Monday, October 28, 2013

Finding the voice (the ones both in and out of your head)

We're lucky.

We've had years to figure out who we are. We're sort of our own biggest experts and yet, trying to come up with a quick, clean summary of our entire personality can still be pretty tricky. But why?

Because humans are complex. We're layers upon layers of characteristics glued together by an uncountable number of experiences. Now don't get me wrong, I've met some pretty dull individuals in my life, but even those people had at least some level of complexity to them. Kind of.

So many writers (me included) struggle with finding ways to make our characters that multi-dimensional. However, the solution begins with something we've all heard before:

Finding the voice.
(without gifs... sorry)

No, not the one in your head. Although that can be a great source of inspiration. In fact, this entire blog post is going to be a transcript of everything mine's currently dictating to me. The voice I'm talking about is your character's voice--the way the world is filtered through his or her senses on its way to the reader.

Below are my top seven tips I've picked up from writers I hope to be as good as one day.

1. Know your character's history.

Before you write, figure out who your main character is. I'm not talking about understanding that your MC is a thirteen-year-old girl with brown hair. Sure, that's important, but you have to know more than that. And if you don't, well... maybe you're not ready to write your story.

Imagine what school she goes to. What music she likes. Who her best friends are. Why she has that little scar above her right eye. There are so many questions you could ask (298,870,125,182,002 according to the voice in my head) that can help you come up with a solid back story for your MC. This step can take a while, but it's going to help you when you get to one of the later steps.

2. Determine who your character is talking to.

Once you have your character, figure out who she's telling this story to. This is going to severely affect not only what your character says but how she'll say it. For example, I'm choosing to use who instead of whom all the time because I don't want to come off as a grammatical know-it-all. Probably because I'm as far from a grammatical know-it-all as one person can be.

But let's get back to your character. If you want your brainy MC to be talking to a group of like-minded individuals, she may use words and phrases she wouldn't normally use if she were talking to the general public. And if she's talking to the general public, she might want to explain things so they won't feel dumb.

Then again, maybe she enjoys flaunting her intelligence over the average Joe. Maybe Joe got mad at her for speaking down to her. Maybe she wouldn't stop so he threw a soda can at her! HOLY CASSEROLEY, maybe that's how she got her scar!


Sorry. My head-voice got a little loud there. But my point remains--this is where knowing your MC is important.

3. Establish the POV.

This sounds like a simple decision to make, but it's not. The point of view is going to wildly affect how your story is told. A lot of this will come down to personal taste, but don't just decide on first person present because that's what the last book you read was told in.

Figure out how your story will best be told. I've heard editors warn against second person, but hey--if you want to write that, then you go for it. You know what's best for your story.

4. Vary the distance.

I learned this at my first conference. I'd never even thought about it and when Jordan Brown was talking to the crowd about this concept, it blew our minds. The distance he was talking about was directly related to the POV. Third person will allow more wiggle room for the distance. First person present will be very limited. Here's what he meant:

Every line you write needs to push the story along. Every line needs to be carefully chosen so no space is wasted on the page. A rhythm needs to be established and within that rhythm, we can step further away from or closer to your MC's head-voice. For example, you may write a line like this:

The last few leaves could be seen on the tree's branches.

With this, we're pretty far out of the MC's head. We're not getting a smattering of voice here, but we are finding some important information about our character. You'll understand what I mean when you get to the next tip. Back to our story. The next line you write may take us closer to getting in the MC's head. Sort of like:

They dangled by their stems like little swatches of brightly-colored fabric.

Now we're getting an idea of what our MC is noticing. We're closer to hearing that head-voice. Which leads us to the closest we can get--inside the character's mind. Just take a listen:

The red was wrong. Too much crimson. A color like that would never look good as a pair of socks.

Now we're hearing what the MC is thinking. That head-voice is coming through loud and clear. However, staying here too long can be almost be burdensome. We don't want to read a book where we stay the same distance away from the MC no more than we want to read a book where every sentence has ten words, do we?

No, we don't, head-voice, so shut up.

5. Find out what's important to your character.

So many of the decisions you'll have made by now are going to be based on what's important to your character. Let's say she absolutely hates watermelon flavored candy but she'd do anything to save a calico kitten. Knowing this is going to help you figure out what she'll notice around her. And even more importantly, it'll help you figure out what she won't notice.

I know we've all heard to write through the MC's senses. Tell us what she sees, hears, feels (without using those filter words, of course) whenever possible. However, if you choose to tell us all of those things all of the time, we're actually getting less of what's important to your character.

In tip number four, our MC noticed the leaves first. And then the colors. And then her mind went right to the red and how the color would be awful as a pair of socks. We've read three lines and I already know quite a bit about her. If I were using her as my MC I'd know why she thought that about the crimsony red because I would've developed that part of her back story.

Think about how you personally describe things. I'm extremely visual and I've got a nose that borders on bloodhound. If I were describing something, I may talk about how it smells and how it reminds me of the time our dog ate tinsel and pooped out silver-lined turds.

Okay, so... I'm not really sure what I'd be describing there. My head-voice says cafeteria meatloaf. He may be right.

6. Be authentic.

This is where research will come in handy. You need to understand how your character would actually speak. This will be determined by time period, nationality, age, intelligence, and so many other things. I wish there was an easy way to go about finding all of this out, but there's not. If I wanted to write a character who lived in 1800s England, I'm going to have a heck of a lot harder time than if I chose 1980s Tennessee. Because I've got that one down pat.

My fellow MGMinded bloggers have written some great advice on middle grade voice authenticity. If you haven't read those posts, go do that.


And then when you're finished reading those, go read some books. Like, a lot of them. And in your genre and target age range, too. When in doubt, take advice from those better at it than you. Which is exactly what I've been doing my entire life. I'm ignoring my head-voice right now because I'm pretty sure it's saying something mean.

7. Be patient.

The hardest one of all to master. Don't get frustrated if you don't nail it the first time around. Very few do and many who say they did are lying buttholes. So keep at it, explore different methods, don't be afraid to fail, and enjoy the journey of finding the perfect voice.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Story Ideas and How to Make Them Stand Out

With nanowrimo just days away, I thought I'd write a fun post about how to come up with great new story ideas! Not how to plot or to plan, but some ways to spark a new idea or to make sure your already-there-spark is unique. Because who wants to spend months writing and revising and querying a book just to find out it won't stand out in the crowd?

Step 1: Know what's out there.
Note: I put this as step one because it's the most important to me. I don't always do it first.

Sometimes we come up with the COOLEST IDEA EVER… only to find out it's been done to death. There are remedies to this, of course. You can write about your sparkly vampires if you are knowledgeable in the market and know how to make it unique. But first you have to read—a lot.

-Know what books are huge in the market, this means for year and years.
-Know what's new in the market, read books that came out this year!
-Know what's selling (the best way to do this is follow publishers marketplace, unfortunately that costs money (but I believe the lunch email is free), so if you can't do that follow things like #MSWL, agent and editor blogs and follow lots of authors and agents on twitter.)
-And lastly, I suggest that you know what's also being queried. Follow contests on twitter, even if you're not entering. Often, the judges will post what they see a lot of which is very important information. Read the winning entries. Critique others when you have the chance.

When you know the market you'll know exactly where you stand and probably what not to do in your manuscript. Avoid over used tropes, instead put a fun spin on stereotypes. Don't write something super close to SUPER AWESOME BESTSELLER. Even if the story you want to write is close, still write it—just find a way to make to different.

Step 2: The Spark

This is the hardest part of the process. The part that I can't really help you with. I'll point you in the right direction in case you're a bit stuck, but mostly you've got to find your story yourself.

Finding the spark can be done in many ways. It can start with a character, a concept, a full plot or even just one single sentence. Sometimes it comes from dreams. Sometimes from watching a movie you loved, or wanted to love but couldn't. Often it's a "what if" scenario. I like to think about new perspectives of old stories. Like Grendel from Beowulf (GRENDEL by John Gardner) or the wicked witch of the west from Wizard of Oz (WICKED by Gregory Maguire).

What ideas interest you? What story do you wish people knew but don't? Was there a story you loved the idea of but it didn't do it justice? How can you take that idea and make it new and exciting?

One way I sometimes come up with ideas is…. Wait for it…. PINTEREST.  I love looking through random pictures and seeing all the stories inside them. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes, with the right brain… it can be worth 50,000 (or more!)  I found this Pinterest profile while searching for pictures for my own story boards and I love it. It's so diverse and inspirational. Looking for a new story spark? I bet you'll find something if you flip through some of these pictures:

Whatever it is you choose, whatever your story, the most important thing is that you are passionate about it.

Step 3: Fleshing out the spark

Yay! Now you have a story spark! But what do you do with it? Some sparks are big, with full plot lines and some are teeny-tiny little ideas you're not really sure where it'll go. Here are some of the most important aspects to flesh out before your story is really ready.

Main Character- Who is your story about? Gender, age, personality, family, past experiences. I'm not one for detailed planning, especially with character, just an overall idea of who your character is and what they want and why, is enough.  How is this character unique? Why do you want them to be the one to carry the story? Be excited about this character, don't make them just a blank face.

Setting- Don't forget setting! This can be a great way to make an average idea stand out. Set the story deep in the Appalachian mountains (modern or not), in the middle of New York City, on the Caribbean coast, Japan, Russia, Africa…  Even a contemporary novel can be set somewhere unique. Sometimes settings you don't know firsthand are hard to pull off. As long as the setting is strong, it doesn't have to be ridiculously out there. Just make me remember it!

Plot- What happens? What does your character want and what's stopping them? What happens if they fail? Writing out a pitch or a full query is often really helpful to me when it comes to finding out what this story is about. Especially when drafting quickly, like for nanowrimo, it's important to have a few major plot points set out so you don't get stuck or end up having to back track.

Other characters- one of the things that pull me in as a reader are new characters. A fun best friend, a quirky new character needed to help the character on the way, family, and most importantly… the antagonist. Some of these can be found once you start writing, but having one or two ready and waiting is a great way to keep the story moving, and the antagonist is generally an integral part to the plot so having the opposition developed it also helpful.

Ideas come easier to some people than others. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is the key to success (in much more than just writing). If you're good at low-key stories, keep at it. Just find a way to make it unique, whether by setting or a new perspective or an interesting concept (current or historical events/issues for example.)

Just love what you're writing, that's number one. Then find a way to make it marketable.  

How do you come up with story ideas?

Oh! And I'd love to hear what you're writing for nanowrimo. :D

Monday, October 21, 2013

Less Than Three Anti Bullying Conference

On Saturday, October 19, 2013 I attended Less Than Three Conference, an Anti Bullying conference. Heather Brewer created Less Than Three Conference because she went looking for anti bullying conferences to speak at. When she didn't find any, she asked why aren't there conferences for this? She quickly changed the question to why am I not doing this?

Heather Brewer giving her keynote speech
And thus Less Than Three was born. It's name not only comes from the fact that the symbol makes a heart, but also because when bullying funding was offered, less than three schools accepted. LESS THAN THREE! A change has to be made and that's what Less Than Three is all about.

Bullying is such a hot topic because it's everywhere. It's in schools, at home, and online. Kids can't hardly escape it. Even adults experience it. So 21 MG/YA authors and 250 attendees came together to talk about bullying in four panels: Bullying in School, Self Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Bullies & LGBTQ.

Author Jennifer Brown defined bullying best in the Bullying in School Panel. She said it takes three things to comprise bullying:
1.) Intent to harm
2.) An imbalance of power
3.) Repitition

If someone says something once it's mean, twice is rude, and three times, that's bullying.

From there the discussion continued into speculation about why kids get bullied. A lot of times kids that are different from the norm, get teased. And sometimes all it takes is one negative comment to make someone feel bad about themselves. But just because someone is different doesn't mean they brought the bullying on themselves. Heck, even skinny, beautiful people have problems. There's so much pressure from society and we are so obsessed with celebrities and perfection, that we develop unrealistic expectations. These thoughts and words can be alienating and lonely.
The crowd during Heather Brewer's keynote speech

Loneliness is often what makes bullying feel so painful, where the power is often lost. But there is strength in numbers. Talking to trusted family members or friends can help the bullied gain back some of the power. Adults can help by not only listening but also by setting an example. Adults need to show the world that bullying is not okay. If you see someone being bullied engage that person and just talk to them. Not necessarily about what happened but about other things too. Give them a safe environment and let them know someone cares. It takes away the loneliness and the power the bully has.

It's shocking that there isn't a single school out there that doesn't have bullying. But some deal with it better than others. The more people that band together and speak out against bullying the better. Groups of people can make a difference. Individuals can too. It'd possible to call out bullying to people. Most people don't want to be mean. If you politely show someone they've crossed a line, many times they will stop. Everyone is somebody, and a lot of somebodies is a force to be reckoned with.
The Cyberbullying panel
From left to right: Sarah Bromley, Carrie Jones, Mari Mancusi, Lisa McMann, & Shannon Messenger

Bullying isn't just in person though. With the internet, smart phones, and social media, bullying has taken on a new form. There's so much hatred online. It's so easy to see a screen name and not the person behind it. Someone shouldn't have to worry about what they say and do and how others might hurt them. Unfortunately that is the world we now live in.

The important thing to remember is not to feed the trolls. It's best not to engage the bullies online. If you don't respond, the bullies will lose interest because they aren't getting a reaction from you. You're no longer fun to pick on. But you can take it a step further. If you don't like the direction an email, tweet, blog post, or message is headed STOP READING. Remove the bad from your life. Thankfully it's a lot easier to close a browser tab than to get away in person. A good general rule of thumb online is to ask yourself:
1.) Would my grandmother be upset if she read this?
2.) And will this come back to haunt me?
If you answer yes to either of those it's probably best not to post.

Unfortunately when someone hears the same negative things over and over again whether in person or online, sometimes they start to believe them. And because of this, people often don't believe the good things and the compliments when they come. No matter how many times someone tells them.
Self-bullying panel
From left to right: Rachel Caine, Ellen Hopkins, T.M. Goeglein, Cheryl Rainfield and Cole Gibsen

In response to the self hate, author Cheryl Rainfield told the audience "You don't deserve to be hurt. Don't deflect love. Trust it and let it in." Ellen Hopkins added, "Look at how other people are reacting to you for things you may not see in yourself. There's no such thing as perfect, it's different for everyone. Find what you love about yourself."

But it's often hard to understand ourselves let alone what others are going through. If we haven't been there how can we understand it? This is a common phrase people use to deflect help. But the knowledge from books can help. "It's important for us as readers to go through those tough experiences (in books) so we understand what others go through," author Rachel Caine said. And this is the power of words, what gift writers can give to the world. To share experiences and make others feel less lonely.

When Heather said, "The right people will find you. You will find your people." it stuck with me. It's such a powerful statement. The right people won't make fun, they will accept, they will stand by, they will help make a difference.

It's hard to do what's right. It's hard to ask for help. It's hard to be a voice. But that's what it's going to take to stand against bullying. Lots of people doing those things. Being the example. Acting as a support system. Making a difference. While we certainly don't have all the answers on how to fight bullying, we came a long way during Less Than Three. We shared great ideas. We created a support system. We showed the power and strength in numbers. And that is a great start.

For more awesome pictures and quotes from Less Than Three check out the hashtag #LessThanThree.

I've shared more of my experiences from the conference as well as some of my personal story about being bullied on my blog. Feel free to share your stories, experiences, and ideas below. Let's help spread the word and make a difference.

The Less Than Three authors trying to figure out how to make the less than three symbol for the photo
Back Row: Rachel Caine, A.S. King, Cheryl Rainfield, T.M. Goeglein, Susan Colasati, David Levithan, Lisa McMann, Dale E. Bayse, Andrew Smith, Carrie Jones
Middle Row: Alethea Kontis, Carrie Ryan, Shannon Messenger, Heather Brewer, Ellen Hopkins, Mari Mancusi, Jennifer Brown
Front Row: Cole Gibsen, Jody Feldman, Sarah Bromley, Antony John

Friday, October 18, 2013

Do You Want To Be A Real Writer?

I had a friend who wanted to be a writer. He and I would exchange our writing every once in a while for critiques. When we met, he would talk with wonder and excitement about how great it would be to someday not have to work at his regular job. Instead, he would stay at home and write full time. He would be a REAL WRITER.

There was just one problem. He didn't write. Or rather, my friend didn't write enough. When he did write, it was pretty good stuff. But then, weeks (sometimes months) would go by without any significant progress on his manuscript. It wasn't writer's block that was hounding my friend. It was life. 

Writing can certainly be a side thing, like a little hobby you work on occasionally when you can. BUT, if you've never done more than occasionally pick up the violin as a side little hobby, don't get frustrated when you aren't all of a sudden playing first chair at the symphony.

I heard John Mayer, the singer songwriter, give an interview in which he talked about the writing process for his most recent album. Remember, that at this point, Mayer was already a multi-Platinum selling artist who had written hundreds of songs, performed thousands of times, and practiced many thousands more. He said that whenever he writes a new album, he generally writes a dozen or two dozen bad songs before he starts to write something good. He said, there are no shortcuts, and when it comes to writing (songs) nobody starts by getting off on the 12th floor.You have to work your way up. You have to start bad, give yourself permission to write bad songs and then work up from there.

If you want to write stories for a living, I'm betting you can figure out a way to do it...someday. It probably takes a little talent and probably takes a little luck. But, be sure of one thing. What it takes more than any of that, is hard work. This can't be about wanting the writer's life, whatever that is. It's got to be about writing. If you really want to write, then you will find a way to write in those little cracks and creases that show up each and every day.

We no longer live in a patronage society. There aren't people unloading buckets of cash so you and I can sit around and amaze them with our supernatural romances about vampire bunnies. If you know of a writer out there "making it", chances are high that they've encountered the same obstacles you and I encounter. The writers who have made it didn't get there through a life of Victorian privilege. Nope, they had to figure out how to write given all of the excuses you and I sometimes make for not writing.  Regular job? Check. Kids that you have to bathe and feed? Check, check. Errands you've got to run and bills you've got to pay? Check, check, check. Spouse who doesn't really understand why you're spending so much time doing something that probably won't make you a dime? Check, check, check, and checkmate.

These real writers overcame all of the many obstacles to being a 'real writer' by writing their brains out whenever they could. And as unglamorous as that sounds for you and I, it is what you and I need to do.

And if in your heart, you are a 'real writer', then the thought of writing whenever you possibly can doesn't scare the hell out of you; it makes you smile, it gives you joy.

So.........Write. Revise. Show your work to people who will tell you the truth (and the truth is, you and I aren't that good yet). Rewrite. Revise. Edit. Repeat the cycle over and over again.

And never stop.  Happy writing!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Don't make my mistakes.

I made many errors my first year as a serious writer. From thinking my first few drafts of works were brilliant, to researching (or not) agents and publishing houses, to the purpose, correct format and content of a query letter, I messed up lots. But the good news is, I've learned much from those early goofball days.

I'd been a teacher, school counselor, business owner and stay home dad before I seriously tried to write for publication. And although I'd read children's books for years and had a pretty good understanding of what I liked in books, I didn't really know anything about the publishing industry. I had stories to tell, so I thought I would just go to a conference, learn a few things, write stuff, and get published. Hahaha - WRONG!


Why would I admit this, on a public blog, for everyone to see?  Well, so it could be on a public blog for everyone to see. There may be new writers who'll stumble on this post and I'd like to give them a few tips. I'll own up to my mistakes, as embarrassing as some of them may be, in order to help some young - or not so young - newer writer trying to break in. So, are you ready to fly?

Tip #1: Don't think your first draft of your manuscript is awesome. It's crap. Get readers for your manuscript and don't look at it again until you have read Anne Lamont's Bird By Bird and at least two other books which you think would be comparable to yours. After you've read those books and have feedback about your manuscript from credible and objective people, you can look at it again.

If you throw up a few times while reading back through it, or want to cry and gouge out your eyeballs, well, that's normal. (I hope it is.) It means you recognize some very terrible (and fixable) things in your work. But don't worry, you will make it better because you want your very best manuscript to get out in front of agents.

Try to re-read it as if you did not write it. I know, that's hard. But it might give you a fresh perspective on the manuscript's strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully, you'll see flaws each time you read it. Rewrite and re-submit to beta readers as often as necessary, and when you are somewhere close to done, consider getting a copyedit. But above all, take your time (as in be patient) and get it right!

Tip #2: Don't rush out your first draft of your query letter. It's crap. Take the time to learn the purpose of a query letter and how to write a good one. Don't waste your chances or busy agents' time by sending unclear or just plain weird query letters. Been there, done that and I hope the agents I queried in this manner forgot my name as quickly as they deleted my ridiculous query letters. And it's worth repeating, take your time and get it right!

Tip #3: Join twitter and become involved. Watch for contests, ask questions, and expect to learn something every day.

Tip #4: Above all, keep reading and writing.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Welcome to Query Letter Hell (for middle grade, and BEYOND)

So let's talk a little bit about Query Letters -

Alright, alright! Chill out! This has to be done!

Before we get started, I'm going to give you a little bit of a warning.

I am by no means a "go-to" person for Query Letter advice. I for one despise query letters. They are torturous, foul beasts that need to be sent back to the confines of hell where they belong. Just the idea of summarizing your novel into a few measly paragraphs makes the average writer want to rip off their hands and fling them into the fiery pits of Mount Doom.

Another thing is, there are so many different opinions, suggestions, tutorials, guides etc on how to write a Query Letter scattered across the internet and various books that this is just my humble interpretation. Take it with a grain of salt. I'm just trying to help based on my own experiences dealing with query letters for the last year or so.

Unfortunately, they are what separates you from snagging that gold star agent that you have been drooling over for the last year or so.

With that said, let us continue. I'll separate this into a few Q&A's to make it easier to follow.


What is a Query Letter? 

Simple question, right? Unfortunately, it's not an easy answer. To sum it up, a query letter is a short (typically one page) pitch sent to agents with the hope of peeking their interest enough that they request pages to read based off your manuscript. You need to be creative, yet professional. All in all, you need to show agents that this is the book they have been waiting for their entire lives!

What is a Query Letter Format?

It generally follows this format (although it differs depending on personal preference). So don't go too crazy over formatting. 

The Greeting : (Dear Awesome Agent,)

The Reason you are writing : (some people don't do this. But it adds a personal touch which agents seem to appreciate) I am writing to you today seeking representation for my kick-arse manuscript. I feel that you may be interested since A) you represent these books in my category B) you are looking for a book of this type based on your website / twitter / etc. C) an interview I read says you are seeking this type of book.

The Hook : This is your chance to reel in that agent. Usually this includes a one sentence tag line bringing us right into the thick of your story. You should be introducing your MC in this paragraph as well as giving as a strong idea as to what awesome plot line he is up against. Should be short an sweet. But it all depends on taste.

The well crafted "synopsis" : Summarize your book, but make it enticing. Don't summarize each chapter, because that's not what a query is. Give us the juicy details, but leave us hanging for the outcome. Make us want to know what is going to happen to your main character if he doesn't "Save the day". Back flaps of a novel are a great way to get an idea of what should be in this paragraph.

The Bio : Depends on you. If you have a bio with some great credentials to back your book, go ahead and throw it in there!

The Closing : If you haven't already given your word count, title, and category. Now's the time. Thank them for taking the time to read it, and sign off. 

That's it. Easy, right?

Yeah, you're right. Nobody likes queries :( Unless you're talking about me....*glares*

When should you write your query?

Now this is entirely up to you. I'm the type of person that starts writing a draft of a query as soon as I have an idea for a book. For some reason it forces me to summarize my book quickly, discover my main characters stakes and objectives, as well as a generalized story. To me, it's like a "pre-synopsis" of my book. But it shouldn't sound like a synopsis (more on that later)

Others write it after they've finished their manuscript, and it's gone through its 8,363 revisions, been read and re-read by CP's, and you've finally decided it's ready to be pitched. Most people go this route, as they don't even want to focus on a query letter until the last possible moment.


When to Query?

There's a little known disease out there called PQS - premature query syndrome. Some people suffer from it, and it's evil. I first heard about it on the absolute writer water cooler forums, and I realized I had it. I sent out my first query letter for Copernicus right when I finished my last bunch of edits and had the go ahead from a few CP's. I thought it was ready....but it wasn't.

Got some responses, but ended up losing out because my MS still wasn't 100%. You NEED to make sure you hold off on sending any queries until you are so sick of editing your MS that you'd rather stab yourself in the eyes with a pen. Hold off until you are ABSOLUTELY SURE. And once you are absolutely sure, WAIT SOME MORE. Put it in a drawer for a month or two. Then come back and look at it. 


Final Advice

The biggest advice I can give is to subject your query letter to as many critiques as possible. Get a slew of feedback, and apply it as you see fit. Not every piece of feedback will work, but ultimately your goal is to make your query letter sound as awesome as possible, while still maintaining your voice. Don't make it Frankenstein. Just make it effective.

Re-write it a dozen times. Then re-write it another dozen. It's worth it in the end.

The "DO NOTS" of Query Letter Writing :

  • DO NOT get the agent's name wrong
  • DO NOT forget to provide all your contact information
  • DO NOT forget to include the title, word count, and genre of your book
  • DO NOT forget to personalize each query letter (subjective..not everyone does it)
  • DO NOT forget to check your query letter for spelling and grammatical errors
  • (repeat above)
  • (repeat above again)
  • DO NOT send the query letter to the WRONG agent
  • DO NOT send query letters to agents NOT representing your category
  • DO NOT forget to read agent's guidelines for querying. Each agent is different.
  • DO NOT forget to show past publication credentials (especially if they're good!) - great to put in bio if requested
  • DO NOT forget to include pages if asked for in guidelines
  • DO NOT send your query letter without having other people read it first
  • DO NOT give up
Well, there you have it. My little blog post about querying. And just to make things a little bit crazy, here is my far from perfect query letter that helped me snag my uber-awesome agent.

Dear Ms. Dawn Frederick,

I am writing you today seeking representation of my 54,000 word middle-grade adventure novel, COPERNICUS NERDICUS. You had mentioned in your twitter feed under #MSWL that you are seeking a "middle-grade not-overly-sci-fi adventure with robots", and my novel taps into both. It targets readers who are gamers at heart by bringing to life video game elements while combining the hilarious adventures of Michael Buckley's NERDS series, with the robotic action packed pages of J.V. Kade's BOT WARS.

Thirteen-year-old gamer, Copernicus ‘Nic’ Wilhelm, has one chance to win fifty thousand dollars and prevent his dad from losing his laboratory to the devious inventor, Geoffrey Zorn--The Digital Zone video game tournament. But when Geoffrey Zorn unveils a new virtual gaming console called EVO to be used in the finals, Nic only has a week to master a futuristic robotic fighting game.

Easy enough for Nic, that is, until the game fights back. 

When EVO transforms into a short-circuiting attack robot, the term video game realism takes on a completely new meaning. With the help of his friends, Nic re-programs the rampaging robot, but that wasn’t the only problem. EVO was also installed with a brainwashing microchip by the vile criminal organization, C.O.R.E (Coalition of Rogue Engineers) in order to kidnap tournament contestants, including Nic's best friend, and transform them into pilots for an army of kid-controlled robots straight out of the game.

With the police now controlled by C.O.R.E too, Nic and his friends must pummel their way through C.O.R.E troops using everything from stink bombs to slime cannons in order to rescue the contestants and discover proof of Zorn’s involvement in the mind control plot. Meanwhile, a fleet of robotic drones is preparing to invade Nic’s hometown of Twin Valley, and ultimately the world. Nic is in a race against time to put a stop to C.O.R.E and ensure the tournament goes on, before his gamer guile and new robot’s battery, runs out.

Regardless of your decision, I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to consider my work. 

That's it - see? not even close to being perfect. Heck, I still despise it to this day.

Hope you guys aren't still freaking out about query letters now. And feel free to ask any questions you may have about em. So, everyone okay with query letters now? Not so bad, right?

Guess not....

Monday, October 7, 2013

Oh SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference, how do I love thee?

I've already tried to count the ways.

And there are WAY too many.

You see, I'm a total noob. I'm that guy who's been writing since forever but never took the time and never saved the money to actually go to a writing conference. But then one showed up in (almost) my back yard. And when a conference shows up in (almost) your back yard and asks if you wanna go...

You say YES!

So I went. And I'm telling you now, folks. If you've ever wondered if going to a conference is worth the money, the travel time, the packing--the answer's still yes. Here's a breakdown of my first ever writing conference experience:


When I got there, there were books. Sweet Lord in Heaven there were books. And a lot of the authors were there with them, ready to sign, ready to chat, ready to smile, and pen a semi-personal note on the title page of your brand new hardcover.

The most surprising thing was how genuinely approachable the authors were. I stood in line to snag a copy of Kristin Tubb's The 13th Sign and happened to find myself behind someone who obviously knew her. Either that of the lady just really had a knack for guessing household pets' names. Several minutes later, it was my turn to step up, smile, and not do this:

And, no, that didn't happen. For one, I was alone, and for two, Kristin is much prettier than that librarian.

For an hour, I made my way around the tables, talking to authors, getting things signed, and wondering what it would feel like to be on the other side of that table. I know, I know... all in good time, Brooks...

The day ended with a networking/schmooze session which was where I got to meet fellow MG writer and Twitter friend, Gail Nall!

If you're thinking that picture's breaking the Ghostbusters theme, look closer at my shirt. I had this thing planned from the very beginning. Maybe.


The morning opened with a keynote speech by the incredible Jay Asher and the day didn't let up through the hours of sessions to choose from. These included first page critiques, breaking into publishing, working with illustrators, finding the right agent, revising your work... you name it, they had it. The only problem was not having a clone or a time-turner to go to all of them.

The sessions I picked were fantastic and I left every single one with more than a full page of notes, complete with doodles, some AHA! ideas, and a buttload of inspiration. To be honest, it was almost overwhelming. But totally in the good way. Although, I'm sure I walked around the conference looking less inspired and more like--

That's okay, though. I saw a lot of other people making that same face. In fact, we'd greet each other with a smileless nod and a grunt, then walk on to our next session, wide-eyed and looking like we were about to step out into oncoming traffic.

That evening, several of the conference attendees signed up for a writers' dinner at a really cool place that had a miniature bust of a pope on a round table (no joking here). We were told we had to be out by 9:00. 

That didn't happen. 

You shove six writers in a single booth, put some amazing Italian food in front of them, all after a day full of writing conference, and we'll stay until a manager calls security. Or until they run out of noodles.


When the last day rolled around, it was time for the final bit of announcements and our remaining pair of sessions. For my first, I chose a synopsis critique session by the amazing super-agent Josh Adams. I was lucky enough to get mine drawn, read, and commented on. His eyes sparkled when he read the title and he even said he'd want to read more! 

I decided to end my conference with Jordan Brown's session, Finding Your Voice. If you ever get a chance to hear this guy speak, do it. Even if you have to drive cross-country, donate blood for gas money, and hitchhike part of the way there, do it. He's that good. A warning, though. Limber up your fingers if you plan to take notes. Because the guy speaks at twice the normal human speed. Seriously. He's like the modern day Micro Machines commercial dude. With a beard.

Finally, we gathered back into the big room for awards, honorable mentions, and goodbyes. I'm glad to say I'm the proud owner of three new books, compliments of SCBWI's door prize committee. But I left with much more than just some amazing literature, bookmarks, business cards, and a journal full of agent and editor brain-pickings.

I left with a new-found love for SCBWI and the Midsouth group that worked so hard to bring so many awesome people together under one roof. 

So will I be going back?

I'm not even gonna answer that because this last image says it all.

But if you're still wondering, the answer's yes.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The perfect first page!

Have you ever entered a blog writing contest? Most ask for a query or pitch and first 250 words. Then they pick the very best out of the hundreds who enter and put them in front of agents to make requests.

Because you have to compete to stand out among hundreds of talented writers these contests are HARD. You can't just have good writing in your first page, it needs to be spectacular! The best writing you can possibly showcase. Through my many failures and few successes in these contests I've learned that there are two things you need to make it through.

   1. A great concept.
             A concept is the basic idea of your novel.

·         "Girl falls for vampire",
·         "Boy learns he's a wizard and goes to wizarding school"
·         "Hobbit must travel into an evil land and destroy a powerful ring to save the world." 

             A concept is an idea. It should be original, stand out, something that hasn't been done before. Unfortunately, this isn't something you can change for a contest, not without rewriting your novel. Some novels don't have unique, stand out concepts and that's okay. If it's compelling, with great writing and awesome character—your book will still stand out.

        2. A great first page.
            This is something you can change, and should. That's why I'm writing this post. Especially if you don't have a super unique concept, your first page needs to be amazing. So how do you make your first pages amazing?

 I'll show you.

Step 1-  Start in the right place

            Your first page doesn't have to have the inciting incident. But your first chapter should. Where does your story really start? If you have 2 chapters of backstory and small conflicts that don't actually add to the main storyline—cut them! Those things can be added into your novel at a later point. You need to get the story moving right away. Remember that when it comes to finding an agent, whether that's after a request based on the first page or hanging out in the query slush pile, you need your whole first chapter to be great. We're focusing on one page today, but don't make the mistake of having a sizzling first page and then missing your opportunity with the next few.
            Now that you have your first chapter, find the right spot to introduce your world, character and conflict.

Step 2- conflict

            I said before that you don't need to have the inciting incident in the first page. Some say it's great if you do, but I've seen writers try it and it ends up being very hard to feel for your characters. BUT, you do need conflict. Something your character wants but can't get. Something they need to do. It can be as small as running from a butcher after he stole a roast (The False Prince, I love this opening!) or showing that your character is something bad: "Being a half-blood is dangerous. It's scary." (The Lightening Thief). It can be emotional, like being picked on or missing someone who died. It doesn't have to be action, but it does need to show a problem. My favorite tactic in a first page is to surprise! Show us something we didn't expect. Something that will get us to remember you! (Remember: if you do start with action, be careful not to confuse the reader. We don't know the world or characters yet so while action is good, we also need to be able to follow the story and care about what's happening)

Step 3-  voice

            This is a hard one to pinpoint but one of the most important. You can get away with A LOT if we fall in love with your character right away. Voice, essentially, is personality. If I can't tell the difference between the POV of your character and his neighbor next door, you probably don't have voice. It's the way a character speaks. It's the way he thinks about things. Does he talk fast and jumble up words? Is he precocious and speak in very large words to sound smarter?

            "Am I a troubled kid?
            Yeah. You could say that."

Rick Riordan could have said this many different ways. "See, I'm a troubled kid." "Ma says I'm troubled." "Don't mind me, I'm just a troubled kid." All of them show something different about the character. How would YOUR character say it?

Voice is often funny, so if you can add in something humorous, that's golden. Doesn't have to be fart jokes (though we like those here), instead it can be sarcastic or something that's not even funny to the characters but is ironic to the reader. But don't worry if you can't make it funny because you can have great voice without being a comedian. Just let your character show their personality. Again, this is about being unique. Show us what is unique about your protagonist through their voice.

Step 4- the writing
            The first page can be written and rewritten, tweaked over and over again. So play with it. Use your great writing talents to show us the conflict and character in the best way possible. This step is just about polishing. Use description to set the scene. Give us emotion with the use of the right words. Vary your sentence length and word usage (make sure you don't use the same words over and over again) and certainly be careful of starting all your sentences with the word I (first person is very popular.) But don't let good writing take away from your characters voice. Don't use words your character wouldn't use, especially in Middle Grade. Talking like an adult in a MG books (or even YA) just because you think it's pretty, is a very easy way to get rejected.

Step 5- Make us care

            This one is hard and hopefully you've already done it through the last few steps, but I wanted to be sure I emphasized it regardless.
            Make it clear why this story and conflict and character matter. Show us the emotion. Is your character afraid to die? Is he worried he'll be alone forever? What will happen if your character doesn't achieve his goal? Yes, there should be stakes even in the first page. Even in the small conflict you use to introduce the story. Make us care what happens to this character-- that's what makes a great story!

Front Cover

 I mentioned that I loved the first page of The False Prince, so here is the first half of the first page (that's all it needed to hook me and do everything I mentioned above)

            "If I had to do it all over again, I would not have chosen this life. Then again, I'm not sure I ever have a choice" 
In truth, I'm not a huge fan of these two lines. Almost cliché, doesn't tell me a whole lot about the story or really even the character. But it does show emotion. It gets better though, don't worry.
            "These were my thoughts as I raced away from the market, with a stolen roast tucked under my arm." 
 Conflict! Nothing spectacular, but enough to make me wonder why he'd stolen it and what will happen now.

            "I'd never attempted roast thievery before, and I was already regretting it. It happens to be very difficult to hold a chunk of raw meat while running. More slippery than I'd anticipated. If the butcher didn't catch me with his cleaver first and literally cut off my future plans, I vowed to remember to get the meat wrapped next time. Then steal it." 

 Truth: this roast does not play a large role in this novel. If he hadn't stolen the roast, Sage still would have been taken by the royal and the rest of the story would come out the same. So why start here? It's got conflict, shows me the world in an interesting way and already I have a great idea of this character. After the roast bit, Sage is saved by a strange man and essentially bought for unknown reasons. The man is the inciting incident. This roast bit is an amusing way to show us the characters, the world and conflict, and lead us to the important parts.

If you have any questions, leave them in the comments. I'd love to answer them!