The Art of the Pause

An important factor in writing is varying style so that readers do not fall into a stupor. If every sentence is the same length, with little or no breaks—provided through punctuation and sentence structure—then reading becomes monotonous and they phase out.

Academic writing is very prone to this mistake, but, alas and alack, so is creative writing. And, without a doubt, it is always important to diversify our writing styles. One of the best methods to manage this is to make use of small, but significant, pauses created by simple sentences, commas, parentheses, and dashes.

Simple Sentences

We tend to believe that simple sentences are nothing more than “The dog ran” or “The fat cat sat.” While they are indeed short, they need not always be that short. A simple sentence really only lasts to about one, or less than one, line on a page. It will not talk about more than one idea, but this attribute means that it reinforces what we write about.

Further, short sentences break up the monotony of reading. Instead of our readers always coming across two to four line sentences—after all, describing a scene or discussing the lives of protozoa is highly important—and becoming lost in the details, short sentences give our readers little “mental breaks.” Thus, in between long sentences, readers can stop. Then they continue reading. This enhances what we have to say. Additionally, the complex sentences are now more important, because not every sentence is the same.

Commas

Commas are a very specific form of punctuation with the very specific purpose of adding small pauses within sentences. There are three ways to use a comma: listing, after introductory information/separating clauses, and offsetting inessential elements. We all learned about listing in school, and that tends to come naturally to us. Whether or not we use the Oxford comma is completely left up to our discretion. Much to the horror of Grammar Nazis.

When using a comma after introductory information, you’re establishing that what comes first fully illuminates the main part (or clause) of the sentence. The information is not the most important piece of information, but it is necessary to understand that which is. Additionally, we use commas to separate independent clauses followed by coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, etc.) This means that the information prior can stand independently of what follows, but what follows cannot stand alone as it is a related effect. These types of pauses signal what is essential information to our readers, and slow them down as they read so that they have time to interpret what we write.

One of the most enjoyable types of pauses is using commas to offset inessential information. These are the things we don’t necessarily have to tell the reader, but we like it. Further, it offers our readers more information, say her hair color or the color of the cuttlefish when it chose its mate, about our topic. Generally, these inessentials are the first to go when we edit, but they do create nice breaks in what we write and are quite fun.

Parentheses and Dashes

We use parentheses and dashes in much the same manner as we use commas. Therefore, we bring them in to vary our styles so that our readers are not always confronting the same type of punctuation.

Parentheses, more often than not, are used to offset inessential elements or explain something in more detail. You can imagine them as a sort of whisper pushing into the conversation to fully elaborate an idea, add a sarcastic remark, or, as is often the case in academia, establish that something is one thing and another thing (ex. (dis)junctions or m(O)thering). They are a rather direct way to speak to readers, and should be used sparingly.

Dashes are slightly quieter than parentheses. As with commas, they are used to offset inessential information. However, this “inessential information” is established to be just as—or even, at times, more—important than the rest of the sentence. To use a dash is to separate out details for a reader, giving them something to focus on in the brief reading pause created by our writing.

While it can seem a bit nitpicky, the pause does allow our readers to take breaks, and, more importantly, makes our writing more engaging. Plus it’s amusing to play around with.

(A side note on commas: Many English tutors will advise writers to place a comma wherever they would naturally pause while speaking. This, however, is unequivocally untrue. Some people pause more often than not and some don’t pause at all. Overall, this method leads to random commas, comma splices, and run-on sentences.)

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A Lesson From Garth Nix’ Hand: The Connection Between Reading and Good Writing

Great writers are also great readers. They read anything and everything they can get their hands on, voraciously gobbling up the ideas of philosophers, scientists, historians, and more. And why? Because of the ideas that eventually drive their own writing.

It’s been acknowledged by contemporary society that books take readers to new places to meet new people. They give us dreams and new ways of thought. And so do non-fiction pieces, academic articles, anthologies of myth and folklore, etc. This, in turn, influences how and what we write. For example, Rick Riordan’s New Olympian books are unique in how he incorporates his study of Greco-Roman mythology, life, etc. And before Riordan, there was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which became a classic because of what he drew from Virgil’s Aeneid in myth, content and structure. And, indeed, Virgil’s Aeneid would not be the same had not Virgil read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Great writing, then, is a continuous cycle of reading and writing and more reading, one generation influencing the thought of the next.

Additionally, as discussed previously, reading also makes us better writers. Seeing how other novelists handle a plot (or fail to handle a plot) or how a group of scientists discuss their stunning new theory (or fail to illuminate any new information) teaches us how to handle these and other techniques in our own writing. So, the more we read, the more we learn about how to write, implementing these new skills into our own writing.

Do note, however, that there is a difference between what can be classified as “good” and “bad” reading. Everyone practices both types, so we do need to be slightly conscious of how we’re reading when we open a book or turn on our Kindles.

“Bad” reading is analogous to junk food—it momentarily tastes good, but does nothing for our writing, in fact, it can be detrimental at times. This is reading only for the sake of passing time and only in a few subject matters or genres. There’s little variation, and almost everything sounds, or “tastes,” the same.

Now, none of these traits are necessarily bad—after all “good” reading often includes a fair amount of reading to pass the time and for fun (if it wasn’t for these two points, we would never read at all!). We cannot, however, stop there, for “good” reading is not mindless. “Good” reading is when we subconsciously, or consciously, allow our minds to chew over what is good or bad, useful or useless in a work during the act of reading.

So, as Garth Nix’ hand suggests, read widely, and read often. And keep writing.

Letting Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling into Our Lives

“Let grammar, punctuation, and spelling into your life! Even the most energetic and wonderful mess has to be turned into sentences.”—Sir Terry Pratchett

Today, we often do not receive as much formal instruction in the mechanics of writing, grammar, punctuation, and spelling as we ought. Not to mention, our brains refuse to wrap themselves around strange, foreign terms like independent clauses or dangling modifiers. These complicated terms seem to properly belong in the domain of English teachers, Grammar Nazis, and linguists—and nowhere else. At the same time, our writing is often judged or graded by these seemingly abstract standards.

So grammar is important, but how do we get better without breaking out an incomprehensible grammar handbook?

Read good writing. Carefully examine masters of the craft—in all disciplines and genres. The easiest way to learn about the use of dashes, when to use “you and I” or “you and me,” and how to avoid naked pronouns is to pay attention to what good writers do and don’t do in the structure of their work. This is not to say that we learn by osmosis. Instead, we learn about grammar, punctuation, and spelling by critically examining these mechanics in essays, histories, novels, or academic/literary papers. This critical reading allows us to start noticing patterns in sentence structures and the uses of punctuation. We, in turn, begin to instinctively mimic the good writing we are exposed to. Eventually, we develop our own style and voice, and have discovered grammar, punctuation, and spelling in the process.

Additionally, it’s important to ask experts—like our English teachers or tutors—to read and comment on the structure of our writing. When they offer advice—such as review all comma rules—we need to listen, searching out the answers from reputable websites, such as Owl at Purdue, or in a grammar handbook. Then, after finding the answers, we studiously begin to correct our mistakes as we write. This technique is rather like “on the job” training. After a while, these corrections develop into habits and we don’t have to fret about the mechanics as much as we once did.

Overall, the best practice is to refuse to let grammar, punctuation, or spelling defeat you. Continue to write, seeking out the answers to problems as they arise. With practice and much writing, we’ll eventually get rid of sentence fragments and stop misusing semicolons. And then we get to play with the mechanics. Which is when the real fun starts. 🙂

Next Week: The Connection between Reading and Writing

The Characteristics of a Good Writing and Critique Partner

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writers need writing and critique partners. However, the true crux of the matter is not simply finding reliable partners, but those who will offer useful feedback and advice.

Everyone who reads our writing has something potentially valuable to offer, but there are some whose comments help to build up our writing and writing abilities. These people can be rare gems! But there are certain signs to look for in someone that we plan on asking his or her opinion about our writing.

First, and foremost, a writing and critique partner should be someone who respects us and whom we respect.‎ What does this mean?

Respecting our writing and critique partners means that we value what insights he or she may provide. Further, when we respect someone, it should mean that they are trustworthy and honest, two important factors in a partner. When we approach them, it is with the sense that their comments will be to the benefit of our writing. Even if they offer uncomfortable criticism, we will take their suggestions into account.

Since the majority of writing, from college essays to comic book scripts (but not grocery lists), is deeply personal, trustworthiness in a writing and critique partner is key. Just as allowing a drug addict to babysit our child would fill us with dread, handing over our writing to people we do not trust—whether it’s not to steal or ridicule our ideas—is nerve-wracking. And rightly so, for not only do we have to worry about theft or mockery, but we cannot be sure that someone we do not trust will offer valid, honest feedback.

Honest feedback is a key component to any writing and critique partnership. While it’s nice to hear praise, it is just as important to hear constructive criticism. Without well-rounded feedback, we fail to see the areas where our writing needs to grow or the areas where we really were brilliant writers. Indeed, at any stage in our development as writers—whether as seasoned authors or as grad students—honest criticism is needed.

For example, acclaimed young adult fantasy author Tamora Pierce wrote a short story for one of the Firebirds anthologies about a young girl who falls in with a gang of sociopaths. In her discussion of the story that followed, she reveals that in its first incarnation, the main character was a schizophrenic homeless woman. After her husband read that draft, he told her it was incomprehensible. Trusting that if he did not understand it there was something wrong with the story, she rewrote it and it was accepted and published.

Finally, the last two characteristics of a writing and critique partner are that they should be responsible and reliable. When trusting someone with our writing, we need to be sure that they will, in fact, read our writing (not just click “like!”). Further, that they will read it in a timely manner. Without these assurances, we may be waiting for feedback that will never come or will come too late.

Our writing and critique partners do not need to be other writers. They should be readers—you wouldn’t want to ask someone who never picks up a book to proofread your writing. Besides that, they simply need to be people who will offer trustworthy, honest feedback in a responsible, timely manner. And we should be the same sort of readers when called on by our writing and critique partners.

Creating a Habit of Focus By Cutting Out Distractions

We live in a world where we are bombarded by interruptions. Sometimes these distractions keep us from writing. Under these circumstances, how do we train ourselves to stay focused?

The easiest way is to develop a schedule based around your normal routine. If your schedule currently appears completely full—as is often the case with people who have both jobs and a home life—then try tracking your time for about a week. Tracking makes us aware of gaps of free time or areas where some fat can be trimmed.

After discovering places where writing can be penned in, we need to make sure that it is during times when we can stay focused. For instance, I may have a block of time after dinner every night that appears unstructured, but upon closer examination this is when I catch up with my friends and family or unwind after a long day. As such, it isn’t really a gap in my schedule, but some much needed relaxation. Therefore, to schedule writing into this “gap” would be impractical—I’d never be able to focus and my low levels of productivity would become disheartening.

Which leads to the next point. Since distractions are quite tempting, they can make our ability to stay focused difficult. Once this happens, we may be further tempted to forsake our writing goals. Then we may want to punish ourselves for slipping up. But punishing ourselves over our mistakes makes us less willing to keep going, so instead create a system of rewards.

For example, say I plan to write between the hours of eight and nine every night. I’m much more likely to stick to my goal if I plan to do something my “distractable” brain perceives as more entertaining when I’m finished. Then, every time I’m tempted to stop, I check the clock instead of switching tasks. Seeing that I still have another nineteen minutes to go until my “reward” motivates me to stay on track.

Finally, the best way to develop a habit of focus is to be aware of distracting thoughts. Say I’m typing and suddenly it occurs to me that I really want to Wiki the plot of the most recent superhero movie. Or, I need to check Facebook right now because something imperative could have happened in the last half hour. These are distracting thoughts. As soon as I become aware of them, I need to ask myself, which is more important? Is it more important that I check when the next season of White Collar will be on Netflix, or that I write for another six minutes? Is it more important that I stop playing my video game to write for my scheduled twenty minutes or keep on playing?

While asking ourselves these questions, an internal voice will counter with: I don’t really want to write right now. I’ll stop _____ (distracting thing) in five minutes. I’ll only take a quick break. It’s close enough to the time I was planning on stopping. I’ll eventually get to writing—just not right now. I don’t really care if I write today or not. It’s not a big deal if I don’t make any progress.

These are lies. Don’t believe them, because the truth is we do care about sticking to our writing goals. So push these thoughts aside and move forward with what needs to be done.

Next Week: Why We Need Objective Readers

The Rewards and Benefits of Writing Everyday

“Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.” Jane Yolen (author and editor)

There are two schools of thought on how to progress with a piece of writing. The first is to write everyday either for a set amount of time (the minimum being 15 minutes) or for a set length (say 500 words or to the end of a computer screen). The second is to wait for inspiration and then write for hours on end.

Both are, in point of fact, good techniques. Additionally, the two are interrelated. We tend to have more shocks of inspiration when we write everyday and the inspiration makes us want to write more often. It can be hard, admittedly, to keep up the writing momentum between flashes of insight, but writing everyday offers several benefits that tide us over from one moment of inspiration to the next.

The first benefit is the most obvious: we produce a lot. Undeniably, it’s not all brilliant, but we come closer to writing a dissertation or a novel or a collection of poems if we’re constantly moving forward in our writing than waiting to write something perfect. Indeed, very few authors are like C.S. Lewis, who was able to write material that needed little to no editing. At the same time, many writers can be like Lewis, who wrote every single day, generating a large body of letters, works of fiction, literary criticisms, and apologetics.

Incidentally, in writing everyday we form a habit that insures constant practice in the craft, which transforms us into better writers who need to spend less time editing. This point can be evidenced if one reads the first drafts of professional authors’ writing, like Diana Wynne Jones’ Islands of Chaldea. She spent two years on every novel she wrote, but this particular work was unfinished at the time of her death—and it shows. However, it doesn’t show very much. Jones had been writing for fun since childhood and professionally since the late sixties, so her first draft is actually quite polished. There are definite flaws, and the novel isn’t as fascinating as her previous novels, but it’s still a well-constructed story.

Additionally, writing everyday means it takes less time to get started. Instead of fidgeting or re-reading everything we wrote before because it’s been a week or more since we last wrote, we can instead jump right into the writing. This, in turn, becomes a type of reward that keeps us wanting to write while also bolstering our confidence in our writing abilities.

The best way to begin writing everyday is to set realistic writing goals that fit our schedules. Say, I always have 30 minutes before dinner where I don’t quite know what to do with myself. During this time, I can schedule in 15-20 minutes of writing, leaving room for completing other pre-dinner tasks as needed.

The schedule, however, should be flexible enough that it can morph with the different demands on our lives. There will be days where we just can’t get to our writing, and these moments of falling off the bandwagon tempt us to give up on our schedules. For instance, maybe I have to cook dinner one night, watch a sick baby the next, and then decide to go to dinner with friends the night after. Then, due to the busyness of my work schedule, I can’t write for another two days. That’s fine. It doesn’t mean I’m a failure, just that my schedule changed suddenly and I need to adjust accordingly. We shouldn’t let guilt shame us out of picking up where we left off.

Actually, instead of my punishing myself when I slip up, I need to reward myself for following through with my writing goals. Instead of saying I can’t watch that TV episode on Netflix or go out with my friends for two weeks, I actually can—as soon as I’ve finished my 15 minutes of writing. In fact, these things are my reward for sticking to my writing goal. So write for a set amount of time or a set length, and then go and celebrate by eating a banana split or a cupcake (not that I recommend doing that every single day… no matter how tasty that would be).

It’s also important to write with accountability partners. This technique is preached more often than not in grad school, but it really helps with all types of writing. An accountability partner is someone, or someones, with whom you share writing goals. They tell you theirs and you tell them yours, and then you agree to check-in on each other or meet as frequently as you deem necessary to discuss triumphs, cry over failures, and sometimes to exchange what you’ve written.

Lastly, we need to define what we mean by writing everyday. Is it writing another two paragraphs, reading or synthesizing research, or editing/rewriting? When we open up the idea of what writing means, we don’t feel a sense of dread upon realizing that we not only need to find time to write, but to find time for these other activities. This, in turn, makes our writing times more productive and less dull.

So, in between bursts of inspiration, write everyday and enjoy the rewards.

Next Week: Cutting Out Distractions

Note: If you chose to read Jones’ Islands of Chaldea, I encourage you to pick up one of her other books as well, like Dogsbody or Year of the Griffin. This way you’ll have something to compare Islands to, and she was one of the greatest, most imaginative writers of the contemporary period. Which Neil Gaiman agrees with, so you don’t just have to take my word for it.

On Roswell, Research, and Reliability, or the Importance of Research

No matter what the form or purpose of writing—whether academic, novel, blog, etc.—research is not only practical but also necessary. In fact, solid research grounds any form of writing. Since you aren’t simply stating an opinion off the top of your head, your words will hold truth. And truth is powerful. Even in the various fiction genres, including sci-fi and fantasy, it’s the true bits that add color to the story and make it compelling.

Moreover, research fills in knowledge gaps, rids your writing of unhealthy absolutes, and strengthens your critical thinking processes, which in turn affects how and what you write. Learning how to perform research, then, is crucial to developing as a writer.

Research is not something we instinctively know how to perform, and, like most things worth knowing, it takes time to develop the necessary discernment between what’s good information and what’s not. Thanks to the pervasive nature of the internet, all of us have a basic grasp of how to perform an online search, but there’s a vast difference between googling “travel tips for safaris” and researching to learn something well enough to write on it convincingly. It’s the difference between wanting to know more about Roswell UFO sightings because I’m a little interested in aliens and deciding to write a novel set in Roswell during 1947 or writing a scholarly piece on the sociological role Roswell has played in the belief of the existence of UFOs in the United States.

While the first definitely encourages the latter two, it will not offer enough credible or reliable information to write anything that is not based on rumor and speculation. The difference between a reliable source and an unreliable source is the difference between truth and make-believe. Unreliable sources are filled with skewed data, unchecked “facts,” and leaps of reality. Alternately, reliable sources generally maintain high standards of scholarship and factuality.

Once you begin to research your topic—be it Batman or Einstein—you’ll soon be able to compare and contrast the differences in the nature and quality of information. However, the best way to begin judging facts versus opinion is to (1) examine the author’s background in the field, (2) note whether the author is making unsupported assertions or wild leaps in logic (ex. “So-and-so spoke fondly of this person, so they obviously had an affair,” or, “Since we can’t see gravity, it doesn’t exist”), and (3) question the source: does it come from a reliable publisher, scholarly journal, or site? Has it been peer reviewed?

To begin researching, then, you’ll first need to narrow down your search terms. Let’s go back to Roswell for a moment and say I’m going to go ahead and write that novel. “Roswell” alone is too broad a search term. I will need to outline specifics of what I want and need to know (which, of course, depends on what I want to write). For example, I might need to know about life in 1947, the Air Force, the investigation, etc. I’d also need to decide who my main character will be, and fill in background information on him or her. Will he or she be a journalist, police officer, or a bobbysoxer? What were each of these people like, what were their mindsets, how did they speak, what would their daily activities be?

If I chose to write the scholarly piece, however, I’d not only need to know the history of supposed UFO crashes and sightings but also how Roswell became known as a UFO crash site. What projected the incident in Roswell from a small-town event at the back of the public consciousness to a full-blown “government conspiracy,” and so on? Since my study would be from a sociological standpoint, I’d need to find confirmed reports and interviews of persons affected by the phenomenon, including well-documented case studies and research.

Once you’ve narrowed down your key terms, it’s time to perform multiple searches in research databases, library catalogs, and on the Internet (particularly Google Scholar). Sift through the search results by titles, abstracts, and summaries. Since right now you’re only compiling data, it helps to create a desktop folder to save whatever you want to further investigate. Also, don’t stop looking after the second page of results. What may be most useful to you may not be in the top ten or twenty search results.

Once that’s done, it’s time to start sorting through the articles. Glance through the first few paragraphs to categorize them according to their merit, such as “Useless” (which you trash), “Possibilities” (which may contribute to your research), and “Important” (self-explanatory).

Once sorted, begin to read and highlight/underline and take notes. Note-taking helps you to process all that data and to assimilate ideas so as to generate your own perspective on the topic.

On the whole, research is necessary and can be a very rewarding learning experience.

Next week: Why We Write Everyday


Tips

  1. Read everything with a grain of salt. People are imperfect—which is wonderful—but that means we make mistakes, draw wrong conclusions, and sometimes decide our opinions are gospel truth.
  1. Visit your local university or college libraries to access their research databases and locate peer-reviewed, reliable sources.
  1. When researching, be wary of getting lost “down the rabbit hole.” Gathering a lot of sources is good, but there’s such a thing as too much. Know when to stop—generally when you know what an author will say before he or she says it—and don’t let researching stop you from writing. Begin drafting what you can with the intent of returning later to flesh out what you don’t currently know.

The One Page Synopsis

Now that you’ve written your query letter and performed your research on the different agents and publishers who might be interested in your story, you learn that some require a one page synopsis. Wondering what that is, you then do more research, discovering that this new task means concisely summarizing your 50,000-100,000 word story in roughly 500-600 words! At first glance, the task looks impossible, but it is not.

Since the synopsis is a condensation of your completed novel, consider it an important step in getting your story published. If you don’t do a good job here, your novel will be passed over. The easiest and most productive way to begin drafting your synopsis is to outline your novel chapter-by-chapter. Then succinctly write down the “Big Picture” of your story (i.e. what it’s all about) in one to two sentences. Finish your outline by noting the motivations, problems, and end goals of the main character(s) and antagonist(s).

Once you have all this down, divide your outline into the categories beginning, middle, and end, with an eye for the dramatic arc as well. The dramatic arc depicts the chronological order of events that most narratives tend to follow and can easily be separated into beginning, middle, and end.

DramaticArc-300x230

Image credit: “Writing Stories Your Learners Will Savor” by Claudia Escribano http://c2portal.com/blog/?p=108

The beginning section includes the introduction of the main character(s) and his/her/their problems, the setting, the antagonist (external or internal), and the inciting action. The middle then details all points of rising action. These are not subplots or minor details, but two or three main points of action without which the story could not reach its climax. Basically, these are the turning points in the story of action and in characters. Finally, your end section should include the climax and denouement (the unveiling and resolution, how everything ties together), with a mention of how your characters progressed.

With your story outline completed, compile everything into an engaging summary. Since it’s a first draft, don’t worry about length, but instead focus on getting everything laid out. You can cut at a later date.

Now, draft done, set it aside for a week or two. When you come back to it, re-read with the intention of revising for clarity and brevity. Since it’s only one page, make each word count. Make each word work hard for its place in your synopsis. You will most likely re-work entire sentences and the entire draft several times. This is fine and completely normal. In the end, it should read like an extremely brief, well-told and engaging version of your story.

Once you’ve rewritten your synopsis and fit it into one page, take it to several other discerning, objective and honest people to read. If they are confused or bored, take note. Ask them for suggestions and weave their suggestions into your rewriting. However, if your readers love it, that’s great! It’s time to send it out.

Synopsis Format: First, carefully review each agent or publisher’s specifications. Synopses need to follow a specific format as specified by each agent or publisher. However, there are some general principles: it should be written in the present tense from the 3rd person point of view and only name three main characters, as more will confuse your readers. Further, the synopsis should be typed in Times New Roman font size 12 with a 1″ margin all around. In the header or first line, write “Synopsis of Title, Genre, Word Count, by Name.”

In the long run, synopsis writing can be challenging, but highly rewarding. It will help to hone your writing skills overall, as well as help to get your story published.

Next week’s topic: Research for Different Types of Writing

Taglines, Blurbs, and Book Specs: How to Write Fiction and Non-Fiction Query Letters

Amazingly enough, you’ll probably write your query letter to agents and the handful of remaining publishers accepting unsolicited submissions more times than you rewrote the manuscript. Good thing a letter is so much shorter!

A query letter is short—a mere 250-400 words consisting of a “hook,” summary, manuscript specifications, and an author biography.

Eek!

That’s quite a lot of information to convey in only a handful of words. Your ability to do so, and do so well, however, alerts agents and publishers to the fact that you are a stellar writer. Exactly what they’re looking for in fact. That’s why mastering query letter writing is so crucial.

The first step is to transform how you think about writing. Instead of writing more, write less. Instead of adding, cut. The object of a query letter is to portray the essence of your writing—tone, style, plot, and characters for fiction pieces; and tone, style, problems, and answers for non-fiction pieces—in an engaging way that makes your readers want to bite. Just like in advertising.

And, just like in advertising, you’ll begin with something that will pique the interest of someone inundated with query letters—someone reading hundreds or even thousands of queries a month. This is the hook, or “tagline” for your manuscript. Your tagline should be a short statement or rhetorical question that causes your readers to think, Hm, I might like to read that. Let me look into this some more, just as the taglines on a movie poster make you want to check out what a movie is about. So make your tagline both memorable and interesting. Also, make sure to include the title of your novel. Just like commercials frustrate viewers when they don’t know what the product is until the last second, a tagline without this important bit of information leaves your readers floundering.

From the hook, you move into the summary. Calling it a summary is somewhat deceptive, as it is more like the blurb on the back of a book than an unimaginative summary you’d read on Sparknotes or Wikipedia. Remember, this is advertising, and you’re trying to persuade someone to read your book. So go and look at the blurb that caused you to pick up the stray book that became your favorite. Generally, blurbs reveal just enough about the characters and plot to emotionally connect a prospective reader to what’s happening, or mention enough of the findings and writer’s tone to whet a reader’s curiosity to know more. Your summary, then, should walk a fine line between too little and too much information, while at the same time, conveying the tone of your manuscript.

Now you’re on to book specifications. This includes the title, word count, and genre of your manuscript. You need all of these items as they explain to the agent or editor reading your query that this is something they’re interested in and have a market for. (Hint: If they specify word count, make sure yours is within the range, and so forth.) Additionally, try to pull out some comparable stories. What books, TV shows, movies, etc. influenced your writing and tone? Is your book Rick Riordan meets Die Hard? If so, state that. Have you answered the question that millions of people are asking about why the chicken crossed the road? Good, give those stats. Publishing is, after all, a business, and agents and publishers need to know that there’s an existing market for what you’ve written.

Finally, you need to provide a short biography, which tells agents and publishers why you’re qualified to write about what you’ve written. This does not mean telling them about the essay contest you won in fifth grade, but instead briefly outlining your current writing credits and background (as it applies to your manuscript). If you have no such credits yet, you can always begin to develop them by submitting articles or short stories to credible magazines, journals, contests, etc., or simply forgo writing a bio—although this is not recommended.

Overall, writing a query letter is quite challenging, but it is also rather fun. Especially when you know you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. So good luck and enjoy!

(Next week: The One Page Synopsis)


Query Letter Writing Tips

  1. Query writing is like business writing, in that you are demonstrating that you are not only a good writer but also a professional. As such, keep your tone polite and recall the rules of business letter etiquette.
  2. If you browse through Chuck Sambino’s “Successful Queries” on the Writer’s Digest website—which I highly recommend—then you’ll see one consistency: each agent is enamored by a query letter for a different reason. There is no surefire way to win a contract other than good, intriguing writing that follows each agent or publisher’s specifications.
  3. Intensively revise and rewrite your query letter. Your query is how you get your foot in the door to display your wares (manuscript), so it needs to be a strong pitch. The best way to do this is to take the time you need to write it—not a day, not a week. Let other people read it. Get objective advice and criticism. Write multiple drafts. Polish it and love it as much as you did your manuscript. All of this effort is bound to pay off and work in your favor.

Radio Silence and Rejection: How to Deal with Agent and Publisher Rejections

Congratulations! You’ve completed your novel and have perfected it to the best of your ability. Bright-eyed and expectant, you send it out into the world, certain as anything that everyone will adore your work as much as you do. Of course they will. It’s your baby, the offspring of your mind.

After some time you hear… Nothing at all. No reply, what I like to call “radio silence.” Or else a firm, polite “no.” Your beautiful baby has been rejected, or worse, ignored. Your dreams of becoming the next New York Times Bestseller are fatally crushed. Or are they?

After all, you sent it out knowing that rejection was a high probability, didn’t you? Take heart, you’re in good company! We can’t all be like Terry Pratchett, whose first story was published at the tender age of 13. There are numerous rejection stories from famous, well-loved authors. These include classics still highly popular today by writers such as Jane Austen. Do I hear a sharp intake of breath? Yes, her first 3 novels were rejected–years later, she retitled and reworked them and they were published as Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations was virulently rejected, as were Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, and (incomprehensibly, to my mind) Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. There was also Agatha Christie, who received nothing but rejections for five long years, before going on to publish 91 titles. Add to the list C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time.

Moving on to more recent famous rejections are J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (“far too long for a children’s book”), and Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries. Neil Gaiman lied about his publishing experience in order to get his first novel accepted. (NOT recommended, this was done before the advent of the internet!) Are we feeling any better yet?

Still, you hoped it wouldn’t happen to you, and you’re not quite sure what to do next. Well, first of all, keep going. As the wise Dr. Charles Stanley always says, “Disappointment is inevitable but discouragement is a choice.” In other words, be dauntless! You can choose to move forward, choose to persevere. Don’t get me wrong. Rejection is hard. It hurts, especially when our hopes are high. It does, however, serve the purpose of showing us how determined and dedicated we are to the craft and business of writing.

Now then, how do we handle the rejection of this precious baby of yours? First, let’s keep in mind the infamous “slush piles” that many editors and agents today are facing are greater than ever before. Do the math: the number of potential writers these days has increased exponentially with the advent of fan-fiction forums, reality TV shows, blogs, etc., all combining to make people think that writing is an easy job that requires little or no attention to the craft. Publishers have received so many of these submissions that it is now virtually impossible to be published without an agent–who now receive thousands of these submissions a week.

Now consider this: how many editorial staff members and agents do you imagine are sitting at their desks dealing with this influx of manuscripts? Don’t assume that publishing houses have hired hundreds more editors to read through what is, inarguably, going to be a lot of submissions that aren’t ready for the market. They haven’t. Check out the latest Writer’s Market and read through the listed publishers. Even smaller publishing houses that, a few years back, welcomed any and all submissions, are now saying, “Not accepting submissions at this time.” At the same time, agents’ client lists are filling up, meaning that they also no longer accept submissions, especially not from new authors. The reason many give for this is that they received thousands of submissions a week.

So you’ve been rejected by an agent or publisher, now you need to regroup. Take a good, objective look at your query letter and synopsis. Check first for grammar and spelling errors. Next, ask yourself, does my letter pack the needed punch? Does my query and synopsis quickly and effectively get at the essence of the story? Does it sound interesting? Does it meet the necessary requirements?

Then, as you’re searching for agents and editors, carefully read the description of what they’re looking for. Also, do visit their websites to examine the latest books they’ve published. Does your story fit in with others they’ve published? If it doesn’t, your query/submission will be rejected out of hand. You’ve just made it easy to “deselect” your story and move on to the next.

Think of it as fishing. You wouldn’t go deep-sea fishing in a brook, would you? And you wouldn’t fish for trout in the sea. Take the time to know where you should be fishing for your story and what kind of “bait” your “catch” is going to “bite” at. Then bait your line with the best query and synopsis you can, and cast it out onto the waters. And then, be patient. You would hope, but not expect, a fish to immediately take your bait. But that doesn’t usually happen. If nothing bites in the waters you’ve fished in, move on to other waters. Do some more research on agents and publishers you haven’t yet approached. Then, send it out again. With each cast of the line, you’re one step closer to your publishing dreams. There are plenty of fish still biting out there, though at times it may not seem so.

Next week’s topic: Writing Query Letters


Final Tips for Interacting With Agents & Publishers:

  1. Remember, not everyone will like your writing when it is published. This adage holds true for agents and publishing companies too. That’s fine, everyone is allowed their personal preference. So, when you get rejected, decide that these were some of the few who wouldn’t have been interested in your writing anyway and keep plugging away like a dedicated professional.
  2. On the note of being a dedicated professional, do retain a level of decorum in your interactions with each agent and publisher. While today’s society tends toward more casual interactions, business etiquette and dignity remain necessary. More often than not, they show you’re serious about your craft as a business as well as a passion. Additionally, you may want to query a certain agent or publisher again in the future, and it does you no good to burn bridges before you’ve had a chance to build them!
  3. When researching agents and publishers, make sure they publish your kind of writing. Agents who accept your kind of book have the right connections to the right publishers and publishers tend to generate content for a certain type of audience. It behooves you to do your research, since it means you won’t receive unnecessary rejections.
  4. If you receive comments on a certain aspect of your writing (and this makes you lucky in the world of form rejections and radio silence!) carefully examine your writing to see if making the suggested changes is something necessary or not.