Writers Level Up

Have you ever stopped to think about how your favorite author got to where they are, how they wrote and published so many books, how your most loved novels ended up on your bookshelf? Probably not. Most people don’t. At least, most people who aren’t writers don’t. But for those of us who write, contemplating the path to writing success is something we do on a regular basis.

I was a writer when I wrote my first story about magic roller skates in elementary school. I was a writer when I attempted my first magical realism romance at 20 and I was a writer when I completed my first full manuscript at 32. I’m a writer now with nearly four finished manuscripts under my belt.

But if you ask me to compare myself to Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or any other published and uber-successful author, my automatic response would be instant cackling laughter. Because the steps involved in getting from my little corner of the universe to theirs is as vast as the interior of any black hole.

I once thought the stages of being a writer were like a ladder, with the newborn writer on the bottom rung and super-success stories on the top. But having been involved in the writing community for several years, I’m much more likely to turn that ladder sideways and view it as a timeline instead. After all, we’re not working against gravity. We’re just working against time. (Except for you hard sci-fi writers…you might actually be working against gravity.)

The stages of writerhood tend to go as follows:

Writer's Timeline

Newborn Writer—Realizes affinity for writing, attempts stories, dabbles in ideas.

Fledgling Writer—Has at least one finished manuscript, probably raw and unrevised, but oh-so-beautiful.

Emergent Writer—Has begun to realize the importance of community and is eager (if terrified) to get feedback on finished or in-process works.

Working Writer—In a constant state of writing something new, editing something old, and getting feedback from a much loved tribe.

Querying Writer—A working writer who has moved into querying literary agents.

Agented Writer—A writer who has gotten agent representation, but is mired in revisions before going on submission to publishing houses.

Subbing Writer—Agented writer whose work is on submission to publishing houses, but has not yet been accepted.

Accepted Writer—Agented writer whose subbed work is accepted & who has been offered a deal with a publisher.

Counting Writer—Writer who counts the days until their publication date and hops from foot to foot, eager to relay news they can’t share until their publisher has given them the green light.

Published Author—Writer whose work has been published and theoretically read by people who don’t share their home or genetics.

Working Published Author—Published writer in a constant state of writing something new, editing something old, and getting feedback from agent and much loved tribe. Also, writer who fears they will never be able to write a second book.

Multi-Published Author—Writer who has published a handful of books, has stayed the course despite the high barriers to entry and has begun to feel as though they just might ‘do this.’ Still works a day job to pay the bills.

Professional Author—Writer who has published books that have earned enough in royalties to actually constitute a salary.

Uber-Successful Author—Writer whose books have become movies, whose characters have become household names, whose pages have been read again and again. Also, writers who may seclude themselves for protection from overwhelming fanbase.

What’s most amazing to me is the willingness of writers at every stage of the game to help those who are one or two steps behind them—Working Writers who draw out Emergent and Fledgling Writers and encourage them to join critique groups; Agented Writers who cheer on Querying Writers and who offer to help revise query letters; Published Authors who help ‘push’ a Counting Writer’s work because they know the book that’s about to come out is insane and they want their readers to know about it; Multi-Published Authors who run online writing contests that offer Querying Writers a chance to have their work seen by agents. So. Much. Love.

So much love on so many levels. And that’s what makes this community worth being a part of. In the past, I’ve compared writing to video games and this model is consistent with that idea. Expect to see me tweeting #WritersLevelUp to encourage writers of all levels to keep going. If you’re dedicated, willing to work, and passionate about what you do, there’s only one person who can keep you from leveling up, and that’s you. So get involved, get passionate, and encourage others to do the same.

(And if you’re a writer on one of the further rungs on the timeline, feel free to let me know if there’s something I’ve missed. I think I covered the basics, but as a Querying Writer, my ideas of what happens next may be skewed!)

Pitfalls and Mountain Climbing

As a writer, I find there are infinite pitfalls of self-doubt and whole periods of time where all I do is question whether or not my writing skills are worthy. Are they good enough for the books I so badly want to author? Do my words inspire others to jump into the lives of my characters and love the story so much that they want nothing more than to drown out the world around them as they race with reckless abandon to the last chapter? Is my prose moving without being ‘purple?’ And for the love of all that is holy, do I have any talent at all?!

pitfall
A different kind of Pitfall maybe, but the writing journey can feel about this treacherous.

It’s frustrating when you’ve been refining your craft for years and still have nothing tangible to show for it. I’ve been writing seriously for seven years, querying for three, and am currently drafting my fourth manuscript. I’ve gotten paid to ghostwrite blogs I’ll never get credit for. I’ve entered several online writing mentoring competitions like PitchWars and Sun vs. Snow and I’ve yet to be selected as a mentee. I’ve pitched in Twitter pitch contests like PitMad and SonOfAPitch. I’ve pitched in person to agents at the Write Angles Conference and at the Philadelphia Writing Workshop. And in the midst of it all, I have made dozens of amazing writer friends* who have been there to support and cheer me on at every step of the game. (As I do for them as well! Writers make really good cheerleaders!)

And yet all of this ‘failure’ on the professional end of things takes a toll on a writer’s ego. (Yes, I know it’s not real failure. It’s *experience.*) One might say it’s all about leveling up. Lots of XP for me!

level up

The fact remains that I couldn’t not write even if I wanted to. So it means the world to me when people around me are supportive of my decision to pursue my passion, even when the going gets rough. Support is everything. I made the decision a few weeks ago to attend the Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC this year. The location alone makes it a pricey conference, but the WDC is one of the bigger conferences with tons of relevant industry info and it offers a great opportunity to participate in PitchSlam—a sort of speed dating for writers hoping to find agents who will represent them and agents looking for writers to represent.

About a week ago, I lamented to my husband about the price of the workshop, feeling guilty about spending so much on myself. (Because until I’m actually making some sort of professional progress, it still feels like a frivolous expense—the same as a pedicure might…only about ten times the cost.) He reassured me that he wanted me to go and that he was going to make sure we could afford it, even if he had to do some eBaying to make it work out.

Fast-forward a day or so and I had a repeat of the same conversation with my mother, only she didn’t offer to eBay anything off for me. No, she waited a couple of days, conferred with my father, then texted me this:

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 10.41.06 PM

How do you argue with that?

If you don’t come from an Italian-American household, let me fill you in.

You don’t. You can’t argue. It’s like trying to bulldoze a mountain.

And so I’ll take them up on their offer not because I really have a choice, but because I know it’s not about the money. It’s about having a family who supports my dream unconditionally. It’s about the support they want to provide to me in the way that they can. I’m lucky. Luckier than most.

So, I’ll go to the Writer’s Digest Conference this summer and maybe I’ll reach the summit of this mountain.

Or at least base camp.

Yeah, I could be content with base camp.

 

 

* Seriously, NEVER underestimate the power of amazing writer friends! Xoxoxo!

Who’s Who?

I follow an eclectic mix of people on Twitter, but by far my Twitter feed skews toward the literary. From querying writers to veteran authors to agents to editors, I tend to follow it all. And in my honest opinion, if you’re not following these folks, you’re missing out!

(I think I’ll need to make this a semi-regular segment in my blog, so if you haven’t made this list, don’t worry. I’ll have lots more to share in the future!)

In no particular order:

Michelle Hauck (@Michelle4Laughs)—For up to date information on amazing writing contests, Michelle is one to follow. She’s a smart and fun-to-follow author who writes SFF and gives back to the writing community in abundance! Also, don’t miss her blog!


Dr. Uwe Stender (@UweStenderPhD)—Not all literary agents are created equal. In my years of stalking…er…following literary agents on Twitter for the sole purpose of gaining industry knowledge, I have found that some agents are quick to provide a helping hand to those who are just starting on their journeys. I highly recommend following Uwe Stender. Why? Because his literary advice is real and good and his #askagent sessions are the best. (Bonus: His nutcase files can’t be beat!)


Lakshmi (@Lakshgiri)—Because her writing is lyrical and moving and her cooking photos make my mouth water, Lakshmi gets two thumbs up in my book. Her blog is filled with poignant stories about parenting and motherhood, and her open adoption story is unlike any I’ve known. She faces parenting challenges with grace and her raw, emotional writing resonates.


Chuck Wendig (@ChuckWendig) & Sam Sykes (@SamSykesSwears)—These guys are a 2-for-1. Why? Because of interactions like this (read this aaalllllllll the way through):

They’ll provide your daily dose of crazy with a side of smiles. Follow them. (And maybe Sam will release another hostage.)


A.S.H (@MizWrlter)—Because I agree with everything she posts and she’s basically my spirit animal even if we’ve never met. Dogs and cats and posts about writing. Wait. Maybe she’s actually *me* in another dimension.


Katie Mack (@AstroKatie) – Because you need a dose of astrophysics & feminism. Bonus: She pipes up in occasional bouts with Chuck & Sam, making my day, week, and even month. And it’s really fun to watch her stop mansplaining in its tracks. Even J.K. Rowling agrees.


Who are your Twitter favorites? Give them a holler in the comments section so I can show them some love with a follow!

The Spirit of the Season

Happy Holidays, friends and family! This is the official 2017 Storms Christmas letter! (Look – I even went red and green! Festive!)IMG_2520.jpg

Before you start in on me about how lame I am for sending you to my blog for warm wishes of holiday cheer, remember it’s been a fairly tough year. Go easy on me. I opted to forgo sending cards this year for several reasons. First and foremost—time. As most of you know, there’s a lot going on and I’ve been juggling kids’ school schedules, projects, dance classes, various doctors appointments, dentist appointments, and writing in attempts to get it all done. I’m tired! Secondly, suffice it to say that I’m not feeling all that jolly this year, so the thought of addressing and stamping seventy cards just isn’t…well, in the cards. And lastly, I don’t wanna.

So, there you have it.

Now, onto the more cheery parts of this ‘letter.’

We are still here. 2017 hasn’t managed to knock us out just yet. (Give it time. I guess there are two more weeks left in the year, but we’re hoping for the best.) Nate still has a drain tube in his abdomen. It’ll be 23 weeks this Friday. Our next appointment with the good docs at Interventional Radiology at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital is this Thursday, but neither of us holds high hopes for the drain tube being removed. And that means we’re probably going into the new year with a drain. I cannot even begin to count the ways that this sucks.

My kids are amazing. No, seriously. They are. They have handled things this year that no adult should be asked to handle. They have done so with courage and grace and I want to award them gold medals. Why is there no ‘Best Kids on the Planet’ award?

Nate has gone back to work on a strictly work-from-home basis as of December 4th. This is great news as it no longer means we are ready to pawn off heirlooms in order to buy groceries… Hooray for food without debt! (And for companies and bosses who are amazing and accommodating!)

I am still writing, tweeting about writing, and—apparently—blogging about writing. I finished up my third manuscript this year while continuing to pitch manuscript number two to literary agents. So far, no major progress. I had several requests for a full read (which is a huge step in the right direction) and some really great feedback on said manuscript. But ultimately, no cigar. Hoping to start pitching book number three by early next year. In the mean time, I’m 20k words into my fourth manuscript and moving right along. What’s a writer if she’s not writing anyway? (Oh, that’s right. A stressed mom who is barely holding it all together. Yes, okay, I suppose I’m that, too, these days.)

Now onto the more serious parts of Christmas, or at least the more sentimental parts. Despite our rollercoaster of a year…

Wait. That implies that there were upswings…  Let me rephrase.

Ahem.

Despite our alpine slide of a year, we are incredibly thankful for so many things. Amazing friends and family who have been there for us in every possible way. They’ve provided emotional support, emergency babysitting and pet care, gifted us with gift cards to movies and ice cream shops to help keep our lives as normal as possible, helped with homework and school drop offs and pick ups. They’ve cut our grass and shoveled snow from our walkways (not in the same day, of course) and they’ve paid anonymously for our kids’ dance classes.  They’ve listened when I’ve felt alone, offered a shoulder when I needed to cry, and handed me a pillow when I needed to scream. They’ve offered financial help and assistance navigating health care and disability insurance. They’ve helped us keep records for our taxes and offered to lend us  money (because let’s face it—we’re not rich enough to actually own heirlooms to sell off).

And this is what I am most thankful for this Christmas. I am thankful that we have a network of friends and family that’s bigger than the heart of the grinch (after it grew three sizes) and people who care so very much. We are so grateful.

I hope 2018 is a better year. For you, for me, for all of us. Love to all, family and friends. Thank you for giving us something to be thankful about this 2017. I wish you a happy and blessed holiday season!

The Storms Family

IMG_2510
2017 in a nutshell.

Querying (Part IV)

Hooray! This is the last installment of my querying series.

(Read: I think this is the last installment of my querying series, unless, of course, the person who is critiquing it as I type comes back with drastic changes that need to be made… Never done, people. It’s never truly done.)

I used to read about authors who said that they would have kept working on a particular book of theirs had it not been for their agent telling them quite forcefully that they were done. And I would think, “How??? But it’s perfect! How could they have worked longer on it? How could they possibly have made it better?” As a reader, it’s so easy to believe in perfection. As a writer? Never.

So, without further ado, my query as it currently stands:

 

Dear (Agent),

At eighteen, Moreina di Bianco is a young healer who believes in medicine, not magic, even while possessing a second sight she can’t fully explain. So when a talisman and a thousand-year-old prophecy choose Reina to reawaken an ancient magic and end a war, she must reconcile her beliefs, unlock the talisman’s secrets, and harness the magic within.

Reluctant to accept help, Reina agrees to allow two determined escorts to accompany her on her journey for truth, but each comes with a mysterious past of his own. Her estranged childhood friend, Quinn D’Arturio, left their village years ago and only recently returned, harboring dark secrets behind a solemn exterior. And despite his status as a perfect stranger, a dashing captain by the name of Niles Ingram is quick to fight by Reina’s side at whatever the cost.

There’s just one problem with Reina’s two companions. They, too, are featured in the prophecy and as potential suitors no less! But what woman wants a suitor, let alone two, when she’s tasked with defeating a usurping general, ending a war, finding the true king, and rightfully seating him on the throne? For Reina, the only solution is to discover the truth before death discovers her.

A THOUSAND YEARS TO WAIT is a 100,000 word YA quest-based fantasy featuring a headstrong heroine who discovers that magic runs far deeper than even a prophecy could have foretold. It would best be suited for readers who enjoyed A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas and White Hart by Sarah Dalton. Thank you for your time and consideration. I very much hope we can work together soon.

Best Regards,

L. Ryan Storms

 

The things to note:

I’ve eliminated the reason why I’m contacting an agent. That doesn’t mean I won’t add it back in. Undoubtedly I will. But, I am using this query for PitchWars, so that means I’m not contacting an agent directly. I’m looking to work with a mentor and mentors aren’t interested in why you chose them. (At least, not up front!)

That being said, I began my query with the hook, with the story. I want to make a strong case early on. I want to make a reader say, “Hmm, intriguing. Tell me more!” You might notice that I still have a bit of a “When X, then Y” thing going on. (“So when a talisman and a thousand-year-old prophecy choose Reina to reawaken an ancient magic and end a war, she must reconcile her beliefs, unlock the talisman’s secrets, and harness the magic within.”) I wouldn’t use this formula more than once in a query, but if it works (and it’s proven that it does), I think using it is just fine. (Trust me, though, if I could find a way to get rid of this formula, I still would.) I’ve also used specifics for the Y part of my formula. The key to a successful “When X, then Y”  is staying away from general blanket statements. The more specific you can be, the better. (Within reason, of course. It wouldn’t be any good for me to say, “When a talisman and a thousand-year-old prophecy choose Reina to reawaken an ancient magic and end a war, she must figure out how the talisman works, use abilities only she possesses, and devastate an army without any backup.” That’s a little too specific.)

At the recommendation of an industry professional, I’ve also opted to add more detail about both of Reina’s suitors and I’ve given a little more of detail on how they are included in the prophecy.

Additionally, I’ve added the stakes. I thought that by sharing the tone of the novel (Hey, there’s a war going on, an evil general to defeat, and a true king that needs to be found!) that I had given enough info to make it seem obvious, but it was brought to my attention that I’d never really named the stakes. So, “For Reina, the only solution is to discover the truth before death discovers her,” makes it pretty clear to me. The stakes? Reina needs to figure out what the heck is going on before she’s killed for her role in trying to uncover the truth. I think that about does it. (But I’ll certainly let you know if my latest critique goes over well or not!)

And lastly – my comp titles are reined in a bit (only two this time) and I’ve changed the type of fantasy I’m pitching. Is it still a “chosen one” tale? Yeah, it kind of is, but (without giving away the plot) there’s a catch and so I don’t want to pitch it just as a “chosen one” fantasy. There’s far more going on behind the scenes. For me, a quest-based fantasy definitely seemed to be a better fit over all. So make sure you know exactly where your book fits in because it makes a big difference in who will want to read it.

So that’s it! Now you have seen the 3+ year history of my querying progress. I hope that this helps you in your querying and that you see more than just form rejections in your inbox! Thanks for following!

A Thousand Years to Wait

(A little novel aesthetic I included for A THOUSAND YEARS TO WAIT for my PitchWars family. You know, in case you’re a visual kind of person!)

 

Querying (Part III)

By now you’ve probably got a pretty good idea where I’m going with my queries. (Progressively better with each version, but still not quite “there.”)

This particular version netted me requests (both partial and full) from several agents. It’s better, but it’s still lacking.

 

Dear (Agent),

Though your website lists that you are currently closed to queries, I saw your recent tweet about opening to queries that match your MSWL. As such, I hope to interest you in TARROWBURN, a YA alternate world fantasy featuring a mystery of otherworldly proportions and a headstrong female protagonist with the power to solve it.

At 18, Moreina di Bianco is a young healer who believes in medicine, not magic, even while possessing a second sight she can’t fully explain. So when a talisman and a thousand-year-old prophecy choose Reina to reawaken an ancient magic and find a way to end a war, she must reconcile her beliefs and learn to control the magic. Reluctant to accept help, Reina’s only company on her journey is her estranged and mysterious childhood friend, Quinn D’Arturio, and a dashing captain who claims to be her protector. There’s just one problem with her new companions. They, too, are featured in the prophecy. But what woman wants a suitor, let alone two, when she’s busy defeating an evil general, ending a war, finding the true king, and rightfully seating him on the throne?

Tarrowburn, a 100,000 word, “chosen one” fantasy is the second novel I’ve completed, but the first I’ve written with the intention of doing something other than stashing in a desk drawer. While I have degrees in subjects completely unrelated to creative writing, writing has long been my true passion. Growing up, I was strongly influenced by the world-building talents of Anne McCaffrey and C.S. Friedman and quickly fell in love with both dragons and magic. Though it is a stand-alone novel, Tarrowburn is meant to be the first of a trilogy. Comparable titles for Tarrowburn might include Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Mass, White Hart by Sarah Dalton, or The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron. As requested, I have included a synopsis and the first ten pages of my manuscript below. I would be happy to provide you with a partial or full manuscript upon request. Thank you for your time, and I hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely,

L. Ryan Storms

 

The Things I Did Right:

Hey! I’ve finally managed to remember to use all caps on my title! That only took two full years. (Did you notice that my title changed? My word count is also up again…) Also, I’ve directly addressed why I’ve chosen to send to this agent. She specifically had an item on her Manuscript Wish List that matched what I had written.

Notice that my summary paragraph is much more concise now, that I’m not bumbling around about how Reina likes being alone and misses home. Sure, those things might still be a part of the story, but they were never the focus and shouldn’t have been included in the query at all.

I’ve now listed what kind of fantasy I’m writing. It’s a “chosen one” tale. That being said, it’s also a “hero’s journey” (heroine’s journey?), and an alternate-world fantasy, so it fits into more than one tiny niche.

I’ve used comp titles that are more within the scope of my novel, other books that include kick-ass, teenage heroines who generally don’t take any crap from anyone.

 

Things I Didn’t Quite Do Right (Also known as Things I Did Wrong): 

My first paragraph is wrapped up pretty well, but I’ve been told that, “I hope to interest you in TARROWBURN,…” doesn’t relay confidence. One reviewer told me that they thought I sounded like a waitress in a fancy restaurant, trying desperately to pitch the night’s special. “I hope to interest you in this evening’s special dish of braised beef tips served over egg noodles in a delightful mushroom sauce, with a side of steamed broccoli lightly drizzled in garlic butter.” (Now I’m just hungry.)

Another told me that I sounded almost like a used-car salesman. (Shudder!) And a third said that she understood what I was going for (humble and polite), but that it sounded instead as though I doubted my own work. Yikes, that definitely isn’t what I want agents to think!

My second paragraph is better at summing up the story, but still hasn’t quite relayed the stakes or the urgency in its entirety. I think I’ve done a better job of that in my most recent query, but we’ll get to that later. Someone pointed out that I mention both companions are featured in the prophecy, but I don’t say how. I assumed that my next sentence, “But what woman wants a suitor, let alone two…” made that connection clear, but sometimes it’s easier to make a connection when you already know what’s going on. It’s not nearly as simple when you aren’t already in the loop on the particulars of the story.

I’m guilty of having a bit of amnesia in my last paragraph. I’ve forgotten (again) to put the title of my work in caps. (Twice, in fact.) You’ll notice my word count went up again. I did a little more world-building as I revamped the book and brought it into the YA realm where it belonged.

While I finally used the right kind of comp titles, I’ve used entirely too many of them. I’ve also done something that can be seen as a bit pompous (which is ironic, given my “humble” opening). I’ve used a best-selling series as my first comp title. Agents don’t necessarily advise against this, but if you’re going to use a bestseller, be sure that your work really does match the voice/setting/characters of a book you are comparing it to. (I would definitely advise against using Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games as your comp titles together! Nothing screams “cocky” like using three separate bestselling titles with extended movie series.) This is why I also chose lesser known titles as my other comps.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that if you’re going to use comp titles, use more recent books. It shows that you read within your genre and that you’re familiar with what the genre currently offers.

I also don’t need to say what authors really got me into my love of of the fantasy genre. While it’s good information and might show my style a bit, it doesn’t really mean anything in the long run and it’s something that I could always discuss at a later date. Again, the agent wants to know about my book, not about me and my loves.

So this query is better and it did get me several requests for manuscript reads from agents. But I still think I can improve, and as I’ve taken on the challenge of submitting to PitchWars, I’ve decided to rework it again. That’s a post for another day!

dragonflight-by-michael-whelan

Anne McCaffrey’s dragons (and Michael Whelan’s artwork) will always be one of my first fantasy loves!

Querying (Part II)

After a year and a half of constant rejection, I finally revised my first query into something a little more focused. It’s not quite as rambling as my first and it seems like maybe I knew a little bit more about what was going with my own book on at this point.

Dear (Agent),

I viewed your recent manuscript wish list requests via manuscriptwishlist.com, and I hope to interest you in The Tarrowburn Prophecies, a 95,000-word fantasy novel featuring a mystery of otherworldly proportions and an independent female protagonist with the power to solve it.

Moreina di Bianco is a small town village healer and nothing more…or at least that’s what she’d like to believe, but visions that plague only her serve to remind her on a regular basis that she’ll always be different.  Despite her second sight, Reina is one of the few citizens in the kingdom of Castilles who doesn’t believe in the thousand-year-old White Sorceress Prophecy.  How could a talisman and a lone woman save the kingdom from the war that has raged on for four long years, a war that looks ever more desperate with each passing day?  So, when ironically unforeseen circumstances declare Reina the White Sorceress with the ability to rescue the kingdom from the grasp of a power-hungry General, she’s forced to accept the truth within the prophecy’s words and must take fate into her own hands.

Reluctant to accept help, Reina’s only company on her journey is her estranged and mysterious childhood friend, Quinn D’Arturio, and a dashing captain who claims to be her protector. There’s just one problem with her new companions.  They, too, are featured in the prophecy.  But what woman wants a suitor, let alone two, when she’s faced with ending a war, finding the true king, and rightfully seating him on the throne?

I have an undergraduate degree in Marine Science and a Master’s in Business Administration, but writing has long been my true passion.  After eight years in the pharmaceutical industry, I moved into the world of animal welfare where I currently work as a nonprofit marketing director for Humane Pennsylvania.  I do plenty of writing in this role, but none of it fiction.  In my opinion, the only thing better than snuggling puppies and kittens is writing fiction, and I endeavor to make it my lifelong career.  Additionally, I currently write part-time as a freelance writer for blogmutt.com and writeraccess.com.  The Tarrowburn Prophecies is my second novel, but the first I’ve written with the intention of doing something other than stashing in a desk drawer.  Please note that the full manuscript is currently under review with another agent who understands that I have continued querying while she reviews.  At your request, a synopsis and the first 50 pages can be found below (in a larger font for hopefully easier-on-the-eyes reading).  Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

L. Ryan Storms

 

Guess what? This query is still pretty wild and it’s way too long—this time over 400 words! You probably noticed that I did a little work on the manuscript since the last version. (My word count is about 4k higher than the last query as a result of the first time an agent gave me feedback!)

First off, in this version, I started with the reason why I contacted this particular agent and it’s okay. Nothing flashy here (notice no comments on personal appearances). It’ll do the job, but now I find I usually like to give a little more detail in this paragraph, like the fact that the agent and I share a love of Outlander or that this agent just mentioned on Twitter that she was looking for kick-ass heroines and alternate world settings. Something along those lines.jamie-fraser-picture-outlander

The hook is still too long and too “un-hooky.” (Sure, that’s a word.) I still ramble a little, albeit not quite as much as before. After nearly two years of querying, I still hadn’t figured out the heart of my book and how to present it! (More on this in an upcoming post.)

The worst part of this query, though, is the fact that I’ve made my bio nearly as long as the two preceding paragraphs about the book itself! Typically, you want your query to contain a sentence or two about you, but this is definitely more important if you have publishing credits to share. No one cares what my degrees are in, where I previously worked, that I liked snuggling kittens and puppies, or that I wrote another manuscript and don’t want anyone to ever see it. This information is completely irrelevant. (Okay, most of it is completely irrelevant. Degrees are good, but they don’t determine your success as a writer.) Also, notice I still haven’t used caps when mentioning the title of my work.

My thought at the time I was using this query was that agents were interested in knowing who they would be working with just as much as as they were interested in knowing what the book was about. Wrong. Yes, of course they want to know who they will potentially be working with, but at this stage of the game, they don’t care. That’s for future emails and phone calls to determine. Right now, the only important information they need to know is the premise of your story. And if you can’t manage to sum that up in the neat, little package of your query, they’ll have to pass.

So, work that hook!

Captain-Hook-killian-jones-captain-hook-33583000-1000-1324
(No, not that Hook! Although…)

Querying (Part I)

Any writer can google how to query, so contrary to the title of this post, I won’t be teaching you how to query. There’s tons of information out there regarding how to query a literary agent — what to say, what not to say, how to say it, and how to say it well.

No lie. Querying is hard. In a previous post, I wrote about how long it took for me to get my query letter to the point where I finally got more than a form rejection as a response. So what I aim to show you in this series of query posts is the difference between my beginner query, my “better” query, and my most recently revised query (that was said to be “solid” by established writers).

Are you ready for my beginner query? Prepare yourself. It’s pretty bad.

 

Dear (Agent),

Translating prophecy is a tricky and inexact science, and one in which Moreina di Bianco doesn’t exactly place her faith, so when she finds herself at the center of a thousand-year old prophecy, everything she holds dear is suddenly threatened.

When Reina is chosen to accompany the White Sorceress candidates in their search for the infamous Faranzine Talisman, she quickly agrees to help. What she doesn’t realize is that her own life is about to take a drastic spin, and turning back won’t be an option. When the talisman unexpectedly chooses her as its wearer, Reina must not only accept the truth within the prophecy’s words, but also must find a way to save the kingdom from the malicious grasp of General Bruenner – a daunting task for a village healer who doesn’t even believe in magic.

Reina’s only help on her journey is her estranged and mysterious childhood friend, Quinn D’Arturio, as well as a dashing Captain who claims to be her protector…oh, and her second sight, which she insists is nothing more than a slightly heightened sense of perception. As if discovering the key to unlocking the talisman’s untold power, ending a war, and placing the rightful king on the throne weren’t enough of a challenge, Reina is also forced to address a most unpleasant section of the prophecy – the part regarding two suitors. For a quasi-hermit like Reina, the only thing more overwhelming than losing her much coveted solitude is the prospect of losing it forever, but Reina soon discovers that there are things more important than solitude, and that sometimes home can be found even afar.

The Tarrowburn Prophecies is a 91,500 word fantasy novel ideally suited for readers who enjoy tales such as C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy or Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Though it is a stand-alone novel, it is intended to be the first of a trilogy. Initially, I decided to contact you based on your profile on AgentQuery.com, and upon reading more detailed information on your submission website, my decision was confirmed. Like you, I have a diverse background, having worked in many different professional atmospheres. Thank you so much for your consideration! I’d be happy to provide you with a copy of the manuscript upon your request, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

L. Ryan Storms

 

Okay, so do you see the issues with this letter? I cringe just looking at it!

First off, it’s way too long and cluttered, and it rambles without focusing on the conflict and the stakes. It’s almost 400 words! (About twice as long as it should be!) There’s a lot of description here, but not much focus on what the book is really about. There’s no need for me to talk about Reina’s love of solitude. Is she a bit of a hermit in the book? Maaaaaybe. But that’s not really essential to the heart of the story. Why is the part about two suitors in the prophecy so distasteful to Reina? This query makes it sound like she wants anything but to fall for a guy, but in reality, that wasn’t it at all. (It’s because she’s so focused on figuring out a way to end the war!) I could go on, but you get the point. There’s a lot of ramble in this query.

Next, I made a rookie mistake in my first paragraph with the “…everything she holds dear is suddenly threatened.” In trying to hook your reader, the last thing you want to do is use the word “everything.” There is quite literally almost no possible way to be more vague. Then, I went with, “For a quasi-hermit like Reina, the only thing more overwhelming than losing her much coveted solitude is the prospect of losing it forever, but Reina soon discovers that there are things more important than solitude, and that sometimes home can be found even afar.” Really? Was losing her solitude that bad? Honestly, it wasn’t even a major part of the book… Why was I so stuck on this theme?

My point? Sometimes what we think the book is about isn’t really what the book is about at all. When I was writing this character, I wanted to invoke a sense of longing for home, a sense of loneliness, of a desire to return to the mundane, everyday life, but it wasn’t what the story was about. I hadn’t yet figured that out at the time I wrote this query.

I also used a lot of the formulaic “When X happens, then Y is the result…” Just look at my second paragraph. Surely there were better ways than utilizing the much overused “When X…” And yet, I used it not once, but twice…in one paragraph.

When I mention the title of my work in the final paragraph, I forgot to put it in all caps. You work should always be listed in all caps. (This is something I still have issues remembering even today!) This is not the most horrendous thing I could possibly have done, of course, but using the caps lock for your manuscript’s title is a good way to make sure it stands out right away and it’s generally accepted as the proper protocol for query letters.

Lastly, my comp titles are all wrong! To be fair, this version of my query went along with a very early version of the book in which I had the wrong age range targeted. I was trying to squeeze what was essentially a YA book into an Adult category. No wonder it wasn’t working for me. (And no wonder I had no idea how to summarize what it was really about!) When I finally admitted to myself that I needed to revise my entire manuscript to fit into YA, I was in a much better place, both with the book itself and with the query.

And for the love of God, please do not, under any circumstances comment on an agent’s appearance. That’s just…creepy. I am absolutely mortified to admit that I did this when personalizing an early query. (Like, so mortified that I want to crawl under a rock and never come out.) The agent had said something about her unruly curly hair on Twitter and I ran with it. I shudder when I think of what kind of creep I came across as. So… Just. Don’t.

I try not to be too hard on myself because I know learning the querying process is all part of becoming a writer, but I still cringe when I read my earliest query. And I honestly feel like I just published a couple of nude photos of me! (But then again, I just told you how I commented on an agent’s appearance. Notice how I didn’t post that query.)

If you learn can from my mistakes, it was worth all my discomfort in putting this out there! And perhaps this will help you gain a chance at getting something a little more personalized than the dreaded form rejection!

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(Yep, that’s one I received on 2/14/2014. Feeling the love? Not so much.)

Slimming Down

Revision can be painful. Digging into the words you put so much effort into writing, not to mention deciding which of them need to go, can overwhelm a writer with fear. Which words do I cut? Filter words? Entire paragraphs? Scenes, even? What if cutting this particular scene is wrong? What if it changes the entire dynamic of the story?

But slimming a novel down is a healthy part of the writing process. Writing a first draft is basically loading a bunch of paint on the palette and throwing it on the canvas. You know what colors you want for this piece and you might even know the general design, but you can’t begin to imagine the more delicate intricacies until you begin refining the work. The same goes for writing. A first draft gets the basic idea of a story onto paper, but it’s hardly more than an outline, and an outline is not a masterpiece on its own.

When I write a novel, there are entire sections that need to be scrapped before I’m ready to query. Some of these sections are minor, but many (okay, most) impact the story in a major way. Like ripples in a pond, one thing affects another. So if I make one small change in chapter 2, it’s likely that I’m going to have to go through the entire manuscript to make major changes the rest of the way through.

Case in point. I changed a major character’s ethnicity a couple of months ago in a novel that was 85% drafted. I went from having a short-haired blond with green eyes to a Rihanna look-alike. That meant changing a lot of visual cues, quite a bit of dialogue that referred to body image, and rewriting entire sections of her family background.

But revision isn’t always about rewriting what’s already there. Sometimes it’s about taking out what we don’t need. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve written sections that weren’t needed. Sometimes these segments must be written in order for me to get familiar enough to move forward with my characters, but in the end, there’s always a lot of chopping going on! During the revision process, I erase entire chunks of dialogue and sometimes whole scenes. If a scene isn’t moving the story forward in some way, it needs to go. If it doesn’t show, in some way, shape, or form, the character’s wants and desires, cut it. If it doesn’t present a conflict for the character in some way, delete.

It’s a painful process filled with uncertainty and doubt, but it’s a necessary evil and the sooner you convince yourself that each cut is the right move, the closer you’ll be to having a refined, polished, queryable novel.

Because, seriously…no one wants to read a 186,000 word debut novel. Certainly not an agent.

You know what else is painful?

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Time to dust you off, old friend.

I made the horrible mistake of stepping on the bathroom scale today. Between the stress of spousal health issues (a cancer diagnosis adds a little stress to say the very least), running to constant doctor appointments, and driving back and forth to various kids’ activities, we’ve done a lot of running around over the last couple of months. Suffice it to say that my eating habits haven’t been the best. And to talk about eating habits, I have to talk about anxiety issues.

When I first began having issues with anxiety at twenty-one, I lost weight quickly. My stomach was upset nearly all of the time, I could hardly eat, and anything I did eat went through me pretty quickly. I easily dropped to 99 pounds, a weight I hadn’t seen since maybe freshman year in high school. Meds helped fix the issue, but throughout the years I learned to live and to cope with my anxiety without them.

I wonder now if I’m coping a little *too* well. When I’m in a situation that makes me anxious, my stomach immediately feels as though it’s about to rebel. Add in a stubborn streak and my determination to overcome anxiety, and it’s a recipe for disaster. I now view eating as a challenge, and instead of just eating a normal amount (or eating, say, decent foods), I’ll eat more junk just to spite my anxiety. Go figure.

Needless to say, a few months of this results in pounds gained. Throw in the writer’s dilemma of working while sitting on your butt all day, and the problem is easily exacerbated.

So.

Starting today, I’m going to do something about it. Losing weight can’t be much different than revising chapters, right? A little work, a lot of pain, and in the end you’ve got a better version of what you started with. (Or at least a healthier version!)

Slimming down in more ways than one! Who’s with me?

On Work and Effort

I’ll admit that I’ve been slacking a bit when it comes to blogging (for the obvious reasons), but as I’ve scrolled through my Twitter feed, I’ve seen a lot of my writer friends elated either because they are about to send out their very first query letter or because they’ve received their very first rejection letter!

I vaguely remember that excitement. The feeling of being a “real” writer on a legitimate path to publishing my beloved work. How would my story unfold? Would my offer of representation from an agent come after one query? Ten? A hundred? What if I had multiple offers? How would I choose?

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Oh, how funny I am! How naive. How cute and hopeful. The book I began querying nearly three years ago recently received its 85th rejection. To be fair, at least 30 of those rejections were really me trying to figure out how to heck to query an agent—what works, and what doesn’t. It should come as no surprise that for the entire first year that I queried, I didn’t get a single agent request for either a full or partial manuscript read.

My first full manuscript request didn’t come until after nearly two years of querying. To say I was elated would be putting things mildly. I shook with excitement. (Literally.) Needless to say, that agent didn’t offer representation, but what she did offer me was hope. What had previously seemed a futile attempt at baring my soul to no one who seemed to want to listen now suddenly seemed a legitimate line of communication. I had been sending out emails, but getting no responses for so long that I might as well have been using a megaphone to announce my intent to an empty parking lot. Getting that first request for a full read meant that someone out there had not only heard me, but was willing to having a conversation.

It’s been a year and a half since that first request, and since then I’ve received 3 more full requests and 2 partials on a manuscript that has continuously morphed into a deeper story than the one I originally wrote. That couldn’t have happened without accepting and embracing the feedback I received from each of those agents. So even though I’ve received 85 “no thanks” emails (or worse—cringe—no responses at all), I’ve got a stronger story and a better query letter than I had when I first began my journey.

Why mention all of this? Because I want my newly querying writer friends to remember not to be discouraged after they receive their 15th rejection and to keep going even after they receive their 50th. No one writer’s journey is the same as another, and the only way to be certain you won’t succeed is to stop trying.

Never stop trying.