Where John Talks About Query Letters

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I do a lot of writing tweets. Today I talked about query letters, and my good friend who can’t help that he’s Canadian, suggested that I put up on my blog a sample query letter so that people can see what one should read or look like.

Here you go:

I often get asked in workshops and interviewshow to navigate the apparently bizarre demands from one publisher to the next.

A word first about those demands – they’ve never struck me as bizarre. Just like going from one store in the mall to another has never bothered me about where they put the registers or whether or not they wear name tags. Every place is different, and entitled to make up their own methods for accomplishing the same end goal – which in this case is getting your work published.

Now, a tangent: Do you know why those needs are so different? Mostly for two reasons – First, to see if you follow directions (you’d be shocked by the number of people who don’t) and second to see if following directions discourages you from going forward. Publishing on the whole, is a test of endurance, (writing is the test of skill) and there are many stages of hurry-up-and-wait as well as stages of I-cannot-believe-I-have-to-rewrite-this that turn publishing into a very intense pursuit. I would also like to point out that you (the author to-be-published) should avoid taking this time to start developing the philosophy that you’re competing with other writers. This is not about scarcity or about some game of book-musical-chairs. There are PLENTY of chairs and the music NEVER stops playing.

So what’s step one? Where do I begin?

Step one is something that doesn’t go down easily, but if you commit to it, life gets exponentially better. Step one is ‘make sure the project is complete‘. I know, some people reading this are going to grab this magazine or that website over there and point to examples that say flat-out you can query a partially completed ‘thing’. Yes, you can. You possess the ability to package pages together and get it sent to a destination. That is an option.

But doing that, moving ahead to acquire all the bells and whistles of publishing (the elements often thought to bring legitimacy: an agent, a publisher, a partridge in a fruit bush) without finishing your work puts you on someone else’s schedule. And that new schedule likely is unaware that your children may have sick days, school plays and sports practices. Or that your spouse might decide to rewire the house and leave you powerless on a Saturday afternoon. Or that you have two jobs and a mortgage and the phone bill and the credit card and you want a vacation and what about the grocery shopping…..etc etc.

By finishing your work ON your schedule, you make their schedule INFINITELY easier, no matter who the “their” is. Take the extra time (which shouldn’t be a problem if you’ve disciplined yourself to a good writing schedule, right?) to make the project the best it can be before it leaves you, and everything thereafter is much simpler.

Okay, I did that, but what’s up with queries?

I do a lot of workshops about queries. Here are the basics.

Start where the action of the story is. I don’t mean action like where the first emotion is felt or where the first verb is, I mean start telling me the story at the good parts. The parts that are going to make me want to hear more about it. Practice this – summarize your favorite movie. Now out loud, talk about it. Those scenes and facts you’re saying? Those are the things that show where the action/meat of the story is.

Find out how many words the whole thing has. Put that number and the title (which you’ll put in ALL CAPS) in one of the last two or three sentences at the bottom of the page.

You have between 200 and 300 words (I aim for around 225-240 max) to seduce the person into reading the manuscript. That’s the job of a query – to entice the reader to go to the manuscript. Not give away the story. Not bore people to tears. Just excite the person into wanting more information.

Do not give away the ending. If you tell the whole arc of the story, there’s no reason to read the manuscript. Remember, you’re supposed to be seductive. Telling the reader how this is going to end is not seductive.
This query is about your story NOT you. I’m now beating a dead horse, but the query letter is not the place to list all your great publishing or personal successes. (The document for that is called a resume) The query letter is about this story, and its merits, not the struggle you went through to put it together. I’m sure it’s a very harrowing tale, but it’s completely irrelevant to the quality of the story or a reader’s interest in making the jump from query to manuscript.

That’s the basic template. You get those pieces set in your query, whatever other demands come down the road at you are cake.

Wait, there’s no single format?

Not really. The idea is to get your ideas across in an exciting way so that someone wants to read the whole manuscript. How you do that is up to you. There are some ways that are better than others, (like strong verbs versus passive inert presentation), and some ideas to avoid (do not write the query from the POV of your character, don’t put emoji or internet acronyms in it), but taking advantage of the freedom is where your creativity singles you out from the stack of queries in the inbox or on the desk.

Now what about story summaries?
That’s a different animal. Here you want to treat the page like a candy bar or a cake – and that having one piece (the summary) makes you want to have other pieces later. Like ten seconds later. Or at midnight. Or for breakfast the next morning.

You still start where the action is, you still need to know how long the whole manuscript is, but now you have about DOUBLE THE WORD COUNT (400 to 600, I like a cap of 550) to demonstrate in tiny version what happens in the big version.

Think about movie trailers. That’s a small piece of a larger cake. You now get to do that by writing. Look at your outlines, your note cards, your bullet points. Identify the big action beats, the funny beats, whatever beats make you proud of your creation, and find a way to string them together. The magic here lies in how you make use of the words and ideas available to you.

And in non-fiction?

For the love all that you hold dear, DO NOT drown the document in headings. Not everything needs to be broken out and explained. Do you know how that comes across? Like the sniffly desperate kid in your class who used to eat paste and who just had to keep yapping and explaining. (In my elementary school, his name was Chas or Charlie or Chuck or something)

Likewise don’t go the other way and have two or three headings and then big blocks of text underneath them. That looks more like you just don’t know what you’re doing and you’re desperate.

Instead, try this. 5 headings.

About the book (the length, the genre, etc)
The Characters
The Plot
The Author (that’s you!)
How You Plan To Market This

If you’re writing a book that lacks characters or plot (hi cookbook authors!), then change “Characters” and “Plot” into “Reasons For This Book” and “Recipes”. The point is that you don’t need a TON of headings. You just need organization. Critical here are items 1, 4, and 5. Especially 5.

Why is 5 important? Because the more you know about how you’re going to get that book into other people’s hands, the easier that will happen and the better it will be for everyone involved. If that means you need to educate yourself on how to market or publicize, do it (Here’s a starting point, come ask me questions! Email or Twitter). Also, the heady days of disposable income are for the moment gone. So take the initiative and make something happen with your work.

Any other advice?

Yes. Two things.

I. There’s no one road to this goal of yours. Even if you and I do the same research about the same topic and go to the same people to ask the same questions and query the same book, we’re going to get different results. There is no one way to get published. There is no “right” way, there is no “wrong” way. One way is NOT better than another. What matters here is the answer to the binary question – Published? Yes/No. Having said that though, remember that publishing is NOT legitimacy. Getting published does not make you a better person or a superior one or smarter or kinder or more loved or anything like that. It’s just something you did, like yesterday when I did laundry. There are lots of ways to accomplish it.

II. There comes a point where you have to stop asking for help and start doing it. Lots of people and books and websites offer great advice. And you can spend many many days/weeks/months/years searching through them all – but NONE of them have the one magic bullet answer for you. It’s the sum total of what they say, what you choose to take with you and choose to leave behind that shapes you.

Yes it’s great to ask for help. But there is such a thing as asking for help about a thing IN PLACE of doing that actual thing. This industry, this craft, this art, is PACKED with people who bloat the lanes and passages with poor habits, wrong intentions, poor writing and unhelpful attitudes and advice. This industry is thick with people who aren’t going to ever get past the “talk about writing more than doing the actual writing” phase.

What separates the successful from the unsuccessful is yes, in part talent. But also the fact that the successful actually wrote. And got edited. And re-wrote. And published. And repeated this whole process.

If you’re doing this to be successful, that’s the path.
If you’re doing this to prove other people wrong, you’re going to be disappointed.
If you’re doing this to prove your own self-worth, you’re going to be SUPER disappointed.
If you’re doing this to be rich, you’re going to be doing this a long time.
If you’re doing this to be more famous than other people, you’re going to be disappointed AND doing this for a long time.

You can do this. It’s not easy, but the good things in life seldom are.

The Weight and Wait of Expectations

I spent last week getting massaged, stretched, and living with a harsher than normal diet plan. It helped me drop some weight and stress, and it’s brought me back to the desk today feeling excited and hopeful that there’s good stuff around the corner for me. Having checked the bank balance and the schedule of upcoming doctors’ appointments, let’s hope so.

Today’s significant to me, not just because it’s my first day back at the desk in a week, but because today is supposed to be the start of a series of deliveries that are intended to keep my spirits up for the next few months as I push forward on the #HeartFailureIsNotAnOption Tour of 2015. I’ve been looking forward to today for a while now, because I like getting mail, and I like getting mail in the form of packages that contain fun things to play with or good books to enjoy.

The downside is that there’s waiting to do. I have to wait for the mail to arrive. I have to wait until the end of the workday before I can try out the new stuff. Patience is not my best skill, despite my disciplined approach to writing and working. I get impatient because I worry that all the good stuff (whatever it might be for the situation) might be gone by the time it’s “my turn”, and that people will take stuff away from me once they realize I’m not good enough to have it. Sound familiar?

The same sort of ideas crop up in writing and publishing, only instead of the part where John is hoping that today’s box has a video game and some books, people are expecting the fastest and smoothest publication process with the fun jet-setting life of a published author to spring out of the box.

It can be so hard to wait, the seconds feel like hours, and the day seems to crawl along, taunting people with its not-doneness. And even now, it’s hard for me to rationalize it as “being worth it”, since the feelings of not being good enough can balloon and spread so pervasively. But here I wait, and while I do, I see there’s another side to waiting – the weight.

As time passes, whether we near deadlines or continue the march to finished manuscripts, the momentum of “one step closer” gains mass. The excitement builds as we see a finish line or milestone near. There’s nothing wrong with marking progress with milestones, be they daily word goals or weekly check-ins. And there’s nothing wrong with dotting your calendar with symbols and notes – when you start a vacation, when you get to celebrate with cake, when you get to take your pants off – just don’t overlook the hype machine.

We can very easily build up an experience to well past its own ability to meet those expectations. Because we live at a time where so much media is constantly talking about something, constantly speculating and hoping, then offering criticism and doubt, it’s not a far jump to go from wanting a thing to putting so many eggs into a thing’s basket that you’ve exceeded the basket’s structural integrity and now you’re left with an unstable ova containment unit.

Even if you put other peoples’ opinions aside, your own experiences can be so colored by the expectations you built. I tell a story in seminars about how I was very excited about the newest Batman video game, since I was really looking forward to the open worldness of it (I’m a huge sucker for open world, do what you like how you like, games of all kinds). And I dutifully read reviews and saw promo clips and was very excited. Sure, it had some elements in it I wasn’t so keen on, but that seemed just like a single activity here and there, or that i could skip the stuff and instead just be Batman. And then I get the game, and I’m stymied about half an hour in, because the things I thought were optional were not optional. And the things I really liked about the game were so buried deep into the story (that I couldn’t get through because of the non-optional stuff), that I’d never get there and be satisfied. I felt very cheated. I wasn’t angry at the game’s creators. It wasn’t their fault, this was their vision, and it works for people who aren’t me, so this discomfort has to be on my end. I realize that this is sort of contrary to the Internet’s view on things, that if the consumer is unhappy the creator must be at fault, but I still think responsibility tempers expectation, so I’m not going to fault people I’ve never met for thinking it was a great idea to make the Batmobile such a vital part of Batman and that the predator challenges were secondary because Batman isn’t a stealthy detective, he’s a caped ninja with guns and missiles … maybe I’m still not over that one yet.

Propping up something is tricky, because it can fail to clear the bar we create for it. If we make a thing and then sell it, we’re happy selling the first copy, but after that we need to sell lots more to get that happiness back. We’re not happy writing 10 words a day, we need a thousand. We need to get pushing forward in bigger and bigger steps, and I think that’s because of two ideas:

1) That we need to show other people that we’re making progress so that we can get some praise or acceptance from them.

2) That we need to show ourselves that we’re doing stuff, and we’re therefore good enough to keep pursuing our dreams (whatever they might be)

It’s easy to say “be excited about every step no matter how small” or “it’s okay if a thing you’re waiting for isn’t one million percent the perfect thing you’ve always needed so that you finally can even right now” and far harder to act on it.

The advice I can give you is focus on relaxing over waiting. Do whatever it is you’re doing, but take your time. Focus on getting the words out, getting the tweets written, getting the ideas out of your head into that new form. Keep yourself moving one step at a time, one task at time, no matter how big or small. You’re only going from one task to the next. It’s a tough change, it’s a hard trench to get yourself out of it, but it is doable. You may find yourself really frustrated by how different this strategy feels over whatever else you’ve been doing. But progress goes forward, and you can do anything incrementally.

Of course, as I write this, the package I’m expecting arrived and is sitting on my desk, its plainness taunting me to step away from a day of writing to open it up and enjoy its contents. But I say nay, for the day is still young and I still have energy to use for putting words into projects.

Happy creating. Happy writing.

JohnCon, initial Idea

This started with an idea.

Well, really, it started when an administrative assistant quoted me the wrong price on a doctor’s visit.

I should explain.

Since birth, I’ve had a “thing” on my lower left eyelid. For years, I never thought twice about it, it was just there. No one said it was weird looking, maybe a doctor would comment on it, but otherwise, it was just this thing on my face. It grew as I grew, but not past that. It was on my eyelid and I just sort of accepted it as one more reason why I was never going to be one of the pretty or handsome people of the world.

Accelerate to about two weeks ago. I get new glasses (I sorely needed them), and my very awesome optometrist is tinkering with lenses and things as they do, and he says, “John, that thing is a little larger. You should get that looked at. Here’s the number of someone to go see.”

Now for my whole life this spot, this mark, this thing has dogged me. It’s one of the reasons I get pinkeye twice a year. It’s one of the reasons why contact lenses and I didn’t work out. I’m pretty sure it’s one of the reasons I hate having my picture taken at parties and gatherings. So to hear that it’s growing, and knowing that it’s already a deep brown-black color like a mole, of course my first thought is cancer. There’s a history of cancer in the family (my mom is a multi-time survivor of several kinds), and cancer always seems to kill the people I love, so this is the part of the story where I panic.

(Did I mention I’m not supposed to be panicking? That it’s not good for my already overtaxed heart? Yeah, that’s going on all during this)

So I track down the doctor, and talk to the admin/secretary/lady on the phone, and while I’m sure she’s a very nice human, she has the personality of a five day old eggplant, and isn’t very organized. I know this because we play phone tag because she couldn’t find a pen the first time, then she didn’t want to be on the phone “in case someone came into the office.” Yeah, that’s a thing an adult who works in an office answering phones said to me. We eventually get to talking money, and she quotes me over $600 for this visit, because she’s not in my usual pool of doctors. She tells me to call my insurance company.

Now, I swear, this is all getting back to JohnCon.

I’m on pretty good terms with my insurance company. I don’t like them, I don’t trust them, I think they want customers to be sick, but not “too sick”, and they delight in phone shenanigans. Two phone calls and a download later, I’m armed with some forms and a zeal to tell this admin where she can file them. I prepare to spend over $600.

My appointment was today. I show up to the office, fill out far too many forms (including one that verified I was alive while filling out the forms), and get billed … fifty dollars. Turns out my insurance was accepted and everything is peachy keen. Except for the part where I have a thing near my eyeball that’s getting removed in 2 weeks. But that’s only a slight risk of permanent blindness, stroke, or death. The upside? I get an eyepatch for a few days.

Aside from all the medical stuff, I left that office thinking a lot about how people communicate, and how one lady’s disorganization and poor explanations almost cost me the last few hundreds in my bank account. And from that experience, I knew I wanted to do something to help people create and communicate better.

It didn’t have a name until Jocelyn Koehler gave it one: JohnCon

What I know so far is that JohnCon will be a huge opportunity for both me and the audience. I get to speak at length, and unedited, about writing, techniques, craft, and publishing. The audience gets helped, ideally, or at least entertained.

This will likely be a Google Hangout, because it’s the most accessible for the majority of people.

So far, it has a hashtag: #johncon

And this will happen at some point in October.

If you want more details, or to suggest topics or be encouraging, it’s best to follow me on Twitter and stay up to date.

Realism, Created Realism, and Creative Liberty

While you’re reading this, I’m a doctor’s appointment. But since almost anything is going to be better to hear about than my thrilling adventures paying $11 an hour for parking and shuffling from exam room to exam room, let’s talk writing. And we’ll start by talking about my dad.

I seldom paint my father in flattering lights, because at times our ‘relationship’ (loosest possible air-quotes there) ranges somewhere from cruel to cold to hostile to indifferent. I think this story falls in the indifferent region.

My dad has an obsession with realism. He wants to know things that really happened, he will comment loudly and often as to how realistic something is or was, and generally be dismissive of anything that isn’t grounded in hard verifiable fact. I think this ties into his obsession with honesty, since the minute anyone says anything different than what has been said previously (even as a correction) he will label them a dishonorable liar, and state that nothing they say can be believed. This proclamation lasts anywhere from twelve to forty-eight hours and dogs them long after, and is not limited to people. Movies and books are also held to this scrutiny.

He’s called out a movie like the Hobbit for both obvious reasons (there aren’t wizards in the world, and that guy isn’t a dwarf, he’s an actor he saw in another movie) and the not-so-obvious (a dragon would have just burnt the entire town, not saved one wooden tower from where someone could fight back). He’s sighed and grumped his way through comedies like the Naked Gun because a pratfall would lead to actual injury. Even media he likes (James Bond, Civil War movies and books) aren’t immune from this, because he’ll make a point of telling you that while it has things he likes, “you can’t really believe the author, because they weren’t there and they might be lying just to make money, because that’s what people do, make things up for money.”

This happens so frequently that I now avoid any opportunity to watch television with him, outside of football. But, I tell you this story because there’s an important creative point buried in among all my father’s obsessions – realism is subjective, malleable and under the author’s control.

We accept a certain amount of realism if we’re not outright told about it. A thriller about a Washington insider uncovering a conspiracy is assumed to have Earth-based gravity and physics, for instance. The high fantasy war between clans of elves is going to involve some weapons or terms you can see actual pictures of like castles, longbows, or catapults. This realism is the foundation for whatever we do change when we write, and we count on the reader passively agreeing to a base amount of uncommunicated information before we get too far, even on Page 1.

And we use that realism because to detail all the things that are the same as the reader’s experience would eat up pages and likely be lethal boring. Even in a simple expositive paragraph or point of narration like “And many things were exactly as they were on an average Earth day.” (Go on, read that in Stephen Fry’s voice, I dare you.) is kind of dull sentence that can clog up whatever momentum you’re building. Yes, narration confirms tone, but every sentence confirms tone, even when it isn’t explicit.

In light of the assumed commonalities the made up stuff has with our real life stuff, we’re free then to talk about what’s different. It’s the differences that make the story not only stand out when compared to other stories on the shelf, but also distinguish the writer’s efforts and craftwork.

The fiddly bit here is that while the differences are made up by the author, they’re real within the context of the book. There’s a fancy I-went-to-school term for this (one I actually like) called created realism.If you’re writing a space opera and you decide that the currency of your space realm is a cube of some precious metal, and you name them blortblatts, then blortblatts are a thing in your story, as real as the trignominium that powers your FTL drives and the quantodecaoscillators that fire your space soldier’s graser shotgun.

Maybe this is something you’ve always understood, but didn’t know there was a name for it. Maybe you didn’t realize how critical this is for all storytelling, from children’s books (it’s how the animals talk) to bestsellers (a secret government program of assassins exists, and one has amnesia). This concept is limited only by our decision making-process (remember Rule 1 – writing is the act of making decisions).

This is a good spot to point out that judging a story (book/film/tv show/whatever) on how realistic is can make for a disappointing experience. What my dad does, discarding or disregarding media because it’s not so deeply and almost inflexibly rooted in real life stuff, means he doesn’t let himself enjoy things as much as he could. From a production standpoint, taking this idea on means you can paralyze yourself in trying to make the fake stuff you made up while writing notes in that coffee shop last week sound as real as the stuff you saw at Costco yesterday. You can grind yourself to a halt trying way too hard to do a thing you don’t actually need to do.

Lack of realism isn’t always a bad thing. Just like anything else, if you take it too far, then yes, it can render anything you make hard to follow, but used effectively, you can make made up stuff sound just like a real thing. Here are some examples:

A brand of gun or car someone uses; a corporation; the CEO of that corporation; a brand of cereal; currency; slang used by characters; names of battles or maneuvers; landmarks within a region; species of animal or plants; type of drinks; fast food offerings; television networks; people; places; things

See what I’m getting at? It’s through created realism that we draw creative liberty. If poetic license is where you take an existing thing tweak it just a little so that it suits your need, then creative liberty is where something is made up entirely, even if it has real world models or references.

And it’s okay to do that. It’s completely fine. It doesn’t make you a bad person, a bad author, or a bad creator. Yes, my dad might never read your stuff, but my dad doesn’t read a lot of stuff, and he certainly couldn’t be bothered to write a review either way (because, surprise, you can’t trust anything on the internet … though the man does trust television news … hmm)

Take liberties. Make stuff up. Design and create what you want to, and do it the best ways you know how. You’re the boss of your writing, so you can do whatever you need to do to get the story from Point A to Point B, or point Q in your head to point Z finally on paper.

Keep writing. Keep going.

Personal Note: Hopefully today’s trip to the doctor has more good news than bad. Cross appendages. We’ll talk soon. Follow me on Twitter for loads more writing info, especially next week while I’m traveling.