My Writing Process-Part 2: Outlining

My writing Process--Part 2: outliningLast month I started a series on my writing process! I started this series largely because a lot of you asked for it! The first post was all about brainstorming. If you’ve read that post, you know most of my brainstorming happens in the form of freewriting. Once I’ve freewritten the story to death and I have a good idea about the characters, the world, and the general plot and storylines, it’s time to make it start to look like a book. For me, this means outlining!

Of course, not every writer is outliner. You may have heard that there are generally two schools of thought for prewriting. The planners who outline and try to work out their story first, and the pantsers, who fly by the seat of the paints and figure the story out as they go. I am definitively a planner. What I’ve come to realize is that when I write, I don’t do well when I try to do two things at once. I can’t think about the story and write the story at the same time. Outlining gives me the space to think first and write second. I’ve also learned that if I don’t know what to write next, I’m more likely to let my characters wander aimlessly, and I have a hard time staying motivated and showing up on a regular basis.

I’ve also found that I get the most out of my story if I have a series out outlines that get progressively more detailed and specific. This gives me and my story room to grow and evolve. Here’s how I approach my outlines:

1) Outline the Plot

I already have an idea of what I want the plot to look like from my freewriting stage. Now it’s time to give that plot an actual plot-like structure. My outlining starts with my favorite plot structure is this three-act structure. I like this plot structure because it focuses on consistently raising the tension in the story, which helps create a steady build to the climax. I also like it because it has more crisis points/rising actions than most plot structures I’ve come across. Thinking of my story like this helps me create a more balanced and consistent story. Here’s an example of an early plot outline from Enemy Exposure:

Plot Outline
Click to enlarge

Each important plot point gets its own color in the chart, then I briefly expand on each point around the structure. I don’t plot every storyline like this–just the main plot. That’s what ultimately drives the story, so that’s my main concern. But I do tend to have a bullet point outline for each storyline I use so I know what needs to happen and can plan accordingly when the time comes.

2) Outline the Character Arc

Once I have the plot outlined, I go back and make a second chart just like the first, only this time, it’s for my character. I look at each of the plot points I worked out in the previous outline and I figure out how they tie into my character’s development. Typically in my brainstorming, I’ve come up with one big developmental lesson I want my main character to learn. In order to maximize my plot, I try to make sure that each plot point pushes my character closer to learning this lesson.

For example, in my first book, I wanted my main character to learn to trust people, so I made sure each plot point somehow challenged her to trust the other characters more than she was generally comfortable with. I try to keep the same pacing as the plot here. So, in the beginning, the developmental challenges for my character will be relatively small and grow as the story progresses. This outline typically looks the same as the one above. For more on how I use plot and character together, check out this post!

3) Pacing Outline

Once I have the plot and character outlines done, I start to think about how these points will fit into the overall book. I want to make sure I have the crisis points evenly distributed so there’s a consistent build throughout the book. To help with that, I make a pacing outline. I typically shoot for thirty chapters in a first draft. (There’s no real reason for this–I just found that’s a good marker for me.) I take a page in my notebook and write the chapter numbers down the left side of the page. Then I go through and estimate roughly where I should hit each point of crisis. I put a small dot next to those chapter numbers. Sometimes I have to move them a chapter or two, but I try to keep it close to my original estimate.

Next, I go to each chapter and write one or two key events that happen in that chapter with a focus on building to the next plot point. I’ll also touch on key moments in my subplots, but they’re still not my primary goal. I try to keep it short, but as you’ll see, I typically have a hard time with this and end up squeezing as much as I can onto each line. Sometimes as I’m outlining, I’ll add post-its with key scenes I want to make sure I include in the final detailed outline. Here’s one of Enemy Exposure‘s pacing outlines:

Pacing Outline
Click to Enlarge

4) Detailed Outline

Now that I’ve got my story paced, it’s time to really dig in and figure out what’s going to happen in each chapter. For this outline, I get three sheets of computer paper and position them so they’re landscape. Then I fold them so I end up with six squares. Each square is a chapter. I fill the page front a back, so each piece of paper has twelve chapters. Then I go through and figure out exactly what will happen in each chapter. This is also where I start to really consider each storyline–there’s typically around five or six. I use a different colored pen for each plotline. This makes outlining more fun for me, and it also makes it easy to see if a plotline appearing consistently enough. I’ll use post-its if I want to add to a chapter or make a change based on something I work out later in the outline. Here’s some of an Enemy Exposure outline:

Detailed Outline
Click to Enlarge

A lot of times, if there’s going to be a problem in my story, I find it in the outline. It shows me if a storyline is too flat or if there’s an aspect of my characters or world I need to develop more before I write. However, there’s no substitute for actually writing the story and discovering what it is and isn’t supposed to be. If you follow me on Instagram, you know I still do a fair amount of revision. The biggest way these outlines help me is to give me a direction and a goal. They make it so every day, when I sit down to write, I know exactly what I need to do, which makes it easier to keep moving my story forward.

I hope this gives you a good idea of how I use outlining and how it may help your process!

You can find Part Three: Drafting here!

Now it’s your turn: Are you an outliner? How much outlining do you do? Tell me about it in the comments!

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When to Submit Your Book Series/Trilogy: Publishing Tips

Today’s post is for all of my book series and trilogy writers out there! I’ve always been a series girl. I love both reading them and writing them. If you ask me, there’s nothing like getting to know a group of wonderful characters and then spending multiple books with them. But if you’re writing a series, it might be hard to know when to submit your book series to an agent/editor.

Should you wait until you finish the whole series? If not, then when? And what else do you need? This post aims to cover all of that! It was also inspired by a Well Told Story commenter! (Thanks, Sarah!)

Just as a side note, this post is geared towards unpublished writers who are looking to be traditionally published for the first time. In most cases, you need an agent for traditional publishing, but some small presses don’t require an agent for submission. Because of that, I’ll be using agent and editor interchangeably.

Here’s what you need to know when the time comes to submit your book series or trilogy:

When to submit your book series

In most cases, the time to start submitting your series is after you finish the first book. At this point, you should have a strong first novel that gives you a good sense of your characters and a trajectory for your series.

Why you shouldn’t submit your book series sooner

Agents/Editors want to read your book to see what kind of writer you are before they make any offers, so you shouldn’t start querying until you’ve finished the first book. You want to make a good impression, so be sure you’re submitting your best work. This means you shouldn’t be submitting a first draft. Make sure you’ve revised and polished your book to the best of your ability! (This much is true if you’re writing a series or not. Finish your book before you submit anything!)

Why you shouldn’t submit your book series later

It may be tempting to wait until you finished your series/trilogy. This would allow you to really tighten, polish, and present a complete story for publication. However, there are two reasons why I would advise against this.

First, your editor is likely to suggest changes to your first book that will significantly impact the later books in your series. These changes can affect any (or every) aspect of your book, including character, plot, and world building. If this happens, it’s very possible you may have to change some of your plans for the series. This is a lot easier to do if you haven’t written the other books.

Second, if you are writing with a goal of publication, you need a first book or standalone to get an agent/editor. A second (or third) book won’t get you anywhere if the first book doesn’t sell, and writing those books without a contract takes valuable time away from another project that might get you an agent or editor. This doesn’t mean you can’t write the rest of the series for yourself if that’s what you want to do. But if you want to be published, I would suggest putting those plans on the back burner and focusing on a new project entirely. Otherwise, you’re putting a lot of time into something that may not get you any closer to your overall goal.

What you might want to prepare

Even though you’re not writing your complete series, you want to be prepared to discuss it with your potential agent/editor. When you go to submit, there are two things I recommend having ready:

First, a plan for the second book. A synopsis is ideal, but if you’re not a planner, try to have some plot points at the very least. Your agent may need you to become a little bit of a planner to sell the series, but they’ll tell you what they need from you when the time comes. Also, don’t feel like you have to commit to whatever you plan. Everyone involved knows that the editing process of the first book may change things, they just want to see what your vision is at this point in time.

The second thing I’d suggest having is a plan for the series. This can be more vague than the plan for book two since it’s farther down the road. Just have a good idea what key moments are going to pop up and how the series ends. That should be enough of a pitch to get you in the door, but if your agent/editor needs more from you, they’ll let you know.

It’s also worth noting that you may not need either of these things. I didn’t, but I know of authors who did. Every agent/editor is different, but I say, it’s better to be prepared than be caught off guard.

My experience

When I was first querying Crossing the Line, I had envisioned it as a trilogy. I’d read some agents asked for a synopsis of book two, so I wrote one, but never ended up needing it. I told my agent it was a part of a planned trilogy and the rough direction when we first spoke. Then when my publisher showed interest, they asked if I’d be open to keeping the books more episodic so the series could be longer than three books if we wanted.  I hadn’t considered anything but a trilogy since I’d finished the first book, but now that it was suggested to me, it made perfect sense.

Ultimately, the sales were only good enough for two books, but I’m still really glad this was the direction we went in. The trilogy was a different story. Thinking of the books a series led me to the story that was meant to be told. I didn’t need to submit any plans for the series to my editor, but that’s likely because I was being asked to change my plans and they knew I didn’t have it figured out yet.

Bonus tip

If you can, do your best not to end your first book on a cliffhanger. This doesn’t mean every single storyline has to be tied up. (Mine wasn’t!) It just means that it would be best if no one’s life is hanging in the balance and if the plot that was the most pressing in this book is tied up. There can still be plenty of loose threads to set up the next book, but it’s typically an easier sell if your agent can say your book is part of a planned series, but also stands alone. It gives your potential publisher options, which they like.

I hope this helps you submit your book series!

For more on querying an agent, check out my querying series! You can find the first post here.

Now it’s your turn: If you have experience submitting a series/trilogy, when did you submit your book series? What did agents and editors ask from you? If you don’t, what plans do you have? Tell me about it in the comments!

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The Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing

The Pros and Cons of Traditional PublishingIn 2014, I sold my YA book series to Philomel, which is an imprint of Penguin Books for Young Readers. I knew pretty early on my writing life that I didn’t have the skillset for self-publishing, so it was traditional or bust for me. Four years and two books later, I’ve seen the traditional publishing world from the inside, and while it may not before everyone, it was definitely the right place for me. But, there are a lot of pros and cons of being traditionally published. So, if you’re on the fence and trying to decide if traditional publishing is worth the wait and the work, I created this post to help!

Here’s what I see as the top pros and cons of being traditionally published.

PROS

Larger distribution

Traditional publishers have deals in place with major and independent bookstores and retailers. They have the means and the connections to get your book into the hands of booksellers who can, in turn, get your book to your readers. The internet has made it easier than ever for self-published authors to get their books into the world, but it’s still a challenge for those authors to get their books into a physical store. And trust me when I say, browsing a bookstore in another state and finding your book on the shelf is pretty damn cool!

Get paid up front

I don’t have to tell you how many unpaid hours of work writers endure. If you’re anything like me, you may spend at least a year writing your book. And during that time, you probably put a lot of time and resources into your project knowing you may never see a return on it. This is why it’s really nice to sign a contract and get a check in the mail before your book even has a cover. How much you get will vary based on the specifics of your deal, but if you’re traditionally published, you will get something up front.

Also worth noting: You may have heard that since this is an advance on royalties, a publisher can ask for this money back if your book’s sales don’t earn your advance back. This is true, but also incredibly rare. In my experience, this only tends to happen if you violate your contract in some way. Otherwise, you get to keep the money. It’s seen as a good-faith gesture since you did, in fact, do work for the publisher. However, you won’t get any more money on your project unless you earn out.

A professional team (that you don’t have to pay for)

If you want an editor, proofreader, or cover artist as a self-published writer, you have to find and pay people to do these things for you. That can get both expensive and time consuming. But if you’re traditionally published, you don’t have to worry about any of that! Your publisher has a staff of professional editors, proofreaders, and graphic artists who will take on the task of physically producing the book. They will handle everything from creating your cover to obtaining an ISBN number to registering your copyright with the Library of Congress. You don’t have to sweat the details! They are pros and they’ve got you covered!

Marketing and sales support

Traditional publishing means you aren’t alone in selling your book! Publishers have entire sales and marketing department whose job it is to market their titles–including yours! Of course, how much support you get will vary, and no matter what, you definitely have to do your share of promotion. But if you ask me, it’s still better than going at it alone.

Credentials

More doors will open for you if you are a traditionally published author than a self-published one. This may not be fair, but it’s true. Traditional publishers are not easy to get into, so being picked up by one is a sign of talent to many. Granted, this may not be true if you’re a self-published author with truly outstanding sales and/or readership–there are exceptions to every rule. But by and large, having your book picked up by a major publisher will get you opportunities that self-publishing won’t.

CONS

Less of a say in everything

Remember that cover art that you didn’t have to pay for? Well, since you’re not paying for it, you also don’t get that much of a say in it. So, if you hate it, you may also be stuck with it if you’re traditionally published. Now, in my experience, publishers do want their authors to be happy, so if you truly hate your cover, there can be a discussion, but they ultimately get the final say. This is true in nearly every aspect of book production. Since your publisher is the one taking on the financial responsibility of publishing the book, they also get to make a bulk of the production decisions.

Contracted deadlines

If you’re traditionally published, you will have a deadline that you have to meet. Sometimes there’s wiggle room, but sometimes there isn’t. Publishers have a production schedule for all the books they put out. If you are late turning in your book, you will mess up the production schedule. This means your book won’t be ready by the scheduled release date (among other things). So if you’re traditionally published, you have to meet your deadlines, which can be intense and stressful.

Only get a fraction of each sale

When you self-publish, you get all (or nearly all) of the proceeds of your book. If you’re traditionally published, you get a small fraction of the sale. That’s largely because there are a lot more people to pay. The publisher, who put out the money to make your book, gets a cut. The bookseller, who is getting your book to readers, gets a cut. And you get your cut. Again, how much you get can vary, but as far as I know, 10%-12% is typically standard.

You might not be a priority

Publishing houses can be big, busy places. They have a lot of books and authors. You may not be a priority. Whereas, if you’re self-publishing and sending emails to your editor or cover artist, you’re more likely to be a priority to them since you’re paying them directly.

Barrier to entry

This is the biggest and most obvious con. It is not easy to get into traditional publishing. First, you need to get an agent, which can very well take years. Then your agent needs to get interest from editors. And just because your book was good enough to get you an agent, that doesn’t guarantee that an editor will want to buy it. If they do, they then have to convince their publisher that your book is a good investment. If they don’t, you need to write another book so you and your agent will try again. It can be a long process, so be prepared for it!

I hope this gives you a good sense of the pros and cons of traditional publishing!

With all of that said, don’t give up on traditional publishing if it’s what you want. I’m really glad I stuck with it and I wouldn’t want to do things any differently.

Now it’s your turn: What are your thoughts on traditional publishing? Tell me about it in the comments! And if you have any experience, please share that too!

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How to Find the Best Title for Your Novel: 8 Writing Tips

Finding the Right Title for your NovelBook titles! They’re such a small part of the overall product and word count, but they carry so much weight! A good title can pull your readers in and make them want to pick up your book, while a bad title will do the opposite. But finding the perfect title for your novel can be really challenging! And when you consider how important your title is, it can start to mess with your head. So much so that it might be hard to know where to start.

With that in mind, here are eight tips that I’ve found ridiculously helpful for finding the best title for your novel.

1) Do your title last

The best titles encompass a core theme of your book or main character. Often times, I’ve found that I have to make it to the final draft before I really know my book well enough to understand what I’m writing about. Now, I’m not saying that you can’t/shouldn’t do some light thinking and drop in a working title early on. If you want to, go for it! But I wouldn’t suggest giving your title a ton of your time or brain power until you’re totally finished your book and genuinely need a title. Once you reach that point, you’re playing with a full deck of cards, which will make it that much easier to come up with a killer title for your novel.

Of course, sometimes the perfect title just comes to you, and when that happens you should absolutely run with it!

2) Make a list of themes and related words

Once you finish your book and know what it’s about, make a list of themes, key events, and any related words. Then see if there’s a phrase that can capture one of your themes or events. This was how I came up with Crossing the Line. In the book, my main character makes the jump from working with the bad guys to working with the good guys. That’s the biggest line that’s crossed in the book, but there are a handful of other smaller ones too. So thematically, I think it works on a few different levels, which makes it a very fitting title for the book.

3) Use a thesaurus

If you have your word list, but can’t find a good phrase or combination, run those words through a thesaurus. This is a great way to work your theme into your title in a way that stands out. It’s one of my favorite title tricks. It’s also how I came up with Enemy Exposure, which as a title, I think stands out more than Crossing the Line. When I google Enemy Exposure all of the search results are my book, and that’s definitely not the case with Crossing the Line. (Not that I would change anything, because like I said, Crossing the Line is a fitting title. It’s just something to think about.)

4) Consider alliterations, internal rhymes, and other literary/poetic devices

You want your title to be memorable. One way to do that is to make your title satisfying to read. Literary and poetic devices are great for this. They make your title easy for your reader to recall and pass on, which can help grow your readership down the line. Here’s a list of poetic literary devices to help you out!

5) Look to other titles you like for inspiration

If you’re really struggling, look to your books shelves. What titles do you really love? Why do you like them? What about them do you want to mimic?

6) Consider your main character

Think about your character’s journey and what they go through in your book. Make a list like you did for your themes and key events. Is there anything that stands out? Is there anything you can put through the thesaurus?

7) Use a key line from your book

When you were writing your book, did you have a moment where you wrote a sentence and thought, “That’s it! This is what the book is about!”? If you did, can you modify that sentence for the title? Or is there a line that you overlooked that could work as a solid title? Maybe this is just me, but I get nerdily excited when I’m reading a book and there’s a sentence that basically has the title written out.

Or maybe you had to cut a line that you really loved because it just didn’t fit. Could you salvage that darling by reworking it into a title? (This is a trick I learned from a flash fiction class, but I think it applies pretty well to any type of writing.)

8) Don’t put too much pressure on it

As important as the title is, it also isn’t something that should keep you from submitting your book if you’re at that stage. You should absolutely give your title a lot of thought, but if you’ve been thinking about it hard for more than a week, it’s holding you back. At that point, I would suggest picking a working title and setting your book free. Because yes, the title is important. But it’s also really easy to change. If you have a title that you think is “good enough” hit submit–even if you think it can be better. If you’re trying to get an agent or an editor, it’s doubtful that your title will be the reason you don’t land one. If an agent/editor likes your writing, they will help you come up with a better title if need be.

I hope this helps you find the best title for your novel!

Now it’s your turn: How do you come up with a title for your novel? Is there any tip or trick that’s helped you? Tell me about it in the comments!

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How to Determine the Genre of Your Novel

how to determine the right genre for your novelIf you want to publish your book or attempt to sell it in any capacity, you need to know your book’s genre. A genre is essentially the type of book you’re writing. Is it a comedy, a contemporary, a fantasy, a science fiction, etc? You don’t have to worry too much about your genre while you’re writing your book but when it comes time to try to sell it, you’re going to need to know who your book appeals to. Agents often have a list of genres that they work with, and editors have a list of genre’s that they like to work on.

Your book may have a lot going on, so narrowing it down to a couple categories might be challenging. If you’ve ever struggled to figure out what type of book you’re writing, this post is here to help!

1) Genre is different from age group

First, let’s talk about what genre isn’t. Genre isn’t the age group you’re writing for. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked someone what genre they write and they give me the age group they write for instead. Age group and genre are often said together, so it’s easy to think they’re the same, but they’re not. For example, my books are young adult spy/thrillers. Young adult is the age group I write for. Spy and thriller are the genres. 

With that said, it’s important to know your age group too since it’s just as much of a selling point as the genre. The primary age groups are picture book, chapter book (early readers), middle grade (ages 9-12), young adult (ages 13-18), and adult (ages 18+). There’s also new adult, but which is designed to bridge the gap between young adult and adult, but it’s a lot less common. Generally speaking, you determine the age of your book based on the age of your main character.

2) Choose a primary genre

When you pick your primary genre, you’re identifying the most prominent elements of your book. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you chose the right genre. You may have a handful of these elements in your book and that’s okay! But when for the sake of picking a primary genre, try to focus on the most dominant aspects of your novel.

Is there magic?

If the answer is yes, then you book is most likely a fantasy. If your book is a fantasy, is it set it in a fictional world that you created from scratch (like Lord of the Rings)? Then you probably have a high fantasy. If not, is your book’s world built into our own world? If it is, then your book is most likely an urban fantasy.

It could also be that your book is a fairy tale/ fairy tale retelling, which is a more specific type of fantasy. Did you base your book and/or magic off a fairy tale or folklore? If you did, then you might want to classify your book as such.

Are there paranormal creatures (such as vampires, zombies, etc)?

If there are, then it could be a fantasy, or it could be a supernatural/paranormal. Fantasy and paranormal are closely related and share some overlap, so it comes down to what is the more dominant element. To me, I would say if the magic is the more dominant element, then you have a fantasy. If the creatures are the more dominant element, then it’s supernatural.

So if you look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter, both have some forms of ghosts, vampires, and magic. But I would say Buffy is more defined by the Vampires and creatures of the night than magic, so it’s more supernatural. While Harry Potter is more defined by magic, which makes it more fantasy. However, since there are elements of these genre’s that overlap, you have some flexibility. Just make sure you do your research.

When is it set?

If it’s set in the past, it’s probably a historical fiction. If it’s set in the present, you’ve got a contemporary and if it’s set in the future, it’s probably science fiction.

Where is it set?

If it’s set in this world, it might be a historical or contemporary. If it’s set in a world you made up, it might be some kind of fantasy or science fiction.

Is there manipulated science/technology?

In this case, I’m talking a significant manipulation of the science we know today. If there is, then it’s likely to be science fiction. Don’t include minor manipulations. For example, in my books, I created a drug that’s pretty central to my character. However, it’s also a drug that could believably exist today, so I don’t consider that a significant manipulation, and I don’t consider my book to be science fiction. However, if you were to write a book about time travel, then you could consider it science fiction.

The rest of the questions are a little more straightforward:

Is there an element of mystery/crime to solve?

If yes, then it could be a mystery. But make sure this is the biggest aspect of your book before you classify it as a mystery. A lot of books have an element of mystery to them. Mysteries are a great way to propel your plot forward, but you should only classify your book as a mystery if that’s the main purpose of your plot.

Is it laugh-out-loud funny?

If it is, then you’ve got a comedy

Is it a tear-jerker or a book with a lot of interpersonal conflicts?

Then it’s probably some form of drama.

Is there a romance?

Like with mystery, a lot of books have some element of romance to them. However, you should only classify your book as a romance if the romance is a central plot of the book.

Is it intended to scare?

Then you’ve got a horror.

Is it “literary”?

If it’s a deep book, rich with symbolism and deeper meaning that’s meant to be dissected an analyzed than you most likely have written a work of literary fiction.

Is it action packed?

If your book is littered with action scenes like fights and car chases, then you have an action or thriller on your hands.

Is it about a terrible version of this world(The Hunger Games, Divergent, The 100)?

Then you’re looking at a dystopian.

Odds are, you answered yes to at least a few of these questions. Now it’s up to you to decide which elements you think are the strongest/most prominent. That’s your primary genre.

3) Choose a secondary genre

You may or may not need to choose a secondary genre so this step is entirely up to you. If you found that you had a hard time choosing between two genres for your primary genre, you may want to pick a second classification. A book series like The Lord of the Rings can simply be classified as a fantasy, but a time travel show like Timeless, could be considered both historical and science fiction. This is your call. However, more than two genres can be overwhelming so I wouldn’t suggest any more than that.

4) Do your research

Even if you are a lifelong fan of the genre you’re writing, make sure you do your research and have a good understanding of genre conventions. Readers of each genre have certain expectations. While you can most definitely take some liberties, you want to make sure you’re giving your readers what they’re looking for.

I hope this helps you determine the right genre for your novel!

Now it’s your turn: Do you determine your book’s genre before you write or after? Have you ever had a hard time figuring out your book’s genre? What made it challenging and/or how did you figure it out?  Tell me about it in the comments!

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How to Treat Writing Like Your Job Before It Is

Treat Writing Like a Job Before it IsIf one of your writing goals is to be published, the sooner you start to treat writing like your job, the better off you will be.

I started treating writing like my job in grad school. To be fair, at that point, it kind of was my job since I was getting graded, but once I started that habit, it carried over into my post-grad life. I believe it’s a massive reason why I’m published and why I can handle it.

So today, I’m going to talk about how it can be beneficial to treat writing like your job, how it helped me, and give you some tips to help you do the same.

The benefits:

It builds good habits

You get used to showing up at your computer or notebook on a regular basis. If you want to be paid for your writing someday, you will have to meet deadlines. To meet those deadlines, you often have to show up even when you don’t always feel like it. The sooner you can get used to that idea, the more habitual it will be and the easier it will become.

It ups your productivity

I don’t think this needs a ton of explanation. When you show up on a regular basis, you will get more done! Sure, some days will be harder than others, but even a little bit of progress on a bad day is better than not writing at all. I also found that writing got a lot more fun for me once I saw consistent progress.

It helps protect your writing time

When you treat writing like a job, it makes it easier to protect your time and say no to others. If you asked someone for a favor but they had to work, they wouldn’t hesitate to say no. If you start thinking of writing as your job and framing it that way to others, it will be easier to say no to things. Because you do have to work. (I wrote a post on Saying No to Others if you need more tip on this.)

It makes transitioning into publishing more manageable

Like we said earlier, if you want to be published, you will have to meet deadlines. Those deadlines will be easier to meet if you’re already in the habit of scheduling your writing time and committing to that schedule. It’s pretty common for writers to spend years working on their first published book. No one is waiting on it, so you can take all the time you need. But once you sell that book, you’ll have a pretty serious deadline for revisions. And if you’ve sold more than one book, you’ll have to write an entire book from start to finish in a fraction of a time that it took you to write the first.

Personally, I found meeting publishing deadlines to be (for the most part) a lot easier than I was expecting. There were some parts I had to adjust to, but as a whole, it was a relatively smooth transition. I’m pretty sure this was because I was already used to the idea that writing was my job and that deadlines had to be met.

It forces you to take your goals seriously

The moment I decided to treat writing like my job was the moment I writing went from a fun side project to a career goal. It made me more dedicated and determined. I also found that once I took my goals more seriously, it either made others take my goals seriously, or helped me to tune out the people who didn’t.

How to make it happen:

Make a schedule and commit

When you have a ‘real job’ you have a regularly scheduled time to report and tasks to complete. If you’re treating writing like your job, then it’s going to need its own schedule and set of tasks. Pick a time of day that you can show up to your story on a regular basis. Maybe it means getting up a half hour earlier, staying up a half hour later, or writing through your lunch break. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time if you’re just starting out, just make sure it’s consistent.

Something else to keep in mind: while we are treating writing like a job, it’s important to remember that writing isn’t necessarily like other jobs. Some days, the brainpower and creativity just aren’t there. On days like that, I still encourage you to show up at your computer or notebook, if that’s part of your plan. Even if you can’t meet your goals, do what you can to keep that time commitment to yourself. Find a way to take a step forward, even if it’s only a small one. For more on how to commit to your writing, check out this post!

Set manageable goals

It’s okay if you treat writing like a part-time job instead of a full-time one. The point is to take your writing time and production as seriously as you would if someone were paying you to do so. However, you shouldn’t run yourself into the ground in the process. Small sacrifices are one thing, but you shouldn’t be killing yourself to make your writing dreams a reality. It’s unhealthy and unsustainable. It’s really hard to be a happy writer if you’ve spread yourself too thin, so set goals you can reasonably accomplish. Once you do break into publishing, you might be able to cut back on other obligations to get more time, but for now, build the habit. It’s easier to expand a habit you already have than to start from scratch.

For more on this topic, check out these posts: How to Set Manageable Writing Goals and The Importance of Setting Reasonable Writing Goals.

Hold yourself accountable (or find someone who will)

If this were a normal job, there would be a boss, someone above you waiting for your work. Someday, that will be your agent, editor, and publisher. For now, that boss is going to have to be you. If you’re someone who is good at holding yourself accountable this might not be too hard. Personally, I get a lot of satisfaction out of sticking to a schedule, but that might not be you. If that’s the case, then find a friend who will check in on your regularly. Then come up with a system. Maybe you have to report your word count or (if they’re a good early draft reader) send them pages. If you can find another writer, you can support each other and hold each other accountable.

Work “Out”

If you have the option of leaving home to write, give it a shot. I’ve found that this creates the feeling of “going to work” and helps me stay focused once I get there. I also know of writers who made it a habit of stopping a cafe for a half hour or so on their way home from work. They knew once they got home, the writing wouldn’t get done, so they found another option. If you want more on this topic, I did a whole post on the benefits of writing out.

I hope this gives you a good idea of why you should treat writing like your job and how to make it happen!

Now it’s your turn: What helps you take your writing seriously? Have you ever tried to treat writing like your job before? Tell me about it in the comments!

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How to Write a Book Synopsis: 5 Awesome Writing Tips

Writing a Book SynopsisThe dreaded book synopsis! It seems like this is the least favorite part of the submission package for so many writers. I have a few tips to help, but first, let’s talk about what exactly a book synopsis is.

A book synopsis is a brief summary of your story from start to finish. It tells an agent or editor exactly what they can expect if they take the time to invest in your book. The actual length of the synopsis can vary, but mine have been about a page and a half on average. I’ve never had one more than two pages but some can be.

As far as how to write and format a synopsis, YA author Melissa Meyer has an awesome explanation complete with examples. I feel like this is a pretty good guide, so instead of giving a synopsis guide of my own, I’ll share five tips that have helped me make this process as painless as possible.

1) Focus on the 5 Ws in your introduction

Who, What, Where, When, and Why are classics for a reason. They cut to the chase and pull your reader into the story. Take advantage of them! However, if it’s too much, or too challenging to fit everything into your intro paragraph, you can probably get away with stretching into the second paragraph. By the end of the second paragraph, all of these questions should be answered.

2) For your plot, only focus on your major plot line

Narrowing down storylines is always a challenge for me. There’s a lot going on in my books and everything feels important. But if you try to mention every important storyline, your synopsis will be entirely too long and difficult to follow. To simply things, put your focus on your main plotline, and limit adding details about any of the others. With that said, it’s okay to hit at another storyline if it impacts your main plot. Just avoid getting swept up in details. Give your reader only what they need to know in order to understand the main storyline.

3) For character, only focus on your main character

Like your plot, you want to keep the focus on your main character. That doesn’t mean you can’t include other characters, but they need to be characters who are essential to progressing your main plot and your main character. A synopsis is short, so the more characters you add, the more confusing it will read. If there’s a character who is only important for one or two plot points, don’t give their name, give a descriptor instead. For example, “the CEO” or “the teacher”. This keeps the focus on your main character and prevents reader confusion.

4) Don’t get bogged down in specifics

The key is to keep the synopsis moving. Even if you’re limiting your focus on your main plot and main character, you shouldn’t go into every detail. For example, maybe there’s a complicated series of events that lead your characters from Plot Point A to Plot Point B. You don’t have to go into the details of those events. You can simply say something like, “After a complicated series of events, Main Character makes it to the other side of the mountain.” This way you’re connecting plot points without slowing your reader down.

5) Give away the ending, but don’t give away everything

One thing that’s always emphasized in synopsis guidelines is the fact that you’re supposed to give away the ending. And that’s true. However, going off the previous point, you don’t have to give away every single detail about the ending, nor do you have to give away every twist and turn that gets us to the ending. I suggest using points two and three as guides. Make sure you take your reader through the climactic moment of your main plot and your character development, but it’s okay if you hold back details that are non-essential to understanding those storylines.

Bonus: Try writing the synopsis before you write the book

Now, this is a bonus tip because I find this helpful, but it also slightly goes against traditional advice.

In most cases, if you’re writing a synopsis for a book you want to submit to an agent, you’re supposed to wait until you finish the book to write it. However, I find it easier to write a synopsis before I write the book. Once I’ve written the book, I have a much harder time narrowing the focus to the main plot and what really matters. Everything feels important. But when I write the synopsis before I write the book, I have haven’t developed the book enough to write more than the main plot and the character. This approach is done more traditionally when a synopsis is part of a submission package for a book that hasn’t been written yet, as explained by Melissa Meyer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write the synopsis ahead of time even if you plan on writing the complete book.

Granted, I always have to revise my synopsis based how the book looks when I’ve finished writing it, but I’ve found it much easier to shape an in-progress synopsis than to completely start from scratch. So, if you’ve struggled with writing a synopsis in the past, maybe try to do a draft of a synopsis as an early brainstorming technique, then come back and revise later.

I hope this helps you write an awesome book synopsis!

For more information on agent submission, check out my three-part querying series: How to Write a Query Letter, How to Query an Agent, and How I Got My Agent.

Now it’s your turn: What has your experience with a book synopsis been? Do you love them or hate them? Tell me about it in the comments! If you have any tips, please share those too!

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How I Got My Agent: My Successful Querying Story

Querying: How I got my agentWelcome to Part Three of my three-part querying series! ICYMI: Here’s Part One: How to Write a Successful Query Letter and Part Two: How to Query a Literary Agent. This time, I’m going to tell you all about how I got my agent.

These stories meant a lot to me when I was querying, so it only seems right that I share my own. A shorter version of this story can be found on the Writer’s Digest blog. There was a lot I couldn’t fit into that post, so this is an expanded and more query-centric version.

Post-High School Querying

If you’ve read my story, you know I wrote my first book in high school. It was a YA fantasy. I spent the end of my senior year editing, determined to have a “polished” book by graduation, so I could spend the summer querying. I used AgentQuery.com to research agents I thought would be a good fit for me, built a list of between fifteen to thirty agents (I don’t remember exactly), and sent my letters out in two or three rounds. At this point, agents were just starting to accept email queries so most fo my letters went out via USPS with a self-addressed stamped envelope for a response. It took all summer just to send those first letters and hear back.

Since almost everything went out snail mail, it also got expensive pretty quickly–especially when sample pages were involved. Which is why I didn’t query too much beyond the summer. In addition to the expense, but I also started to realize that the book could be a lot better. I didn’t get any requests, so after the summer, I pulled it back. Even though I didn’t get anywhere close to getting an agent, I learned a lot about the querying process, which was really helpful down the line.

Post-College Querying

I wrote a new book in college that was set in the same world as my previous book. This one felt so much better from the start. I used the beginning of the book to get into my MFA program, where I workshopped it until I had a draft I was really happy with. There were still a few sections that I thought could be stronger (especially toward the beginning) but it was the absolute best I could do at the time. I pulled on everything I’d learned from my first querying experience and combined it with what I was learning in my MFA program and got querying. (This was when I found QueryTracker.com.)

In the end, I queried this book twice. First in the fall of 2011. I had a working list of agents when I started, but I was always looking to add more. I found a query tip somewhere (I can’t remember exactly where) that suggested looking in a book’s acknowledgment section for names since most authors thank their agents there. So I flipped through a bunch of books I had read recently and found two of the authors were represented by Michelle Wolfson. I added her to my list.

Michelle has a “no response means no” policy, so she only responds if she likes your query. When she responded to mine I was thrilled. Ultimately, she wasn’t making a request, but she was very encouraging while pointing at a few issues in the book that resonated with me. She also asked me to keep her in mind for the future if this book didn’t get me an agent. She may have been passing on my book, but I felt like she saw what I was trying to do even though I wasn’t actually pulling it off yet. Because of that, she became my first choice for my future agent. I also pulled the book back to revise based on her feedback.

I spent the next nine months revising it on and off while I worked on my thesis project for school. I started querying again in the summer of 2012 while I wrote Crossing the Line. Michelle was closed to queries at this point, so I never got to go back to her with the revision. I got a couple requests for the updated version, but no offers. I queried this book until Crossing the Line was polished and ready to submit, which was mid-September of 2013.

The Numbers: 126 agents queried, 2 requests, 1 promising rejection, 0 offers

Querying Crossing the Line

When I started querying Crossing the Line, Michelle was my first choice thanks to her previous rejection. But she was also still closed to queries. I didn’t follow agents on social media when I was querying–I didn’t want to be that attached–but I followed Michelle. I had a good feeling about her and I didn’t want to miss when she opened back up again. In the meantime, I went back through the list of agents I’d cultivated and started at the top again while I wrote a new book. Six weeks into querying, Michelle opened and I sent my letter off right away. She got back to me within a couple hours asking for more pages.

One of the reasons I liked Michelle from the start is that she’s very upfront with what you can expect from her. She tells you right in her submissions guidelines that she typically responds to queries very quickly and partials very slowly. This turned out to be accurate. Michelle also mentioned how long I should wait before following up. I followed up with her every few months until the last Thursday in June when her response said my partial was her subway reading for that afternoon. Later that night, I got another email from her asking to read the whole book.

I sent it off, excited, but also expecting it to be a little while until I heard from her. (By now, I had gotten good at waiting.) The following Tuesday morning, my phone rang. It was a number I didn’t recognize, and I had my hands full straining chickpeas, so I didn’t pick up. A beat after the phone stopped ringing I realized who it might be. Sure enough, Michelle had left a voicemail saying she loved my book and asking me to call her back. I called back before I could think too much about it. (I was ready to do some research on what it might mean and what questions I should ask, but I refrained.) We had a great call and I was officially a represented author.

The Numbers: 111 agents queried, 2 requests, 1 offer and acceptance.

Why I Said ‘Yes’ on the Spot

As you can see, I queried a lot of agents and didn’t get many requests. Even with that, I didn’t say yes to Michelle because she was the only one who offered. I said yes because I believed she was the best agent for me. She saw something in the first book I queried her with when very few did. Additionally, the things she felt weren’t quite right with that book were also things that had bothered me–I just wasn’t able to put my finger on them. This made me feel like we’d be in sync and make a good team. I also really liked that she responded to two very different books. I’ve always known that I’d want to write in a few different genres, so it was encouraging to know going in that she’d had some interest in two different stories.

At the time, all I had out with other agents were query letters. Between our exchanges and my gut instinct, I was sure Michelle was the agent for me. So much so that I felt giving the agents who had my letters a chance to read my book and make an offer would have been wasting their time. Ultimately, this just felt right to me–even in my overexcited state. I have no regrets.

So, that’s how I got my agent!

This concludes our querying series! In case you missed the others, here’s Part One: How to Write a Query Letter and Part Two: How to Query A Literary Agent.

If there’s anything about my personal querying journey you want to know more about, feel free to drop it the comments or send me a message.

Now it’s your turn: If you’ve queried in the past, what did you learn that’s helped you going forward? If you haven’t queried before, what are you anxious or excited about? Let me know in the comments! You can also let me know what you’d like to see covered more in the future.

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How to Query a Literary Agent: 11 Steps

How to Query a Literary AgentHere’s Part Two of my Querying series! (Find Part One: How to Write a Query Letter here and Part Three: How I Got My Agent here) This post is focused on the querying process and how to query a literary agent. I’m going to share my personal querying/how I got my agent story in the next post.

For this process, I’m going to focus on how to query a literary agent because that’s what I have experience with. But if you’re approaching a small publisher, the process is going to be similar when querying an editor.

First, you should not be considering querying until your book is as finished and as polished as you can get it. (If you’ve got a series or trilogy and aren’t sure when to submit, check out this post!) Assuming you’ve reached that point, let’s take a look at how to query a literary agent.

1) Write a query letter that captures what your book is about

Before you query a literary agent, you have to write a query letter. I talked all about this in my How to Write a Query Letter post. That’s is where this process starts!

2) Do your research and build a list of possible agents

When you go to query a literary agent, you need to make sure you’re submitting to someone who is right for your book. The publishing market is broken down by age group (children’s, middle grade, young adult, adult) and genre (fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, contemporary, thriller, historical fiction, etc). Agents typically specialize in a few of these categories, but not all. So if you’ve written a middle grade fantasy, you need to make sure you’re submitting to agents that represent both middle grade and fantasy.

Here are to resources to help you build a list of potential agents:

QueryTracker.com: Once you make a (free) account on this site, you can search agents and filter them by age group and genre. They also include an agent’s website, email, social media handles, and an overview of how each agent prefers to be contacted. It’s also kept pretty up to date. This was my number one resource for keeping track of agents.

AgentQuery.com: This site has even more information that Query Tracker, but isn’t kept as up to date (which is why I didn’t use it as much). But you might want to cross-reference them–if you’re into that kind of thing. 🙂

There are hundreds (thousands?) of agents on these sites. Take some time to read through and visit websites, then make a list of your top ten, then twenty others you really like. You may need more but thirty should be good to get you started.

You can also try reading the acknowledgments of books you like/think your book is similar to. Most authors thank their agents, so you can find some names and look them up. (This is how I found my agent!)

3) Take note of submission guidelines and follow them!

When it comes time to query a literary agent, following the directions is critical. As much as the databases are good for finding agents, they may not always be current. You should always go to their actual websites to check submissions guidelines. Some agents will just want a query, some will want the query and sample pages pasted into the body of the email, some will want the partial attached. Whatever they ask, DO EXACTLY AS THEY SAY!!

Agents get a lot of queries, and they don’t have an excess of time. If you don’t follow the submission guidelines, you become someone they definitely don’t want to work with. It also may take them longer to sort through your submission, which again, isn’t something they really have time for. If you want to make a good first impression, follow the submission guidelines as closely as possible. The only place you have a little wiggle room is with the sample pages. If they ask for 10 pages, but your chapter (or a good stopping point) ends on page 11 or 12, then it’s usually okay to add the extra pages. But don’t abuse this. The agent you’re querying won’t appreciate it.

4) Get a dedicated query email address

Before you query a literary agent, I suggest setting up an email address just for querying. It should be professional, ideally with some variation of your name. This will become your future author email.

I also made sure it was a separate email client than my personal email, that way if I had the app on my phone, I would know that if I got that notification it was a query response. This meant I wasn’t constantly refreshing my email. If an email came through, it would find me. (Though I did check in online roughly every other week if I hadn’t heard from anyone in a while, in case of technology/notification fail.)

5) Start sending out letters

It’s time!!

Start with your top ten agents. Address your query. Follow the submission guidelines. Take a breath. And hit send.

I would suggest sticking with ten open queries at a time. You might get feedback from an agent at some point and want to make changes to your manuscript. If you sent the original out to everyone at once, then you have no one left to send your new and improved manuscript to. You also have to keep track of all the queries you send in case you get an offer and want to get in touch with an agent who has an open query (more on that later). This will be a lot harder and a lot more work if you have a ton of queries open. So I say start with ten. Then every time you close out a query, send a new one out.

6) Know what outcomes to expect

Before you query a literary agent, it’s a good idea to be prepared fo the most likely outcomes.

The good:

An agent likes your letter/sample pages and asks for more! (Yay!!) Some agents will go right ahead and ask you to send the entire manuscript. Others may ask for a partial, which is usually between 50-100 pages–the agent will tell you how much to send. DO WHAT THEY ASK!! Like submission guidelines, it’s usually okay to send a few more pages if it’s a better stopping point, but don’t go crazy. If they ask for 50 and you send 100, it’s starting things off on the wrong foot. Traditionally, if an agent asks for a full/partial, they’re expecting them within 24 hours. Which is why it’s really important to have your book finished before you start querying.

The in-between:

If an agent likes what they see, but think you/the project are not quite ready yet, they may tell you to keep them in mind for the future. File this agent away! It may not be the ‘yes’ you were looking for, but it’s still a good thing! It means they see something in you! (Also, this was what led me to my agent.)

The not-so-good:

An agent doesn’t want to read more of your book. (Sad face!) You’ll find this out in one of two ways. Some agents have a “no response means no” policy, which means if they don’t respond to your query, you can assume it’s a no. These agents will usually tell you right in their submission guidelines if this is the case. They’ll also let you know that after X weeks, you should consider them a pass (six weeks seems to be the average in my experience). The second way you’ll find out is with a rejection letter. These are usually form letters that say some variation of “Thanks so much for considering me, but I’m going to have to pass on this project. I wish you the best of luck.” Which leads me to number 7…

7) Reframe your thoughts on rejection

Rejection can be pretty disappointing–especially if you query a literary agent you really like and they end up passing on your book. But when you query a literary agent, rejection is a very likely outcome, and it’s important to be prepared for it. I had queried three books before I got my agent. You would think that at some point this would have started to get discouraging, but I found that the more I queried, the less rejection bothered me. I eventually realized that by the third time through, I had started to think about rejection differently.

First:

I realized that I didn’t want to get an agent (or to be published) because I wanted to be validated as a writer. I write because it makes me happy. No one has to validate that for me. I wanted an agent because I loved to write so much that I wanted writing to be my job. As much as it may have sucked to hear that my book wasn’t wanted, I had to believe that in the long run, it was for the best. If an agent didn’t LOVE what I’d written, I couldn’t imagine they’d be able to put me in the best position to succeed.

It may be hard to see past getting an agent when you’re querying, but the fact that you’re looking for agent tells me that you’re probably not just looking to publish a single book. You’re most likely looking to build a life and career. If that’s the case, you deserve someone who loves your work and who will do everything they can to put you in the best possible situation, book after book.

Second:

When you only have ten letters out at a time, that means that there are a whole bunch of agents who haven’t had the chance to read your book yet. The agent who is the right fit for you could be out there and you just haven’t sent the email! Once I knew I wanted an agent who loved my writing (and got used to the idea that rejections came from agents I didn’t want), I started seeing every rejection as an opportunity. Each rejection gave me a chance to contact a new agent who might be The One. And if that one turned me down, it would still give me another opportunity to send another letter.

Clearly, I’m really good at manipulating myself into seeing the glass half full, but thinking about things this way really helped me! It also really helped to understand why I wanted to be published. Only you can decide why you want to be published, but I would encourage you to find a reason other than validation. I truly believe you will be happier if you do. If you want to see more thoughts on rejection, I talk a little about it in my Redefining Failure post.

8) Keep good records

As you’re building your list and going through this process, you’re going to find that every agent/agency has a slightly different procedure. Some will say if you don’t get a response it’s a no. Others will say if you don’t get a response after six weeks, flow up or resend your letter. Some will ask for a partial and say if you don’t hear anything in two months follow-up. Some will ask for a full. You need to keep track of who you queried, when you queried them, if they responded, and if they asked for more. You need to know who has your work.

I suggest a spreadsheet! Here’s a screenshot of mine.

Query Speadsheet

My columns are: agent, their agency, date I sent the query, if they responded (an X for I got a “no” response, and O for closed/no response), when six weeks would be up (or when I should consider the query closed–six weeks is average but some are shorter or longer), and if I needed to follow up if I hadn’t heard from them. Then when I sent a query out, I’d highlight the row in green so I knew it was active. I took the highlight away when I closed it. If an agent asked for a partial, I highlighted it in blue and made a note of when I sent it and when I should follow up.

9) Follow up if/when it’s appropriate

Some agents will say it’s okay to follow up on a query if you haven’t heard from them after X weeks. You should absolutely do this–just make sure you wait until after the time frame they’ve given you. Also, nearly every agent I encountered encouraged a following up if they haven’t gotten to your partial within 2-3 months. (This is also something that helped me get my agent). In both instances, be brief and polite. Here’s an example: “Hello, I wanted to follow up on a partial I sent you on X/X/XX. Let me know if you’d like me to resend.” I also suggest replying to the original email and keeping everything in one thread. Agents handle a lot of submissions. Even if they liked yours, they may not remember it after a few months. Make it as easy as possible for them to see your prior exchange.

10) While you wait, work on something new and don’t give up

One of the hardest parts when you query a literary agent is how long it takes to hear back. Like I said in part one of this query series, an agent’s priority is the clients they have already signed. And that’s good! In the future, when you are one of those clients, you will want your agent to prioritize you. But that means as querying writer, you wait. And while you wait, you might as well work on something new. If you do get an offer, your agent will like to know that you have more in the works. And if the book you’re querying doesn’t get you an agent, you’ll have another book to send out.

I queried a book until I had a new one to submit (which took about a year), then I pulled the first book back and focused on querying the new one. But the nice thing was once it came time to do the next book, I already had a big long list of agents I thought would be a good fit for me, so I just had to double check that everything still lined up and they were still open to queries before sending a new query off.

11) When an agent makes an offer

YAY!!!!!! THIS IS SO EXCITING!!!!

How you get the news can vary from agent to agent. Some will email to set up a call. Others will just call–like mine did. (I didn’t pick up–I was straining chickpeas at the time. I called back REAL fast.) It’s okay to ask questions if you have them. If you have other partials/fulls out, it’s considered professional courtesy to let those agents know that you’ve had an offer and give them time (about a week) to read what you’ve sent them before you accept anything.

I’ve heard conflicting things about open queries. Some agents want to know if you have an offer even if they only have a query, others aren’t that worried about this. I guess it comes down to how much you want to work with the agent making the offer. If the agent was high on your list, you like what they’re offering and you feel like someone else would have to really blow you away, I think it’s okay to say yes on the spot–if you want to. (I did!)

On the other hand, if you don’t like what you’re hearing or there are things you’re on the fence about, take some time to think about it and check in with your open queries while you do. Though I should note, this only applies to open queries. If you have open partials/fulls, you really need to get in touch with those agents before accepting an offer.

It’s also okay to turn down an offer if it doesn’t feel right to you. Remember, once you accept that offer, your agent becomes your teammate. They are helping you build a life and career. You need someone who is going to put you in the best possible position. If you don’t think the agent making the offer is that person, say no. Trust me when I say, no agent is better than a bad or incompatible one. (I don’t have experience with this, but I’ve heard stories.) If you get an offer from the wrong person, you will get another offer from the right person–just keep going!

I hope this gives you a good idea of how to query a literary agent!

You can find Part Three: How I Got My Agent or revisit Part One: How to Write a Query Letter.

Now it’s your turn: Have you tried to query a literary agent before? If you have, do you have a tip to help others query a literary agent? If you haven’t yet, what’s your biggest concern as you get ready to query a literary agent? Tell me in the comments! You can also let me know what you’d like to see covered more in the future.

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How to Write a Successful Query Letter

I created this blog to prioritize writing more so than publishing, but publishing is a MASSIVE reason why we write. So it would be super unhelpful of me not to discuss publishing at all. Whether you want to share your work, see your name on a bookshop shelf, or fund your writing habit, publishing most likely plays some kind of role in every writer’s journey. And the road to publication starts with writing a successful query letter.

This is part one of my three-part querying series. You can find Part Two: How to Query a Literary Agent here and Part Three: How I Got My Agent here. We’re kicking things off with the first step in querying: a successful query letter. Since my experience is with traditional publishing (not self-publishing) I’m going to keep my focus there.

Now, let’s take a look at a successful query letter. First, some basics:

What is a query letter?

A query letter is a letter that writers send out to agents or editors explaining who they are, what their book is about, and asks either agents to represent them or editors to publish their book.

Who needs a query letter?

Pretty much every writer who wants to be traditionally published. Query letters are used to get the attention of agents and editors. If you’re hoping for a bigger publishing house (Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillian, HarperCollins, etc) you need an agent to get your book to an editor. However, there are some smaller houses will take submissions directly from authors–if that’s a direction you’re interested in going. Generally speaking, you’ll need a query letter either way.

If you can go right to an editor, then do you really need an agent?

As far as I’m concerned, yes. Yes, you really do. Sure, if you’re looking for a smaller house, you can sometimes query the house or editor directly, and if your only goal is to be published, then this is definitely an option for you. But if you’re looking to build a career, I wouldn’t recommend forging those waters without an agent (and I personally can’t imagine doing so). A good agent knows the industry and will put you in the best position to succeed. They will also protect you and make sure you don’t get taken advantage of. They’re basically a teammate. Additionally, bigger publishing houses won’t look at your work without an agent, so if that’s the kind of book deal you’re looking for, you won’t get there on your own.

Now that that’s out of the way, here’s the rundown for writing a successful query letter:

1) The Format

A basic query letter is going to be three paragraphs and consist of a hook, synopsis, and bio. It’s generally pretty straight forward and absolutely should not be more than a page. I’m going to walk you through each step, but as we move on, if you want to take a closer look/see some different examples here’s the format explained on AgentQuery.com, which was the source I used to write my first query letter.

If you do some internet searching, you may come across some formats that have the third paragraph first. If you want to format yours this way, that’s absolutely okay. It’s very possible to write a successful query letter that’s set up like that. (I’ve seen plenty.) However, my experience (and personal preference) is the hook, synopsis, bio sequence, so that’s what I’m going to walk you through.

2) Salutation

Dear Mr./Ms. [Agent name] is a perfectly fine way to start your letter. Address the agent you’re querying directly and don’t over think it. (I definitely over-thought it).

3) Hook your reader

Once you’ve greeted your reader, you’re going to dive right in. The pitch should start immediately with the first paragraph, which is the hook.

I like to compare both this paragraph and the synopsis to what you would read on the back cover of a published book. Your hook should be its own 1-2 sentence paragraph that introduces your main character, hints at what makes your book special, and/or adds enough intrigue that would make your reader want to see more. A successful query letter should fully engage and entice your reader.

4) Synopsis

Once you have your reader hooked, you need to tell them a little about the story so they actually want to pick up the book and read it. Truth: I found this and the hook to be REALLY HARD! After spending a year writing the entire book and understanding the nuances of the main plot and numerous underlying storylines, condensing it all into nine sentences was painful!

If you struggle with this too, I suggest doing your very best to focus on the heart of your story. Who is your main character? What’s the main conflict? What does your main character struggle with internally and externally? What is a direct threat to the character?

You don’t have to give your whole story away in your query, but you want to entice your reader to open the book and read, just like the back copy of a book jacket would do. There may be several subplots that seem really important to you that don’t make the letter. That’s okay!! As long as what you’ve written captures the heart of the story, it’s a letter you can seriously consider submitting.

5) Add info about your book including title, genre, and word count

The third paragraph has two parts. Part One is about your book. Tell your reader the title, the age group (Middle Grade/Young Adult/Adult etc), the genre (thriller, fantasy, science fiction, contemporary, etc), and estimated word count. If you see this book as the start of a series, this would also be the time to mention that.

6) Say why you’re qualified to write this book

Part two of the last paragraph: Give the person your querying any background information that proves why you’re qualified to write this book. This can be writing related (writing classes you’ve taken, writing degrees you’ve earned, publication credits you have), and/or specific to the content of the book (for example, if you’ve written a book about a lawyer and you are a lawyer, that would be something to mention). Use anything and everything that can help you, but don’t lie!

7) Thank your reader and wrap up

Thank the agent for taking the time to read your letter, say you look forward to hearing from them, and get out. One sentence is enough here.

8) Revise until you have a letter you like, then polish the hell out of it.

I usually had to write my query letter at least twice until I had something that I felt like captured my book. The first draft was me writing down what I thought I needed (which was way more than I actually needed). The second draft was when I cut almost everything I’d written and reworked/expanded on what was left. Then I worked that until I was happy with it. Once I had a letter that I felt captured the book, I polished it until I felt like it read perfectly. Then I found other readers to catch everything I missed. If you have trouble, I definitely recommend talking to a friend or two you trust who has read the book and can give you some insight into which story points are really important and which aren’t. Once all of that’s done, it’s time to query!!

Here’s my successful query letter!

Now I’m going to share my successful query letter for Crossing the Line. Truthfully, I kind of hate the idea of sharing this! My book was a serious challenge to boil down into a couple paragraphs. Now that it’s published and I’ve seen how it’s been pitched by professionals, I think it could have been A LOT tighter. But none the less, this is the letter that got me my agent, which is why I’m sharing it with you! 🙂

Dear xxxxxxx,

North Korean intelligence agency KATO believes eighteen-year-old American spy Jocelyn Steely is under their control. And that’s exactly how Jocelyn wants it.

When KATO sends Jocelyn back to the American-based International Defense Agency she was kidnapped from as an eight-year-old, they see it as the perfect opportunity to infiltrate the ranks of their biggest rival. After ten years of brutal training, forced drug therapy, and a series of successful — yet traumatizing — assignments, KATO never considered the possibility that Jocelyn could still have a mind of her own. But she does. To her, this mission is not only an escape, but also a chance at revenge. The only problem is Jocelyn has never trusted anyone enough to have an ally, let alone a friend. In order to escape KATO, she’ll have to learn to rely on others — including former enemy agent Travis Elton. And to Jocelyn, there is nothing more difficult or terrifying.

CROSSING THE LINE is a young adult thriller complete at around 91,000 words. It is the first book in a planned trilogy. I have an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Rosemont College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in Communications and Media Arts from Neumann University, where I double minored in Writing and Journalism. My writing has been published in both the Neumann University Joust and the Philadelphia Inquirer. I have also spent the past three years volunteering with creative writing classes at a local high school where I assist in creating lesson plans and work with students on an individual and group level.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind Regards,

Meghan Rogers

Bonus thoughts: Should you personalize each letter you send?

This is something I’ve thought a lot about–maybe too much–so I wanted to discuss it here.

I’ve read some posts that recommend writers take the time to research an agent’s list and give a pitch as to why they or their book would be a good fit. I’ve also read some thoughts from agents (not a ton, but some) that say they too really like when authors to do this because it shows them how serious the writer is.

But honestly? I didn’t really personalize my queries beyond the agent’s name, and I think that’s kind of an unreasonable expectation to put on a querying writer.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I did my research.

I made sure I targeted agents I thought would be a good fit for my book. (I’ll talk more about that in my next querying series post.) But I didn’t take the time to write my reasons out in each query letter I sent off.

Would I have had a more successful query letter if I’d done this? Maybe. But here’s the thing; most of the agents you query are going to reject you. It sucks, but it’s true.

And 99% of the agents who reject you are not going to take the time to give you a personalized response explaining why. If you get a response at all, it’s likely to be a form letter. They simply don’t have time to give you anything more. Their priority is to take care of their current clients. Most agents can’t afford to invest a lot of time in a response to someone they don’t represent. Their time is valuable. It’s important to be understanding of that, especially as someone who someday wants to be an agent’s client.

But your time is valuable too.

Most querying writers are also working another job (or two), or going to school, or working and going to school, and hopefully writing another book, and making time for their families/friends, all on top of querying. And if you’re going to personalize every letter, that means you have to proof and polish and perfect every letter again before you send it off. In the end, I sent 111 query letters. Personalizing, proofing, and polishing 111 letters was, for me, asking for too much of my time for someone who may or may not represent me.

If an agent passed on me because I didn’t personalize my query, then I have to believe it was for the best. We probably wouldn’t have been a very good fit. As much as you need an agent to offer to represent you, it’s important to remember that once they do, the two of you are going to be a team. And considering most agents weren’t going to personalize a response back to me, I wasn’t so sure I wanted a teammate who expected more of me than they were willing to do themselves.

But! you should address each agent directly

You definitely want to make sure you’re addressing the agent/editor you’re querying at the start of each letter, but personalizing beyond that is entirely up to you. I only personalized two query letters, and both were to agents I had interacted with in the past.

(Though, full disclosure: One of those personalized letters was to the agent I signed with. I personalized it because she had previously responded to a non-personalized query about a previous project. So yes, my most successful query letter was personalized, but that only happened after she responded to a non-personalized one first!)

That’s everything I know about writing a successful query letter!

Be sure to check out the rest of my querying series, Part Two: How to Query a Literary Agent and Part Three: How I Got My Agent.

Now it’s your turn: What query letter tips have you come across or found helpful? Is there a favorite successful query letter you like to reference? Tell me all about it in the comments! You can also let me know what you’d like to see covered more in the future.

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