Tag Archives: writing tag

Writing: What Your Writing Teacher Never Told You About Querying

Alright, buckle in folks, time to pour some tea and make a salt circle that is probably going to get me in loads of trouble later. But there’s some things that current professors don’t know about the querying process, because most of them have had agents for at least the last five to ten years, and thus aren’t aware of some of the new quirks. Let me tell you the myth as I heard it. Be prepared for lots of rejections, insert Stephen King story about the railroad spike here. Feel lucky to get even one agent’s attention, and then you can shop later once you have proven your books sell. Your relationship with your agent should be like finding a spouse, so feel free to be a little choosey and patience.

Let’s tackle this bit by bit. Let’s start with the rejections. I am going to say 60 to 75% of the time, you aren’t going to get a response at all. The silence is meant to be a rejection, but for those with outrageously long wait times, that can be painful as all get out. Sometimes, you’ll at least get an auto-response saying that your query was received and here’s how long you’ll have to wait, but don’t bet on it being accurate. The only part that is accurate is expect lots of either returned or ignored type rejections. There’s even more agents now than ever, so you’ll have a huge field to go through. You definitely need to verify every agent that you run across–there are a lot of predators out there taking advantage of the high numbers of agents.

As for lucky getting an agent… Okay, here’s a weird trend I noticed. Very rarely did anyone I hear squealing on Twitter or QueryTracker say they got one agent. Because the next step after one positive reaction…is tell everyone else that you got an offer. It became clear to me that agents rushed to anything anyone smelled at being decent. All it took was one offer, and you could end up with nine or ten offers because one person took the time to decide your book was worth something. It’s a lot like the pitch events on Twitter, with all the agents flocking to whatever someone else liked. It seems like a lot less investment in one person and a lot more following the pack. But because of this, and publishers only putting out a few new books a year and trusting too much in their best sellers and putting all their money in one basket, it’s a lot harder for good books to get read at all.

As for being choosey and patient, well, I agree with the patient part. I was perhaps overly patient. But choosey? That depends. As part of getting your query letter, synopsis, and first fifty pages prepped, you definitely also need to really boil down what you need from an agent. In my case, I had to have someone who enjoyed some element of fantasy. Everything else, I was a lot more flexible on, but I was aware of the “tags” in case it was on someone’s no list: LGBTA+ friendly, romance could go either way, female protagonist, young adult. Know what an agent absolutely has to have an interest in, and then be aware of the other aspects of your book in case it will turn an agent off. I would also look at other writers’ critique of querying an agent on Twitter or QueryTracker. Writers will usually post warnings, such as people never getting back to you even after you give them a full, or warnings of stuff going on in agent’s personal life so have extra patience. But after that? Keep the field as broad as you can. Once you are out of agents, you are out.

Back to me being too patient. I figured out in my process where my line in the sand was, and that was communication. I would wait and wait and wait, as long as the agent kept in touch with me and told me that they weren’t going to meet the deadline they gave me, but here was the updated one. I would wait for months if not a year if you kept in contact with me. Why? Because I understand that life happens. I’ve had the flu twice this year already, and I lost every pet but one last year. I know it dearly. As long as you are talking to me, I will give you the time you need. But ignoring me when I ask for updates after you’ve missed the deadline is now my newest pet peeve ever. I highly recommend that you figure out where your line is, so you can approach queries without it being a frustrating process. As soon as your line is crossed, withdraw your submission and move on.

I’m not really bitter about the querying process. Do I think it’s antiquated? Yes. Do I think it could be a lot better managed? Yes. Will I do it again for White Dragon, Black Lark? …Eh. It’s going to depend on if it is long enough to actually be considered by agents as a book, since most don’t represent novellas. It stands a better chance than Ten, which is the stepping stone of a series and it appears that agents aren’t playing with series anymore. But I will definitely be approaching querying from a different stand point, now that I know how things have changed. I’ll probably do the pitch events first for an initial interest, and then start combing Query Tracker.

Look, getting published is hard. It’s a constantly evolving game. I’m not mad at my professors for not preparing me–they are out of that game, and have been for a while. They all have agents, and can even play against them if they need to because they have the experience and contacts to do so. But someone starting out in this business doesn’t have that, and everywhere you go digging, you’ll find people looking to charge you hundreds of dollars to prep your book for agents, and that’s just crap. Unless your grammar or plot structure is just awful, it isn’t going to do anything except slap a coat of paint over a barn that your agent (if you do get one) will ask you to rebuild anyway.

So just go in with open eyes, and try to see what is trending or starting to trend for agents. I’m not saying write to trend, that’s near impossible. But it will at least let you know if you need to sit on a manuscript until series are big again (or give up and go self-published with that bit), or if fantasy has gone down a weird path you can’t follow and you need to wait for it to swing around your way again…or maybe the weird path is your way and you need to hurry and finish! Keeping your thumb on how the query game is changing is the biggest piece of advice I can give you. Otherwise, you are going to come in confused from the start like I did.

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Writing: Stimulus/Response

Okay, I am going to be frank here. I suck at this aspect of writing. Fanfiction ruined me. So poor Chester had to try and fix the mess I’d made of my own writing style. I’ve gotten to where I catch it as I’m writing half the time, and the other time I catch it during edits. I figure I had better explain a bit about what it is so it helps other people who might have the same problem.

Stimulus response is making sure that for every action, there is a reaction from the characters impacted by it. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, just a sign to show that the other character heard. Eye rolls, nods, shakes of the head, all count as a reaction, as does a character saying something in response (which in turn requires another response). It’s a giant game of tag, in a way.

There are a few cues that can tell you if you have a stimulus and response problem. For example, if you’ve got two characters present and you haven’t written any sort of action or dialogue from the second in two or three paragraphs, you’ve got an issue. Too much time has passed, they had to have had some sort of reaction to whatever the main character just did or said. Huge swatches of dialogue can also show you an issue. Think about how long you can stand to listen to one person yammer at you before you interrupt, and then time how long it takes you to say whatever the huge bit of dialogue is. If it goes beyond that time limit, guess what? You’ve missed a reaction.

There are also a set of keywords to keep in mind. If you use once, before, after, and some uses of as, then you’ve got an issue with your order. A reader wants to read things in the order that they happened. (Or so I’m told.) Sometimes those words are fine. But I recommend running a search for those words, so you can look at those paragraphs and making sure that things are going in the right order. Even though I think that I’ve caught myself using them, I know I’ve had times when either I’m tired, just trying to force the scene out, or putting words to the page to get unstuck where I slip back into the habit of mixing things around in an attempt to keep from sounding repetitive. There are better ways of doing it than just restructuring the sentence so you’re going backwards.

Another part of stimulus/response is the order of the reaction. The way I was taught was it goes emotion, thought, action, dialogue. You’re going to feel something from a stimulus, first and foremost. Sometimes a character will completely skip the thought step because the emotional response is so strong, and that’s fine. There are exceptions to this order, but if you think of it all in terms of a response, it helps make more sense. When a characters cuts their own dialogue off with an action such as throwing their ┬áhands up in the air or huffing their breath, it’s their response to their own words which is frustrating them. (I know this seems like nonsense, but it does help your scenes flow better.)

Most writers don’t pay attention to their structure, and there’s two reasons behind it. One is writers are under the assumption that their agent and their editor at the publishing house is going to fix everything for them. This is a lie. It used to be yes, they were there to help you out. But at this point in the business, most agents are retired editors who left the publishing houses to make better money, and while they’ll put in some work for you, they aren’t going to help you out that much. And when they lost those editors, the publishing houses didn’t replace them. So what editors they do have are overworked and overwhelmed. They are going to do a pure spelling and grammar check on your work, and that’s it.┬áThe second reason why people don’t worry about their structure is they don’t believe it’s important anymore. Stories and how to tell them are always evolving, and for many writers, stimulus/response and reaction order are old-school tools that aren’t needed anymore.

I’m sort of an inbetween on the second one. On one hand, I am not going to kill myself to structure a story in a particular way, and I am certainly not going to follow old pulp-fiction tropes about how my stories are supposed to go. On the other hand, I respect that keeping these old-fashioned structure rules in mind does two things for your story. The first, it helps cut down on your word count. You would not believe the number of words it takes you to mess the order up. While you do add words with missed responses, if you need to keep that scene below a certain order, you can eliminate some fluff wording elsewhere to make room for five words. The second, it helps the flow of the story and the scene. While you know what order actions take, your reader only has the words on the page to go off of. It can be a nightmare to keep track of what happened when with the stimulus response order all out of whack.

It’s helpful sometimes to think of things like a movie, in my experience. Trying to play a scene out like a film in your head can help keep the order straight, and keep track of the various responses. Focus on one-on-one situations first, since group settings can be a b-word in my experience, and build on them with more characters to practice. And if you flub it up, don’t sweat it too much. It takes work and practice to write, and we’re all works-in-progress.