Category Archives: writing

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Common query and writing mistakes to avoid

I’ve been seeing a lot of no-no’s recently so here we go: what not to do. Buckle up.

  • Long queries that ramble on will significantly hurt your chances. Agents receive a lot of queries, and we don’t have a lot of time to read them. Get to the point—4-5 short paragraphs max should be enough. We don’t need a scene by scene rundown of the book. The idea is to hook us and make us want to actually read your book.
  • On a somewhat related note, before you add your writing credentials to your query, ask yourself if they’re truly credentials worth mentioning. If you have an MFA and your short fiction’s been published, by all means let us know. If your grandma read the first 5 chapters and loved it, we don’t need to know.
  • There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing, but for the most part, we usually won’t represent a book you’ve already put up on Amazon. Publishers want original works, which means we want original works. So write an amazing new manuscript and send us that!
  • Word count isn’t important except when it is. Stay in the average range for your genre and category. This helps show that you’re familiar with your market. Yes, of course there are exceptions, but your 600,000 word thriller isn’t one of them.

The good news is that we outline our query instructions here. Unfortunately though, a good query doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good book, so here are a few common writing pitfalls to avoid.

  • Infodumping is a big no-no, and I often receive SFF sample pages that make this mistake. Blurting out everything about your world and characters at once is telltale sign that your novel isn’t quite there yet. Conversely, many sample pages read like an entirely different language with invented concepts and terms that strewn throughout the prose with no explanation. Can’t represent what I can’t understand.
  • Don’t overly describe your characters’ actions and emotions. The reader doesn’t need to know all the little movements that entail Joe boarding a bus. Likewise, the reader doesn’t need lengthy explanations of Joe’s innermost feelings. Better yet, don’t tell me your characters’ emotions at all. Good writing describes; truly great writing evokes.

Finding an agent is hard enough. Give your work the best shot it deserves by steering clear of the literary atrocities above. Have any other tips for our readers? Share ‘em in the comments.

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Zen writing life

I’ve been getting into yoga now that I’m inching toward my mid 40s and am suffering from a variety of aches and pains. I appreciate the deep stretching more than the deep breathing although I know the combination is what’s so good for us.

I was intrigued by this article by author Erica Black in the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association’s online magazine that compares yoga to writing. I can see the connections so clearly once it’s spelled out. That idea of a solo practice, the intensity of serious concentration, and working hard on something that can be painful and difficult but is ultimately (for most, at least) rewarding and uplifting!

What do you think? Do you appreciate the connection between a yoga life and a writing life? Does it feel like an apt comparison? Does one help the other? Namaste, and happy writing!

life yoga balance yogi flexibility

ps – that is so not me pictured!

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Mixing Music and Writing

A friend of mine recently introduced me to the art of listening to music while writing. He said it helps bring him inspiration and motivation in the same way some musicians use books as inspiration for their songwriting. My friend creates a playlist of songs that match the scene he’s writing—so if he’s writing a scary scene, he’ll listen to the kind of music you might hear in a horror movie—to help him better get into the mood of the scene. While it may seem like a self-explanatory concept, there really is a finer science to it the way he sees it.

Lyrics are the most important key to inspiration. Certain word in the lyrics can trigger new thoughts, which could lead to ideas for your novel. Hopefully if you’ve picked the correct song—which is why it’s important to take seriously—those ideas will match the theme of your book. The mood of the song is important to motivation. If you’re writing an action scene, you want a song with a faster tempo. If your own heart is pumping, you’ll feel more inclined to stay in the mindset of a character that’s escaping some type of danger.

I recently tried this method, being skeptical because the process of choosing music, and not just any music but that which would appropriately match my writing, seemed like a waste of time that could be spent actually writing. I also have a very difficult time hearing people sing words when I’m trying to write down different words. However, he was so enthusiastic about his method, I had to at least try it.

And it was magic.

Because the songs I’d picked were all about the subject of my attention, the words in the lyrics didn’t send my mind spiraling off topic, and it was much easier to get into the heads of my characters when the music matched their feelings or actions. Writing became more of an interactive experience; it became not only the soundtrack for my characters but for me as I wrote. I also worked for about twice the time I usually do, and I found my writing much more imaginative than normal.

I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be using this method more, and now I’ve become so much more interested in trying out different writing methods. Any suggestions?

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First person vs. third person

It seems like I’ve been receiving a lot of manuscripts/sample chapters written in the first person lately, and while this is absolutely fine if it works for that particular story/genre, I wanted to use this blog post as an opportunity to explain some common misconceptions about the different narrative points of view.

  • The idea that a third person narrator is not as intimate as a first person narrator is false. When I ask authors why they chose to write in first person, the response usually has to do with telling an intimate story. A third person narrator can be just as intimate—he/she can express the thoughts, fears and dreams of the character, as well as take a bird’s eye view of the action, which leads me to my next point
  • First person isn’t easier to write than third person. In fact, you could argue the opposite. As mentioned, writing in the third person grants you a lot more freedom—it allows you to write a story from any perspective you want. On the other hand, first person narratives can severely limit the author’s options. The author can’t write about events that the character doesn’t witness or the emotions and thoughts of other characters. It can be restrictive. Worse yet, if a reader doesn’t connect with a character’s voice, that kills the book right there. But perhaps most difficult of all, I find that writers tend to overemphasize emotions, which quickly becomes unbearable. Don’t, I repeat, DON’T put me in a glass case of emotion.

 

will ferrell glass case of emotion

 

  • Third person isn’t necessarily better than first person. While it should seem clear by now that I prefer the third person, it is in no way, shape, or form the better point of view. Certain genres work very well in first person, particularly YA. Furthermore, some books just work in first person regardless of genre. Think about your classic unreliable narrator, Holden Caulfield (although The Catcher in the Rye would probably be considered YA nowadays). The Martian and The Bookseller, and The Rosie Project were great in the first person…or so I’ve heard (only actually read The Martian). First person can work, don’t get me wrong. I just prefer third person.

I’d like to hear from our readers. Which point of view do you prefer to read? To write? Why?

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Running and writing

When my father first moved to New York City in the late 1960s, he got into the jogging trend that had just started sweeping the nation. And ever since, nary a week goes by where he doesn’t go out once or twice at the crack of dawn and log a few miles. As a kid, he’d often ask me to join him, and I still remember huffing and puffing up the hill from 90th street to 86th trying to keep up with his well-practiced strides.

And to this day, I HATE jogging.

Of course, to make myself even more miserable, I ran cross-country in high school– it was either that or gym class. Fortunately, our coach realized that many of us were only there for the class credit and could care less about our personal bests, so practices were pretty low key. But boy did I dread the Saturday meets at Van Corlandt Park in the Bronx–getting passed left and right, the burning lungs, the brutal final sprint across an open field to the finish line, all of which was made worse by those Friday nights of experimental teenage drinking.

So yeah, I am still not a runner. But maybe that’s why I’m an agent, not a writer?

All of this brings me to this interesting piece in The Atlantic about how so many prominent writers pair their writing with a running regimen. And it does make sense—like writing, running can be a long slog, but supposedly you get better with practice. And several authors note how it’s a good way to clear one’s mind and work out story issues away from the page.

So, do any of YOU run? If so, do you find that it helps your writing?

The long and winding path to great writing advice

I think Forbes.com is a wonderful resource for so many things. A couple of years ago I discovered my remarkable client, Amy Morin, who’d written an article called 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do that went viral after it was picked up by Forbes.com. It went on to become one of their most viewed articles in history and I later sold the book version of the piece which has done very well.

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Through that connection, I also met another client. A dynamic author and career success coach named Kathy Caprino who followed her passion to find a career she loves and helps others to do the same. She is also a contributor for Forbes.com and writes about women, work, female empowerment and all of those great topics we love.

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When I spoke with Kathy recently about her column, I mentioned yet another client, a very talented and prolific author named Cecilia Galante whose first adult novel, THE INVISIBLES, had just been released. I knew from speaking with Cecilia and hosting a book club at my house with her where she inspired everyone in the room that she would be someone who might be of interest to Kathy and her column so I introduced the two of them and this compelling interview on Forbes.com is the result.

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There is a lot to digest here, and much of it is advice we’ve heard before because it works. But Cecilia has such a way with words that it feels fresh and important. Some of it I’ve even talked about here on the DGLM blog before. But not quite in this way: “I’d tell other writers that if they want to write, they need to sit in the damn chair every day and write.” Same goes for the realities of making a living as a writer: “Betting on a lucrative career as an author is like waiting for lightening to strike.”

What’s your favorite bit of advice from Cecilia? Anything else to add to her pearls of wisdom? She’s definitely doing something right because while the lightning bolt might not have hit just yet, she’s under contract for another adult novel and two more middle grades!

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Gig economy not new to writers

I recently read a couple interesting articles about the rise of the gig or sharing economy, and conversation on the topic still seems to be very much alive. Regardless of how to define or categorize what’s happening to today’s economy, it’s a frightening thought—the idea of getting by without a reliable, steady paycheck. Where will the next check come from? When will it come and for how much? Most panic at the mere thought of having to live in such a way.

But writers (and their agents) have been doing it since Day 1. Plenty of professions base pay on unpredictable systems of compensation such as commissions, royalties, bonuses, etc. So how do you a manage to scrape by as a starving artist?

Tip 1: Plan. To the extent you can. If you usually receive royalty payments at a certain time of the month, try to align your bills in that window if possible.

Tip 2: Save. You’ll need to rely on savings at some point. If workflow decreases or earnings drop, you’ll have to adjust. Having a healthy savings account to rely on during the tough times will make it a whole lot more manageable.

Tip 3: Budget. Be realistic. If you typically receive around $10,000 in royalties, don’t spring for a new car based on pure optimism that you’ll rake in $30,000 in royalties this time around. In fact, don’t even count on the usual $10K. Play it on the safe side and set low expectations. Anything extra is found money as far as I’m concerned.

Tip 4: World Series starts tonight. Find a betting window and put it all on the Mets. Everything. Take out a loan if you have to. You’ll thank me later.

 

David Wright Pumped

 

Do our readers have any tips? I am going out on a limb and assuming most of you are writers. Care to share?

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All the book’s a stage

Checking Facebook obsessively does have its benefits when it comes to blog ideas–a Facebook friend posted this great blog post  on writing picture books. And while the author has a ton of good advice, particularly in how to handle revision and practice one’s craft, the phrase that stuck out most for me was “think of it as theater.”

I first heard the idea of a picture book as a theater when I was an editor working with the great art director Cecilia Yung. Cecilia would often encourage artists to look at their canvases (at least in the pre-digital age) as stages, with characters as actors and background as scenery. In fact, a lot of her instructions took the form of stage direction–“blocking” and “beats,” entrances and exits. I found it fascinating that artists working in a static medium like illustration would respond to the movement language of art so effectively, and indeed, I saw numerous books transformed under her tutelage.

But the theater analogy also spoke to my roots as an undergraduate classics major. Waaay back in my early days as an editorial assistant, someone pointed out that a picture books are an excellent format for employing the Aristotelean unities of action, time and place. In other words, like ancient Greek drama, a picture book ought to feature a single action or plotline, it ought to take place in a single day, and it ought to be located in a single setting. Off the top of my head, I’d say Mo Willems is an excellent practitioner of the classical arts–pretty much every ELEPHANT AND PIGGIE does Aristotle proud!

So, for those who are looking to write (and illustrate) picture books, I heartily encourage you to take a theatrical view. Instead of a 32-page format, think of your book as 16 scenes to be filled with characters and setting. Find a single problem or action that needs to be resolved in a short amount of time in a limited setting, especially if you’re writing for younger readers whose experience of the world and concept of time are only just beginning to develop.

And if you need further inspiration, there are any number of children’s theater productions based on picture books these days–check out these guys if you’re in NYC. I can’t wait to see what they do with CAPS FOR SALE!

 

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Work spaces

My son’s orchestra teacher sent him home with an assignment this past weekend: Film your practice space and tell me why it inspires you or helps you focus while you practice.  The resulting two-minute video showed my son leading a very limited tour of one corner of our den where his viola and guitar lessons and practices routinely take place.   Showing his teacher that the area was comfortable, brightly lit, teeming with musical instruments (my husband is a guitar collector), with enough room for his music stand, not to mention  easy access for our nosy standard poodle to hang out, earned him an A.  The point of the exercise, I believe, was to make kids aware that where they practice their instruments affects how much and how well they do it.

Given that I’ve spent most of my life looking for that perfect work space for my at-home reading and editing, I found this assignment charming.  My ideal situation would be a quiet, well-lit room, with little to no through-traffic, a comfortable chair—with ottoman for stretching out—a nice side table to stack papers and nearby shelves to keep supplies at easy reach.  The most important thing about this platonic ideal of a work space would be nothing that could create a distraction from the task at hand.  In my H.G. Wells moments, I envision some kind of force field that completely neutralizes iPads, Kindles, iPhones, laptops, televisions, etc., while in the room—basically the room equivalent of noise cancelling headphones.

My reality is a corner of my living room or my bedroom with multiple, every few minutes, interruptions from my husband looking for something only I know where he put, my son listening to the baseball game (or Sponge Bob) loudly nearby, the dog needing to be let out every time someone walks past our house so she can bark at them and then ask to be let back into the house again, my parents calling, texts making my iPhone buzz…. You get the idea.

And this is just me trying to edit, not write.  Which is why I really enjoyed this piece by Victoria Patterson in The Millions.  There’s nothing new about the need writers have for a space conducive to their writing—just ask Virginia Woolf—but these days, when our attentions are so under siege, it’s especially important to find that one place you can get down to the business of creativity.

What’s your writing space like?

Successful query breakdown via an author and her agent

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I was recently asked by my talented client Kristi Belcamino to join her in a guest post for Writer’s Digest in Chuck Sambuchino’s “Successful Queries” series to share her query letter and my response. I shared why I was drawn to it and ultimately went on to represent and sell the book. I love this kind of thing because it feels so simple and yet I know for prospective authors looking for advice this kind of feedback, which includes a real life example, can be really useful.

Book publishing is obviously an inherently subjective business so what appeals to me is not necessarily what appeals to others. However, when I look at a successful query letter, I find there are certain things that are generally done well.

In Kristi’s case, she introduces herself and her background in a way that is intriguing. An actual female crime reporter? Bring it on!
Then we see a first line that sucks you right in: Gabriella Giovanni has never met a man more exciting than a murder. I’m beyond interested to know more about this character.

She goes on to CLEARLY and CONCISELY pitch the book in a way that makes you want to read more. My best advice for writers looking to pitch their books in a query letter is to try to write the jacket copy of the book. You can go into greater detail about the story and characters in a synopsis or follow-up email, but for me (and again, this is subjective), I want to see the elevator pitch because if you can describe your work in a clear, concise and compelling way, then I can too when I speak with editors on your behalf.

Finally, she offers additional information about her writing background which shows me that not only has she received good feedback from industry professionals for her work, but that she also has worked hard on her book and takes her writing seriously.

Take a look at our post and let us know what you think and if there’s anything else you see in Kristi’s query or my response that’s worth targeting. Happy querying!

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