Thursday, March 31, 2011

Query 73

The Merrow of Lake Michigan

When a painful accident forces Joey Fagan into the waters of Lake Michigan, she seriously considers ending her life. But the discovery of a boy in the water reminds her that, despite the violent death of her husband, life is worth living. She brings the child up for air, ready to put the past behind her.

Unfortunately, she resurfaces one hundred years before she fell in.

Grateful for her heroic act the boy’s father, Peter Hastings, offers his assistance but little else. Joey’s decision to tell him the truth leaves him troubled by the state of her mental health, and the question of her sanity looms larger every time she does something considered out of step with the rest of society.

Her only proof is her knowledge of the upcoming assassination of the mayor of Chicago. Should she try to warn him, and change history, or bide her time quietly and let nature take its course?

When Joey begins to suspect that Peter is an earlier incarnation of her dead husband, she wonders if her presence might alter the course of Martin’s contemporary life. Peter differs greatly from her husband, but she finds herself drawn to the similarities they share.

Although charmed by her originality, her rash decisions anger Peter. His effort to uncover the truth of her story leads them on an adventure rich in history for Joey, fantasy for Peter, and frustration for both. Soon Joey finds herself torn between getting home, and accepting the fact that she might never return.

The Merrow of Lake Michigan is a 120,000 word novel of historical fiction written by [author’s name redacted].

Thank you for your time.

Comments

A note on the title: It set me up for what I thought was going to be a paranormal story. If an agent has a similar perspective going in, they might be disappointed or delighted to discover it’s not.

What I believe the story IS from this query is not historical fiction but time-travel romance. And 120K is skirting on the very long side of a single-title romance. I don’t think the word count will be an immediate turn off, but I do think the reader will need to be assured in the query there’s enough story to justify the count. Right now, the query, while nicely written, is long on premise but short on plot.

If you didn’t write this as a conventional romance and aren’t thinking of marketing it as one, then I think the query needs to show us why it isn’t one. And if you are going to try to sell it as romance, then we need to see the conventions, including the MCs’ dark moment, reflected here.

When a painful accident forces Joey Fagan into the waters of Lake Michigan, she seriously considers ending her life.

Especially for being your first sentence, this one is confusing. On my first read, I thought it meant Joey (a name I can’t help but read as male) was involved in a boating accident, although I couldn’t figure out why she might be considering suicide. If the accident was painful, maybe it’s too hard for her to try to swim to safety or dog paddle to keep afloat?

But the discovery of a boy in the water reminds her that, despite the violent death of her husband, life is worth living.

When I read this sentence, I thought that her husband died in this same accident that had left her stranded in the water. And, thinking from the title this is paranormal, I figured the boy was a “real” merboy.

She brings the child up for air, ready to put the past behind her.

It’s only when I hit this sentence that I realized my initial read was wrong, and I had to go back and reread to correctly parse out what was happening.

So a couple of things about that first sentence rereading it the way it’s intended: The accident itself doesn’t force Joey into the water, and she goes into the water with the idea of suicide – not considering it once she’s in the lake as it reads now.

Then merely finding a boy in the water isn’t especially life-changing. Ah, but you mean the boy is drowning, right? Then tell us that.

Unfortunately, she resurfaces one hundred years before she fell in.

I’m not sure “unfortunately” is your best word choice here. And she didn't just "fall in," did she?

After a robbery gone bad leaves her beloved husband dead, Joey Fagan walks into Lake Michigan with no other thought than to be reunited with him. The flailing of a boy drowning nearby derails her. When he goes under, she dives in after him -- and re-surfaces one hundred years in the past.

Grateful for her heroic act the boy’s father, Peter Hastings, offers his assistance but little else.

I’m not quite sure at this point what “assistance” means or why he should offer anything more to a total stranger. What else does Joey expect? We also don’t know whether he’s married or widowed or divorced.

Joey’s decision to tell him the truth leaves him troubled by the state of her mental health, and the question of her sanity looms larger every time she does something considered out of step with the rest of society.

Again, the way this is expressed is a little off. It’s not Joey’s decision that leaves him troubled, it’s what she tells him. And “considered out of step with the rest of society” is a distancing statement. Try keeping the perspective here in Peter and Joey’s POVs.

Her only proof is her knowledge of the upcoming assassination of the mayor of Chicago. Should she try to warn him, and change history, or bide her time quietly and let nature take its course?

Good that we have a plot point, but why should Joey care whether the mayor lives or dies? Does she confide the knowledge to Peter so that someone is aware of the proof?

When Joey begins to suspect that Peter is an earlier incarnation of her dead husband, she wonders if her presence might alter the course of Martin’s contemporary life. Peter differs greatly from her husband, but she finds herself drawn to the similarities they share.

The two men differ “greatly” but she thinks they’re the same man in different times? I think we need to know why she would even suspect that. And of course the typical time travel trope is how much of a stir needs to be caused in the past for the ripple effect to overwhelm the future – and where in the future does that happen? Is her stepping on a butterfly in the past enough to topple present-day Chicago or Chicago in the 22nd century? And if she’s in the past now, perhaps she’s always been in the past in order for present-day events to have played out the way they did. All to say that I don’t think we need to be told explicitly that Joey is wondering about this conundrum. Of course she is.

Although charmed by her originality, her rash decisions anger Peter.

What rash decisions? So far, we’ve seen Joey making three decisions: to continue living (was that rash?), to tell Peter she’s from the future (OK, that one may have been rash), and to warn the mayor (and that one the query indicates she’s taking her time on).

His effort to uncover the truth of her story leads them on an adventure rich in history for Joey, fantasy for Peter, and frustration for both.

Oh my. Here I thought the story was nearly done and there’s still vague adventure and fantasy and frustration to come. Which could comprise the bulk of the novel. But I have no idea what this sentence means in concrete terms.

Soon Joey finds herself torn between getting home, and accepting the fact that she might never return.

And here’s another reversal in my thought process. I thought the adventure/fantasy would play out for a while, but no, we’re told “soon” Joey finds herself in another predicament.

So if she’s torn, does that mean she’s found a way to get home and that it’s possible for her to go back? And how can one be torn between going home and “accepting the fact”? If it’s a fact, then there isn’t really any tearing involved. If there’s truly a choice, then this is a very tepid way to express that Joey may be falling in love with her husband all over again and leaving this version of himself, so real and warm and intoxicating, will mean returning to a future full of empty beds and lonely nights -- and is she really ready to face that again?

The Merrow of Lake Michigan is a 120,000 word novel of historical fiction written by [author’s name redacted].

THE MERROW OF LAKE MICHIGAN is a time-travel romance complete at 120,000 words. (No need to repeat your name here.)

Thank you for your time.

Ultimately, I’m not clear on what the stakes are for Joey. It seems we need something in the present day to draw Joey back. She was ready to commit suicide then; why on earth would she even want to go back to such a depressing time? And what is the dark moment for Joey and Peter when it seems fate will tear them apart? In essence, what are the obstacles to them staying together? And does Joey’s decision about whether to warn the mayor matter somehow to the novel and to Joey and Peter’s future happiness?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Query 72

My Father's Blood

For Frank McAllister, being a cop in Philadelphia is hard enough without being the son of Preston O'Hannon, the city's most notorious and powerful Mafia boss. His mother never even mentioned Preston's name or Frank's special heritage until he hit puberty, grew four feet, gained three hundred pounds of muscle, and his skin turned to stone during summer vacation. "Oh, by the way son, you're half troll," just never came up in the preceding twelve years.

For twenty three years, Frank has kept himself distanced from his heritage and the Three Families, or he thought he had. War between the Families has been brewing for centuries. When Frank's partner, Joe Laren, is kidnapped, however, Frank is pulled into the middle of the stalemate. To top things off, Internal Affairs believes Frank is involved in Joe's kidnapping. They suspend him pending investigation and send him home. When he gets in, he finds Joe's severed finger in a box on his kitchen counter and a card with a phone number.

The kidnappers instruct Frank to bring them evidence from the lockup at the precinct in exchange for Joe's life. Frank agrees and takes the evidence to the drop, but is attacked by a gunman and looses it. Now Frank has to find Joe before the kidnappers kill him or IA arrests Frank for kidnapping, tampering with evidence, and murder. And he has do it without sparking a war between the Families that would tear the city apart - literally.

MY FATHER'S BLOOD is a completed modern fantasy of 80,000 words.

Thank you for your consideration.

Comments

Hmm. You give us an interesting premise in the first paragraph, but then don't capitalize on any of the hooky bits in the rest of the query. Once the story gets rolling here, I'm wondering why Frank is half troll at all since it doesn't seem to lend to the plot. Nor do I get a good idea about how the Families are involved. Or even that they are all involved until the last sentence and suddenly the stakes revolve around them.

Also, as there's a sharp contrast between that first paragraph and the rest, it feels like this is a story unsure of its genre and its audience.

We can infer that O'Hannon must be a troll and that maybe this mafia is an all-troll criminal unit, but something to confirm that would be helpful, I think. The first thing that popped into my mind reading this was a Hellboy-like figure out fighting crime, but instead of a lone troll facing the scum of the city, he's facing off against a crime syndicate full of trolls. Is that the world I should be envisioning?

For Frank McAllister, being a cop in Philadelphia is hard enough without being the son of Preston O'Hannon, the city's most notorious and powerful Mafia boss. His mother never even mentioned Preston's name or Frank's special heritage until he hit puberty, grew four feet, gained three hundred pounds of muscle, and his skin turned to stone during summer vacation. "Oh, by the way son, you're half troll," just never came up in the preceding twelve years.

This is a good paragraph on its own, but paired with the more thrilleresque story in the next paragraphs, it seems out of place -- it comes across more YAish and humorous. That's the expectation I have going into the rest of the query and why I'm confused as I continue reading and the tone changes abruptly.

For twenty three years, Frank has kept himself distanced from his heritage and the Three Families, or he thought he had.

So Frank's 35, right? How has he been able to keep distanced from being what he is? Is he not OK being a troll? Or is he accepting like Ben Grimm finally became as The Thing? I'm not getting a good feel of Frank as troll. There's so much character that I think you can bring to this query, but Frank sort of turns into the typical set-up cop on the run.

War between the Families has been brewing for centuries. When Frank's partner, Joe Laren, is kidnapped, however, Frank is pulled into the middle of the stalemate.

A little more clarity around why the War is coming to a head now and why Joe has been kidnapped would be good. Is the evidence or Frank the real target of the kidnapping?

To top things off, Internal Affairs believes Frank is involved in Joe's kidnapping. They suspend him pending investigation and send him home. When he gets in, he finds Joe's severed finger in a box on his kitchen counter and a card with a phone number.

The pacing slows here. We don't need to know the details of this scene: that he goes home, gets in, the kitchen counter, card and phone number are all unnecessary.

The kidnappers instruct Frank to bring them evidence from the lockup at the precinct in exchange for Joe's life. Frank agrees and takes the evidence to the drop, but is attacked by a gunman and looses it.

By spending time going through the instructing and exchanging and agreeing and taking, a reader could start getting the impression there isn't much real meat to the story. Providing some more background on the Family and their intentions and giving the reader a taste of what Frank can/can't do as a troll would make things more exciting and help build out your world a bit more. And does Frank being O'Hannon's son specifically play into this? Tie the reader back into the things you laid out in P1.

And it's "loses" of course.

Now Frank has to find Joe before the kidnappers kill him or IA arrests Frank for kidnapping, tampering with evidence, and murder. And he has do it without sparking a war between the Families that would tear the city apart - literally.

Why would his actions (simply finding Joe and getting him out, which the query indicates is what he wants to do) spark a war?

MY FATHER'S BLOOD is a completed modern fantasy of 80,000 words.

I'd go with contemporary or urban fantasy.

Thank you for your consideration.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Query Revision 48: Redux 2

Double-Faced

A few days after her move to her new town, sixteen-year-old Mira receives a warning from a strange old woman - someone's out to hurt her mother. Attempting to shrug it off as the rantings of a lunatic, Mira gets on with her biggest problem, adjusting to her new school. An unfortunate remark to the school's queen bee, who's also her mom's boss's daughter, creates a deadly enemy, and school becomes a cycle of subtle and not so subtle abuse for Mira.

Added to this, the woman's warning echoes in Mira's mind. Determined to find out what she meant, she confronts the woman, Aiyana, and learns that the threat comes from none other than her mother's boss, the most powerful man in town, with the unpleasant habit of eliminating anyone in his way - like Aiyana - and the next in line could be her mother.

In her race to trap the man and save her mom, she comes up against tall, handsome Brad, the queen bee's boyfriend. Sparks fly, and Mira's fate will depend upon whether she can avoid getting burned.

My YA novel, Double-Faced, is complete at 60,000 words.

Comments

First, I’m impressed that each of your revisions really rewrites the query in some way and makes it new. In this one, you’ve really turned the screws and narrowed the focus down.

Only … I think it goes a little too far down focus-wise – and voice-wise.

In this version, the plot is sublimated and vague. Why are Aiyana and Mom in the boss’s way, especially if Mom’s his employee? What are they in the way of? I also don’t get from this version that Aiyana necessarily gets killed – the way it’s written leaves her death a bit ambiguous.

In the “sparks fly” sentence, I see what you’re going for, but the sparks flying and Mira getting burned feels more like a mixed metaphor than one being the consequence of the other. Also, I’m not getting how her fate rests on her avoiding getting burned. By whom? Brad? The queen bee? The others at school?

As presented, the way the plot could be interpreted is that Mira gets on the wrong side of the boss’s daughter, who goes crying to Daddy, who acts like a Mafia boss and elects to snuff out anyone Mira knows. Which isn’t your story.

But we don’t know what the real story is from this query. Plus, I think you dialed down your voice too much here. So now we have a vague story line about Mira’s mom being in some kind of trouble told in a rather tepid voice. The things that could have been original about your story are gone.

So I think you have a choice. Either go back to the previous version with all the characters and plot twists spelled out and clean that version up. Or stay with this version, but get rid of Aiyana completely and use all the “warning” space to explain why the boss would be after Mom and hint at how Brad is tied into it all.

I like your name change of the MC from Mala to Mira. Although names can be an indicator of ethnicity and/or regionality. Which would be a nice change, IMO, from the stereotypical YA MCs we've been getting in the queries I've seen on this site and elsewhere...

Monday, March 28, 2011

Query Revision 71

The Anasazi Conspiracy

Jake’s plan never included rescuing a beautiful archeologist from the evil man he was hired to kill. He certainly didn’t expect to be double-crossed by his shadowy employer either. In a malevolent twist of fate, the lives of two disparate souls are united in a race against time to decipher the mystery of an ancient people and stop the enemy determined to kill them.

THE ANASAZI CONSPIRACY is a Historical Adventure, weaving a rich tapestry of the enigmatic Chama clan into the fabric of a contemporary mission to steal the discovery of a fantastic archeological find. In 1607 BC, brothers Maska and Ahote make a curious discovery inside a cave on their hunting trip, but the prize they bring home quickly propels their hidden society into chaos and leaves a baffling legacy behind.

Their legacy first comes to light after a horrific train crash in the open, wild country of 1867. When the train engineer survives, badly wounded and delirious, he stumbles across an ancient relic while desperately searching for help. But soon Stanley collapses from his injuries, the secret almost dying with him again. His destiny is sealed when rescued by a merciful Jemez tribe, eventually recovering yet unable to recall the location of this incredible find. His failed search for the lost cavern promising untold riches influences the fate of his descendants, compelling them to honor the clandestine promise he made long ago.

Flash forward to the present, when powerful corporate magnate, Robert Bradley, underestimates his hired gun and the success of a malicious business scheme, the players in this deadly game are plunged into a race against time and bullets. Jake’s endeavor to stop the ruthless adversary pursuing them reveals a brilliant ally in Dr. Courtney Kirkland as she deftly works to unravel the elusive Anasazi petroglyphs. To fail means the loss of a magnificent culture - and death.

But Jake and Courtney never anticipated the playful banter…the intense looks…or fiery passions escalating as they grapple with the coded symbols linking this diverse cast through thousands of years of mystery, deception and greed. Culminating in an explosive finale, they succeed in unearthing a chronicle that will change Anasazi history forever.

The Author is a happily married father of four monsters, ‘er, boys and a history buff. This is my first novel and is a complete work available for review. Thank you for your consideration.

Comments

There’s a lot to like about this query, and it’s a great start to build revisions from. There’s a lot of energy here, and voice as well. The trick is to maintain that energy while tightening it up (yes, it does fit on a page – only just – but it reads long) and reworking some of the cliché bits. One or two cliché phrases can get a point across quickly in the few words we have to deal with, but limit them as much as possible. Also, you want to choose your details with care – preserve your voice but go easy on the unnecessary bits. And the adjectives.

Jake’s plan never included rescuing a beautiful archeologist from the evil man he was hired to kill. He certainly didn’t expect to be double-crossed by his shadowy employer either. In a malevolent twist of fate, the lives of two disparate souls are united in a race against time to decipher the mystery of an ancient people and stop the enemy determined to kill them.

You’ll likely get mixed crits on opening with a pitch paragraph like this, then repeating the info later. I think it’s a good approach for high-concept stories where the concept is king, showing the story can be quickly pitched to editors and fans. But the paragraph is part of the word count for the query, so including a pitch up front means you have to tighten the rest even more.

That said, this pitch paragraph doesn’t quite work for me. It’s a bit too cliché filled, giving the impression the story will be equally cliché. Also, keep it active. “He was hired” is OK, but “are united” can be changed, and needs to be because the “lives of two disparate souls” is redundant: “two disparate souls (people?) unite…”

THE ANASAZI CONSPIRACY is a Historical Adventure, weaving a rich tapestry of the enigmatic Chama clan into the fabric of a contemporary mission to steal the discovery of a fantastic archeological find.

Unless the majority of the book takes place in the past, I wouldn’t call it historical. This sentence is pretty convoluted and a bit too weighty to read easily. And how does one steal the discovery of a find? Does this mean the mission is to take credit for the find?

In 1607 BC, brothers Maska and Ahote make a curious discovery inside a cave on their hunting trip, but the prize they bring home quickly propels their hidden society into chaos and leaves a baffling legacy behind.

You’re being as enigmatic as the prize. You have details but not the necessary ones. We don’t need to know they were hunting, and unless it’s something like a Cave Troll, we don’t need to know it was found in a cave. What we need to know is what it is. Did us knowing Indiana was after the Ark or the Grail or the Crystal Skull spoil us from wanting to see the movie? No. In fact, it was shorthand for letting us know how important the discovery was without being coy about it. Right now, for the reader, the chaos and baffling legacy aren’t enticing, they’re frustrating, not giving us a clear picture of what’s going on.

Their legacy first comes to light after a horrific train crash in the open, wild country of 1867. When the train engineer survives, badly wounded and delirious, he stumbles across an ancient relic while desperately searching for help. But soon Stanley collapses from his injuries, the secret almost dying with him again. His destiny is sealed when rescued by a merciful Jemez tribe, eventually recovering yet unable to recall the location of this incredible find. His failed search for the lost cavern promising untold riches influences the fate of his descendants, compelling them to honor the clandestine promise he made long ago.

Again, another paragraph that, though well-written, is rife with too many details and a lot of vague phrasing – for instance, what does “clandestine promise” mean? If the events here are somehow tied into the rest of the story, the query should reflect that. And if the query doesn’t tie them together, there’s really no reason for this paragraph to be here.

Flash forward to the present, when powerful corporate magnate, Robert Bradley, underestimates his hired gun and the success of a malicious business scheme, the players in this deadly game are plunged into a race against time and bullets. Jake’s endeavor to stop the ruthless adversary pursuing them reveals a brilliant ally in Dr. Courtney Kirkland as she deftly works to unravel the elusive Anasazi petroglyphs. To fail means the loss of a magnificent culture - and death.

I wouldn’t name Robert as that turns the attention on him and the reader thinks he must be the MC. I’d instead drop Jake’s name in as the hired gun so the reader doesn’t have to work to figure things out. Unlike a mystery story, the query needs to be clear enough that a reader “gets” it immediately.

Watch the number of adjectives. Your tendency is to pair every noun with an adjective, and that’s extremely tiresome for the reader: powerful, malicious, deadly, ruthless, brilliant, elusive, magnificent. And that’s just THIS paragraph.

Contrary to the previous paragraphs that were all intimate detail that the reader doesn’t really need to know, this paragraph doesn’t really give us any detail. Why is Courtney unraveling petroglyphs? Who found them? What culture will be lost and how if Jake’s not successful? Whose death(s) are we talking about – Jake's? Courtney’s? The society with the “magnificent culture?” Although you’ve given us the stakes, they aren’t clear.

But Jake and Courtney never anticipated the playful banter…the intense looks…or fiery passions escalating as they grapple with the coded symbols linking this diverse cast through thousands of years of mystery, deception and greed.

The first half of this sentence is really good, then it devolves into more vagueness. I don’t know what’s going on. Also “diverse cast” pulls me out of the story line and away from your voice.

Culminating in an explosive finale, they succeed in unearthing a chronicle that will change Anasazi history forever.

No editorializing about the story structure, as in “explosive finale.” And think word precision. Unless the discovery is a time machine and history can in fact be changed, a chronicle won’t change what actually happened, but it could change our contemporary understanding of that history.

The Author is a happily married father of four monsters, ‘er, boys and a history buff. This is my first novel and is a complete work available for review. Thank you for your consideration.

The sentence about yourself is short enough to maybe make a personal connection, but it’s not really necessary, especially in an already over-long query. And the humor is a real break from the previous tone. You’ll also get some agents/editors who’ll ding you for saying the work is available for “review.” And don’t forget to add word count: I look forward to sending you the completed, 90,000-word manuscript. Thank you for your consideration.

Overall, if the query isn’t going to reveal explicitly how the discovery impacted the people who found the object in 1607 BC and 1867, there really isn’t any need to mention these events at all. There doesn’t appear to be any real tie-in to the present. Again, think Indiana – yes, the backstory is integral to understanding why the object is important, but a few words is enough to get that importance across in the query. And “prize,” “untold riches,” and “incredible find” aren’t the words to do it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Redecorating The Blog This Weekend

Please ignore any wonkiness meanwhile (yes, even I'm tired of all that white on neutral-dark background...).

Friday, March 25, 2011

E-Publishing: It's Fast! It's Easy! Right? Hype vs Reality (Technobabble Free*)

*assuming you’re familiar with Microsoft Word

So you’re a publishing virgin ready to lose it. Should a publisher that’s easy be your first? And just what does “easy” mean?

Can someone who doesn’t know HTML and XML and ZZZZZZML really just take their Word document and upload it to Amazon or B&N’s epubbing tool and – voila – ebook?

As with most things in life, the answer lies somewhere between yes and no.

It is true you can upload your Word file in practically whatever shape it’s in and the publishing tools will wrangle with whatever formatting is in it and convert it as best they can into a file that’s readable on a Kindle or Nook.

So, yes, in that regard, it really is that easy.

Will the files the tools spit out in the end look exactly like the Word document you painstakingly formatted with the perfect font, the most readable line spacing and the ideal space between section breaks?

In all probability, no.

Fickle is the word I would choose for how the tools interpret your formatting.

Just as you have to either know your grammar or have your manuscript edited by someone who does so your ebook won’t look like an amateur effort, you’ll need to learn at least a little bit about how the actual publishing bit works or risk a likewise amateur-looking book.

For Extinct, I spent hours handcoding and doing stuff that didn’t really matter in the end. I did it because of the advice I’d gotten from people who code for a living. Yes, a professional who cares about quality will turn out a lovely product. But there are a lot of professionally published ebooks that only have the minimum necessary to look professional. Using Word, you can turn out a product that meets those minimum standards and stands up nicely. It isn’t difficult, BUT you have to be willing to take the time to create that quality.

For those of you who know how to work with Word, here’s the quick down-and-dirty. There are workarounds for a lot of the issues, BUT you have to have advanced knowledge of more than Word to make some of the workarounds work.

If you don’t understand how to work with Styles in Word, or you don’t understand the instructions below, then you probably shouldn’t be trying to publish a professional-looking book yourself. Seek help or apply yourself to learning how these basic functions in Word work.

If you do know how to follow the instructions below and you check your work periodically through multiple preview readers, then you CAN produce a nice-looking ebook using Word and nothing else. Just put aside a long afternoon to do it.

Multiple Previews

I tested my documents using Calibre, the Kindle and Nook apps for PC, and the preview tool available as a final publishing step with the Kindle and PubIt tools. There were differences in all the preview readers. I tweaked till things looked good in ALL the readers. For the record, Kindle formatting seemed easiest to get looking consistent. I never was fully confident in what the final product for the Nook was going to look like.

Fonts

Face: Forget it. The tools don’t recognize anything except their default fonts. You don’t have a choice. So it doesn’t matter what you use.

It also means you can’t set up really cool-looking chapter heads in Word and expect them to look really cool in a reader. (Well, you can using images, but that's more advanced stuff.)

Size: Since readers let their users scale the size to what’s easiest on their eyes, you can’t dictate exactly how big your fonts will be. You can expect the reader to see a relative size difference, but that relativity is fickle.

There’s probably some formula for how the tools set up that relativity, but I don’t know it. Stick with 12 point for your body text and 16 or 18 point for your chapter heads and the result will probably be OK.

Bold/Italics: If you use the bold and italics functions in Word, they should translate just fine.

Caps: The tools do not recognize the CAPS or SMALL CAPS functions under Font in Word. So if you’re just using Word to publish and you’re not coding, you can’t have any small caps. And if you want something in all caps, you have to hold the shift key down and type it in all caps, not convert it with the Font function.

Special Characters

The tools recognize most of the standard special characters in Word, including curly quotes, em-dashes and ellipses. Do a search-and-replace on special characters to make sure they’re all consistent in your document. For instance, change all your double dashes (if you’ve used them) to an actual em-dash. Did you use a real em-dash and put spaces around it sometimes and sometimes not? Now’s the time to replace all instances with the same consistent style. House styles vary on the way to handle sooo many gray areas of grammar and punctuation. Don’t over-worry these things. Pick whatever way you’re comfortable with and be consistent in how it’s done in all the books you publish and it’ll be fine. Most readers (the ones NOT emailing you and complaining about your choice of styles) won’t even notice – or care. Promise.

Line Spacing

Use your paragraph controls to influence how much space appears between lines. Normal single spacing will work just fine. In fact, the tools are a bit fickle about this too and may or may not honor your spacing wishes.

Indents

The tools have an automatic indent. You can use your paragraph function to apply the spacing amount for the indent.

Do not use the tab key to create indents!

Important: If you don’t specify an indent, the tool will automatically indent. For instance, you probably don’t want the paragraphs on your copyright page to indent. You’ll want them flush left. If you just type them into your doc, the tool will indent them.

The workaround is simple. Highlight all your text and set the paragraph indent to something kind on the eyes, such as 0.3 or 0.35 inches. Then, wherever you don’t want an indent – on the copyright or acknowledgement page, at the beginning of a section or chapter, wherever – set the cursor before the first character and backspace to get rid of the indent.

Paragraph Spacing

This is an important one! This is not just the space between actual text paragraphs but the space between the chapter head and the body, between section breaks, and anywhere else vertical space is required.

The first thing to know is that the tools usually won’t honor space created by a paragraph break. So if you type in your chapter head and then press the Enter key four times to create space before you begin your first chapter, the result will be that you get your chapter head followed immediately on the next line by your chapter text.

So use the Paragraph function in Word to create space before or after.

Except: Don’t expect all tools to actually render the correct amount of space. Pop in 48 pts (or the equivalent of four lines of space) and you’ll be lucky to get an extra line of space in there. This was one of the MOST frustrating aspects to deal with and I wound up spending a lot of time adjusting the spacing in the Word doc, uploading it through the tool to preview it, then going back to the Word doc for more adjusting. In a few instances, I had to live with a compromise when I really would have liked to have seen more vertical space.

Chapter Heads

Set up a Style for these. I did not use Word’s standard H1 heading because I’d read where others had some issues with it. I simply set up a new header style and used it consistently.

Use a page break immediately before a chapter head, then use whatever style you want for the head, such as:

  • Size: 16 or 18 pt
  • Bold or italic; Type it in all caps if you want it to be all caps
  • Flush left, flush right or centered
  • Space above and space below (although don’t count on these spaces rendering exactly the same in the final result)

Headers / Footers

This is easy. Don’t use them. At all. No page numbers. Nothing.

Page Breaks

Use the Insert Page Break function in Word. Two reasons:
  • The tool won’t recognize multiple instances of line breaks.
  • The tool uses the Page Break as a cue in creating the Table of Contents.
Table of Contents

The TOC gave me fits, but that’s because I was trying to include an inline Table with the names of each story and its author and have the tool point to a short teaser above the chapter head. A custom job.

For a standard novel that has a one-line chapter head, the default TOC is fairly straightforward.

You have a choice as to whether to include an inline TOC. An inline TOC is one that appears after your copyright page and acknowledgements and is functional, where a user can click on the chapter they want and be taken right to it. This is actually a more custom feature and probably one you won’t use if you’re just starting out.

Of course you want that ability for a reader to jump straight to a particular chapter, but the publishing tool also produces a default TOC that someone either sees in a window on the reader and/or can quickly access when they want to use it.

Just be sure to use a page break right before your chapter head and a nice style for the head. The tool builds a separate little file for the TOC automatically and sticks it where users can use it.

Note: You have little control over how the default TOC appears in the reader. Mostly, it will be a simple, ugly but functional list of whatever you’ve named your chapters with, such as:
  • Chapter [1,2,3, I, II, III, etc)
  • Clever Chapter Name
  • 1. Clever Chapter Name

Cover Image

Use a JPG. Different publishing tools ask for different minimum and maximum sizes. Size the JPG file so it fits the first page of your Word file (US Letter, A3, A4 -- doesn’t matter which) without any twiddling and you should be fine. BUT you do need to know how to do this properly. Get help if you don’t know how.

Front Matter

Add your title page (Title, Author, Publisher), copyright page and any acknowledgement/dedication page(s). Look at other ebooks from large publishers or print books to get an idea of what to say and how to format these pages, then use the tips above for applying styles, not indenting paragraphs, compromising on vertical spacing, etc.

See, You CAN Do It (Maybe)

And that’s about all there is to producing a nice, serviceable ebook using only Word that will look as good as what some of the pro publishers are putting out.

If you’re someone comfortable with Word and you have quick questions about the process, I’ll be happy to answer them. Please understand, though, that if you’re a Word novice, you really need to get a manual or take a class and practice this stuff on your own. And, if you want someone else to format the book and publish it for you, you’ll need to find that someone on your own as I don’t have anyone to refer you to -- nor do I want to be hired to do it because, well, I have beasties to attend to and stories to write :o).

Thursday, March 24, 2011

More Chances For You To Win a DVD or Book

The winners for the Evil Editor: The Cartoons DVD have been chosen, and the cartoons inspired by the winners (Sylvia* and McKoala) have been created!

Now, whoever can come up with the funniest caption for the two cartoons will win your choice of the DVD or a copy of Novel Deviations, Vol 1.

The person who comes up with the chosen caption for the other cartoon will receive the prize not chosen.

See the winning cartoons here and leave your caption entry in the comments.

*Yes, this is the same Sylvia who also won a copy of Extinct. No, these contests were not rigged. Like in all publishing endeavors, it just takes perseverance and an incredible amount of rabbit-footed, 4-leaf clovered luck.

Winners of the Extinct Anthology

Thank you to everyone who entered -- and special thanks to all who spread the word!

The online random generator and my spreadsheet teamed up to pick our 3 winners:

  • Sylvia
  • MLE (Emily)
  • Carol
Please send me (phoenixsullivan @ yahoo.com) your email address and the format you'd like. Choose from .mobi (Kindle), .epub (Nook), .pdf (everyone else).

If you already have a copy and want to gift your prize, ask for the PDF to ensure your recipient can read it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Dual Launch Party Today!

Win Prizes  ~  Play Games  ~  Mingle With Friends

Today we're celebrating the launches of the Extinct Doesn't Mean Forever e-anthology AND the Evil Editor Teaches School trade paperback.

Why together? Well, because I'm the editor of Extinct (meaning 19 other terribly talented writers provided the actual content) and I contributed a couple of flash-y pieces to School (I'm the third green fish behind the first teal fish on the cover) and both books came out about the same time. Plus, it seemed like a fun thing to do (until, you know, I actually started putting the party blog together in the middle of the night).

Mainly, though, it was because Evil Editor was kind enough to agree to play along. Don't tell him I let on that he's really a pretty good guy outside of that evil persona of his.

The festivities are here.

Come win some books, test your word-finder and puzzle-putting-together skills, and make some new friends. Invite your old friends over too, if you like.

And to those of you who do take time out of your busy day to drop by: THANK YOU. I am truly -- truly -- humbled by your support.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

New CRITTER CONNECT Site

Instead of following up my mostly unhelpful posts about Critique Groups with a final, mostly unhelpful post, I decided to set up an experimental site for making connections with other writers in search of crit partners and/or groups.

Please visit Critter Connect then come back here and provide feedback as to whether it's something that might be more helpful than yet another vague essay about how difficult it is to find a good critique group. Easy ways to improve the site are welcome ("easy" being the operative word).

If response is good, I may start looking into how to make this a searchable database on a real web page. Do understand that I will need to ensure the payoff will be worth the effort and, as I have a full plate now and creating a database will be incredibly time-consuming, such a database will not happen before summer.

Honestly, I want to be helpful with the least involvement on my part as possible. So even if this site is a good idea, it will remain pretty rudimentary, even if a database function is added. If someone ELSE would like to run with the idea, have at it -- with my compliments :o)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Extinct Now Available From Barnes and Noble

For all you Nook readers, you can order the anthology here.

Query Revision 70

Face-Lift 879: Thrice-Born

Dear Agent,

Andra was born with a fractured soul, a painful condition that can only be soothed by her brother’s presence. Frustrated by her junkie-like dependence, she tries to concentrate instead on her upcoming Offering, a ceremony during which she’ll choose a magical discipline and at long last gain her power. However, her life is turned upside down when a mercenary tries to kill her brother, and leaves him snared in a spell that will drain his life force within twelve hours.

Cut off from their father, Andra has no choice but to ask her friends for help, including her ex-best friend, Tiar, even though she loses every shred of dignity whenever she remembers their night of drunk sex, and how he’d been avoiding her ever since. Their interactions go from bad to worse when Andra discovers Tiar's estranged mother, the priestess Alazne, is behind her brother’s attack.

Their quest takes them from their home town of Bakersfield, California, to Italy, where Tiar grew up. Her brother’s attack turns out to only be the beginning, as Alazne plans to use his stolen life force to assassinate the Magister, their society’s leader. Caught between politics and friendship, budding desire and sore regret, Andra, Tiar, and their closest friends race against time to save her brother's life.

THRICE-BORN, a YA urban fantasy, is complete at 60,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Comments

First, let me commend the author for being willing to do the work it takes to get this right. I've seen this query on a couple of sites, so kudos to the author for putting herself out there.

This version is the one that most of us have to write to get it out of our system. It's the version where the author tries to answer everybody's concerns from the first critique or two. Reading the earlier comments and then reading this version, it's very clear the author is working hard to be sure all the issues commenters had are covered. And, of course, still keep the query to an acceptable word count. The problem is that the author is, I think, still a little too close to the work, so the explanations she's incorporated -- and how they've been incorporated -- don't necessarily shed the light expected.

Andra was born with a fractured soul, a painful condition that can only be soothed by her brother’s presence.

I think most readers will associate "fractured soul" as being metaphorical, maybe belonging to someone who's led a life where sad circumstance has forced them to give up the better part of themselves even as they struggle to retain some semblance of normalcy in a world turned againt them. As written, though, this sounds more like a congenital defect -- like a cleft palate or a club foot. We don't know what it really means or why her brother figures into the condition. To be honest, my thoughts went to a bad, incestual place. The phrase sounds cool, I'll grant you that, but to the reader coming cold into your query, it's meaningless. And it's a thread not followed through on. You can maybe work it into the query in an off-hand way, but I wouldn't make it the centerpoint opening unless you intend to elaborate on it later -- assuming it's important enough to elaborate on. Is Andra's life somehow tied to her brother's, so that if he dies, she'll lose something more of herself than just having to bear the profound loss of a brother?

Frustrated by her junkie-like dependence,

So it's a physical dependency? Not just a co-dependency kind of thing?

she tries to concentrate instead on her upcoming Offering, a ceremony during which she’ll choose a magical discipline and at long last gain her power.

I think calling it "an Offering" at this point is only confusing to the reader since the term isn't self-evident. Also, we need to know the MC is 17 or at least teenish. The last version of the query had her age.

However, her life is turned upside down when a mercenary tries to kill her brother, and leaves him snared in a spell that will drain his life force within twelve hours.

Of course her life is turned upside down. This is a chance to breathe a little more life into Andra rather than leading with a cliche. HOW is it turned upside down? Does the murder attempt surprise her? scare her? numb her? Does she know he only has 12 hours to live? And is he slowly dying or will he just up and die in 12 hours? Later, it sounds as though Alazne has his life force during that 12 hours, so maybe he's in some sort of suspended animation or coma during that time.

Cut off from their father,

Perhaps we should know why they're cut off from their dad? Is it just physical separation or something else? If Andra can travel around the world, why can't daddy get to them? How can he be cut off?

Andra has no choice but to ask her friends for help, including her ex-best friend, Tiar, even though she loses every shred of dignity whenever she remembers their night of drunk sex, and how he’d been avoiding her ever since.

I think you can leave her other friends out of the query and focus on the difficulty of asking Tiar and having to put aside that memory for the sake of her brother. Break this sentence into two.

Their interactions go from bad to worse when Andra discovers Tiar's estranged mother, the priestess Alazne, is behind her brother’s attack.

"Interactions" is an odd word choice here, especially followed by another cliche (from bad to worse -- aim for no more than one cliched phrase per query). Be specific. Does Andra no longer trust Tiar? Why does she still want his help? Is he embarrassed by mom and want to be quit of the quest?

Their quest takes them from their home town of Bakersfield, California, to Italy, where Tiar grew up.

Here's one of the incorporated bits that caught me completely by surprise - and in a not good but uncomfortable way. Nothing to this point led me to believe they were interacting in our world. I think putting California closer to the beginning would help ground the reader more. But why the made-up names if this is CA and Italy? Is Tiar short for a popular Italian name? Where does the name Alazne come from? That's part of the expectation of the world. Other than the place names there is nothing here that suggests urban fantasy. Is there a reason our world is the backdrop? How does the urban grit of the "real" world mesh with the fantasy world you've created in it? Does it?

Her brother’s attack turns out to only be the beginning,

The beginning of what? Again, choose specificity over cliche.

as Alazne plans to use his stolen life force to assassinate the Magister, their society’s leader.

Here's where the reader needs to understand why the brother, many thousands of miles away, was picked to be killed. Is his life force special? And is he still alive? At this point, I actually read this sentence as meaning that the brother's dead and Alazne has his life force. It's not even entering my head that he's still alive and I'm a little curious as to why the query bothered to mention the 12-hour time delay. When I realize he's still alive, my credibility is strained. Andra and Tiar are able to not only figure out somehow that they need to leave the dying brother and travel to Italy to save him AND actually travel to Italy AND get a flight out and through airport security and customs AND find Alazne with enough time left over to stop her?

Adding a bit of motivation behind the villain would be helpful. The reader doesn't know this world. the Magister might be the equivalent of a Qhadafi and Alazne is sacrificing the one for the good of the many. Yes, we're concerned about the brother, but are there greater political stakes if they don't succeed in stopping Alazne? Stakes that affect our MCs and that the reader should care about? And do our MCs have a hope of stopping the threat if they don't have magical power of their own yet? Also, the thread about Andra's fractured soul introduced in the beginning seems to have been lost.

Caught between politics and friendship, budding desire and sore regret, Andra, Tiar, and their closest friends race against time to save her brother's life.

THRICE-BORN, a YA urban fantasy, is complete at 60,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Of course, all the questions asked here don't need to be answered. You'll choose which are important to the query and which aren't. But to do that, you need to step back from the work just a bit and figure out how you can convey a sense of your world in just a few words and how you can better convey the dual (triple?) stakes.

My Version

It's a bit long, but I don't know your story well enough at this point to do more than massage the query here. Your next version will likely not look much like this at all (especially since I've taken liberties), but maybe this will give you some suggestions for including a bit more detail and voice in lieu of vaguer wording and longer sentences.

Andra's twin brother Randy is, quite literally, the other half of this California teen's fractured soul. The magical bond between them keeps her co-dependent. To be separated even for a short while means debilitating emotional and physical pain. So when a mercenary attacks her brother with a spelled dagger that captures his life force and leaves him with only 12 hours to live, Andra is barely able to function. Still a week away from the ceremony where her magical discipline will be conferred, Andra's choices are limited. For one, there are few like her in Bakersfield. For another, her dad is off on yet another covert mission and out of touch.

Desperate, she turns to ex-best friend Tiar who's been avoiding her ever since their night of drunken sex. Not that she has any dignity left after that night, but she needs help. Now. Together they discover that Tiar's estranged mother, a mad priestess, orchestrated the attack. In a bid for supremacy, she plans to use the stolen life force to assassinate the Magister, their coven's gentle leader. Surrounded by his Italian familiars and protected by strong magic, only the life force of another Magister can kill him. The revelation that her brother must be a Magister, too, nearly undoes Andra -- and has Tiar suddenly very afraid of her.

If Andra can tap into her latent magic, they might have a chance at stopping the priestess. But first they have to get to Italy. Fast. Taking the Magic Way, they arrive in the midst of political turmoil. Now Andra has to fight the ravaging pain of being so far from Randy, her budding desire for Tiar, and the knowledge that the blood of the Magisters runs through her in order to find her own magical gift in time to save her brother and keep her coven whole.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Extinct Now Also Available From Amazon UK

Just £2.14. Click here if you'd like to order.

Uploading next to Barnes and Noble.

I promise not to turn this blog into promo central, but I trust you'll indulge me for a few days? There are 19 lovely, talented authors who you'll thank me for introducing you to. Pinky swear!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Come To Our Launch Party!

Extinct Doesn't Mean Forever is available now from Amazon.com (US)! Please stop by and LIKE the page even if you don't order. It's only $2.99 for 19 stories, running about 76,000 words.

It should be available from Amazon UK shortly, from B&N next week, and other stores after that. I'll update the sidebar and the Extinct Anthology page on this site as availability changes.

On Wednesday, we'll have a little launch party here. Be looking for a SPECIAL GUEST, PRIZE copies of Extinct, and other PRIZES, too! The fun begins at 8:00 am US Central Time on Wed, 23 March. The contests will all run a full 24 hours, and winners will be announced and drawn on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, I'll do a debrief on the Amazon publishing process from a "what to expect and lessons learned" perspective in case some of you want to try that route yourself. I won't go into anything too technical. Plenty of other, more tech-savvy folk have great info out there.

So, a query critique on Monday. We'll finish up thoughts on crit groups on Tuesday. Launch Party on Wednesday. And contest winners announced and Amazon Kindle publishing debrief on Thursday. Friday's open so far. Maybe we'll all sleep in? ;o)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Crit Group Ins And Outs

Oops. Got caught up putting the finishing touches on the EXTINCT files for epubbing yesterday. I'll discuss THAT headache in detail later next week.

So some people on Tuesday discussed why they did or didn't belong to a crit group. Check out the comments if you haven’t. In response, I present a very long, unedited ramble about what to look for – and look out for – in your search for a group. Seriously, you’re not really expecting anything more than some accidentally useful advice, right?

It’s not, of course, all about what you want out of a group but what you’re willing to give – or are capable of giving.

And that’s where things get tricky. Mature writers who have mastered the basic craft and are looking for critters to bounce new ideas off of or to help sharpen really good writing into great writing may not have the patience for newer writers still finding their way around a story or through the maze of grammar.

Skills Of The Trade

Not having the right skill sets in a group is one way the crit experience can go bad. If there’s no one on board with matured skills, you may be getting bad advice, no matter how well intentioned. Ideally, a group will have a mix of skills. If you’re a newbie and can’t find a group with anything but newbies, you might want to consider taking a class or two instead of joining a group.

Another way things can go bad is not having critters who read or write in your genre and don’t know the necessary conventions of it. You could wind up being praised for clichéd writing because the group thinks your stuff is cool and original or be damned for the very things that genre readers expect. Sometimes it’s a delicate line between an overused trope and a necessary convention (push-me-pull-you love affairs in romance, the quest in epic fantasy, a red herring in mystery, etc), so it’s easy for even well-intentioned writing to go astray, and having a critter who can point out where you’re on- or off-target genre-wise is much more valuable than having someone unfamiliar with the genre trying to do it.

Then you have to know what you need a crit group for most. Some critters may do a great job copyediting your work but miss the big picture of how all the parts – internal logic, voice, tone, motivation, pacing, etc – work together. Or you could have a group where no one knows enough to help anyone in any area. Worse is having people who don’t know they don’t know and spout wrong advice.

Information Processing

The way the group conducts critiques also needs to fit your style and comfort level. I was surprised at the number of commenters who mentioned groups that meet in a physical location and read everything aloud. While there are certainly people who process information better through auditory learning, they need to be matched with folk skilled delivering info that way. The same goes for visual learners and learning.

Read-alouds work best, I think, in situations – such as conferences – where no one is able to read work ahead of time and where there isn’t a single dominant voice in a group (unless it’s a “teacher”). Reading work aloud CAN pinpoint problem areas in voice and dialog, but a skilled voice can also minimize those problems.

If the style of critting doesn’t work for you, get out. Fast. There’s little worse than being miserable about your turn at being critted. There's enough anxiety there as it is.

That comfort level carries over to venue and frequency too. Do you get inspired knowing you have to produce work weekly for a face-to-face meeting? Do you need the discipline of having established quotas to meet? Does the group expect you to spend more time reading and critting than in writing your own stuff?

Size Matters

Which means size and dynamics have to be weighed as well. Too few people – 3 or 4, say – and you may be asked to participate 100% of the time. Too many people – 50 or 60 – and you may not get YOUR work seen often enough for 1) anyone to get a good handle on your style and what you want your story to accomplish, or 2) to get enough quality feedback in a timely enough manner to help. Much depends on how you write: Do you agonize for years over a draft, or do you churn out a new novel (or several short stories) every two months? Do you want validation as you go along, or is it enough to make sure your first chapter sets the right direction and then you just need a final validating read?

It’s Who You Know

Of course, beyond size and location, finding the right mix of personalities is important. The critters from hell, anyone? Some of the critters might be well-meaning, nice enough folk in a social forum but who really don’t know any more than you do about writing, know even less than you do, or everything they know is wrong and it’s their god-given mission to spread disinformation. These latter folk are generally easy to spot but hard to get away from.

Then there are the charmers who talk about everything else except the work at hand and who never have anything gainful to say. Or the rewriters, as commenters mentioned, who don’t know how to do constructive rewrites but take your work so far afield it’s not even in the same genre any more.

That you mesh with the dynamics of your group is critical. That your group gives you the support you need when you need it is critical. And that it doesn’t drain the life or the originality out of you in return is especially crucial.

Seems impossible to find the right partners, doesn’t it?

Homework

Over the weekend, be thinking about your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, what you realistically expect out of a group, and how much time you’re willing to put in. We’ll resume the discussion next Tuesday and see if there’s any matchmaking we can perform here or if we can direct you elsewhere to some helpful sites.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Query Revision 68: Redux

The Prophecy of the Four: In Pursuit of Vengeance

Dear Agent,

Relying on an ancient prophecy, friendless and orphaned Vardin sets out alone to kill Armoth, the tyrant who murdered his parents. To his dismay, he is joined by Malia, the resourceful, bow-wielding princess he saves from one of Armoth’s murderous mercenaries.

After the tyrant destroyed her city and her entire family with it, Malia wants her own piece of Armoth. She wouldn’t mind having a piece of Vardin either. But in a different way. Deeply in love, Malia can’t stand the thought of living without him, completely alone.

When Malia nurses Vardin back from a serious infection, the bond between them blossoms into mutual love. But this bond is soon tested by Armoth’s magical obstacles. In reckless pursuit of the tyrant, Vardin and Malia battle whirlwinds, sandstorms, and excruciating hunger.

Not until Malia deciphers an ancient set of symbols in the sand do she and Vardin realize the folly of their seemingly heroic quest. The prophecy is clear. Two heroes cannot fulfill it. Not alone. As much as Vardin thirsts for vengeance, he doesn’t wish to meet the same fate as his parents.

But, stranded in the desert, it’s too late to turn back. When the next city on their trek greets them with an enormous monster, Vardin and Malia face a decision. Will they take cover and hide? Or will they stand tall and defend the city? Can they put aside the prophecy and their selfish desire for vengeance to risk their lives for people they’ve never known?

THE PROPHECY OF THE FOUR: IN PURSUIT OF VENGEANCE is a standalone fantasy novel with series potential, complete at 85,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Comments

Overall, I think this reads better as far as character motivation goes. Still, the elements introduced in this version and the way they're introduced -- calling attention to the fact that Vardin is an orphan (which makes him sound quite young initially), Malia being a princess (who falls in love with the poor orphan beneath her station), the magical obstacles, the symbols that seem to appear in the sand just where the MCs happen to be, the enormous monster at the city's gate and, of course, the prophecy -- these all shriek quest trope. In brutal honesty, if that's the way the novel reads, then no matter how the query is massaged, this is going to be a hard, if not impossible, sell.

Let me share this personal tidbit: I wrote a trope-filled quest story, too, a long time ago. I had a little hook thrown in that I was certain made it different, but agents weren't biting. I'd get back that the writing was really good but no thank you. Then an agent who sees tons of fantasy queries (Jennifer Jackson, if you must know) did a quick online critique of the query. Her response was basically, "Well-written query but for the story line: Yawn. Same old, same old." Only then did the lightbulb go off. A little different wasn't going to be enough. It would have to be substantially different. I came up with a way to rewrite it, but it means a complete tear down and rebuild. I've done some of the work and may one day go back to it, but for now it's shelved -- a hard decisision, but the right one.

It's tough to take an objective look at your work, but I really think this is something you have to do. What about YOUR story DOESN'T follow trope? Concentrate on that -- both in your book and in your query. There are thousands of people out there whose first novel doesn't stray from stereotype. Be one of the hundreds whose novel does.

As for the nits in this version:

I still think it would be better to put some twist to the prophecy bit if you're going to lead with it. "Relying on an ancient prophecy" is standard fare. A reader is more likely to cut you some slack if you can hint right off the bat that there's something unconventional going on with it.

The timing here between Vardin setting out alone and Malia joining seems a bit off. It sounds like Vardin sets off first, finds Malia, and then she falls deeply in love and must have him as soon as she sees him.

I'm not sure why the physical obstacles would test Vardin (a better name choice) and Malia's bond. The obstacles might test their endurance and strength of conviction about what they're trying to accomplish. Most times, the heightened danger seems to draw people closer not force them apart.

Simply calling them "Armoth's magical obstacles" leaves it a bit unclear as to the purpose of these obstacles. Are the obstacles always in place around wherever Armoth lives to keep Armoth safe from assassins or raids? Or does Armoth know they're coming and is attacking them directly with magic?

I think, too, when you reveal "the prophecy is clear," that this needs to acknowledge and then refute what wasn't so clear about it when Vardin first chose to follow it.

The cliches toward the end start to pile up and call attention to themselves: "too late to turn back," "face a decision," "take cover and hide," "stand tall," "put aside." One or two well-placed cliches will read seamlessly; too many pulls the reader away.

And since you've come out and said that Vardin doesn't want to meet the same fate as his folk, it sounds like he put aside thoughts of vengeance at that time. So the question at the end doesn't seem to reflect the current situation. Since it's been stated that Vardin's number one priority now seems to be that he doesn't want to die, it seems the bigger question is whether he can overcome his aversion to death in order to risk his life.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Critiquing By Committee

Ah, critique groups. The joys and pain of belonging. Much like can be -- and has been -- said about agents, the right crit group can elevate your career, while the wrong one can do such irrevocable damage it'll take years to climb your way out. And, like with agents, some writers survive quite well without a formal crit group and some writers need (or simply want) that helping hand throughout their career.

How do you find the RIGHT one?

Do you hope to join an established one or form your own? Do you feel comfortable in a large, free-swinging environment where you don't know who might come along next and offer advice and so get the benefit of a wide variety of opinions, or would you rather share your work among a few trusted crit partners who know you, your work and what you're trying to achieve?

Today, I'll share my journey in finding a group. Tomorrow, we'll critique a query, then Thurday we'll discuss what makes a good group and look at the pros and cons of belonging, and we'll wrap up on Friday by trying to figure out how you go about joining (or creating!) one. My thanks to Michelle4Laughs for the idea of discussing critters this week.

My Group

My crit group grew out of a site that encouraged open critiquing of short bits of authors' works. (It'll be no surprise to most of you that this was Evil Editor's site.) More than that, though, the environment in its early days encouraged bantering and social interaction in the comments. From that, we were able to judge not just the merit of each person's advice, but whether he or she was a regular, fun person who wasn't prone to going all psycho or who wouldn't otherwise melt under pressure.

Our group didn't form overnight. We bantered for a couple of years, learning about each other's strengths and weaknesses as writers, as well as about each other's personal lives. In short, we became friends before we became crit buddies. I missed the actual formation stage of the group because I took a few months away from writing after my dad had a devastating stroke. But as soon as this awesome group saw I was back in the saddle, they invited me along for the ride.

For the most part, the group I'm in provides the support I need at the stage of writing I'm in now. BUT, what I need is likely different from what YOU need. Just as some of us tested out of certain subjects and earned "free" credits in college and jumped right into advanced courses; and some of us had to take remedial classes before we could take the regular, required course for our degree; and some of us followed the prescribed, regular curriculum to a tee, two freshman writers won't necessarily have the same skills or experiences.

Who We Are

My group is one of *thisclose* writers. We're a secret organization with a secret handshake and everything :o) Seriously, we don't advertise ourselves, so if any of the critters want to out themselves, I'll let them do it on their terms. Some of us are agented, most aren't. Most of us have published short stories and other works to our credit. All are highly talented, ready-to-be-published novelists waiting to hit the right formula of storyline and luck. We don't concentrate on grammar or story structure or general basics in my group, which leaves us free to work on the nuances of character and plot and encourage each other to ratchet the emotion and take our writing to the next level. We can rely on each other to "get" our work and to offer constructive help to take us from Point A where we are to Point B where we want to be without losing sight of the author's vision for the work.

How We Do It

Because we're all comfortable with our work and can all tell reasonably good stories in our first draft or two, we rely on each other to help with minor course corrections along the way. We see a lot of first chapters to critique early on to be sure the story's off and running on a good start. We see problem bits where the author sets up what they want to have happen in the scene or chapter and help them work through it. And we do beta reads.

We have a private blog site where we post our work, our comments, our questions, our observations, and our rants. We share resources via the blog and/or email. We tried Skyping a couple of times, but the time differences make real-time get-togethers difficult to schedule. There are 9 of us in 5 different countries and, depending on where we're at in our lives, some of us are more active at times than others. If we need feedback, there are generally 3 or 4 critters willing to help out. We engage in lots of group discussions via blog/email, and also take part in private, offline discussions when the fancy strikes us. As with any group, some of us have become really close friends -- the kind who drop by regularly to sit at the kitchen table for a chat -- and some of us are more like good friends who see each other only occasionally but have a blast when they do get together.

Like most everyone, we're all busy with our own writing and life in general, so we have limited time. We don't have minumum requirements (where each critter is required to tot up a certain number of pages of crits) nor do we regulate how much or when an author can submit. If anything, the group errs on the side of submitting too little because we don't want to intrude on our friends' time. We respect each other too much for that. But that also means that when something IS submitted, we all take it seriously because we know it's not lightly being offered up, so those of us who can, make the time to give it close attention.

If it matters to you that you don't do more than is required or that everyone always has a fair share or that your work gets exactly so many eyes-on or time spent with it, then an ad-hoc group like ours probably won't work for you.

Rant About Revisions (An Aside)

Which brings me to another reason why this type of crit group works for me and may not work for some of you. In my group, we all know how to revise and understand what revision means. If we see two versions of, say, a first chapter, you can bet that version two will either be completely different from version one or it will be so much better that it's simply presented as a checkpoint for the rest of us to say, "Yep, that's where you needed to go with it." In other words, we DON'T workshop each draft to death, tweaking the same stuff over and over. It keeps us all fresh.

Granted, queries and synopses DO receive more committee-approach working-overs. But that's the nature of the query beast. And it might relieve you to know that we all bicker and disagree about what works and what doesn't. No group can get away from the fact that so much of writing is subjective, and that opinions are going to differ -- often widely. Still, we don't waste each other's time showing each other minor revisions and getting feedback. We trust ourselves enough to know that when a critter points out we need to know what a character's motivation for doing X is in a synopsis, that when we put that motivation in, we know it works.

This level of trust in ourselves goes hand-in-hand with understanding where you're at in your own writing career and what kind of group support you need now. It's also a great benchmark for understanding that some crit groups aren't "for life." Some of the more formal online groups are great up to a point, and when you reach that point, you graduate from the group and find another, either leaving the group for good or sticking around to help teach.

What's Missing

An informal chat last week about what we are and aren't getting out of our crit group led to the following revelation:

Not only do writers need different levels of support depending on what stage of their career they're at, they need different levels of support depending on what stage their WIP is at.

My crit group is fabulous at fine-tuning. But sometimes, the author isn't ready to commit to having the work done; they just want to bring their WIP in for an estimate. One of my crit buds who has an early draft of a WIP recently told us she just wants someone to love all over her draft and assure her it's a delicious and riveting story and maybe gently point out areas where tension lags or the story falls apart a bit. Someone who will look at her work from the forest level and not start identifying individual trees. But she doesn't want to "waste" a read with any of us since she knows she'll want more critical input from people she trusts a couple of months down the road. She wants an experienced reader who isn't necessarily a writer, yet most of the folk she knows who would have the discerning reading ability she wants are also writers.

Where do you find such folk? We're still looking.

What's Working Great

Personally, I rely on my crit partners/buddies/friends for emotional support more than anything. Who else understands the rollercoaster ride of emotions that comes with this business? The best thing is that I have an outlet other than this blog where I can rant and cry and talk about people behind their backs. I can vent safely in private, then come back here and put on a wise and sane public face. I look to my critters to keep me grounded. We commisserate when that's needed, and give each other a sharp slap in the face when we start getting hysterical. And we celebrate all the successes, big and small. Because, you know, that's what friends do.

So with that in mind, be thinking about what it is YOU want or need out of a crit group. And if you have a group and want to tell us about your own journey to finding it and what you're getting out of it -- or not getting -- let us know in the comments!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Query Revision 69

Face-Lift 872: A Human Element

Dear Agent 101,

Ben Fieldstone can't escape death. His parents are crushed by a meteorite while on a lake vacation, his abusive foster father burns to death and he is nearly killed by thugs - all by 21.

Finding a second chance at life, Ben returns to the lake to face his past and meets Laura Armstrong. She is seeking answers too, about the man who savagely murdered her loved ones and is after her next. Drawn to her, Ben helps Laura unravel her past. They discover the meteorite that crashed long ago was a space ship from a dying planet - and Laura's mother bore twins by the alien on board. When it's revealed Ben and Laura are the chosen ones to carry on the alien race he realizes they are bound by a fate spanning two worlds.

But in order to survive they must first stop her mutant twin who escaped a government facility to kill Laura. A monstrous freak, he is enraged she lived a normal life adopted into a loving family while he grew up as a science experiment. With Laura's twin closing in, Ben knows he must protect her even if it means his own death. She is the one person who gave him hope to live again, and while half alien she has all the human elements he needs.

I am seeking your representation of A HUMAN ELEMENT, a 120,000-word suspense novel. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Comments

The author submitted two versions of this query with the other version focusing more on Laura and her twin. I've popped the second version in the comments. Of the two, I think this one brings all the elements together better. I'm going to be as kind as I can, though, when I point out that each of the three versions I've now seen all have some very serious syntax issues. Some of the sentences are quite convoluted, and it's a struggle to unravel them. If the novel has the kinds of mistakes we're seeing in the queries, then it isn't ready to send out yet. Even if we workshop a nice, tight query for this, if the first 5 pages you'll be sending with the query are problematic, no one's going to ask to see more. So you need to be very honest with yourself as to whether or not the sample writing in your query matches that in the novel.

Ben Fieldstone can't escape death. His parents are crushed by a meteorite while on a lake vacation, his abusive foster father burns to death and he is nearly killed by thugs - all by 21.

This is interesting stuff that happens to Ben, but the meteorite is really the only thing that matters to the query as the query is written. If there's a way to make his foster dad's death more meaningful to the plot, then include that. And what does being nearly killed by thugs have to do with the plot? We also don't know how old Ben is now. Is he 22? 42? "All by 21" is the first of the odd grammar. We infer you mean by the time he turns 21 or age 21, but leaving it at just 21 sounds off.

And if he's only "nearly killed," then the first sentence isn't correct. He CAN escape death.

Finding a second chance at life,

"Finding he has a second chance" or "Given a second chance" would be more accurate phrasing.

Ben returns to the lake to face his past and meets Laura Armstrong. She is seeking answers too, about the man who savagely murdered her loved ones and is after her next.

"after her next" is an odd choice of phrasing. Is he not after her yet? If not, how does she know he will be?

Drawn to her, Ben helps Laura unravel her past. They discover the meteorite that crashed long ago was a space ship from a dying planet - and Laura's mother bore twins by the alien on board.

Fed to us this way, this information is a bit of a shocker. It's not like amateur sleuths discovering a few clues to a killer's identity. This one is more far-reaching, so a hint as to how they came about this info and what happened to their alien dad would help. Especially since it seems some agency or another found out and took her brother.

When it's revealed Ben and Laura are the chosen ones to carry on the alien race he realizes they are bound by a fate spanning two worlds.

"When it's revealed" is quite passive. How is this kind of info revealed to them? Actually, one of the other versions hints at a "mysterious guardian" who I think you were wise to leave out of this query. So if that's how it's revealed, I would just leave the "when it's revealed" phrasing out altogether.

"carry on" is also a bit problematic. What exactly are they to carry on? I'm assuming Ben is human, so even if he and Laura have kids, they would be only 25% alien, and unless the kids interbred back to Laura or possibly between themselves, the alien strain would be overwhelmed after a few generations. Or does "carry on" have to do with keeping alive the alien culture and its knowledge?

But in order to survive they must first stop her mutant twin who escaped a government facility to kill Laura. A monstrous freak,

So is he a freak because alien and human DNA didn't play as nicely together in him as they apparently do in Laura? If that's the case, then why on earth would Ben and Laura take the risk of having more alien/human kids who also might turn into monstrous freaks?

he is enraged she lived a normal life adopted into a loving family while he grew up as a science experiment.

With Laura's twin closing in, Ben knows he must protect her even if it means his own death. She is the one person who gave him hope to live again,

Earlier, we learned Ben had a second chance at life before Laura shows up. However, the query doesn't even hint at Ben having lost hope in life, just that there was a lot of death around him.

and while half alien she has all the human elements he needs.

I am seeking your representation of A HUMAN ELEMENT, a 120,000-word suspense novel. Thank you for your time and consideration.

"of" should be "for"

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rainbow's End In Spring

Saturday saw an equine vet emergency visit. My 20-year-old Miniature mare, Lyssa, had an esophogeal blockage ("choke"). It's cleared now, but there's still some worry about aspiration pneumonia setting in. So no new pictures of her as she wasn't feeling up to it.

I also lost one of my 8 parakeets. He was a blue-and-white male, 9 years old.

So, a busy day, but there was time to take these shots. Ah, the magic of camera angles and cropping. These pictures do give the illusion of a tidy little farm in good repair bursting with color and life, don't they? Yeah. Just keep holding that thought, 'k?

Bluebonnets, Forsythia, Pear Blossoms, Peach Blossoms

Pekin Ducks, Mallard, Guineas

Bella, Ricky, Bonita, Cody

Ricky and Bonita, Cody, Bonita

Friday, March 11, 2011

Query Revision 68

Face-Lift 877: A Prophecy Ignored
(Renamed from The Four Prophecy)

Dear Agent,

Using an ancient prophecy to justify vengeance, Mardin sets out to kill Armoth, the tyrant whose servants murdered his parents. He is joined by Malia, who seeks vengeance of her own after Armoth destroys her city and her entire family with it.

Never mind that the prophecy requires four people. Not two.

Through their travels, the bond between Mardin and Malia strengthens. What starts with Mardin saving Malia’s life blossoms into love when she nurses him back from a serious infection.

But Mardin’s desire for vengeance never abates. Though Malia is not as enthusiastic, she joins Mardin because she loves him and can’t stand the thought of living without him, completely alone. Buffeted by whirlwinds, blasted by sandstorms, enveloped by a forest of sheer darkness, Malia must use her resourcefulness, and Mardin his strength, just to survive the journey.

After Malia uses her extensive knowledge to decipher symbols in the desert, she and Mardin recognize they can’t defeat Armoth. Not alone. But, by then, it’s too late to turn back; they must continue until they reach the city of Braren.

However, when Mardin and Malia believe they’ve found the safety of Braren, they discover the city is under attack from an enormous monster. Confronted with this challenge, Mardin and Malia realize true heroism is not a matter of prophecies or vengeance, but rather, risking their lives to save people they’ve never known.

A PROPHECY IGNORED is a fantasy novel, complete at 85,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Comments

I think putting the focus on the two MCs is the right way to go here. Now it's finding the right details to use to support the story in the query.

A couple of overall comments about the names first. Mardin is better than Mard, I think, BUT common practice is to name MCs with different first letters to make it easier on the reader to immediately tell who is doing what. Not only do both your MCs names begin with "M" but with "Ma." Tolkien might have gotten away with it with Sauron and Saruman but I for one never forgave him for that.

As for your title, my personal reaction is quite strong. I really, really don't like it. It's not just a visceral reaction either; there are reasons: 1) It's not accurate. Not that a title HAS to be accurate, but it helps. This prophecy is not ignored. M&M are trying to fulfill what they think it is; they're just hoping its rules are more guidelines. 2) "Ignore" isn't really a strong word. And most of us ignore prophecies all the time. 3) I also think if you can't pair "prophecy" with something awesome, it's probably best not to have it in the title. It's one of the tropes that just screams, well, trope. You either want to downplay the trope or twist the hell out of it; not call attention to it.

Using an ancient prophecy to justify vengeance, Mardin sets out to kill Armoth, the tyrant whose servants murdered his parents. He is joined by Malia, who seeks vengeance of her own after Armoth destroys her city and her entire family with it.

You don't want to overuse adjectives, but never underestimate the importance of a good one. You can color the way the reader feels about Mardin from the outset by giving us a strong adjective when you introduce him. With the vengeance motif so strong, I think you want something to evoke empathy. Or give us a reason why he thinks he can fight Armoth.

Also, you can lose Armoth's servants, I think. It's understood most tyrants have others doing their dirty work for them.

Never mind that the prophecy requires four people. Not two.

You're really set on this. But just dropped into the query like this, it doesn't make sense to the reader. It just opens up a bunch of "huh?" and "why?" reactions. Also, the concept is off. A prophecy might be about or involve a certain number of people, but it doesn't require them in and of itself. This prophecy requires four people to act on it or fulfill it, not to simply be.

If you want to hint that things won't be so easy, you could try something like the following. Only in your voice.

But this prophecy isn't one to be so easily manipulated, nor is Armoth one to be so easily caught.

Now, throwing in a sentence like this (or your "never mind" one) sets up a more market-esy bent to the query. It adds a bit of drama (or melodrama if overindulged in). BUT, you have to follow through on it and echo that voice later on to make it work. Your version, though, doesn't. It falls into more of a synopsis approach.

Through their travels,

I'm not feeling a sense of urgency from this phrase.

the bond between Mardin and Malia strengthens. What starts with Mardin saving Malia’s life blossoms into love when she nurses him back from a serious infection.

If it's interesting the way Mardin saves Malia's life, tell us how. Briefly. "... with Mardin saving Malia from a rabid cougar ..."

But Mardin’s desire for vengeance never abates. Though Malia is not as enthusiastic, she joins Mardin because she loves him and can’t stand the thought of living without him, completely alone.

Hmm. OK Malia's motivation has changed from P1, and the progression of her feelings isn't logical. So in the preceding paragraph, if Malia is already in love, then it's just Mardin's bond with her that blossoms into love. I think we need to know how Malia feels first.

Buffeted by whirlwinds, blasted by sandstorms, enveloped by a forest of sheer darkness, Malia must use her resourcefulness, and Mardin his strength, just to survive the journey.

I'm not sure how we got from Malia loving Mardin to journey surviving in the same paragraph. We need a bit better transition.

After Malia uses her extensive knowledge to decipher symbols in the desert, she and Mardin recognize they can’t defeat Armoth. Not alone. But, by then, it’s too late to turn back; they must continue until they reach the city of Braren.

I'm not getting a sense of a world where you go from sandstorms to forest so readily. Perhaps keep this a desert feeling to simplify things? And the symbols in the desert seems rather random as a reason to see they can't by themselves defeat a tyrant capable of mass murder and destroying cities. In a cold read, I don't immediately tie the "not alone" bit to the needing 4 people to complete the prophecy.

However, when Mardin and Malia believe they’ve found the safety of Braren, they discover the city is under attack from an enormous monster. Confronted with this challenge, Mardin and Malia realize true heroism is not a matter of prophecies or vengeance, but rather, risking their lives to save people they’ve never known.

Heroism is all well and good, but since that hasn't been what M&M have been after, it seems odd to have that the focus here the way it's written.

A PROPHECY IGNORED is a fantasy novel, complete at 85,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

No harm in adding "with series potential" here.

My Version

This still feels synopsis-y to me, but maybe it's a launching point for a revise? And, truthfully, it still sounds pretty conventional. There isn't any real hook here or in what you've provided to make a slush reader take notice. A query letter that lays out the story and doesn't leave a lot of loose ends still won't garner requests if it doesn't have that indefinable spark in it. Can you dig a little deeper into your story and see if there's something there that you can use as your differentiating hook?

Using an ancient prophecy to justify revenge, Mardin, a Sabermaster Supreme, sets out to kill the tyrant who murdered his parents. To his consternation, Malia, a Loremaster and childhood friend, joins him. After the tyrant destroyed her city and her entire family with it, Malia wants a piece of Armoth herself. She'd also like a piece of Mardin, too, but for entirely different purposes. Secretly in love with him, she can't stand the thought of living without him, completely alone.

After Mardin is mauled while saving Malia from a sand lion, he responds to her healing touch as she nurses him back from a serious infection. The tenuous bond started between them blossoms into mutual love as they battle whirlwinds, sandstorms and uncanny darkness in reckless pursuit of the tyrant who devastated their lives.

Through it all, Mardin's lust for vengeance never abates. But the prophecy he follows isn't one so easily manipulated, nor is Armoth one so easily caught. It isn't until they stumble across a series of runes etched into the remains of a forgotten temple that he comes to his senses and realizes they can't defeat Armoth. Not alone. But by then, it's too late to turn back.

The safe haven they thought they'd find in the next city on their desert trek, though, holds a dreadful surprise. It's under attack from an enormous monster. They have no obligation to help and none but themselves to answer to. Are they hero enough to put aside vengeance and prophecy to risk their lives to save a people they've never known?

HERO'S JOURNEY is a standalone fantasy novel with series potential, complete at 85,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.