Today, for a slight change of pace, let's address a common question about querying:
How do you address an agent in your query letter?
Here are a couples guidelines to keep in mind:
1. Remember, a query is a business proposal, not an email to a buddy. You don't have to be overly formal, but you definitely don't want to be super casual either.
2. Always, ALWAYS address the agent by name. The only exception to this is when you're querying an agency as a whole, and not a specific agent. Very few places ask you to do this nowadays, though.
3. For the love of all you personally hold dear, triple check the spelling of the agent's name. And check to make sure that your query is addressed to the right person--not, for example, the last agent you queried. Cutting and pasting can be dangerous!
Now, the harder question, because this is more a matter of personal taste:
What name should you use when addressing an agent?
First off, "Dear Agent" is the wrong answer, unless it's a general agency query as specified above. When you query an agent with "Dear Agent," it can give the impression you have no idea who this agent is and what they represent. It looks like you're mass-querying blindly. Using an agent's name shows you've put in a minimum of effort, and that's appreciated.
Second, whether you should address an agent by their first name or their last name is often a matter of personal taste, but most agents agree that they don't like being addressed by first and last name. For example, "Dear Jane Doe" is NOT a good choice. It's overly formal, and it's just not how we address letters in English.
So how do you choose whether to use first or last name? There seems to be a shift in recent years toward agents asking to be addressed by their first name. This is to querying author's benefits, because then you don't have to worry about choosing the wrong title (meaning Mr, Ms, Mrs, or Mx). How a person likes to be identified may not be easy to find online. And misgendering an agent or mistaking their marital status isn't the best way to get off on the right foot with a potential agent. So first names are often the safest bet.
Now, if your research shows that you're addressing an older agent who's been around for a long time, and they seem fond of formality online, then you could consider addressing them by Mr./Mrs. AgentLastNameHere instead.
But here's the secret: If an agent is going to turn down your query simply because you addressed them as "Dear John," instead of "Dear Mr. Doe," then maybe that agent isn't the best for you.
Because an author-agent relationship is a partnership. You don't have to be best friends, but you do need to treat each other with respect and feel like you're on equal footing. Someone who's so far above you that they reject your query for a small error--and something like their preferred form of address, which you couldn't have known about--is not likely to make a good partner.
So shake off the querying anxiety, double check how you've addressed your queries, and send them off into the great unknown! Good luck, my writer friends.
Apostrophes seem to be tripping everybody up lately. And it doesn't help that auto-correct tends to put them in the wrong place at least half the time. So let's talk about one we're seeing misused fairly often lately:
Whose vs Who's
Whose is ALWAYS possessive. It's always talking about who something belongs to.
Whose shoes are those?
Whose book is that?
Do you know whose laptop this is?
Who's is another way of writing who is or who was. Remember that in a contraction, an apostrophe always replaces at least one letter. (And apostrophes are only used to indicate possession with nouns, never with personal pronouns like its, hers, whose.)
Who's going to the baseball game?
Do you know who's driving tonight?
Can I ask who's read Rebecca's book?
In all these cases, you can look at those apostrophes and see that they are replacing missing letters. Who IS going, who IS driving, and who HAS read.
Remember, unless you're using an apostrophe with a noun to show possession, it stands in for a letter. So if you're unsure whether you need who's or whose, just stop and ask yourself:
Does this sentence make sense with WHO IS/WHO HAS? If the answer is yes, then you need an apostrophe to cover for those missing letters.
And then double-check that your spellchecker or auto-correct didn't change your contractions behind your back!
It might just be my corner of the internet, but it seems like a lot of writers are feeling down lately. Writers who are still revising or querying or on sub are lamenting the fact that they aren't where they want to be yet, while their friends or acquaintances are visibly moving forward. Writers worry they aren't good enough, that they'll never be published, that they're foolish to even try.
I'm not here to tell you that you shouldn't feel that way. All those feelings are valid and normal. Writing is a tough career. It takes a lot out of you, and what you put in doesn't always manifest in tangible returns--and even when it does, it's often not at the pace we'd like. You can work hard, do all the right research, and query your manuscript until the cows come home, and still not have an agent to show for it. And that definitely stinks.
What I am here to tell you, though, is that you are enough.
Even when you don't feel like it, other writers enjoy your company.
Even when you think no one is listening, other writers value your opinion.
Even if publishing doesn't "get" your story at this moment, your story matters.
When it feels like you've been querying forever, remember that some reader, somewhere, needs to hear your story, and will love it as much as you do someday.
Remember that when you write your heart story, it is a gift to the world, even if the world isn't ready for it yet.
Remember that heart stories come in a beautiful multitude of shapes, sizes, experiences, and themes, and the more people read, the more empathetic they become.
Remember that telling stories creates empathy and bonds between human beings, and helps shift us all toward a better world.
When it feels like you'll never be good enough to be published, look back on where you were six months ago, a year ago, five years ago. As long as you're growing as a writer, YOU ARE SUCCESSFUL.
When the rejections come and you feel lost in the dark, remember: you are the hero in your own story. The path we choose shapes us. Write yourself a path forward.
Remember that all writing advice is just that--advice, not a fool-proof formula.
No matter how many times you see it as a meme or quote on the internet, you do NOT have to write every day to be a writer. You DO need to take care of your physical and mental health to be a writer, so take breaks when you need them.
Last of all, remember: You are important. You are loved. You matter.
If you ever need a sympathetic ear or a virtual shoulder to cry on, I'm here, slogging through the revising and querying trenches with you. @ me on Twitter if you need to talk. I hope today's pep talk helps.
A little while back, we did a general post all about the basic differences between first person point-of-view and third person point-of-view. But once you've chosen a POV for your novel, how do you use it to the fullest advantage? Here are a few things to keep in mind about first person POV as you get started:
1. The POV you choose will affect your narrator's voice.
In the case of 1st POV, your main character's "voice" is the same as the narrator's voice. Everything gets filtered through them. As the main character's emotions shift in response to the story's events, so will the narration.
2. The POV you choose will affect whose side(s) of the story you can tell.
When the main character is telling the story, you're presenting their version of events. Take, for example, the children's tale of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. The pigs' version of events is different than the wolf's. There are a few clever adaptations that tell the wolf's side of events instead, and events and motives are drastically different when Big Bad is the one in charge of the narrative.
3. The POV you use will affect the overall theme and mood of your story.
To use the example of the Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf again, think about the themes of the original story. The first two pigs are lazy and lack foresight, and almost get eaten. The third pig saves the day because he chose to work hard--and apparently knows enough about building that he can make a pretty solid house. The mood is tense, if you don't know what's going to happen, and the theme is that hard work is rewarded.
Now, if the wolf were telling the story, it would have a different feeling. Some retellings have him angling for sympathy; he's just a poor, hungry wolf, following his nature, after all. Some have him arguing there's a conspiracy out to get him. Some frame the entire incident as an accident, a misunderstanding, that ended up with his good name being dragged through the mud. The wolf's story could have many different themes, but it probably isn't going to be anything like the pigs' version.
So your main character is going to tell a different story than their sidekick. Their emotional arcs will be different. Whatever your character is struggling with will have a lot to do with the overall mood and theme of your story.
4. You can use POV to your advantage when you work on Showing vs Telling.
This is my favorite part of POV. Personally, I imagine 1st POV as being like a magical/future tech type of contact lenses. These lenses let the reader sense everything the character is sensing, and hear their thoughts. With good contact lenses, the wearer forgets they're there, because they're unobtrusive. That's how your POV should be. Show the reader what the character is experiencing, instead of having the character recount it for the reader second-hand. For more tips on this, check out the series we did over this past summer!
5. Always remember that you can't show events your narrator doesn't know about.
This is an important one. It sounds simple, but it's easy to forget. If the main character wasn't present for a conversation, they can't know about it unless someone tells them. If they're worrying about a long-lost friend, they can't say "I'd never see him again." Because the main character doesn't know that yet. Your main character can't know how someone else is feeling, unless that character demonstrates their emotions somehow. The main character can't think "John was sad because he flunked his math test" unless you've given the main character enough clues to come to that conclusion. Bottom line: if the main character has no knowledge of it, they can't narrate it.
Hopefully these deep dive POV tips are helpful! A lot of them cross over to 3rd person POV also, but we'll do a separate post on some of 3rd person POV's quirks and benefits soon.
I read a lot. Not just novels, but about writing: opinions, articles, conversations, trends, blogs. And that includes those written, not just by readers, but by authors, publishers, freelancers, librarians, teachers, and bookbloggers. I like to get a feel for what a wide range of people think and feel about books and writing; I like to see how opinions vary based on age, career, location; and I especially like to review how reactions and opinions change from year to year.
Not too long ago, I set up a few polls on Twitter, asking readers what they thought about certain stylistic choices authors make for their books. The topic of each question came from things I’ve seen in manuscripts I've edited over the years that have always given me pause before offering knowledge or advice based on my experience, and have often led to me investigating and researching.
So, bearing in mind my audience on Twitter is made up mainly of authors at various stages of their careers, but also a decent cross section of other types that make up the writing and book-loving community, here's what I found out.
I ran the polls over a few days and most were retweeted so reached a wider audience too.
To be honest, this is the answer that surprised me the most. I see a lot of authors use this style in their manuscripts and, not only have I read a great deal of opinions against it, I personally feel it’s something that works only in very specific books – those generally that fall under the comedy genre somewhere. So, seeing as though I didn’t specify genre in my question, it did therefore surprise me to see such a large percentage of readers totally fine with this.
But, before you start letting your characters have full blown conversations with your readers, it’s important to consider some of the comments left in regards to this question.
"I like it in certain styles of books, usually humor. For me it has to be done often enough that it's actually part of the novel, and not just a gimmick the author pulls two or three times."
"If it's throughout, my brain acclimates. If it's rare and random, it makes me pause and I lose my connection to the character."
"I like it when the character is the omniscient narrator. "
"Like most things, if it’s done well I like it."
I once sat through a workshop with a successful, multi-published author of children’s books – picture books through middle grade – who said something along the lines of: “Chapters must all be of a similar length in your book or publishers won’t be interested.” Hmmmm, was my first reaction, followed by a long shake of my head and: “That’s a load of old ****!” In my opinion, from conversations with publishing professionals, and from many many many published books sitting on my shelves, chapter length can vary greatly. And so it should, in my opinion.
We know that every scene and chapter should advance the plot, so if something huge happens in your book and the intensity and tension and emotion can be delivered in just 150 words, then so be it. And, the results of this poll pretty much back this up. That isn’t to say that if you like the uniformity of similar chapter lengths you should be rethinking. Oh my goodness no. This poll was more to reassure those authors who don’t.
There is a lot of talk on the interwebz about point of view (POV) preferences. I see plenty of authors worrying so much about agents and publishers, and ultimately readers, showing aversion to more than one narrator, but they really really want to, or have to write their book from that of more. Well, authors of multi-POV books, readers don’t appear to mind that much at all!
We shouldn’t dismiss the quarter of voters who do prefer one POV, but, you know, our books will never ever please everyone, so follow your heart and write the book how you want to, how it needs to be told.
One of the most popular style choices I see in manuscripts, and I have to say used mostly by first-time authors, is that old favourite of headhopping. This, in a nutshell, is where the narrative hops mid-scene from inside one character’s head to another, so the reader sees through the eyes and hears the thoughts of more than one character in a single scene, sometimes in just one paragraph. It can be dizzying and disorientating, particularly if it isn’t used consistently.
But, is this really a problem for readers? Well, the poll results overwhelmingly suggest yes. So, if you’re writing and are not sure if you’re headhopping, I would forget the heads for a minute and hop first on to the internet for some important research about how this works and how to master it if you’re sticking to your guns.
More often than not, I do advise authors not to use this style though, and sticking closely with just one POV in a scene definitely makes a lot of difference to readers being able to immerse themselves completely and utterly in your words.
There’s an ongoing conversation among readers and writers these days about flashbacks and dreams. Some think they’re tools used only to pass on back story and there are other much more effective ways to blend the information in. Some think they’re overdone and cliché. Some think they’re distracting and confusing. And, in fairness, all these opinions are valid and well supported. But, does this mean writers should never consider including them again? Of course not, and the results of this poll heavily support this.
However – because there is always a "however" – be careful with your use and employ them only if they are essential and pivotal to the plot. The line is fine, and it’s worth getting your mucky mitts on some published books in the genre you write that have flashbacks and dreams, so you can see what’s been done before and what works.
One last point to include here is that, if you are going to consider any writing rules at all in your career then make this the one: DO ALL YOU CAN TO NOT START YOUR BOOK WITH A DREAM. It’s so overdone that for many it’s an instant turn off, which leads us perfectly on to...
Now, I am a majorly impatient person and am not proud to admit that my DNF (did not finish) pile is, let’s say, lengthy. We’re talking long-distance-race lengthy. I give books a paragraph to a page when I’m browsing in a bookstore – that’s if the back cover copy and cover do their job – and for books I’ve purchased from recommendation, maybe a chapter if I’m feeling generous. I know, I know. You have permission to scowl at me. I’ve skim-finished so many books that started promising but fell apart half way through, but, in truth, I have abandoned way more.
As writers, we know that we have to pack a punch with our first lines, pages, and chapters. Why? Because we’re swimming in a seriously saturated sea where every book is screaming for attention and, unless we are established authors with a strong fanbase, readers have no other basis upon which to buy our books. So, if we don’t impress them in those opening lines, if we don’t make them care from the start, then we can forget it.
But, checking the results of this poll is reassuring in that not all readers are as impatient as moi. Though, you still only have a few chapters to get that story rolling, that voice singing, and those characters selling their soul.
POLL 7 & 8:
These results speak for themselves and don’t need much input from me.
And finally, comes the question of word count. Do readers care how long your book is? The results of this poll suggest no. But, before you rush off to pen your epics of 150k words, there are A LOT more aspects of this to consider.
I didn’t mention price. It’s a fact that many readers consider books expensive and, in this expensive day and age, not everyone can go spending fortunes on books. Fair enough. And price is important when you consider production costs of a longer book – yes, it costs more. So, that means, if publishers want to earn money on these longer books they have to charge more for them, which might be what ultimately puts readers off.
If you do want to take the traditional publishing route in particular, you absolutely have to consider and learn average word counts because they will factor into an agent and publisher’s decision. Not because you’re bowing down to rules, but because publishers are businesses and businesses survive by making money.
I hope this info has been helpful and given you plenty to think about as you move forward with your writing. Be confident in what you do and never be ashamed to seek guidance if you're feeling unsure. I spend all my free time researching and then cherry picking and applying the information that works for me.
Today's post is all about a common mistake we see with -ing verb phrases.
When a sentence starts with a -ing verb clause (a present participle, in case you like to know that sort of thing), followed by a comma and then the rest of the sentence, it's generally implied that the action in both parts of the sentence are taking place at the same time, not consecutively.
Used correctly, that might look like this:
Trying to climb the wall, I scraped my knee.
Raising his hand, he shouted out the answer.
Grumbling, she walked away.
Purring, the cat settled down for a snuggle.
In all these cases, the two actions are going on at the same time. That's because the -ing verb clause (present participle) acts as an adverb, describing how the sentence's main action happened.
But sometimes, authors slip up and use this type of sentence structure with two actions that are meant to be consecutive, like these incorrect examples:
Putting on her coat, she waved goodbye. (She's probably not waving as she's putting on the coat.)
Kissing his spouse, he said good morning.
Taking out the book, she flipped to page ten.
Some of these you can get away with, especially when the two actions are close to concurrent actions, like taking out a book and flipping the pages. But if you really want to have a clear sequence of events, it's easier to just alter the first phrase slightly.
After she put on her coat, she waved goodbye.
Once he'd read the blog post, the author felt excited to begin revising again.
We hope you've enjoyed our tip of the day! Remember, if you ever have questions or suggestions for a topic you'd like to see us cover, you can use the Contact Us button in the upper right or find us on Twitter.
Hey, my fellow authors! Today's tip is partly inspired by one of Word's annoying grammatical errors, and partly by a common writer mistake. So if you make this particular error, don't feel bad! We see this one all the time.
There's a difference in meaning between every day and everyday, and someday and some day.
And the key to figuring out which one you want is often another day or a single day.
Everyday is an adjective, meaning commonplace, ordinary. Every day means something different. Every is modifying "day" to tell the reader that something happens every single day.
So if you can reword it to "every single day" or "every other day," then you need the two words to be separate.
For example: Every day she drinks a cup of coffee in the morning. (Every single day.)
Her everyday routine is to start the day with coffee and yoga. (Her ordinary routine.)
The same thing goes for someday. Someday is a theoretical time in the future. But in some days, some modifies "days" again to tell us that something is an irregular occurrence.
So if you can reword it to some other day(s), you need the two words separate.
For example: Someday, my princess will come. (An unknown future time.)
Some days, I like to sing with the birds. (Occasionally.)
One problem you might run into is that Word is notoriously bad at distinguishing between these usages. It has the same problem with every one and everyone, someone and some one, etc. So if Word is underlining your phrase and telling you you're wrong, use the tips above to check if you're smarter than your computer. (Spoiler alert: you are!)
Maybe someday, programmers will be able to make a word processor that can handle all the strange subtleties of the English language, but until then, we'll keep putting out tips to help you sort things out.
Today is all about some commonly mixed-up words: too and to.
To is a word that's used with locations AND with indirect objects, as well as infinitives.
Location: I went to the store. I drove to the park. I flew to Miami. You turned to face me.
Indirect objects: I gave the book to you. He brought the vase to his mother. She looked to her mother for permission.
Infinitives: You want to read this blog.
Too means also, as well; it can also be used as a modifier that indicates excessive, exceeding.
Are you coming too? I know him too!
I ate too many cookies. He drove too fast.
Typically, people know the difference between to and too, but sometimes run into trouble on the spelling. So here's your tip:
Too has too many OOs, just like its meaning of excess, too many.
And just in case you ever mix it up with the number 2 (two), just remember: most numbers are spelled in ways that don't make phonetic sense in modern English.
Today we're going to give you a quick run-down on the basic types of perspective you can use when writing a story.
Perspective in grammar refers to who's telling the story. You've probably heard people talking about 1st person and 3rd person, and occasionally even 2nd person. These are all kinds of perspective. Often you'll see it abbreviated as POV: point of view.
1st person: Is always centered on the 1st person in the room. It's your main character. If you're having a conversation with someone else, you use 1st person to refer to yourself. (Unless you're Elmo. Please don't be like Elmo.) 1st person pronouns: I, me, my; we and us, if you're using 1st person plural.
3rd person: Imagine you're having a conversation with a friend, but you're talking about someone else; a third person who's not in the conversation. This is the most common POV for novels, with 1st pretty close behind. 3rd person pronouns: he, she, him, her, they/them (nonbinary); also they and them as plural.
2nd person: Imagine you're having a conversation with another person. The person you're talking to is addressed with 2nd person, because they're the second person in the room, after you. Writing in 2nd person is extraordinarily difficult to pull off, because you're telling a story as if the reader is the main character. For an excellent example of how this can be done well, try N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy. And even there, not all chapters are in 2nd person, because it's a multi-POV series. 2nd person pronouns: you, y'all, ye, thy... (There are too many regional and dialect-based variations to list them all here.)
To figure out which point of view you're using, ask yourself a simple question:
Who's telling this story?
(No, the answer isn't you, the author.)
On the page, who's telling the story? Whose perspective are we seeing everything through?
Is the main character talking for themselves? Then it's 1st person.
Is someone else (a narrator) speaking for the characters? Then it's 3rd person.
Is one perspective better than the others? Not really. Some people have preferences, but the thing that matters most is that you use your chosen perspective well, to let your reader engage with the characters. And you can always change your perspective during edits if you decide it isn't working. It takes a lot of effort, but it's possible. Just remember that whichever perspective you choose, you still have to get deep inside your main character's head to understand what's going on and create a compelling story.
As we're wrapping up our summer workshop series on how to implement everyone's favorite writing advice (Show, don't tell), I thought it would be a good time for a companion tip:
DON'T tell, then show.
We see this in many manuscripts, and it's something I catch myself doing sometimes as well, especially in earlier drafts. That's what early drafts are for, though, so it's okay--as long as you catch it later and fix it!
Telling then showing can take on several different forms. One example is stating a character's emotional state and then showing it, like this:
She was sad. Tears poured down her face.
Do you see how stating it first minimized the emotional impact? Showing someone's feelings is almost always going to create more sympathy in the reader than straight up telling them about how the character feels. By stating it first, I lost that chance for the reader to connect with my character.
Tell then show can also look like telling the reader what's causing the character to react a certain way before showing the reaction. Like this:
Mary Sue looked so much like my long-lost sister, she and Jane could have been twins. She always made me think of Jane. Her hair shimmered like pollen-dusted sunflowers in the afternoon light, just like Jane's had. They both had a healthy dusting of freckles sprinkled across their cheekbones. And Mary Sue's nose crinkled up just like Jane's had when she smiled, with those two little wrinkles over the bridge like a pause symbol.
I paused. Maybe Mary Sue was Jane?
So in this case, I started with too big a hint at the conclusion the character was going to draw. You knew where that paragraph was going from the first sentence. And that kills any tension I might have been trying for. Just like in this next, shorter example:
A black cat ran across my path. I jumped back, startled.
See? You don't feel any anxiety on behalf of the startled character if you already know what's going on. In this case, the reader finds out before the character's (imaginary) brain has had a chance to process a sudden event. If I make even a simple switch here to:
I jumped back, startled, as a black cat ran across my path
the passage immediately has more tension. And tension is good.
Telling before showing is like telling someone the punchline to a joke first. It throws off the pacing, and loses the audience's interest. It's boring. So trust your reader to be smart enough to understand your "showing" prose. They usually are. And if you're worried they won't get it, that's what beta readers, critique partners, and editors are for--helping you find the perfect balance between telling and showing.
Sometimes you need to show, and sometimes you need to tell, but you almost never need to do both.
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!