Our new Writer-in-Residence is local author Jessica Strawser and her first guest on the Inside the Writer’s Head podcast is Jess Montgomery Montgomery is the author of THE WIDOWS (Minotaur Books), a new historical mystery set in the 1920s, in which two women work together to solve a tragic murder and save their community. On the podcast, they discuss writing, storytelling, and writing history specifically. Loosely inspired by the true story of Ohio’s first female sheriff in 1925, Montgomery’s novel is set in Southeast Ohio’s Appalachian foothills and depicts coal mining, Prohibition, workers’ rights, women’s rights, and other issues that still resonate today. Early chapters of the novel earned Jess an Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Award and the John E. Nance Writer in Residence at Thurber House in Columbus. She is already at work on the second book in the series, The Hollows, forthcoming in 2020. Listen in for some great insight!
As promised, everyone, here is the third and last chunk of our Big Hairy World of Book Publication workshop.
If you’re confused or you want clarification, you can email me anytime: firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s talk. And meanwhile – read on!
WHAT IS A QUERY LETTER AND HOW DO I WRITE ONE?
Please bear in mind that entire book are written on the above question. You can take a whole online write course on the above question. So please, please understand that this answer is extremely abbreviated.
A query letter is an introduction and it is a sales pitch. It’s like you and your book distilled down in miniature. A query letter is your cover letter whether you’re writing an agent to request representation or to a press. A query letter tells the story of your book – very quickly – and it shows an agent or an editor that you are serious, professional and that you can write. You’d be surprised at how many people send query letters who are not/cannot do any of those things.
Query letters are for fiction and they are for non-fiction, children’s and adult. And they are extremely formulaic. Please go look up “query letters” in your Writer’s Market and you will see that you are writing what is basically a form letter. For your reading enjoyment, I’ve attached two really excellent REAL query letters below, one fiction and one non-fiction.
First Name Last Name
Street Address, City, State, Zip Code
Phone number/email address
Editor in Chief
PUBLISHING HOUSE NAME
95 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016 DATE
Dear Ms. EDITOR
Recently you requested the manuscript of TITLE, a biography aimed at middle grade readers. I am pleased to have an opportunity for you to consider it; it’s now titled A DIFFERENT TITLE.
ONE PARAGRAPH DESCRIBING THIS PARTICULAR BIOGRAPH Y SUBJECT-BASICALLY A VERY MINI-BIOGRAPHY. HIT THE KEY MOMENTS OF HIS LIFE.
NOW ONE PARAGRAPH ABOUT WHY THIS GUY IS AT ALL RELEVANT NOW. DOES HE APPEAR ON SCHOOL CURRICULA? WHY, YES HE DOES. THERE WAS A NOVA DOCUMENTARY ABOUT HIM. HE WAS ON A STAMP. YOU GET THEIDEA.
Enclosed are the manuscript, lists of sources and possible images, and a copy of my original query. Please note that this is a simultaneous submission.
I hope that you will find THIS BIOGRAPHY SUBJECT’S story as fascinating as I have.
YOUR NAME HERE
SWING RIGHT INTO ONE PARAGRAPH DESCRIBING YOUR BOOK. IMMEDIATELY. THIS READS LIKE A BACK OF THE BOOK BLURB – SHARP, ENGAGING WITH LOTS OF REAL DETAIL ABOUT THE BOOK. I CAN’T EMPHASIZE THAT ENOUGH: GET SPECIFIC, WRITERS. DO NOT SAY ANYTHING THAT IS A GENERALITY. YOU WILL SOUND COMPLETELY FORGETTABLE.
PARAGRAPH TWO CONTINUES WHAT YOU STARTED ABOVE
PARAGRAPH THREE—THIS IS YOUR LAST ONE, SAME AS ABOVE. MAKE IT COUNT
TITLE OF THIS BOOK could be described as a cross between POPULAR EXISTING BOOK SERIES and POPULAR MOVIE FRANCHISE. It is complete at 63,000 words and has series potential. Also, please note that I have been querying this novel to other agencies.
I am a freelance writer and editor with over 15 years’ experience in the publishing industry, including a 2008 middle grade novel, TITLE. In addition, I teaching adult-continuing education classes in novel-writing, and I have an MFA in creative writing.
The first three pages of my novel are pasted below this letter. Please let me know if you would like to see the full manuscript.
I met with a high school student recently, who was thinking he might like to be a writer. You know, for a job, when he was done with college. He wanted some advice on what this kind of life was like. I told him that he has a decision to make – not now, but once he’s sure he wants to be writer: he can choose to be an artist or he can choose to be a craftsman.
Maybe I’m making this sound too black-and-white. Of course you can be both things. But the divide in writing is still there. Artists are what many people think of when they think of writers. Producing a great work of fiction, head incandescent with words, eating bread and maggoty cheese, washing out your one shirt at night in a garret, to paraphrase Margaret Atwood. You exist in the realm of other artists: painters, dancers, playwrights. You write a novel and the novel is the art and whether or not someone chooses to publish it is almost beside the point.
Craftsmen are the less sexy writers. Craftsmen are writers who write for money, for an employer or for a client. In-house writers, business writers, technical writers, freelance writers. Journalists are in this category, and copywriters. Becoming a craftsman means you get to make money writing instead of waiting tables. You employ your writing skills to serve your own ends. You don’t suddenly decide you want to write a poem instead of a press release. You write the press release the way your boss or your client asked you to.
I wonder if the high school student felt deflated when I presented these two choices to him. He didn’t look deflated. He looked buoyed up and excited by the thought of going to college. All these words I was saying to him were just rolling around in his head. They were going to be buried by thoughts of living on your own in a dorm and riding a bike across campus and playing a guitar at open-mike night in the Union. But maybe, when he’d lived through that, and it was time to make some money out in the world, he’d find those words again. And maybe they’d be helpful.
Well, folks, I’ve done it. Opened myself up to abject humiliation and despair: I’ve submitted an original manuscript to my agent.
Some of you know that for the last fifteen years, I’ve written some original fiction, which has been published, but the majority of my work is commissioned. That means someone asks for it, and I produce it. They want it. They asked!
But for various reasons which are too embarrassing to mention here, my agent gently suggested I might want to think of writing a piece of original fiction again. A novel, he meant. And because I didn’t have a whole lot of better options, I agreed that he was probably right.
So I wrote it – all 15,000 words. It’s a middle-grade novel for girls, and it’s about one of the great loves of my life: horses. Actually, it’s about one particular horse I used to know and whom I’ve never forgotten. He wasn’t exactly a dream steed, but he did teach an extremely undersized and fearful nine year-old some important lessons. Not through the nobility of his character either, you understand.
It’s awful, writing your own stuff. It’s embarrassing. It’s like taking off all your clothes. It’s like being drunk in public. It’s like showing everyone what a sloppy, hot mess you normally are. And that’s when the writing is good. When it’s bad, it’s like all those things plus stupidity.
One fellow writer, whom I admire, suggested that I might celebrate turning a manuscript in to my agent. He’s clearly insane, though a nice man. Another friend texted me, when I told her that I’d turned this manuscript in, “That’s awesome! Now you can punch yourself in the face.”
Now that girl understands me.
Here it is! The last of the three posts covering our June 23 workshop. Mark your calendars for our next workshop on September 29! I hope you all will be there.
June 23 WIR Workshop: This Won’t Hurt a Bit: Part 3
For this last bit, let’s move away from the content and talk about how to sustain yourself over a long period of time writing. I’ve been doing this for fifteen years and I can tell you that it’s not easy to write a full-length manuscript. So I use a few techniques to get that manuscript finished. And let me just emphasize that these are highly personal. What works for me might seem very wrong for you. So take what I say with a grain of salt.
Chunk It Up and Make a Plan
This is the absolute number one technique I use to get through manuscripts. I take commissioned work so I almost always have a deadline set by my editors. But for instance I’m working on a book right now of my own about horses, and I’m using the same system, though this book has not been sold and so has no deadline.
I count the number of days I want to work between now and the deadline and then I divide the manuscript by words per day. I build in time for revision and for research on either end, and then I’ll write something in my planner like “Dolphin Book #4 341” – that means I have to write 341 words per day of my dolphin book. That’s no matter what, whether I feel like writing or not, set in stone.
I’m very anxious person and really at this point, a lot of writing is a mental game because it is so entirely solitary and self-motivated. So I feel less panicky when I know that if I do this chunk of work, these 341 words, every day that I’ve written it down, then by the deadline, I’ll have a completed manuscript, no matter how ugly it is. This a very workmanlike way of writing and it works for me because writing is my job. If writing is your recreation, you might think of it differently. But I always feel better when I have a plan.
Finishing Is Hard – Keep Your Rear in the Chair
I will be first to tell you that finishing a manuscript – if you don’t have a deadline—can be very hard. If you’re having trouble motivating yourself, try these techniques:
- Try writing first thing when you get up, before you do anything else. Your brain is fresh then.
- Give yourself a reward when you’re done with your word count, like ten minutes on Facebook, or a walk around the block. But you can’t have it until you do your word count first.
- Give yourself a time limit – tell yourself you’re going to write 200 words in twenty minutes, and set a timer.
You can see that a lot of writing is overcoming the mental blocks that come with working alone – there’s a reason that the writer going crazy ala The Shining is a popular trope.
And there’s something to be said for churning out the words, whether you feel like it or not, whether they’re going well or not. I’m big fan of just plowing through the worst, messiest, ugliest draft you ever saw and then cleaning it up in revisions. Sometimes your draft looks surprisingly good the second time around.
In the latest episode of Inside the Writer’s Head, Writer-in-Residence Emma Carlson Berne talks with Michelle Bisson. Bisson is the Senior Acquisitions Manager at Capstone, a large publisher of educational books for kids. They discuss her long, unexpected journey to publishing and Bisson shares some uplifting advice for anyone who might feel like their career is headed in a wayward direction: “Everything that I’ve ever done sort of happened by mistake…” but it lead her to exactly where she wanted to be. You’ll learn about what it’s like to be an editor, and see evolution of a story from manuscript to print. Get a glimpse in to the relationship between author and editor and why humility is so important in the publishing world. Anyone interested in writing or working in publishing will learn a lot from this podcast!
Subscribe and leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts.
As promised, I’ve got the second section of our June 23 workshop below. You can talk to me in the comments. Or email me your questions: email@example.com. I’m here.
June 23 WIR Workshop: This Won’t Hurt a Bit: Part 2
I’m not going to try to be the guru of all book openings. I’m a writer, like all of you, and I struggle with what is arguably the most important part of the book: the first page. No, strike that. The first line.
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all that before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going to into it, if you want to know the truth.”
No pressure or anything, right?
(The first was the first line of Charlotte’s Web, the second the first line of Catcher in the Rye, in case you’re stuck.)
The opening is your first chance to make an impression on the reader. It’s a door you’re holding open. And all the axioms you may have heard are true. A good opening plunges the reader right into the story. You’ve done a lot of thinking about your story, and it may be tempting to start the reader where you started – way back at the beginning. But your job here is to lift the reader right over the top of all that lead-up, all the lead-up you’ve prepared in your mind and thrust them right into the story.
A good opening will have
- Your protagonist
As I’ve been working with writers this year, and reading a lot of your work, I’m seeing something that I often notice in myself: many openings – let’s say the first five pages—have a lot of explanatory information crammed into them. Maybe family history, explanation of the world the author’s created. And here’s the thing: you will have time in your manuscript to get all of that out. But the opening is not the time to do that. There’s a certain anxiety among writers, myself included, to make sure your reader knows as much as possible, as soon as possible. And one thing I’m working on myself, is relaxing a bit. The reader is on your side. They want to read your story. They don’t care if they don’t know every detail of everything right from the start. They just want a good story, and they trust you that you’ll let them know what they need to know to understand the story. We want to emulate a confidence that this world is real, these people are real, and that this story we’re telling is so compelling, the reader will follow us into it. I know that’s a bit philosophical.
The opening is like having a cup of coffee with someone. It’s interesting, stimulating, fun, but it’s not a board meeting. The opening is the place for you to introduce your protagonist. How does she talk? How does she react? What kind of a place are we in? What is around us? And – a hint that there is going to be a problem approaching.
All the other history and rules of the world or backstory—those things will come out. They have to. And you’ll make sure they do—this is where letting go of the anxiety comes in. You’ll weave them in to the first three or four chapters. But if you’re writing a book about an orphan train, let’s get on that train right away. Let’s be on the train when the story opens. Or let’s be on the platform, watching the train roll in. Or let’s be standing in the farmyard as the wagon jolts up to take you and your brother away to the train station. All the explanation, you’ll get that later. Right now, bolt your reader into the story. Don’t bury the lead. Don’t hide the story. Get the essence of the story out in the first page. All the rest is details.
Thank you, thank you, everyone, who came downtown, and parked, and made your way to the third floor of the Main Library, to the very, very back, down a hallway to the huge and beautiful light-filled room where we held our Writer-in-Residence workshop on Drafting the Manuscript. Talking with all of you was the best part of my week. I’m already looking forward to being with you again in September.
In the meantime, I’ll repeat my routine from June and will put chunks of the presentation here on this blog for the next three posts. I hope you’ll find the material useful, if you couldn’t come to the workshop. And always, please, reach out to me with questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m here.
June 23 WIR Workshop: This Won’t Hurt a Bit
The concept is the first step toward the manuscript. A concept is very simply, the idea of the story distilled down to – let’s say one paragraph. It describes what this book is about: this is the story of a man’s relationship with a service dog and how each helps to heal each other. This is the story of one night in the lives of five teenagers. Then say what’s going to happen, in the most basic sense, and they read like the back of a book blurb.
But who are you writing this concept for? Unless your book has been sold, the answer is: yourself. This concept is the core of your book, and will remind you what you are writing about. You’ll need to know your concept before you start your book, if you want to finish it. It’s easy to start a book without a concept. It’s hard to finish it.
To Outline or Not to Outline?
You’ve got your concept. It’s the core of your book. From here, we just start expanding – we expand the concept into an outline, and the outline into a manuscript. So, let’s talk about the outline.
An outline is your friend, your guide and your map.
I think that outlines feel intimidating to some writers – we’re having terrible visions of incomprehensible list-like things with Roman numerals, and letters here and numbers here, all in a very specific order, that we probably had to do in “Library” in middle school – at least, that’s what I had to do.
But a story outline is different—at least the story outlines I use. There are entire books devoted to book maps and outlines, but the outlines I use are simple.
And I love them.
Now, let’s pause for a moment and discuss not outlining. We are creative people, right? And some writers do feel, totally legitimately, that outlining a story stifles their creativity. What if they want the story to go in a different direction than their outline takes them? What if a previously minor character starts seeming much more major and needs more room in the story?
Guess what: That’s fine.
An outline can be just a suggestion
Think of the outline as a security blanket. It’s there, you’ve got it, you know that if you follow it, you’ll have a really excellent and complete manuscript when you’re done. But guys, you made the outline. If it’s starting to feel stifling for you as you write, tear it up. Write a new outline. Write fifty. But here’s the recommendation from me: have an outline you’re working off of.
An outline is your story, in miniature
So what should your outline look like and what information should it contain? There are so many ways to outline and none of them are wrong.
The Chapter Outline
The chapter outline is nothing to get worked up over. It’s where you’re going to hammer out your plot, and your character’s motivations. The motivations will help you decide what plot actions will take place. Make a rough decision on about how many chapters you want to have. I can’t emphasize enough that this is rough. You can change it at any time, and you should. But let’s start from somewhere.
Make yourself a nice plain list that says: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3. Then write a paragraph about what you envision happening in each chapter. Include all the characters, and the basic points of action. And remember that when you write a good chapter, your protagonist should have moved forward from the beginning of the chapter to the end. So when the reader finishes that chapter, the character should be in a different place – physically or emotionally—than when he or she started. This is just for you, so say anything you want. Write little notes to yourself. Make the paragraphs as long or as short as you want, but when you’re done, a stranger could read the outline and understand your book pretty darn well.
The Acts Outline
The other type of outline is an acts outline. This is for people who get nervous with too many parameters. An acts outline is the same as a chapter outline, except that instead of the story broken down by chapters, it’s divided by Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 – chunked up into three bunches. I often start by chunking my plot into actions, and then divide it into chapters once I’ve got it clearer in my mind. When you’re writing from an acts outline, you’ll know that by the time you reach what you think is the end of the first third of your book, you better be at the end of the Act 1 action on your outline.
This will keep you on track, hold you accountable and give you a great chance of finishing your manuscript.
Last week, I attended my first meeting of a writers’ group I’d been asked to join. These writers had been together for many years and while I knew most of them well, I’d never been in this kind of intimate group before.
We had sent around writing we wanted workshopped during the previous week. Everyone had read the manuscripts and prepared comments on them. Everyone in that living room was a published author, highly competent, the winners of writing awards and fellowships. And this writer, whom I’ll call Mary, asked for comments on her picture book manuscript.
And no one liked it.
Actually, they did like some of it—the beginning mostly. And they said that, and many other kind and intelligent things. But they didn’t like the ending, that was for sure. They couldn’t understand it, they said it didn’t really make sense. Not in those blunt terms, but that is the essence of what they were saying.
And let’s just admit that no matter how professional and smart and confident you are, it’s not fun to sit in a room with other people and listen to them delineate all the parts of your writing they don’t like. It’s hard to keep your face arranged in pleasant lines. Mary did great, by the way. But I could see the tension in her neck.
And she wanted them to say these things. It’s a unique kind of torture that writers inflict on themselves. We want people to criticize our work. We certainly need them to. How else are we going to improve if our fellow writers just tell us our piece is lovely, and then move on?
It’s hard not to explain, or not to get defensive, or not to resent the person giving you the critique. Writers certainly fail at all those things during workshopping. But we stay in our seats and arrange our faces and try to relax our necks because we need this criticism. Even if it hurts.
In this month’s podcast, the Library Foundation’s Writer-in-Residence speaks with Gwenda Bond the author of “Girl on a Wire,” a trilogy about the comic books character Louis Lane, and more. Bond has recently been contracted to write the first Stranger Things book, a prequel about Terry Ives, Eleven’s mom, and her time with MK-Ultra in 1970. They discuss how Bond knew she wanted to be a writer, and how her career took off. Bond tells us why she loves writing strong, complicated female leads and what it’s like co-authoring with her husband. This episode is a must-listen!
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