If you're a writer and need inspiration or encouragement on your writing journey, here are my articles to help you on your way.
The Query Letter
Thereís a lot of different advice out there about the content of a query letter, and most of it conflicts. What Iím giving you today, is what has worked for me on more than one occasion. Iím happy to say that editors have requested more of my work, which is always a good thing. Whether they bought it, was another matter.
So, what are you going to do with your New York Times bestseller? Or the brilliant article? Or touching short story? Unless the publisherís guidelines say you can, itís best not to send a full, unsolicited manuscript, or even a partial. It can sit in the slush pile for anything up to two years before the busy editors finally get around to reading it. Two years? Yuck!
As we all know, competition is fierce nowadays and editors are very busy people. Many are just plain too busy to read the endless flow of unsolicited manuscripts that arrive on their desk every week. You can save yourself months of waiting and heartache by sending a query letter.
A query is simply that, an inquiry. It may seem to be the slow way, but from personal experience, it works fastest. Itís a one to two-page letter giving a brief outline of your idea/story. The beauty of the query letter is that you can send as many as you like. Provided youíve done your homework and know which publisher is looking for what, you can send several at a time. However, once you add a synopsis and/or three chapters, it becomes a proposal and you should send only one of those at a time.
People have been known to send more than one proposal at one time, but itís considered unethical and unprofessional. There are people who will advise you to go ahead and do it anyway, saying the worst that can happen is that two editors want to read it. Of course, thatís true, but then you could get into tricky negotiations and unless you are an expert at negotiation, you could come seriously unstuck.
Youíd then probably have to start looking for an agent to act on your behalf and as people whoíve looked for an agent know, it could take a while. And while youíre running around looking for an agent, you have two editors chomping on the bit, waiting to read your story. Now youíre in the tricky situation of keeping two editors waiting and both could quickly lose interest. Something else will grab their attention, your manuscript will end up as yesterdayís news and you could end up selling it to no one.
So you can see how much heartache a query letter can save you.
The first thing a query letter does is tell the editor that you are a professional and that you have a professional attitude. It should be business-like, short and to the point. It saves you time and it saves a busy editor time. Itís more professional to give an editor what they want rather than what you think they should have.
The second thing it does is save you, a serious writer, time. Why send a proposal youíve sweated blood over and wait months, only to be told they like it but theyíre over-inventoried. So frustrating. Besides, it could take several months before you hear anything, whereas a short query letter could take considerably less time to tell you what you need to know.
Iím presuming here that youíve done your homework, studied the markets and sent the query only to publishers you know publish your type of story. For instance, you wouldnít try selling a paranormal to Mills & Boon (Presents), or a category to Avon. Remember, too, that time is more precious to an editor than it is to you. Donít waste it only to have them tell you it doesnít fit their line when itís something you should already know.
OK, onward and upward. The query letter should tell the editor:
- Word count
- The line youíre aiming at
- Any writing credentials you may have.
- Any writing organizations you belong to - RWA chapters etc. (Some people dispute this, but I believe it shows your commitment and willingness to learn your craft.)
- What your book is about.
This can be the most challenging part of the letter and there are varying schools of thought on this/these very important paragraph/s.
This is where the premise comes in. A premise is a 25 to 35-word paragraph (the shorter the better) telling an editor exactly what your story is about. It must be short and snappy, yet is must also give an idea of the conflict, AND show the potential for emotion. Your book reduced to 35 words? Help!
But it can be done and itís done every day. The 25/35-word premise can be all it takes to sell your idea to an editor (or pitch if youíre at a conference) and make her pant to see more.
The query has to sell you and your work. It could be the first example of your writing the discerning editor sees, so you have to make every word count. Itís a sales pitch, a come-on. If your query doesnít make her sit up and take notice, she probably wonít want to see any more of the story. Itís your chance to convince her that your manuscript is special.
OK Ė letís get down to the nitty-gritty.
If you have a computer (obviously you do or you wouldnít be reading this article), design a letterhead. Nothing too fancy, keep it simple. Publishers donít require it, but I think it makes you look professional, which canít hurt your case. A neat looking letterhead also gives an editor all your contact information where they can easily find it. Thatís where theyíll look first when they want to ask you to send three chapters Ė or the whole manuscript, depending on the publisher. And please, no fancy colors, white paper only.
PO Box 12345, Montego Bay, Auckland 7, New Zealand
Phone: (09) 555-1234
Fax: (09) 555-1236
The opening paragraph is a short introduction that should tell the editor the imprint you are aiming for, (Desire, Special Edition) etc, the title of your manuscript, approximate word count and setting.
The second paragraph should be your premise. My premise for Hidden Dreams was: She was his strength; his weakness. Ten years ago he took her innocence then left town. Now heís back, wealthy and engaged Ė to find a nine-year-old daughter and feelings that wonít die. 34 words (whew! Just made it.)
That told the editor several things: Itís a secret baby, reunion story, (both still very popular buzzwords) with the opportunity for great conflict (his and hers internal) and plenty of emotion. He couldnít resist her ten years ago and he canít resist her now, except that now heís engaged to someone else. That premise got the book published. (That publisher has since gone belly up but please, donít blame me.)
Some publishers might ask you to send a two-page query. This is terrific, because it means you can send more than a premise, and give the editor a better idea of the content. If they want more, hereís what I did for The Sabine Connection:
Katherine Sabina Price, investigative journalist, accepts first prize in a contest she didnít enter. The prize? Two days with the sexiest man in the world. Seeing it as a chance to redeem her reputation, she means to dig out his dark secrets before he discovers hers. When love gets in the way, Kate knows she must lose him whether she tells him the truth or not.
Roman Steele, Hollywood hunk, despises liars and the press. Unfortunately, the woman of his dreams is both. And the truth is, once sheís in his heart, he has no defense against a powerful love. But Roman has more secrets than Kate can imagine, one so terrible that heís never confided to another soul. Can he trust her to keep his secrets from a gossip-hungry world?
OK, I confess, thatís a little longer than usual but there was plenty of conflict evident -- and the publisher bought the book.
The third paragraph should tell the editor about you -- credits (if any), and writing affiliations. (If you donít yet have any credits, say nothing.) If your hero or heroine has an unusual occupation, and you have specialized knowledge, tell them that, too. It could just be the element that grabs their attention, but theyíll want to know your information is accurate.
The fourth paragraph should tell them what stage your book is at, and when you could have it on their desk. But please, donít make rash promises. Nothing annoys an editor more than thinking they are buying a great new book and it isnít finished. Editors rarely buy a new author on a partial.
Finally, if you have enclosed return postage and an envelope, say so. If you are working on other books, tell them that, too, especially if itís one of a series. Always thank them for taking the time to consider your work. One thing Iíve learned over the years is that a little courtesy goes a long way. Youíd be surprised how demanding some authors can be - even knew ones.
Publishers are not looking for books, theyíre looking for authors, and to use their phraseology, they want authors they can mold into stars. They want to develop you and they want readers to buy more of your books. Sell yourself. And never, never, put yourself down.
Your query should be typed, single spaced in a font thatís easy to read. Courier, Times New Roman and Arial (12 pt) are all easy on the eye. It goes without saying that there should be no typos and no handwritten corrections, or theyíll wonder about your manuscript. If you find a mistake, fix it and print it again.
The length of a query varies from publisher to publisher. Many say one page, others say one or two. If they say one, give them the short premise. If they say two, youíve got room to give them the longer blurb-style.
A few final tips
DO: Get the name of an editor and address it to her. Check current RWA listings. The exception to this, (thereís always one, eh?) is Mills & Boon (Presents/Sweet) in the UK. They ask that you send your query to the Editorial Department. Once youíre accepted youíll be assigned an editor.
DONíT: Resort to emotional blackmail. One Harlequin editor tells of a woman who threatened suicide if she wasnít published Ė this time. Yet another would-be author said her children would die of starvation if she wasnít published soon. Neither worked.
DONíT: Resort to bribery. Another editor says she got a two-foot chocolate fish in the same box as the manuscript. She wrote back saying that the fish was very good but the manuscript wasnít.
DONíT: Use pink paper, or any other color for that matter. It screams beginner. The color of your paper doesnít reflect the quality of your writing.
Before you close the envelope, re-read it and check again for typos. Is it clean and tidy? Have you signed it? Have you enclosed the stamped, self-addressed envelope? If youíre satisfied, seal it, kiss it for luck, post it and let it go. Then go home and start your next book.
As I said at the beginning, advice about query letters is varied, but whichever advice you take, it never hurts to add another skill to your writing repertoire. To be able to write a 25 to 35-word premise is a good skill to work on.
Good luck with your writing and may the muse be with you.
On the wall in my office, there's a quote from Alan Bean, Apollo 12 astronaut. Itís heading stands out in big, bold lettering and challenges me every day.
HAVE YOU WORKED TOWARDS YOUR DREAM TODAY?
The most important quality I have noticed in successful people is that they have a dream. They want to be someone or something. They want to have something. They want to go somewhere. They think and work towards that dream every day. I often ask people who tell me their dream, ĎWhat did you do today to move closer to your dream?í Eighty-five per cent didnít do anything. Theyíre planning to do something next week; theyíre just too busy today. These eighty-five per cent will probably never see their dream come true. Ask yourself the same question: ĎWhat have I done today to make my dream come true?í If the answer is nothing specific, then you probably wonít make it unless you change.
Is life getting in the way of your dreams? Working full time, bringing up children, housework - a thousand and one things constantly demand our attention, none of which move us towards our dreams. Sometimes, thereís not much you can do about it, but something else can encroach on your precious writing time - holes in the day.
These are those small chunks of time that can be are wasted; those frustrating moments that donít move us forward. We drift from day to day, wishing, with nothing to show for yesterday.
Wherever you are, keep a notebook and something to write with at the ready. Those small jotters cost only a few cents, so you can keep one in every room in the house and on the passenger seat of your car.
Chances are that the great idea you had while driving will have flown right out of your head by the time you get wherever youíre going. Great ideas are famous for disappearing. By the way, I donít advocate writing while driving. Stopped at traffic lights will do. Maybe you could consider a voice activated tape recorder to use in the car.
There are probably plenty of times during the day that you can put to good use. There may be several holes in the day that can add up to an hour or two. Here are a few suggestions Iíve used and gleaned from other authors on where they find time:
- Waiting for the bus.
- Waiting outside school to pick up the children.
- Waiting for the repairman who never arrives on time.
- Morning/afternoon tea break.
- Lunch break.
- Mute those TV ads (if youíre watching TV instead of writing). Got to bed an hour later.
- Get up an hour earlier.
Only got 20 minutes? No problem. Thereís a lot you can do in that short time.
- Write a paragraph.
- Write a snippet of dialogue.
- Line edit.
- Check spelling.
- Check grammar.
- Look for typos.
- Write a character sketch.
- Fill in character charts Ė whatís the heroís eye color, favorite food, music, etc. ∑ Write some scene detail.
- Listen to conference tapes.
- Read a how-to book. Your mind retains information better in small doses.
- Brainstorm ideas.
- Plan your next scene. Decide what you want, turn it over to your sub-conscious and youíll be amazed what it will come up with.
- Carry your WIP with you and some colored marker pens, then you can check for repetitions in dialogue tags. How many times has the hero snarled, glared or grinned?
That should get you started. Youíve probably thought of another hundred and one times you can put those time-stealing holes to good use. I can hear the excuses already and they all begin with ďyes, butĒ - the most negative phrase in the English language. Plenty of people use it as an excuse to do nothing. Be careful - it can often be cunningly disguised -- donít you fall into the ďyes, butĒ trap. Work towards your dream constantly or one day you might look back and say, ďIf only.Ē Filling small holes in the day can go a long way to changing ďif onlyĒ into ďI got The Call!Ē
Motivational guru Brian Tracy says we should swallow a live frog first thing in the morning. Of course he doesnít mean a real frog - but you knew that. What he means is do unpleasant tasks, boring tasks, daunting tasks, as early in the day as possible, then forget it. Put it behind you so that you can get on with what you really want do to, which for us is usually writing.
But other things, such as housework or the day job, still need to be done.
The mother-in-law calls round unexpectedly. The place is in a mess, dishes are piled up in the sink and all over the bench. Red face. Embarrassment. But you really, really had to get those last two chapters of your final draft finished and in the mail to Mills & Boon before they forget who you are. Sigh. Groan.
FLYLADY is a website devoted, not so much to saving time, but your face and sanity - namely from a messy house. If youíre interested in FLYLADY Iíll give you the website address at the end of the session, but be warned. Youíll get about 15 emails a day from her, including testimonials.
FLYLADY says that a messy house shows a lack of self-esteem or self-worth. And goodness knows, as writers, we need all the self-esteem we can get. It goes with the territory.
FLYLADY says that FLY stands for Finally Loving Yourself. Clean house = more confidence = self-esteem = better writing.
And FLYLADY says you can do anything for fifteen minutes. Anything. But while fifteen minutes is great, ten is better, so weíll go for ten.
What can you accomplish in ten little minutes? How can you plug up those holes in your day to stop precious time escaping and make more time for writing? Letís find some time.
Do you waste it watching television shows you donít even like? I think the current crop of awful television programmes is terrific. I donít have to switch it on I and get heaps of writing, or reading or research done in the evenings.
So bring on those TV reality shows that insult our intelligence. Hey I can live without those. And what about the endless stream of home make-over programmes -- people making a mess of other peopleís houses, painting walls in colours they hate, then standing back to watch the paint dry. Theyíre not my idea of entertainment and theyíre great for freeing up writing time. Apologies if you like them.
But if you do, do you really need to sit and watch? Can you do something useful at the same time? Keeping one eye on the TV, in ten or fifteen minutes, you can put away some childrenís toys, or transfer dishes from the table to the sink, fill it with hot soapy water and let the dishes soak. Thereís no need to do anything else at this point.
Later you can wash, rinse and leave them to drain. You donít even need to dry them, theyíll do that all by themselves. They wonít rust or shrink. Then when theyíre dry, you can put them away--in ten minutes. Itís not a good idea to try saving similar jobs to do together. This only makes things worse, the work piles up and more time is wasted.
Donít save the dishes until there is a sinkful, or the laundry until thereís enough for a full load. Itís just an excuse. Result? Procrastination.
Trying for efficiency will put you in the position of needing more time to do everything, time I begrudge giving up. But I could find ten-minute holes in the day, every day.
Make a list of ten-minute housework jobs (it only takes ten minutes - donít worry youíll find plenty) and keep that list taped to your fridge, anywhere you have easy access to it. As soon as you cross one off, add another, so you always have some handy. Donít bury it under papers piled up on the dining room table. You need to find it easily.
By the way, FLYLADY calls this CHAOS - CHAOS standing for Canít Have Anyone Over Syndrome. The first thing she advocates is having a shiny sink. Once you have that, the rest of your kitchen will want to join in the fun. The bathroom will always be clean. The bedroom will always be tidy. In fact youíll find hundreds of ten-minute jobs in your bedroom. Likewise your home office. Vacuuming will be a breeze when done on a room by room basis.
You can do anything for ten minutes. Pretty soon youíll be swallowing live frogs and hardly noticing that your tolerance level for unpleasant jobs has actually diminished. Now letís get to the writerly stuff.
If you have to go to the doctor or dentist, make sure you take some work with you. In those few minutes in the waiting room, you can fill in a few holes. We all know how they love to waste our time and keep us waiting.
Wherever you are, keep a notebook at the ready and something to write with. Those small note pads cost only a few cents, so you can keep one in every room in the house and on the passenger seat of your car.
But it isnít just housework that can be fixed. As a writer, you are self-employed, so itís important to keep detailed records for income tax. You hate it. You hate having to do the spreadsheets. You hate having to sort through everything. You hate having to file receipts, but itís a necessary evil. A live frog, right?
But by using ten-minute holes in your day, you can balance your chequebook, or keep records up to date for income tax. In ten minutes a day you can write a couple of cheques, or keep your bank statements in order, make an entry or two on the Excel spread sheet, then leave it alone. The dayís frog is swallowed and you hardly noticed.
I used to shove everything in to a cardboard box, then try sorting out the mess once a year. What a job! Now I have a series of folders, all properly labelled, stationery, entertaining, research or whatever, and just pop the receipt into the appropriate folder. Saves a lot of hair-tearing every financial year. When you input ten minutes of information into your yearly income tax spreadsheet, or spend a few minutes filing the receipts properly, itís a breeze. And because the spreadsheet is set up to do the sums, at the end of the year when you enter the last number, the work is already done. You hardly noticed how the frog tasted.
And what about those future writing projects? The trilogy youíre planning. Where will you find the time to work out the plots and sub-plots? Ten minutes of advance work on those every day can give you a head start. Working ahead ten minutes at a time can save you scrambling to come up with ideas, or book proposals, when an editor calls.
Procrastination is the thief of time. It also makes big jobs appear bigger and more daunting than they really are. We lose our motivation. But it doesnít make the job go away. It still has to be done. And you still want to write.
If you give that big daunting job ten or fifteen minutes every day it will gradually diminish. And what happens? Pretty soon youíll be so close to finishing that youíll want to get it out of the way. To give it that final push, you allot it two or maybe three ten-minute slots and the job is done.
You can even try it at work. If the boss asks you to do a really big job by the end of next month, and all you can see is a big millstone dragging you under, try doing ten or fifteen minutes every day first thing, then forget about it. When the boss asks how itís going, you can honestly say itís progressing well and see how pleased he is when youíre done.
And what about the kids? See, now weíre in a roll. If they donít put their things away and leave it all to you, turn it into a game. A race against time. Get yourself a trusty timer, $9.99 from The Warehouse, set it for ten minutes and ask the kids to see how much they can get done by the time it beeps. Itís a good idea to get a timer anyway because you can waste time keep stopping to look at the clock, but if this baby is running, you wonít have to think about it.
Working full time, it used to frustrate me to get home and have to start cooking, then wash the dishes and get everything ready for work the next day. It could take anything up to two hours when I would rather have been at writing. Then I had a brainwave. When cooking, why not make enough for four meals and freeze the other three. That way, there was always something in the freezer to heat up instantly if I got home late, say after doing overtime. Itís a lot cheaper and healthier than those reconstituted ready-made meals and I know whatís in them. But it didnít stop there. If I could do that for evening meals, why not lunches too. Eureka! After a writing Sunday, Iíd stop at about four oíclock, prepare all my lunches for the entire week, and pop them in the fridge. I could make five lots of sandwiches and five individual salads and know that I was eating good food each day. All I had to do in the morning was add a bit of fruit, and presto. A healthy lunch and I could get my writing fix every evening.
Once you start looking for ten-minute holes in the day youíll find them everywhere. The real trick is using those holes to your best advantage and the way to do that is with goals. Yes, there is a place for goals but weíre going to do something different.
Unlike what the gurus teach, donít think of them as big goals to be broken down. Break them down to begin with. Think of them as small goals in themselves, such as weeding the patch of garden by the front door, tidying a pantry shelf and throw out anything that sailed in on the ark. You get the picture?
But keep your list firmly taped to the fridge door. Donít throw it away but keep updating it when necessary. Not only will you see at a glance how much you have accomplished, but it will also provide you with motivation. Because motivation is what it comes down to and being able to make fast choices. If your goal for the week is to tidy the garden, or keep the bedroom tidy, every time a hole shows up, you can plug it immediately because you already have your goals listed. And every goal completed means no writerís guilt. Result: better quality writing.
Maybe you prefer to schedule. If so, check your list and schedule three ten-minute housecleaning tasks every night. Focus on taking one small bite of frog at a time and pretty soon the unbearable job is finished.
Just one more thing - exercise. Oh no, I hear you groan. As writers we sit around a lot but we really do need to move. You donít need to go on time-gobbling walks but you could walk for just half an hour, or divide it into three, ten-minute slots. That way your butt doesnít need drop to you knees.
Time, they say, waits for no man, or woman, especially if youíre a writer. Time is precious. Itís the one thing you can never get back once itís gone. Donít waste it worrying about the dishes or dusting. As Diva Norah says, take an antihistamine.
Swallow all those frogs. There, didnít taste that bad, did they?