Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Query Letters and Query Chat on Twitter

If you are struggling with your query letter, please consider joining #QueryChat on Twitter. The next chat will be held on April 15th from 10:00 pm until approx. 11:00 pm. You can ask questions and get advice from published writers, agency interns, and more. Just remember to use the #querychat hashtag.

I will have a big announcement next week, but for now, I'd like to post this query letter, as it netted quite a few partial/full requests of the manuscript, which led to the good news I'll blog about soon. Now, is my query letter perfect? Not at all, but it worked for me.

Dear Fabulous, Wonderful Agent (Well, I'm exaggerating a bit; I used the agent's surname with the proper Mr. or Ms. title):

A tattoo can be a work of art or a terrible mistake. The devil is in the details.

When Jason Harford meets the tattoo artist he nicknames Sailor, a little ink seems like the perfect thing to help celebrate his return to the single world. After all, his ex-wife hates body art. Sailor’s work is nothing short of extraordinary. The griffin tattoo looks real enough to climb out of his skin and take flight, and if he changes his mind, Sailor also specializes in tattoo removal.

With his new ink and a new girlfriend, life is good for Jason. Until he wakes up one night to find his arm ink free. Until he finds a brick wall where the tattoo shop should be. Until he finds his ex-wife’s hand on his doormat.

Jason hunts Sailor down and demands answers. The truth is as sharp as the griffin’s talons. The tattoo is alive, it’s hungry, and if Jason tries to kill it, he’ll die. Sailor will take it away, for a price, but he’s not interested in money or Jason’s soul. He wants his skin.

Jason’s not about to give it up.

INK, a tale of dark suspense, is complete at 86,000 words. (I also included the names of various publications where my short fiction and poetry has appeared, but as I've already written about those publications here in various posts, I've removed that section.)

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Writing with the Five Senses

Quick, open up a book. Any page will do. Read the open pages. What senses does the writer include in the passage? Often, a writer will focus on what the characters see, as opposed to what they hear or smell or taste, but you can take any scene and ramp it up by adding in the other senses.

On that token, I’ll start with sight:
Try not to tell the reader the wall is red, but show them the color. If they walk up to a door, show the reader what the door looks like. Is the paint faded? Is there a doorbell? A mailbox stuffed to bursting with unread mail? There is a fine line between good description and overly colorful, so be careful, but be inventive. Paint the sights in such a way to convey the tone.

Then we have sound:
Take a character and put him in a dark alley. Creepy, yes. But add in water dripping, a cat meowing, a dog howling in the distance, or the rustle of old newspaper blowing down the pavement, and you’ve just added atmosphere you can’t achieve by sight alone.

Let’s move on to touch:
If your character reaches out for that door, is the handle cold? Warm? If he's standing in that dark alley, maybe he steadies himself on the wall of a building, and the brick is rough under his palm or slick with rain.

Don’t forget taste:
Taste is not just limited to food. Let’s push our character into a pond filled with scummy water. As he drags himself up and out, what remains behind, other than the obvious wet clothes and dripping hair? A slick trace of algae on his tongue? The sharp, coppery taste of his own blood from his bitten tongue?

And my personal favorite, scent:
When I find a writer who adds it, I will confess I get a little giggly. Yes, even scary writers of dark tales giggle. Scent is often overlooked in prose, but it is powerful stuff and can invoke strong emotions. Use it.

Moving back to that alley, does the character smell rotting garbage from an overflowing dumpster or the sickly-sweet smell of rot from the carcass of a dead animal? Or does he catch a hint of perfume, perhaps gardenia?

Here is a quick and dirty example:

John walked up to the red door, turned the knob, and went inside.

There’s nothing wrong with that sentence, and it may be the best choice to move the action along, but what if opening up that door is a pivotal moment in your story, and you want to make it something more? I offer you this instead:

John’s footsteps on the pavement echoed tiny drumbeats of sound in the night air. A brisk wind carrying the scent of pizza, beer, and cheap perfume blew by, pushing his hair back from his forehead. He reached for the doorknob but paused. This close, the door--the color of old bloodstains on pale carpet--reeked of fresh paint, strong enough to taste. The doorknob, ice-cold beneath his fingers, turned with a high-pitched wail, like a newborn kitten crying for its mother. He took a deep breath and went inside.

It is a bit on the colorful side, I’ll admit, but I’d bet most people know that paint smell/taste. And adding in the other sensory information gives the reader a deeper emotional connection to the character and the door and ramps up the anticipation. What (or who) lies behind it? Maybe he’s visiting an old girlfriend. Or is someone else waiting for him at the top of a narrow staircase, someone whose intentions are of a darker sort?

All of this will help you achieve show versus tell with your writing. Tell is not always a bad thing, but tell too much and a story can become a passive, one-dimensional experience. Show a reader a scene, and you pull them into the world you’ve created. That, my friends, is a beautiful, powerful thing.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Tiny Bits of Fiction

I'd planned to write a lengthy post this week on a subject near and dear to my heart - using the five senses in your writing, however, I'm working on a revision project right now that precludes my doing so. In the meantime, here are a few bits of micro fiction I thought I'd share:

The girl holds an apple in her hand, but thinks today is a good day for hunger pains, for skin stretched too thin over jutting collarbones. Life is pretty when she’s thin. People smile and nod in her direction. When she eats, the smiles slide off their faces; she becomes an invisible not-human. More turned less, when less is perfection.

She, unlike Eve, can resist the apple and the evil hidden inside its red.

Disagreeable Neighbors
The voice, high-pitched and shrill, pushes out of the apartment into the hallway. Always fighting, the two that live behind door 308. I’ve never seen them, but I imagine him dark-haired, narrow-shouldered, in need of a shave, and the woman, a bottle-blonde with a weak chin. I run past their door, afraid they might pull me inside, to eat my life with their own.

Do You Love?
“How much?” she asks. I shrug. She asks me every few days; I always answer the same. I know what she wants to hear, but it would be a lie. She wants a reason for roses and diamonds, and a justification for our sweaty sheets and her sticky thighs. She wants everything I won’t--can't--give. “Just enough,” I answer. She turns her face away, so I can't see the tears.

A Mouth Full of Hollow, A Handful of Sin
He’s always looked good in black--the perfect color for a liar. When he says the word forgiveness, the women swoon and wonder if he’s ever… They keep the thoughts tucked down deep, but try to catch his eye. At night, he strips the black from his skin, walks through alleys, and pays his money. Later, he bruises his knees asking for the same thing he offers up and avoids his own reflection in the mirror for days.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Editing-one word guaranteed to make many a writer cringe. I have a problem with edits myself, however, my issue is of the over-editing nature. I love editing. I am never 100% happy with my words. I can only skim, not read, my published work because when I do, my brain flips into edit mode and I find things I would change. Even if it's just a word here or there, it makes me crazy that I can't fix it and make it better.

That's the whole point of editing anyway. Whether you are fixing up your prose, filling in a plot hole or two, adjusting a character's behavior, or chasing away errant commas, you are working to improve your story.

After you finish a first draft, put it away for a time. For a novel-length work, at least a month, two if you can. Give yourself enough time and distance to forget the story, so to speak, and begin your edits with fresh eyes.

Don't be afraid to 'kill' parts of the story that don't serve any real purpose or don't do the story justice, no matter how much you love them. Stephen King calls this 'killing your darlings'. Sometimes it's hard to let certain things go, but if the story needs them gone, delete away. I always copy deleted things into another file, so they are never really dead and gone, just tucked away for future reanimation.

Don't whip out the thesaurus and add in big words you think will make you look smarter. If you frequently (and properly) use the word salubrious, then by all means use it in your work, but don't use a fancy word just to use it.

When you've finished editing, read your story out loud. Even if you read it to an empty room, you will find that some things look great in the written word but sound terrible when read. Reading out loud forces you to hear those things as a reader as opposed to a writer.

Never underestimate the power of another set of eyes. If at all possible, have someone else read your work. No, you don't have to take their every comment as gospel, but listen to what they have to say. Their feedback may just be the missing link your story needs.

And my last bit of advice is to know when to stop. If you find you are only replacing words here and there, changing things just to make changes without making true improvements, you are probably done. That being said, I will probably revisit this post at some point in the near future and make a small edit or two. I can't help it.

Really, I can't.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Writer's Voice

No, I'm not talking about singing or speaking or passive versus active voice. The voice I'm referring to is that touch of something that makes a writer's work unique--the flavor of the words, if you will. As I mentioned this in my previous post about query letters, I thought I'd discuss it on its own.

Pick up three Stephen King novels, open them to any page, and read a paragraph. Do the same with Peter Straub, or Laurell K. Hamilton, or any other novelist with multiple books. Each one uses certain phrases, sentence structure, or stylization that instantly says, "Yes, this was written by Writer X".

I don't believe a writer's voice happens overnight. The more you write, the more you define and refine your own. I've gone back and read passages from earlier trunked novels, and while I can see the voice developing, it's not nearly as "Damien" as my later work, however, I did find a turn of phrase I've used in many pieces.

Voice is also fluid and can change over time. Again, the more you write, the better and stronger you write. You'll develop more phrases or stylistic devices that suit your type of storytelling, and I'm not referring to a conscious 'hey, I'll do this because it's cool' sort of thing, but a natural progression of your words--the evolution of your voice.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Query Letters - The Joy and the Torture

I was recently asked by another writer to take a look at their query letter, which I did. I noticed some common mistakes and pointed them out. After, it struck me as funny--funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha. Most writers struggle with query letters; they are much harder to write than an 80k manuscript. Why? A good query letter should be around 250 words for the 'pitch' section. 250 words? That's all. Piece of cake, right?

We wish.

In a nutshell, the query letter is designed to entice an agent into requesting your manuscript. It's not a synopsis (which is a whole different ball of wax), nor is it a dry 'this is what my book is about'. A successful query letter must be brief, catchy, and cohesive. In addition, it needs voice.

If you're having trouble with your query letter, go to the bookstore and read some of the blurbs on the back covers of published books. They give you an idea of what the book is about, show the stakes or major conflict, but don't reveal the ending. That is what a good query letter does.

Things Not to Do
1. Don't call your tale a 'fiction novel'. All novels are fiction.
2. Don't say you love to write.
3. Don't open with a rhetorical question.
4. Don't say this is your first novel.
5. Don't say you live with your husband and three kids in a tiny neighborhood in the hills of... You get the point, right?
6. Don't say 'Everyone will love this book, and it will sell millions of copies'.
7. Don't reveal the ending.
8. Don't include a laundry list of characters.
9. Don't send it out until it's ready.

Things to Do
1. Show, don't tell.
2. Keep it short. I've seen an agent post on Twitter about a 9 paragraph query. That's a quick way to end up with your query unread and discarded.
3. Have others look at your query. Qualified others.
4. Make sure it contains your voice.
5. Include relevant experience.
6. Do your research. Google query letters. There are so many resources out there for writers. Follow agents on Twitter; they frequently post what to do/what not to do.

Note: I am not an expert, but I've seen lots of good queries and lots of bad ones, and I've had quite a bit of luck with my own. The information to help you write a good query letter is out there. You have to do research to come up with a list of agents you want to query; please do the same research for your query letter. Don't just write something up, say it's good enough, and send it out to a billion agents - that is a recipe for a disaster.

Some Query Letter Resources:
Query Shark
Agent Query's How to Write a Query
Absolute Write

A query letter might be a torture to write, but imagine your joy when you get that first request for either a full or partial copy of your manuscript. Good luck and happy writing!