Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Query Letter Don'ts

If you are one of those people who anguishes and sweats and seems to spend more time on those three bloody paragraphs than on your entire manuscript, let me ease your mind. You don’t have to write the perfect query letter.  Authors don’t land agents or contracts on the strength of queries alone. However… writing a bad query can hurt your chances:
  •  Don’t shotgun it. You know how in the movies, the bad guys expend a zillion bullets only to hit absolutely nothing? Don’t be that person. TARGET your queries to specific agents and publishers. 
  • Don’t forget the crucial elements. We see queries all the time that don’t specify an agent, word count, genre, title, and even the author's name! 
  • Don’t be vague about what your project is about. Do you know how many books out there are about someone who made an amazing discovery that led them on a journey that put their life on the balance? That tells us nothing about your book. 
  • Don’t oversell your book. If your manuscript is fantastic, we will be able to tell. Honest. 
  • Be wary of comparisons. Obscure ones will just confuse us and grandiose ones will leave us feeling cold. But if your project can honestly be encapulsed by X meets Y (Pirates of the Caribbean meets Martha Stewart), then by all means pitch it that way. 
  • Don’t tell us your life story. Yes, the agent-client relationship is an important one, but now is the time to focus on your product, not you. 
  • Don't ignore guidelines. They are there so we can review submissions in the most efficient way possible, and disregarding them is not a good way to make a first impression. 
  • Don’t submit a query for fiction unless your manuscript is complete. 
  • Don’t sweat a minor typo. To err is human, we do it, too. Please don’t resend a query to fix negligible mistakes. Now if there are A LOT of mistakes, don’t bother resending the query either… Just learn to be more professional next time. 
  • Don’t use crazy fonts, colors, unending walls of text, or anything else that makes our eyeballs want to rebel against your submission.
And because concrete examples beat vague proclamations, I present, for your reading pleasure, a very bad query letter:

Dear Sir or Madam,
I realize you are only looking for YA manuscripts right now, but when you see my book, I know you will throw your guidelines out the window. My husband and daughter love my story – and their not even the target audience! 
I truly think the book speaks for itself, and I wouldn’t want to spoil your enjoyment, so I’ll just say that first, a girl’s mother adopts a… rather unusual son… and when a suspicious neighbor moves in, hijinks ensue. Technically, it’s a paranormal MG comedy, but in reality, it transcends all age and genre considerations. Think a funnier version of Twilight, except  without vampires, for younger readers, and with real people.  Or like a supernatural Captain Underpants, without the silly illustrations and bathroom humor. There is no other book like it!!

I have included the first 88 pages of the book. I am ready to right the rest when the contract is in hand! Don’t worry, though. I have outlined it, and it’s going to be FANSTASTIC!

Since winning a local contest in the 9th grade, I have become a prolific writer, having written the newsletters for the local nonprofit I work for. I have also received honorable mentions in a couple of poetry anthologies. In my spare time, I love watching tv, playing with my cats, and eating vegetarian food (unlike the character in my book!)

I will call you next week to discuss the size of the advance and my ideas for cover art. By the way, I insist on keeping movie and foreign writes. It will be worth your time. Trust me, this book is going to be HUGE!

PS – I thought you should know I’ve copywrited the first chapters, just as a precaution. Not against you, of course, but I know you’ll agree that an author can never bee to careful.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Courageous Cutting

As writers, we may naturally admire, like, be satisfied with, or happy about what we write. But there’s a difference between such feelings and excessive love of our own words. Over two hundred years ago, the author and literary critic Samuel Johnson admonished, “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out." Or, expressed in a more familiar way -- by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Faulkner, and, in this rendition, Stephen King, "Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings."

For effective and salable work, we must learn to edit our work with less parental pride and more outsider objectivity, to combat that self-enchantment and cut courageously. 

“But wait!” you exclaim. “How do I detect too much love? How do I know what to cut? How do I develop that critical eye?” I’ve discovered three unmistakable touchstones, gleaned from my own and other writers’ red-faced experiences.

  • 1. Your body tells you.

    As you look at a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph, you feel something. Maybe it’s slight nausea, a moment of dizziness, a sudden flush, a sinking stomach. 

    Listen to your body. It’s telling you, first, that the passage needs work, and second, that you’re too invested in it. Soothe your forehead with a cool wet cloth and face it. It’s time to cut.

    2. Your mind protests.
     The moment you begin to toy with the idea of cutting that passage, your mind  defends, reasons, and rationalizes:

          • “This passage is needed! It’s explanatory, descriptive, lyrical, mood-setting, eloquent, graphic, moving, exciting, powerful . . . .”
          • “It proves my genius!”  
          • “Look at all the drafts I’ve produced and chips I’ve consumed! Look how hard I’ve worked!”  

    However logical and reasonable these defenses seem, they aren’t. The first shows the extremes of your runaway ardor. The second attests every novice writer’s ultimate fantasy—you’ll be acclaimed and rewarded without having to pay your dues. The third betrays the writer as victim. No reader—parent, partner, friend, editor—cares how much time, effort, and calories you’ve put in. All they want is to be entranced and keep reading.
    3. Your emotions blind you.
    This condition is a little more subtle than the others. In your ill-fated romance, you may still be captivated by those words your body and mind have already signaled as offending. You may love the passage for the wrong reasons and will go to astonishing lengths to hold onto it:
    • Having received a rejection, did you already start an angry letter to the editor denouncing the rigidity of her writing rules?  
    • Would you gladly rewrite the entire piece to preserve this passage?
    • Would you throw out everything else and start a new piece around the passage?

    If you’re blushing or reluctantly nodding, you’re in trouble.

    I speak from sad experience. Recently, ready to email an essay to a chosen editor, I glanced at the opening sentence. Having reworked it countless times, I particularly loved its witty originality and sparkling alliteration. Only then did I see, shocked, that this all-important sentence conveyed the exact opposite of what I wanted to say! I cursed, raged, and rationalized. Finally, I sighed, and for the next two hours rewrote the entire first paragraph.

    When you’ve finally performed the excising surgery, you can bind up your wounds with one or more of these soothers:
    • Save the passage. Put it in a file labeled “Lost Loves” or “Cut But Not Forgotten.”  
    • Tell yourself how much better your piece is without the passage.  
    • Compliment yourself for being such an incisive editor. Think how proud your mother would be, and your old English teacher.  
    • Leave the piece alone, at least for a day. You’re not abandoning it but letting your subconscious simmer without interference. Why this detachment works remains eternally mysterious. But to go do something entirely different gives us the distance and objectivity we need to become courageous cutters.
    • If the hole left by cutting still seems unfillable, or you can’t nudge out a decent transition, just start writing. What emerges will be usable somewhere.
    • Read the best literature. Notice the conciseness and freshness.
    • Read less than the best literature(!) Observe the flaws and clichés, and you’ll be more able to spot them—and edit them out—in your own work.
    • Praise yourself for having finally developed that precious and elusive faculty all writers covet, editorial distance.
    • If you’re still mourning your lost love, keep in mind that someday, somewhere, that rejected passage may reappear. It may float unbidden into your head while you’re working on another piece. You’ll rapturously find that, with only the slightest adjustment, this old love will be exactly what you needed.
    As you listen to your body-mind-emotional messages, you’ll become your own best editor. With courageous cutting, you’ll increase the likelihood of acceptances and produce work of which you can be justly proud. 

    Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor Noelle Sterne has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children's Book Insider, Fiction Southeast, Funds for Writers, and Writer's Digest. Using her PhD from Columbia University, Noelle has assisted doctoral candidates in (finally) completing their dissertations for over 28 years. In Noelle's book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011) and the upcoming Challenge in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015), she draws examples from her academic consulting, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers reframe their problems and reach their goals. Visit Noelle at

    Wednesday, October 15, 2014

    Where Text and Pictures Meet

    The Writer
    In the very old days a picture book was 50% text with 50% art, often with one page being story and the other side being art. These days there is a greater emphasis on shorter text, with art taking up more of the page in full double-page side-by-side spreads. Here the images have to do more of the
    “showing” and writers have to work harder to tell their stories in fewer words. This means letting go of description as much as possible and communicating only essential information to the illustrator of what can or needs to be shown in images rather than words. Because the illustrator is an expert in their field, the writer has to keep their notes to a minimum to give the illustrator maximum freedom, hence the minimum description and minimum notes.

    At the same time, there are things that might be essential to the story such as, showing that the dog is hiding behind the couch before the page turn when we see the dog pouncing on the cat. To let the editor and illustrator know and have the manuscript make sense, you either write in italics Illo note: Dog hiding behind couch or [Illo note: Dog hiding behind the couch].

    The Illustrator
    An illustrator’s job is to add value with a further aesthetic element and take the words on a magic carpet ride illustrating both what is and what isn’t there in the text. Often the illustrator will add layers by situating the story in an unexpected place. Places bring up all sorts of visual culture associations. Imagine a story set in a beach town or the illustrator takes the same story and places it in a hi-rise NY building or an old hippie home. Imagine that unbeknownst to the author, the illustrator turns all the human characters into animal characters, making them hilarious in the process and helping to turn the story into what became a best selling series as Ashley Wolff did with the Miss Bindergarten series written by Joseph Slate. And then there’s all the historical information not included in the text that Yuyi Morales independently wove into Harvesting Hope by Kathleen Krull.

    Both the illustration and writing styles (or “voice”) impact the emotional resonance of a book. Sometimes nonfiction biography is paired with playful childlike illustration like Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s A Splash of Red: The Life and Times of Horace Pippin. Jessie Hartland’s deadpan text combined with her fabulously naïve looking illustrations make for a wonderful read in Bon Appétit: The Delicious Life of Julia Child

    Todd Parr and Lucy Cousins books combine straightforward simple language with incredibly delightful childlike illustrations where each elevates the other into the realm of pure pleasure, while more traditional artists like Paul Zelinsky and David Weisner do the same thing on a much more sophisticated level often with soulful or surreal stories. And then there are the cultural references that some diverse artists include in their style for specific books like Maya Gonzalez, Rafael Lopez, and David Diaz’s sometimes do, such as Maya’s inclusion of Mayan or Aztec symbols referencing history.

    The place where picture book text and art meet is rich terrain. It is a place of mutual respect and transformation, where each brings something that adds up to being greater than the sum of its individual parts. To find out even more about this subject, I’ll be co-leading a free webinar for both writers and illustrators on the related topic of 2nd Visual Stories
     this Friday October 17th at 5PM PDT.

    Mira Reisberg is the Director and founding instructor of the Children's Book Academy. She has been involved in the children's book industry since early 1988 as an illustrator, writer, editor, and art director as well as working as a kid lit university professor. Over the years she has taught many now successful children's book writers and illustrators. Starting November 3rd, she will be co-teaching the Craft and Business of Illustrating Children's Books with Chronicle Books' Design Director and Art Director extraordinaire for fearful beginning artists, multi-published illustrators, and adventurous writers.