As I mentioned in my last blog post, redefining my goals was a must as of late. I should have been hard at work on novel number two right now, while my second round of queries floated in the ether. But, due to some excellent revision suggestions, I’ll be focusing my time on edits for The Devil Inside Me.
If you’re in the same boat, I’ve rounded up a few articles, old and new, that provide advice on numerous levels of editing, including finding and using a developmental editor–something I’m currently deciding on. I hope that these provide you some help and direction as they have me. Let me know how your writing process is going!
I finished my edits for The Devil Inside Me over the summer. There were some drastic changes–including changing my protagonist–that I did based on feedback from a published author, an agent, and a small press publisher. At first, I started out with just changing up a few chapters to see how it felt. What can I say? I think the pros know what they’re talking about. I loved it, and as I went through the rewrites, I loved it even more.
At a writing conference I attended over the summer, I was able to personally pitch my book to an agent and a publisher. Both asked to see my first three chapters. After reading those, the agent declined, but the publisher asked for a full manuscript.
I about fell out of my chair.
It’s what I wanted, of course, but I was surprised that someone else thought it would have merit. Validation is oh-so-important to writers.
Second, if you haven’t already, stalk follow people who know what they’re talking about, like Jane Friedman, QueryShark Janet Reid, and agents who represent your genre. Read the agent’s webpage and study their agency’s website–some will have specific instructions on what they seek in a query letter.
Step 2: Finish your manuscript
Unless you are writing non-fiction, you should have a finished manuscript, edited and polished, ready to send to an agent or small press publisher the minute they ask for it.
Step 3: Write the query letter
It’s painful, but again, do your research. Revisit step 1.
Step 4: Curate agents
This took more time than I anticipated it would, but I wanted to get it right. There is no point in querying someone who doesn’t accept science fiction if that’s what you’ve written. As I mentioned above, I cross-referenced Publishers Marketplace,Manuscript Wish List, QueryTracker, and agent websites for those open to queries in my genre.
I created a spreadsheet with all of their information bits–agency, email address, likes, dislikes, extra details on personal interests, their response-time estimates, etc. You can use QueryTracker’s tracking feature, but I wanted the ability to add more detail. I tried using those extra details to prioritize which agents would be the best fit for my manuscript.
Step 5: Personalize your query letters
One piece of advice I saw repeatedly, from general writing websites to agent webpages: please personalize the queries. Your paragraphs about your novel can remain the same, maybe even the paragraph about you, but be specific to whom you’re addressing. Don’t write “Dear agent” when you can write “Dear Ms. Jones.” If something on their MSWL made you think they’d be perfect for your manuscript, say so. If you met, even in passing, at a writing workshop or conference, say so.
Also–every agent and agency is different. In my research, I found some who wanted a query letter only, some who wanted a query letter plus my first three pages, some who wanted a query letter, a synopsis, and the first ten pages, and some who wanted a query letter and the first three chapters. Tailor each submission to those directions. Nothing will get your query tossed faster than not following directions.
Step 6: Triple-check everything
Do you have the right query letter for the right agent? Sending it to the right email address? Have you followed their directions to the letter?
Step 7: Click send
You’ve come this far. Do not be afraid. The worst you will hear is no, but every other published author in the world has heard no more than they’ve heard yes. Click send.
And now, a lesson my mother has been trying to teach me since age four: patience. The average response time for queries is 4-12 weeks, and 8-12 weeks for fulls. In the meantime, I’m working on novel two, getting back to short stories, and reading.
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4. Confirmation that you’re moving in the right direction
I think for most writers, certainly for me, the doubts creep in continuously. Am I good enough? Is anyone going to like this? What the hell was I thinking? Last year, I participated in PitMad on Twitter and had someone tell me they thought my idea had promise and was marketable. That was enough to propel me to continue. At the Writing Workshop of Chicago, I was able to pitch my concept in person to small press publisher, Emily Clark Victorson of Allium Press. She too said that it was intriguing and asked for my first three chapters. Hearing this not once, but twice, made me feel like I was on the right track. I had a good, marketable idea. The next question would be could I write the story? Remember, I’m an English teacher. I had better have a good command of the English language, grammar, and punctuation–but these things do not a story make.
Last fall, after my PitMad experience, I participated in a writing bootcamp for my first ten pages. The agent and writer I worked with, Paula Munier, showed me that my manuscript was far from perfect, but she did tell me what my strengths were as well as where I’d need to improve. At the Chicago workshop, I submitted my revised ten pages to Lori Rader-Day, author of four mysteries (including Little Pretty Things, which I loved!). My hard work at revisions paid off, as she was very complimentary–but rest assured, I still have a page of revisions to tackle based on her comments.
Aside from the huge boost in my ego and confidence, these experiences confirmed that yes, I could write the story. I could also take revisions and make improvements. Every day that the doubts creep in, I can come back to this and remember that no, it’s not all a pointless waste of time. I’m headed in the right direction–and that provides the impetus for me to continue pursuing this path to publication.
5. Suggestions that you may have never thought of
Chatting with other writers gave us all the opportunity to share our works-in-progress. That resulted in lots of questions–some of which we could answer; some, not so much. Those unanswered questions revealed plot holes, character development needs, and, for some, world-building issues.
Both Paula Munier and Emily Clark Victorson asked if I’d considered making my protagonist a female. You know what they say–if more than one person makes a suggestion, there may be something to it. So I asked Ms. Rader-Day her thoughts, and she asked me it would improve the plot, the conflict, if I changed the gender. In other words, would it make more sense?
Now THAT gave me pause because…well, the answer was yes. Most of H.H. Holmes’ victims were female. Wouldn’t it create more tension to have a female bring down his illustrious descendant?
6. Did I mention networking?
Last week I pointed out that the writers, agents, editors, and publishers you meet may not necessarily become your mentor, agent, editor, or publisher, but you never know who may be the one to open that door for you. And while this was just a one-day workshop, I feel as though I left with the start of some excellent connections. I am already a member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, and both of these groups were represented at the conference. Ms. Rader-Day encouraged me to come to the fall meetings to get to know others, and Ms. Victorson suggested the same–commenting that they are some of the nicest people around. (Ironic, isn’t it, that the nice people are the ones killing off characters?) If you’ve been researching this industry as I did for some time before I took the plunge, I’m sure you’ve noticed the theme that surrounds getting published: it’s about getting your name out there and making connections. If that scares you to near-death, that’s ok. Find a class, or a one-day workshop, near you. Join a group and hang around on the edges until you’re more comfortable–I’m a complete stalker of the Mystery Writers of America’s social media, but I rarely comment. I’m still too in awe of the company! The point is–get out there and do something. Get outside of your comfort zone. The only way you know is if you try.
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If you’ve never attending a writing workshop, my first piece of advice is this: DO IT.
So many writers tend to be introverts, and the thought of spending hours alongside total strangers is enough to say, “nah, I’d rather claw my eyes out doing edits.” My experience this past weekend at the Writing Workshop of Chicago was phenomenal, and in addition to the benefits I experienced (Partial manuscript request! Positive feedback from a published author!), I kept thinking about all the reasons why writers should participate in a workshop.
1. Networking with peers
Talking and commiserating with other writers pumps up your motivation and ambition. Don’t believe me? Try it. If, like me, your friend circle does not contain many writers, it’s hard to vent about how you just can’t get that one scene right, or how you feel like you’ll never be done with editing, or how you feel guilty that you’ve only written 300 words in as many days. At a workshop, you are surrounded by like-minded people suffering through the same perils and insecurities. They remind us that we aren’t alone–and that we most certainly are not the only ones wondering if we’ll die on the spot of our first live pitch. While not everyone you meet will be the making of a writing group or even beta readers, it’s still nice to have people who can remind you that you are not crazy. Or, if you are, you’re not alone.
2. Networking with professionals
In addition to workshop sessions being led by agents, publishers, editors, and published authors, the opportunity to converse with those people throughout the day–whether through pitch sessions, query critiques, manuscript critiques, or hanging out at the water cooler–is beyond valuable. In just this one-day workshop, I could discover directly from the professionals what they are looking for in a memoir, how to write a non-fiction proposal and a fiction query, why social media matters, what to look for in an agent, and what to watch out for in the realm of publishing. The most illuminating session I attended was one called “Writers Got Talent.” As the first pages of various novels were read aloud (anonymously), a panel of judges raised their hand to indicate when they would stop reading–in other words, when that manuscript just headed to the rejection pile. Once three hands were raised, the reading ended, and the judges explained why they would have stopped reading. It didn’t matter what genre these first pages were from–the advice was all about writing, period. And good writing is good writing no matter the genre.
Just like with the writers you meet, the professionals may not necessarily become your mentor, agent, editor, or publisher, but you never know who may be the one to open that door for you. More on this aspect later.
3. Total immersion in Writingland
So many writers have day jobs. Most writers have day jobs. If you’re like me, being able to focus on my writing for one entire day is next to impossible. This workshop was from 9am to 5pm on a Saturday. I was able to immerse myself for one. whole. day. No, I wasn’t writing, but I was learning about it, and that counts to me. I was fortunate enough to be able to make a weekend of it–I took the train up on Friday and didn’t come home until Sunday. That gave me Friday night and Saturday night to work on my novel, plus the train ride there and back to read and write. That’s even more than next to impossible, and I treasured the time I had available. Did it cost money? Yes. I’ve discussed before how investing in my writing and myself was an important step in taking this writing gig seriously, and as I’ve progressed, I’ve allowed myself a little more–because I’ve been getting positive feedback on my work. In other words, I don’t feel like I’m just tossing my hard-earned money out the tenth floor window of the hotel.
Want more reasons? Check out next week’s blog post!
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I finally finished the rough draft and one round of edits for The Devil Inside Me and have begun a never-ending second round of edits. This should be cause for celebration, but I’m holding off until I get the second round done. In the meantime, I’m beginning to prepare for what follows: querying agents. Eek!
I’m getting a jumpstart at this weekend’s Chicago Writing Workshop where I’ll be querying two agents for feedback. I have my query letter written that has been edited by a close friend/former English teacher/librarian as well as Chuck Sambuchino. I apologize to both of these wonderful human beings for being the first two people to have to look at it. Much more solid now, though I’m looking forward to hear what two other professionals will have to suggest.
If you’re in query/pitching mode, I highly recommend reading that. Also, here are some of the resources I’ve found useful in writing my query. Have any resources or suggestions to share? Leave them in the comments!
It’s not too late! There are still open spots for you to sign up and attend the Chicago Writing Workshop that’s happening on Saturday, June 23. If you’re looking for a conference that won’t break the bank (especially if you’re near Chi-town and don’t need a hotel), check this one out. Likewise, if the thought of spending two or more days with a bunch of strangers is terrifying, this is a one-day 9-5 workshop. You can do lunch all by yourself if you so desire.
Bonus: It’s held at the architecturally beautiful Congress Plaza hotel, which also happens to feature prominently (read: murder scene!) in my novel, The Devil Inside Me.
Registration is just $169. I thought that a fair price for what’s offered. Literary agents, editors, and authors deliver most of the workshop sessions. And for each of the five breakout blocks, there are three sessions to choose from. Some are applicable to everyone, such as “Pursuing a Small Press Publisher,” and some are geared to specific genres: “How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal,” “How to Write and Pitch Awesome Science Fiction and Fantasy,” “How to Get Your Young Adult and Middle Grade Novels Published,” “Tell Me True: Tips on Writing Memoir and Essay.”
I’m particularly looking forward to the “Query Letter Comprehensive” session since that is the next step on my list after these edits that seemingly never end.
For reasonable add-on fees, you can also pitch agents and editors of all genres ($29 per). Several are sold out of time slots, but to give you an idea of the caliber we’re talking about, here’s just a few on the list: Emily Clark Victorson, Marcy Posner, Tracy Brennan, Abby Saul…
Sound like a decent deal? I thought so. I’ll let you know how it went afterward–and if you’re attending, I’d love to meet!
I blogged about the Indiana Writing Workshop conference and how excited/nervous I was to attend, but the weather in Illinois and Indiana created enough ice to prevent me from going. However, the folks who put together these workshops do them all over the states–so I signed up for the June version in Chicago. (Bonus: I can take the train. Second bonus: There had better not be an ice storm in June.) It will be coming up soon–June 23–and I believe spots are still available! It’s held at the grand old Congress Plaza hotel (which is in my book, The Devil Inside Me), overlooking Buckingham Fountain and Lake Michigan. The price is very reasonable, so if you’re nearby, come join us!
I’ve repeated the text of my original post below to encourage us all to take these risks for our writing. Just like you’ll never know if someone will publish your work until you submit it (repeatedly), you’ll never know what you can learn and what connections you can make until you attend a conference/workshop.
When I participated in Writer’s Digest’s First Ten Pages Boot Camp, one of the features was a lengthy, very open Q&A with our critiquing agent. One question posed in my group was this: What, aside from a polished manuscript and a stand-out query letter, can writers do to get published?
Paula Munier of Talcott Notch Literary Services suggested writing conferences. Why wouldn’t you want to meet like-minded people, network with agents and editors, attend mini-classes on everything from finding an agent to reworking point-of-view?
I began researching (while the introvert inside of me shrieked, “Strangers! Small talk!”) and discovered the Indiana Writing Workshop–not terribly far from me, with a reasonable cost and a featured agent on my dream-agent list.
In the one day conference, there are opportunities to pitch multiple agents. You can also have Chuck Sambuchino critique your query letter. (I will share the results, no matter how embarrassing.) Classes cover publishing options, finding an agent, a first chapter critique-fest, revising, and marketing.
All of these pieces fit my needs perfectly, so I signed up last month. And now that it’s getting closer, I’m starting to question what the heck I was thinking!
Lucky for me, just like with Lauren Sapala’s serendipitous post last week that fanned the writing flame inside me, a little bit of kismet came my way when I saw this older post from The Muse Crew. (Thank you to D. A. Henneman for sharing the blog link!) Four of the blog’s contributors attended the same conference and reported back for their readers. Here is a sampling of their advice:
“Pitch to an agent in your genre. Research your genre to find out what is currently being sought after, then consider how your story matches. Think of it like a job interview – find out what they want, then share what you have to offer and how you can meet their needs.”
“You have less than 15 minutes to shine, so put your best foot forward.”
“Consider what other popular authors in your genre have a similar writing style to your own. Often agents will ask you about your favorite author or if your writing is similar to any well-known author. Agents also like to know if you have published anything else, if you are working on anything else and whether your story is more plot driven or character driven. Be prepared to answer these questions.”
“I highly recommend doing this! It forces you to practice describing your work in a concise way, it gives you an idea if your story ideas are interesting to those who market them…”
While I’m still a little nervous, The Muse Crew’s advice reminded me why I’m doing this. If I want people to read this story, then I have to–gulp–let people read this story.
What kind of experiences have you had at writing conferences? I’d love to hear about them–the good, the bad, and the horrific!
Comparison is the thief of joy. I’m positive Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t talking about writers when he said that, but for those of us still in the aspiring-to-be-published category, it most definitely rings true.
When you’re the person still wondering if you can ever complete your first draft, or considering stabbing your eyes out during your first round of edits, or questioning if it’s your query letter or manuscript that is the cause of multiple rejections, seeing others’ success stories can make you doubt yourself. Why haven’t you gotten that far? Why aren’t you published? Scratch that–why is it taking so long to finish the first draft?
These doubts can quickly shift to negative thoughts. You know, the I’m-not-really-a-writer thoughts. The I’m-not-good-enough thoughts. The why-is-it-so-easy-for-everyone-else thoughts. It’s like a disease that spreads in your brain, doubt. But fear not! There is an antidote.
At the end of April, Caitlin LaRue started a #authorstats Twitter thread asking published authors to share their stats: how long it took to get an agent or deal, how many rounds of revisions, how many manuscripts, etc. The responses were eye-opening and ranged from a year to a lifetime. In other words, there is no timeline. The path is sometimes circuitous. No two journeys are the same. And for the love of all that is holy in Writing Land, don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. Don’t let all that comparing take your joy.
What if you need a boost? Something to give you some confidence?
Submit something–just don’t forget that your timeline is your own.
When I first sat down and seriously decided I was going to write The Devil Inside Me, I learned as much as I could about the industry. One recommendation suggested writing and submitting short stories (or articles for you non-fiction writers) to build your publishing resume. My initial response was why? I didn’t want to be a short story writer; I wanted to be a novelist. And then, as I mentioned in “Just Submit the Story Already,” @HollyWrites13 and @AvrinKelly tweeted about #52weeks52stories, and I relented–mostly because I thought it would be fun to write a few exploring the backgrounds of my novel’s characters. I had no real plan to submit them–I wanted them to be exploratory and add some back story.
So I wrote a few, and, to my surprise, I genuinely loved one of them. “What have you got to lose?” became my mantra, and I submitted it. Repeatedly. And the rejections came, and they did indeed sting, but I remembered Stephen King. As a kid, long before he was published (in anything, not just his novels), he put all of his rejection letters on a nail in the wall. In his book On Writing, he said, “the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” If repeated rejections were good enough for Stephen King, they’re good enough for me.
I was so excited that someone liked it that I submitted another. My short story “Fiendish” will be published in a traditional print anthology (I can announce where later in May!). I wrote it in a couple of days and revised over a couple of weeks. I submitted that short story to twenty-three different places and contests via Submittable. This garnered ten rejections and four non-response/rejections. (The remainder are still in-process.)
I am far from what I would consider a published author. For me, that will be a published full-length novel with some respectable sales. And I haven’t won a Glimmer Train contest nor am I published in Strand. (Yet.) BUT, my writerly friends, I can not tell you how indescribable it is to see a YES! We love your work! email.
And now I get it. Those emails, those glorious people who read your work and say hey, I like what you’ve done here–they don’t just add to your publishing bio. They bolster your esteem. They’re a reminder that it’s not a race, that it’s ok to be on your own path. And that, writers, makes you want to write more. The more you write, the better you’ll get.
On Twitter, I began participating in the #52stories52weeks challenge, which is just as it sounds: write a short story/flash fiction piece every week for a year. Now, let’s be honest– I stopped working on short stories to focus on finishing my WIP, The Devil Inside Me, but that challenge helped me in so many ways. In addition to connecting with fellow writers, I also explored my WIP’s characters through these short pieces. Each one had a background story to tell, from the protagonist to the murder victims to the H.H. Holmes tour guide.
The legend of H.H. Holmes, as you may know, is what prompted me to begin The Devil Inside Me. One of my short stories, “Downright Devilish,” is part of a series that re-imagines the childhood of Holmes, based partly on historical fact. I was hesitant to submit it anywhere because, well, I’m not a published author. But everyone has to start somewhere in order to become that published author, right? So I submitted. And submitted. And submitted. And got rejection. And rejection. And rejection. And…a yes!
Once I decided to treat this writing endeavor seriously, I knew I would have to push myself outside of my comfort zone. Way outside of my comfort zone. I would have to do the unthinkable: share my writing. Gasp! The horror! I would have to seek advice from professionals. I would have to give myself permission to try, to fail, to succeed.
When I was first brave enough to share my writing, I chose with intention: our librarian, who is a former English teacher. My first comment was “be gentle.” Then I turned around and said, “Scratch that. Be brutal.” She was both–and I’m grateful.
Back when the idea for The Devil Inside Me arrived in my head, I genuinely thought I had a good premise that people would enjoy to read and publishers would see as potentially profitable–but, I wanted some type of acknowledgement of that. One day while perusing the blogs on Writer’s Digest, I stumbled across this gem: Agent One-on-One Bootcamp–Your First Ten Pages. Yes, it cost money. No, Writer’s Digest is not paying me for this commentary. Yes, it was worth every penny. (Please note they do not have an active version of this bootcamp at the moment, but I included a link for the description.)
Here’s how it was shaped: You watch a couple of webinars. You edit your first ten pages of your manuscript according to those general-but-detailed how-to-write-a-novel videos. You submit those ten pages to a participating agent. The agent provides you with detailed revision notes. You revise and resubmit. The agent provides you with a last commentary on your revisions.
Why is this valuable? First, I was able to get the confirmation that, yes, I had a sale-able concept. Yes, I have some writing skill–and perhaps more importantly, I was able to revise according to the agent’s suggestions. No one was knocking down my door asking me to send them more, but it did give me the confidence I needed to make sure that I wasn’t on some crazy train to deluded-land.
Furthermore, the agents available were reputable and well-known. Writer’s Digest made it clear who they were in advance, so I was able to research the agency and the agents themselves. I was also able to select which agent I wanted to submit to–who happens to represent (and write) in the mystery genre.
Clicking send was simultaneously nightmarish and euphoric. Receiving her revision notes was simultaneously defeating and anti-climactic. I must have read the email fourteen times and went through something that felt like the stages of grief in a matter of hours. (Apparently I am not alone: Check out Janelle Drumwright’s Carve post on the very topic.)
You know, denial: She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’m the next William Shakespeare. Anger: But that point-of-view is an absolute must-have! See denial. Bargaining: Well, maybe if I had… Depression: She’s right. She knows what she’s talking about. I will never be a writer. Acceptance: Hey, she had some positive comments–maybe I should just try revising according to what she wants.
I got over myself. I made the revisions (though I especially despised the point-of-view change) and murdered my darlings. And what do you know? Praise and a comment of “you have a good chance of selling this once you’ve polished” was worth my warp-speed grieving process.
What did I learn?
INVEST A LITTLE
I balked a little at spending the money. I’ve read that you need to invest in yourself and your endeavors, no matter what they are, if you want to move forward and improve. This was well worth the money to give me the boost of confidence that I wasn’t completely out of left field.
I have since invested in paid memberships for several groups that will provide me with networking and conferencing opportunities: The Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Chicago Writers Association, Indiana Writers’ Consortium, and Writers Guild of Indiana. I’ve also invested serious time in prepping this website and blog in the hopes that it will help me spread the word of my endeavors and help others who are on the same path.
LISTEN TO THE EXPERTS
I also balked a little at the agent’s suggestions. Couldn’t she see my vision? Once I got to the stage where I believed there was no harm in trying, I did just that–and as I made those revisions, I could see what she meant. Furthermore, after the bootcamp, I read my manuscript (still a WIP) from start to finish and was able to revise more problem areas.
DO YOUR RESEARCH–ON EVERYTHING
One of the most important take-aways from this experience was to make yourself as knowledgeable as possible. The internet is a magnificent beast–use it. From creating a website to what to include on blog posts to how to utilize social media to finding an agent to novel length to how to self-publish without getting taken…it’s all out there. I had read reviews on other bootcamps where the agents weren’t known, or they weren’t responsive, or their advice was canned. I dug around until I felt confident that the agents at this particular bootcamp would be what I needed. The more information you can arm yourself with, the better. Just don’t research so much you stop writing!
Writers, what types of classes, bootcamps, or conferences have you attended? What value did they provide you?
Readers, every time we edit and revise, we are doing it with you in mind. What are the most important features of a story for you? Is it the characters? The plot? The writing style? Why?
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