QUERY TIME: Hook, Book & Cook

For me, writing a query letter for my book(s) was more soul-sucking/frustrating/maddening/stressful/{insert expletive} difficult than writing the entire book(s).

Seriously.

The query is a 250-350 (or so) word letter that describes, quite succinctly, what your book is about and why someone (an agent, generally) would want to read it. It’s a requirement if you plan on doing anything with your book — even if you choose to self-publish without an agent, you’ll still need a blurb to get readers interested.

A query letter is meant to pique interest and make someone want to open your pages and read on. But it must be short. And fit to one-page in an email window. And not be sent to multiple agents at once (NEVER, EVER DO THIS, okay?). And be formatted properly (I’ve talked about this before here: How not to become a query cautionary tale, and here: Query, Query, quite contrary). And like much of the publishing business, subjectivity rules, so always have a look at the agent’s bio/agency website/blog to see if he/she has a preference in terms of format.

But it wasn’t until I came across the idea of HOOK, BOOK & COOK that query writing became less painful. This concept is all over the place, so I can neither take credit for it, nor find the first person who came up with this handy and catchy idea to give him/her credit.

So what does it look like? I’m so glad you asked! Let’s start with HOOK.

THE HOOK (first paragraph — approximately 50 words)

Though some people open their queries with the book title, genre, wordcount and why they’re querying a particular agent, in my experience starting right off with the hook is the best way to go. Literally hook that agent in, so she can’t wait to keep reading.

The hook is a one to two line description of the main conflict in your story — the thing that makes it special, and makes someone sit up a bit straighter, lean in towards the screen, and go, “Oh! Wow. I need to know more about this.”

Take your time with your hook. It should be tightly written without any unnecessary detail, be compelling, be descriptive, and tell your reader exactly what they can expect from your book. Tricky, right? You bet it is. But it’s a critical part of your querying journey and blurb writing, so work on it until you get tingles when you read it (also, make sure you get others to read it and ask them if they would be interested to read more).

THE BOOK (second and third paragraphs — approximately 200 words)

This is the meat of your book — again, without drowning the reader in detail, this is where you dig into what happens in your story. It’s the place to introduce main characters and major plot points. It needs to flow easily, with enough information so the reader isn’t confused, but not too much that he loses interest and tunes out. In some ways this is the hardest part of the query, because you’re taking a 90,000-word book and condensing it into about 150-250 words. In both queries I’ve written, I’d say this middle section required the most “love” (merciless hacking) — I easily rewrote it a hundred times (no, I am not joking here) for each book. But the end result was worth it.

This is also where I put in the book’s title, wordcount, and genre if it’s not obvious (but let’s be honest, genre/category should be obvious by now based on everything that has come before — if not, it’s probably time for another — you guessed it — revision), and any comparative titles you have for your book. Comparative titles are important, and again, there are MANY rules around what to use as a comp title — do your research, and for the love of all things good, READ YOUR COMP TITLES before putting them down.

THE COOK (final paragraph — approximately 50 words)

This is your bio, as the “cook” of this book. What makes you uniquely qualified to write this book (do you have a tie-in to the subject matter/story)? Add in any awards or accolades you’ve received (only include ones related to either writing or the subject matter), if this is your debut novel, and what your writing experience has been to this point (I’d probably leave out statements like, “I’ve been writing since before I could walk”). And finally, if it’s true, close out with, “I’m currently working on my next novel” but resist adding any more information about it. This query is meant to be for the book you have ready, not for any other book you’ve written or are writing currently. But letting an agent know you’re taking this whole writing thing seriously is always a good idea.

This format saved me. It offered a way to break down what felt like an impossible task — condensing my book into a short, easily consumable but quite intriguing “pitch” — and gave me a structure I could replicate. However, clever structure breakdown aside, I will stress the point that working on your query until you never want to see it again should be your aim.  IF YOU’VE DONE FIVE REVISIONS ON YOUR QUERY, IT’S PROBABLY NOT READY. If you’ve done 10+ versions and beta readers (particularly those who either, a) have not read your book, or b) don’t read your genre typically) are clear on what your book is about, and what happens, and still want to read … then it’s probably ready. Of course, it’s always possible you’re a genius at query writing, and maybe you nail it on draft one. If that’s the case, please tell me your secrets!

If you’re not a query-writing genius, don’t despair. Most of us aren’t. Like so many things in life, crafting a brilliant query takes practice and hard work. Good luck!

7 steps to surviving sub(mission) club

If you’ve arrived here wondering how to maximize your submarine sandwich loyalty program, I’m sorry to tell you this is not the place for you.

“Sub Club” — for the purposes of this post — refers to a group of writers living in limbo land as they wait to hear the fate of their books,  currently in the hands of editors. If that is you, or you’re hoping to join the Club soon, welcome. I wish you a short visit to Sub Club, but if you have to extend your membership longer than you hoped, know this — YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

(Even if the first rule of Sub Club is never to talk about sub club…)

I remember very clearly getting the email from my agent — the one listing which editor inboxes my little book had landed into — and feeling the rising wave of excitement in my belly. “Here we go,” I said. “This is the beginning of everything. Let’s get it out there and see what sticks!”

I tried to imagine those editors (who felt a bit like unicorns, if I’m being totally honest — quite mystical and untouchable) opening the email and LOVING my book. I wondered how long it would take to get feedback — any kind of feedback (the first pass came in about a week) — and commented to my husband on numerous occasions how much EASIER it was to be on submission versus querying. How HAPPY I was to have my agent handling all these wiggly details, so I could just sit back and patiently WAIT, and write another book all LAH-TEE-DAH. How I couldn’t believe how very close I was to realizing the dream of a book deal.

Oh, how CUTE I was with my enthusiasm.

How positively NAIVE I was to the process.

I have officially left the Club for now, but I’ll be back. Because I hope to write many, many books over the course of my career, which means I’ll probably be a Gold Member before long. And that’s okay. It’s all part of the process. But Sub Club can be taxing, frustrating, and at times, deeply disappointing, so going in armed with some knowledge and stamina is a good strategy.

So here are my 7 steps to surviving Sub Club:

1. The first rule of Sub Club … is not to talk about Sub Club.

This is no joke, and if you must, duct tape your mouth — and your keyboard — to ensure it happens. There are plenty of reasons why you should keep your foray into submission quiet, especially on social media. One, not everyone needs to know what you’re up to at all times — and it makes good business sense to stay quiet while your manuscript is being considered by multiple editors. Also, some — when frustrated by how slowly the process can move (more on that later) — could take out their irritation via Twitter streams etc., and this is NEVER A GOOD IDEA. Stay professional. Find people offline you can talk to, and bounce your comments and frustrations off them. I know how tough it is to stay quiet when you’re excited, or frustrated, or WANT TO ANALYZE EVERY SINGLE THING THAT IS HAPPENING, but don’t, okay?

2. Write something else (or pick up a new hobby).

The advice you always hear about what to do while you wait (to hear back on queries / to get agent notes / for editor feedback / to get your edit letter…) is to write something new. This is great advice — though admittedly not always easy to do. Because your brain is still stuck back on your last book — the one you hope is being read (and adored) by editors. However, the wait can be LONG. Like, really long. So allow yourself a small window of time to do nothing but obsess and ANALYZE EVERY LITTLE THING, then get back to work. I’m a perfect example of why this is so important. While my first book was out on submission, I worked on my next book. And guess what happened? When my agent and I decided to pull book 1 after a round of editors passed (with great feedback and lovely comments — editors really do know how to reject your work AND still make you feel good about it) to do some work on it, we pushed ahead with book 2. Which was the one we ended up selling as part of a two-book deal. Time to open Scrivener, friends…

3. Settle in — it may be a long haul.

(Tip: limiting the amount of sobbing while on sub club is … advised.)

I mentioned how long things can take while you’re in Sub Club. I know people who have been on submission for nearly a year. It’s a tough, tough slag at times. Sure, some will get a book deal between going to bed the first night their book is on submission and pouring their coffee the next morning, but this is the exception, folks. Most of us linger here for a while. I was in and out pretty fast, all things considered — Michelle Meade (my lovely editor at MIRA!) asked to see book 2 on February 11th and the offer came through March 7th. MIRA had passed on book 1 previously, but because I’d been writing book 2 at the time {see step #2} my agent was able to pitch the blurb when she submitted book 1 for consideration. And Michelle remembered it and reached out. WRITE SOMETHING NEW while you wait, okay?

4. Decide what’s best for your emotional well-being. Things can get … challenging.

I can’t stress this enough. You need to know yourself, and how you react to disappointment. When book 1 went on submission I asked my agent to tell me everything. I wanted a blow-by-blow account of what was happening (can we say, “control freak”?), including having her send me every rejection email so I could see the feedback first hand (I would still recommend this, but perhaps not AS THEY COME IN because you might be having a good day, having forgotten for a split second you’re on sub, and then BOOM. Three rejections in a row). And because she’s awesome (thanks, Carolyn!), she did exactly as I asked. Now some of the feedback — even though a rejection — gave me warm fuzzies. I can honestly say feedback from editor passes is WAY more encouraging than any feedback I got while I was querying. It was at times quite specific, and usually gave me a lot to think about. I’m grateful those editors took the time — they certainly have a million other things to do.

For book 2 we agreed to a different communication strategy, because submission ennui had settled in (see step 5 for insight on this), and I wanted a break from the play-by-play.

I said I’d check in with Carolyn once a week, and she could let me know the status and forward any editor emails at that point. It was a relief, knowing I could go about my day without wondering (worrying) how the manuscript was doing.

5. Don’t get ahead of yourself.

Book 2 looked promising for us — a bunch of editors had asked to see whatever I wrote next, so we knew there was a decent list of interested parties. One of those had come quite close for book 1, and so we granted them an exclusive read — which means the book wouldn’t go to any other editor during an agreed upon time period. All I’ll say about this is that is was an exciting time, because we got as close as you can get to a deal without getting a, well, deal. But it was also an incredibly disappointing and soul crushing experience, because I learned a very important lesson: until you have an actual offer in hand, YOU DO NOT HAVE AN OFFER (even if you’ve been told one is coming). So many factors go into an editor being able to offer on your book, aside from the merits of your actual manuscript: the financials (how many books they feel they can sell vs what advance they can offer), what else is on the publishing house’s list, author platform, getting buy in from the rest of the acquisitions team (this is a good post, with GIFs, on what happens with a manuscript from landing on an editor’s desk to offer / rejection time), the book is too commercial / not commercial enough, too niche / can’t find a spot for it on the shelf, they’re personally tired of {insert your book’s concept}…you get the idea. Bottom line? It’s hard to get a book published. Period.

6. Celebrate successes as you go.

There’s a lot of crap that happens on submission, and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that a) you wanted this, you asked for this, you need to live with this until you decide you don’t want it anymore or the book sells, and b) that plenty of positive things are happening, too. Like you’re getting great feedback on what’s really working with your writing and/or your story — sure, it may not be exactly what the editor wants to acquire right now, but hey, you’re on the right track. Or maybe an editor can’t see a spot for your book on her current list, but she’s asked to see what you write next. Or perhaps it’s not quite right as is but you’re close, so he’ll entertain a revision if you decide to put the work in. Or maybe it’s that having one book out of sight, out of mind has allowed you to write another book — an even BETTER book. Take the good where you can, because it will help buffer you when things get a little rocky.

7. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing [how many books they sell / how quickly they get a deal / how much their advance is / how many publishing houses fought for them at auction…]. JUST DON’T.

Remember being told to keep your eyes on your own page? This applies here. Yes, please (please) help other writers celebrate with a congratulatory tweet or email when they get to leave Sub Club (for now), but remember this is your journey — and it won’t look like anyone else’s. So try to keep the envy to a minimum — guaranteed MOST of those writers you see announcing book deals worked damn hard to get there. They likely have a book or two lingering on a shelf somewhere. They probably have a stack of rejections holding up that book deal. And really, the hard work is ahead of them — a book deal is AWESOME, but it does not guarantee future success or personal satisfaction.

So I guess my final tip is to remember you are so much more than your book(s). Sub Club is just a stop along the way…

Just start at the very beginning, A very good place to start…


I have just started a new book. What we writers refer to as a “WIP” (Work in Progress). Now, when I say I’ve “started” it, what I mean is I have the idea. I have a few details about the plot scratched down. I have a vision for where it can go. And I’ve done some research because one of the characters is set in a time I’m unfamiliar with.

But as for how much I’ve written? About 200 words.

I need to write about NINETY THOUSAND MORE.

When I told (bragged) to my husband the other day that I got my first line nailed, he looked at me, raised an (ever supportive) eyebrow, and said, “You’ve written one line?” BUT IT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT LINE, I said. He smiled and nodded as I tried to explain why (this has always been true for me — even in journalism school, when we were on crazy tight deadlines, I couldn’t write a word of a story until I had that first line).

So I thought, why not share my process for how I go from the first word to the 90,000? If for no other reason, it allows me to procrastinate for another few hours on what I should actually be writing, which is … you got it … the book.

IT ALL STARTS WITH THE IDEA.

I have a folder on my laptop titled “Book ideas (that suck)” — and you guessed it, it’s full of book ideas that, well, blow chunks. At first I thought they might be good, even great, but after spending a little time thinking through plot and realizing just how wrong I was, off they go to the file. However, every now and then I have an idea that works when I take it through the first test. It has legs, and with some work, I can see how the story can go from good to great.

This is how I feel inside when I figure that out:

 

Okay, so I have the idea. I write a short blurb and vet it through my critique partners, my agent, and my husband (who is always my toughest critic, which is only one of the reasons I adore him so) — if everyone thinks it has merit, I give the story a (usually crappy but hey, it’s a start) title in Scrivener and figure out what I need to know to start writing.

And let me tell you, there’s A LOT to sort out before the writing begins.

WHO THE HELL IS THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Your characters need to feel like real people. And to do that, you need to build them one layer at a time. Things like giving them names, sorting out how they look, determining their quirks, who their best friends are, what they do for a living, where they grew up, when their birthdays are, where they live, how they live, what they like to eat, drink, do for fun, what makes them angry, what makes them cry, what they like to wear, what they do that pisses others off, what they were like in high school (if you’re writing adult), what people love about them, what people hate about them …


(This is how I feel when I start thinking about all these details … a little dizzy and most definitely overwhelmed…)

It’s time-consuming, creating the main players in your story and their world(s), but it’s important to do it so you don’t end up with cardboard characters no one wants to spend time with.

WHAT THE HECK HAPPENS IN THIS STORY?

Then comes plot. Ah, plot. You can have the best characters, the best setting, the best title, the best hook (more on that in a minute), but without a solid plot, you will be lost. There’s a lot of talk about pantsers vs plotters — pantsers write “by the seat of their pants” whereas plotters do the opposite, with every detail sorted out in advance of writing a single word — and I’ve done it both ways. But I’m most comfortable taking a hybrid approach — a “plantser” I call myself. I like to have a strong outline, with plot points clearly stated and characters worked out, but I give myself some flexibility as I write. Sometimes I’m in a scene that I’ve worked out point by point, and a character unexpectedly jumps out from behind a tree and beckons me to follow her. Which I ALWAYS DO, because this generally leads to an even better scene.

THE HOOK (A.K.A “THE THING THAT MAKES YOUR STORY DIFFERENT”).

The hook is the thing that when you share it, it makes someone sit up a little straighter, lean in, and with eyes wide say, “Wow … tell me more!” It’s critical in today’s book market, and until you have it (in my opinion) you’re not ready to start writing.

This is surely how I look when I figure out my hook …

It’s what makes a writer vibrate a little, the hook, because you spend so much of your story figuring out how to tease it and reveal it, and this is FUN. Now, this all depends on genre, of course, but for those of us who write commercial fiction in any genre, hook is a big deal.

CLOSE TWITTER, FACEBOOK, PINTEREST, EMAIL, RIDICULOUS “WHO ARE YOU?” QUIZZES, AND POTTERMORE (I’M IN GRYFFINDOR, IN CASE ANYONE CARES) … AND START WRITING.

First, comes the panic. The “even though I’ve done this X number of times before, I’m pretty sure I don’t know how to write a book” feeling. This is when I typically need my CPs and husband to CALM ME THE EFF DOWN (see gif below for how this stage generally looks), and remind me that yes, I can write a book. I’ve done it a few times already. So stop panicking (procrastinating) and get to it.

So once I’ve found some inner peace, have the idea, the outline, the plot points, the character details (including setting), and I’ve managed to find time to focus … I start writing.

This is how I EXPECT things to go at this stage:

 

This is how I KNOW it goes, based on experience:

But in the end, despite my greatest attempts at self-sabotage (via procrastination), I end up with this:

And there is no better feeling. Turning an idea into a stack of papers and thousands of words, that swirl together to tell a story? A story crafted out of the depths of your brain?

Awesome.

Time to get writing …

Up To Speed

I’ve been told I’m a fast writer.

But I’m not sure that’s exactly what I am.

(Have I mentioned book #1 took me SIX YEARS to write?)

True, I wrote two books this past year. The first one (really, my second book) took 5.5 months. The second one (really, my third book) took just under 4 months. Now I suppose some would view that as “fast”, although there are plenty of writers out there (on Twitter in particular) who boast about finishing a first draft in less time than it takes me to order something from Old Navy and have it delivered (so about two weeks, give or take). That’s FAST.

I don’t see myself as a fast writer, per se, just a structured and disciplined writer. Because I write for a living as well, the hours between 9 am and 3 pm (after my daughter goes to school, and before she gets back home) are reserved for work (read: paid) writing. I also go to bed around the time a toddler would, as my daughter fancies herself an early bird riser (often prior to 5am), and I just can’t be creative anymore as a night owl.

So most of the fiction I write happens between the hours of 5 am – 8 am. And amazingly enough, if you do that every day and stick to a daily word count, you can write a novel in a few months.

Now, with my very first book, which has gone to the proverbial shelf where practice books live (die), I wrote sporadically. In the early days of that book I didn’t even have a child yet, so I’m not really sure what my excuse was. I HAD NOTHING BUT FREE TIME (and work, but hey, I work now too!). Honestly, if I could go back … Regardless, that first book felt a lot like this:

There were weeks when I didn’t write a word, then some weekends where I’d write 5,000 of them. Either way, that book took forever and as a result, it was (in my opinion) missing the flow and pacing that comes from writing a book in the same mind frame. Life changed so much while I wrote that first book, and all those shifts could be seen through the pages. Hence, the shelf.

With my second book I set out to do things differently. I’d always been a pantser (writing without an outline), but thought maybe I’d create at least a loose outline for book #2. I also wrote a lot of it during my first NaNoWriMo attempt, and what do you know, I managed to finish it in under 6 months! But in many ways the writing of that book felt a lot like this:

I was a flurry of writing! It was ALL VERY EXCITING. The words FLOWED from my fingers. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more. I didn’t edit anything until I had a first draft complete. I just kept going, until it was done.

Whew.

The problem with that strategy, despite how quickly I produced that book, was that without a good outline and some pre-thought (the signs of a “plotter”), I ended up with some, um, “challenging” plot holes. Holes that took me another few months to fix. But fix them I did, and that was the book that landed me my awesome agent.

So when I sat down to start book #3, I thought long and hard about my process. I knew I enjoyed the challenge and structure of writing every day. I had read that little tidbit of advice in Stephen King’s ON WRITING (if you haven’t read this book, you must — it’s excellent, and changed how I see my process) — he’s a proponent of the “write every day / read every day” philosophy, and while it doesn’t appeal to all, it works for me. I also decided I was going to outline the book all the way, and I started using Scrivener — a (KICK ASS) tool for writers that allows you to plan scenes using digital cue cards, which can be moved around easily, plus a lot of other awesome bells and whistles.

Armed with a detailed outline, character descriptions, a plot that didn’t appear to have too many holes, and the handy-dandy Scrivener, I started writing. Every day. And during this past year’s NaNoWriMo, I focused on generating 2,000 words a day. Many days I was over that count. The outline was THE BEST THING I COULD HAVE DONE. Writing book #3 felt like this:

I was a writing NINJA!

The words flew from my fingers (and they made sense)!

The story unfolded exactly as I wanted, with a few surprises here and there to keep things interesting!

Three months later, I had a first draft. And it held together. It was the best first draft I’d ever created.

However, it wouldn’t have happened that quickly if I hadn’t committed to writing like it WAS MY JOB. Yes, I have a “job” — two, in fact, if you call being a stay at home mom a job as well (which you should, because it is). But I view writing fiction like a job, and I treat it like that. Which means I work at it every day — sick, tired, stuck, energized, busy … every day. Some days I had to pull those words from my weary fingers and brain. Other days it was easy. But regardless, I wrote every single day.

Truthfully, I only take time off writing when I’m between projects (like I am now). But I use that time to think a lot about writing. And to read as much as I can. Because it’s all connected; it all helps get a solid draft out when you’re ready to go.

So in the end, maybe I am a fast writer. But there’s no way I could be if I wasn’t disciplined about it.

HARD WORK + DETERMINATION, with a dash of goal setting mixed in.

That’s the “secret”, at least for me.

Habits and other muse-ings

First things first, I “won” NaNoWriMo again this year! Now as I mentioned in my last post, “winning” simply means writing 50,000 words in the month of November. The only trophy I “won” was of the virtual kind, along with a nicely chilled glass of white when I hit 50,001 words.

In case you’ve never tried to do it, 50k in a month is NOT EASY. Especially when your muse takes an unexpected vacation in the first week, or refuses to do what you’ve asked of her. Add in that thing called LIFE, and there were days where I wasn’t sure I was going to hit the goal.

But I did, and in the process, finished my next book.

(Insert a whoop of joy here and a dance that looked a little like this…)

The difference this time, though, is that I had a solid plot outlined and 40k written BEFORE November 1st. That helped. Not only with reaching my goal to get the book finished during NaNo, but also to create a story that was more second draft quality than first draft.

Because as we all know, first drafts SUCK. Usually when I read through my first draft this is my reaction:

This time, though, I plotted in a way I never have before. I used this handy dandy word processing (magical) writing tool called Scrivener, which has completely changed how I write. I worked with a few of my critique partners chapter by chapter, versus having them read the book after a first draft was done. And I wrote EVERY SINGLE DAY.

There’s a lot of controversy out there about the whole ‘write ever day’ habit. But after reading Stephen King’s On Writing, I knew it was a habit I wanted to get into. If you’re a writer and haven’t read On Writing, go do so. Now. Along with great tips, like read and write every single day, you get a glimpse into the trials SK went through in becoming the incredibly successful author he is today. It really changed how I view my writing process.

However, there are plenty of writers who disagree with the daily writing habit thing. But for me, it’s like working a muscle, and if I keep “active” daily my writing muscles don’t atrophy. Words flow more easily, my mind stays close to the plot and characters, and most of all, the BOOK GETS WRITTEN MORE QUICKLY (at least in my experience).

My first book, my “practice” book, took more than six years to write. (Note: I did NOT write every day, and at that time I didn’t even have a kid yet!) And let me tell you, it’s obvious in the story. For the last two books I wrote them mostly between the hours of 5am and 7 am, and managed to get a finished draft done within five months each time. I would never have done that without the daily habit of writing each morning. Along with (copious amounts of) coffee, it’s become a daily ritual I look forward to … most mornings, anyway. There were some, let me tell you, that looked a lot like this…

Regardless of whether you write every day or not, are a “pantser” (little to no plotting, write as you go) or a “plotter” (the exact opposite of a pantser), drink coffee or tea while you write, feel most inspired before the sun comes up or long after it has gone down, or take one month or six years to finish a book, you have a process. Which means you likely don’t need any advice, unless you’re looking for a change.

Really, the only advice I give when someone asks “HOW” to finish a book is this:

DO NOT STOP WRITING UNTIL IT’S DONE.

That’s really it, isn’t it?

 

 

 

 

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