Thursday, November 7, 2019


It's National Novel Writing Month!  And I'm, well, I'm writing.  Hopefully 50,000 new words before December 1st.  I don't start a new project each November.  What I do is work on a novel throughout the spring/summer/fall then finish a first draft in a furious 50,000 word burst.

In some ways, that's easier than doing a proper NaNoWriMo--I already know my characters, voice, and story.  On the other hand, beginnings are easiest and most exciting.  Middles are challenging--keep them tight and not at all soggy!  And endings are tricky--pick up all the threads you've introduced intentionally or subconsciously and tie all the pieces together.

In December, I'm a soggy noodle.  A soggy noodle with a lot of Christmas/end-of-year stuff to accomplish.  But it's worth it to have written a book a year for the past few years.  I revisit each chapter as I send it to my critique group, so the draft is solid by the end of the chapter-level-critique process each spring.

I love the camaraderie of critique groups, writing groups, and accountability groups--including NaNoWriMo--in what can be a solitary occupation.  I wouldn't change a thing.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Is Querying Hard?

That's what writers who've been through the process say.  "Querying is hard."  I always thought they meant that rejection is hard.  And that's true--rejection is not a lot of fun.  I wrote novels (and edited and critiqued and workshopped them) for twelve years before I was both a strong enough writer and also ready to weather the waves of rejection.

Still, the process seemed overwhelming, and I wasn't sure how to start.  Bearing in mind that I'm new to querying and am far from expert at the process, here's how I've approached the task of finding an agent.  The below notes are for fiction only.

1) Complete your novel.  Revise it.  Work it through critique groups and beta readers.  Enter contests to get feedback.  Polish it until it shines.  When you can't make it any better without professional/editorial feedback, move on to step two.

2) Why query agents?  If you want to indie/self publish, or you're pursuing small-press publication, you can maybe skip querying agents with your manuscript.  But, if you're hoping to be published by a major publishing house, you'll probably need a literary agent.  Most editors/big houses do not accept unsolicited submissions.

3) According to, there are about 2,000 literary agents.  Which one is right for you?  And how do you know?  I started at QueryTracker.  Agents > Search for Agents > Advanced Search > Genres.  Selecting my genre narrowed 2000 agents to 117.  This is a far more manageable number.  What next?

4) One of my critique partners, John Frain, spent much of last year searching for an agent.  He created a table to help keep track of various factors to help him determine which agents were likely to be good fits for his work and career goals.  I took his table, tweaked the headings, and asked Paul to make it into a spreadsheet for me.  Now, bear in mind that my categories are completely arbitrary and possibly wrong.  I needed a place to start.  The first two columns are Agent Name and Agency.  I've removed those from the attached image, but I've found including Agency as a separate column is critical.  Many agencies have "only query one agent at a time" or "a no from one is a no from all" policies, so being able to sort by Agency is important in the AgentTracker spreadsheet.

5) Now, I know who to query first!  I started with "matches" of 8 and above and am working my way thought the list, sending several queries a week.  But, how do I keep track of all my submissions?  That's a different spreadsheet.  Again, Agent Name and Agency columns are redacted.  Also, some agents use QueryManager rather than email for submissions.  I include those links within my Agent Query Submissions spreadsheet, but removed them for this image.  I use colors to differentiate the two different novels I'm querying right now.  (I've also learned to send only one project to each agent.)

6) The query!  Finally!  I worked on my query letters for weeks.  I read Query Shark and other industry blogs/columns until my eyes blurred.  I went through several drafts of each letter.  I ran them past my critique partners and, for one project, a professional editor.  I continually tweak the letters.  But even a solid query letter isn't enough.  In my experience, a personalized query earns more personalized responses (both personalized rejections and requests for more).  By "personalized query," I mean more than simply addressing the letter to its intended recipient.  That's a given.  I mean: I'm querying you because you represent this author whose career I admire and here's why.  Or: your website says you're looking for projects like this and here's how my project does that.

Populating the AgentTracker spreadsheet took me easily 60 hours of work.  But each customized query takes the better part of an hour by itself.

So far, perhaps because I was so ready for it, the rejection hasn't been too hard to handle.  Still, querying is hard (time-consuming, creatively demanding) work.  It's also--dare I say it?--a lot of fun.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Autumnal Mood

I feel melancholic in autumn.

I always have.

And I love it.

In college, a small, wooded area stretched beside the field between the sophomore and senior dorms.  I'd escape into a copse of trees, sit against a trunk, and cry into the rain.  

Autumn is a time of beginnings: new school years, my birthday, a reprieve from stifling summer heat. 

It’s also a time of endings as the leaves wither and fall, I grow another year older, and the calendar year wanes. 

I love the scent of rain, the threat of an impending storm, the invigorating tempest, the soothing pattern of a drizzle. But I hate the humid aftermath. 

The muggy wake of a storm front feels like my head after crying--after the dam has burst and the excitement has past. I’m dehydrated and yet swollen. Puffy eyes, mucous breath. 

So too the air seems after the rain passes, and I’m left wondering: what’s next to look forward to?

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Improving Craft--and Acumen

I started what would become my first full-length novel during NaNoWriMo in 2007, almost twelve years ago.  At the time, I had a preschooler and an infant.  I'd just stopped working (in health sciences publishing) to stay home with the girls.

I still love the idea of that book, Seek Ye First.  It's a scavenger-hunt mystery set partially around St. Louis and partially in an online gaming world called Poirot.  But the writing wasn't great.  I had a literature degree!  I read a lot.  At the time, I kept a daily blog.  I should have been able to write, right?  But no.  What all that knowledge and experience enabled me to do was to recognize (eventually) that my writing wasn't great.

My POV was too distant, my verbs too weak, my stakes too low. (I created these awesome characters and didn't want to hurt them.)  Tell, not show--I had a great fondness for summarizing scenes.

To be honest, I haven't perfected my writing.  But, it's significantly better in 2019 than it was in 2007.  In the intervening years, I've written four additional novels that will live in the box under my desk until our leaky roof destroys them.

I've also written two novels that I am proud of.  Finally!  And I'm very excited by the novel I'm writing now.  And the one I'm outlining to write next.

In addition to reading and writing books, over the past twelve years, I've taken writing classes (online and on campus).  I've participated in several critique groups.  I've read a lot of industry blogs.  I joined local/national writers' groups.  I've found beta readers and entered contests.  In short, I went from being an aspiring writer to treating my writing as a profession.

Maybe I waited longer than I needed to start sending my work to agents.  I thought I was ready twelve years ago.  I wasn't.  I'm ready now.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Publishing that First Book

J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was rejected by twelve publishers, the story goes.

Ouch. How wrong they were, we think.

But were they?

Common publishing practice recommends querying agents and editors by sending a 250-word letter introducing the novel (like back cover copy--the intent is to entice, not to give away the ending) and the first chapter.  I have no idea what Rowling's query letter looked like.  Writing engaging query letters is a different skill from writing good novels.

The world Rowling built in the Harry Potter books is wonderful, amazing, magical.  That's really hard to demonstrate in 250 words.  And that first chapter . . .


My eldest daughter is 14 years old.  She has Down syndrome and isn't an especially strong reader.  As we're heading to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter later this summer, Ellie is reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone aloud to me.  This is a laborious process for both of us.  We stop after every paragraph to discuss and make sure she's "getting" it.

I've read Chapter One at least four times before, but never like this.  And I've gotta be honest--it breaks all the rules.  It's sloooooooow.  It's really more of a prologue than a first chapter.  We start with a not-very-interesting minor character (Vernon Dursley) and follow him through an entire day.  I get why Rowling starts this way.  She's introducing the world of magic through the eyes of someone very much outside that world.

 For a fast reader, someone already invested in the story, or someone willing to give a book longer than one chapter to get interesting, this works great.  But let's be honest.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone really picks up in Diagon Alley.  That's Chapter 5.

So if publishers were wrong to reject Harry Potter (and financially, obviously, they were) it's perhaps because of the early decision model as much as any individual business decision.  It's a tricky thing to allow for a potential break-out success that breaks the rules.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Following Through

These days, authors often talk about how fun writing is.  I read dust jackets and learn that, for many authors, writing is about spending time with their imaginary friends, more like play than work.  After reading quite a few authors talk about their processes in this way, I began to despair.  Writing is hard, sometimes tedious work for me; does this mean that I am not real writer? A few years ago, I stumbled upon Nick Hornby's description of his frustrating writing process.  For him writing can be horrible, irritating, grim, and dull.  Relief!

Today I stumbled upon another writing process gem.  I'm reading Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor: A century of wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger.  As a child, Alice was friends with Franz Kafka.  "Alice would beg him to tell her the stories over and over again.  But she always wanted to know the ending - and that he could not answer.  He simply could not complete his work.  Later on, he would write, 'I am familiar with indecision, there's nothing I know so well, but whenever something summons me, I fall flat, worn out by half-hearted inclinations and hesitations over a thousand earlier trivialities.'"

Aha!  Another glimpse of my truth.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you." - Ira Glass

"I love this quote. In fact, I've shared it on social media before. The idea of the gap is really helpful because it's hopeful. It tells you that you have good taste--which is a prerequisite for making good art. Thus, the very fact you're making crap art but you know it's crap gives you a hint that you can someday make good art. I love that. Usually, this time is really frustrating for a young artist, because all she makes is crap. And, of course, we've all seen artists who don't have good taste; they believe everything they make is wonderful, and that poorly trained taste keeps them from improving past a certain point. I was lucky to get early encouragement, where other people thought what I was doing was better than I thought it was. I also was lucky to hunt down some people who made a living writing who told me frankly, Kid, you can do this." - Brent Weeks

Oh, hello, hope. It's lovely to see you 'round these parts again. Lovely.