Who Do You Write For?


As writers we often have one eye on our intended audience as we write, even if it isn’t conscious. Like a lot of art, if you ask a writer about his book, either you or he will compare it to something else: “It’s Harry Potter meets A Tale of Two Cities.” Inadvertently, or perhaps quite intentionally, this book’s audience has been identified. It is the very small but dedicated group of readers who enjoy books about child wizards during the turmoil of the French Revolution. Most of us don’t intend such comparisons to define our intended audience, but it happens and permeates what we write. No matter your genre (including literary fiction), odds are you have a set of preconceived notions that go with your selection of an audience.

As a fantasy writer, I tend to take for granted that my readers will know that elves have pointed ears, dwarves are short and bearded, magic spells are cast by wizards, and countless other small things. I’m assuming those readers will have enjoyed other fantasy novels, particularly what is considered the canon (Tolkien especially) and thus have some context. But, our assumptions can cut both ways. Experienced fans of our genre might read in a mystical explanation to something completely mundane. Conversely, the uninitiated might be completely mystified by something that is canon to most fantasy readers. How do we as writers prevent this?

For me, the answer is simple: assume your reader has never picked up a fantasy novel before. That’s right, nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. This has two benefits. The first is that you prevent any confusion or frustration on the part of your reader. The second is that you’ve just opened your book up to countless readers outside your genre. That’s not to imply this is an easy feat. What is easy, is to be so proud of the complex world you’ve created that you can’t wait to show your reader and you inundate her with information. In my post, Too Much Information! Knowing What to Reveal and When I go over the “how” of exposition, so there’s no need to rehash that here. What I will delve into, is the “why.”

Let’s ignore the obvious: you don’t want your reader to be bored by a dissertation before getting to the story. That’s important, of course, but what I want to discuss here is the second reason. I take Ms. Rowling’s lead and assume ignorance on the part of reader: a broader audience. Really, in the end, don’t we as writers want our stories to be read, and enjoyed, by as many people as possible? I certainly do. I’m sure there are those who think of themselves as purists and unless you know the arcane details you’re not “worthy” of reading the story, but that’s not for me. I want my tales to be enjoyed by anyone who picks it up, even if their usual preference is romance, mystery, biographies, printer manuals, math books, cereal boxes, newspapers, well, you get the idea. I believe if you strip out the supernatural aspects of my stories, or replace them with mundane aspects, the plot and characters still hold together. At least, that’s what I strive for. That, and no readers left scratching their heads when they’re done.

This is something all of us should strive for. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a book about faeries, or the Founding Fathers of the United States. After all, your readers might not be American or aware of American history. See? There I just assumed the readers of this blog were mostly American. I could’ve deleted that line, but I think it serves to show all of us that we have to strive, constantly, against those sorts of assumptions. Don’t limit yourself, or your work, by not inviting someone in to enjoy it. Be a good host and make your party as inclusive as possible, and ensure each guest is as welcome as possible.

Guest Post: Daniel Potter

I’ve said before that one of the really great things about being an author is meeting other authors. Recently I met Dan Potter (no relation to Harry, I assume) who’s book cover (Off Leash) instantly caught my eye. Then I read the blurb:

Thomas Khatt had his life planned out. Not that it was all going according to plan. Unemployed, mostly broke, and living part-time with a absentee girlfriend, he thought his luck was bound to change soon. But after witnessing a terrible accident, Thomas experiences a very different kind of change, waking up with a tail, tawny fur and a disturbing urge to lick every mote of dust off his four feet! As if that wasn’t enough, magi are tripping all over themselves to auction him off to some pimply-faced apprentice as a familiar.

Armed only with sharp teeth and a sharper tongue, Thomas faces off against a lightning throwing granny, a sexy union recruiter and linoleum flooring as he desperately tries to hold the threads of his old life together. To stay off the leash, he’ll have to take advantage of the chaos caused by the local Archmagus’ death and help the Inquisition solve his murder. A pyromaniac squirrel, religious werewolves, and cat-hating cops all add to the pandemonium as Thomas attempts to become the first Freelance Familiar.

After that we started talking and I found out he’s also a pretty cool guy. As such, I’ve invited him to talk about writing. More specifically to talk about the his two writing weasels. I think there is sage wisdom in his words.

Deciding The Proper Use of Your Two Weasels

My second book has been sent to the editor. After a celebratory bout of buying myself a videogame and playing it till too-late-o’clock, I am confronted with something I haven’t dealt with for awhile: a blank page.  I’m an indie and I know what I should be doing. I need to write the next book in the Freelance Familiar series. I’ve done a bit of research on Las Vegas, the setting of this book, and I already have a title for it: Snake Eyes.

I have plenty of elements and ideas that could be used in the story, but I don’t actually have a clear idea of the story yet.  I have yet to make those decisions.

So I am staring at my metaphorical weasel hut where Bullet Point and Pantser are sleeping and trying to decide which one to wake up.

Pantser is the easy-going one of the pair. If I wake him up we could start immediately. Setting off with my characters, we would walk in the general direction of the ending and merrily wander to our destination while all my characters cling to his ears and whisper directions. The trouble is that Pantser likes to drink and loves the take nips of bad-idea whiskey when I’m not looking. Once he’s soused its wrong-plot-turn city and we end up having to backtrack our way out of dead ends. Even if we stay on track, Pantser loves procrastinating decisions by spending time frolicking in fields of purple navel-gazings and hunting expository mice. In short, relying on Pantser is a recipe for the book taking a long time to write.

Bullet Point is much more on task than his brother, but won’t go anywhere without a map. So we will have to spend a week or two or maybe an entire month making decisions about how to get to the end.  Every character will be given their arcs and told to get in formation. After all that planning, we set off on a writing journey that should be a direct jaunt through the narrative landscape. Then slowly things start to go horribly wrong.  Bullet Point is blind and deaf once his path has been set, so he can’t hear the wailings of a character that decides she doesn’t want to follow the map. Or he’ll blunder straight into narrative obstacles that I missed from my authorial tower. Only after all the characters are screaming bloody murder and weeping over their broken character arcs will I hear them from my perch and call Bullet Point back.  Then we’ll spend another week making a new plan.

Off Leash, my first book was entirely Pantser’s work. It took me about two years to write the first draft, but the work was very intermittent.  Rewrites required nearly two complete drafts and I changed the last third of the book entirely after the beta readers told me the ending needed work. I chucked probably 90-100K words into the trash.  Not exactly an efficient writing exercise.

Marking Territory, which was Bullet Point’s debut, by contrast took me eight and a half months of nearly constant work to finish the first draft, with approximately 60K words being tossed out.  Shorter than Off Leash to be sure, but man was it a constant slog to grind through Bullet Point’s map. He’d constantly get stuck and we’d have to spend weeks trying to figure out where we got it wrong.  Finally, unable to move forward with outlines, I dragged in Pantser to finish the last 20k words and get us all to ending.

Now that I’ve given both weasels a bath and pruned the manuscript, I can say that Marking Territory came out pretty dang good. It’s got a squirrel-piloted mecha, black magic sword, a were-moof, shape changing witches, and it’s all Thomas’ fault.  The process of molding it, however, is a story similar to that of a six-week family vacation in a van that burns oil and leaks coolant.

Unlike cars, each Weasel should get better with use. Still, I’m left with the question of which one to poke with this here stick so we can dig into Thomas’ next adventure.

Off Leash is available on amazon now (only $.99 this week), Marking Territory will be soon.OFF LEASH_cover smallMarkingTerritory_cover
You can also check out Dan at his webpage, here, or follow him on Twitter, here






Winners and Losers

Perhaps it says something about me (and if it does, I hope it’s good) that when the excitement from receiving the publishing offer from Harper Voyager wore off, I started to think about all those people who submitted their manuscripts but didn’t make the final cut. There were over 4500 submissions. It’s probably safe to say that close to half of those were cut after a short read. Perhaps the manuscript just wasn’t ready to be published; I certainly started submitting The Stolen before it was ready. But this post isn’t about that level of rejection. I covered that pretty thoroughly in here, and here. No, the people I thought about were the last hundred or so who made it to the final stage, waiting more than a year, only to get the dreaded “no thank you” email. I think as writers, after a while we start to expect rejections, but that really doesn’t help. It’s especially bad when you make it to that last step, only to have the door close in front of you. The Stolen was submitted to 118 different agents, and that’s after getting it edited. There were probably 40+ before that. Out of those 118, I received six requests to see the whole manuscript; on one occasion I even had two agents request it at the same time. I was sure that was a sign and that I’d get an offer of representation. Spoiler alert, they all passed. So I understand how that feels, to almost make it, but not. We all know the adages: there are no points for second place, second place is the first loser, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, etc. That’s when I saw a post on Absolute Write, on a thread tracking forum members’ progress in the submission process. I was lurking at the time, having been chided for a comment I posted announcing the publication offer before I was supposed to. The author of it put it in such perfect terms, I’m not even going to try to summarize. It deserves a direct quote (with permission granted from the author):

I was thinking about this last night. I always thought, back when the call started, that the saddest person was the one who would come in 13 out of 12. You know? The one who ran the whole race, who survived every cull, but still had no prize at the end. That’s probably going to be me and several other people here.

On the one hand, I’m sad that I basically did all the work and got none of the reward. On the other hand, it’s nice to remember that we clearly did something right with at least ONE editor in this process, or one assistant. At the very least, our work was probably considered publishable. In the end, it fell because of a matter of taste, not talent.

I sometimes think that the greatest moment of weakness that happens to an aspiring writer, when they’re most compelled to give it all up, is not when they get rejected, but when they almost succeed. It’s a long fall, and sometimes you don’t want to get up again. I’m sort of feeling that as I rush towards a probable rejection.

But if you do get up again, you can remember that at least one, probably several professional editors thought you had some real promise and ability. In my opinion, once you’re there, getting SOMEWHERE is only a matter of time and will.

So this is a long, drawn out way of saying that even though this is going to be kind of a crappy week, and we should all be allowed to go into our caves and sulk for a bit, that the bright side is really very…bright.

Anyway. Rant over.

You can find the original post here. I read that post knowing I’d made it, but seeing others languishing with no news. I felt for them, and I knew MerchantIV (the author of that post) was right: a number of people would make it right to the end only to fall all the way back down. It’s true that in life there are winners and losers, but it’s important to remember that losing doesn’t mean failing. Those Olympians who take home silver and bronze medals are understandably upset they didn’t win gold, but they still wear those silver and bronze medals with pride. Writing is about winning by inches, a slow progression. Sure, some people land publishing deals on their first tries, but they’re the exception not the rule. The rest of us make a long, hard slog to get to publication. It’s easy to feel like a failure and think about giving it up. The thing to remember is that you’re the only one who can decide if you’re a failure or not. So long as you get up and try again, you didn’t fail, you just lost one. It’s not fun or easy, but if it were, people wouldn’t react the way they do when you say you’re an author. Publishing a book happens with hard work, determination, talent, and more than a little luck. It’s brutal and not for everyone, but if it’s what you want, don’t ever let anyone tell you to give up. Besides, the victory is so much sweeter when you’ve had losses along the way. Just ask a Red Sox fan.

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!


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.


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:


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.


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

Month Day,Year

Agent/Editor Name



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.


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.