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I got a good night’s rest and starting working on revisions…but I wanted to recap more from the Agent-Author Day at the Backspace Writer’s Conference.
The “Query Letters That Work” panel did a great job covering what genres they accept and what does and doesn’t work in a query. It helped to be reminded that they read hundreds of queries a week, which means the less said the less to critique. They like 1 page queries with 4-5 paragraphs at most. But reminded us to err on the side of brevity by keeping it short and sweet. They also reminded us not to send attachments.
As far as openings and closings, word count, genre and title are helpful in the first paragraph though some prefer it in the last paragraph. My advice? Check out Chuck Sambuchino’s blog Guide to Literary Agents and click on the Successful Queries section and see if the agent your querying posted there. Then you get a better idea of individual preferences.
They stressed the middle paragraph’s importance in creating a sense of story and CONFLICT. The query is to entice the agents to keep reading. One warning was that if you are going to compare your work to other writers in the query, make sure you deliver on it in the writing. Referrals by a published author are always useful too.
Most understood the need for simultaneously querying, but expect to be notified if a partial (part of your manuscript was requested by another agent after you queried them) is out to other agents. Also it is very important to keep track or what editors have read and rejected you work. Titles are frequently changed by the publisher–just an FYI.
Another question came up about querying a series–is it better to mention or not to mention in the query letter? Some agents like to know, others will ask if they like your book. It’s okay to mention briefly but keep in mind you are querying this book not the series.
By the way, writing up my notes, the comments start to click in my head and I have an Aha! moment. Hence the pic.
Onto the actual Query Letter Workshop. I was in the Mystery/Thriller Group. First off, my group rocked. Awesome people, great writers–big hello to Leon, Beverly, Susan, Nora, and Wendy–who also hung out with me throughout the rest of the conference.
We had Natanya Wheeler and Jeff Kleinman as the agents reviewing our queries. Some of the tips/comments they made during their critiques included:
- No passive voice in the query letter (e.g., she is xyz)
- There is no necessity for a log line. It can be worked into the pitch paragraph
- The query should have a clear distinct voice and be to the point
- There is no right way to do it, but you have to get the agent to want to read the first page of your manuscript
- Get in fast and dazzle people
- Agents are desperate for great stuff
- Keep adjectives to a minimum
- 60-85K is a good length for a mystery
- Writing is rejected usually because the writing isn’t strong enough or the premise isn’t interesting
- Agents want tight brief letters
- A 100,000 word manuscript=scary in a first time author
In the afternoon session, we read our first two pages to Lois Winston and Kristen Neuhaus. General comments included:
- First time authors make the mistake of thinking in terms of movies, having a panoramic scan of the landscape and then zooming in on the character
- You do not need to engage all five senses in all scenes, only have the senses that are important to the scene
- Only describe what is important to the scene
- Writers don’t finish manuscripts they abandon them
- Don’t have info dumps/backstory
Then it was on to the next panel: The Wow Factor
Every agent talked about the need for brevity and directness in the queries and also the importance of doing your homework to know what the agent represents. Check the query guidelines on the website. Agents want to be drawn into it. Agents read literary journals as another source of potential clients to represent. Becoming a referral is also another good route to an agent.
Next was the Keynote Address by Lorenzo Carcaterra. Highlights included:
- Make it your business to know your business
- Research editors–know their hits and flops
- Be well read because it all feeds into the process (books, blogs, publishing industry magazines/websites, etc.)
- You get rejected 95-98% of the time because “No” is the easiest thing to say. “Yes” sets things in motion and can require money (especially if it’s an editor “Yes”)
- Pitching is like a military maneuver. You only need 1 “Yes” for an agent and a book
- If you believe it is a good idea never ever give up on it. Eventually it will sell
- Timing is everything–you need the right guy at the right time in the right place
- Getting the first agent is harder than falling in love
I stayed for the optional Polish Your Pitch workshop. This is specific to an oral pitch. Here are some things that were discussed:
- Pitch=what your book is about
- Pitch should be clear, concise and compelling
- Pitch length=3-5 sentences
- Pitch goal is to tell and sell it to an audience. Talk about the protagonist, the basic plot and the catalyst
- So what? Who cares? What’s in it for me?=3 main questions answer in pitch=who was it about? what happens to him/her? what is at stake?
- They recommended reading How to Write a Mystery by Larry Beinhart
- The recommended thinking about old TV shows like the Odd Couple or Brady Bunch–the theme songs functioned as the pitch
- Tell what the story is about, show what it’s about. Use very few adjectives
- Pitch=premise and plot
- Oral pitch should have short punchy sentences, so it can be immediately taken in by listener
- Think Nightmare on Elm Street pitch–Do Dreams Kill?
Stayed tuned tomorrow and Wednesday for summaries of the next two days of the conference.
I was sitting here thinking, what are my dreams for this week. To do well at the conference and to catch an agent’s interest. To meet another writer or five and click so we can have conversations about writing. Of course, this line of thought made me think back to my dreams as a 25-year-old. As a 20-year-old. All the way back to a seven-year-old. I can remember having all these dreams about the future.
Now sitting here, I can tell you most of them didn’t come true. I don’t live in a Newport Mansion with servants (age 8 dream) nor do I live in China (age 20 dream). Does that mean I gave up on my dreams? Or they gave up on me? I don’t think so. I think I changed and my dreams changed accordingly. I grew up and some dreams were outgrown.
But other dreams I saw through and made a reality. Which leaves me wondering why these and not those? Were they harder to achieve? Were they just plain unrealistic (at five I dreamed of being green)? Not sure. But I do know the dreams I realized defined me for a long time. And the dreams that fell by the wayside dropped off my radar pretty fast. So I have to think there was a reason for it. Or I’m really good at letting go of what I can’t have.
How have your dreams changed over the years? Which mean more to you–the ones achieved or the ones left behind?
Have you ever noticed how your body has a way of telling you when you’ve taken on too much? For me, I tend to get sick or have an old injury suddenly flare up. The past few days have been very stressful. And suddenly the dormant muscle knot in my neck is acting up. It traps nerves and makes my right hand pretty useless. Not cool.
Especially when I have a mega writing conference starting Thursday. So I slept most of the day. Took some anti imflams and other meds and wait for them to work their magic. I do some light stretching and I avoid everything that could worsen my neck. Which means less typing, no sleeping on my side or stomach. No dancing. No weights. Just waiting.
And I always get the twinge warnings before it acts up. Kinda like the aura before the headache. But I never stop to listen. It’s like when your mom says don’t touch that, it’s too hot and you ignore her and touch it anyways.
What about you? Do you find your body has ways to let you know when its had enough and needs a break? Or are you able to stop and listen to the warning bells before something goes wrong?
So I’m on the elliptical enjoying a great workout and this song comes on my iPod. It’s playing a genius mix and so I had no idea what song was playing until I looked. Anyway, it was the genius mix for Only This Moment by Royksopp. The song playing was Innocente by Delerium. But I digress. Point being, this line in the song walloped me over the head and kept turning over and over in my mind. She kept singing about how “I suppose it is the price of falling in love.” It’s a beautifully haunting song. Leigh Nash’s voice reaches inside and grabs ahold of your heart. The lyrics say:
Not a stranger or a ghost
It’s the quiet of a storm approaching
That I fear the most
It’s the pain that I hear coming
Which got me thinking about how every pleasure, every happiness, every joy has a price. Nothing is free. There is a cost to every moment in life. Pain too takes its pound of flesh. And suddenly I saw my entire existence as one ginormous balance sheet. As if each moment depleted from both sides in some measure. Until there is nothing left.
The highs and the lows were the most memorable, but the cost attributed to them. Yeesh. Someone once told me to aim for the plateaus. I tried, but it always felt like I was flatlining. There is a difference between existing and living. I aim to live. And that meant I fell in love and I risked failing. I tried. And maybe that is the scariest part of being alive.
And yes, at times, the price didn’t feel worth it. When in love, I was imbued with super powers. I felt invincible. But when the love ended, you went somewhere dark. Somewhere you never wanted to be. But you clawed your way back out of there. And that was the price of falling in love. You risked yourself. Sometimes, you lost more than you thought possible. Other times, you gained more than you ever dreamed of.
But is it a risk worth taking? Especially after the love ends/fades/dies? What do you think–is love worth the price?
As I develop characters and decide on who is the protagonist and antagonist in my story, I realize real life is not nearly that simple. Sure in my life story I’m the protagonist. But in someone else’s story, I may be the antagonist.
Many times, I’ve been the sidekick. Even, an ancillary character that fills in the background. And the character I portray in other people’s lives is very different from the character I am in my own story.
Which randomly brings to mind this Klimt painting. Each character is drawn relative to the other. If you remove one, the others lose their positions. And I think that is what makes storytelling so interesting. Everyone’s role is defined by the others. Remove one person from the picture and everything shifts.
What got me thinking so deeply about this? My online Writer’s Digest class. We had to describe our protagonist and antagonist and what motivates them. To me as the unbiased third-party story-teller, I am privy to all the facts and circumstances of their lives (or at least I like to think I am). It allows me to determine what role they play in the novel I am writing.
But then I have to delve into what roles they play among the other characters. And that is where things get convoluted. I have a heroine, who some view as a spoiled manipulative man-eater, while others see her as someone who put her friends first and suffers mightily for it. Same character, different perspectives. She is all these things. And that’s why I love writing her.
And I started wondering…hmmm in my own life…I’m sure I’ve been the antagonist in several people’s stories. I’m sure I’ve been good and bad and everything in between. And I started to wonder how I play out in other people’s stories. Which got me wondering, does anyone see themselves as the antagonist? Or do we all cast ourselves as protagonists in our own minds? Even when we may very well be the antagonist in many situations?
Last night I braved the wet, cold diagonal rain to venture to the Mid-Manhattan Library for the MWA NY Chapter’s Library Outreach Series. The topic was: FORENSICS AND THE MYSTERY WRITER: IS IT SCIENCE OR FICTION?
The panel featured three writers (Lindsay Faye, Stefanie Pintoff, and E.J. Wagner) and a moderator (E.W. Count), who read excerpts from their books, answered questions on forensics role in mystery writing, and gave a glimpse into their writing process. All three moderators agreed that forensics was a must have in their mystery novels.
E.J. Wagner gave historical background on the field of forensics, including how at one point in history the belief that the body had to be intact to reunite with the soul in heaven made it impossible for anyone to openly share knowledge about dissecting human bodies. Lindsay Faye pointed out how the “how” and “why” a character solves a crime is in and of itself very character revealing.
The authors discussed the importance of scientific and historic accuracy even in fiction. Ms. Faye pointed to the recent Sherlock Holmes movie as an example of how the idiomatic use of language didn’t fit the period. She talked about how there was no term for a sociopath at the time of Jack the Ripper and that using Freudian terms before the birth of Freud doesn’t make sense.
The topic of what qualifies as death was also discussed. It is interesting to note that a hundred years ago it was a heart stopping and now (in the U.S.) is when brain activity stops. E.J. Wagner made reference to death being a continuum, which I found intriguing.
All in all a great event by MWA-NY chapter. Many thanks to E.W. Count for a great job moderating and participating in the discussion and to the panel for sharing their experiences and insight.
If you’d like to hear the discussion, it was taped and is available on the WNYC website.
A friend told me there were not enough pictures here, so this post is my attempt to remedy that. I’m going to try for a picture post once a week…
This was an amazing sensory interactive art exhibit at the armory in May 2009.
Boat ride to governor’s island…
Evidence that I may be a long lost Cullen. I glow in direct sunlight. Is that normal? Jazz festival on governor’s island.
Salzburg Sound of Music Tour
Salzburg take 2…
On the book front, I’m retooling my query letter for the Backspace conference. I also wrote 1300 words tonight for my new story hitting 10,300 word count. I’m exhausted. Dreaming up scenes is hard work. I love it. I devote hours to it. But it leaves my mind mush.
Thank goodness, I dvr’ed Merlin. That show totally transports me away from my daily life and my writing and lets my mind chill. Not that I ever get away from my writing. I was doing my back exercises tonight (core strengthening) and of course that is when I get a new line of dialogue and have to scoot over to the laptop to get it down.
Tomorrow I head to the MWA-NY Chapter Library series on forensics. Looking forward to it. Will let you know how it goes.
Sorry for the lack of words….so tired. I was up all last week bidding on the DTWTFN auctions.