The Query That Got Me My Agent

Hello, readers!

Yesterday the lovely EM Castellan featured me on her blog with a quick interview on how I wrote my query and advice for querying writers, plus of course the query that got my agent’s attention. It’s a great way for readers to see examples of queries that worked.

Since that’s often helpful for fellow writers, I’m going to post it here today with the query results so you have a bit more info. If you want to see my advice on querying and a few more questions, head over to see the rest of the interview! (And great queries from other authors.)

Here’s my query:

Dear (agent)

After (personal detail) I’m hoping you’ll be interested in my MS. HOW WE FALL, a YA suspense, is complete at 88,000 words.

Making out with your cousin has its pitfalls. Seventeen-year-old Jackie hasn’t been able to end her secret relationship with Marcus since he kissed her on a dare. He’s her best friend, which only makes it harder to quit their obsessive relationship.

Except she has to, because she’s falling in love with him. It’s not like it’s illegal to date her cousin, but her parents would never approve and the families would split up their multi-family home. Afraid of losing her best friend, she calls it off. She can’t lose Marcus right now: the cops just found her missing friend’s body.

Hurt and angry, Marcus starts dating the new girl, Sylvia. But with Sylvia comes a secret and a stranger. The stranger starts following Jackie everywhere she goes, and Marcus is nearly killed in a car accident. When Jackie finds out Sylvia lied about not knowing her murdered friend, Jackie’s certain Sylvia is connected to the man threatening Marcus.

The more Jackie finds out about Sylvia, the bigger the wedge between Jackie and Marcus, but she doesn’t have long to figure out what’s going on. She may have lost both her relationship and her friendship with Marcus, but she can’t lose him for real.

If she doesn’t act fast, Sylvia’s secrets may mean their bodies will be the next ones the police dig out of the Missouri woods.

(bio)

Thank you for your consideration,

Kate Brauning

(contact info)

Query stats:

Queries: 53

Requests: 23 (6 partials, 17 fulls)

That’s a pretty darn good request rate, but I do want to highlight that the agents who didn’t request often wrote back with a polite but definite pass. I’m pretty sure half the publishing community thinks I’m crazy now. 🙂

Another thing I think is important to highlight in this kind of post is that it is not your query that lands you an agent. It is your story and your writing. The query serves to catch the agent’s attention. You’ll reuse it in various ways down the road, and you want it to be as sharp as possible, but it’s really not the query that gets you an agent.

That said, the query is your foot in the door. Take it seriously, make it sing, make it reflect your story the best it can.

Have a question about querying? Ask in this post, and I’ll answer! I’ve read slush for a publishing house and a literary agency, and I edit so many hours a week I have trouble counting them– and I’m glad to help!

Contracts and Agenting 101

Today I’m blogging over at Pub Hub on the basics of book contracts– interns, writers who want to be informed, and anyone who wants a glimpse behind the scenes, take note!

Here’s a preview:

I’m a huge advocate for educating yourself and being proactive with your career. Writing is a difficult and complicated career, even when you have a fabulous agent and editor.

Whether you don’t have an agent and are navigating a small press by yourself, or you are agented and are wondering what all these terms you’re hearing mean, or you’re a writer trying to figure out goes on in this business, the resources below can give you a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.

A note of advice: publishing terms vary from place to place, information quickly becomes outdated as technology advances, and your agent is your greatest advocate. Blog posts can’t hope to cover the scope of publishing contracts; you can read blog posts all day long and still not know how to handle these issues. I’d recommend treating these as one source of information, not a guide to your career. 🙂

Nathan Bransford has some older but very helpful introductory posts:

A Book Publishing Glossary

How A Book Gets Published

The Basics of Publishing Contracts

 

Read the rest over at Pub Hub.

Is This The Best You Can Do?

I’m not a particularly clumsy person. But sometimes when I’m thinking, I convince myself my body is just my brain and there’s no need to watch where I’m going or pay attention to my surroundings.

That happened yesterday, and I smacked my elbow on the corner of my upstairs hall. It hurt so bad I sat down there on the floor and gave up all hope of life.

I grew up a farm girl. I’ve nearly been killed in several accidents, I’ve stabbed my hand on sharp wire and lost a lot of blood, I’ve been bitten by dogs, been stung by hornets when they flew up my jacket sleeve, and been chased by snakes in the pond. I’m no weakling. And yet, sitting there in the hall clutching my elbow, it occurred to me that this is what I expect my characters to handle, except much more.

I expect them to take it, process it, handle it, and still win. I take everything away from them– friendships, family, health, resources. I cause them pain (for good reasons, I have to remind myself) and just when they get it handled and get back up, I knock them down again.

In trying to be a good writer, I have to test my characters. I have to throw everything at them, push them to change and become active and either fall or rise. The whole process of telling the story is me asking them, “Is this the best you can do?” I expect the best from my characters. Is this the best fight you can put up, the sharpest thinking you can do, the greatest love you can give, the hardest you can try?

When we expect so much from our characters, we’d better not be expecting less of ourselves. As a writer, are you doing your story justice? In the time I’ve spent editing and writing (not nearly enough) I’ve started to realize the humble writers, the ones who are willing to go back to the drawing board and read books on writing craft and take the harsh critiques, are the ones who make it.

When you’re asking yourself if you’re ready to query, if you’re done with edits, if you need to change this or that, here’s the question to ask: Is this the best you can do? We ask for the best, the most, the hardest things, from our characters. Give your writing your best, and keep asking yourself, “Can I do better? Is this all I’ve got? Is this the best I can do?”

Find the answers to those questions, chase them down, settle for nothing less, and you’ll become a good writer.

Follow Me Around

As I climb out from underneath the heap of writing/teaching/editing/freelancing that accumulated while I was in Costa Rica, I’ve been blogging more lately.

You all know I run the group author/agent/editor blog Publishing Hub, right? We’ve got a fantastic community over there, so check it out if you haven’t yet.

Here are a few of my recent posts from Pub Hub.

Editor’s Eyes: Fixing Flat Scenes

Editor’s Eyes: Fixing Stilted Prose

Editor’s Eyes: How to Get Started in the Writing/Publishing Community

Welcome New Publishing Hub Member, Agent Amy Boggs!

I will also be blogging once a month over at YAtopia, another great group blog. I love YA, and it’s a great way to keep in touch with YA writers and readers. Here’s my very first post for them that went up not too long ago:

Writing A Novel 101

I was also interviewed by writer Natasha Neagle, and if you go check it out, you can hear about my WIP, my writing style, what’s most challenging to me, and what books influenced me most!

Meet Kate Brauning

Happy Tuesday, everyone! I’ll leave you with a photo of my Husky, Charles, that my husband took during this recent snowfall we’ve had.

Charles

The Chuck Wendig Writer Evaluation

If you guys haven’t seen yesterday’s post on Chuck Wendig’s blog, you should check it out, because he posted a great post on evaluating yourself as a writer, and gave us these questions to ask ourselves.

So, here is my Chuck Wendig writer evaluation!

a) What’s your greatest strength / skill in terms of writing/storytelling?

Tension– I hope! I love how much character it brings out and how much it adds to the stakes of a moment.

b) What’s your greatest weakness in writing/storytelling? What gives you the most trouble?

Layering. Balancing everything going on in a moment and keeping all of it present in a scene.  I usually write out the action, then have to go back in and increase the tension, add more thought and emotion, foreshadow, fill in atmospheric details, etc., to make sure I hit all the layers that need to be happening.

c) How many books or other projects have you actually finished? What did you do with them?

I have finished three novels. One I have on the back burner for eventual revision, and two are with my agent.

d) Best writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. really helped you)

Oh, man.  It’s hard to say what’s impacted me most, because so many wonderful people have helped me in so many ways. Connect with other writers and listen to what they have to say, don’t give up, realize a first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, finish the book before you judge it, read books on writing, read in your genre, etc.

I think the stand-out advice, though, has been to read a book a week. It’s hard with a writer’s busy life, but we can’t expect to be good storytellers if we aren’t good story consumers. Reading great books has been the absolute number one biggest factor when my writing improves. Want some recs? Read everything in this box.

e) Worst writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. didn’t help at all, may have hurt)

Write what you know. If that were good advice, the world wouldn’t contain most of my favorite genres. I think it’s a much better interpretation of that old piece of advice to write what you emotionally connect with– core human experiences. Betrayal, revenge, guilt, fear, hope, healing, determination, wonder, love. Write that.

f) One piece of advice you’d give other writers?

Read a ton, and when you react or connect, stop and think about why. The writer worked magic (okay, used a psychological principle) in that moment. Stop and think about why you had a reaction and how the writer built that moment. Connections happen sentence by sentence, and it’s all there on the page. Break it down. Figure it out. Use it yourself.

What about you? Fill out the evaluation in the comments! I want to hear from you.

On Waiting

Waiting. Waiting for queries, agents, editors.

Waiting to find the time to write. Waiting for drafts to pull themselves together, waiting for beta readers to get back to you, waiting for edits from your editor, waiting for reviews, waiting for something, anything to happen.

Waiting is a huge part of a writer’s life. And I hate it. When I’m waiting, those thoughts creep in. That I’m not a very good writer, that no editor would want my book, that I’ll never have another idea as good as the last one I wrote. And even if I manage to fight those thoughts off and tell myself that’s not what the silence means, it’s frustrating and stressful. Waiting on other people to get back to you before you can meet your own goals, waiting for a yes so you can continue– it’s frustrating. It’s stressful when you’re not sure what’s going to happen, and if readers or agents or editors will like your work. Stressful waiting for the approval, the advice, the go-ahead.

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to handle the waiting involved in a writer’s life. Adjust, work on a new project, spend time with your family. It’s all good advice. And I’ve tried it, and it works pretty well, for the most part. People would ask me “So how’s the writing thing going?” and I got pretty used to saying, “Oh, you know, just waiting.”

I don’t think that attitude is good for me. It weighs on me. It takes a toll. I don’t like saying I’m waiting.  I can’t turn off the writer part of me for very long and pay attention to something else. A consistent, balanced lifestyle works better for me, where I’m making progress daily or weekly and moving toward my goals.  I can handle rejection and lack of news much better when I know things are moving forward anyway.

So, for  those of us who can’t handle the waiting, here’s my thought:

Stop waiting. Stop saying you’re waiting. Stop thinking about it that way.

If you want news to come to you, make the news happen. Of course, spend time with your family and take a break if you need it, but stop telling yourself you’re waiting. Find things you can do when you can’t move forward in one area. Read that book you want to use as a comparison title. Research the next ten agents you’re going to query. Connect with writers in your area. Blog genuinely and frequently. Build your platform with meaningful connections. Take the time to read Writing the Breakout Novel and On Writing and Master Class in Fiction Writing. Go to a conference and learn, connect, be inspired. And yes, write that next manuscript.

If you don’t want to be waiting, don’t wait. Push forward in any area you can. Small success are a tremendous encouragement, progress builds over time, and no one holds more influence over your career than you do. It’s yours.  Go get it.

How to Fix Flat Scenes

You know the feeling. You’ve been writing along, feeling the gut-punch of creating an awesome scene, and when you take a break and re-read, the scene reads flat. Limp. But you’re a pro, so you know this is probably just because you’re too close to it now, so you let it go and decide to come back later. Maybe you keep writing, maybe you go read a great book or do some research to reset your brain. But when you come back, it still sounds lifeless. There’s a lot of action– someone is in danger, someone revealed something painful, or maybe it’s a fight scene. Whatever scene it is, it’s one you need to really grip your readers and land that blow, but it’s just sitting there, and you know in your gut you didn’t deliver the punch you wanted to.

Don’t ignore that feeling. If you can sense that, you have fantastic instincts. That’s your writer’s brain trying to get your attention, saying “Hey- we’ve got a problem.”

If you think about that for a minute, that will lead us to the answer. A flat scene is one that’s not getting up off the page. It’s just sitting there. It’s not alive, it’s not true-to-life in some element. We’re seeing it through a character’s eyes, but somehow that character’s experience isn’t hitting us. And it should be.

That feeling tells you you’re missing something. But when you know where to look, it can be pretty easy to see what you’re missing.

A character’s experience breaks down into 5 separate things:

Thought– In 1st and 3rd person where we’re very close to the character, a character’s thought is often also exposition. For punchy scenes, blend them better. Use the character’s voice to phrase things, don’t use too much exposition, use thoughts that heighten the tension. Make as much of the exposition thought from the character as you can– this tightens the psychic distance (the distance from the readers to the character’s mind) and gets us right in the middle of things.

Action– Usually this one isn’t the culprit, but make sure things are happening. If it’s not a particularly active scene, don’t let people just sit there. Have them use actions and gestures that heighten tension and show their emotional state. Grip things, rearrange things, pace, throw things, etc. Reaction is a big part of action– most of what we do on a daily basis is reacting to something else, and reactions are powerful things. Use your character’s reactions to show how this is affecting him/her.

Dialogue– Technically dialogue is an action, but it’s a distinct one that often either dominates a scene or gets left out, so it’s separate. Check to make sure you’re not letting it take over the scene; sometimes what’s not said is more impacting. Let us read between the lines. Make sure, too, that you actually do have dialogue in there somewhere. People accuse, demand, and give ultimatums through dialogue. Most escalation happens through dialogue, so make sure that you have it, and that what you have contributes and is the best way to show the detail.

Sensation– We all know to use the senses when we’re writing, so bring us the action through textures, instincts, sounds, detailed sights, scents (which often carry memories), even taste. We can sense something that your character doesn’t, so channel the sensations to us through him.

Emotion– This one often gets the same treatment that dialogue does– way too much or none at all. The most impacting use of emotion is usually brief and powerful. We don’t need long, winding paragraphs that drown us in grief or loneliness. By the time the reader finishes those, the action has paused for so long we’re looking around for something to happen and we’ve lost interest. Basically, we don’t care. Keep it brief, make it deep, move on. But keep it going, too. Come back to how all these actions and dialogue and sensations and thoughts are affecting your character emotionally. We get worn thin. Old wounds get opened up. We become desperate. Sometimes we’ve just had it. Keep the emotional progression of your character advancing; don’t let what they’re feeling sit there. Make it go somewhere.

If a scene feels flat, it’s almost always one of two things- 1) either you’re showing, not telling (a different post) or 2) one or more of the 5 things above is missing from your scene. In all the pages I’ve seen come through slush or edited or written, most often I see emotion and thought being the ones missing or over/underdeveloped.

Check through your scene to see if you’re missing any of those. Use highlighters if you want, and color each one of the five a different color in your scene. See what dominates. See what’s missing or needs boosted. See if any moment carries more than one.

An impacting scene is a dense chemical blend. Miss one element, and it doesn’t affect us like it should. That denseness is important, too– if you’ve got all of those things happening, it’s a lot, but it can’t take forever on the page. Make sensations carry thought. So, combine them. Make action show emotion. Use dialogue to push the action. Get two or more from that list into each moment, and you’ll have something dense and impacting. Your scene won’t be flat; it will get up off the page and have a life of its own. We’ll walk into it, and you’ll have created something we can live in, too.

Need Query/Pages Help?

Happy Saturday, readers!

I made a change to the site today. I’ve had the tab above that says “critiquing services” for quite some time, and last fall, I joined forces with Alex Yuschik, an editor who’s as sharp as she is supportive. My freelance editing has grown enough that we’ve moved it to another site to have cleaner breakdowns of what we offer. If you want to make sure your pages are the best they can be before you query, if your query isn’t landing you requests and you think it may have issues, or if you want constructive, honest feedback on your entire manuscript, let us know! You can still click the “critique services” tab above to go to the new site for my editing, or you can go right to http://kaeditorial.wordpress.com

A bit about K&A:

K & A Editorial is a full-service editorial company for writers intending to have their work published. We do developmental editing, copy editing, line editing, and proofreading. Most of our clients come to us through referrals from literary agencies, publishing houses, and other authors. We’re serious about supporting the writing community, so keep an eye out for charity auctions, pitch contests, and giveaways we participate in—you may win a free critique!

For self-publishing authors: we offer a thorough 5-round editorial package designed to sharpen and polish your story until it’s ready for readers. Please see the whole-manuscript editorial tab on the editorial site for more details.

For writers pursuing traditional publication: we offer critiques of all your submission materials as well as partial and full manuscript critiques. We’ll help you improve your query and pages to catch an agent or editor’s eye. Check us out, and let us know if you have questions!

Have a great weekend, readers!

Writing An Impacting Love Story

Writing a love story is tricky. I’m not talking about romance as a genre. I’m talking about any element of a romantic relationship between characters. Creating that kind of compelling connection is tough work. But when it’s done right? We get something personal, something relatable and impacting.

A lot of times the romance is made up of what should really just be a friendship. Similar priorities, an internal need that the other person can meet, a few traits that challenge the other person– that’s a fantastic recipe for a friendship, but it’s not deep enough for a love story. Even if you add physical attraction to it, it’s not really a love story.

A love story, no matter how big a part of the story it is, needs to go much deeper than friendship plus attraction. When you’re reading, ask yourself why these two characters love each other. Why does he love THIS intelligent, confidant woman with a dark past, and not some other one? Why does she fall for THIS quiet, funny guy, and not any of the other million men who have those traits? When you’re building a love story, it’s key to the whole process that these people have more than just the building blocks for a friendship. Of course, friendship love stories are wonderful things– but they don’t stop with the materials for friendship.

True attraction might look simple. It absolutely may feel simple to your characters: I see her+she’s hot+not a bad personality=I’m attracted. But I’m not convinced by that. Genuine attraction is a thousand tiny, powerful connections being made– perhaps in a single day or maybe over a decade.

Generating these connections is how you get the potential for a love story, and getting them on the page is what makes the love story impacting. It’s what convinces readers they’re watching something real happen. It’s what makes them believe that out of all the people on this planet, these two people want each other and no one else. And most importantly, those connections breaking is what makes the near-misses and fights and failures so painful. Things really are breaking.

So what kind of connections? How many? When? Where? How do we generate these connections and put them on the page?

The connections I’m talking about are most often tiny little points of recognition, challenge, enjoyment, desire, and admiration. Sometimes these things can be huge and obvious– two characters together on quest. But that’s not nearly as impacting because there’s really nothing new about it, and it’s such a big thing we’re not surprised. Maybe they both like cinnamon in their coffee. Okay, that’s much smaller, but it’s also a little contrived. Can you get away with it? Maybe, depending on the reader. But readers don’t want a giant sign on the page that spells out “these people are perfect for each other!” There’s very little reason two people liking cinnamon would result in a lasting, important connection. At best, it’s a mildly interesting parallel.

The connection points we’re looking for are ones that are impacting. Impact is created by weight. It leaves a mark; it has an effect. Connection points should be things that are emotionally important, surprising, thought-provoking, unusual, or endearing. In one of my recent manuscripts, my main character falls for a guy partially because he’s been able to survive both physically and emotionally in some pretty terrible circumstances, and she’s not sure she’ll manage to do either of those things. They have a connection point because of it. One of the reasons he notices her is her competence–she adapts to new circumstances and figures out how to handle herself well enough to get the task done. He likes that because he feels like he failed to do that when it really mattered.

Connections don’t need to be so straightforward, either. My guy likes my girl in part because she’s hell-bent on getting justice, and he has almost never been treated fairly. Her search for justice has nothing to do with him, but he likes her vision of how the world should be. And after a while, she notices his reclusive hobby is getting revenge on the villain in a much more subtle way than she is, almost as a side effect of his own success. So, the connection points don’t have to be exact matches or immediately recognizable. Twist them a bit, turn them over, put them inside something else. Readers will love digging into them and seeing why they matter.

Now, those are emotionally weighty things. They’re not small connections. But by themselves, they wouldn’t be a solid enough foundation for a love story. We need dozens more. And they all need to have emotional impact and a reason for the other person to connect with it. They should be big things, little things, things they find fun, different things they hate for the same reason, things they love for opposite reasons– so many complex, important connections that it becomes a powerful physical attraction, no matter what the characters look like.

The combined effect of so many complex connections gives both the characters and their story uniqueness and individuality. That’s what will convince readers that THIS quiet, funny guy is the one she’ll fall for, even though she’ll come across a lot more quiet, funny guys pretty similar to him. That’s why they’re not just friends. Their pattern of connections is unique, weighty, enjoyable, and key to who they are. It makes them want each other.

Writing a believable attraction on an emotional and physical scale is tough, interesting, rewarding work. You’re creating one of the most powerful, affecting relationships on earth. By its very existence, it has meaning for us and how we live our lives.

Want more on this topic? Below are two TED talks that I found very interesting and useful for writers who are dealing with some element of attraction or a love story in their writing. They’re also very helpful for building characters with charming/sexy/attractive personalities. They’re highly recommended.

The Power of Seduction In Our Everyday Lives: Chen Lizra at TEDxVancouver

The Art of Seduction: Seema Anand at TEDxEaling

A Love Letter From A Writer

One of the reasons I write is because I love people. Yes, of course my friends and family, but what I really mean is I love our humanity. True, we need to see what’s wrong with the world, and often what’s wrong with it is us. Poverty, racism, selfish politics, narrow-minded judgments, greed–the list doesn’t have an end.

But we can’t stop with the negatives. It’s tempting to feel like the world is getting worse and life is downhill from here. It’s tempting to think we’re slaves to our flaws and being human isn’t all that great.

But let me tell you something: being human is such a wildly cool and incredible thing.

Look at you. You’ve survived bullying and kept it from defining you and your potential. You’ve been told you can’t go into math and science fields because you’re a girl, and you’re getting your PhD. You grew up with less than everyone around you, and you’re making it on your own now and giving back to the world. Your parents weren’t the people they should have been, and you dealt with so much you shouldn’t have. You weren’t born with the advantages and abilities a lot of us have, and you didn’t let it control your life. You were the victim in so many ways, but you kept going.

I mean, really. Look at you. You loved when you hadn’t seen much love yourself. You trusted when you weren’t sure it was wise. You forgave when you knew it wouldn’t even be noticed. You opened your mind and let someone show you something new. You did the brave thing, the kind thing, the selfless thing.

Really take a minute to slow down and look at what you are.

You’ve got a voice that makes me stop what I’m doing and turn up the volume.

You’re so strong, so fast, so agile, we love watching you because you’re a literal celebration of the human body.

You are so compassionate and kind, you stop to notice the people around you and really see who they are and what they need.

You’re brilliant. You contribute to our collective ideas and expand them, turn them upside down, make them make sense to us. You use your youth not as an excuse but as a strength.

The Most Impressive Kids Graduating From High School This Year

You know you didn’t get here on your own and you don’t think you’re better than the rest of us. Even when you’ve made it to the top, you keep on giving back and helping others.

You’re so funny and quirky, you light up whole rooms and conversations and friendships. I want to be more like you.

Being human is such a wonderful, powerful thing. We’ve all got flaws and a nasty broken spot that sometimes gets the better of us. But when that happens, we reach out, because we know we can’t do this alone. We crave deep connection and when we don’t have it, we’re lonely. We need each other. We love so strongly, so determinedly, that even when we get hurt we keep on loving.

Forget what you’ve told yourself that you are for just a moment more, and take a good look at who you actually are.

You make art. You dance, paint, write, sing, sculpt, speak, build, and design beauty and truthful things into the world. You make sure love wins. You speak for people who can’t speak for themselves. You help us up when we’re out of the resources and willpower and knowledge to help ourselves.

You do all of this. You’ve got all of this inside you, because you’re human. And that’s why I write fiction; I write about people and their lives because I believe so strongly that being human is a wildly cool and incredible thing. Love being human. Own it. Use it, develop it.

I mean, really, come on. Just look at you. You inspire me. You make me think I can do better. You made me believe I can take crazy leaps of faith and be better for it. The things you do simply stun me, that humans can make such brilliant, thought-provoking, gorgeous things. You believe in things, and you make me believe in them, too.

I want to be more like you.

“The sexiest thing in the entire world is being really smart, and being thoughtful, and being generous. Everything else is crap.”- Chris Ashton Kutcher: