Monday, March 13, 2017

Writing: A Survival Guide for INFJs

Note: If you don't know your personality type, I highly suggest taking the 16Personalities test.

The day I discovered I'm an INFJ and read my first personality profile, it was like WHO ARE YOU AND HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN SPYING ON MY LIFE? Suddenly, all my weirdness made sense. As I continued to learn about common strengths and weaknesses for my personality type, it was illuminating not just for my everyday life, but for my life as a writer.

They say INFJs make up the smallest percentage of all personality types—less than 1%. And from my very unofficial surveys it seems like writers ARE the 1%. It makes sense, since most INFJs are naturally creative. But while being an INFJ can make us feel unique, it also comes with a unique set of challenges, especially as writers. These struggles are something all writers may face (and on the flip side, not all INFJs may struggle with these), but if you find yourself having a particularly hard time in these areas (like me), here are some tips for surviving and thriving as an INFJ writer...

Struggle: We tend to be more sensitive to criticism and critique.



Why this can be a problem: If you're going to write a book, you're going to need critiques and you're going to face criticism.

What you can do: Realize that critique of your work is part of the process and business of being a writer. And it is NOT personal. When your critique partners read your latest manuscript and come back with suggestions, it's easy to get defensive. It's also easy to despair. Resist the urge to get sucked into either of those whirlpools. Find writing partners you trust and then remind yourself that they don't hate you or your book, no matter how many comments they make on your manuscript. In fact, they want to help you succeed. Critique is essential to growth and success as a writer—and FYI, none of us ever reach a point where we've "made it" and no longer need feedback. If it's not coming from your CPs, it's going to come from an agent or an editor. Learn to see this part of the writing life as a positive, not a negative.

Criticism can be a harder beast to face. My advice? Don't dwell on it. I know—easier said than done. But again, it's par for the course as a writer. Reading is subjective. What one reader thinks is amazing, another might hate. Think about all the books you've loved...and the ones you didn't. Yes, it might feel like a personal assault when someone dislikes our book, but in the end, it's just one person's opinion, and we don't have to let that opinion become part of our identity—as a person, or a writer.

Struggle: We can be extremely private.



Why this can be a problem: We try to go it alone.

What you can do: Find yourself a community of writers who know what you're going through. You don't have to tell them every detail of your life, but having friends who understand the ups and downs of the writing life—and who can offer encouragement and a safe space to feel all the feelings that come with it—is essential to staying emotionally healthy as a writer.

Struggle: We tend to be perfectionists.



Why this can be a problem: We can be tempted to quit in the first draft, or edit and revise for ages, convinced our words are never good enough.

What you can do: Learn that first drafts and perfection do NOT go together. Writing is messy and it takes time. Find trusted CPs and send them your work even when you know it's not perfect. In order for that manuscript to grow up into a book, it has to leave the nest. It will be okay, and so will you.

And remember, editing doesn't stop until that book is in print. Any agent you sign with is probably going to request a few changes, and once you have that glorious book deal, you'll be working with an editor who's going to request a whole lot more. Learn to let go and not obsess over every comma. Or should that be a semicolon? Maybe I should just rewrite the entire sentence so I don't have to figure out which one is right...(Don't pretend you haven't done this.)

Struggle: We hate feeling like we're not making progress, routine tasks are an annoyance, and interruptions push us over the edge.



Why this can be a problem: Cranky writer snaps at anyone and anything that causes delays in their writing goals or interrupts writing time. Despair sets in and we begin to question our life choices. Is this really worth it? Is it ever going to happen? I should just give up. 

What you can do: First, give yourself grace. Life happens. Sometimes you have a week where everything goes according to plan and you hit your daily word count goal with ease. Other weeks, the kids get sick, or appointments stack up, or bad news leaves you mentally and emotionally exhausted. You're lucky if you manage a paragraph. Realize that this is okay. It may be frustrating, but it's also out of your control.

Secondly, learn to prioritize. 99.9% of the writers I know (including myself) don't write full time. We're also students, employees, business owners, SAHMs trying to juggle writing and motherhood...all with tasks that *aren't* writing screaming for our attention. It's easy for writing to become that thing we do when we've managed to get everything else done. I don't know about you, but I have a strong tendency to get overwhelmed by the length of my to-do list, and I don't always prioritize that list very well. I want to check everything off the list as quickly as possible, but what I need to do is decide what HAS to be done today, and what can wait until tomorrow or the next day. If I have a graphic design job that's not due for two weeks, I don't have to finish it in the next eight hours, I can space it over the next few days. As much as I hate the stack of dirty dishes next to the sink, they'll still be there after a quick writing session. Figure out what part of your day is going to be the best time for writing (said time may shift from day to day), and when that time comes, write. For me, it's usually in the afternoon when the kids' homeschool work is done and they're free to watch cartoons or play video games. Sure I could be tempted to tackle that stack of dishes, but it's a lot easier to write during that window of relative peace and quiet. Later, when the husband is home and the kids are running wild through the house with their Nerf guns, and the dog is barking because the neighbors have dared to pull into their driveway—then I can do those dishes.

Struggle: We tend to neglect self care.



Why this can be a problem: Creative burnout is a real thing.

What you can do: This goes along with the last problem, in that it's easy to push yourself TOO hard to juggle life and responsibilities AND write your novel. That's why balance—and knowing when to take a break—is so important. 

Confession—when I'm deep in a project, writing or otherwise, I forget to eat. Yeah, you're not the first person to make that face at me. This is the point where I usually lose people. I have a couple of friends who totally feel me on this, but most folks hear that and are horrified. ("You forget to EAT? How is that even possible?") Turns out it's an INFJ quirk. I mean, I'm in the middle of a five hundred-word streak! Having to stop and make food is SO annoying. Do you know how long it takes to microwave that noodle bowl? Four minutes! I just...give me a second...if I don't write this down, I'll forget this brilliant line...it's okay, I had breakfast this morning...I think...how long have I had to pee this bad? 

Even on days where the words aren't flowing, it's easy to spend hours trying to squeeze something out of your brain and through your fingertips. When you're not actively writing, your mind is still swirling, trying to craft that perfect sentence or fill in that plot hole. Soon you're tired and cranky and your brain is mush. Every sentence sounds idiotic. Your anxiety is skyrocketing and you're convinced you're a sham—you'll never be a successful writer. Who were you kidding? Whut R werds? 

This is your hint that you need to take a break. Rest. Do something that inspires you creatively and/or relaxes your mind and body. Take a walk. Listen to music. Watch a film or read a book. I'm not a person who believes you have to write EVERY SINGLE DAY in order to be successful. In fact, I've found that I'm much more successful at meeting my goals if I include consistent breaks and moments of rest. Take time to recharge. Your manuscript will thank you. And when you do get back to writing? Take a muffin with you.


I'd love to hear from you! Did you connect with any of these struggles? What strategies have you implemented to help you overcome? 

This post is also appearing on To the Shelves - be sure to check out the other great writing tips available on the site!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Author Interview: Jenny Ferguson, Author of BORDER MARKERS (Plus Giveaway!)




Today I'm chatting with Jenny Ferguson, author of BORDER MARKERS. Jenny happens to be one of my Pitch Wars 2015 classmates (and a fellow 2016 Pitch Wars mentor!), so I have first-hand knowledge of what a lovely human being she is. I'm so excited to have her on the blog to tell us more about her debut novel! So, without further ado, here's what Jenny had to say about her book, the inspiration behind the story, and her opinion on metaphorical snacks.





First of all, what is BORDER MARKERS about?

I am not good at this question. How about I let you read the blurb, something a group of skilled people came up with!

After the accidental death of a high school-aged friend, the Lansing family has split along fault lines previously hidden under a patina of suburban banality. Every family's got secrets, but for the Lansings those secrets end up propelling them away from the border town of Lloydminster to foreign shores, prison, and beyond. 
Told via thirty-three flash fiction narratives, fractured like the psyches of its characters, Border Markers is a collection with keen edges and tough language. It's a slice of prairie noir that straddles the line between magic and gritty realism.

See, I feel better knowing you read that and I didn’t mess it up by trying to do something I’m terrible at. I’m a storyteller, not a story-summer-upper.

What inspired you to write this book?

Through one of those silly acts of fate, I ended up living in Lloydminster, Alberta/Saskatchewan, Canada, for two years in the middle of my high school career. A rough move, to say the least. It gets cold that far north in Canada—the kind of cold where you need to plug cars in so that they’ll start in the morning. Once, I drove half way across town with a 50 foot extension cord trailing behind me on the icy roads—but that’s another story.

The other act of fate that turned me into the woman who would write Border Markers was that my parents enrolled me in the local Catholic high school so that I could continue my French Immersion studies, and not the public high school, where I would have been a lot more comfortable. But after all, I’d been studying French since kindergarten: I probably shouldn’t quit just because we moved to what I considered the frigid, middle-of-nowhere.

In the end, I really ended up loving Lloydminster, the people and the places, despite the town’s many problems.

And now we’re going to time warp a few years: I’m back in Toronto, and I’m working as a clerk in a busy maternity ward, and I get an email that sucks the air out of the room.

A friend of mine has been attacked on the street.

My friend dies later that night.

For a long time, I’m wrecked. For a long time, I don’t know how to process. When I can, I know that the town of Lloydminster, this place I thought I didn’t belong to, was the right place to go back to in order to move forward.

Of course, Border Markers is fiction. But the emotion and the weight of life in the pages comes from the town, from its people—and yeah, I’m one of them even if I don’t live within those borders today.

Places imprint themselves on you, and you imprint yourself on those places, as it should be.

I love that—life's imprints. So beautiful. What imprint do you hope your book leaves on your readers?

Always, always, always I hope that my book—and any other books I publish—hit a reader in the feels. Literature, in my heart, is always about transmission of emotion and experience. And by experiencing these things, we change. This is something I believe: Books change people, and by changing people, they change the world.

Okay, re-reading that, I come across as someone who has lofty goals. But, hey, that’s not a bad thing, right?

Do you have any writing rituals when you're penning all the feels? Beverages, snacks, walking three laps around the room counter clockwise before you sit down at your desk?

I have to write alone. I guess you could say that I can be alone in a room full of people, but I need to feel isolated, and I need to feel empty.
That doesn’t mean I don’t snack. The empty feeling is more metaphorical. You know writers, we like metaphors. But not metaphorical snacks. That’s not cool.

The last three books you read:

Other than my Pitch Wars slush pile? Haha. Okay, then we need to wind back to my lovely vacation to Croatia/Montenegro this past June:

Erin Morgenstern’s THE NIGHT CIRCUS
Louis Carmain’s GUANO: A NOVEL (translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins)
Matthew Heiti’s THE CITY STILL BREATHING

Coke or Pepsi?

When I’m bad, coke with a squirt of lime, over ice. When I’m good: water with the same lime over the same ice. 



What's your best piece of advice for writers?

You have to love the process, even when you hate it. Because the process is writing. Publishing isn’t writing. It might be part of writing, but it’s not the whole thing. Oh and I’m going to add in a second, but related, thing: mental health breaks. Take them when you need them. Enjoy the time away from writing, from the process, so you can come back to it and still love it.


Jenny Ferguson lives in a log cabin (without an internet connection) and names her pets after (dead) American presidents. She is M├ętis, French-Canadian, a feminist, and an activist. BORDER MARKERS is her first novel.

Twitter: @jennyleeSD




Thank you so much, Jenny, for being on the blog today! Congratulations on your debut!

BORDER MARKERS is now available to order on Amazon. And starting today, you have a chance to win a copy! Enter Jenny's Goodreads Book Giveaway by clicking on the widget below! (Also, I've been told if you visit Jenny's website, there just might be another surprise giveaway.)



Goodreads Book Giveaway


Border Markers by Jenny Ferguson

Border Markers

by Jenny Ferguson


Giveaway ends October 06, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.


Enter Giveaway

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Letter to the Pitch Wars Hopefuls Who Didn't Get In

Dear Heartbroken Hopefuls,

As someone who didn't get into Pitch Wars (or land an agent) with my first book, I know the sting of rejection. I know how much it sucks to anticipate and hope and wait and then not have things work out the way you wanted them to.

I'm here to tell you, it's okay.

It's okay to feel really, really sad. It's okay to cry. It's okay to be jealous of those who got in. It's okay to be upset, to question everything, to wonder if being a writer is really worth it. To wonder if you want to keep going.

All of these feels are normal feels.

I love the scene in Gilmore Girls where Rory has broken up with Dean and is acting totally okay but Lorelei knows she is, in reality, not okay at all.


This is me telling you it's okay to wallow.


Let me say it one more time.

It's. Okay. To. Wallow.





Take a break. Stay off Twitter if you need to. Set aside your manuscript or WIP for a day or two and indulge in a Netflix binge.

And then come back.

My pastor said in a recent sermon "Bitter experiences in life aren't optional, but becoming bitter is." I know that's super heavy and serious after all those Gilmore Girl gifs, but it's true. Disappointments happen. If you're a writer they happen A LOT. But don't let it cause you to miss out on great things. Don't wallow for too long. Don't go into permanent hiding. Don't stop writing. I've said it before and I'll say it again: The opportunity to learn from the mentors, and your peers, doesn't end now that the Pitch Wars mentees have been chosen. We'll still be writing blog posts and answering your questions on Twitter and sharing encouragement and advice. The feed is still full of other writers looking for CPs and beta readers and just a friend to talk to who understands what they're going through. Embrace that community. Trust me when I say you'll not only want it, but NEED it as you continue to work toward your goals.

And of course, I'll tell you everything you've already heard from us mentors over the last week: Pitch Wars is not your only shot at an agent. It's not the only path to publication. Even those who did get in have no guarantee of either of those things. Keep writing, keep revising, take feedback into consideration, find good CPs, polish to best of your ability, and start querying. All this is great advice, and some of you have already put it into practice. But some of you want to punch me in the face right now because even though you know it's true, it doesn't make you feel better. If that's you, first let me extend you a virtual hug. The pizza guy is on speed dial. There's ice cream in the freezer. And I'll say it one more time.

It's okay to wallow.

We'll be here when you're ready to keep going. And we're already stocking up on confetti to celebrate with you when your time comes.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Pitch Wars Prep #5: Making Your Mentor Picks

I CHOOSE YOU!!

When the Pitch Wars mentor blog hop goes live, there will be A LOT of mentors for you to choose from. You might feel overwhelmed looking at the list of names, knowing you have to narrow it down to your top 4 choices. So today I'll be sharing some of the strategies I used last year as a mentee hopeful to narrow down my list. 

The first and most important rule of choosing a mentor is to make sure you submit only to those mentors that want both your age group AND your genre. 

I cannot stress this enough. I know all of the mentors are amazing and you've probably checked them out on Twitter and there are a couple you think are super cool and you may even have your heart set on subbing to them, but when the wish lists go live, it doesn't matter that you both love nachos and that Kimmy Schmidt is your spirit animal, too. If your genre is not on their list DO NOT SUB TO THEM. The reason we have these wish lists is because we all prefer, and have better knowledge of, certain genres. If, after reading their wish list, you're not sure if a mentor would be interested in your specific genre, don't be afraid to ask! But subbing to a mentor who has specifically said they don't want your genre is not only a waste of an entry, it shows a lack of care and respect for the mentors and the submission process.

Now that you've pinkie sworn not to sub outside your genre, here are my tips for narrowing down your selection and finding the perfect mentor. This is actually very similar to the process I used for coming up with an agent list when I started querying my first novel. One of the many perks of Pitch Wars is that it's great practice for the leg work and research required when querying agents!

1. Read through the mentors' wish lists and write down the names of those who want your genre. 

2. Using your list, make a second pass and pay attention to the details.

It's important to read ALL the information the mentors provide to determine who is most likely to connect with your story. Just because a mentor wants your genre doesn't mean they're the best fit for your particular book. What do I mean? Last year, I submitted a MG fantasy. There were plenty of MG mentors who wanted fantasy submissions, but most of them went into further detail. Some explained that they weren't interested in stories that involved portals to other worlds, or that they weren't fans of talking animals. Since my book included both of those things, I crossed those mentors off my list. Again, it's just good etiquette to respect the mentors' requests, and finding a wish list that really meshes with your book is going to give you the best shot at being chosen as a mentee.

3. Come up with a wish list ranking system.

As you scrutinize the lists, it can be really helpful to use a ranking system to keep track of which lists best fit your book. For me, this meant I put one star by anyone whose list was a general fit for my novel, two stars for a list that was a good match, and three stars for a list that was a perfect match. 

4. Get to know your top mentor picks.

Once you have your mentor picks narrowed down to say your top 5-10, it's all about getting to know them better. You can do this by reading the mentor mini-interviews, following and interacting with mentors on Twitter, and watching the live Pitch Wars mentor chats. Whose strengths are your weaknesses? Whose personality do you think you would click with? Whose favorite book is one of your comp titles? These are all things to take into consideration so that you can make those excruciating final cuts.

5. Make your final choices.

I know, there are so many amazing mentors. There were the years I entered, too (and many of them have returned) so trust me when I say I feel your pain when it comes to making your final choice! But if you're willing to put in the time and effort to do your research, you can submit with confidence, knowing that you've done your best to put your manuscript into the right hands.

And don't forget! Brenda is offering 2 extra submission slots to Pitch Wars donors who give $20 or more! Which means you'll only have to narrow your list down to 6 mentors instead of 4. Details here
*All mentors are donating their time to Pitch Wars and mentors do not have access to any donation records. Whether a potential mentee donates or not has zero influence on the mentors' final decisions.

Pitch Wars is fast approaching and I can't wait to share my wish list with you!! Here's a sneak peek at my favorite books list. ;)


Last, but not least...Part 5: Making Your Mentor Picks.



Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Pitch Wars Prep #4: Why You Should Enter (And What to Expect)

Okay, so you've got a polished manuscript, a perfected query letter, and you've conquered the dreaded synopsis. Congratulations, you're ready to enter PitchWars!


That queasy pit of nervous excitement in your stomach? Totally normal. 

Other feelings that are also totally normal:
Doubt
Fear
Anxiety
Questioning Your Sanity


Also, voices. The ones that say things like, "Do you really want to do this? Do you really want to bare your writer soul to a group of strangers in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, they'll like your book?"

Yes. Yes, you do. Here's why:

Being a writer is all about putting yourself out there. And if you're serious about becoming a published author, it's unavoidable. It's also hard and scary. But at some point you're going to have to decide that you've done all you can do, your book is finished, and it's time for it to leave the nest. Pitch Wars gives you a great opportunity to let your book test its wings. 

The entire Pitch Wars process is the life story of a querying writer. If you've never queried before, it's a great way to dip your toes in the water. If you have queried before, well then you know the drill! Just like when querying agents, you have to polish your manuscript, prepare your submission materials, research the mentors' wish lists to see who would be the best fit for you and your book, submit your entry, and then...wait. (Waiting is also part of the writer's life story.)

But what if I'm not chosen? I hate the thought of being disappointed. I get it. I've been on both sides of the Pitch Wars coin: I submitted in 2014 and didn't get in, tried again in 2015 and was chosen as a mentee. I've felt both disappointment and elation on announcement day. But disappointment is something all writers have to deal with, through every stage of the writing journey. If writers weren't willing to risk disappointment, books wouldn't exist. It's totally okay to feel bummed and have a cry and eat the ice cream, just don't stay there. If you're not chosen, take any feedback you receive, apply it to your book, seek out CPs and Beta Readers, and KEEP GOING. Remember, Pitch Wars, and other writing contests, are not the only way to get an agent. Plenty of writers - myself included - get their agents through the slush pile and old-fashioned querying. Not making it into Pitch Wars does not spell the end of your writing career. DON'T GIVE UP.

And whether you're chosen as a mentee or not, there's something all you hopefuls gain: An amazing community of fellow writers. The energy on the #PitchWars feed this year has been amazing! You guys are already connecting, swapping manuscripts, and encouraging one another. That doesn't have to end when the mentor picks go live. Writing is a tough business, every step of the way. Having a solid community of people who know what it's like, who can help you strengthen your writing, and talk you down when you're ready to quit is so important. Keep cultivating those relationships.

But what if I AM chosen? What can I expect as a mentee? Hard work. There will likely be late nights, or early mornings, or lunches eaten in front of your laptop. You should be ready and willing to listen to critique and thoughtfully consider your mentor's suggested revisions. Some may resonate with you right away, some you might want to think about for a day or two, some might spark a different "Hey, what if we did THIS?" idea. You may have to kill some darlings and cut a few (or a lot) of words. The days until the agent round will both drag and fly by. And there will also be fun! Twitter chatting and team names and gif wars and taunting and all sorts of shenanigans. If I had to sum it up in two words: Challenging & Awesome.


But you can't experience any of it if you don't put yourself out there and jump into the fray! Don't let doubt, insecurity, or fear prevent you from taking the plunge. No matter the outcome, you'll have the chance to grow as a writer, and that my friends, is a win. 

I can't wait to share my mentor wish list with you so you can send me all your amazing middle grade submissions! (I mean, we all know MG is the best category, amiright?) Check out my final Pitch Wars Prep post for strategies on sorting through the wish lists and choosing a mentor. 

And since I'm obsessed with these adorable gifs, I leave you with a viable option for retrieving sustenance during the Pitch Wars insanity...



Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pitch Wars Prep #3: The Synopsis

In order to enter Pitch Wars you need two things: a completed manuscript and a query letter. But if you read last week's post on queries, you'll notice I mentioned there's a third thing that could be requested by potential mentors after they've read your submission. That third thing is...a synopsis.


Yes, the dreaded synopsis. It's practically a 4-letter word in the writing world. They're notoriously difficult and writers everywhere balk at the idea of having to condense their beautiful novels into a few paragraphs of factual prose that give away the ending. Tell us authors we have to write one and we'll go all April Ludgate on you.


As much as you may hate the prospect of writing one, if you're serious about getting published, you're going to need a synopsis sooner or later. Last year when I entered Pitch Wars, all four of the mentors who requested additional materials from me also requested a synopsis. Now, some of them also specifically said to send it only IF I had one, and no mentor is going to reject a stellar novel over a mediocre synopsis (after all, we're here to help you improve these things), BUT it's a really, really good idea to have one prepared. Why? Because 1) It shows you've taken the time to research what it requires to query a novel and you've come prepared, 2) There's a chance that requesting agents in the agent round will want a synopsis as part of their submission guidelines, and 3) Writing a synopsis can help you spot potential problems in your story and give you the opportunity to fix or strengthen those areas before submitting.

But why do some agents request a synopsis?

Agents get hundreds of submissions in their inboxes every week. Your sample pages are going to give an agent a glimpse at your main character, voice, and writing prowess (and hopefully hook them with all those things), but a synopsis gives them a more detailed view of your story, plot, and character arc before they commit to reading through your entire manuscript. Not all agents request them, but it's better to have one and not need it, than be scrambling to write one once it's requested, or to limit your querying options to only those agents who don't specifically list them in their submission guidelines.

How long should my synopsis be?

The answer — it completely depends on the agent you're querying. The general rule of thumb is 1-3 pages. My suggestion? Create a one-page synopsis (this will be perfectly fine for Pitch Wars) and only go longer if the agent's guidelines state they want a longer version. Now, before you panic about the prospect of having to write two different synopses, it's important to remember that when writing a one-page synopsis, it should be single-spaced, but when you move to multiple pages, it should be double spaced. My synopsis for FOLLOW ME was one full page (just under 600 words) single-spaced. When expanded to double-spaced, it becomes two pages. So if an agency specifically asks that your synopsis be no less than 3 pages, chances are you'll only need to add one more page, or 300 words or so.

What should my synopsis include?

Your main character, sidekick/love interest, antagonist, inciting incident, main plot points, climax, resolution and ending, with your MC's emotions, reactions, and character development sprinkled throughout. The general rule of thumb is to name no more than 3 characters, and to identify everyone else by their role (mother, co-worker, teacher, etc.). Now, I freely admit I broke this rule and named 5 characters in my synopsis for FOLLOW ME. But as with all writing "rules" I learned the rule first, then made sure I had a firm reason for breaking it: It was important that agents knew who my MC's mother was, and my MC's mother and brother play a crucial role in my story's climax and I hated how wordy and cumbersome it was to keep repeating "her mother" and "her brother" throughout the last paragraph. 

What are some basic tips for writing a good synopsis?

A synopsis should always be in third person present tense, even if your story is written differently. Leave out backstory and subplots. Be sure to use active voice, and avoid wordiness and unimportant facts. Strip your language down to only the most essential details. For example, instead of saying... 

On a hot and sunny afternoon, Marge goes to the beach to relax and take a swim, and while there she witnesses an argument between two strangers. Later that night, while watching the evening news, Marge is horrified to see one of the strangers' faces appear on the screen beneath the scrolling words "DEAD BODY FOUND WASHED UP ON SHORE."

...pare it down to the bare essentials:

Marge goes to the beach and witnesses an argument between two strangers. Later that night, she discovers one of them has washed up dead on the shore.

And remember, a synopsis isn't meant to be flashy or oozing with voice. It's meant to give the basic facts and show the story arc. Wow the mentors (and agents) with your sample pages and stick with the basics when it comes to your synopsis. 

What's the magic formula for actually writing this thing?

Here's the deal...I'm not going to reinvent the wheel here. Instead, I'm going to direct you to my absolute favorite synopsis-writing formula of all time: HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS over at Pub(lishing) Crawl (also my favorite writing blog name of all time). There may not be one magic formula to rule them all, but in my opinion, this one is pretty dang close. It's the one I've found the most helpful, and the one I used when I wrote my synopsis for FOLLOW ME. Not only does it take you step-by-step through creating your own synopsis by using question prompts, in bonus nerdy brilliance it uses Star Wars as an example.

Now that you're ready to tackle the dreaded synopsis, take a deep breath. You can do this. And you're totally entitled to celebrate with pie/chocolate/wine when you're finished.

But just in case you need it...

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Pitch Wars Prep #2: The Query Letter

Important Preface: There are lots of different opinions about what makes a great query letter and in what exact order you should present the information it contains. This is what worked for me. The most important thing is to always follow the agent's/agency's/contest's submission guidelines. After that, it's a matter of learning and applying the basic rules of a strong query...and then not stressing out too much over a vague definition of perfection. :)

To enter Pitch Wars, you'll need two things: A completed manuscript (which we talked about last week) and a query letter. (There's also a third thing that may be requested later by potential mentors, but we'll get to that next week.)

First the basics: What is a query letter?

A query is a cover letter for your submission. It tells agents (and Pitch Wars mentors) what your book is about, your book's basic information (age group, genre, and length), and a little bit about you, the author. All of this should be contained to one page, single spaced (typically 3-5 paragraphs), formatted with no indentations and double spaced between paragraphs (like this blog post).

Now let's take a closer look...

The Salutation

Always personalize your greeting. Seriously, this is SO important. I see agents mention ALL THE TIME that they would much rather receive a query addressed directly to them than an impersonal "Dear Agent" or even worse, "To Whom It May Concern." When querying, you should be researching each agent, looking at their wishlists and bios and submitting to those you feel would be a good fit for your manuscript. Never query an agent (or mentor!) without first making sure they represent your age group and genre. Addressing your query to a specific agent helps show that you've taken this step. Also, triple check to make sure you've spelled their name properly before you hit send.

"But what about Pitch Wars?" you ask. In cases of contests like Pitch Wars (or the odd literary agency) where you submit one query to a group of people, rather than one specific person, you can still personalize your greeting with something like "Dear Pitch Wars Mentors" or "Dear [Name of Agency]."

Note: I know some people address their queries to the agent's first name, but I always preferred to use Ms. or Mr. [Last Name]. If I received a reply asking for additional materials, and the agent began with "Dear Ashley" and signed with their first name (which happened 100% of the time, in my experience), then I would use their first name for all future correspondence. 

Opening Paragraph

I always preferred to start my queries in one of two ways:

Option 1: Tell the agent why you're querying them specifically. I only did this if I had a reason that went beyond "You represent my age group and genre and you seem like a super cool person." For example, if you've met them at a conference, if they've posted a specific #MSWL, tweeted a want that fits your manuscript, or if you have a referral from one of their clients. If you don't have a super specific reason, or you're subbing to a contest like Pitch Wars, that's okay. There's another option.

Option 2: Jump right into your book's summary. 

Summary

This is where you showcase your story. Think of it as the back-of-the-book blurb. A good formula is to introduce your main character, place them in the setting, add the inciting incident that thrusts your MC into their journey, the obstacle in their way, the role the sidekick/love interest/antagonist plays, a pivotal moment when the conflict increases, and what is at stake if your MC can't overcome the obstacle.

I always preferred to limit my summary to two paragraphs, but sometimes you may need three. If your summary is longer than three paragraphs, you might be including too much information. Keep it short and punchy! The first sentence or two should hook the reader and pique their interest, but whatever you do, don't start with a question. Agents hate rhetorical questions in queries. :)

Here's my successful query for my MG fantasy, FOLLOW ME, showing how I included the points mentioned above: 

Twelve-year-old Alivia Hart [MC] knows what no one else would ever believe: The woods took her mother. Now the forest [SETTING] is calling to Alivia with two words whispered on the wind..."Follow me." Alivia tells herself the voice is only in her imagination. But when a letter arrives from the Rose Grove School for Girls, [INCITING INCIDENT] Alivia must decide which she's more afraid of--a dull life of proper education, or the mysterious wood?

Deep within the trees, cats can talk, white rabbits wear waistcoats, and the tea is sweet [SETTING]. But Alivia soon encounters a darkness seeping through the moss and golden leaves. [OBSTACLE] A darkness laced with family secrets and controlled by a woman intent on continuing a bloodthirsty reign. [ANTAGONIST] As Alivia battles the evil that threatens to destroy both her and the forest itself, [INCREASED CONFLICT] it becomes clear victory will not be won within the wood. In order to rescue her mother [STAKES], Alivia will have to travel to the land beneath the Wondertree and fight not just for her family, but for a crown.

The most important component of your summary is stakes, stakes, stakes! Agents (and mentors) want to know who your MC is, what they want, what stands in the way of what they want, and what will happen if they can't overcome that obstacle. Also, don't give away your ending! The whole point is to entice the reader into wanting more — in this case, you want the agent/mentor to be intrigued by your premise and move on to your sample pages.

The Facts

Some people prefer to open their query with this information, I prefer to place it after my summary. The internet has plenty of examples of both, and both are acceptable options. Wherever you choose to put it, you'll need to include your book's title, word count, age group, genre, and (if you have them) comp titles. For example: [TITLE] is a [#]-word [age group] [genre] that will appeal to fans of [COMP TITLES]. If you have other specifics about the book that you want to highlight (for instance, if it's a retelling of a certain folktale, or immerses the reader in a specific culture) you could include that in this paragraph as well. 

A note regarding comp titles: You don't have to include these. If you do, try to use recent titles published in the last 2-3 years and resist the temptation to compare your novel to blockbuster hits like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games. Also, don't call your book "the next" anything.

Your Bio

This should come at the end of your query and, like comp titles, is completely optional. Don't feel like you *have* to come up with qualifications or interesting things to say about yourself. If you do choose to add a bio, it can include publication credits (no, you don't have to call yourself "unpublished" if you don't have any, or state that this is your first novel), education, career, professional writing organizations you belong to (like SCBWI), contests/awards you've won, etc. But keep it short and sweet; don't end up with a bio that's longer than your summary — always make sure you talk more about your book than about yourself. 

Now for my personal opinion on bios: Sometimes this part of your query can feel like the most difficult, especially if you don't have a writing degree or previous publications but you really want to include something. Or maybe the agency you're querying specifically asks for a bio to be included with your submission. What then? Some will say that if you don't have some sort of credentials don't include a bio at all unless you can say something relevant to your book. HOWEVER, I feel that it's perfectly acceptable to include a short one- or two-sentence snippet that gives a glimpse of your personality (something I think is nice to include even if you do have credentials to list). For example, my query bio opened with "Mom by day and writer by night, I am a firm believer in the restorative power of tea and baked goods." So I say go ahead and include a bit about yourself, or mention what inspired your story, like a trip to a certain location, or a personal experience. When it comes down to it, it's highly unlikely an agent that is interested in your book based on the rest of your query is going to get to your bio and say, "She listed nothing relevant to her story! REJECT!" 

Closing

Finally, I think it's nice to close your queries with a simple expression of appreciation, such as "Thank you for your time and consideration." Then you can sign off and include your contact info (mailing address, phone number, email) underneath your name.

Once you've finished writing your query, it's a good idea to pass it along to a CP for further edit suggestions or even just a friend for proofreading. Another pair of eyes is always a plus before you hit send!

A final note for Pitch Wars participants: 

It's easy to stress over your query letter. Boiling the essence of your story down to two or three paragraphs can make you want to tear your hair out. But as I mentioned in last week's post, mentors aren't looking for perfection. We do want to see that you've taken the time to learn the basics of what should go in your query BUT we can always work on improving it if needed. Do your best, focus on making sure that your MC's stakes are clear, and from there hook us with the writing and voice in your sample pages. 

And with that, I leave you with a message from Motivational Fox.