Band-Aids

For those of you who have experienced the querying process, you more than likely have also experienced rejection. For writers, this is all part of the game. It’s even expected. But some rejections sting more than others. They aren’t the ones in which the characters aren’t developed, the plot isn’t there, or the genre is one agents just don’t represent. The ones that really hurt are the other ones. The ones who have the characters, have the story, and even have the writing ability, but for whatever reason, it’s just not coming together.

When this happens, two things take place:
1) Agents cry. We can’t figure out what’s wrong; We only know something isn’t working, and for this we grieve for what might have been.
2) Writers cry. The rejection letter is basically saying, “I love you, but let’s see other people.” It’s the break up that never gets any closure.

How can this be avoided, you ask? As with most things in life, it’s the little things that can sometimes make the biggest difference. The last thing you want to happen is have an agent on the fence about your novel, only to have them decide that the writing isn’t strong enough to hold their interest. A lot of times this can happen simply because the agent doesn’t have time to devote to something she’s not 100% positive about.

The thing is, there is no way to know how an agent will react to your writing, which is why before you begin querying, your novel should be exactly where you want it to be. Agents will always have their own ideas about how to fix plot holes or amp up certain scenes. What’s harder to do is try to fix a person’s writing style, so most times we won’t try. That’s why in addition to having the story you want, you should make sure your writing is the strongest it can be.

Good news! You can do this without having to edit a thing. I call this the Band-Aid approach to editing. No heavy lifting, no major plot shifts or added content. Just old-fashioned quick fixes that could make or break an on-the-fence agent’s opinion of your writing, especially if the agent you are querying is not known to be editorially hands-on.

Top 5 Band-Aids to Apply Before Querying:

1. Conjunction Injunction.
You know that scene in Dude, Where’s My Car? (you know you have) where Ashton Kutcher is at the drive-thru and the woman keeps asking, “And then???” Finally Ashton screams, “No ‘and then!'”  This is how I feel when I read too many sentences in a row that begin with conjunctions. Grammar aside, it turns the narrative into the kind droning “and then this happened and then this happened” story your four-year-old would tell you.

Sometimes standalone sentences that begin with “And” can be used for emphasis. And that’s OK. Other sentences, however, can end up sounding like a mere continuation of the previous sentence, making them sound weaker in comparison. Keep your voice strong, whether in narration or dialogue. Each sentence matters, and if too many of them become weak, they can start to reflect on your novel as a whole.

2. Avoid Entering the Department of Redundancy Department.
In the darkened room, a single light bulb flickered. He stood in front of me, facing me. I looked at him with my eyes, my heart beating in my chest.

For some reason, many writers think that writing this way builds suspense or adds depth to a scene. It doesn’t. All three of these sentences have repeated themselves, and your reader is savvy enough to figure that out. Instead take the above scene and remove the fluff.

A single light bulb flickered in the room. We looked each other in the eyes, and my heart pounded.

With these changes, we still know it’s dark in the room because there’s only one light bulb, and it seems to be dying. We also know that the main character and the man in the room are facing each other because they’re looking at each other in the eyes, not with their eyes. How else do you look at people? Likewise, where else would a person’s heart beat? (Other than beneath floorboards, I guess… but let’s try not to copy Poe.)

3. Don’t Always Think Before You Speak.
To paraphrase my former colleague, Nathan Bransford (in the form of a tweet), have your characters say anything except for what they are thinking.

In this other form of redundancy, writers end up repeating exact lines simply by making their characters think one thing and then say it out loud. We all love characters who say exactly what’s on their mind, but unless the character tells us she’s thinking one thing and then says the opposite, let’s assume that whatever she says is what she means. Even if later in the novel we learn she was lying, at least we’ll have been spared repetition.

4. Always Remember to Never Remember.
When a writer, particular when speaking in the past tense, wants to emphasize something, sometimes the narrator will begin a sentence with “I remember” or “I always.” Lesser offenses begin with “I think.” These modifiers are (almost always) surefire ways of turning showing sentences into telling sentences, thus making them weak for no reason.

When a narrator feels the need to say “I remember” in one sentence and not another, does that mean the rest of the story is based on speculation? Do we have reason to believe the story being presented to us is something the narrator doesn’t remember happening? It’s already obvious the narrator remembers what they are telling you just based on the fact they are telling you.

In all this remembering, sometimes a narrator will go deeper into the past and reveal that they “always” used to do something. Saying they’ve always done something doesn’t actually tell the reader anything. We just have to take the character at their word. If you show the character doing something, then we’ll believe them, and we’ll believe that they remember doing it.

5. Pass Writing 101.
I hate that I’m about to give the “avoid the passive voice” rule because you all have heard it a million times. Sometimes, the passive voice is useful. In mysteries, for example, “A doorbell rang” is a perfectly acceptable sentence. Who rang it? The killer??? We don’t know. And we shouldn’t know – yet.

In other circumstances, however, the passive voice just makes for lazy writing. Give your characters a purpose, have them act, and don’t leave situations up to chance. What you might perceive as being intentionally cagey could read as a lack of confidence in your own writing.

Please remember that these five Band-Aids are just that. They aren’t meant to heal deep wounds or stop excessive bleeding. If an agent doesn’t love your story, then Band-Aids won’t help you. You’ll either need to majorly revise or accept your fate and try someone else. Band-Aids are to ensure your writing is as strong as your story, and to avoid turning silly mistakes into a make-or-break situation. That way, if you get a rejection saying “this isn’t for me,” you can simply move on to the next one without worrying whether it was because of that misplaced comma.

Ultimate Query Tips (No Really This Time…)

This morning, after a fairly Internet-free weekend, I opened my Google Reader to 1000+ unread items. After “reading” everything on The Huffington Post without actually opening anything, my Reader was boiled down to all the publishing news/blog posts I missed (OK, and some Cute Overload pictures). Since you also follow these agent, editor, and writer blogs (probably way more intently than I do), I don’t have to tell you that we publishing folk love to give advice. Like, a lot of it. Today was no different.

I searched on Twitter and in my Reader for “query tips” and the number of posts featuring those words were so many that there was no way I could link them all here. We all know there are tons of them. So much so that some writers have taken to mocking people who still don’t know the “rules.”

For sanity’s sake, I will focus on the two items I clicked today back-to-back – one from BookEnds and one from Rachelle Gardner. (By the way, both of these blogs are must-reads. Go follow them right now if you aren’t already.) Both posts offer query tips. Both posts are absolutely correct. And both posts should be largely ignored.

Explanation:

Every blog post or tweet offering query tips is useful. I do this on a regular basis via Twitter and offered a few blog posts myself in the past (here and here). However, every post you read about query tips, no matter who writes it, can be boiled down to one sentence: JUST TELL ME WHAT YOUR BOOK IS ABOUT.

Maybe it’s not in all-caps, since we’re all professionals here, but that is basically the sentiment. All agents ever want are a few succinct sentences that give a plot overview and an interesting character detail. No need to over-share or be overly coy. Just give us something that won’t make us ask any question other than “what happens next?”

The reason agents sometimes need to write posts detailing the more specific “don’ts” of querying are because sometimes writers need to be reminded that the story is 99% of what matters. We do not write them so you can analyze each one individually and obsess over whether you’ve committed that particular crime. We want you to stay sane! We just want to let you know when we keep seeing the same mistakes and try to prevent them.

Remember the one and only real query rule, which is presenting your book in an effective and direct way. Agents will always have different preferences when it comes to the “other stuff” in queries (grammar, personal info, novel comparisons, etc.), so take what we have to say and put it through your individual filter. If it doesn’t apply to you, move on. If it does, then take it under consideration. Note I said “largely” ignore us, but don’t discount us completely. We never open a query thinking “I can’t wait to reject this.” And if it becomes too hard to see why we shouldn’t, then we’ll write a blog post for you.

Write a Paranormal Bestseller W/out the Paranormal

So you wanna write a bestseller…

Only trouble is you don’t even like vampires, let alone want to write about them. I feel your pain, realistic fiction writers. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good paranormal story, but there’s a certain timelessness to realistic fiction whose story remains true generation after generation. I’d love to see a strong return to the realistic, adult or YA. There are some great realistic titles on the bestseller list now, but the charts are still largely dominated by paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with that… but for those of us who think real life still has an important place on the bestseller list, here are some tips for cashing in on that paranormal success without ever mentioning the V-word:

1) Write a vampire/werewolf/zombie/angel novel without using vampires, werewolves, zombies, or angels. There will always be people who cling to these creatures, whether they’re biting people, romancing people, or being comically self-referential. But when these novels reach bestseller status, it’s safe to assume they are being read by more than your typical genre fan. What “the masses” are responding to within these characters are not their supernatural abilities or folklore, but rather what they represent. Vampires seduce us, yet suck us dry. Werewolves are wild and have the power to make us just like them. Zombies are mindless followers out to destroy those with free will. Angels are our saviors in whatever crisis we face. We all know people like them in our lives, and they don’t always come from another realm of existence.

2) Get adult/YA crossover fans without being creepy. Twilight Moms freak me out. Taken literally, these desperate housewives lust after teenage boys who can literally tear them apart with their teeth. That’s wrong on many levels. However, Twilight Moms, much like adult fans of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, are not to be taken literally. To the crossover fans, these novels are more than just cool spells, hot teens, and kickass heroines. They’re about choices and battles and taking on more than you’re ready for. They speak to our senses of responsibility, memories of falling in love, and feeling as if the fate of the entire world is in our hands.

3) Want artistic recognition? Think Kafka. Gregor Samsa woke up one morning and found himself transformed into a giant insect. Hilarity does not exactly ensue. Instead, his family hides him and he slowly loses his humanity. The question on every English major’s mind is, “what does it mean?” and it should be the question on yours when you go to write. Addiction? Sexual identity? Divorce? Death? Insanity? What is your character hiding, and what has he become?

4) Buffy Doesn’t Always Have to Stake Things. Your female lead doesn’t need a man to kill things for her, whether those things are vampires or spiders. She’s vulnerable, yes, and sometimes she makes really poor choices, but don’t we all? Write a heroine who’s realistic and fallible, but who can still completely hold her own in a so-called “man’s world” without resorting to cheap flirtation or playing the damsel.

5) You Don’t Need an Apocalypse to Prove that Life Sucks. The world is going to end in a fiery blaze of concentrated evil and we will all be left to face the consequences, possibly resort to cannibalism or turn into a zombie, and finally we’ll be forced to form a small band of survivors intent on saving us from ourselves. Or, in other words, we are going to go through some serious shit at some point in our lives, stuff that could potentially destroy our very essence if we allow it to consume us. So, let’s not do that and learn to live again, maybe with the help of a close friend or love interest, but not necessarily.

Go forth and write the next bestseller… and get real.