Hey! I know it’s been a long time, but you know, it was summer and I was busy collecting unemployment, sleeping late, and going to the beach. So now it’s back to business and I’m back to teaching and working on my latest project. There’s big changes afoot, and I hope to have something big to disclose pretty soon now, and you know I will absolutely let you know when I do. For the present, I’m attending various writing events, including next month’s Liberty State Fiction Writers’ Conference in Clark, NJ. If you must absolutely know more about it and would like to attend, there’s a limited number of tickets available, so go here to find out more. There will also be a Book fair in the afternoon, and if you’re like me, you’d rather spend your money on books more than anything in the world. Especially sweet because the Book Fair is FREE and open to the public. So if you’re a writer and happen to be in New Jersey–and who wouldn’t want to be–absolutely check it out!
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!
My friends, even the writer ones, must think I’m insane. Because I think I’ve told everyone I know–I mean EVERYONE–about the utterly delightful, witty, and completely sagacious style book by chief copy editor at Random House, Benjamin Dreyer called Dreyer’s English. Why, you may ask? Because I’ve read a lot of style, grammar, craft, and instructional books on English in my writing and academic careers. And among those books, there’s a few I would recommend whole-heartedly. But Dreyer’s English is the only book on style I’ve read that was truly fun. Making it the only book of its kind I actually want to go out and buy for my writer friends. I don’t mean just for their birthday or Christmas. I mean I want to run out NOW to Barnes and Noble and buy a stack of them, ensuring that each writer I give them to will pay attention to the rules he outlines so hilariously. Truly the written word could only get better for it.
Publishers Weekly says: “Dreyer, copy chief at Random House, presents a splendid book that is part manual, part memoir, and chockfull of suggestions for tightening and clarifying prose. These begin with his first challenge to writers: “Go a week without writing ‘very,’ ‘rather,’ ‘really,’ ‘quite,’ and ‘in fact.’ ” (“Feel free to go the rest of your life without another ‘actually,’ ” he says.) Dreyer goes on to write with authority and humor about commonly confused or misspelled words, punctuation rules, and “trimmables,” or redundant phrases (the most memorable he ever encountered was, “He implied without quite saying”; Dreyer was so “delighted” he “scarcely had the heart” to eliminate it from the manuscript). But Dreyer’s most effective material comprises his recollections of working with authors, including Richard Russo, who after noticing a maxim posted in Dreyer’s office from the New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs—“Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style”—later called him to ask, “Would you say I am an author? Do I have a style?” This work is that rare writing handbook that writers might actually want to read straight through, rather than simply consult.”
Go buy it now. Or you run the risk of my blathering about it again.
The MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University and its alumni organization, the MFA Alumni Writers Collaborative, are proud to present the 2019 Housatonic Book Awards.
The Award will be given to book-length works in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and YA/Middle-Grade. Books must have been published in 2018. The Award carries a $1,000 honorarium in exchange for appearing at the winter or summer residency of the MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University to give a public reading and a one-day, three-hour workshop with MFA students. The Award also includes a $500 travel stipend and hotel stay during the residency.
For more information and submission guidelines, visit: Housatonic Book Awards
Read a quick but great article in the New York Times by Tina Jordan yesterday, “Some Dos and Don’ts From Famous Writers.” There were tips by Delia Owens and J. K. Rowling, from John Grisham and William Faulkner, the latter who spouted the line that really got to me: “You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader.” This should come as no surprise to anyone that thinks of themselves as a writer, because truly, where would you get the inspiration to write without the very prose (or poetry or play or lyric) that drove you to it? I’ve always had a lust for reading, starting from that very day in first grade when the nun easeled an oversized, laminated book in front of the class. (Yes, I am the product of a Catholic elementary school education. Don’t start with me.) LOOK — was the only dialogue on the page, but when I sounded out the L-O-O-K with my rudimentary phonics knowledge and my agile young brain connected the synapses to form look–well, it was a discovery so profound, I jumped out of my desk to cry I CAN READ THAT! And I’ve been doing it ever since.
As I look around my office I see four tall bookcases, a basket of magazines containing academic and trade periodicals, a couple of New Yorkers on my desk with another journal underneath, and atop the table next to my favorite reading chair, Becoming, by Michelle Obama, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (this month’s Book Discussion pick), a book on back pain (from sitting on my ass at this desk too much), and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. At the top of my TBR pile is Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, and just below it, Something Wonderful, by Todd S. Purdum. If you know anything about these books, you can tell what an eclectic reader I am. Does that say anything about my writing? Maybe it does.
One thing’s for certain. If I don’t read, it definitely affects my writing. It plods along, my characters lose their edge, the dialogue becomes stilted. There are certain schools of thought that say you shouldn’t read and write at the same time, because if you do, you’ll unconsciously steal the style of whomever you’re reading. I don’t happen to buy into that. For me, reading breaks loose my inner competitor, and I find myself wanting to outdo them. If anything, I get inspired–if they can do it, I can do it better, and the more I read, the more I want to write. I remember a time when I was deep into deadlines, that I didn’t even come near a screen outside my laptop for a month. But every day I found the time to read, over breakfast, over lunch, after a writing session, before bed. Now, I must admit I do a fair amount of reading from my laptop and my phone. But there’s still nothing like the visceral touch of the printed page, the pure joy of row upon row of embedded ink slowly unfolding a story. And no such thrill as when that story’s your own.
But enough about reading. Writers got to write, too. Best get back to work. Unless, of course, you’ll be reading.
The picture is from a couple or so years back of my experience at Book Expo America, which will be held this year from May 30 – June 1 at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. I haven’t gone in the last couple of years for one reason or another and not for lack of wanting to. If you’re in the Northeast and in anyway connected with the book/publishing industry, it’s a worthwhile trip if you haven’t gone before. Nearly every book publisher in North America is represented, and the place is fairly swarming with editors, literary agents, publicists, and anyone in and around the industry. Not only that, but there are author signings almost from opening to closing, interviews with industry professionals or writers on a couple of stages, special programs for librarians and booksellers, and free books and swag galore. For more information, visit the BEA Homepage.
Okay, I’m a big fan of Outlander. Not only the series on Starz, but of the books, as I’ve been reading them since a few years after the first book (named Outlander, oddly enough) came out. I had met series author Diana Gabaldon years ago at a cocktail party at a New Jersey Romance Writers’ conference, where she was so kind to explain to me just how she wrote one of her more grisly scenes (the memory of it and how my stomach lurched, will be better left unwritten at this juncture thankyouverymuch). She was very charming and personable, and years later I had the chance to encounter her again in New York, this time at a Random House Author Breakfast. It was there she disclosed for the first time that just the night before, she had finalized the contract for the Starz Outlander series, to excited gasps from her rabid fan base sitting in the audience, thrilled that Jamie and Claire would finally come to life. But I wonder ever since that day how many of her readers have been disappointed? Because how much is really lost when characters–and storylines–jump from the page to the screen?
I read a romance once where the author stated in her forward that she based her two lead characters, a pirate and a spoiled and screeching noblewoman, on George Clooney and Nicole Kidman. Really? The debonair Clooney as a peg-legged arrrrgh -ing privateer? The elegant Aussie as a continual pain-in-the-ass? Didn’t help that all they did in the book was fight. Just didn’t wash for me, especially since I saw Clooney and Kidman as having zero chemistry. But that was beside the point. I resented the fact I was being directed to imagine a character in a certain way, rather than to let their deeds and actions unfold in my own mind as to what they really were about. When I read a book, it’s should be my interpretation of the writing, not that author’s. That’s why there are book discussion groups, as every reader has a different impression of the author’s vision. And in when a book jumps to a screen small or large, that vision is then ceded by the author to the screenwriters and ultimately, the director.
Every Monday morning I read the Outlander recap in The New York Times and invariably, there’s someone bitching about how much the show is missing/has changed/has been altered from book to series. There’s some changes I’ve liked, there’s some that I’ve questioned, there’s some that I outright hate. Comments say the book is so much better, and some, who’ve never read the books, suggest avenues the characters can take. Those who are like me, enjoy it for what it is. I can live with both because I’ve experienced both, and I see each for what they are. As a writer, I know when I put my work out there, my characters are bound to be altered by each person who reads my story, as each approach it with different life experiences and expectations.
But that’s the chance we take when we become writers, as it’s nearly impossible for our vision to be transferred unaltered into another person’s brain. The best we can hope for is it’s intact enough to remain enjoyable and worthy enough to read. And that enough people end up reading it to end up transferring it from a Kindle into a more widely-distributed screen. Or so we hope.
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I’ve been told that several “Easter eggs” have been planted throughout Outlander Season Three premiering this Sunday, September 10 on Starz. So what’s an Easter egg? It’s those little hidden gifts the producers like to plant in various scenes that only true fans will know the significance of. Sounds like fun and I can’t wait to look for them. But you’re an old-time devotee of the series, then you’ve already noticed quite a few pieces of coal as well. What I mean is we old-timers have been on the Claire/Jamie team for twenty-five years now since the Diana Gabaldon’s first book of the series, Outlander, debuted in 1992. And as readers of the books–sometimes two or three times–there’s certain things that have veered from the texts. Personally, I’m not complaining, as many variations have either had no significance or even improved the story. And since Diana Gabaldon has had such an active part in the production, she must approve of the changes. Plus ultimately, showrunner Ronald D. Moore is certainly entitled to his own vision and for the most part, I overwhelmingly approve. Still, there are some things that have veered from the written text that stand out for me (and if you don’t want to know what they are, if you think I’m a spoilsport and should just shut up and watch, then stop reading right here):
- Claire, unlike the very talented, blue-eyed Caitriona Balfe, has brown eyes. In the book they are described as very unusual and “sherry-colored.”
- The wedding ring Jamie gives Claire is a silver band decorated in the Highland interlace style, a small Jacobean thistle bloom carved in the center.
- Jamie gets violently seasick, so bad he’s literally unable to come on deck when a ship is in motion. After he is liberated from Wentworth Prison in the book, he’s mostly unconscious and it’s not until France when he’s taken to the monastery to recover. The fact he’s unconscious is a lifesaver. Gabaldon deals with this quirk of Jamie’s in an inventive way with a novel character in Book Three and sailing on a ship becomes pivotal to the plot. Not that I’m telling you here!
- In the books, Jamie and Claire’s daughter, Brianna, is described as tall and big-boned, size 16 and six-feet tall. There is no doubt that she is Jamie’s daughter, with her height and flaming-red hair. She was also born and raised in Boston, and there’s no doubt in my mind she pahks her cahr in Ha-vahd yahd.
Don’t get me wrong–I love-love-LUFF this series, and I can live with any of these changes and enjoy it tremendously. But I’m not going to deny the fact as a tall and big-boned woman, I would have loved to see an equally tall and big-boned woman playing the part of Jamie’s daughter, especially in this year of Wonder Woman. But if that would mean living without Jamie each Sunday night at eight, well, come on. Life is all about compromise, isn’t it?
Sunday night at eight. You’ll know where I’ll be.
Random House is home to the world’s most acclaimed storytellers, thought leaders, and innovators, and Open House is our signature special event.
Held three times per year, this unique day-long experience brings together the biggest names in publishing for a full day of interactive author panels and book talks in New York. Readers get a behind-the-books look at what’s new at this all-inclusive day. Our tenth Open House will take place on Thursday, December 15.
Featured authors at this Open House include Diana Gabaldon, Jodi Picoult, Trevor Noah, George Saunders, Jon Meacham, Fannie Flagg, Lindsey Lee Johnson, Allison Pataki, Sana Krasikov, and Laura McHugh.
Plus at the end of it — wine. Lots and lots of wine. I’m so there.