THE ECCLESIASTICAL QUERY

I haven’t posted in a while. It’s been upward of what…three weeks? It’s egregious—yes, I am well-aware. I could start rambling off trivial reasons and pitiful excuses, but it really all boils down to one malefic factor.

I really didn’t feel like it.

There. I said it. I didn’t feel like writing a blog post, so I didn’t. There are a number of tumultuous things running around in both my personal and professional lives right now, and I just couldn’t muster the emotional energy to write about writing.

Bizarre, eh? That’s how you know there’s something really wrong.

However, I am not at liberty to tell you about the wrong thing, so you’re just going to have to give me the grace I’m trying to give myself. I’m knee-deep in the book of Ecclesiastes (among many others) right now, and the chorus of the third chapter still tolls in the back of my mind:

                “There is a time for everything,

                And a season for every activity under the heavens.

Death, life. Laughter, tears. The sweet taste of triumph—the gall of defeat. Writing your manuscript and sending out your query…

What a wonderful bait and switch! This post isn’t actually going to talk about my personal life. I just used that as a clever ploy to transition into queries.

Like the seasons, a decent Michael Bay movie, or the literary joy that once illuminated my heart, the time of the query waxes and wanes. I can guarantee with all confidence[1] that your time in the trenches will not be as expeditious or lucrative as you envisioned, for the question I’ve been getting the most recently is this one:

                When am I ready to query?

Well, the answer is “NEVER,” but we can’t go about being realists in a world of fragile dreams, can we? Your manuscript will probably never be truly ready for the trenches, but it can be aptly prepared. I know that you’re gung-ho and itching to blaze through the gates with hooves all a-clatterin, but before you send that first email, I would advise you to take a careful look at the following checklist.

ARE YOU READY TO QUERY?

A Quasi-Comprehensive Questionnaire by Author H. Kates

  • Is my manuscript FINISHED?
    • This is an absolute must. The last thing you want is to be caught with your pants down, rushing through the last chapters of your manuscript because you weren’t patient enough to give it the time it deserved. Think about it this way: What if you send your query and the agent replies that she wants a full read. Like—right now. How embarrassing for you.
  • Is my manuscript READY?
    • I’ve made this draft the absolute best it can be. I’ve done copy and line edits to the best of my own abilities.
    • I let this draft sit for AT LEAST six weeks before going back to edit it AGAIN.
    • It is formatted LEGIBLY and is free of errors to the best of my knowledge.
    • It has been beta read by several knowledgeable parties. (I recommend at least five.)
    • If I’m really concerned about grammar and spelling, I’ve hired a reasonable freelance editor to give me cursory proofs.[2]
  • Have I written a proper query letter?
    • I’ve spent ample time researching what a query is and how to write one. I did my research on trusted, professional blogs.
    • I’ve researched successful queries in my genre.
    • I’ve been to blogs like Query Shark to explore what does and does not work so that I don’t make stupid, simple mistakes others have already made.
    • I’ve emailed my query to other authors or posted it on query commentary forums to get professional feedback.
  • Do I have all the necessary components?
    • I have a one-paragraph, one-page, and full summary ready to go.
    • I have an author bio on standby.
    • My sample chapters are ready.[3]
    • I have considered relevant comp titles.
  • Have I researched agents in my genre?
    • I have a list of at least three agents.
    • The agent markets my genre.
    • I have researched the agent’s recent sales.
    • I have a specific reason for querying the agent.
    • I have checked, double-checked, and triple-checked the agent’s requirements.
    • I have researched the agent on social media and am in tune with what he/she likes or gravitates toward artistically.
    • I have researched the agent’s #mswl.
    • I have personally addressed the query letter to the agent.
    • I spelled the agent’s name correctly.

PRO TIP: DO NOT SEND OUT A MASS “DEAR AGENT” EMAIL![4]

  • Am I organized?
    • I have a place to record who I’m querying, when I’m querying them, and how they respond.
    • I am actively forming a living list of new agents to query.
  • Do I have a strategy?
    • I know I’m playing a long game. I have reflected and decided on what works best for me, whether that be shooting out dozens of queries at once or sending out five-or-so at a time, waiting for the results, and adjusting accordingly.
    • I’m keeping an eye on social media platforms (Twitter, Writer’s Digest, #mswl, etc.) for interested parties.
    • I am actively networking in the literary world and teaming up with other authors to promote one another.

 

And there you have it. Now, this list is by no means comprehensive, and if you’ve already sent out letters without crossing and dotting a few of these steps, you are by no means doomed. Querying, like marriage and the game of Monopoly, is something you get better at over time. Believe me when I tell you that your failures will teach you far more than your successes.

 

[1] If I’m wrong and you’re over 21, I’ll buy you a beer. If you’re under 21, I’ll get you a juice box.

[2] If you need any help finding cheap, savvy editors (We’re talking $100 for a full edit.), drop me a line.

[3] If the book is finished, this should be an automatic yes.

[4] This is an EGREGIOUS mistake. Agents hate this, and you would, too. Make the letter somewhat personal. Tell the agent why you are reaching out to him/her, and for the love of Loki, spell his/her name correctly!

 

Photo credit to Klara Avsenik. Check out Curry and Love.

THE PITCH AND THE BLACKNESS

WHY AND HOW YOU SHOULD BE PITCHING 

The only reason I got on Twitter was to do #pitmad. I’ll be completely honest about that. I can’t tell if I love or hate the platform, and whether or not it hates or loves me remains to be seen.

But this is not a post about Twitter.

This is a post about pitching, and that just happens to tie into Twitter very nicely.

There are many ways to find an agent or a publisher, but pitching contests should never be discounted. One of my friends recently took a poll of her followers and found that 18% of the authors who replied hooked their agent via a pitching contest. That’s almost one out of five. That’s a lot of people.

Most of these contests are found on Twitter, and the paradigm has to be Brenda Drake’s #pitmad.[1] The rules are very simple: You have 280 characters to pitch your book. That’s right. 280 characters.

And you thought your one-page summary was hard.

I am certainly no expert, but I have entered the contest, and I did end up with a contract because of it. My advice is to try to mirror the attitude of your book as best you can in a short, snappy phrase. Is your story funny? Make your pitch funny. Is it mysterious? Romantic? Action-packed? Make it whisper, coo, and pop (respectively).

The goal is to grab the readers’ attention, but once you do, be sure to get them invested. How do you do that? Lay out the stakes. You can easily hash out what’s on the line in 280 characters—no pun intended. If you want to use comp titles, use comp titles, but that’s completely up to you. Can comp titles say more about your story than you can?

Of course, I’m assuming you’re not a marketing specialist,[2] but if you’re an author, you really need to fake it till you make it. Writing parsimoniously, or in an excessively stingy manner, is a hard skill to acquire; but it will serve you your entire career.

Here are some of the tweets I came up with when pitching Patel:

Between hunting monsters, breaking curses, and saving his kooky aunt, Patel Patterson may not get around to his algebra homework.

Between monster hunting, outwitting mob bosses, and saving his kooky aunt, Patel might not get his algebra done.

Being the new kid from India is hard. Being the new kid on a team of international monster hunters is even harder.

Thwart the undead armies. Save vampire-slaying aunt. Pass algebra. Patel Patterson has his hands full this week.

As if battling undead armies and escaping a magical kill ring wasn’t enough,

When the King of Death is after your blood, 8th grade bullies are the least of your worries.

Eh, middling. Here are the pitches that got me agent and publisher requests:

Being the new kid from India is hard. Being the new kid on a team of magical monster hunters is harder.

Being the new kid from India is hard. Becoming an international monster hunter to save your aunt is even harder-Buffy meets Fowl

And that was only my first round. #pitmad happens about four times a year, and the rounds go fast and furious. If you didn’t find your pot of gold after your first try, you have three months to refine your pitch and try again. Maybe you need a little practice. Maybe you need some help with retweets from your friends. Maybe the right players weren’t watching the feed, but they will be the next time you participate.

And #pitmad isn’t the only Twitter party out there. #Pit2pub, #dvpit, #kisspit, #SFFpit—the list goes on and on. These things are in every genre at any time of the year. Find where your book fits, go check out the rules, and get rolling. Carissa Taylor has already done the hard work for you and compiled a list of contests on her blog:

http://carissa-taylor.blogspot.fr/2013/01/contest-madness.html

So considerate, right? Gotta love author-bloggers.

A WORD OF CAUTION: Read, reread, and triple-read the rules for ANY contest you enter. Your gut will tell you that every pitch party follows the same rules—they don’t. I participated in #pitmad back in 2017, and I know that the rules have since changed.  

“But Hannah!” you cry. “I don’t want to be on Twitter and I shall never be on Twitter!” *shakes unicorn mane* “I don’t need any of this!”

Maybe wrong, maybe wrong again, but certainly, definitely, and egregiously wrong on that last one. Whether you do Twitter pitches or not, you do need a pitch and you do need parsimony.

Let me tell you this little anecdote: I’m sitting in a bar, making polite conversation, when I suddenly find myself face-to-face with a literary agent in his natural habitat. We’re just having beers, but he asks me if I write. Here’s what I expected to happen:

Me: (drooling from the side of the mouth) Uh… Duh…

Him: Oh! Sorry. I didn’t realize you were a troglodyte. I’ll go look for an evolved human and market their book instead.

BUT THAT WAS NOT WHAT HAPPENED.

Here’s what happened:

Me: (casual, cool, wearing my favorite blue romper) I do! I write middle grade fantasy adventure. I’m actually pitching a project right now.

Him: Oh, really? Tell me about it.

Me: Well, it’s about a 12-year-old Indian immigrant who gets shanghaied into a magical adventure when he discovers that his aunt is secretly a vampire slayer. I’d say it’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” meets Artemis Fowl.

Him: Really? That sounds cool. (hands me gilded business card) Send it over to me!

Ultimately, that agent gave me a no, but the outcome really doesn’t matter. It was my pitch that made him say yes—my pitch that got him interested enough to read the book. Maybe Apocalypse Key wasn’t for him, but at least I know I was leveraging some interest.

How was I ready? Why was I ready? I had a pitch, I had practiced it (in my head, at least), and I could easily relay the gist of my story in under thirty seconds.

These short little speeches are often called “elevator pitches,” and they’re extremely handy in any sort of circumstance. As soon as you announce that you’re an author (which you really should be doing), people are going to ask you what you write about. You will tell them, and then they will ask what you’re writing. You will tell them that you’re writing a book, and then they will ask what that book is about.

30 seconds? You’ve hit the sweet spot. One minute? You’re getting windy. Over one minute? You’ve probably lost them completely unless they really, really care about the zombie-clown apocalypse.

Think about the commercials you see on TV.[3] They’re not long. They’re not elaborate. They hit hard, take names, and leave you hungry for more. Or maybe I’ve just been missing Taco Bell…

Draft a pitch, even if you’re not going to tweet it.

Practice it on your friends, neighbors, dogs, and lab rats. Come up with a 10-second, 30-second, and minute-long expression of what your book is about and start getting comfortable with sharing the idea with total strangers.

This may be writing, and you may be an introvert, but it’s all showbiz, honey. You are the only one who is going to take care of your book baby, and if you love your child as much as I love mine, you’ll be the first parent surfing the lines of Toys“R”Us on Black Friday.

YOU created the product. YOU are the most qualified to market that product.

Are you passionate about what you do?

Prove it.

Do you believe in your story?

Convince me.

Pitch hard. Pitch fast. Pitch often.

[1] Pitch Wars is also pretty popular. You can find the skinny here.

[2] If you are, congratulations! You’re already EONS ahead of everyone else, and I’d like you to come work for me.

[3] Do people still watch TV these days?

LE PETIT OISEAU BLEU

YOU DON’T WANT TWITTER, BUT TWITTER WANTS YOU

What is Twitter? Is it where uber-rich people with nothing better to do pass their leisure? The platform by which the president attempts to disseminate official policy? I’m going to be frank with you and admit that I don’t really know. The power of 140 (or 280—the debate still rages) characters is an elusive one.

I’m not here to teach you how to use Twitter. Honestly, I’m still learning myself, and I would be talking myself out of my taille if I told you how to do it right. There are already a million authors writing about how newbies should be using their Twitter accounts, and you can find an endless cavalcade of helpful articles on your first Google search:

https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2009/01/20/twitter/

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-anthony-jones/no-excuses-why-and-how-wr_b_9195128.html

These people have already done the work for you.[1] They’ve even compiled you a list of essential hashtags.

If you’re a newbie author, you should be on Twitter.

Of course, I’m sitting here sipping hot chocolate out of a bowl in the French Alps. I can’t force you to do anything. However, Twitter was the avenue by which I ultimately landed my first book deal,[2] and if you’re still not listening, perhaps I can woo you with pragmatism.

REASONS TO EMBRACE THE ROBOT INVASION

1. The literary world revolves around Twitter.

Sorry. That’s just that, and there’s really nothing you and I can do about it. For some bizarre reason unbeknownst to me, the literary community has nested itself right in with political dynamos, media superstars, and political activists. Strange bedfellows, mais non?

But alas, tis true. Everyone from agents to publishers to authors to editors is chirruping via le petit oiseau blue, and Twitter is the first place you’ll hear about agenting announcements, books sales, cover reveals, reviews, and anything else you can be and should be watching as a newbie author. Prime example? The grand manuscript wish list, or #mswl, is tweeted every Wednesday. This is a place where agents will specifically call for the manuscripts they’re looking for.

Want to impress an agent with your subversive secret author skills? Want to be proactive about your literary matchmaker prowess? Twitter stalking is a great place to start.

2. Those “opportunities” I’ve been talking about.

Remember when I said that luck is preparation meeting opportunity? I still stand by that. And believe me when I say that there are legions of opportunities hovering in the wings of the Twitterverse just waiting to be tagged and swept away by a newbie author.

Take Brenda Drake—an exemplary example. Here is an author who has built a platform far larger than her books based off (and I quote) “making connections.” Brenda is the genius behind #pitmad, Pitch Wars, and the Twitter Pitch Party. She uses these hashtags to connect authors to agents, publishers, and mentors, and I am only one of hundreds of authors who have struck gold by this avenue.

Do you also remember when I said that I sold my book on Twitter? Well, #pitmad was how I did it.  I’ll do an in-depth article about Twitter contests later, but if you’re querying, you might want to check it out.

3. Twitter is a way to find your people…

Are you a middle grade writer? A reader of historical fiction or an independent author looking for an audience? Your community may be waiting for you at the end of a hashtag. Twitter is a cacophony of shares, opinions, and cute animal pictures, but a few of those rackets may be jiving on your wavelength. Take a look around and see what you can dig up. By participating in hashtags like #mgbookmarch or tagging conversation hubs like @mgmafia,[3] you’re not only doing someone else a service, but getting your name out there to the magnates of your genre. I mean, Neil Gaiman participated in #mgbookbattle. Neil Freakin’ Gaiman.

4. …and help your people find you.

Twitter may not be your best advertising platform (according to Mark Dawson’s experiences, Facebook advertising gleans better results), but it can be a great connection point.  I’ve met illustrators, editors, beta readers, ARC reviewers, publishers, and agents based off my Tweets. If you skulk around long enough on the right forums, you will be noticed, and what transpires just might surprise you.


“But Hannah!” you cry. “I don’t want to use Twitter! It’s evil and soul-sucking and I have no idea how to put a gif on top of my poll!”

Fear not, fellow newbies! Voila, Hannah’s Best Twitter Practices for the Newbie Author:

  • The 80/20 rule is a good one to follow. That is, 80% of your tweets should be about other people (sharing interesting articles, salacious pictures, retweeting relevant material, etc.) leaving 20% to promote your own work. Trust me, I’m not knocking shameless self-promotion (Hey, did you know my book debuts 9 October, 2018?), but deluging your followers with spiel after spiel of advertisements gets tiresome, and that’s the fastest way to be UNFOLLOWED. 
  • As soon as you start tweeting political, you’re political. As soon as you’re political, you’re polarized—for better or for worse. Me? I flee that stuff like a cat from a cucumber. That’s not because I don’t enjoy discussions about sex, politics, and religion. I just prefer not to have them behind the mask of my keyboard.
  • Participating doesn’t mean Tweeting 24/7. Like something. Retweet it. Quote it or tag a friend. Twitter isn’t about spluttering your own opinions as much as it is about participation.
  • Yes, use Twitter to promote your stuff. Do you have good news to share? An article you’re particularly proud of? Feel free to post it up. Give it an eye-catching picture, label it with some trending hashtags, and you may be surprised what you fish out.
  • Take your time. Like any social media platform, your Twitter needs time to expand organically. Unless you’ve got exclusive, scandalous pictures of Miley Cyrus, don’t expect for your account to blow up with hundreds of followers and thousands of shares. Don’t give up. Keep plugging away. It’s never too early to start, and little by little, you’ll amass a platform that you can use to springboard yourself later in your career.
  • Remember, remember, remember! Like all social media, Twitter is first and foremost a source of entertainment. That means if you want to succeed, you have to be entertaining. Take it from James Breakwell or @XplodingUnicorn, a man who literally made his fortune Tweeting funny things about his daughters.

 

james breakwell example

 

See what I mean?


So there you have it. Get on Twitter. Now. Is it absolutely obligatory? Absolutely not. Could it be a chance to stumble upon that porte-bonheur that tips the scales of fate? Absolutely yes.  

[1] And believe me, I am all about other people doing my work for me.

[2] Albeit, rather circuitously.

[3] You’re welcome, MG folks.

Interview with the MG Book Village

MG Book Village (www.mgbookvillage.org) is a website created in late 2017 to be a place where lovers of middle grade fiction can gather and discuss books. The website is maintained by Annaliese Avery (UK author and librarian), Jarrett Lerner (American middle grade author of EngiNerds), Kathie MacIsaac (Canadian librarian), and Corrina Allen (teacher and host of the Books Between podcast).

1. The masterminds of MGBV are a living, breathing example of just how much good can be done networking in the literary world. You’ve got an author/librarian from England, a librarian from Canada, a middle grade teacher/podcaster, and an EngiNerd writer from America coming together to create a global, multi-faceted discussion. What brought you guys together? Besides a love for MG, of course.

Annaliese had the idea to start #mgbooktober, a hashtag used in the month of October with prompts each day related to middle grade fiction. Both Jarrett and I started following along and became deeply involved in the discussions. Annaliese reached out to the Jarrett to get assistance with the next hashtag, #mgbookbattle, which took the top 64 titles from #mgbooktober and matched them up against each other in November to crown one winner (which, thanks to some retweets from Neil Gaiman, resulted in CORALINE’s triumph). The idea for MG Book Village came from a comment about expanding beyond the hashtags, and I joined the group at that point to help make it a reality. We also recently added Corrina Allen to our team along with her Books Between podcast. We work very well together and share the behind-the-scenes tasks that keep the Villagers happy! 

2. Your mission statement says that you were “formed with the view of connecting like-minded individuals and furthering their interest in middle grade books.” Why is connecting like-minded individuals so important to you?

Building a community (or village) of people who enjoy reading middle grade fiction is beneficial for several reasons. Sharing our knowledge is important; it makes us better informed and helps us connect with books and people we might miss on our own. Discussing books helps us reflect more deeply on what we read and opens our eyes to points of view different from our own. We also encourage anyone who is interested in middle grade fiction to contribute to our site, so we have a wide variety of people who see books from many perspectives. We encourage posts from debut authors who may not have a platform, but need a way to promote their new book. We host seasoned authors who can share their writing experiences and knowledge. We ask for input from teachers and librarians who give feedback and help authors develop their writing. We also have a space for kid reviewers because they are truly the experts in this field and have valuable contributions to make. Although we all have the same interest in reading middle grade books, we make the conversations much richer when we share our unique perspectives.

Personally, I do not have a lot of people in my everyday life who enjoy middle grade fiction as much as I do, so it also gives me a sense of belonging to be part of the Village and share my passion with “my people” who really get it.

3. For authors, how important is it to make connections? Writing is a pretty solitary task. Why should I be a part of a community?

I see some of the most wonderful and special connections being made on a regular basis, and in every single case, everyone walks away with a smile. Whether it’s a reader who is thrilled that an author comments on their post, an author who is touched by a teacher relating an anecdote about a student’s reaction to a book, a teacher whose author Skype visit has ignited a spark in a reluctant reader, a librarian who adds an author’s books to her library because of their interactions on Twitter (that would be me, on several occasions!), making connections with others has unlimited potential.

4. The literary community is just as diverse as it is expansive. In such a crazy, multimedia world, why is it important to band together?

The middle grade book community, at least for me, has really been a port in the social media storm. It’s the place where I can find positive interactions, supportive comments, enthusiastic book reviews, and a wonderful group of people who genuinely care about middle grade books. With the amount of time that many of us spend on social media, I want to be part of an environment where I feel enriched by what I’ve learned. I can honestly say that I am MUCH better at my job because of the connections I’ve made on Twitter and Instagram, and Jarrett has also told me how many opportunities have opened up to him because of Twitter.

5. MGBV is a relatively new launch. Now that you’ve been out in the neighborhood for a few months, how have you seen your vision develop? Or has it developed at all?

All three of us knew we wanted to create a place that was inclusive, supportive, positive, and open to anyone who wanted to participate. We didn’t know where that was going to lead, but we felt if we kept those values at the core, they would be our guiding principles. We’ve had some wonderful opportunities to grow by allowing ourselves to be open to receiving ideas from other people (Jarrett says that we maintain the village, but it isn’t ours alone because it belongs to everyone, and I wholeheartedly agree!). Our 2018 book release calendar, kid book reviewers, our collaboration with the MG@Heart book club, and the addition of the Books Between podcast are all new to the site in response to suggestions. We also have a number of exciting projects and partnerships we’re currently developing, so there’s a lot to come in the near future. While we want to grow and become a hub for middle grade fiction lovers, we want to do so in a way that feels right and aligns with our original vision. 

6. How easy is it for literary folk to connect with one another? As a young author, how can I go about making those connections?

Social media makes it very easy to find people who share your interests, and all it requires is some time and willingness to build connections. Start following like-minded people on Twitter or Instagram, like and share their posts, take part conversations, review books and tag them, reach out with a specific question and ask for feedback, participate in hashtags for a certain event, form a support group with other debut authors…there are countless ways to get your foot in the door of the literary world and make literary friends! It’s also important to introduce yourself to others by sharing a bit about who you are, your work, and your hobbies.

7. Do you think that the literary community is good at networking and outreach? How could we get better?

Absolutely. I see authors and readers reaching out every single day, and I believe if you know that there are others out there that care about what you have to say, you’re more willing to make the effort to share. On a daily basis, I see authors supporting each other with enthusiastic comments about a cover reveal, attending each other’s local book events, connecting with readers through Skype visits, and offering to send ARCs to excited readers. I am a big supporter of seeing more authors join Instagram, as I believe that’s where you can connect in a more personal and informal way, especially with readers.

8. You base a lot of your platform on social media, particularly Twitter (#mgbooktober, #mgbookathon, etc.). How important is it for an author to be active on social media? Is it really necessary?

I would say that, especially as a new author, you want to reach out and connect with others as much as possible to promote your book. I can think of some authors who are relatively new to the publishing world who actively participate on social media, and I really believe those authors improve their reach because of it. I can’t tell you the number of books I have added to my library’s collection in the past few months as a result of the relationships I have with authors on social media. Readers who love your books want to be there to support and help you get the word out!

9. I’m relatively new at all of this, and I’m always afraid I’ll show up to the potluck with empty hands. If I’m not a superhero-librarian or a published author, what can I do to contribute?

I work in a small, rural library, I’m definitely not a superhero-librarian, but I am a reader who wants to share what I read with others. I bring my passion for middle grade fiction to the table, a love that is so big that I work, play, and breathe it.

You don’t need credentials to have a voice that matters. You don’t have to be famous to have something to say that others want to hear. We all have something to contribute, everyone’s opinion matters, and you just need to be willing to share it.

The MG community is a great place to start sharing because it’s so welcoming, and opinions are valued here more than many other areas on social media.

As an author, though, it’s also important to be an engaged member of the literary community and to help others for the common good, including kids. Commenting on a reader’s review, Skyping with a classroom, sending an ARC to a book review group…these are all contributions that authors can make that benefit everyone involved.

Jarett, Annaliese, Kathie, and Corrina—thank you so much for your comments and your answers. Reader, I hope your heart is glowing like mine is after reading this interview. If this doesn’t define community, I dare you to find something that does.

FEED YOUR HEAD

“Remember what the doormouse said.”

–Jefferson Airplane

I’m not going to write about what I was going to write about because, frankly, I don’t want to. We’ve been talking about community, and you can bet your britches that this conversation is going to culminate in a fantastic interview with the folks of MG Book Village. However, as I was traveling through Switzerland, Romania, and the Czech Republic,  I received a message from my CP.

Stuck.  

Yes, stuck. Stuck on a pivotal scene in the beginning of his novel, not unlike the scene I’ve been stuck on for months when trying to hammer out the sequel to Patel Patterson and the Apocalypse Key. “Something is missing,” he said, “and I don’t know what it is.”

I remember his message so clearly because I remember thinking, “Well, golly. I’m facing just about the same thing. I know what needs to happen. I know what should happen. But it’s just…missing something. That je ne sais quoi.”  

I’m still staying tuned to his mechanics, but as I was climbing the stars of Dracula’s Castle in Transylvania, basking in the medieval history of Prague, and stuffing my face with fondue, something hit me—the quoi that had been missing in my writing for so darn long. Finally, I was able to go back to my apartment and fly through twenty pages of text without batting an eyelash.

What changed? I’ve narrowed down the spark to four distinct factors.

1. A change of scenery.

I mean, I ran away and joined the circus, but a change of scenery can be as simple as taking a good, long walk or watching a movie that you’ve never seen before. If you give yourself the chance to experience something fresh and new, you may find that this “something” might be the something you needed all along. For me, it was castles and mountains and funny, weeing statues.

2. A change of perspective.

“I’m just not getting it!” I lamented to one of my betas. “It’s just not flowing. Patel doesn’t want to go to the dance, his crazy Aunt Gilly is forcing him to go, the cheerleaders morph into zombies…”

So on and so forth. I went on about plot ties (this is the first mystery I’ve ever written, so it’s been tricky), character motivations, technicalities of the setting, and why these things were essential to the rest of the plot.

This wonderful man listened to every word, waited patiently for me to finish, and then said, “What if Patel wants to go?”

I was flabbergasted. Dumbfounded. That flipped the entire chapter plot upside-down, scrambling character motivations and redefining the tension between the main contenders. However, the more I got to thinking, the more I realized that he was on to something.

Swapping the motivation didn’t dissolve the tension. It made the tension stronger. I started my fourth rewrite with these new ideas blossoming in my head, and low and behold, I finally came out with the winning draft. It looks absolutely nothing like my original outline, but this new way ended up ironing out wrinkles that I had been trying to snag for months.

This is why you’ve got to have friends. Someone to talk to—someone to dribble with your ideas. If you find yourself in the quagmire of your own head, try getting out of it and into someone else’s.

Go find a new perspective.

It takes a village to raise a child, and I would absolutely argue that this applies to your book child, too. Don’t be afraid to tilt something upside-down or even to let someone else do the tilting for you.

3. A change of genre.

I write middle grade fiction. It’s very clean, very noble, and certainly not infested with blood-spurting fortune cookies or cannibalistic clowns. However, on my most recent trip, I decided to bring along a copy of Stephen King’s IT. Not for any particular reason; I like King’s writing and needed something for the plane.

Interestingly enough, I found my je ne sais quoi tucked between the lines of hauntings, graphic scenes of violent prejudice, and grisly murders. Certainly, IT has not prompted me to add festooned intestines to my books (every time Patel sees blood it’s described as a “dark liquid” or “a steady crimson drip”), but King’s description of such horrors as seen through a child’s eyes did highlight the “something” I was missing.

Fear. I was missing the emotion of fear.

Sure, Patel saw horrible things, but my main character was acting more like a Morgan Freeman-styled narrator than a thirteen-year-old boy. He was observing, not participating—that elusive “showing and not telling.” After seeing Pennywise the clown through the alternating perspectives of the Losers’ Club, I realized what was lacking was not plot or structure—it was emotional grit.

If you’re writing in a certain genre, it would do you well to do your research within that genre—to find out how thrillers, murder mysteries, or even erotica are successfully crafted. However, it took me stretching beyond my genre—reaching out into a drastically different and even polar opposite type of story—to see what my book needed.

Sure, I can write fairy tales full of globetrotting feats and dashing adventures, but it took a visit to Derry to remind me what it’s like to be afraid of the dark.    

4. Time

I spent quite a bit of time in the military, so I tend to take the bellicose view that if there is a wall before you, you run yourself into it until it collapses. Of course, this is a brave, stalwart, and often heroic approach, but the writing process is teaching me that patience may be obligatory.

You can take your time.

Believe it or not, your book will be just as finished this year as it will be next year. A letter of acceptance is received just as sweetly in June as it is in February. You may think that your book must be completed, edited, sold, and on a best-seller list right now, but believe me when I say that stepping back and taking time to clear your mind is not a bad idea.

Now, by no means am I saying procrastinate, but don’t be so enamored with success that you force plasticized prose. Trust me, your readers will recognize when that “something” is missing—and so will you. There is no harm in putting down the paper.

This is why I’m usually juggling two or three projects. If I get stuck on one, I put it down and tend to the others until I can resume. This way, I always feel productive and do better at warding away the panic of a blank page. This is also why most writers advise starting a second book while querying the first.

Some brilliant ideas take time. Give your imagination room to work.


Writing is a creative process—an art in every way, shape, and form. Unless you’re Emily Dickinson, I’m guessing that you get the ol’ brain machine firing with some good old-fashioned inspiration: a beautiful park, a kick-butt fight scene, some jiving tunes, or maybe even just a walk around the block.[1]

If your brain is a machine, it needs to be fueled. If it’s an animal, than it must be fed. If you’re frustrated and find yourself repeatedly smacking into the same brick wall, perhaps it’s time to step back, take some space, and give yourself room to breathe.

After all, a retreat is still a military maneuver.

[1] Stephen King walks for four miles a day. Unless he’s been hit by a car.

RETHINK THAT SOUL OF YOURS

Being a millennial, I understand how unhappy, jaded, and completely dunderheaded my generation is because of social media. I was eight years old when AOL first sang me the song of its people. (It went something like this.) Now, I have “phantom limb twitches” every three minutes thinking that I’ve received some sort of notification.

Social media is doom, gloom, and unhappiness, and you’re a free spirit who ain’t lettin’ no man or no government tell you how to live your life. In fact, you may go as far as a Belgian music sensation and view Twitter as something like this:

 

Prends guarde à toi, indeed.

But as fake, evil, and completely fabricated as social media is, if you are an author, you might do well to learn to play with fire. Unless you’ve been living at the bottom of a well,[1] you’ve probably observed that pop culture, business, and pretty much every other aspect of modern life revolves around some sort of virtual social outlet. The literary world is no different. I would never go as far as to say that participating in social media is necessary for literary success, but if you are absolutely determined to remain unplugged,[2] I beg your patience for a few empirical points…

Stalking.

I don’t condone stalking. I never encourage it. However, I will say that you can employ the endless reaches of social media to get the skinny on what’s going on in the literary community. Agents, publishers, writers, book sales, awards, contests—social media is the perfect place for a newbie author to sit back and observe, rather like a vulture scanning the highway…

Ok—so that wasn’t a very good metaphor. Like a hungry waif perusing a vitrine before deciding what to do with the nice man’s copper.

Find the agent you want. See what he/she is selling or is interested in. Find successful authors. See what they do and how they do it. Find books that are rising to the top. See who is selling them, who is promoting them, and how both of these things are being done.

Trust me—they’re Tweeting all about it.

Networking.

Looking to meet beta readers? CP’s? Illustrators, editors, proofreaders or medieval swordsmanship scholars? By all means, go into your local Starbucks and sound the cry through cupped hands, but if you want to avoid some angry looks and a possible citizen’s arrest, let me get you in on a little secret…

I have found these people—every single one of them—on some form of social media.

I live in France. I go to conferences across the United States and try to explore at least one new country every month. I meet incredible people (a media manager from Brazil, a belly dancer from Geneva, etc.) who help me all along the way, but I can assure you that none of these relationships would be possible and/or sustainable without social media.

Learning.

Over one million books are published every year, and that’s in the U.S. alone. How do you make your book stand out? What pulls an Indie author into the realm of best-sellers?

Hustle, my friends. Good, old-fashioned hustle.

Gone are the days of symbiotic author-publisher relationships. Gone are the days of sponsorship and obligatory patronage. Gone are the days of bemusing publishing voodoo. In our instantaneous, globally-connected world, we can do what our parents could not.

We can be entrepreneurs.

Today, you can write, format, print, and publish a book in the comforts of your living room. Of course, fresh air is good to clear the mind and one must arguably get enough vitamin D, but it is completely possible. And (Get ready for this!) that book can be successful.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. A successful author isn’t just an author—she’s an editor, part-time marketer, designer, and campaign manager. All of these things can be stressful and incredibly time-consuming, but they are doable thanks to our world of mass-connectivity.

Let me say that again: It is doable. People have done it before. And trust me when I say that those people are making a lot of money right now teaching other people how to do the same thing. Of course, you can go pay for media marketing classes and Facebook Ad courses and whatever else you want to pay for, but you can learn quite a bit by just sitting back and watching. How is this/that author advertising on Facebook? What does he include in his newsletter? How is her agent marketing her book? What sorts of advertisements catch your eye, and what makes you want to follow one author but not another? How are authors pitching on Twitter? What kind of books are agents looking for on #mswl Wednesday?

You can learn a lot on social media by just being present.

Building Your Brand

Do books sell? No. Authors sell.

Do you think Harry Potter would have been nearly as successful as a one-book standalone? That Stephen King would have earned his “Master of Macabre” status if he had stopped at Carrie? All of these authors are in themselves a brand, and the diffusion of that brand is arguably what bolstered their careers far beyond a single work. You know who King is without having read anything he’s written. Rowling is a household name, even if you haven’t read HP.

I had a banal understanding of how important it was to make myself “known” as an author, but only when I had signed on with Blaze Publishing was I given the 411 on author branding. In this article, Theresa Meyers explains author branding far better than I ever could:

http://www.bluemooncommunications.com/white_papers/author_branding.htm

Meyers makes a solid point. A fan’s attachment to a book can only go so far. Get that fan to fall in love with the author, and you’ve got a lifetime of business.

Branding is something that you can start before you type a single word. My “author brand” revolves around my activities as an author-adventurer. (My business card literally says, “Author-Adventurer.”) On my various media outlets, you’ll see countless pictures of places I’m visiting, crazy stories about those places, and tiebacks to what I’m writing. The author-adventurer label may not encompass everything about me, but it’s a personable, relatable part that I want to share with my readers.

Accessibility

Want to know something crazy? People are much more likely to buy something from you if they know you—or feel like they know you, anyway. This is all a part of author branding: If your readers feel like they are somehow connected to you, that they are invested in your personal story rather than just your fictional one, you are turning a simple investment into compound interest.

So how do you make these connections? How do you relate to your readers and develop that kind of relationship with your audience? When we’re talking about hundreds of thousands to millions of people, the answer has to be social media.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to post every single photo of your dog’s post-op neuter scar; there is such a thing as a healthy boundary between your professional persona and your private life. However, rather than thinking of that boundary as a wall, I like to see it as a permeable membrane. It is ok to let your personality—your sincere hopes, dreams, wishes, emotions, ideas, and creative sparks—filter into what you post.

As much as I love my book,[3] the goal of this debut goes far beyond an audience liking Patel Patterson and the Apocalypse Key. Sure, I want people to enjoy Patel, but even more than that, I want them to make a connection—a relation, if you will—that keeps them engaged and interested. An engagement can only go so far with 72,000 words, but a connection with me, H. Kates the Author, can extend far beyond my own story.

Lemony Snicket, or Daniel Handler, is an excellent example of this concept. Handler seamlessly wove his own author brand (the mysteriously tragic and elusive tale of his alter ego, Snicket) into The Series of Unfortunate Events, so far as to bring his fictional mystery to life. Neil Gaiman is also very good at connecting with his readers. Even though I will never know @neilhimself, every time I see a funny Tweet or an interesting Instagram picture from the “Good Omens” set, I feel a little closer to his work.

So…social media.

I get it. You don’t want to do it. It’s a drag, it can be rather invasive, and—to be completely honest—developing a social media persona can be both exhausting and disheartening. What I’m struggling with is a classic chicken and egg problem—I’ve got all my social media/outreach networks up, but I’m trying to build hype around a book that doesn’t come out until October. That is, I’m trying to build a marketing platform for a product that does not yet exist.

Do authors become successful because of a good social media platform, or does an author develop a good social media platform after being successful? I don’t know the answer to that question; I’ve seen both happen. I’ve seen both not happen. Again, if anyone has a formula for this stuff, please feel free to send it my way.

However, what I do know is that you can never hurt yourself by lining up more opportunities. Your social media platform may not be the effort that propels you to scintillating success, but it can play a part in how you get there.

Can you be an author without social media? Absolutely. Would I have been able to get where I am today without my social media connections? Absolutely not.

If I still haven’t convinced you and you’d like to see the lighter side of some nice people who do good things with the internet, please tune in at the end of the month for my interview with the folks of the MIDDLE GRADE BOOK VILLAGE. In the scope of networking, writing, and the literary community as a whole, this is an article you do not want to miss.

Well, I’m off to Romania to hunt vampires. Catch you on the flip side.

 

[1] If you have, I am so sorry. That sounds horrible.

[2] I mean, if you’re reading this article, you’re past that point, anyway.

[3] And trust me. I love this book.

COMMUNITY

OR

LOOKING BEYOND GOOGLE

Listen to me. I made a mistake. #authorconfession is a boppin’ hashtag these days, but let me spell out something very real for you: I didn’t do what I should have done. I could have done it better.

If you are a new author looking to get into the publishing world, please don’t make the same mistakes.

Like a true newb, I began my writing career by Googling “how to publish a book.” Don’t get me wrong, Google is a marvel of the modern age. It fetches me my recipes, assesses my maladies, and saves me the social anxiety of actually calling the post office to inquire about office hours. If someone told me that I could either have a magic wand or Google Search for the rest of my life, you’d better bet I’d choose the latter. Can a wand give me a weather report for the next three days? Compare thousands of flight prices in a second?

Puh-luh-eez.

However, Google (much like a magic wand) does have its limits. The literary world is vast and well-connected. Success in the throes of the publishing multiverse is not something that people usually “stumble upon.” Sure, Google will tell you in a beautiful, bulleted list to “write a book,” “write a query letter,” and “query agents”—and that’s by no means wrong—but if you have ever done any of those things, you know that they are much more than simple steps. Sure, you can Google “how to make a baby,” but I’m sure that you will find much more practical, seasoned counsel by seeking out an authority on the subject.

I started out on the Google route. I cannot forget the opening of that first query letter; the seething words still wriggle in my brain:

Dear So-And-So Agent,

I am seeking representation for my debut dystopian thriller…

Eek. Rewriting half of the first sentence makes me cringe.

Looking back, I think that a part of me was afraid to ask for help—shy, and almost ashamed to even admit that I was writing a book. It was over a year before I “went public” about my aspirations—a year after that before I was making any sort of headway. It took a lot of head-beating frustration before I finally acknowledged my need for community.

Here’s a real #authorconfession: When I finally plugged into the writing community, my entire trajectory changed.

Now, we throw the phrase “writing community” back and forth like the word “feminism.” We have a basic understanding of the word and sound awfully smart using it, but call on three different people to give you a concrete definition, and you’re going to get three different things.

When I talk about the “writing community,” I speak in the broadest scope you can imagine. Really, I should say “literary community,” because readers, librarians, parents of readers, agents, editors, and publishers have just as much to say about a writer’s craft as the writer does. We’re going to plunge into the mechanics of the literary community over the next few months. Conferences, social media groups, contests, conventions—we’ll hit it all.

Be sure to stay tuned for a discussion with the masterminds behind the MG Book Village, a brand-new hub where readers and writers can connect and share.[1] This project is the living, breathing embodiment of what I’m talking about when I use the word “community,” so I think you’d do well to listen to what they have to say.

Regretfully, I only reached out at the point of desperation. My query letters weren’t working. My book just wasn’t working. I went to my first writing group with the wayward hunger of a child seeking a totem, scanning the room for that grizzled, gray-bearded sage who was going to demystify the path before me.

There were no kung fu masters or scar-faced warriors, but instead, a group of supportive, bright-eyed authors who welcomed me in an instant. When I expressed my frustrations with my floundering query, I was immediately directed to author Kate Miller, a local writer who successfully queried and sold her urban fantasy, Karma Patrol, through #PitMad.[2]

I reached out to Kate, introduced myself, and explained my situation. We exchanged emails for a few days, then agreed to meet at one of the weekly Panera write-ins held in the area. When I finally arrived at the back corner both, I was nervous and even a bit star-struck. I mean, here was a published author not only willing to sign my copy of her novel, but help me advance my own work with her free time.[3]

I can still see the scene in my mind’s eye: Kate reads my query, purses her lips, and then says, “Here, let me help you.”

“Here, let me help you.”

I was shocked. Dumbfounded. Stupefied. I sat there, half mortified, half awed as a published author stopped what she was doing, sat down, and took me through the steps of writing a good query. Kate ended up helping me rewrite the query for my first novel, which never did sell, but prepared me for marketing the one that did. Even more invaluably, she shared the resources that she had used to make her query shine—sites, blogs, and reviewers that I had never even heard of before.

Kate didn’t write my query for me. She didn’t hook me up with an agent, tell me how to revise my novel, or submit anything on my behalf. She did something better than all of those things combined: She gave me the knowledge and the tools to succeed on my own.

And meeting Kate was just the beginning. After taking that first timid step, I began to seek advice left and right, reaching out to anyone and everyone I could. Authors like Erin Straza, Dianne K. Salerni, K.B. Hoyle, T.S. Robinson, and Jennifer Bushroe were all both willing and gracious to offer me help and support—and this is by no means an exhaustive list! Little by little, I began to lean into the community and look to experienced authors for advice on the road ahead.

Finally, I arrived. PATEL PATTERSON AND THE APOCALYPSE KEY is now under contract, and I do a clumsy little jig every time I think about the release date this October. However, I can’t help but look back on what I’ve taken from this experience, and if you’re a newbie author, I hope that you will read and heed a few lessons that I learned the hard way:

People have gone through what you’re going through. They have conquered.

We talked about this in “Weathering Rejection.” All authors are rejected in some form or another. When you look at authors in the writing community, you see an entire army of warriors who have fought in the very same battle that you are now fighting. This should be inspiring, and you should take comfort in the fact that each of them won in their own special way. Ask them about it. You might learn something.

You are not the only one out there.

Sure, the writing community is made up of successful, best-selling, award-winning, and published authors, but it’s also made up of authors like you and me—those of us who are up-and-coming. The ones who haven’t quite figured it out yet, but are learning as we go. As much as the writing community can be a place to ask questions and seek advice, I’ve also found it to be a forum for compassion and encouragement. We’ve all been there. Many of us are still there. You may struggle through this (Arguably, everyone does.), but you’re not struggling alone.

There are people out there who want to share their knowledge.

Art is the competition of the noncompetitive. Part of me cowed to think that the literary community was made up of snobbish, secretive elites who guard the keys to publishing like a branch of the Illuminati; but nothing could be farther from the truth. Every author I’ve ever talked to has been gracious, able and willing to help a newbie when called upon to do so. Chances are, that author was helped by someone else along the way, and in this fashion, everything is payed forward. That’s why I’m writing this post. That’s why I’m writing this blog.

I have found both the writing and the literary communities to be warm, welcoming, and tight-knit. When you find your tribe, whether it be centralized around a mutual love (writing, reading, books in general), genre, or craft—stick to it.

Connections matter.

I have always been told that luck is preparation meeting opportunity. Preparation is the easy part: Write the book. Edit it, get it beta read, and polish it as best you can before you send it out to the world.

Opportunity, on the other hand, can be a bit trickier. How does one put oneself out there? Besides sending out hundreds of letters, how can you make the connections that land you where you want to be?

I can’t answer that question, and I doubt that you will find anyone who can. Like I said, everyone’s journey is different, and nobody arrives in the exact same place. However, putting yourself in the right place at the right time can be something of an art. Meeting people who may know other people and positioning yourself in a place to meet those people may not be a bad idea.

Here’s a prime example: I didn’t query my publisher. I met them at a conference. I was at that conference because of another publisher who wanted to sign me, and I had met that publisher in a Twitter contest. I didn’t even approach my current publisher. A few of their authors and editors overheard me talking to another author, liked the sound of my book description, and approached me afterwards.

Wild, eh?

This is what I’m talking about when I tell you that every connection—no matter how far-fetched and distant it may seem—matters. Who are you to say that your author-publisher love affair won’t be more of a romantic comedy than “love at first sight?”

Make connections and treasure them. Networking is invaluable; you never know where it is going to end.

“Well, all of those things are fine and dandy,” you say, “but I’m not much of a social person, and I have no idea how to get myself involved.”

While both of those points are valid, I’m going to knock them down. You don’t have to be “social” to be connected. With today’s media frenzy, participating in the community can be as simple as reading a blog. There are so many ways to get plugged in, you don’t have much of a choice. Let me throw you a list off the top of my head. You’ve got…

  • Writing groups
  • Blogs
  • Writing conferences
  • Conventions
  • Social media groups
  • Social media contests
  • Podcasts
  • Newsletters
  • Magazines
  • Libraries
  • Bookstores
  • Classes

And this list is by no means extensive.

So do yourself a favor: Do better than I did. Get plugged in. Ask for help. Seek advice, and take it from a real person before confiding anything to the Google search bar.

[1] This is my blog. I reserve the right to shamelessly promote my own posts as much as I want.

[2] Don’t fret. We will get into Twitter pitch contests.

[3] Kate is also a doctor, so her free time doesn’t come cheap.

WEATHERING REJECTION

If you’re an author, you’re going to be rejected.

There. I said it. I started this post with this painstakingly crafted phrase because this is the cold, hard truth, and this is what you need to hear. If you don’t want to hear it, go ahead and skip this post and go back to the spiel about all of your dreams coming true.[1]

I’m not going to ask if you’re serious about this, because if you’re reading this blog, you probably are. So you want to be an author. But do you want to survive?

Your book is your child.[2] It is your heir—the blood of your blood. When someone sends you back a letter and says that it’s not good enough, not marketable enough, or simply not what they’re looking for, you’re going to be the one who takes the brunt of the punch. (Hopefully) you are indelibly attached to your masterwork, so when you start getting rejections (which you will), they are going to hurt.

No matter how many times you remind yourself that rejection is “nothing personal,” it always will be.

Your book is your creation; by definition, it’s personal.

I myself am a catastrophizer, so the first thoughts swirling through my mind upon receiving such news are as follows: I’m a squid-sucking failure. My writing sucks. I’m the poopiest poo of the world, and my book is never-ever-EVER going to sell. I should just take my vows and cast myself off into the corporate void.

Maybe you’re more practical. (I certainly hope you are.) Yes, rejection is a sucker punch to the ticker, but you must also keep in mind that rejections arrive for many different reasons:

  1. The book sucks. Okay. I’ll give you that one.
  2. The agent/publisher doesn’t have room for any more submissions.
  3. The agent/publisher doesn’t represent that specific genre.
  4. The market isn’t right.
  5. The timing isn’t right. (E.g., another book eerily similar just came out, and you need to let that wave quell before you launch your brilliant idea.)
  6. It just isn’t what the agent/publisher is looking for.

#6 is sure to fire up some indignancies. “Not what the agent is looking for?” you cry. “Forsooth, Hannah! How dare you, they, or anyone else suggest that my brilliance isn’t scintillatingly brilliant!”

All right, so I’ve offended you. That was not my intention; I only wanted to gently remind you that an agent or a publisher has every right to reject you and give you no reason at all.

Think of it like a Hallmark movie. You have the society girl—that spunky, charming, and probably redheaded heroine who grew up in a small town but made it to the big city. She’s got everything she ever wanted out of life: the right job, the right clothes, a cute canine companion, and a dapper lawyer-fiancée who dotes upon her every twitch. She goes home for Christmas, and suddenly the tall, swarthy ranch hand shows up.

You know what happens next.

Why are we cheering for the cowboy? Obviously, the corporate lawyer is the practical and sagacious choice. Yet here we all are, “aww”-ing and spilling popcorn into the sofa because this chick listens to her heart and runs away with Hottie McMuscles to be a pig farmer.

We don’t question Hallmark. Our Western society balks at the idea of arranged marriages and suckles on the notion that love is a wild card.

If we’re okay with letting Disney characters fall in love for themselves, why can’t we let agents/publishers do the same?

I kid you not, this was a rejection I received from an agent: “I liked it, but I didn’t fall in love with it like I hoped I would.”

Boom. Ouch. Crash, burn, and smolder.

At first, I was distraught. Yes, there were tears, chocolate, and ice cream, but looking back at the email, I simply flip my hair and shrug.[3] She didn’t have to fall in love; she had every right not to. As much as I adore my book child, I can’t force anyone else to do the same. That would make me something of a villain, wouldn’t it?

Another thing to keep in mind is that it may not be your first book that gets published. This is the case for many authors, as was it the case for me. Patel was not my first or second, but my third written novel, and that was after a year of trying to revamp the first two.

We’ve already covered the gamut of incredible books that were rejected,[4] but I’m more than happy to remind you of a few authors who were struggling with the exact same thing: Rowling, Poe, Toole, King, Dr. Seuss… The list goes on and on. In fact, there is an entire website dedicated solely to literary rejections:

http://www.litrejections.com/best-sellers-initially-rejected

I’ve said this once, and I’m going to say it again: The only way to fail in this game is to quit.

Can you imagine if any of these authors would have thrown in the towel? Said, “Yup, I think So-And-So is right. This book is never going to make it.” We wouldn’t have Harry Potter. The Hunger Games. The Shining. The Cat in the Hat!

It may take months. It may take years. Heck, for some authors, it’s decades before they’re signed or successful. That’s just the game, and that’s how every single author has to play it. I write this post not to discourage you, but to assure you that rejection is completely normal, you CAN survive it, and if you keep working past it, you WILL succeed.

Perhaps it’s timing, not talent, that’s keeping you from your dream agent. Perhaps time is what’s going to show you that your book is meant for nontraditional publishing. Perhaps time is merely a pinch of physical distance between your book and the New York Times Best Sellers List. No matter what your situation or aspirations, the best advice you’ll ever get comes from Galaxy Quest when Alan Rickman’s character famously says, “NEVER give up. NEVER surrender!”

Did a door close? Try a window. Window still locked? Order a pizza.

A book written by a 25-year-old author can be just as good as a book written by a 72-year-old author, and vice-versa. There is literally no time constraint on when you start your career—no rush at all.

So go! Query when you feel ready. Query a lot, or query a little. Revise, revamp, and resend as much as you want. All you have is time, my friend, and never forget that it’s the agents and the publishers who are looking for you.

With that much being said, make sure that you’re taking care of yourself. Publishing can be a grating process, and occasionally, it may behoove you to take a break from your efforts. That’s not giving up; that’s just healthy. You’re not losing anything by taking a bit of time or distance. Your baby will still be there when you return, right where you left him.

Of course, all the motivational prattle in the world will not sooth the aching agony of rejection. (Take it from someone who’s had a lot of rejection.) Par contre, I have compiled a list of things that I like to do to make myself feel better.

THINGS TO DO WHEN REJECTED

A NONCOMPREHENSIVE LIST BY H. KATES

  1. Go for an angry run.
  2. Lift angry weights.
  3. Go boxing angrily.
  4. Break down in tears.
  5. Lose my rat behind the kitchen sink.
  6. Cry some more.
  7. Wine.
  8. Ice cream.
  9. Wine-flavored ice cream.
  10. Binge childhood memories in the form of Spongebob Squarepants, reminding myself that even Pretty Patties were scorned by Mr. Krabs.

 

I’ve also threatened to burn my manuscript several times. Conflagration is hardly effective, but it can make you feel better. If you absolutely must burn your book, go ahead and do it. I would advise against such drastic actions, as they tend to be expensive, time-consuming, and a potential fire hazard.

They say that the best thing to do after getting knocked off a horse is to get right back on it, but I imagine that getting knocked off a horse is also rather painful and results in serious bruising. My advice? Wait a few days after receiving the rejection before you start again. Let the emotion drain and get back to the grind with steeled determination.

Chances are, your rejection letter isn’t going to be very personal. Agents receive hundreds of queries a day, so if it’s a “no,” it’s probably going to come in the form of an autogenerated form letter. Don’t be a prima donna about this. If you were an agent, you’d do the exact same thing.

However, if there is personalized feedback in the letter, you’d do well to take it into consideration. By all means, don’t go changing your entire book because one person said one thing, but an agent’s comments might be something that you take to your critique partner, your beta readers, or your writing group. “Hey,” you say to them, “Agent So-And-So made this suggestion. What do you think?”

Graciously reply to any personally addressed rejection letters. Thank the agent/publisher for their time and efforts. Who knows? You might cross paths with that person later in your career, and an ounce of kindness may be what sets you apart from the rest. Additionally, you should probably just go ahead and strive to be a decent person. If you are confused about the agent’s feedback, you can politely ask him for more. Don’t expect a response, but the inquiry can’t hurt.

A query is a living, breathing document. It will change hundreds of times before you send it out, and then it will change as you’re sending it. I found that the best strategy was to send my queries in bundles. That is, I would query a few dream agents, a few I would be happy with, and then a few who weren’t horribly enticing, but represented my genre. I would wait for responses, gauge the replies (Is it working? Is it not working? Am I getting nibbles? Consolidated feedback?), and then adjust my query as I felt was needed.

“But Hannah!” you cry. “If the query isn’t absolutely perfect, it’s going to tank! What if I run out of agents?”

Let me tell you something right here and right now: There are hundreds of agents. Literally, thousands. You will not run out of agents to query. Additionally, you can always requery agents, if you feel so inclined. I would wait three to six months to do that, and if the rejection came after a full read and a hard “no,” you’d better have a good explanation of how your book has changed and why it is worth more of their time.

You’re going to be rejected. That’s inevitable. However, whether or not you succeed is entirely up to you. Take rejection with grace and poise, then feel free to throw things and/or burn them behind closed doors. This is a savage career, and your heart will be broken. If you need time, take it. If you need space, step back. The sting of rejection is a cruel, burning dagger, but the pain should never be so great as to make you forget the joy of the craft.

[1] See my interview with Kris Asselin.

[2] See “THE BEST-WORST METAPHOR YOU’RE EVER GONNA’ GET.”

[3] Yes, I keep all my rejections. So does Stephen King, for the record.

[4] See “THE COLD, HARD TRUTH.”

THE PACK

OR

AN EXPLORATATIVE ESSAY ON WRITING GROUPS

Going to meet a room full of strangers is one thing. Taking your book child to be sacrificed on a pagan altar is quite another. You think yearly audits are bad? Try dragging your unedited manuscript—the song of your soul and child of your fingertips—kicking and screaming to be presented before and subsequently poked and prodded by these aforementioned strangers.

Writing groups can be rough. It’s hard to find a good one, and even when you do, that doesn’t guarantee every meeting will go well. However, I speak from experience, and if I didn’t think that writing groups had anything to offer, this post would have a very different title. “A Cog in Their Wheel,” perhaps, or “Simon and Garfunkel had It Right.”[1]

But this post does not flaunt either of those titles, and I daresay that I’m going to take a lusty stab at arguing in the affirmative. Of course, I can’t force you to make friends or go anywhere against your will, but the idea that a good old-fashioned breakdown covered in some snarky sauce might get you out of your pajamas…

That, my friend, is the stuff that dreams are made of.

Instead of doing my usual breakdown, I’m going to play a little carnival game with this post. I’m not going to spell out why you should have a writing group—I’m going to come up with the list of excuses you’re going to give me for not finding a writing group and address them head on. A bit like Family Feud, mais non? But much less awkward, and not spoofed nearly as much by SNL.

Excuse #1: I can’t find one.

I put this excuse first because it’s the most n’importe quoi excuse on the face of the planet. If you’re reading this blog post, chances are, you possess either a phone or a computer. If you possess a phone or a computer, chances are you have access to things like…

  • Meetup dot com, a site/application specifically intended to bring people together to participate in various activities.
  • Facebook Groups. Do I really have to explain this?
  • Google Groups. A virtual space where anybody with the internet can connect for any (legal) business they please.
  • National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo is held each year during the month of November. Thousands of authors participate, and there are infinite ways to connect via NaNo’s website to bring those authors together.
  • Just do a Google search. Literally: “Writing groups in Gotham, Illinois.” What, were you born in a barn?

And the list goes on, and on, and on.

Being a part of a writing group doesn’t obligate you to be in a physical space at any preset time. There are plenty of wonderful, virtual writing groups out there, and you should profit as much as you can from a plethora of resources beyond Coleridge and Wordsworth’s wildest dreams.

Of course, I much prefer the laughter, camaraderie, and draft choices of meeting in a physical space, but my options have become very limited since moving to the French Alps.[2] However, even in my mountain fortress, you’d better bet your britches I’m still a frantic mess of emails—a furious flurry of a typing tempest as I review, critique, consult, and receive advice from other authors.

Your phone has become your fifth limb, anyway. Why not put it to use in favor of your writing career? In today’s day and age, “I just don’t have the connections” is an excuse that doesn’t fly.

Excuse #2: My work will be critiqued.

*Gasp!*

Yea… It probably will be. That’s kind of the point.

Chances are, your writing group is going to go like this: Everybody brings a little “something,” you read and share out loud, and then you go around the room with comments. If this scares you and you have a pulse, then you are probably human. Everyone gest nervous putting a piece of themselves on display. I’ve read my work aloud and submitted it to hundreds of strangers, but my gut still wrenches the moment I hear the first word spoken.

It’s not comfortable, and chances are, it will never be comfortable. However, putting your work out for critique is a necessary—even critical—part of the writing process.

Facing critique is how you grow. If you don’t get your work out there for someone else to read, it’s going to go no farther than your desk. You have to stretch to learn, and (Trust me—I did yoga once.) stretching doesn’t always feel good.

But take heart! You probably won’t be the best writer there, but you probably won’t be the worst, either. Statistics tell us that you’ll fall somewhere in the middle. Even then, I’ve found that writers tend to be pretty cool, chill people. The others in your group will probably understand the frustrations and struggles you’re facing, and if they have an inkling of decency, they’re probably not going to burn you as a witch for bringing “bad writing.”

My writing group is comprised of young and old, male and female, doctors and doormen, and everything in between. Everyone writes a little differently, and I have yet to see any piece of work pass without some sort of constructive comment. You go to a writing group to share and to learn, and if your author friends are worth their salt, that’s why they’re there, too.

Of course, you’ll always get that “one guy” (or gal) who is an absolute jerk about things, but you’ll find that just about everywhere you go. I hate to say it, but as a writer, you’re going to need to thicken your hide. Criticism, whether it be warranted or completely absurd, is unavoidable in this process. You want to query your book? You’re going to get rejections. You finally sell your book? It’s still going to be edited.

I’ll say this here, but I’ll probably say it many more times after:

If you’re not ready to take critique, then you’re probably not ready to be a writer.

I’m going to write an entire post on feedback and rejection later, but for now, just make sure that you take care of yourself. Don’t take any comments (be they negative or positive) to heart. Sit on feedback for at least three days before changing a single comma. Make sure you put a little distance between yourself and your work, and please don’t end up like this guy.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9TsysoEn6U&t=280s

Funny video, but tragically accurate. I think I’ve heard each of those whitewashed comments at my own group.

 PRO TIP: If you’re going to make a comment, make sure it’s helpful.

With that much being said, I recommend the “sandwich” rule. That is, try to sandwich your negative feedback with positives. It looks a little something like this: “You know, this story really got my attention. It makes no sense, the characters are completely flat, you give us no sensory detail whatsoever, and I am absolutely sure vampires don’t sparkle… But you did put your commas in the right place. Well done!”

You see? For the love of Loki, don’t tell ingratiating lies,[3] but you can be constructively critical without being a Grade A Jerk about it.

So you didn’t like it. Why? What parts weren’t good? Do you have specific examples? Can you think of a way the author could improve?

If you can’t answer any of those questions, you should probably just keep your comments to yourself. Critique groups are for edifying writers with constructive feedback, not for raining on parades. Sharing your work with a group takes a lot of courage. You may not like what you read, but at least have the decency to respect a fellow author. If you have something critical to say, say it because you want to make that group member better, not because you’re the kind of person who gets your kicks by knocking over other people’s snowmen.

Tact, people. Tact.

Mortals have yet to write something completely perfect. If you bring an excerpt to your writing group, somebody will probably have something to say about it. Brace yourself for that, but also embrace the process. Critique will either steel your resolves or catalyze progress. Either way, you’re still winning.

Excuse #3: I get nothing out of it.

This excuse is almost as lame as the first one, but not quite as obvious. I would love to give you another bulleted list, but I feel like I’ve got to defend myself thoroughly on this point.

Forgive me for putting words in your mouth, but I imagine that if you’re using this excuse, your story goes something like this: You went to a writing group and didn’t get any helpful feedback. You didn’t like the personalities present and felt like you were wasting your time. You did not make connections, and the comments that were said rubbed the flat part of your feet like an ill-fitting pair of snow skis.

If I’m articulating your feelings in any way, shape, or form, I am truly sorry that you had such a negative experience. However, I am just as quick to empathize with you as I am to encourage you to go out and try to find another group. Why? Because the boons of a good writing group are worth the slogging effort to find one.

When you start sharing your work with other people, you’re bound to be exposed to new material. I write middle grade fantasy, but I am often studying thrillers, crime novels, space odysseys, steampunk pirate adventures, and paranormal romance. Those genres may be way out of my league, but I pick up a little something from every snippet I read. Each genre has some sort of Easter Egg to unlock; each writer has something new to teach you.

While I’m in the meeting, I like to take notes on other peoples’ materials. Perhaps someone used a word I didn’t know. (I just learned “middling.”) Perhaps they coined a poetic turn of phrase. Perhaps they completely bungled something, and I want to make note of their fault so I don’t make the same mistake. Perhaps they had a good idea that I want to tuck away for later.

            To quote the splendiferous T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

Everyone has something to teach, which is a wonderful thing because you always have something to learn.  

When participating in a writing group, you begin to develop what my immortally wise mother-in-law calls “a jaundiced eye.” That is to say, when you are exposed to enough critique, you learn to discern the good from the bad. What makes good writing good? What makes bad writing bad? How does a story flow, and what sort of dialogue captures a reader’s interest? If you can begin to understand why your piece is critiqued the way it is and puzzle through what makes certain pieces strong or weak, you know that you are well on your way in developing as a writer.

Think of it this way: You wouldn’t trust a doctor to heal you if she couldn’t understand why you were sick. Being able to develop and process critique is a mark of development, maturity, and professionalism.

Aside from sagacious insights, your writing group is also going to be the place to go for good counsel. When I started querying my book, I had no idea what I was doing. I stomped around, bamboozled in utter failure for months before I reached out to other writers who had wrestled through the exact same process. Some of them were successful. Some of them were not. However, by talking with them and sharing their experiences, I learned a bit more about what it takes to get a book published.

That’s the whole point of the group. That’s the whole point of this blog. This is a long, hard, heart-wrenching process, so let’s help one another. Let’s be there for support. Other authors paid it forward by helping me when I needed it, and I hope and pray that same generosity extends through me.

Please: Write me your questions. Bug me. Ask me what I did wrong, and for the love of all things chocolatey, please don’t make my mistakes. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll help you find someone who does. The CONTACT page is there for you.

Connections are invaluable in the publishing world. If success is preparation meeting opportunity, you’re only bumping up both factors by networking with other authors. My writing friends have my back. They’re constantly going out of their way to help me succeed with my goals, then I go forward and do the same thing for them. Whether you’re in-person or virtual, you stick with your pack, and your pack sticks with you.

So sayith the Laws of the Navy:

For the strength of the ship is the Service,

And the strength of the Service the ship.”

This is a rough game. Stack your odds. You need that group of believers—those true-blues who are just as ready to cry over your rejections as they are to celebrate your successes.

            When you find your tribe, you’re going to be very happy that you did.

Finally, you should probably get out of your house. Yes, I’m talking to you. Yes, you—and you absolutely know who you are.

Go to a writing group. More often than not, you’re going to be glad you did. A group of likeminded people who are willing to laugh at distasteful humor and discuss mutual love over delicious beer? Who says no to that?

I made lifelong friends at my writing group in Jacksonville, and we still keep in touch regularly. You bet your lucky stars one of the first things I’m going to do upon my reentry to the good ol’ US of A is grab a burger and some onion fries from the best tavern on the beach.[4]

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKlSVNxLB-A

[2] And, if you are one of the dozens of people asking me to write my next book in French, I’m just going to go ahead and give you a big ol’ NOPETY NOPE, nope!

[3] Unless that person is extremely rich and is going to invite you to Yacht Week in Croatia. I mean…a bit of brownnosing for Croatia? If that happens, your flattery is completely justified.

[4] If you haven’t been to Poe’s Tavern in Jacksonville—a heaven of burgers, beer, and all things carbohydrates festooned in poetic lore—you should question your patriotism.

Why You Gotta Have Friends

You’re a stereotypical brooding artist. You like large sweaters, tattoos, and latte flavors that no one else can pronounce. You spend more time avoiding people than you do in actual solitude, but you like it that way because nothing worth doing is ever easy. You specifically plan your creative spurts for when everyone else is out of the house, and your mom’s “Whatcha’ doin’?”’s might just be the end of your career.

You are an introvert.

Of course, this is all egregiously stereotypical, but as my grandma always said, stereotypes do exist for a reason. Writing a book requires copious amounts of time, effort, and concentration, and it should go without saying that those things can be diverted in the demands of a colorful social life. There are those wizard-magicians who manage to burb the baby, host a Tupperware party, and look fabulous all over Instagram, but finding those types of people among writing types of people (the Fitzgeralds aside) can be quite a feat. If you are truly committed to your craft, having a social life can be more of a bane than a boon.

So why do it at all? Writing a book is a solo task (Unless you’re coauthoring—yes, I know.), and you really don’t need your friends poking their noses around your unfinished manuscript.

If you’re an author, do you really need friends?

Please note that this isn’t a “yes, but actually no” article. There is no ambiguity, hesitation, or double meaning when I answer this question.

Yes.

Your writing group merits an entire post of its own, so for now, we’re going to dabble into the necessities of CP’s and beta readers. Perhaps you’ve heard these monikers but have no idea what they mean. Perhaps you know what they mean, but are too shy to employ them. Perhaps you have employed them, but they’ve sucked and have left you doubting the goodness of humanity.

Whatever the case, I can offer cursory explanations of CP’s and betas, but I sure as heck can’t wrangle them for you. That, my introverted friend, is your job.

CP: Meet Your New Best Friend

A CP, or a “critique partner,” is one of the best presents you can ever give yourself. Think of your CP as your “writing best friend”—someone to share all of your ideas, secrets, woes, and triumphs. Your CP will question you just as much as he agrees with you, and chances are, he’s going to critique just as much as he raves.

“CP” means something different for every author, but to give you a better picture of the relationship, let me introduce you to Matt.

Matt is an author who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, and writes young adult fantasy. Matt gets to see my work before anyone else does. In fact, I often send him outlines of the plot before I write the book. If I’m having trouble hashing something out (plot detail, character development, dialogue snippet, etc.), I shoot Matt a sniveling email describing my frustrations. Inevitably, Matt replies with some sort of revelation, reminder, or brilliant idea, and then nudges me back on my way.

Matt knows my characters. He reads my books carefully, and he knows my writing style. If something is amiss, he’s the first one to call it out. “Hey, Hannah, would Patel really say something like this? Do you honestly think your audience is going to buy ninja nuns with chainsaw mittens?”

As ruffled and self-defensive as I get, he is also the first one to tell me when my work is not up to par. Matt has read my best, and he certainly knows when my writing isn’t at that level. He is never mean, nor is he disparaging. As my CP, he sends me that gingerly worded email telling me, “‘A’ for effort. Try again.”

Matt’s got my back.

You need a CP not only to preview and to improve your writing, but also to encourage you when you need it. As writers, we get other writers. We know what it’s like to struggle—to query, stare at blank pages, and then slog through thousands upon thousands of words just to have everything collapse with a critique. You are going to have bad days with your work, and when those days come, you need someone to remind you of the good days.

Your CP should be your fiercest critic, then your ultimate cheerleader. When the rubber meets the road, you need someone to believe in you.

Take it from this famous scene in Gurren Lagann:

When looking for a CP, you should try to find someone as good as, if not better than you. If that person sucks at writing their own book, how can you expect them to give you good feedback on yours? A CP relationship is a two-way street, so here’s to hoping that person feels the same about you. As much time and effort as he puts into your work, you should be returning to his.

Now, I’ve never heard of any “CP Contracts” stipulating how, when, and how much your critique partner is obligated to do for you, but like any relationship, it’s bound to be lopsided most of the time. There are times when I really need Matt’s help, then times when he really needs mine. Sometimes, those times coincide; other times, we’ll just be emailing funny videos back-and-forth for two solid weeks.

The journey of a writer is a tumultuous one. As a CP, it’s your job to be there when your partner needs you.

BETA READERS

When you think your work is ready for human eyes, it’s time to enlist some betas readers. Beta readers, or “pre-readers,” are those brave souls who dare to read your manuscript before it is edited, polished, and published. They can be as shallow as telling you, “Yea, that really wasn’t a piece of poo…” or as detailed as grammatical edits, but that depends on how much time and effort they are willing to spend with your book.

If you want a specific kind of feedback (line edits, grammar, plot structure, etc.), be sure to specify that to your beta before you give her the book. Again, you have to look at this as a relationship: If you don’t define your expectations, how is the other person supposed to know what your expectations are?

And trust me when I say that nothing kills a relationship like poor communication.

If you want detailed feedback, ask for it. If you’re just looking for a little colosseum thumb judgement, then say so. Understand that not everyone is going to want to pick apart your 120k, unedited manuscript line by line, and they have every right not to do so.

No matter how much someone gushes about being “honored” to read your unedited book, he or she is doing you a favor by doing so. Period.

Most of the time, betas should be out for the basics: flow, likability, plot holes, and egregious grammar mistakes. They are probably going to be reading your draft on their computer, so give them time, patience, and space; and for the love of Lichtenstein do not send angry emails back to them if you disagree with their feedback. Again, these people are doing you a favor. If you think their opinions are out of whack, politely thank them for their time and promptly ignore them.

As an author, your number one job is to be gracious. End of story.

It’s not a bad idea to look for different types of betas. Of course, you should send the book out to members of your target audience, but don’t be afraid to get diversified opinions, too. Often, you can find other authors who are also looking for beta readers and can proffer up an exchange of manuscripts. The more feedback you get, the better the book is going to be. Before I sent Patel out for querying, I recruited at least ten beta readers to look over the manuscript for me.

When you get your feedback, I recommend sitting on it for at least three days before responding. If I changed everything based on every single comment I’ve received, I wouldn’t have a book it all. It is also important to consider where the feedback is coming from. For instance, a twelve-year-old boy read my book and said he loved the action and the magic. My aunt read the same book and told me the writing was wonderful, but that she wasn’t a fan of the plot.

Let’s take a step back: My aunt is a New York businesswoman. The boy is a junior high student.

My book is a middle grade fantasy. I could take my aunt’s comments to heart (“Oh, woe is me! She hated the plot! It’s never going to sell! Blah, blah, blah…”), but then I have to consider that my aunt is not my audience. She has fantastic feedback, but she is not going to be the person who buys this book.

When assessing feedback from betas, it is just as important to listen to their comments as it is to question those comments.

So there you have it. Yes, I know you hate people. Yes, I know you work alone. However, you really have to trust me when I say that you are missing out on the sumptuous riches of feedback and friendship if you stick to total isolation.

Throughout my journey, I’ve found that writers tend to be pretty chill people. Most of them are gracious beyond belief, and even a New York Times Best Seller won’t mind sitting down for a Starbucks to discuss marketing strategies.[1] The coolest thing about the writing community is that it’s always open and always exciting. If you keep your manuscript to yourself, you’re going to miss all of that.

When tackling this subject, I like to take it from Hermey the Elf. You want to be independent? Then “let’s be independent together!”

 

[1] Yes, I had coffee with Elise Kova, author of the Air Awakens Series. Get on my level.