“Querious George”: 5 Tips for Polishing Your Query Letter

Ah, my dream agent…

Okay, that headline makes it sound like Curious George just decided to start exploring his sexuality.  My mistake.  What I’m really trying to say is that an author’s query letter might be more important than the book he or she has just finished writing.  First things first (um, this is not part of the 5 Tips), don’t even think of submitting a query letter for fiction until you’ve actually finished your book.  Now let’s go one step further:  Don’t even think of submitting your letter until you have edited your book at least twice—preferably THREE times.  While an agent might appreciate your enthusiasm if you have that query letter ready to go the exact moment you type the final word of your book and complete your first draft, the odds are almost astronomically against the possibility that you nailed every aspect of your story on the first run through.

Now, assuming that your book is ready to go, let’s look at the letter itself.

1.  Explain your market – There is an old saying that you catch more flies with honey and if you’re trying to sell honey, you should probably have some idea of where the flies are.  Where your book’s market lies may not be as obvious to Joe Agent as you might think.  This is something I ran into with my first string of submissions for The Notice.  I expected those to whom I sent my book to automatically see the wider applications of my novel.  I thought it would be understood that my novel transcended its categorical historical fiction genre.  Only when I explained the significance of The Bosnian War, the number of refugees living in the United States, and the book’s similarity to other popular world novels like The Kite Runner did I start to hear back from interested agents.  At least one brief paragraph should state specifically to whom you are trying to sell your book and what evidence you have that such a market exists in the first place.

2.  Who are you again? – Give yourself a little more credit.  I went the humble route on my first line of submissions for The Notice.   I mentioned that I was a teacher and that I had obtained two degrees in international relations and, of course, this was information that I found relevant while pitching The Notice—a book of international themes.  While I received a slew of nice automated-form rejection letters, I came up empty-handed from every single agency to which I applied.  On the second string of queries, I identified myself specially as a private school English teacher (writing cred!) and as an international affairs “expert” (hey, why not?  I’m on my way to a PHD in it…).  Lo and behold, I received an interested reply about a week later.  DO NOT make up credentials that you can’t support—you will eventually be exposed—but do make it clear for agents why you have a “right to write”.

3.  Work on your Hook – This is the most difficult part of writing your query letter and, because of that, most people will never perfect the art of the hook.  If you have a hook before you ever start writing your book, FAN-TAS-TIC.  It makes the process that much easier and probably shows that your idea is a solid one.  Most of us won’t be that lucky, however, and will need to come up with something to draw in an agent after the writing process.  You must zero in on the one aspect of your work that distinguishes it.  For instance, my book The Notice (wow, I hawk my novel way too much in this blog), is “a coming of age story that revolves around a young girl making sense of a terrifying war in her homeland by sharing conversations with the ghost of an elderly Muslim woman who was murdered in her neighborhood.”  That’s not exactly the same hook I’ve been using—I paraphrased it just so I could crank this out fast enough to get back to watching “House”—but it does have the core elements of my book, without giving too much away.  Once you’ve dispensed with the hook, you can get down to divulging a bit more about the plot in the second paragraph of your letter.

4.  Research Your Agent – Nothing works against you more than not researching your prospective agent’s catalog prior to sending your letter.  Any self-respecting agency’s website will have a page that details the interests and publishing history of any given agent.  It goes without saying that you should only submit YA horror to an agent who lists YA fiction and, ideally, horror in their bio as personal interests.  Some agents seem to be open to anything, which might make it seem like your job just got that much easier.  Don’t settle for that, friends!  Find out whether or not any of the books that agent has previously helped publish match or parallel your own novel.  If Joe Agent claims to take any and all fiction but shows a clear bias towards legal thrillers or vampire sagas, then maybe your dystopian story is not for him.

5.  “The 4:1 Rule” – This is just a neurotic, safety-first rule that applies to my own query letter editing process.  The Sean Chandler rule of thumb is to edit your query letter FOUR times for every draft of your book.  If you edited your novel three times, be ready to go over your query a whopping twelve times!  It might seem like overkill, but it underscores the significance of preparing the best letter possible.  It’s better to err on the side of caution than submit a query letter that accidentally prevents an agent from reading your book.  You might as well just email said agent a video of you drunkenly singing “Don’t Stop Believin’” in your underwear; both approaches will undoubtedly prove equally successful in selling your novel.

For more information on query letters, please consult the book “Your First Novel” available here: http://www.amazon.com/Your-First-Novel-Achieving-ebook/dp/B0033ZAVX0/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1338405702&sr=8-2 It contains by far the most helpful and detailed analysis of good query letters that I’ve seen so far.  It’s also a pretty cheap purchase. If you’re young and aspiring like me, it’s definitely worth your coin!

The Big Reasons Indie Authors Aren’t Taken Seriously (Huffington Post)

by Melissa Foster and Amy Edelman for IndieReader.com

FULL ARTICLE:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/30/indie-authors-struggle_n_1242935.html?ref=books

Several predictions have stated that 2012 will be “The Year of the Indie Author”. After all, 2011 saw some awfully big moments.

John Locke became the first indie to break the Kindle million-seller mark. Amanda Hocking, Queen of the indie vampire books, signed a ginormous contract with St. Martins Press. And The New York Times deigned to include indies on their best seller list, where every week at least one title – often more – are contained. By all indications, you’d expect that readers and traditional media alike would be wrapping their arms collectively around indie authors and their books into something akin to a big ‘ole hug.

And yet… not so much.

Big Reason #1: Bad Editing
The main complaint about the indie book category is the lack of editing. It’s true that this situation has changed a bit in the past few years, due in part to better and more diligent indie authors and—on the flip side—slack in the editing of traditionally published books.

An anonymous letter sent by a group of successful traditionally published authors on M.J. Rose’s blog, Buzz Balls and Hype, requested the following: “PLEASE EDIT MY BOOK. Even if you know it will sell and get reviewed because of my name and my previous books, even though you recognize the many good qualities in the manuscript I have turned in, if you think it needs a serious revision, please, please, ask me to do it…Please do not let me go out in public this time with my slip showing and parsley on my tooth…And while we are on the subject, please employ a copy editor who understands the basic rules of grammar and has a working knowledge of the subject of the book sufficient to make useful and necessary changes in the manuscript instead of adding egregious errors while omitting to find crucial mistakes and typos. I love our nice expense account lunches, and I love you, but above all, I really, really want you to edit my book…”

It wouldn’t hurt for indie authors to demand the same. Why don’t they? For some it comes down simply to money. They “put their first book out there” to see how it does, with the assumption that they’ll take the profits from that book and use them to edit the second book. But that plan often fails because readers who find a book difficult to navigate because of poor editing and grammar are not likely to pick up the author’s second book, even if it is offered for under a buck.

A scarier issue is that some independent authors simply believe that their work does not need to be edited. Writers are often too close to their work to make the critical structural and grammatical changes that might make the story more succinct. Let us simply say here that every writer benefits from a good editor.

Big Reason #2: Quantity Over Quality
Number 5 in Chuck Wendig’s brilliant “25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing” is Stop Hurrying. “The rise of self-publishing has seen a comparative surge forward in quantity. As if we’re all rushing forward to squat out as huge a litter of squalling word-babies as our fragile penmonkey uteruses (uteri?) can handle…But generation and creativity should not come at the cost of quality.”

Writing a book should not be a race to the finish line. While certain authors seem to toss off a title a month, copy and structure editing alone can take three to four weeks, receiving feedback from beta readers can take another three weeks, not to mention crafting the novel. The model of pumping several books out in a year might be fine for someone like James Patterson who has a slew of hot and cold running editors, but for many indies, it means skipping important steps such as editing and trying to go straight to the payoff. If independent authors want to write books that will be taken seriously, they need to present themselves with the same marked quality as the traditionally published books out there.

We queried readers on their thoughts about the necessity of editing in traditional and independently published books. The overwhelming response was that independently published books were in need of stronger editing. While several readers pointed out that traditionally published books were also lacking in the editing department, the majority felt they were not. Perhaps most importantly, the majority of readers polled said that they would pay a higher cost for a better edited book.
queried readers

Not everyone feels that way. Gary Henry, known on Twitter as @LiteraryGary, and writer of Honest Indie Reviews, says, “I look at indie books the same way I look at amateur athletics. It’s about fun. As long as they’re free or 99 cents, all they need to cover for editing are the basic mechanics of spelling, grammar and punctuation. Indie writers who want to charge more–turn pro essentially–owe their readers a more highly edited story–one that’s edited professionally for style, as well as mechanics.”

Terri Guiliano Long, bestselling author of In Leah’s Wake, thinks that “Basic quality should be a requirement for all published books. The work should be structurally sound, the writing clear, the book free of grammatical and typographical errors. For the indie movement to thrive, to end the stigma, we need to be sure that all published books meet these basic standards. Editors or editorial teams, charged with assessing quality based on objective criteria, perhaps equipped with a checklist, would assure that they do.”

FULL ARTICLE:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/30/indie-authors-struggle_n_1242935.html?ref=books

Starting Strong: First Chapter Tips to Draw in the Reader

When writing a novel, it might seem easy to just dive into a story knowing that the good stuff down the road is what your reader is truly going to remember.  But what good does that do you if you’re an independent writer and readers, agents, etc. aren’t going to give your book the time of day unless it pulls them in from page one?  The truth of the matter is that J.R.R. Tolkien could never have allowed The Fellowship of the Ring to start off with an eighty page snooze-o-rama if he hadn’t already established himself with The Hobbit.  Furthermore, publishers hated the idea of Lord of the Rings when he was first trying to sell the idea.  Those of us who are unknown have to get to the point quickly because, chances are, anyone reading our book is going in skeptical and is looking for any excuse possible to jump ship as soon as possible.

Movies can teach us a lot about how to get a story going.  Imagine Jurassic Park without that awesome scene at the beginning of the movie where they’re trying to move the velociraptor into its cage and that one guy gets pulled inside by it—all without actually revealing the creature.  Remove that scene and the movie starts off with twenty minutes of boring paleontology talk and exposition that shows what a douche bag Sam Neill’s character is, ten minutes of DNA bulls***, and almost an hour of Sir Richard Attenborough’s ridiculous beard and Jeff Goldblum one-liners.  Even Star Wars starts off by introducing its villain, Darth Vader—a completely different kind of villain by 1970s standards—who does all kinds of badassery to help us stomach 30 minutes of whiny Luke Skywalker and an effeminate, golden robot wandering around sand dunes.

As authors, our mission is to give the reader a few things to latch onto in the first few pages.

  • A central character with whom the reader can establish some kind of personal connection.
  • An immediate introduction to those aspects of your book’s world/setting/environment which are interesting.  This is why agents insist that weather should never be mentioned (even though everybody does it).  Unless the weather serves a role in your story, it’s not all that important.
  • Give a taste of the long-term implications of the plot.  Whatever happens here should set the tone for everything that follows.  Readers need some indication that what follows is important and that the characters involved will undergo change and, preferably, hardship (something dynamic) throughout the story.
  • The Star Wars Rule:  Does your story have a Darth Vader?  Who is the big threat?  How is that threat different or enticing for the reader?  The Avengers also started out with a memorable baddie monologue that led into the credits.  Who wasn’t haunted by that line “..and the humans…What can they do but burn?”
  • Close your chapter with something huge that will make the reader want to suffer all the exposition that inevitably follows.  In the Lord of the Rings film franchise, the series opened with a sweeping, action-packed, epic background of The One Ring, Sauron, and their horrible combined menace.  It made us believe that such a tiny object could have a huge impact on this fantasy world, which made it easier to stomach having to sit through an hour of Uncle Bilbo’s birthday and hobbits smoking pipes.  (Don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of it)

Take this advice from someone who is still learning how to write the perfect first chapter.  My first book The Notice takes about two chapters to find its stride because I prefer to lay as many pieces on the table as possible before I tell my story.  Initially, this really held my book back at first, until I learned to reconcile some of these shortcomings during the editing process.  My next book, The Last Cup, has a much stronger opening, I feel, that sets up a futuristic world, introduces the main characters, while also painting the world I’ve created with a sinister, scientific undertone that I think (and hope) will hook readers right off the bat.  As soon as I get that book on Amazon, I think you’ll see what I mean.

In the meantime, do yourself a favor and put your best foot forward.  If you’ve truly created a story worth telling, you should be able to get the ball rolling on page one.  Readers and agents won’t necessarily give you the benefit of the doubt.  They’re too busy and, unfortunately, in this digital age of free and cheap e-books, there are always hundreds of other books competing with yours’.  A fantastic lead-in gives you an automatic edge and the quality if your writing can help smooth the rough edges.

 

MOVIES!

Status

Lots of new updates in the “Movie Talk” section of the site.  Click on the link under the header.  At the very least, you can have the satisfaction of ridiculing me for how low I ranked “Psycho” and “Taxi Driver” (CLAP, CLAP, CLAP-CLAP-CLAP!  OV-ER-RAY-TED!)

Music!

Status

Hey all,

Don’t forget to check out the fun tunes at the bottom of the page.  I like to keep my writing playlist available to everyone. You may not find my taste of music inspiring.  Chances are you’ll hate it.  But just MAYBE, you’ll get the same rush from adorable Korean pop music that I do.  Check out “Roly Poly” by T-ara.  Seriously!

Thanks!

Sean

“The Notice” (Behind the Scenes Prt. 1)

If there’s one thing authors can be expected to have to answer left and right, it’s “What is your book about?”  Makes sense, right?  Nevertheless, sometimes I find myself reluctant to mention that I’m a writer because doing so inevitably means I’ll have to mention The Notice and that means I’ll have to talk about how I got the idea and what writing it was like and I end up talking for 30 minutes.

Image

The Mostar Bridge is only one example of Bosnia’s scenic beauty.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy talking about my book—I just feel extremely conceited when I do.  It’s like parents who keep bragging about their children.  I’m worried that if I say too much people will just stop caring.

But since you’re here, I’d like to talk about how The Notice came together.  The idea for the book was inspired by the stories of my fiancée, Nina, who I met at Centre College.  We’ve been together five years now, but about two years into our relationship, she told me the story of a recurring dream she’s had since her childhood in Bosnia & Herzegovina during the war.  In the dream, she tore down the obituary (more closely translated to “death notices” over there) of a woman—this obituary had been placed in a public square to alert people of deaths in the community.  When she tore down the notice, she said the elderly woman’s ghost appeared before her, slapped her on the wrist, and hung the paper back on the wall.  That may not sound like much, but it was the jumping off point for my story.

I had researched the Bosnian War as a student at Centre and continued writing about it during my M.A. work at the University of Kentucky.  I had read horrible, heartrending accounts from that war and had researched specifically its toll on women.  The Bosnian War brought rape as an instrument of warfare to the forefront of international political discourse, as did the Rwandan War in 1994, which reflected many of Bosnia’s symptoms.  After reading Peter Uvin’s fine book Aiding Violence and watching Hotel Rwanda and interviewing refugees from the Bosnian affair, I knew that I wanted to construct a narrative that could shed light on why genocide happens and how people are affected by ethnic cleansing, while also breaking down some of the stereotypes that are typically associate with nationalistic violence in developing countries.

My fiancée’s story served as a vehicle for me to show that, regardless of the war, innocents by far outnumber the lunatics you see in the news and largely account for the human toll of any war.  It took me approximately three months to construct the story for The Notice, another six months to write it, and another month or two to edit it.  I promise you that The Notice will give you an eye-opening perspective of a wonderful culture that I am lucky to know well.  You will see the dark and unthinkable side of what fear and violence can do to a country, as well as what good people can do for each other during the worst times imaginable.  And if you’re not satisfied with the ending—I truly believe you will be—you have my sincerest apologies.

I mean that about the ending.  The last chapter came to me not long after I started writing the story and then I worked backwards from there.  If you see it through to the end, I think you’ll be rewarded with the resolution.  If you download The Notice, I hope you enjoy the ride, and know that you have my thanks.

Some Zombie That I Used to Know (Gotye Parody)

Hey all,

I wrote this a few weeks back, but the song is still popular and, as far as I know, so are zombies.  It’s worth a chuckle and fits the tone of this site, because I don’t want to keep posting serious stuff about how mean agents and the big, bad publishing industry are.  I want to keep things to lose and humorous as much as possible.  Thanks for reading!

“Some Zombie That I Used to Know”

Now and then I think of when you weren’t infected,
When you were dead but then you opened up your eyes.
I told myself that you’d be kind to me,
You were still my friend so far as I could see,
But then you groaned and it’s a sound I still remember.

You can get addicted to a certain kind of organ.
Said you were hungry for some brains…always some brains.
So when I found your hands around my head
I started wishing you had just stayed dead
And I’ll admit I started thinking “Yep, he’s a zombie.”

But you didn’t have to gut me out.
Make out like you wouldn’t eat me and then bit my shoulder.
And I don’t even bleed that much, but
You started with my kidneys and it feels so rough.
No you didn’t have to start so low.
Had your friends devour my legs
Because they shared your hunger.
Guess that I just ran too slow,
Now you’re just a zombie that I used to know.

Now and then I think of all the times you chewed my liver…
But had me believing it was always supper that I was.
Now you don’t want to eat my brain.
Said you’d never cause me pain.
You said that you could let it go
and I wouldn’t catch you gnawing on somebody that you used to knoooowwwww…

But you didn’t have to gut me out.
Make out like you wouldn’t eat me and then bit my shoulder.
And I don’t even bleed that much, but
You started with my kidneys and it feels so rough.
No you didn’t have to start so low.
Had your friends devour my legs
Because they shared your hunger.
Guess that I just ran too slow,
Now you’re just a zombie that I used to know.

Now you’re just a zombie that I used to know.
Some zomBEEEEE…(that I used to know)
Now you’re just a zombie that I used to know.