PitchWars 2014 is here. Have you Got what it takes?

I’m going to keep this as short as I can (which probably means not short at all), mostly because I’m currently running “Mommy Camp” (summer break = no break for mom) and my six-year-old daughter tends to prefer playing outside versus watching me tap at these keys (shocking, right?).  So if you have a Women’s Fiction, Literary, or Marriage Thriller book, and it’s fresh and shiny (to be clear, to me “shiny”=POLISHED, not first draft material) and you’re simply BURSTING to get a solid critique, PRETTY PLEASE SEND IT TO ME. No, really. Go to the submission form (on August 18th), put my name on it, and hit SEND. For everything you need to know about how to submit, including the amazing agents playing along, head on over to Brenda Drake’s blog.

But Karma, I can hear you saying — why would I choose you over any one of the other amazing/talented/accomplished/(and likely funnier and more clever with their bio) mentors? I’m so glad you asked.

1. I may be the most thorough critique out there. Well, perhaps I’m overstating this BUT my critique partners talk about my “cocoon” of notes. Meaning I line edit, focusing not only on the bigger things like themes, pacing, tension, and characterization, but also on the little details. I promise you a manuscript riddled with track changes. I am a, um, tough critique (consider yourself warned), but isn’t that exactly what you want out of an experience like this? (If you answered, “not really” to this last question might I suggest a different mentor?) Together we will make your manuscript the best it can be — if you’re in, I’m in. (Also, check out my mentee’s success story from the last PitchWars!)

2. I’ll be there for you after the contest ends. Seriously, ask any of my #TeamGoodKarma mentees from last year, and they’ll tell you we still exchange emails, and I’m happy to offer advice, give feedback, and tweet the heck out of their good news. Writing can be a lonely, isolating endeavour, so the more we can stay connected to one another and support each other the better.

3. I’m an avid reader, and a focused writer. While I write upmarket women’s fiction, my reading tastes vary from young adult, to (light) urban fantasy, to everything in between. I also read A LOT, even when I’m on deadline, and I think I might shrivel up and die if I couldn’t read. Is that melodramatic? Maybe, but it’s true. Which means I also love reading the books my critique partners write, and why I can’t wait to read your manuscript! As for my own writing, I get up nearly every morning at 5 am (if you’re an early morning writer and on Twitter check out #5amwritersclub — that crew has kept me going many an early morning) and write for a couple of hours before I have to put on my mom hat.

Want to know a bit more about me? I live near Toronto, Canada (if you would like to know the appropriate way to insert ‘eh’ into a conversation, I’m glad to help), am happily married, am mom to a beautiful daughter and an equally handsome labradoodle named Fred, and love to run, read, bake, and drink coffee (another one of the great pleasures of life). I also wish I could go to Hogwarts, am addicted to chocolate-covered jujubes, and haven’t slept in past 6am in, oh, six years. My day job is freelance writer, and I write mostly lifestyle/parenting articles for magazines. I’m also an 11-year cancer survivor, and pretty damned pleased to still be here to say that. I’m represented by Carolyn Forde, who is the most supportive and determined agent an author could ever ask for. I’ve blogged the twists and turns of my road to publication, in case you’re interested. My debut novel Come Away with Me will be out next July (Mira/Harlequin), and my second book will come out about a year later.

Me and the mini. This is pretty much how you’ll find me on any given day, unless I’m writing!

Now how about a wishlist? If I were to generalize, the books I’m most drawn to have complicated issues, big hearts, and pretty words.

What I’d love to see:

  • Women’s Fiction — think book club/upmarket (commercial with a literary feel, including those with magical realism, and in a perfect world, magic AND food): WHAT ALICE FORGOT (or anything by Liane Moriarty), AFTER I DO (Taylor Jenkins Reid), THE PILOT’S WIFE (Anita Shreve), ME BEFORE YOU (Jojo Moyes), WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE (Maria Semple), GARDEN SPELLS (Sarah Addison Allen), LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE (Laura Esquirel), PRACTICAL MAGIC (Alice Hoffman)
  • More literary (still with a commercial feel) — LITTLE BEE (Chris Cleave), THE DINNER (Herman Koch), THE NIGHT CIRCUS (Erin Morgenstern)
  • Marriage/Psychological Thrillers — GONE GIRL (Gillian Flynn), THE SILENT WIFE (A.S.A Harrison), and though it’s still on my TBR pile, if your book is anything like Natalie Young’s SEASON TO TASTE (look it up, trust me when I say this is a strange and compelling idea for a book), I would love to see it. I also just finished THE GOOD GIRL (Mary Kubica) and have determined I’m a psychological thriller fan. In truth, it’s pretty hard to scare me away with a concept!

What’s probably not for me (though you never know, I am open to having my mind changed…):

  • Fantasy & Sci-fi
  • Romance
  • Crime
  • Anything boring or not polished (wait, did I say that out loud?)

Also, if you own a tattered copy of ON WRITING by Stephen King, and have at one time or another mentioned something about “killing your darlings,” we are sure to get along.

I’m trying to curb my GIF addiction, but will leave you with one of my favourites (<= note the Canadian spelling) — this will be me, opening the submissions and finding THE book (your book?) I can’t wait to read and critique.

 

Don’t forget to check out the other mentors’ blogs — click below and start doing your homework …

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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!

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 …