On writing

Improving your query letters

The first of two posts on query letters.

There are hundreds of books and internet sites that tell you what to put into your query letter. Even the manuscript guidelines for most agents cover briefly what they want it it.

I’m a person who likes to see examples. If I can see what other people do, what is wrong and what is right with their queries, then I am a lot better prepared to write my own.

Here are some web sites that can help you with this.

Miss Snark

Marathon effort from literary agent, Miss Snark, with her Crapometer #3. She analysed 110 query letters, along with the first page of the novel being queried. She did this over a period of four days.

If you send query letters it’s a must-read, not just to find how to improve your query letters, but for an insight into how an agent works.

Rachel Vater

Not long after this, over at Live Journal site, Rachel Vater began workshopping queries and first pages, explaining what was wrong with them and how to improve them. The workshopped pieces must then be submitted to ten markets after this, and the writers report back on the results.

It will be fascinating to see what happens.

Jacqueline K. Ogburn

Jacqueline Ogburn shows us a couple of sample query letters for children’s books and outlines what is wrong with them.

Preditors and Editors

Preditors and Editors has a sample query letter.


Lynn Flewelling has put her query for Luck in the Shadows onto the SFWA Writing site.

The second post is here, if you’re interested.

On writing

Does the fiction you write reflect your personality?

Does your personality come across in the stories you write?

Does your fiction sound like your non-fiction?

I am too close to this blog to know whether the way I write here sounds like the novels we write. Blogging is very personal. It is possibly more me than other styles of writing.

I used to work with a man whose work writing style was extremely formal. Every sentence was beautifully constructed. He wrote long sentences with perfect grammar and lots of commas and he never, ever used contractions like I’m or don’t. His writing had a Gunning Fog Index of about 16.

Needless to say, he wrote literary fiction.

Personality-wise, he matched his writing. Very formal, very correct, a little pompous.

My writing is considerably different.

For a start, it has a Gunning Fog Index that averages around six. It’s full of contracted words and partial sentences. First drafts, particularly, meander and are very passive.

Some people say I talk like that.

But what about even more deeply than just the words and how one uses them?

Until Sherylyn adds her feedback my characters tend to be self-pitying wimps. Does that make me one too? They lack emotion. Am I cold and emotionless?

Sherylyn adds much of the emotion to our stories. Everyone who knows us would agree she is more emotional in real life too. That aspect of our writing definitely mirrors our personality.

As we polish the work we change it. We clean up the writing, take out the passive words, and change what the characters do and how they say it to match the story we have created. The fifth draft of a novel is considerably different to the first. How much of a person is left in the story by that fifth draft, and how much is controlled by the characters we have created?

It’s an interesting question, and not one the writer(s) of the novel can answer.

On writing

How we write our blog

Lorelle, over at Lorelle’s Word Press blog, has put out a blogging challenge—how do you blog?

It’s another type of writing, and I thought it would be interesting to compare blog writing with novel writing.

The aim, when writing for this blog, is to produce one ‘article’ per week.

We use Word Press. Great tool, great community. (One day I am going to give back a bit to the Word Press people. I see they have some areas where they say they want more documentation. When I find something that I actually know enough about, I’m going to contribute.)

The progress report is easy. We write the novel as one massive Microsoft Word document (backed up every night, just in case). A quick word count while I’m inside the novel gives me the number of words, which I add to the post as a custom field. Custom Fields is a neat little plug-in created by Scott Reilly.

Because it is usually only a paragraph, I do a quick check of the text, and then post it.

The other two articles are not so easy.

As we are so busy at the moment, I tend to write the articles by hand while I am eating lunch. When I get home I type them direct into Word Press, saving often, as I am paranoid about losing files, particularly on the internet.

At those rare times when I actually have a PC to write on directly, I:

  1. Type direct into Dream Weaver, edit it there, and then copy and paste into Word Press, or
  2. Type direct into Microsoft Word, edit it there, spell check it, copy and paste into Notepad, and then copy and paste the Notepad text into Word Press. (I try to never paste Word docs into HTML, it’s a mess.)

If I have enough time, I then let the article sit as a draft for a couple of days. First drafts are never good. Sadly, I don’t always get much time to polish. One of the aims of this blog is to produce.

Even so, the finished post generally changes a lot from the original handwritten post to the published article.

We often go back later, after an article is posted, and tidy up some of the writing. Either one of us might do this.

How different is this practice to other types of writing? Not a lot, really.

Given the choice we (or I, at least), will always type direct to the PC if I can, but at times when we are away we’ll write on anything we can, just to get a first draft down. When we come to second and subsequent drafts, we need to do this on the computer.

On writing

More on writer’s egos

I said in a recent post that ego is important in writing. It is, and if you believe your story is good, then don’t believe others who say it isn’t.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to their feedback. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can improve. For example, it came across fairly clearly that Potion starts slowly. If we can fix this, we will.

Just because you think your story is good also does not mean that you should expect personal feedback from every agent and/or publisher you submit it to.

I really enjoy Read ’em and weep, over at the Rejection Collection.

There are some interesting rejections in there. Some, such as this one, are fairly obviously from scam agents. As a writer you need to be aware of these, and ensure that you don’t fall into their clutches. Writer Beware is an excellent place to start to weed these out. In a few, the agent or editor is genuinely insulting.

In many of the replies, however, the agent or editor simply submitted a form rejection, and the author felt insulted. Take this standard form rejection to a query that didn’t click with the agent, for example. The author feels the agent couldn’t tell what the book was like from the query letter, and should not therefore have rejected it for not being his type of book. (I am simply choosing examples here, not picking on anyone in particular, and the ‘submitted by’ indicates that it’s not as black and white as I make it appear. Many of these posts are also tongue in cheek, and not as serious as I make them sound.)

Or what about this rejection, where the author got handwritten notes on the form rejection letter. This agent had taken the time to explain why they had rejected his novel, and the reasons were not because of the writing, but because they did not believe there was a market for his novel. I would be so happy if we got form rejection letters like this. All he needs to do is find another agent with a different view.

The number of people who got upset by scribbled comments on the form letter surprised me. In an ideal world we would all have personalised replies to every query we send out, but we all know how the slush pile works. Agents and editors are busy people, a form letter is what we expect (we don’t want it, but most of us can build a nice fire out of our pile of form rejection slips). Here’s another encouraging reply.

At first, seriously scared. Was I writing historical novels that were so badly plotted they couldn’t keep the reader’s attention? Was I so bad at research there were anachronisms in a book I was sure (through hundreds of hours of research) was historically correct?

Later, I became indignant. Chiefly because a) the book came fourth in a national award. Did this mean the six readers who had read it for the award were wrong? No, I don’t think so.

And I was fortunate enough to bump into a Doctor of historical studies, specializing in the era my novel was set in. She read it, and said the only anachronism she could find was the hero’s name, but most non-historians wouldn’t know that anyway!

Read ’em and weep Rejection Collection: submitted by Writer Wrong

Again, I’d be pretty happy with a reply like this. Well, not happy, exactly, but this is good feedback I can use. Feedback from someone who gave an honest assessment of what they thought was wrong with the book. Not only that, what they thought was right with it (great series idea). In this case I found the author’s initial reaction reasonable, but then they seemed to lose sight of the main response (plot was weak and no major line of suspense) and concentrate on what I felt were the two lesser issues, to the author’s detriment. (It won a prize, so what does this agent know, and there’s only one anachronism.)

There’s a very fine line between where the writer’s ego stops (my book is great, and the agent/editor therefore has no idea), and accepting real feedback to fix your story (maybe I do have to fix this). Nothing is black and white and everything is subjective. What one person likes another may hate.

It’s also easier to view other people’s reactions and see whether they are being reasonable or not. We still don’t really know if Potion is a saleable novel. We will never know unless we sell it.

Meantime, if an agent takes the time to write something personal on a form rejection letter, we’re going to be pretty happy about that.

On writing

Ego is important in writing

Got comprehensively trounced in Miss Snark’s Crapometer #3 when we put a Potion query and first page into the list.

The query was re-written specifically for the Crapometer. Apart from the fact it is appallingly written, and that there are typos (it was late, and I was in a hurry—always a bad move) it is funny that the one line that came from the original query was the only one Miss Snark really approved of.

The general consensus on the actual story, though, was that the manuscript should stay under the bed. That we should put it aside and concentrate on writing the next book.

Ego is an important thing in writing. You have to believe in yourself, you have to believe in your product.

We believe in Potion.

It has a slow start. Story beginnings are not a strong point. We continually rewrite them, even as we ship them out in the mail.

It’s a first novel, and suffers from that. (I have always said that if our first novel is as good as Anne McCaffrey’s Restoree we should always be proud of it. Restoree has aged, and it is obviously a first novel, but it’s still good for what it was.)

How many years can you polish and repolish the same story before you move on to other writing? We’ve done Potion. We’ve moved on, but we still believe in it enough to think it saleable.

Is it really good enough?

We don’t know.

When talking about our own fiction we say that Rainbow is probably the first novel we will get published. Why? It has a great premise, tied to a unique world, with interesting, likeable characters who have a lot at stake. By the time we re-write Rainbow we’ll also have a lot of novel writing experience under our belt. Assuming we have learned from what we have written prior, that is.

So should we give up on Potion and wait until Rainbow is done before we start sending out more query letters?


It is almost impossible for a writer to look dispassionately at their work. They always want it to be better than it is, or think it will never be as good as other people’s. Their first attempts at writing are pretty awful, particularly the first drafts. Not only that, they can’t see the flaws in the work (it’s still hard for us, sometimes impossible), even when they are pointed out.

But there comes a time when a writer has to be able to stand back and look at their work, and say, “You know, this isn’t too bad. This is better than some of the books I’ve read lately.”

It’s then that you have to believe in your book. Have faith in it, no matter how bad a hammering it gets. Whether you are right or wrong is irrelevant.

Will Potion ever get published? I don’t know. But meantime we’ll keep polishing it, and sending it out, until there is no-one left to send it to. When Shared Memories is complete (it has at least two major drafts to go), we’ll do the same for that one as well.

p.s. Sherylyn never liked the start. She has now convinced me to ditch the first four pages. All we have to do now is negotiate on the next four, which she doesn’t like either.

On writing

Other writers influencing your work

Deadlines, extra work. I am so tired I feel sick. Haven’t touched Barrain, or any other writing (outside of work), for days now.

It’s my own fault. On the one free day I had, when I could have been writing, what did I do? I picked up Lynn Flewelling‘s Luck in the Shadows, and then, of course, I had to read the second book, Stalking Darkness.

These two books stand alone, but there is a third with the same characters. The question now is do I find the third book, or do I wait until we have finished writing this draft of Barrain?

I try to not read books while we are writing the first major drafts. I find that no matter how hard we try, the book influences me.

For example, I remember re-reading Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy while writing an earlier version of Shared Memories.

Weeks later, going back to do the edits, we find that Roland grins wolfishly and does other wolfish things. If you’ve read the Farseer trilogy you’ll know where the wolfishness comes in.

The thing is, Roland is about as unlike a wolf as you can get. He’s not a grinner either.

There were two chapters of totally out of character behaviour. It took a while to clean it out.

It’s great when a book has so much impact on you, that you can’t help but carry it over into your story. However, it’s not a desirable thing to do.

After that we decided not to read and write at the same time. Not for any of the major drafts, anyway.

On writing

My personal top 5 writing sites of 2006

Almost everyone who uses the web has favourite sites. I’m like most people. Here are my personal top five writing sites for 2006. The sites I visited time and again.


This is probably my favourite writing site. Terry Rossio, one half of the Ted Elliot/Terry Rossio writing partnership, has written a great series of practical articles on writing and selling scripts. Sometimes Ted chips in too. There’s also a forum discussing movies, and one dispensing advice on scriptwriting. I often re-read the articles on this site.

Ted and Terry are the writers behind Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Mask of Zorro.

This is not a beginners site. If you go onto the forums and say, “I’ve decided to become a screenwriter, because I’ve heard you can make lots of money from it,” you’re liable to be told —politely of course —by other members of the forum to go away and write something, and learn some more. Many of the people on this site are already in the business. It’s the place to go if your agent sets up an appointment for you to pitch your screenplay, if you have a technical question about your script, and so on.

You might think that as a novelist, a screenwriting site has nothing to teach you, but if you can’t get something to improve your writing career out of the articles here then you are truly remarkable, or you are kidding yourself.

Miss Snark blog

I’ve been blogging about Miss Snark for a couple of months now. This woman is a practising literary agent and gives good general advice about submitting to agents, writing query letters, mistakes to avoid and so on. But her piece de resistance is the Crapometer, which really goes into what she, as an agent, looks for in the query letter or hook, and dissects those sent in by readers of the blog.

She has run four of these to date, and if you don’t write a better query letter after reading these I’d be really surprised.

A fantastic service to writers.

Creating Passionate Users

Another site I re-read, particularly the Kathy Sierra articles.

I’m a technical writer. I love it when I come across other technical writers who write strongly, and with passion about technical writing.

Some personal favourites:

The posts are worth looking at for the graphics alone. They’re mostly 50’s style photographs with talking bubbles and they go so cleverly with the associated articles.

Publishers Marketplace

This is the first place I look for agent information, or even if I’m just browsing about writing in general.

I waste a lot of time just browsing, but also pop in for the occasional serious research —like finding out whether an agent is appropriate to query, and the agent’s website and/or address. I also find a lot of new writers/agents blogs this way.

On writing

The perception that some types of writing are lesser than others

I often come across the misconception that a technical writer has no ‘real’ writing skills. They can write a user manual or training materials, but that’s not real writing, is it. I mean, anyone can do that.

In particular, there is a widely held belief that the technical writer cannot write business documents. (Even though we’re often the ones who write the company style guide that tell other people in the company how to do it.)

A technical writer, for example, ranks lower than a business analyst or the media/communications person.

It’s a little like being a genre writer.

“Oh, you write fantasy (or science fiction). Then you’re not a ‘real’ writer, are you?”

Or as Lynn Flewelling puts it …

… by now I’d picked up on the subtle concept that exists among some non-genre writers that fantasy writing is the basement of the literary ghetto and that as a writer of such, I probably had no business breathing the same air as “real writers”.

Lynn Flewelling (original quote was from the Voyager Online site, but link has gone now)

Some genres rank higher than others. Mystery writers come higher on the respectability ladder than fantasy writers, as do those who write techno-thrillers, while romance writers come lower. Yet of them all, who is the most likely to make a respectable living out of writing? The humble romance writer.

Even our own little genre niche has its layers of supposed superiority. Hard-core sci-fi fans consider science fiction superior to fantasy; and hard science fiction is superior to soft. I’m sure, if we delved deep enough, we’d even find some types of fantasy are supposedly superior to others.

Me, I love it all. Give me a good story with great characters and I’m lost. This world or any other, I don’t care. Based on science or magic—or both—I don’t care.

On writing

Do you become your characters?

I was reading a thread on the SFF writing forum about whether or not people prefer to write in first, second or third person.

The preferred style of writing appears to be third person. This is our own preferred style too. One poster said

First person is probably the easiest to write in, there’s something comfortable in sitting yourself inside the narrators head and just writing them.

Posted by Murrin in the SFF writing forum thread The different Persons on 21 July 2006 and it made me think about how I visualise stories, and characters in stories.

As a teenager I know that I used to imagine myself as the hero or heroine of the story. If I ever made up stories about characters from other books, I was that character. I saw through their eyes, spoke through their mouth, any actions were those character’s actions. Stories I wrote were mostly in the first person.

Over time that has changed.

Now I write in third person, and when I imagine what is going to happen in the story I imagine it as happening to the character, rather than being the character and having it happen to me. I get into the character’s head for some of the emotions, but that’s all.

It’s a very close, personal third person, but it’s still third, and it’s very visual.

For example, in chapter two of BARRAIN Scott and Melissa argue as they drive along to Scott’s rendezvous with the bird watchers.

I see the car speeding along the road. It’s as if it’s on film. I’m watching from a distance, and can see what’s going to happen before it does. I see that Melissa is going to go out and pass the slow-moving vehicle, I see the car almost do a 360 degree turn as Melissa slams on the brakes to take the side road. I see them eat dust as she rattles up the dirt road, the car almost sliding into the side of the road every so often because she won’t slow down.

I’m watching from outside, but at the same time I’m in the car, sitting between Scott and Melissa as they argue, feeling Scott’s anger at the stupidity of Melissa’s argument, too annoyed to even be really scared about how badly she is driving. These are Scott’s emotions, not mine. I know they’re his, I know what he is thinking but I am not thinking them.

When you are younger you react to situations emotionally. Your whole life revolves around how you feel. Somewhere along the way you start to analyse those emotions. You start stepping back and saying, “I did this because …”, “He said that because …”

Life is a lot like writing. That’s exactly the same sort of analysis you do for characters in a story.

On writing

The ubiquitous prologue

Hmm. Looks like we’re going to start with a prologue on this novel.

I’m not a fan of prologues.

Some writers, particularly beginning writers, seem to think that because they’re writing a fantasy their novel absolutely, positively must have a prologue, whether it needs one or not.

A common mistake is writing a prologue that really is the first chapter of the novel. If the prologue uses protagonists from the main novel (particularly point-of-view characters), and covers a period of time shortly before the rest of the novel starts then this is not a prologue, it’s part of the main story and should be treated as such.

If a prologue is used to denote a time break, then that break should be a long one, again particularly if the protagonist is a main point-of-view character.

Personally, I like the way they do in the movies in this case. Start with the beginning of the story, then pop up a line—”Four years later”—at the start of the next chapter and keep going.

Another common mistake is the “This is a fantasy. I must have a prologue” type prologue.

This one has absolutely no reason to be in the story whatsoever. You could cut it out and no-one would even know it had gone.

A prologue has to be there for a reason.

David Eddings‘ prologue at the start of THE BELGARIAD series is one that works. You must read the prologue to fully understand what the story is about. It deals with matters that happened to secondary characters hundreds of years prior. Things that were written about in another series. What happens in The Belgariad is a direct result of events triggered in the prologue. (Some people might argue that Belgarath and Polgara were not secondary characters, but I say they were. The story is Garion’s, start to finish.)