Episode 43: Query Letters and Popcorn

There have been two things on my mind quite a bit lately: query letters and popcorn. Since it would be tough to make popcorn into a metaphor for writing (not impossible), I’ll stick with eating it and writing about queries.

First, let’s give a definition to keep things tidy. According to About.com, a query letter is

A letter or email sent to an editor or agent which details an idea for a magazine, newspaper, book or other publication, along with an attempt to sell this particular idea, along with yourself as the potential writer.

In some ways, this is like your book’s (and your) resumé, your shot to get a foot in the door for an interview (i.e., the agent/publisher reading your work).

Since I am definitely no expert in writing queries (having only succeeded in getting interest via magazine queries so far), I’ve chronicled some of the interesting resources I’ve found, and I’m sharing them here with you. (If you have successful queries on your blog or website, please leave a link in the comments.)

  • One recent Twitter experiment that produced some excellent advice for writers was “Query Day.” Basically, literary agents ganged up and sent out more information than one human could possibly absorb. However, Rachelle Gardner (one of the agents participating) published her advice for the sake of posterity—and sanity. [Update: She also recently posted about what makes a winning query.]
  • Nathan Bransford (an agent who gave me more traffic with one link than I could have thought possible) has a series of posts that document the format and basic information of a query letter: format, anatomy 1, anatomy 2, and how to mess it up.
  • And yet another agent, Colleen Lindsay, has a succinct post on why she may have rejected your query letter (or would if you sent it to her with some of the problems she points out—and consider yourself warned on the language).

Mainly, the biggest points that I’ve picked up so far are as follows:

  • Make sure you get to know the agent/publisher before submitting (check out their site/blog).
  • Provide the information they request.
  • Be humble—but not groveling.
  • Don’t tell them it’s going to win an award, be made into a movie, or be the best thing they’ve ever read.
  • Let the creativity you have as a writer come through in the query.

As for some examples of good queries, I’ve dug up a few.

  • Even if you don’t like Nicholas Sparks’s writing (I do, but that’s me), you should still check out his query letter for The Notebook that he graciously put out there for the world to see.
  • Nelson literary agency has several good query letters linked from their site.

That should be enough to get you started. If you have some web resources that you rely on (or have something you’ve used), please share.

Tuesday Terminology: Unreliable Narrator

There’s an implied contract that goes along with a fictional account (and in nonfiction as well). The audience generally assumes that the voice telling the story is being factual and honest about the events taking place.

Sometimes it’s great to violate that trust.

An unreliable narrator is the voice telling the story that gives the reader reason to think that what’s on the page “ain’t necessarily so.” This can be an effective way to add a twist to your work—or to make the readers think about the narratives they read everyday and assume are factual (news accounts, bios, etc.).

There are some rules that go along with producing an unreliable narrator:

  • An unreliable narrator is not an unbelievable one. That may seem obvious, but the whole point is to make the reader reevaluate the story later when the narrator is unmasked. So, let the narrator fool the reader in a way that seems to make sense.
  • On the other hand, there have to be enough clues to let the reader slowly uncover that the narrator isn’t being forthright. This is the toughest part, since the clues cannot be so subtle that the reader misses them and neither can they be too obvious (unless you want the audience to know early on). You could, for example, simply let the narrator know things that only the murderer would know.
  • Just telling a story falsely doesn’t make the narrator unreliable. That is, if the readers don’t see what you’re doing, then they may just assume that the story is what it appears to be. They’ll miss that the narrator is hiding things. You may have wanted the reader to know that Jason (the narrator) really stole the money, but they may simply believe the story Jason tells about Amanda stealing it. There has to be a clear unmasking.

Any famous examples of an unreliable narrator that you enjoy? (One hint: Henry James)

Quote Mine

I would like to take a moment to talk with my American readers here. Topic? Quotation marks. As an editor of international flavors of English as well as American, I can understand that there are various methods of using quotation marks depending on geography. Consistency and context are the keys.

In American writing, there are some set standards governing the placement of quotation marks (they can be a bit complicated, yes). First, let’s talk about when to use them.

  • Use quotation marks when you are quoting a source directly (i.e., word for word) or quoting the attitude of a group that is not necessarily your own when you are reporting that attitude. (This is sometimes referred to as scare quotes because it can undermine what is quoted.)
  • Do not use quotes if you are summarizing, to emphasize (that’s what italics are for), or to set words off.

Next, let’s talk placement in American English:

  • Quote marks always go after a comma or a period.
  • “This is the rule.”
  • Quote marks always go before a semicolon or colon.
  • The group said, “Chocolate”; they bought vanilla.
  • Quote marks go after the question mark when a question is being quoted. (This is true of exclamation points as well.)
  • He asked, “What’s the square root of 894?”
  • Quote marks go before the question mark when the quote is not a question.
  • How do we find this “snipe”?

Weekend Website: Qipit

qipitThe name looks like a messed up version of Q-tip, and this handy site is just about as useful as the ubiquitous cotton swab. Qipit allows you to use your cell phone camera or other digital camera to take pictures of documents, whiteboards, or napkin notes and later turn them into digital copies.

So, if you have a great idea while sitting at Starbucks, write it down, take a snapshot, and spit it out later as a PDF to save. Or email whiteboard notes to yourself if you don’t have time to write them all down.

If you’re using your cell phone, you’ll have to make sure they support it.

Website: Qipit

Episode 42: Finding Motivation

Motivation often comes in waves. And while you can’t always control how long or when those waves will come, you can clear the way for them and take advantage when they hit.

This is the process I’ve heard quite a few times from the writers I’ve worked with:

I got really excited about this novel/story/article idea that I had, and I started working on it. In fact, I did what you said and planned it all out first before jumping in. So, I got several paragraphs/pages/chapters in, and then I hated it and loved it in turns. I just couldn’t keep going.

That may not describe how you feel exactly, but I think all writers get caught in the middle-of-the-project doldrums. After all, a project is always more exciting when it’s either still in conception or finished. The middle part—the writing and revision—can suck the fun right out.

There are no simple answers for getting back the spark (just don’t call it writers’ block) on a particular project. However, there are ways to help.

  • Go back. If you’ve lost some of the fire, revisit your notes. After all, the conception stage got you excited about the project in the first place.
  • Find another outlet. There’s no shame in moving on to a different project for a few days and then coming back. The point is to simply get something written—even if it’s a different topic/genre altogether.
  • Get silly. One of my favorite ruses for getting back on track is to write something I know that I won’t really use. My sophisticated socialite might decide that she needs to run away and join a fishing expedition in Alaska. Once I’ve gone off the deep end, I delete it. Often, however, this silliness gives me ideas.
  • Talk it out. Find someone you trust (friend, agent, editor, writer) and let them know where you are. Perhaps they can see the problems you’re missing.
  • Make a storyboard/diagram. Sometimes thinking visually will help you to make connections and to see where your work needs to go.
  • Check your hand. Problems stop writing cold. While you may not even know that there’s an issue, plot holes, argument weaknesses, and other problems often cause motivation to drop. If you can’t press forward, maybe you need to take a look back. Make sure that everything fits together like it should.
  • Kick it to the curb. Sadly, there are some projects that just aren’t going to make the cut. If you’ve worked through the other steps above and nothing seems to be working, it may be time to put the project in your archive for some future date.

Motivation is often about finding different ways to look at the same problem. If you’re stuck, don’t rely on the same approach—try something new (or get more coffee).

Tuesday Terminology: Metonymy

One thing I love about teaching figures of speech is that people understand how to use them even if they don’t know what they’re called. So, let’s put some names with faces.

You use metonymy—trust me—even if you’ve never heard the word. It simply means calling something, not by its name, but by an associated word. Let’s just jump into an example:

Sir Howard swore allegiance to the crown.

Aside from some interesting characters, most knights are not going around talking to royal diadems. They are swearing to the king or queen, the head honcho. “The crown” is associated with the king/queen and stands in for him/her. Hence, you have metonymy. One more:

The Supreme Court issued a ruling.

Only in weird dreams and cartoons do buildings talk; instead, we know that the Supreme Court justices issued the ruling.

For bonus points, there are some subtypes of metonymy, including one of my favorite words to say: synecdoche (si-NEK-duh-kee). A synecdoche is a metonymy in which a part of something refers to the whole.

All hands on deck.

Unless you’re writing about puppets, this is a synecdoche referring to the crew of the ship (i.e., hands = crew members). Synecdoche often focuses on the most important aspect of the larger concept. In this example, the hands are the part of the crew that does the work.

Any famous examples of metonymy that come to mind? Anyone else love saying synecdoche?

Grammar Fail: Tour De Dash, Part 3

Hyphens (-) are great, and en dashes (–) have their use. But the em dash (—) is your ticket to rigging the system. The em dash is essentially the catchall of the dash family.

Technically, you mainly use the em dash to set off explanatory or amplifying statements—if you really want them to stand off. But in practice, you can also use it to signify breaks in thought or to solve tricky grammatical problems. Not sure how to punctuate? Slap in an em dash.

Now, I don’t recommend using this very often, but the em dash can bail you out from time to time. Some editors hate them, but I prefer them to ellipses (. . .) every time.

The em dash:

  • sets off explanatory or amplifying material: The store was closed—a sign hung on the door.
  • shows breaks or sudden shifts in thought: I really need to get an oil change—and where did I put my keys?