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You know how easy it is to start a book? There’s that terrific premise you’re dying to get down on the page, plus those fabulous characters you’ve fashioned, to whom you’ll feed just the perfect opening lines. My books usually open right with the action. I hit the group running and it’s off to a rip-roaring start. But sometimes it happens I get to page 150, and my characters are metaphorically gasping for breath, not from where they came from, but in anticipation of where they’ll end up. It’s like their train is barreling toward the station, but I don’t know which track to send them on to get them there. So what should I do? For advice I like to turn to a book that’s helped me numerous times in the past, The Art and Craft of Storytelling by Nancy Lamb ( Writer’s Digest Books, ISBN 978-1-58297-559-7, $14.99). She says to travel the length of your story grab hold of the throughline–the driving force of your book you can set up as soon as the opening line.
According to Nancy Lamb’s Tricks of the Trade: Before the end of the first chapter, make an effort to set up the primary throughline of your book. By creating a natural trajectory for your story’s development, the plot will unfold in a more organic way, and you’ll feel more comfortable in moving forward. This is also insurance against getting sidetracked. You can set up your throughline in an outline, or you can wing it. Either way, make the effort to establish this critical introductory plot point from the beginning.
Did I do that? Well, I know where my characters were in the beginning, and I know how I want them to end up. Okay, let me adopt this theory to a well-known story: The Wizard of Oz. The only thing Dorothy really wants is to get home. So everything that occurs to her after she lands in Munchkinlad propels her towards Oz which, in theory, will get her home. So what’s my guiding force? And how does that guiding force contribute to the forward motion of the story? If it doesn’t, it should. Because if it doesn’t, then it’s quicksand. And it’ll keep me stranded in the sagging middle.
If you’re stuck, perhaps you’ve lost sight of that. Or perhaps you’ve just been too bogged down by the prose, trying to tweak wordage and phrases, when you should be concentrating on the story. Therein lies the danger of constantly editing: details can always be fixed later, but a main plot thrust should always command your attention. Not that a little re-reading isn’t in order, especially if you’ve lost the main plot point of my story. So in times like these, when we can’t see the forest for the trees, the only thing to do is go back to square one. Maybe it’s time to pay a quick visit to that magical beginning, and remember to drop bits of it like breadcrumbs on the way back and all the way through to the end.
Back to work!
It’s Tax Day, and although I’ve already done mine (phew!), it’s made me think of the summer that’s fast approaching, and how I’ll spend it. Being in academia, that also means I have a month left of classes, and this year, I actually have part of the summer off before I’ll have to return after the Fourth for a sincerely easy summer class.
But before I do, I’ll have some time to write full-time, which is always nice. Up at dawn and nigh until the night I’m at the keyboard, and it really is the most marvelous feeling, the freedom to just have plot on the mind. Maybe one day I’ll hit that New York Times list and be able to do it full-time all year round, but until then, this slice of summer is pure bliss.
For those that follow this writer (I mean me, in case you’re wondering), I’m working on a new series. Don’t really want to say what it’s about yet, as I first want to see if it’ll fly, but I’ll say it’s based in Jersey like my other books, and, well, it’s got a mystery attached to it, and maybe even a bit of the paranormal. It’s not so much new for me as it’s returning to an earlier style. In any case, it’s keeping my interest, so I must be doing something right.
Oh, and as far as the picture above? It’s got nothing to do with anything that I’m writing about. If you’ve read me, than you know I’ve a thing for anything Parisian, though these two look like they’ve been living on Tic Tacs and cigarettes. Someone give them some French Fries–please.
Last week I was as sick as a dog. (Tell me: where did that analogy spring from anyway? Because if sick = dog, then my neighborhood should be a pandemic site.) My affliction ran the full gamut of misery: fever, chills, aches, head congestion and general all-over-shittiness, and from so much coughing and sneezing, this week I threw out my back. So it’s another week of not being up to a hundred percent, and now it’s thirty-eight degrees out and raining. Add to this one hell of a winter hangover which seemed to put all progress in reverse, and I’m finding it hard to get out of bed in the morning, let alone work on the book which I recently started. Put it all together and I’m decidedly in a funk, and wondering how to get my motor started when so much of the world is working against me.
(My goodness, I’m depressing. Now write yourself out of that hole, Gwen. Go ahead. I’m waiting.)
It’s very easy not to write when you’re feeling bad, actually too easy. Your brain gets preoccupied with everything that’s messing up your day, and it become almost mandatory to dis your routine for social media or TV, twin junk foods for the distracted mind. Kind of like when you have a bad day at work and you head right for the Doritos, a balm for the belly that actually works against you, especially after you realize you just inhaled 3000 calories, and you don’t even like Doritos. So how do you counter these counter-intuitive measures? How do you write when writer is the last thing you feel like? One thing I’ve found out about myself is I feel worse when I don’t write, that the act of writing itself gives me a feeling of self-worth unlike any other practice I partake in. The only thing that comes close is teaching, perhaps because both involve the dissemination of information uniquely my own. Maybe because as writers, we are innately messengers, and this need to communicate is what puts us in touch with our reality, giving us validation. Really? Is that what we need? Must be true, because why would I feel so bad when I’m not doing it? I mean, seriously, who feels bad when they’re not hitting their thumb with a hammer?
Man, writers are strange. But that’s why you love us so much, right?
If you fancy yourself a novelist ( as I, on occasion, have been wont to do), and you’d like to see yourself represented, sooner or later you’re going to have to attempt that necessary evil, the Dread Agent Query Letter. Truly, I know people who’d rather stick pencils in their eyes than apply that pencil to the task, but sweeties, it doesn’t have to be that painful if you know the assembly method. So here, in four easy paragraphs, I’ll try to show you how to compose the Perfect Agent Query. Now pay attention…
First, some preliminaries… First and foremost, a query is a business letter. Since most (if not all) agents accept queries only through email, and since that email entails one finger firmly adhered to the delete button, you want your query to be as concise and professional as possible, contained in the body of the email and NOT by attachment. Since attachments can carry viruses, agents are loath to open them unless they know you, so send attachments by invitation only. Most definitely use honorifics (Mr., Ms. etc.) in your Salutation as you should never assume familiarity. If you had previously met with the agent at a conference, workshop, cocktail party, etc, and were invited to query, most definitely write REQUESTED in the subject line as well as the first line of the email. These will get opened first. As a best practice, check the agent’s website or blog for query/submission guidelines. If you don’t have a particular agent in mind, try Jeff Herman’s guide, the library for The Literary Marketplace, or www.agentquery.com, just to name a few resources. Another one is troll the library or bookstore stack of the books of your genre, and see who the author thanks in her acknowledgements. Now, on to the actual construction…
Para One – Howdy! With Benefits – This is your query knock-on-the-door, your literary calling card designed to get the agent’s attention. Introduce yourself, remind her if you’ve previously met and where (we chatted during lunch at the XXXX Writers’ Conference), if you’ve been invited to query/submit, the name of your novel, the genre and word count. You might what to toss in a quick teaser like, A cross between Stephen King and Carl Hiaasen, My Bloody Margarita is a 80,000 word…, to illustrate what your writing is like. But on the whole, keep this para to a five-six line minimum, with just the facts, ma’am, inviting her to the next para to learn more.
Para Two – In which we employ The Hard Sell – this is where you get ONE paragraph to car-crush your entire 80,000 word novel into one easily digestible capsule. Twelve to fifteen lines in all, introduce your main characters, basic plot line, conflict, lessons learned, the conclusion. Remember, although you want the agent to be intrigued, you don’t want to raise her ire. So if you say …but if you want to know how the story turns out, you’ll just have to request the rest of it… you’re just asking for a delete. Be creative, not cagey.
Para Three – It’s all about YOU! – This is where you get your close-up, Mr. DeMille; it’s all about you, you, you. Cite your published works, awards, training, blogs, websites, education (if pertinent), professional associations, jobs or skills that give you credibility for/authority on what you’re writing about. Again, because this is a business letter, remain professional. Don’t take this personally, but no one really cares if you like to raise bunnies and take long walks lakeside, unless, of course, you’re writing about The Killer Hare of Lake Superior. Again, no more than twelve to fifteen lines. A link to your blog or website is also advisable, as most industry people now assume you have a web or social media prescience, and if you don’t, you have to ask yourself why.
Para Four – Wrap it up – This is your shortest paragraph of all. I’ll even toss in examples free of charge: I can send a proposal or the complete novel at your request. Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. OR According to your submission guidelines, what follows is the first ten pages (or synopsis or first three chapters, or any combination thereof stated in their guidelines) of <Name Work> Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. THAT SHOULD BE IT. No more, no less, just a salute as you head out the door.
All finished? PROOFREAD AND SPELL-CHECK, then add your email address and your phone number. All in all, a succinct query should never contain more than 400-450 words, and NEVER more than one page. And never query unless you have a completed, fully-polished, proofread and spell-checked novel ready to go. I know of agents who get 200 queries a week, and some substantially more. That’s a heck of a queue, and if you’re not ready to submit at a moment’s notice, rest assured there are hundreds of others who are.
One more thing — good luck!