Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tipping the Balance: Writing the Query Letter

For the aspiring writer seeking representation, there's never been a more information-rich environment than now. Blogging agents post exactly what they're looking for, provide examples of query letters, and tweet about their pet peeves. For some writers, this is glorious. For others, overwhelming.

I am not here to provide tips or examples of query letters. Better women than I have done so for you. Sites that I have found particularly helpful include the following: Peruse them, study them, examine them. And, of course, feel free to add more sites or links or advice in the comment section.
  • Kristen Nelson: the rest of the examples are on right-hand side column under Agent Kristin's Queries: An Inside Scoop
  • Lynn Flewelling's query letter on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America site.
  • Both Janet Reid's blog and her Query Shark site, which includes the following advice.
    • Just so you know: a query MUST contain:
    • 1. Who is the protagonist?
    • 2. What choice does s/he face?
    • 3. What are the consequences of the choice?
  • Charlotte Dillon's website contains samples as well
What I would like to do, however, is pass on some advice I garnered from a talk that Catherine Fowler gave at a conference this past year. Although the Redwood Agency is looking for "for high-quality, nonfiction works created for the general consumer market," literary agent Catherine Fowler provides invaluable advice for any author looking for representation.
  • Do your research: know similar titles and prove that there is a market for your work. If you haven't read anything recently, do an Amazon search, then skedaddle to the nearest library. You really do need to know what's going on out there. Don't forget Donne: No man is an island.
  • Read acknowledgements in similar titles and add to your notes on possible agents or contacts. You might also then reference the book in your query. (Well, unless it's Harry Potter or Twilight or something too obvious.) Agents work hard to get books published, and they don't take on work unless they really believe in it.
  • Reference recent New York Times "hot topic" articles and write, "As evidenced by a recent article..." This lends credence to you and proves you're willing to do the extra work, be informed, and actually care about what's going on in the "real world." Why is this important? Well, as you already know, the writing world is chock full of writing prima donas who insist their novel is "art" and should be taken for what it is: inspiration.
  • Compare & contrast: Yes, you want to prove that there are similar books out there, but you don't want to leave it at that. Twist it around and show what's unique and different. Explain how your Novel Y is like Novel Z, but then elaborate on how it is different.

Best of luck with your query letter writing endeavors. And do let me know if you've been successful. I'm always up for posting Query Letters that Hurdled the Gate!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

About those Layers...

With references to Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis", Golding's Lord of the Flies, and even Adam Sandler's Waterboy (1998), I manage to discuss structure, depth, symbolism, and oxygen -- all without breaking a sweat.

Join me over at the Adventures in Writing blog today and check out my post on Looking Past the Surface: Depth Beckons. In an entirely accidental post, I even give you lines like, "...and now if an oriole sings in the elm, its song seems to die up in the leaves, a silvery dust" (Hurst 1).

Ooooh. *shiver* I do love that line.

I meant to write about structure for all the NaNoWriMos out there, but depth beckoned...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mentored Writing

We live in a strange new world where the concept of mentor belongs only in Vogler's book or in the body and spirit of Obi Wan. It's part mystery, part mystical, and we don't tend to ask many questions regarding its place in our lives. Why would we? It's only in books, yes?

But the idea of apprenticeship has been around a long, long time -- and even today there are fields of work where one becomes an understudy or an apprentice or an intern. My father, who is a union electrician, had to be an apprentice for five years in order to earn the title journeyman.

Growth is dependent upon many variables: attitude, awareness, motivation, and, most importantly, exposure to excellence. After all, the great Vince Lombardi once said that practice doesn't make perfect -- only "perfect practice makes perfect." Unless we study, mimic, practice, fail, try again, all on repeat, we never learn to walk. Why would writing be any different?

Acquiring a Mentor: I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but I whole-heartedly believe that mentorship is a vital part of becoming a better writer. It's important to find someone who is more skilled or experienced since the entire point is growth. (Caveat: Choosing someone who is leaps and bounds ahead of you will only frustrate you. Just as a beginning chess player wouldn't sit down to a match with Bobby Fischer, I wouldn't sit down with Lois McMaster Bujold. I'd probably just quiver uncontrollably as synapses starting shorting.) The paths to finding a mentor are many and varied, and I don't think there is only one way. Below are but a few options.
  • Select authors you admire and study their work.
  • Get recommendations from other writers, editors, and agents regarding books on writing.
  • Involve yourself with an on-line writing community and immerse yourself in the dialogue.
  • Join or start a f2f writing group: "as iron sharpens iron"
  • Peruse the blog/website of an author who's just been published; they're often willing to share what they've experienced on their own journey.
Becoming a Mentor: (It's a two-way street, baby.) This is probably the less accepted half of the whole mentorship cookie, but I endorse it passionately. It's a widely held belief in the education world that you don't truly learn something until you've had to explain it to someone else. Even more than that, however, I believe that within the act of mentoring lies a world of opportunity for everyone involved. Not only are you putting karma chips in your karma piggy bank, but you are learning and growing and developing through the process as well. I know it sounds paradoxical, but it's true. As you mentor, your own ideas, thoughts, and beliefs begin to solidify in a way that defies comprehension. You discover examples that stand as evidence to your knowledge and experience and journey. You also discover your weaknesses and areas of murky understanding. It's powerful.

Mentoring starts most often with friendship. And you don't announce that you're the mentor or that you're looking for someone to mentor. That's arrogant and cheesy. Often someone will seek you out. That's what happened in the teaching field for me.
  • On-line social networking: within the same network where you found your mentor, it's like that you can find someone looking for a mentor.
  • On-line and Face-to-Face writing groups: there are undoubtedly varying degrees of experience and skill within your own writing group.
  • Blogs: it's easy to find aspiring writers and their blogs. Um. Hello. Did anyone find me yet?
I'm sure there are many more ways that mentors or mentees can be found. Any ideas?

To give credit where credit is due, I came across this concept of having and becoming a mentor in my devotions years ago. For those of you familiar with the New Testament, the idea was to find a Paul and a Timothy. The idea stuck with me because it's a powerful one, one that can and should be applied to many areas of our lives. For example, I have certainly chosen a mentor and have chosen to mentor within the education world. It's only made me a better teacher.

What is your experience? Do you have a mentor? Do you mentor others?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tuesday's Post: Same but Different II

Don't forget that on Tuesdays you can find me over at Adventures in Writing. Today I write about that ever elusive "same but different" concept.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Meet Linda Weaver Clarke: An Interview

Book Give-Away!

[Author's Note: Linda is graciously offering the first book of this series to one of my blog readers! An award-winning novel and a semi-finalist for the Reviewers Choice Award, this is the perfect book for this occasion. In order to be selected, make sure your comment or question for Linda is thought-provoking, pithy, or amusing. I will select the comment or question on October 1st.]

Interview with Linda Weaver Clarke:

I am delighted to announce this special interview with author Linda Weaver Clarke! Not only does she provide a look into the research aspect of writing, but she encourages us all to ground our work in the details of life, those experiences unique to us and our circumstances. Thank you, Linda, for taking the time to join us today for this interview.

Give us a brief overview of your journey as writer into the world of publishing. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? How long did it take to finally commit to the dream? How did you eventually get published?

It all started with writing my own ancestors’ biographies. Their experiences were so intriguing that I turned them into a variety of interesting stories for my children to read. After I finished that job, I couldn’t stop writing so I turned to historical fiction. Since my ancestors’ stories were still vivid in my mind, I couldn’t help but add a few of their experiences to my fictional characters. After completing a five-book family saga, I decided to become brave and find a publisher. It took me a year to find one. I was told that was a miracle because it usually takes longer than that for many authors. After signing the contract, I realized my new adventures were just beginning.

David and the Bear Lake Monster is your fourth book, I believe. What was the first tickling inspiration for the plot? How long did it take from first impression to final product?

Each of my stories surround the Roberts’ family but I always like to add a bit of Idaho history. When I found out about the Bear Lake Monster, I did some digging and found that it was the most interesting part of Bear Lake history. In my research, I found that people really believe in this legend. The mystery of the Bear Lake Monster has been an exciting part of Idaho history ever since the early pioneers. Some people claimed to have seen it and gave descriptions of it. The monster’s eyes were flaming red and its ears stuck out from the sides of its skinny head. Its body was long, resembling a gigantic alligator, and it could swim faster than a galloping horse. Of course, it only came out in the evening or at dusk. Throughout the years, no one has ever disproved the Bear Lake Monster. A bunch of scientists tried to discredit the monster and said it was a huge codfish that was shipped in from the East but could not prove this theory.

In 1868, a man by the name of S. M. Johnson was riding his horse alongside the shoreline when he saw an object floating in the water. He figured it must have been a tree until it opened a gigantic mouth and blew water from its mouth and nose. Some time later, a group of twenty people spotted the monster and among these were prominent men of the community. Does the Bear Lake Monster exist? Whatever conclusion is drawn, this Indian legend still lives on and brings a great deal of mystery and excitement to the community.

It only took about three months to write. I already knew what my story was about but just needed some Idaho history. That was when I decided to add the Bear Lake Monster. Does David believe in the monster? Of course not! That’s why he’s bound and determined to prove that it doesn’t exist.

What is the synopsis of the book?

Deep-rooted legends, long family traditions, and a few mysterious events! While visiting the Roberts family, David finds himself entranced with one very special lady and ends up defending her honor several times. Sarah isn’t like the average woman. This beautiful and dainty lady has a disability that no one seems to notice. He finds out that Sarah has gone through more trials than the average person. She teaches him the importance of not dwelling on the past and how to love life. After a few teases, tricks, and mischievous deeds, David begins to overcome his troubles, but will it be too late? Will he lose the one woman he adores? And how about the Bear Lake Monster? Does it really exist?

What aspect of David and the Bear Lake Monster are you the proudest of?

My research! It was a blast. My great grandmother, Sarah Eckersley Robinson, was my inspiration. I wanted to use her experiences for my heroine to bring some reality into my story. As a child, she lost her hearing but she never let her deafness stop her from living life. I took a lot of her experiences from her biography and gave them to my heroine to bring some reality into my story. Once an intruder hid in her bedroom under her bed, thinking he could take advantage of her since she was deaf. He must have thought she was an easy victim but was sadly mistaken. She swatted him out from under her bed with a broom, and all the way out of the house, and down the street for a couple blocks, whacking him as she ran. What a courageous woman! Because of my admiration for my great grandmother, I named my character “Sarah.”

In my research about the “hearing impaired,” and talking to a dear friend who became deaf in her youth, I became educated about the struggles they have to bear. It was a surprise to find out that some struggle with the fear of darkness. I didn’t realize that concentrating on reading lips for long periods of time could be such a strain, resulting in a splitting headache. After all my research, I found that I had even more respect for my great grandmother and her disability. What a courageous woman!

In your talks and reflections, you have stressed the importance of creating conflict and emotion in writing: What strategies can you offer my readers on these key ingredients to a great plot?

Emotion is the secret of holding a reader. When you feel the emotion inside, so will your readers. By giving descriptions of emotion, it helps the reader feel part of the story as if he were actually there himself. But remember: Show, don’t tell. If a villain challenged your character and he didn’t have a weapon, how did he feel deep down inside? If he were faced with an angry grizzly bear in the wild, how did he react? These are questions that you must research. Read about other people’s accounts, so you can adequately describe your character’s feelings during a situation.

Here’s an example. When I was writing Jenny’s Dream, I added Old Ephraim, a ten-foot grizzly bear from Idaho history. He was also known as Old Three Toes because of a deformity on one foot. He was a ferocious beast. He wreaked havoc wherever he went, slaughtering sheep and calves, and scaring sheepherders so badly that they actually quit their jobs. With one blow of his paw, he could break the back of a cow. He bit a thirteen-foot log, twelve inches in diameter, into eleven lengths as though they had been chopped. He also bit off a six-inch aspen limb in just one bite, which was nine feet and eleven inches above the ground. I found that he was the smartest bear that ever roamed the Rocky Mountains. No one could catch him. Every bear trap they set was tossed many yards away from where they had put it, and the ones that weren’t tripped had Old Three Toes tracks all around it. He was too smart to be caught. It took one man that could outsmart this bear: Frank Clark from Malad, Idaho! In this story, I included every detail about this bear and his deeds. Since my story is historical fiction and my hero is Gilbert Roberts, I renamed this grizzly “Old Half Paw,” in honor of “Old Three Toes.” Since I have never been in this situation before, I had to do some research. I learned what it was like to be approached by an angry grizzly by reading people’s accounts, including Frank Clark’s. Conflict makes an interesting story and is hard to put down. The reader wants the hero to win.

What writing quirk of yours makes your family smile?

I didn’t know the answer to this question so I called my daughter Alaina and asked her. She said, “In all your stories, you have female independence. They don’t take guff from anyone.” My daughter Serena said, “You tend to base your characters on family members and their personality.”

How has your family background and/or childhood flavored your writing?

My background has flavored my stories a lot. I was raised on a farm, so adding bits and pieces about farm life was easy for me as I wrote about the Roberts’ family. I could see Jenny dancing in the meadow near her parent’s home, feeling free and unfettered from life’s problems. Since I had done it myself as a child, I could picture Jenny doing this, too. Also, having six daughters has really flavored my stories. I tend to add family experiences to my stories. My daughter Felicia wanted to go fishing with us one day so we took her along. After watching her dad catch one fish after another, she became worried and asked her father to let them go because they were suffering and wanted to be with their family. She even asked me, “How would you feel if you couldn’t see your family ever again?” Then she begged, “Please tell daddy to let them go.” The story was so precious that I added it to my book, “Melinda and the Wild West.” Another time Felicia had tied some pans to her feet and was clomping around the house. The noise was unbearable so my husband said, “Seize and desist from all this noise!” She finally took them off but I just had to add it to my book. Yes, a person’s life does tend to flavor your writing.

What advice do you have for published authors who need more exposure or PR assistance?

Interviews on radio stations, TV stations, or even on blogs is great. People get to know you as a person and what you write. Let libraries know that your books are available or even give them a book. That’s important because people will read your books at libraries. If they’re interested enough, they’ll buy them. Getting out in the public’s eyes and giving lectures is very important, too. Thank you, Alex. I really enjoyed this interview.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tackling Eliahna

Thank you, everyone, for your brilliant advice regarding the tedious Eliahna. Not only have I (hopefully) resolved this character issue, but I've written about the process (& your help) over on the Adventures in Writing blog.

Just a reminder that every Tuesday you can find me there -- but don't just visit on Tuesdays. Every day is a treat since each is filled by a different delightful and skilled writer.

Here's to you, dear ones. Many, many thanks.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ennui: Writer Style

Okay, so I don't talk about my WIP so much, but I do want to ask a question of all the lovely writers meandering through this blog on occasion:

Do you ever tire of a character?

See, I've a highly organized WIP, which means I've been planning and strategizing and outlining (while still leaving room for creativity, I assure you) for great deal of time. When I finally started writing the novel, it poured forth. It's still pouring forth. (*Knock on wood*) Life is good; no complaints.

Except for Eliahna. She is vital to the plot. But every time I write a scene with her in it, I feel careless, bored, like I don't want to write. Every other scene writes itself. Scenes with the dear girl plod along -- I can barely make a thousand words in a sitting.

Have you ever experienced something like this? What did you do? Did you plow through or throw her out? Any suggestions?

In the meantime, I think I'm going to beat her up rather badly so that I at least feel sorry for her...