Smith. Not: Dear Ms. Smith. Leslie could be a man, and wouldn’t you be embarrassed if he asked to see a sample of your book after you address him as Ms.?

  1. Include the name of the company
  2. Include your name and contact information.
  3. Personalize the letter. Include something that tells the person you’re querying that you didn’t just send out the literary equivalent of an email blast. Did you read on his bio page that he’s looking for your genre of work? Mention it! Does she represent an author you like? Tell her! Things like that are small, but they can make the difference.
  4. Note if you included any requested materials (synopsis, sample, etc).

I work well from examples, so below you’ll find the basic template, slightly modified for online publication, I used when submitting The Stolen Child. I ALWAYS modify the template and try to personalize it for each submission.

If you don’t get any requests for samples, it’s never a bad idea to look over your query letter again and see if you can improve it.

Bishop O’Connell
100 Awesome Author Circle
Some City, Any State Any Zip Code
Phone Number
Bishop@A-Quiet-Pint.com

Month Day,Year

Agent/Editor Name

Agency/Company

Address

City, State, Zip

Dear Mr./Ms. Agent/publisher’s name:

This query relates to my 96,000 word urban fantasy, The Stolen Child. This manuscript has strong literary and commercial appeal. It’s a character driven thriller. Here’s the novel’s premise:

Tonight, for the first time in over a century, a mortal child will be kidnapped by faeries, and it will happen in the United States.

After a terrible accident takes the love of Brendan Kavanaugh’s life, he condemns himself to exile from Boston, Massachusetts, the city he calls home. Now, many decades later, he has a plan to exact revenge on the faeries who caused the accident, but his plan is blown to bits when they make an unexpected move and kidnap a mortal child. As Brendan vows to find the girl and bring her back to her mother, Caitlin, he is drawn deeper and deeper into dangerous events that threaten not just his life, but the treasured memory of his love as well.

Like the rest of the modern world, Caitlin is certain that faeries exist only in children’s stories and Disney movies. Her life is simple; she’d worked hard, slept too little, and spent every possible moment with her four-year-old daughter, Fiona, the center and joy of her life. But when Fiona is kidnapped, Caitlin must accept that not only do faeries exist, but they are not at all like the characters in those children’s stories. These faeries have evolved alongside humanity, trading in their arrows, handwritten letters, and horses for guns, cell phones, and sports cars. But she has little time to process it all, as her daughter’s life hangs in the balance and Caitlin must, against her better judgment, trust Brendan and some of these strange beings to help her get Fiona back.

Stolen Child is the first of a series. I’m fascinated with history and myth, as well as how the two are connected. Throughout history, myths have shaped culture, and culture has in turn shaped myth. I believe it’s time to take back the faerie tale from Disney and make it what it once was, but for a current and modern audience. I seem to have found a bit of vindication in this, as there are currently three television series based on faerie tales; Once Upon a Time, Grimm, and Lost Girl. If you’d like to see my manuscript, or a sampling thereof, please contact me through any of the means provided above.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Bishop M. O’Connell

Letting Go of Your Work

If you pursue any kind of artistic endeavor, you invest a lot into it. Ernest Hemingway once said; “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I’m not a big Hemingway fan, but I think his mastery of the simply stated shines through here. Blood, sweat, and tears aren’t always a metaphor. Having invested so much of ourselves, and our time, into our writing (or any art form), we become quite attached to it, and understandably so. It’s not a coincidence my first entry was called “Your Baby is Ugly.” In a very real sense, our writing can be like our children. We birth it, we raise it, we marvel as it grows and develops, we protect it when we feel it’s being attacked. And sometimes, we even see it die, but please don’t email me about what a bad comparison that is. I’m not saying that the death of something you’ve written is even in the same solar system as losing a child. However, as I said, we do become attached to those things we work hard to create, and so it becomes a handy analogy. Through all the stages, there’s a final step we often forget, which is that our beloved creation takes on a life of its own. It becomes something separate from us and ventures into the world. That hard part is letting go.

Now, I don’t mean in the literal sense of submitting your writing. I’m talking about the next step after that, when it actually gets into someone else’s hands. Once you share your writing, it’s not yours anymore. This might sound like a romantic notion, but there’s more to it than that. What I mean is what your writing “means.” Sure, you’ll be able to tell people what it’s about: the story, plot, and characters, but your thoughts on what you’re trying to express are no longer the only correct ones.

Each of us is truly unique. We each take different paths through our lives, and even the things we share in common are seen through lenses shaped by previous experiences. Combine that with our individual genetic predispositions (to whatever impact they may have), our ever changing world, and you can see how astronomical are the odds of any two people having the same set of experiences. As such, we all experience the world in different ways. Take Starry Night by Van Gogh, one of the most recognizable paintings in the world. Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night I don’t know if we have any kind of record what Vincent was thinking when he composed this, but honestly, it doesn’t matter. Odds are we’ve all seen this picture. Some of us love it, myself included. Others are more sanguine about it, while still others don’t care for it. Are any of us wrong? Okay, that’s an easy one. How about this; what’s it about? What’s it mean? When you look at it do you see a serene and peaceful night? Does it bring back memories of your childhood? Or do you see a dark and cold night, imagining yourself standing alone on a hillside looking down at the town, at the lit houses where you know you’ll find no comfort? Or do you feel no strong reaction at all? Again, are any of those interpretations wrong?

When you let your writing go, you’re offering it up to the world. Someone could read your work and have a reaction to it that is nowhere near what you’d expected, or perhaps hoped. And yet, the very act of putting it out there is an act of surrender. If someone wants to know, you can explain what you were going for, what inspired you, etc. But, your thoughts are now simply your opinion, one amongst many in fact. Think of a song you love. If the person who wrote it, or performed it, came up to you and told you that what you thought the song was about was completely off base, would it really change how it makes you feel? What it does in your mind?

I recently posted some poems here, and I didn’t say what they meant, or were about, for the reason I just explained. For me, poetry is especially personal. I can tell you what I was thinking and feeling when I wrote it, I could explain the imagery I was going for, but that’s not as relevant as what you think and feel when you read it. Those poems, like anything I put out to the world, are not mine anymore. They’re yours. They’re ours. As writers, as artists, I think we strive for connection in our expressions. I’m storyteller at heart, and of course I love knowing someone was entertained by a story I came up with, but I’m hoping people find something in it that’s familiar to them. Something that says despite each us being unique, there are countless experiences, thoughts, feelings, “things” we have in common to one degree or another. In a world that is increasing isolated, ironically because of all the social media and interconnectedness of the world, we writers, painters, sculptors, actors, what have you, use our art like a message in a bottle, cast into the vast ocean surrounding our individual islands in hopes it reaches someone else on theirs.

Of course that’s just me. I could very well be insane. I heard a quote attributed to Picaso, I have no idea if it was his or not, but I like it. “All artists are half-crazy, but so long as I’m submerged in my work, I’ll be okay.”

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 4)

This is the fourth, and final installment of a four part series on the journey or writing. If you missed the other three parts, you can read them here, here, and here, respectively.

Stage 4: Senility.

For most of us, there’re really only three stages. Not many of us are around long enough as writers to lose our literary marbles. But, some do. I’m not going to name names, but most of us can think of a favorite writer (or musician, or actor, or whatever) who produced work we loved, and then, well, something happened. Perhaps it was a complete reversion to infancy, like real old-age can sometimes do, or something more akin to grandpa’s obsession with buying peanut butter.

“It was on sale, and you should always have some peanut butter, so I bought you six jars!”

“Wow, um, that’s great. Thanks, Grandpa. I’ll just put them in the cupboard with the other eight jars you’ve given me.”

He might be eccentric, but he’s grandpa and we love him. I said I wasn’t going to name names, but maybe just one. For those in my generation, the original Star Wars movies were almost mythical. I’m not a diehard Star Wars geek, but I’m a fan. When Episode 1 came out, often referred to as “The episode which must not be named,” there was a general consensus amongst my peers that George Lucas had “lost his freaking mind.” I’ve since learned that members of the younger generation, those who were kids when Episode 1 was released, feel he really came into his own with the prequels and that the first movies were his lesser works. They’re completely wrong of course, but that’s beside the point. It actually shows us something important. Crazy, like so much else, is all about perspective.

In truth, we should all be so lucky to reach this stage. It means we’ve been around long enough that we’ve developed a devoted fan base. It means we have readers who were touched and changed by something, or many things, we wrote. They developed an emotional tie to our work and when that tie doesn’t seem to be there anymore, it hurts. No, it’s not fair to assume our favorite artist will never change, but we do sort of hope they don’t. Don’t look at me that way. Are you someone who cheers and screams at a concert, even when the band you love doesn’t play any of their big hit songs, just stuff from their latest album? Yeah, I thought so.

Writing, like life, is a journey. We’re always growing, learning, and changing. Sometimes that means we’ll grow in ways that will make old fans move along, but like George Lucas, the change might also bring in a whole new generation of fans. For most of us, change is a gradual and generally painful thing. It takes a long time for us to change that much, so, yes, I think we’d all be lucky to be writing long enough for that to happen. I look forward to the day I excitedly present my readers with the book equivalent of six jars of peanut butter and they smile politely and put the book on their shelves anyway.

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 3)

This is the third part of a four-part series. If you missed parts one or two, you can read them here and here, respectively.

Stage 3: Adulthood.

I like to say the main difference between me now, as an adult, and me as a teenager is this: now I know I don’t know anything.

While wisdom does not always come with maturity, the two do usually walk hand-in-hand. Do I think I’m wise? I do, but in the same sense as Socrates. He was called the wisest man in Athens, and he said he was wise because he admitted he didn’t know anything. Only by acknowledging ignorance in something can you be open to learning. To loosely quote the movie Avatar, it’s hard to pour water in a cup that’s already full.

Literary adulthood isn’t the point at which we’ve come to recognize the bounds of our writing ignorance; it’s just when we admit we have writing ignorance. The first time you look at your writing and think it could be better, and that someone might be able to give you some good advice, is when you earn your grownup writer pants. Unfortunately, that moment is rarely achieved in a pleasant way. For many, myself included, it comes after being beaten senseless with less than complimentary feedback, usually repeatedly and brutally. After the third or fourth concussion from trying to walk through a wall, you start to realize the wall isn’t going to disappear, and maybe you should find another way in. After receiving a number of rejections from agents and publishers, I decided perhaps it was the manuscript. I wrote a short story, which I posted online. It was fairly well received, so I decided to make it into a full novel. The Stolen Child was born. Now, if I’d still been a literary teen, I would’ve just started submitting that story. Instead, I decided I was going to make sure it was the best it could be. I bought some books on character development, read articles online, and then I bought a book on editing, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I won’t turn this into a commercial for the book. I’ll just say that I got a lot out of it, but I was also ready to learn because I’d admitted to myself that I didn’t know anything. When I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t take my book any further, I decided it was time to put my money where my mouth was, literally. I hired an editor. Again, I don’t want this to become a commercial, so I’m not going to mention who I hired. However, I knew it wasn’t going to be cheap, so I spent a LOT of time researching editors before deciding on one. If you’ve read my other posts, you know it was brutal at times. But I forced myself to hear what was said, to really listen and try to understand. That, in essence, is what makes us adults, no matter the realm; writing, life, music, driving, what have you. Taking criticism, especially harsh criticism, isn’t easy, but to my mind, it is a defining characteristic of maturity.

Stupid people don’t learn from their mistakes. Smart people do learn from their mistakes. Wise people learn from other people’s mistakes. We should hope to be smart, but strive to be wise.

To be concluded next week with senility.

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 2)

Last time I wrote about writing infancy, which you can read here if you missed it.

Stage 2: Adolescence.

Your narrative voice starts to crack about the time you realize you’re pretty good at this writing thing. Our literary puberty could start in a number of ways. Maybe like me, you find your peers and teachers reacting well to things you’ve written. Maybe you win some contests, or have an article published in the local paper. However it happens, it’s most likely positive reinforcement that causes you to start to change.

Writing teenagers, like most teenagers, know well, like, everything. Duh. They understand what truly brilliant and magnificent writers they are. After all, so many people have told them they should be writers. How many? Well, um, like, a bunch! Their paths are clear; the entire literary world is eagerly awaiting their arrival. They alone have the comfort of knowing that anyone who criticizes them, is totally clueless, and just doesn’t get it.

Lest you think I’m letting myself off the hook, I remember very clearly the first writing course I took in college. I’d received some negative feedback on my writing up to that point, but it was really more neutral than outright negative. I was working on my novel Taleth-Sidhe, and all my friends loved it! So, I knew it had to be awesome; after all, my friends wouldn’t lie to me. So, I took the first couple chapters and turned them in for the writing exercise. I listened to the amateurs in the class read their examples, and offered them my expert feedback. Then it was my turn to read. I’d been writing poetry for many years before this (during the coffeehouse and poetry reading height of the late 90s). Those readings, combined with my experience as an actor, meant I knew how to tell a story (one of the few things I was right about at that stage). I read the first two chapters, then sat back and waited for the praise to come rolling in. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the whole class had lifted me on their shoulders and named me their king. Okay, I would’ve been a little surprised.

To put it mildly, that didn’t happen. To put it accurately; I was eviscerated. Granted, I’d written a fantasy story and not everyone in the class was a fan of that genre, but all the notes and feedback made my pages looked like someone had sacrificed a chicken on them. Actually, more like an entire flock. I was beyond confused, but like all good teenagers, I eventually got over it and realized those people just didn’t know what they were talking about. Clearly my writing was just over their heads.

Now, it’s true some in their writing teens might be open to learning, or hearing less than glowing feedback. But, those are generally the writing equivalent to teenagers who fit in better with adults than peers. In short, they’re mature for their age. The vast majority of teenagers are, well, not. It’s not that they’re immature, just correctly mature for their age; they believe they know everything, and aren’t inclined to listen to others’ opinions People in their writing teens are often the same way.

To be continued next week with adulthood.